Emigrés, get lost

Every summer, thousands of Bulgarians who live abroad come back home hoping to catch-up with old friends. But for the latter, these forced reunions become agony, notes with wry humour writer Gueorgui Nikolov.

Published on 20 July 2011 at 13:56

Summer is upon us and with it, those young people of the 80s – of the previous century – who left our country at the very beginning of the transition. Sooner or later, you will get a call from one of them. More often than not, the phone call comes from an old woman with a tremor in her voice: “Little Anne is back from Illinois and she absolutely wants us to get together. What? You don’t remember her? But it’s Anne who in Fifth Grade smeared food all over my school smock…”

And even if you missed this tragic event of 40 years ago, you will try to dredge up little Anne’s face from the back of your memory. But it hesitates between several little girls all in braids so as to lose themselves in the cohort of pimply-faced little girls strapped into their China blue smocks. But the little Anne in question will still not let go; she insistently calls an entire chain of long-lost school mates, of neighbourhood acquaintances, of people from university and of shady individuals met 25 years ago at a very boozy party. You, you have wiped them all from your memory. Little Anne hasn’t. She’s been thinking about all these improbable guys and gals during those long winter nights in Chicago; she has patiently revived their memory in Illinois where she works in the corn business.

There are legions of them just like her: Little Anne, Mitko, Micho, Gosho from the building below, Katia, Silvia (do you remember she got really drunk in Upper Sixth Form), of Kiro from Pennsylvania, Roumi from Canada etc, etc… In the summer, we are subjected to a genuine terror campaign on the part of these émigrés who come home. Each week, they call us up to see us; in July and August it’s practically impossible to fit them all into our schedule.

We become half-way between a close family member and a psychiatrist

They are of the 40-50 year-old generation and have in common that they all were among the first to clear out of Bulgaria at the very beginning of the 1990s when the great chaos of transition began. Today they have lost some hair and gained a few kilos; they have become disillusioned, old and tired even if some have improved their finances. They patiently waited for their yearly leave to return to Bulgaria and meet a maximum of people who are their only link to this country. A Bulgaria which they despise, but which they miss – terribly.

The problem is we too have aged. We stayed in the old country, we more or less survived the transition in order to submit to the beatings of the world economic crisis – a crisis from which Bulgaria has never recovered, in the end. We also have gained some weight, our heads too are balding; on the way, our hopes and dreams have also faded. And we’re not on holiday while the émigrés gadding about have plenty of time. They want to have fun, fine, but they also want us to listen to them and understand them. And there, that’s asking a bit too much.

Such listening and such understanding implies that we become something half-way between a close family member and a psychiatrist. Being in that position implies that we patiently listen, for the umpteenth time to the reasons in favour of leaving and that we say that no, they didn’t make the wrong choice; that we repeat how much they are dear to us, that they remain forever in our hearts and how much we admire their courage and success.

Emigration is a quasi-permanent absence from a given reality

“Do you realise what it means to work at the Health Service in Austria?” an old friend asks me. A woman who today clearly has an alcohol problem and who reeks frustration at a dozen metres. Then she explains to me that after the European Central Bank, it is certainly the most important position in the European Union. All you have to do is to nod in silence because you know that you have other lonely émigrés to meet this week and you’re not sure that you can listen to their bull with the same patience.

The problem with these summer visitors from afar is that they are trying to relive the thrills and enthusiasms of their youth. But these things are past forever, something the émigré doesn’t know, or, doesn’t want to know. We, in return, don’t want to disappoint too much, even if each time we ask ourselves the same, poignant, question: What will we find to say to each other? In the interest of truth, this question isn’t posed by the émigré. Once back in his country, he talks alone, like a chatterbox. This is to compensate for months, even years of silence or of conventional conversations with colleagues abroad.

Emigration is a quasi-permanent absence from a given reality and the fact of coming back to it for a week or two brings no particular pleasure to either the host or the guest. The summer return of the émigré remains, nonetheless, a ritual in which you are ordered to participate. Like in a theatre play in which you have been attributed a secondary, but nonetheless important, role for the full and total revelation of the principal hero – his majesty the émigré.

Reaction

“I don’t return joyfully”

Gueorgui Nikolov’s column provoked many reactions, especially from Bulgarian émigrés. “Some things are true in the column, that’s why it was painful. I don’t come back joyfully to Bulgaria – I could do without, if it weren’t for my mother,” writes a “zemaria” on e-vestnik.

But we don’t want to convince anyone that we made the right choice. Such a dilemma doesn’t exist. As soon as we get off the plane Bulgarian reality hits us in the face. The dirt, the broken-down pavements and the pot-holed streets, the roaming dogs, the dust, the chaotic traffic, the swearing, the cops…Add to that prices that are often higher than in Western Europe for a quality of service that is ridiculous. If you stay long enough you get used to it, as if you had never been in the other world. In a world where you work much harder, agreed, but where the rules are clear and the people courteous and polite. Not like here…Where everybody is persuaded that I return filthy rich. No, next year I will not come to Bulgaria.

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