This one has footnotes and so probably belongs down with Mexico, the Ukraine, and Belarus. It is truly "lite" (and now that I write that, I wonder when Bulgaria will discover the word!). But as this still is a website-about-Turkish, here is the obvious place for someone to come looking for it.
When a cheap but respectable Istanbul hotel posts a small sign in Bulgarian, what does it mean? "No Cigarette Smuggling or White Slavery"? "After 10 PM You And Your Sister Must Retire To Your Respective Rooms"? Can it have no literal meaning at all, indicating only a Turkish affection for the strange letters of the Cyrillic alphabet? Is there a website for Turkish hoteliers where they can click radio buttons and select from dropdowns based on the problems they've been having with guests, and download suitable printable warnings? This stuff captivates me. I wonder if I am the only person ever to wonder about this stuff. I don't really believe the website idea, and I like to think this is a Google-proof phenomenon - there is no way to find out from the Internet, you just have to go to Turkey and ask.
Just as you'd have to go to Turkey to find out about Ergenekon, Slovenia to find out about Slovenski Orli, or (for that matter) Brazil to find out about Primeiro Comando da Capital. Not that I was doing any of this; or even researching things which do have websites. This trip was frivolous, or extra-frivolous if you prefer. I'd wanted to hit both Slovenia and Turkey as efficiently as possible, and when I realized Ljubljana and Istanbul were only 800 miles apart, I knew I could hit both on the same trip. Plus such a trip would take me through the Balkans. I had yet to see a single Balkan. I didn't even know how to say "Balkan" in Slovene, Serbo-Croatian, or Bulgarian. (In Turkish, it is Balkan. That's handy.)
The days of delicious poll questions on Slovene websites are long past, leaving me in what the technical term in journalism for which is "free fall," which I can break only by quoting The Onion's Our Dumb World. This is a useless volume but I have to say it got Slovenia right: Slovenia really does join everything because doing so looks good on its résumé.
(I should add that the book is not entirely off on Portugal, either. It says this country has 50% of the world's cork and 100% of the world's interest in cork. I did not know until last year, when I was in the country and saw an issue, that Portugal has its own edition of National Geographic. And what was the cover story? Cork!)
So, with nothing like intellectual direction - "going to Istanbul" is not the same as "getting smarter" - I found myself amused, on the long walk from the bus stop to the Ljubljana hotel, by sights I had particularly rejected as unworthy of note eight years previously: monuments, statuary, public art. This time, I warmed to them, and even photographed them.
Because I was hurrying through drizzle, I did miss Trg Mladinskih Delovnih Brigad, Youth Labor Brigades Square, which was actually a triangle, and barely big enough to park your neighbors' Fiats. I also had to pass on broadshouldered open-armed man-o'-the-people-'cuz-he's-wearin'-a-suit-but-no-tie Boris Kidri, but I did get Cesta Slovenskih Kmekih Uporov, Slovene Peasant Uprisings Road, really a shady lane. The preservation of these cumbrous toponyms intrigued me, because they evidently didn't bore anyone else. I was just guessing they were as ponderous in Slovene as they were in English - our versions were only slightly longer! (And wasn't that an Onion headline from the 1990's: "Clinton Sends Vowels To Bosnia"?) I almost got a good shot of Trg Osvobodilne Fronte, Liberation Front Square, I mean a street sign, but to get both it and the Ljubljana Bus Station's, itself in a '60's-ish Easy Rider font, I'd've had to stand out in traffic to compose the picture suitably.
And though it wasn't a monument as we understand the word, I found and photographed the lovingly made sign for a evapii joint named Sarajevo '84. Its slogan was "As it once was," and there was a blown-up photo of a cozy stone-walled bar, with Serbo-Croatian wisdom ("If you're dining on alcohol, you're breakfasting on water") in frames.
So maybe this could be a trip theme. Certainly nowhere in do-it-yourself Internet commentary had I detected any chuckles or exasperation at this stuff, in Slovenia. Who knew what the attitudes would be in Core Yugoslavia?
My hotel in Belgrade was on Balkan Street. Well. Guess that settles that. Though I still hadn't seen one - a Balkan mountain, I mean. In fact, from just over the Slovene line all the way to B-town itself, the land was quite flat.
This and not much else I took in on the 9-going-on-10-hour train ride to the capital of The Last Place To Preserve "YU" In Web Domains Or Anything Else. I did see, inside Croatia, just miles from the Serbian line, graffiti that read Srbe na Vrbe, "Serbs to the Willows." I should've asked my compartmentmates what that meant. It might have roused them. But my exiguous Serbo-Croatian ensured they would remain in equipoise on this really very dull passage. How dull was it? I realized I could give a precise count of forsythias I had seen in Slovenia: five. Nothing I saw competed with even that little. The land was green in a sort of obligatory well-it-IS-spring way, with a fair number of trees in fruit-blossom white, but as fundamentally prosperous as all of it (minus the shantytowns of Belgrade) looked, even an overcast sky could reduce it. The three pillboxes I saw didn't help.
I dozed a lot. Everyone did. But when I was awake, I remembered wondering just what this very passage would be like. I seldom pay any attention to American newspapers, in the belief that if it exercises a U.S. journalist, it's stupid and I can ignore it. But in recent weeks I'd seen and even read a little bit about a school textbook quarrel in Texas. Someone had spluttered, "It's like Hispanics never existed." If you're headed to what until recently politika.rs still called EX YU, any allusion to identity politics has got to magnetize.
And so, magnetized, I thought: well, once, "Hispanics" didn't exist. There were just swarthy people with Spanish names. They did menial labor; neither they nor anyone around them expected much else; very occasionally they got thrown a bone; if none was forthcoming, they placidly did without. In short, a culture that believed in Santa Claus. Then it got government recognition and a legal name; the bone-throwing got bigger and more organized; Domestic Bone Production, however, remained near nil; and so it became a culture that officially believed in Santa Claus.
I doubt anyone in EX YU ever got, or dreamed he could ever afford to get, that unrealistic. Even after they got their own countries. Well, they didn't quite get 'em: there was fighting. Victories, too, though it hardly feels that way. I once read a military history of the breakup of Yugoslavia but it was hard to follow. Maybe when you've got multiple parties all fighting what they believe to be wars of reconquest, it's too much to expect troop movements and setpiece battles: everybody is already on the battlefields, scores or hundreds of them.1
So all the nasty deeds were done, and here now we all were, drowsing. Near where the Serbs were being urged to the willows, there was lots of new railway construction. Signs in English said this was a project co-financed by the EU. Maybe that was as close as people got here to believing in Santa Claus. I wondered if to most Europeans, not just ex-Yugoslavians, English is merely the lingua franca of welfare, bureaucratic sops, and customer service. I wonder if they know other, nobler things have ever been said in it.
It rained serenely most of the night, which seemed right for Belgrade. Unfortunately it also seemed right that even up to the sixth floor of a Belgrade hotel, the thump-thump of bad rock'n'roll should propagate itself. I just assumed it was from a sex shop I'd seen at street level and around the block. No proof. If you're in a sex shop, it's because you can't remember what sex was like, but you still have the idea it had to have been as hammerheaded as this music, right?
Anyway, the sun was there at sunup. I rolled over and caught it glowing, a perfect wine-red bulb in the folds of the curtain, and at once I knew it would be a beautiful day. And it was, though the sun itself did prove a nuisance at another moment. Yesterday, pulling into the station, I'd glimpsed a railway outbuilding with "Belgrade" displayed the way the Eastern-Europe-savvy traveler counts on it to: in a big funky square font in primary colors drenched in post-Watergate optimism. You ask: "Where did this stuff go to die?" I tell you: "It didn't die."
But proof may be lacking here as well, because the sun was too close to the sign as we pulled out of the station this morning, and the photo I took just doesn't have impact.
On to Bulgaria, then. I felt a little bad about seeing so little of The 'Grade.2 At least I had seen that sign, and two other things, both of which I admittedly could've found on the Internet. A very short pre-breakfast walk had taken me to the Yugoslavian Dramatic Theatre, which caught my eye because it was the first obviously modern, written, non-Internet indication I'd had that "Yugoslavian" is still a meaningful word. And across the street from this theatre, coincidentally I'm sure, was graffiti: "Sarajevan Genocide 6,673 Serbs."
Sarajevo, like Bulgaria, was close. And like it, I found myself being able to think of almost nothing about it. Let's see...the '84 Olympics, of course. And Bijelo Dugme came from there. And...oh yeah. When my brother and I went to Slovenia in 2003, there was, on the ever-unstable airwaves of that country at that time, a late-night-only TV channel called Sarajevo Erotik. We never looked at it. But my brother had complained (inaccurately, I am sure) of my snoring, and that gave me an idea. I said he should secretly set the channel to Sarajevo Erotik, and also turn on the mute; later in the night, if I was allegedly snoring, he should quietly turn on the TV, wait (not too long, I'm sure) for a pale burly rascally couple to start goin' at it, then SHOUT MY NAME. I'd awaken, bolt upright, to quite a sight.
And would it have cured me of anything? We may never know.
As for Bulgaria, I had just the following. I recalled in one of Robert Kaplan's books from the 1990's a chapter or two about the country, and with what urgency the case was made - by the author and/or by Bulgarians - that NATO should let it in. And did it? I have no idea, and find it impossible now to believe that it matters either way.3
I also recalled allusions to Bulgaria in one of Boris Akunin's fine detective novels set in late-Imperial Russia. That particular novel was actually set in the Russo-Turkish War as the Czar helped liberate Bulgaria. Bulgaria itself did not in fact get much press, except for a mention of its language's grammar, which really is odd. Unlike most other Slavic languages, it does have definite articles - and once the native English-speaker has, in the course of his Russian, Slovene, and Serbo-Croatian studies, learned to stop looking for these, it's hard to take up Bulgarian and suddenly have to welcome 'em back. Also, they're postpositive: they're not separate words, but as is coincidentally the case in most Scandinavian languages, suffixes.
(Another Bulgarian wonder is its total lack of case endings. How a Russian could not marvel at their absence, I don't know; but then Akunin is actually Georgian, and can laugh away all the grammars of this Earth. He's just not like you or me. In another of his novels, a boy from his neck of the woods grows up to become an international assassin-for-hire, and early on he capitalizes his plush hitman lifestyle by gambling using the Martingale system. Whether because the novelist was in a hurry to establish his character, or because he actually believed it, he served up this explanation as simple and decisive, taking time only to boggle at nobody's ever having adopted the system before. This is the one where you keep doubling your wager 'til you win. It assumes your kitty is bottomless, the odds are immaterial, and you think 1 ruble divided by infinite time equals positive cash flow. Maybe if you're an ex-Soviet, you have so little feel for money that you believe all this and more.)
But I would contemplate all this and more when I got to Sofia. Especially the money part - it would be a relief to find my hotel not only heard of but saw no ideological hindrance to accepting MasterCard. Meanwhile, I was just draining out the bottom of Serbia, which I already regret writing because the process is far nicer than it sounds. By Ni the mountains had come to crowd the train. It had got cloudy but there was still to the place a comforting valley look. Probably a very good choice for a bicycle ride: start in the Prekmurje of Slovenia and go due southeast. But learn good Serbo-Croatian first. People expected it. There was plenty to do in Slovenia itself, except learn Slovene itself; those folks wouldn't let you. Croats and Serbs spoke English as readily as did Slovenes but they would let you stew a bit before getting you off the hook. I respected that.
Sofia, or Armpitgrad as I came to call it, wasn't a jolt but it was a reminder. I haven't been to Central America since 1981 and I expect that if I went back now, I'd find much had changed for the better; but if there was one nation or city where it hadn't, then it would feel like Sofia.
I believe the thought came whole when I was on the commode, searching for the toilet paper, then discovering the dispenser was not only behind the tank but in the shower stall. But there had been earlier intimations, like the graphically derelict chemical plant west of town. Maybe by 2019 we can bury it in blue plastic landfill, Bulgarians seemed to have decided. And then there was the town itself, I mean Sofia Station itself, just a platform that stretched almost to a flat horizon, a layout ideal for mass deportations.
The station was very big, ill-lit, and made of gray-brown Soviet warmth-abolishing textiles. And many of the doors had been bolted shut. There was despair and hostility both in all this - a very Communist combination. A single very new hotel towered nearby. It had The Only Game In Town written all over it. It wasn't quite that, nor was it nearly as hard-currency-sucking as it looked; but certainly the low dingy neighborhood harbored no serious competition. Anyway, it did take my credit card, as I say. And it was very nice, mostly. There was, in the bathroom, and easier to find than the toilet paper, an evanescent stink. Another Soviet-bloc fillip, the odors that vector: everything almost seems OK for a moment, then you move your head and one of your nostrils correctly lines up with one of these vile shafts. I'd get another, later, off a payphone; 10% less fecal, 10% more rancid-porkal, but just as exquisitely beamed.
The vibes continued into the evening, and I learned just how much Slovenia had spoiled me. There was a brand new bus terminal next to the labor-camp freight switching yard, but it upheld Communist traditions handsomely. The currency-exchange office that said it was open but wasn't; the bus company whose sign boasted a 9 AM schedule to Istanbul, only it didn't have one; and of course the two babushkettes who taped off the one stairwell to the second-floor food court because Stalindammit, suppertime was also stair-mopping time.
This I watched while having pizza and beer. The other half of my little table was taken by a guy who, had he been Slovene, would have been escorted off the streets and out of the country, to represent it unsuccessfully and at a safe distance in the Eurovision Song Contest. In Bulgaria, he pushed his nighttime sunglasses up his pomaded scalp, and prattled into his cellphone, and made several agonized arabesques over the rail, peering at his grinning buds on the floor below. He flounced unhappily while the stairs were interdicted. "Epicene," I thought; now there's a word you don't hardly hear anymore.
Undoubtedly Bulgaria has far more to offer than this, but a walk the next morning left any such such offerings still concealed. Twenty minutes' slow motion showed me five establishments selling armored doors4 - hmm. And there was the Garden of Algiers, a not unattractive park - it had measurably more forsythias than Slovenia - but still, come on, guys, it's not 1964 anymore. Are Sofia and Algiers still brother cities? If they are, shouldn't that bother you?
In the Istanbul subway a man asked me questions which were mostly verbless placenames. I thought it was obvious where we were and where the trains were going, so I asked him in Turkish if he didn't live in Istanbul. From a few more placenames I got the answer: no. He was from Georgia. "Gürcistan," I said; and then "Gruziya," which he understood. I had to disclaim all greater knowledge of Russian, though I wonder if he was less bothered by that than by my mistaking him for a Turk.
He shouldn't have been. Georgians, as I said, aren't Slavs but if Slavs are the scale, then Turkey certainly comes out ahead. Of Bulgaria, anyway.
That was a surprise, and a good one. I'd actually expected society-wide shuffling hoboism the minute we crossed the line, but there was only a smart-looking superhighway all the way to I-town. 2010, like 2006, was not 1992. Turkey had looked barely capable of finding its teeth in its mouth, way back when. Not so, in the 21st century.
And 2010 got me to 2006's hotel, the one with the Bulgarian sign. Only it was gone this time. Last time, when all I had to go on was the sign, Bulgaria had seemed both very distant and distinctly unwholesome. Now, having measured that distance, I found the place paradoxically farther away still. What had I done there? Got a lot of italic-Cyrillic drill. When studying Russian I'd glossed over the non-block letters. Bad decision. I suppose I thought that learning Serbo-Croatian block-Cyrillic gave me a bye. Well, it doesn't. You've got to learn all block-Cyrillic and all italic-Cyrillic and all cursive-Cyrillic. I like to think I did a lot of catching-up in Bulgaria. Yeah. That sounds good.
Honestly, Bulgaria was a wash. As for Turkey, it could be as well, except I think I'd done just barely enough research beforehand to exclude that embarrassing possibility. Istanbul was undeniably congenial and that is to Turks' great credit, but there's an awful lot of Turkey beyond Istanbul - although they may have been Istanbul-based government officials who, on two occasions I could recall, stated they would bring in certain fugitives ölü ya da diri, "dead or alive." When was the last time you heard any officials whose salaries your taxes paid make such a steely public declaration?
Outside of Istanbul, what had been going on in, oh, the last four or five years? In November of 2005 I'd read an article on cnnturk.com stating there'd been about 30,000 military and civilian deaths within Turkey since 1984 due to Kurdish terrorism. That's four stiffs a day every day for twenty years - isn't that, well, a lot?
And yet Kurds had conquered not one square inch of Turkey in all that time. At all times you could travel freely everywhere in the country. From reading the not infrequent accounts of local atrocities - brothers and uncles massacred, kids abducted and made to vanish - I got the idea there was a whole lot of highly personal, totally apolitical score-settling going on. Here, perhaps, "terrorism" really did need to be fought by cops and judges, not soldiers.
If only my Turkish were good enough to ask. At least it had been good enough to read a "captured" "document" of PKK authorship: an organizational chart of a hypothetical Kurdistan-in-Turkey government. No dotted lines - I'm relieved to report that. The reporter was relieved to report Kurds envisioned a good ol' Turkish-and-by-the-way-American division of powers among a legislative, executive, and judiciary. As I recall, the executive got the most rectangles, including one - and I'd bet big money this had been focus-grouped in Frankfurt - for women's affairs. But since nobody was, well, passing laws in this outfit, never mind formally deciding if anybody had broken 'em or not, the skew in the vision was understandable.
These thoughts I thought while watching and almost understanding Turkish sitcoms. They seemed funny, though the laugh tracks may have been deviously influencing me. Though almost nobody in these shows looked Turkish to my eye, they still gave me an idea of Turkey's future. Not one where Turks would look like sitcom actors, but maybe act as merry as such players were caused to. Turkey seemed to have life in front of it, vitality it could bank on. I was less sure of the Slavic and "European" worlds which were its neighbors. Which do you bet on? The future of a country that has lots of cute babies? Or the future of a country that has lots of fleshy middle-aged guys with earrings?
And would the Internet be any guide to any country's future? Wild guess, but I'll say no. The Internet is mostly about seconding other people's emotions, not inspiring new ones. To monitor Turkey, you're still going to have to go there. To monitor "Yugoslavia," "the Eastern Bloc," Europe itself, you'll probably be able to depend on stay-at-home nostalgics.
1 For some idea of what those "battlefields" were like, I vigorously recommend Courtney Brkic's The Stone Fields. Here was a young American who, thanks to her degree in archaeology and her ability to speak the language, got a job excavating mass graves for war-crimes evidence gathering. But the book is so much more. If a country as modern and as short-lived as Yugoslavia could hold anyone's "ancestors," here is a Yugoslavian ancestral tale. It is also a love story, and a very feminine one too - I am certain a woman reading this book would get much more out of it than I did. But it is about men as well. Some have greatness; many are repugnant; you always know where you stand with every single one of them. Yugoslavia certainly was a squirrel-free zone.
2 In case you've always wondered: we say BeLgrade but they say BeOgrad because this is how Serbo-Croatian works. Where a syllable ends in l and its immediate neighbor starts with certain consonants, the l goes vowelly. This happens in other languages - Portuguese and Slovene come to mind, my mind anyway. Maybe Polish too - I do believe they've got a special letter that would serve for it, the slashed l, which is pronounced w. Anyway, the routine in Serbo-Croatian is to write the replacement vowel, in this case o.
As for why we put e on the end of Belgrade, I have no idea.
3 I recall a Brazilian op-ed piece about an American economist named James Buchanan, who won the Nobel Prize and was surprised by it. The Brazilian thought, and I agree, that if your work is this obscure, its influence can only be overstated and you probably shouldn't be winning awards for it. Likewise with Bulgaria's power: if you can tell neither when it's there nor when it's not, doesn't that mean it doesn't exist?
4 At least that's what I assumed blindirani vrati meant. I was guessing based on the Portuguese for "armored" and the Slovene for "door." I never did find a good Bulgarian dictionary in the U.S., "good" meaning "less heavy than a typewriter" or "has the whole alphabet." Oh, I'll buy one in Bulgaria, I'd said to myself; but I forgot all about this when I got there. It appeared the only Fractured Western Retailing Idea that these people had picked up was "nonstop," which word they stuck on almost everything I saw. Spelled that way, in Latin or Cyrillic letters, it was meant to be magic, not real. Wait'll they hear about "24/7."
© 2010 J.A.Hutter