Ellis Shuman: I'm in Bulgaria, I'm Home!
Ellis Shuman was born in the United States but moved to Israel as a teenager. He served in the Israeli army, was a founding member of a kibbutz, and now lives outside Jerusalem. For two years, 2009-2010, Ellis and his wife lived in Sofia. Ellis is a regular contributor to The Times of Israel and The Huffington Post. He writes frequently about Bulgaria, Israel, books, travel, and other interesting things on his blog. His first novel, Valley of Thracians, is a suspense story set in modern day Bulgaria.
I met him while he was in the country in May to meet friends and visit the Rhodope Mountains. Though he writes about both Israel and Bulgaria - and his work about the former predates that about the latter, his personal story with Bulgaria was of particular interest.
The first time Ellis arrived in Bulgaria with his wife Jodie was in 2009 - after what he calls “a lifetime opportunity” popped up.
“It came in the exact time in our lives. Our children were grown up, our parents were old but capable - they didn't need our attention, and we said to ourselves: oh, it would be nice to live overseas, we've always wanted to live overseas.”
At the time the family had spent their entire adult lives in Israel after moving there from the US as teenagers – and it came to their mind they’d never lived anywhere else. Then the company where Ellis works, which provides customer support and marketing services for the online gaming industry, came up with a proposal: it was opening a service center in Sofia, and needed Israeli personnel to help set it up.
"My boss said to me: Ellis, would you like to move to Bulgaria for two years to do this job? You have one week to decide. If you don’t take this job, we will appoint someone, you will train him, and he will live in Bulgaria and he will be your boss.”
This might sound a little compelling – especially as Ellis and Jodie had visited several European countries, but Bulgaria had been on the list of "Oh, maybe we'll go there someday". Apart from its communist past, the top-ranking weightlifters and several other details, they knew little about the country.
But they swiftly found their way through the mazes of Bulgarian history and culture, even though they didn’t learn the language (they used English at work). The couple traveled a lot, and discovering the country left a profound mark in them – and it certainly changed much for Ellis, affecting his life after the return to Israel in 2010.
“Every day I'm in Bulgaria in my mind. Now I'm gonna say something in Bulgarian, are you ready?,” he said. I nodded.
“I live in Israel, I work in Tel Aviv, but I am in Bulgaria every day here [he points to his heart] and here [points to his brain]. I love Bulgaria. Now I’m in Bulgaria, I’m home.” (And he said this in Bulgarian, without any mistake, to be sure: “Живея в Израел, работя в Тел Авив, но аз съм в България всеки ден тук и тук. Обичам България. Сега аз съм в България, аз съм вкъщи.”)
But why was coming to Sofia such a game changer?
For Ellis in particular, one of the reasons is writing.
“There are many people who write about Israel. There are very few international authors who write about Bulgaria. So for me living here inspired me to write. I thought - wait a minute, nobody knows about Bulgaria. For the first time in my life I became a travel writer. I started writing articles to tell people why they should visit Bulgaria. Then I wrote about Sarajevo and about visiting other places too. But it started with that.”
Fiction was another Bulgaria-linked adventure he’d embark on. Years earlier, in 2003, he had published The Virtual Kibbutz, short stories about life on a traditional Israeli collective community; but an entire novel about Israel had looked impossible. When he went back to the kibbutz, the possibility to use another setting drew his attention: “Bulgaria was in my mind and I started to write. Suddenly I wrote a book; and I keep writing all the time because I'm inspired by that experience. It opened me up artisticallly and creatively.”
What was the thing in Bulgaria that inspired you to write your first novel, I ask Ellis, but there is no particular source to name: “I was exposed to a different way of life, to a different culture, talking to people who had different background than me, but were very welcome and opening. I think Bulgaria and Israel have a lot in common. I’ve always felt welcome here”. Travel writing was a nice way to tell stories after visiting many places across Bulgaria; but some venues, like the cities of Sofia, Varna and Veliko Tarnovo and the Rila Monastery and a few others, turned out to be suitable as settings and, combined with the story which came up, helped give birth to Valley of Thracians, Ellis’s first novel, in 2013. One which, strangely enough, is yet to be translated into Bulgarian.
“That’s a dream,” Ellis says, and it’s one he is actively pursuing. Published in English (his mother tongue, in which reading and writing gives him utmost pleasure), the book tells the story of a stolen Thracian relic, one that returned literature professor Simon Matthews has to start looking for after coming to Bulgaria to look for his grandson who has gone missing in the country.
A second novel connecting Bulgaria and Israel, followed suit, and is already finished. As the preview for The Burgas Affair on his blog reads: "a Bulgarian policeman is teamed up with an Israeli woman from the Mossad as they work a case involving international terrorists and local criminals in both Bulgaria and Israel, while confronting the traumas of their pasts."
While the current text is being typed, a recent development with the book has just given Ellis a good occasion to celebrate: on May 27, he announced he had signed with Golden Wheat Literary, an agency which would help The Burgas Affair find "an appropriate home".
He hopes that finding a traditional publisher will raise chances of a translation into Bulgarian but also of one into Hebrew. Short of waiting for an outcome, however, he is now working on another novel “which is again Bulgaria-Israel in a unique way”. "If you ask me what I would be doing now if I was back in Israel I'd be writing,” he says.
Ellis certainly has another “Bulgarian connection” in his writing.
Titled News, reviews, Israel, Bulgaria, and everything in between,it has predominantly American (and almost no Israeli) readers. The traffic is 90-95% from the US, he explains and I wonder if Israelis generally share the same attitude to country as he does. The answer is that one group, those with roots in Bulgaria, often come to the country to explore the past. Bulgaria managed to save its Jewish community (except for those in Macedonia and the Aegean lands it administered then) from deportation in World War Two, despite being an ally to Nazi Germany. “When we came here, we soaked in everything - the history, the culture, the Jews in WWII, I didn't know that…American Jews do not know that story. I feel like I'm obligated, I want to tell it and I've written about it but I'll continue to write about it.It is a very positive story about Bulgarians - both for citizens and politicians.”
The other kind of Israelis, however, are interested either in the Black Sea beaches or in skiing – or in visiting the casinos in Varna or Sofia, Ellis notes.
“Israelis never, ever go into the countryside. They do not travel around to tour. They do not go to Veliko Tarnovo, they do not go to small villages. This is what I would tell Israelis: you're missing out, you’re not seeing the whole picture. The beauty of Bulgaria is not Sofia. Sofia is a nice city, but the beauty of Bulgaria is outside the city - in the mountains,in the small villages, because they still have a trace of the past. I'm not talking about Communism - I'm talking about the 1880s, the 1850s, places like Koprivshtitsa.”
One could find his articles on The Huffington Post in the UK as well. HP also includes one particular article which impressed Bulgarian readers, the one which in fact made him popular here in July 2014: his 10 Amazing Things You Didn't Know About Bulgaria.
“It was translated twice into Bulgarian, without my permission, but that's fine. It's not to make money. I do this because I want people to read. My wife wants me to make money... someday.”
That article is still getting huge traffic, he says; and as of June 1, 2015, the number of likes there has topped 27 000. It includes interesting facts about roses, yogurt, the way Bulgarians nod, the famous Shopska salad, the Cyrillic alphabet, the saving of Jews, golden treasures, rakia, bagpipes and martenitsa (more details in the link above). I ask him if a “Number 11” has crossed his mind ever since. No, he hasn’t thought of it; but says Bulgaria is inexpensive and very affordable. “This is our first time as tourists. But when we live in Bulgaria we would go to hotels EUR 25 a night. A five-star hotel could be very affodable for Western tourists. You can get very comfortable accommodation for little money at western standards.”
Unlike Ellis, Bulgarians sometimes find it more difficult to appreciate good things in the country. “This morning I had coffee with a close fiend of mine who collected us at the airport. And she couldn't understand why I and my wife retain such a positive attitude toward Bulgaria,” he begins when I ask for a reason.
"When we lived here life was not all good. I can't say it was living in heaven, there were hard times too. But we focused on the positive.We saw the beauty of the countryside.We had an advantage: we were foreigners who had come to live here on a temporary basis, not forever.I know the situation. I know villages are losing the young people, who go to Sofia or to Varna. I know villages are in danger!”
Ellis believes people should focus on the good things instead – and says this doesn’t go just for Bulgaria. “Life is not easy in Israel either. Israel is very expensive. My children have a very hard time as adults setting their families... Politics is horrible everywhere – in Israel too. But I love Israel. I say: don't look at the government, don’t look at the Knesset [the Israeli Parliament], it's horse-trading. Focus on the good stuff - the culture, the religion, the food, the people.”
“This it what I say to Bulgarians: life is grey, the sky is grey, the sun isn't always shining." As Ellis says this, I am looking through the window of the caf? we are sitting; outside it is quite cloudy, a little dark and rather cold for a May afternoon."But there are positive things in Bulgaria – that's why I don't see grey skies now. I see the beauty of the country. I'm not looking at the greyest, I'm looking at the color. That's what brought me back.
Ellis and Jodie also brought a bit of Bulgaria to their homes -
they got back with a full set of Bulgarian plates, dishes, soup bowls, coffee cups and pots. “We can have a party for 12 people on Bulgarian pottery. This is one special thing in our house. We put the table and it has Bulgaria dishes, of course the cooking is Israeli.” The pottery bag was so full it was hard to carry. The first purchase was a blue pot, one they bought in the Rila village.
He is also a fervent reader and reviewer who helps promote works of Bulgarian authors (recently Ludmila Filipova and Zachary Karabashliev) that have been translated into English. "Those books mean something to me, I don't know if someone who reads them from the outside will appreciate them. But I want to bring them to the attention of a wider audience. I think the authors deserve it."
Any story about Ellis would be an unfinished one. After his trip to the Rhodopes and his return to Israel, he might choose to spread the magic of the Bulgarian mountains; or he might decide otherwise. The first seems more likely after his blog post dated June 1 (today), where he wrote that
"Our trip to Sofia was like going home. We saw our friends. I spoke a bit of broken Bulgarian that the locals understood – they appreciated my efforts to speak their language. And we drove into the Rhodopi Mountains, a beautiful area near the Greek border that I will be writing about for months to come.
I am not a travel guide – I am a writer. I love to write about Bulgaria in efforts to convince western tourists to visit that country. Bulgaria is stunning, different, and totally affordable. I wish I could show you the country personally. I love Bulgaria!"
While waiting to see when his books will appear on the Bulgarian market, those who have met him at least one cannot help thinking that, even though Ellis writes mostly for readers who don't know Bulgaria, he is also capable of making the country's natives, normally somewhat pessimistic, consider at least for a second if "things here are so bad" after all.
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