Bulgarian Journalist Ivan Bakalov: Anti-Americanism Is Cold War Legacy and Big Brother Fear
Exclusive interview of Novinite.com (Sofia News Agency) with Bulgarian journalist and photographer Ivan Bakalov for Novinite's "International Survey: Bulgaria-USA."
Ivan Bakalov is a graduate of the Journalism Department at the Sofia University.
He has worked as editor, writer and contributor with a number of Bulgarian media – the dailies "24 Chassa" (24 Hours), "Sega" (Now), "Novinar" (News Reporter), "Trud" (Labor), "Dnevnik" (Diary), and the "Playboy" magazines, among others.
Editor and publisher of the informational, reference magazine "Mente i Originali" (Cheats and Originals).
Since March 2007, publisher and editor-in -chief of the online edition e-vestnik.
Bakalov's book, "At the End of Our Streets Are Spars" (a quote from George Sterling's poem - The City By the Sea - San Francisco), includes travel notes and black and white photographs from his summer 2009, 5500-kilometer car trip across America; his visits to the cities of New York, San Francisco, Las Vegas, among others. The book reflects the original observations and views on America of someone who has lived behind the Iron Curtain. It is an inquisitive tale about the country and its people, their traditions, habits, driving behavior, food, drinks, homes, even sex clubs, along with stories about the way of live of Bulgarian emigrants and the attitudes of Bulgarians towards the USA.
A chapter from the book, dedicated to Bulgarian yogurt in America read HERE.
A Colorado canyon. Photo by Ivan Bakalov
Why did you embark on this trip? How was the idea to drive 5 500 kilometers across America born?
When I was a student I first read Steinbeck's "Travels with Charley" (subtitle: In Search of America). I often quote him in my book. Also Kerouac's "On the Road." "Travels with Charley" was published in Bulgarian at the end of the 60s; I read it in the 70s. In Bulgaria, during the Communist regime, the books of many great American authors were translated – Steinbeck, Updike, Kurt Vonnegut, earlier writers such as Hemingway, Jack London and many others. I read them all. America was on the other side of the Iron Curtain; somewhat a forbidden fruit. These books were for us like a window to a banned world. Several translators then – Sider Florin, Krastan Djankov, Dimitri Ivanov, were able to show through these novels the other face of America, different from the propaganda and ideological clich?s.
This is such a large topic; I can't talk about it in a sentence or two. While I was traveling across America, I found myself thinking about some of these translators often. The Communist regime never let them visit the United States and most died without ever seeing this country. But they were in touch in writing with the authors they were translating. I toured places they described, but never saw. And I reached those places. This moved me; made me somewhat sad for them.
When I was a little boy, I used to spend my summer breaks in a village, near the town of Troyan. An elderly man was in this village; he had lived in America for 15 years in the 20s and the 30s. By the way, many Bulgarians in the 20s emigrated to the USA and many returned back to their native villages. There are many such villages in Bulgaria. This old man came back to get married to a Bulgarian woman, who did not want to live in America. He stayed. He was an intriguing man; spoke English to me to respond to my curiosity. I showed him books about America and asked him questions non-stop. He visited all States; worked many jobs. Somehow, since then I started dreaming about traveling to America.
The American roads. Photo by Ivan Bakalov
Did you have in mind to write a book when you decided to make the trip? Or did it come up later? You say, you wrote portions of the book while still on the road in America?
Yes, I had in mind to write something, but did not know exactly what. During my previous trips to America – in 1998 and 2004, I wrote travel notes and published them in chapters in Bulgarian newspapers (the first in "Monitor" and the second in "Novinar"). They were written with lots of fondness, lots of love for America and the Americans; with the desire to show my fellow countrymen that their negative image of America is wrong. And I received much criticism here – come on, why are you giving praise to these Americans? It just made me more determined to write a book about my adventures there and tell more.
Indeed, part of my travel notes I later included in the book, were written during the trip for one simple reason – my online publication is done by very few people, especially now, in these times of crisis. And I had to send materials from there; so that there were new texts, and so that my absence was not felt that strongly. Bulgarians who live, or have lived in America, generally offered positive comments on the site about these travel notes, and it encouraged me to write a book.
Las Vegas. Photo by Ivan Bakalov
How can we explain this mass anti-American attitude today among Bulgarians? (At least this is what I keep noticing...) As you said, during the Communist regime the USA was the dream of almost all Bulgarian intellectuals – American literature was translated, read; we watched movies, and almost anything American we could put our hands on – sometimes secretly, sometimes openly, we admired it... What happened?
There are various reasons for the anti-American views of many Bulgarians. One of them is the legacy of the Cold War; the ideological clich?s and propaganda built up for decades. Meanwhile, as a reaction to the Communist propaganda, some Bulgarians pictured a romantic, mythical image of America, which is also wrong. Overall, the older generation, over 50, is the one that is prejudiced. But this prejudice is quickly dissipating – many of their daughters and sons emigrated to the USA and are wiping out their parents' and grandparents' misguided convictions. Countries like Bulgaria, especially Russia, have a harder time shaking off the legacy of the Cold War, compared to the USA and Western countries.
There are also current anti-American views among younger Bulgarians, but born on very different grounds. One of them is the feeling of national pride – we are a small nation and we have an inferiority complex; we have problems with our self-esteem. Many people get irritated seeing the servility of some Bulgarian politicians when it comes to America; as they were irritated before by the servility towards the Soviet Union. Many Bulgarians have this notion that the former ally and big brother - the Soviet Union (Russia) is now replaced by the USA. This is, however, not quite true. There are just some particular reasons to believe so. And they are sometimes fueled by statements of American Ambassadors to Sofia, who publically criticize Bulgarian authorities - often rightfully so, but not very tactfully. And people say to themselves – look at these Americans how they issue orders to us.
The streets of Memphis. Photo by Ivan Bakalov
What about the Russians? Don't they interfere in Bulgarian internal affairs?
They do, but without raising much noise. Even media in Bulgaria, though discretely, profess pro-Russian views. In my online edition, I compared reports in Bulgarian newspapers about the visits to Bulgaria of USA President, George W. Bush and, recently after him, of Vladimir Putin when he was still Russian President.
In the first case scenario, the articles were filled with negative news about closures of streets and boulevards for the sake of security, stirring havoc in Sofia etc. There was much mockery of Bush (link–http://e-vestnik.bg/1349). It can all be seen on my site with pictures of the headlines.
When Putin visited, Sofia was blocked the same way with even more uniforms on the streets, even though he had fewer reasons to fill threatened. And he was spared disparaging comments. The headlines had a totally different tone, portraying an image of Putin as a great statesman. This is just one example. In addition, print media in Bulgaria get quite a few financial shots from Russian businesses, especially in the energy sector – for example for reporting on the Nuclear Power Plants, and others. Some publishers even have Russian companies as partners.
There is also this segment of society I call "scum" – they are anti-American the same way someone chooses to became a fan of a particular football team and boo the enemy team. I am from Manchester United, so I will hiss Chelsea, for example. These are the people who are inclined to go to the extreme; who believe Americans themselves masterminded the September 11, 2001 attacks. This is exactly what the Iranian President Ahmadinejad said in a recent speech before the UN General Assembly. These people are on Ahmadinejad's level – scum. There is scum in the USA as well – there too, a certain percentage of the population believes it was the government that plotted the September 11 attacks.
A Nashville bar. Photo by Ivan Bakalov
People here can be generally divided in two major groups – those who worship America and those who hate it, and as I mentioned, the second group seems much larger. What would you say to them, after your trips?
To these people, I will say – the world is a global place and boundaries will soon become extinct, so they better get used to other cultures and rules of behavior.
After 5 500 kilometers across America what are your impressions from American roads and drivers?
The common Bulgarian is used to the stress on Bulgarian roads and highways - someone is constantly passing you; cutting you off from the left and the right, flashing their lights to get the right of way. They pass you with speeds sometimes 200 km/hour. There is no such thing in the USA. Boredom. All drive with the same speed, no more than 5 miles over the speed limit. A have also traveled 10 000 km in a car across Western Europe – drivers in Italy, especially in the South, behave similarly to ours. But in the USA – this is another story; makes you feel strange. We are a funny country – you see highways, at first glance, resembling those all over the world. But, actually, there are huge potholes and one can die when driving too fast in them.
In the 90s, a famous American movie producer, the name escapes me now, the one who brought to Bulgaria American movie makers, became a victim of this deceitful feeling – she was driving in a car with a girlfriend and hit a horse, freely walking on the "Hemus" highway. She died on the spot; everyone in Hollywood went to her funeral. And no one here even looked to find the owner of this horse or the employee from the Road Agency who left this section of the highway without a fence, or the person who might have stolen part of the fence. This is the difference between America and Bulgaria – there, there would have been people fined, verdicts, and compensations. Here – nothing.
A New York City traffic cop. Photo by Ivan Bakalov
And what are your impressions from Americans?
Americans are like children. There is some innocence, naivety in them. They have a much greater sense of solidarity and community than in Bulgaria. Actually, the USA is a multi-cultural country, with various churches and communities, many nationalities, but they are all dominated by common rules. This is a phenomenon. Maybe the most successful societal model – it is a fact this country is the world leader in everything. It is the USA that create new technologies, sell aircraft, music and movies to the world; even chewing gum and colored juice with sugar – this is what Coca-Cola is, isn't it?
You dedicated a part of your book to yogurt in America. It is obvious we don't make best yogurt in the world, as we tend to believe. Is there anything that we are better in than Americans?
Oh, yes. We are better drinkers, smokers, ruder drivers. (Laughs) We have way more Mercedes per capita – times more. I saw it with my own eyes on the roads. (Laughs).
Each nation, each society has some specific traits, has areas where it achieves better results. Art for example – Bulgaria is full of talent. One of the most famous American and world artists, Christo, is Bulgarian, but here musical and artistic talent somehow remains without many opportunities; they blossom when they emigrate to America.
San Francisco. Photo by Ivan Bakalov
Should we expect a sequel?
Yes, there will be a sequel to my travel notes from America. I planned this fall to travel from Chicago to Los Angeles on Route 66, to make somewhat a cross from East to West and from West to East in America. And to tell about this country to the Bulgarian public, which still does not know much. But the trip is postponed – for financial reasons, crisis, things like that. I truly regret having to postpone the project.
Metropolitan Museum, New York. Photo by Ivan Bakalov
You didn't get any assistance from sponsors, from some Foundation?
No, I traveled and then organized a photo exhibit on my own expense. After the trip, I asked the America for Bulgaria Foundation for a total of BGN 3 500 to help with the exhibit and finance part of the book. They did not give me anything; said they had a different concept.
So, for the exhibit, I paid for everything from my own pocket; there were expenses for the book too, and I never got any royalty for it. Now, I hope for a little percentage from the book sales.
I sent several invitations for the book and the exhibit openings to the American Embassy, their media and culture offices – out of sheer politeness. Nobody came. I do not feel offended. I would not be that flattered by their presence at these events. I love America, not the American Embassy. Thankfully, the Culture Center at the Sofia University accepted to hold the exhibit.
I should establish a "Bulgaria for America" Foundation. (Laughs) Really. I am planning on launching a website to help Americans and other foreigners get around Bulgaria, and to prevent them from falling prey of fraud.
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