Yoav Chudnoff: a Tale of Bulgaria, US and a Talking Imperial Eagle
When John B Jackson, an American diplomat who by the beginning of the 1900s had served in US diplomatic missions all over the world, learned in 1903 that Bulgaria would be added to Greece, Romania and Serbia in his portfolio, he was "dead set against it".
"He said, I don't want to be here, take me away, it's backward. As time went on, he would be coming to Sofia and start to appreciate the place. Then he wrote a letter back: don't take me away, I want to stay here. Give me more assignments."
Meeting Novinite, Yoav Chudnoff, who has been actively contributing to Sofia News Agency in the past few months, told us this story about Jackson, adding something similar happened to him when he came to Bulgaria for the first time. Yoav, now living in Sofia, wrote a Master's Thesis about Jackson at the Florida State University back in the 1980s, but had felt an interest in Bulgaria well before that. But he also certainly has more to tell than to give an exmaple of stereotypes being broken down.
Apart from working for a company delivering advisory services in the areas of corporate finance, mergers & acquisitions and capital formation to emerging Europe, Yoav is Executive Director - Volunteer at the Friends of Bulgarian Society for Protection of Birds (FBSPB), a non-profit volunteer-based organization promoting the BSPB's efforts in North America by giving lectures at local birding societies, educational programs and birding trips to Bulgaria.
He also writing a guidebook about Europe and Turkey - one written by an Eastern Imperial Eagle.
In 1979 Yoav was working for the Wisconsin Public Radio show called Simply Folk (which back then was just beginning but is still on air). In search of music from across the globe, he sent letters to dozens of radio stations to get a “Top 10”of songs from as many places as possible to use for the show. An acquaintance from the Bulgarian Radio (the one-time state-owned structure known today as the Bulgarian National Radio) fulfilled his request – and what followed went beyond folk music: it included songs by Bulgarian legends like Vasil Naydenov and Margarita Hranova. But this short introduction to Bulgaria turned to be only the beginning after he was made a proposal to visit, one he didn’t refuse.
His new Bulgarian friends then took him to Albena, a resort which was opening at the time, "just to get a feel what Bulgaria was". As the case is with many people who grew up in the United States, Cold War propaganda had taken its toll on him; and prior to his visit to Bulgaria he couldn’t help thinking everything behind the Iron Curtain is grey, and it’s always raining.
“I remember that on the flight from Amsterdam to Sofia all the sudden I saw all the light beneath me and asked the chap next to me:‘What's this light doing here?’And he says it's electrricity, we have electricity here, what did you think, that it's a jungle?It's humorous that many years later… my brother asked the same question: isn't it kind of grey and dark? He lived in Chicago, which is also quite famous for being gloomy and overcast and it's raining all the time.I told him, it's nice and sunny in Bulgaria, but here it looks like it's overcast and grey.“
I wonder if what 1980s Bulgaria looked like to a visiting American. Yoav, however, is somewhat reluctant to describe. In the 2-3 months he spent here in 1981, people seemed more financially equal, family bonds were more prominent, and in extended families “everybody was ready to chip in as much as they could if a relative needed help”. And yet, he had a single perspective to view Bulgaria from, since he was mostly hanging out with artists and musicians, without visiting villages, smaller cities or towns. “I don't want to go to the mentality, 'Sofia is Sofia, the rest is all a province'. There's still attitude today in many ways. The family roots might be from some small town but I still say Im from Sofia and the rest is province.”
In time, Yoav learned much about the country. Walking in Sofia he heard people talking in Hebrew and when asking them, learned they had left Bulgaria in the end of 1940s. That was when he found out Bulgaria had saved its Jewish population during World War Two, but he also went further when he discovered in Jaffa, Tel Aviv, a “little Bulgaria”: “You saw a lot of products from Bulgaria in the stores there, you saw obituary notices.” He also learned that Jaffa’s football team, Macabbi Jaffa FC was founded in 1949 by amateur Bulgarian Jewish immigrants.
A further stay here offered him a better glimpse: his work in Sofia (between 1989 and 1991 he was based in Sofia, Bulgaria, working for EKIP America, a consulting firm opening up investment opportunities between Eastern Europe and North American businesses), coincided with pro-democratic changes in 1991. At the time he had already met his wife Maria; and in 1991 the family went back to the US thinking about where it would be best to raise their daughter. But years later, after doing different types of IT work in the US, Yoav got tired. He sold the business he had been running since 2000 to one of his partner companies he was client with in Seattle. By the time his daughter had finished law school and found work. The fact that at a certain point his mother-in-law had remained alone, with no-one to look after, played a major part in bringing the family back to Bulgaria.
He found a company working with foreign clientelle that is 70% Bulgarian and 30% expat, and a very nice atmosphere – one that does not characterize only the particular working place. “Here's a major difference in ethics in US and here: at least here you dont live to work, whereas in the States you're living to work, here you work to live.”
At a first glance one of the things Yoav seems to live for is to travel – though he mixes trips with learning new things.
That’s also what he aims at during his birdwatching tours,
a particular activity into which his fondness for Bulgaria started developing while he was back in the US and which he has been doing since 2000. Taking visitors on tour along the Black Sea, he seeks to combine birdwatching with history: he would lead the group to places like Nesebar and Sozopol, where there’s some of both. And later, taking them into the country, would use the occasion to stop in Veliko Tarnovo, the old capital of the Second Bulgarian Kingdom (XII-XIV century), to do some sightseeing. “I want to give them a feeling that when they go back they’ll have the same positive feeling I have for the country.”
I suggest that if we stopped anyone walking along the street to tell them that Bulgaria is a great place to do birdwatching…
“... they’ll look at you as if you were crazy,” Yoav finishes my sentence. “And I think a lot of Americans do not know either.”
Birding (the official term for “birdwatching”) in Bulgaria is special because the country sits on two major migratory flyways: Via Pontica, coming from Africa (it goes along the Eastern Mediterranean, Turkey, along the Black Sea coast to the north) and Via Aristotelis, which follows the Struma river northwards. This, with a mixture of “continental and Mediterranean climate”, results in a great convergence of birds, Yoav tells me. An example is the wallcreeper (pictured below) which could be seen in Trigrad, near the entrance to the Devil’s Throat cave in the Rhodope Mountains.
But when it comes to birdwatching a bit to the east, in Sakar, one particular bird springs to Yoav’s mind: the Eastern Imperial Eagle, one of many species in a major decline in this part of Europe. This, however, only one of the things that makes the bird special to him.
He’s currently working on a guidebook
where an Eastern Imperial Eagle born in Bulgaria is the main character.
Pesho was one of the Imperial Eagles on whom satellite trackers were put by the Bulgarian Society for the Protection of Birds (BSPB), a Birdlife partner. The organization began placing transmitters in 2008, and newborn Pesho also got one a few years ago.
“Pesho took a flight north and he went as far north as Lavtia. And he actually the first confirmed sighting of an Eastern Imperial Eagle ever in Latvia.”
But why did he go there?“Don't know, he was just a curious animal, Yoav laughs, “and just decided to go north. Others have been also tracked [going northwards] but never went as far north” - their record had been “some area around Slovakia and maybe a little bit of Poland”.
At first Yoav started looking at the animal's flight path – and there he found quite a lot of interesting places. It struck his mind that he could have Pesho act as a tour guide in a book about an “off the beaten path” trip to these countries. Flying over places as diverse as Belarus, Moldova, Latvia, Poland, Russia, Ukraine and Turkey, Pesho tells the story of places he's visiting. Helping the eagle, Yoav also counts on travel writers to reveal more about the nature and habitat, whereas he himself provides assistance with tips about good accommodation and eateries.
It’s a normal guidebook, he says; only that it’s written by an eagle. However, it also seeks to give an insight into places which normally do not find their way into “main stream” guide books. And it is only a few chapters away from being finished.
Parallels between people and animals are always tricky; but it wouldn’t be a mistake to say that, just like Pesho, Yoav looks at Eastern Europe as though from a bird-like perspective – in so far as divisions in the region look to him rather artificial. He recalls a recent trip to the remains of the ancient city of Kabile – a large archaeological resort which was also a very important Roman and Thracian city and which at some point had the largest Christian basilica in the region. It was a place where he accidentally stopped and was thus able to find out that there were there were tombstones outside the ruins of the basilica: A set of three drew his attention: one Muslim, one Jewish and one Christian – all dating to the beginning of the 20th century.
"Here's a place where politics could not separate people, whereas today, politics is trying to separate people, unfortunately, it does not make a difference in which country you live."
“Is politics the worst problem here, preventing people from leading a nice life and being happy?,” I ask; Bulgaria was recently ranked as Europe’s unhappiest country. "I think there is an Americanization of Bulgaria. The way in the US in order to get people disinterested is to feed them a lot of nonsense, a lot of negativity - whether it's TV [or] newspaper – I think this is something that's been learned from the United States. In the US people complain, but don’t vote. They say: why should I vote, it’s all the same. Like here. In Bulgaria people get so tired hearing negativity, no matter whether it's done on purpose or not.”
Yoav says this is a major difference compared to the enthusiasm of anti-government protests of 1989-1990 – people then wanted an active role in determining the future. “Maybe the demonstrations against Oresharski were trying to revive what was in 1989,” he opines, but adds the trend of general negativity will be very hard to reverse.
All that said, Yoav doesn’t look like someone feeling uncomfortable here. Always curious as to his surroundings, he speaks Bulgarian fluently, saying it’s “broken” (but this is not true) and is never tired of exploring this tiny piece of land. Now and then he finds an excuse to visit the Black Sea, where he and Maria have a small hotel, but keeps on traveling elsewhere across the country – and says he feels “like a child” in Bulgaria sometimes.
“Even though I travel a lot and my family and friends say I know more about Bulgarian than they do, I always keep finding different things worth seeing.”
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