European Honeymoon

It’s been a few months since the increasingly troubling instability in Crimea burst forth into our western awareness. With the cheers still fading from the Sochi Olympics, we slowly became aware of hearing ominous growls from the Russian Bear. Masked men in unmarked uniforms, ethnic unrest and violent confrontations flaring on what language or accent people spoke with, a military base not so much overrun as edged out. A referendum, howls of protest, noise about sanctions and repercussions and protests, all while at least part of Ukraine gasps for breath in the grip of a slow and unrelenting choke hold.

The Russians. I was brought up in a world where we had “duck and cover” drills in school, to prepare for when the bombs that would fall. Being under our desks would protect us from a thermonuclear blast, the teachers solemnly asserted. “Cross your arms in front of your face and keep your head down.” The blast, we all knew, would be from Russian missiles.

My wife and I were reminded of some of those old thoughts when we were first assigned to work in Bulgaria. The country had been severed from its long association with the Soviets, and the U.S and Russia seemed set on a path toward friendship and mutual glasnost, but lingering doubts nagged at us. Even their alphabet seemed threatening.

They write in Cyrillic letters, with the backwards R and backwards N, long associated in our Cold War culture with Russian May Day tank parades, mutual distrust, and missiles pointed at us. Strange, alien, ominous. — Breeze, p. 7

We soon found that for most Bulgarians the process of “facing to the west” after the fall of the Soviet Union was seen as a positive development. After all, as it was explained in Breeze, all the big State-run factories had closed and people had lost their jobs in the process, so something had to happen. The whole structure of how-everything-works had been set adrift, inflation had ravaged what was left, unemployment was rampant, and learning new ways seemed the only hope. There were even sparks of excitement among the normally staid Bulgarians. There were pockets of resistance, though, pockets of resentment and acrimony about “The Change.” Change is not always welcomed wholeheartedly, there as here, even when it is official government policy.

… the old people pine for the old days. Their memories are filtered through a misty haze of golden job security that smoothes away the old problems, and underscores the hopeless feelings of the present. “They told us what to do. It was fine.” — Breeze, p. 93

I was once caught in a conversational crossfire on the subject, with friends meeting under the stars on a summer night. We were at a sidewalk café having a beer.

Ivan’s friend was going a mile a minute about how everything was better under communism… [Our friend] Mary was incensed. She and Hristo had so often expressed the opposite opinion, telling us how their families suffered under Communist rule. Ivan, caught in the middle, was just embarrassed and kept trying to calm the argument down. Cool it for now in front of our guests for goodness’ sake, save it for later. It did cool down after a while, since no one was convincing anyone anyway. The talk turned to halfhearted empty pleasantries and we called it a night. — Breeze, p. 255

There was more to it, of course, than jobs and café talk. The attachment to Russia was not only from the Soviet days but long before. You might remember learning about the 1878 liberation of Bulgaria from the Ottoman Empire. The Uprising, the Heroes of the Revolution, cannons and swords, martyrs and sacrifice. The overarching importance of breaking from “500 years under the Turkish yoke” is imprinted deeply in every Bulgarian’s consciousness in song and story, in monumental statues and art. It was the Russians who got credit for making it happen, under “The Tsar Liberator” Alexander.

My main job in Bulgaria was to teach English, the language of business in Western Europe, at the request of the Bulgarian government. Improbable as it would have seemed in my long-ago childhood and even more recently, Bulgaria actually became, in 2007, a member of the European Union. With most of the older generations having learned to speak Russian, having worked with Russians side by side in industry and the Army, lock-stepping together in the old ideology, Bulgaria joined the EU! Signed up! Bought the ticket to ride! And not only that but the trans-Atlantic military alliance NATO to boot!

Torn between two lovers? Yeah, a little.

It’s a complicated problem. This April 10 article from Reuters explains the quandary very well.  Bulgaria: caught between Moscow and Brussels. In addition to the deep ties already described, another is that the country is almost entirely dependent on Russian energy supplies. But what country would base its foreign policy on getting oil and gas? Never mind. I didn’t mean to be glib. Again, from the Reuters article, “… support for Putin goes beyond history and energy supplies. Many citizens of the EU’s poorest member state have been disappointed by EU membership, and are almost gratified by the new hostilities between the Kremlin and Brussels.”

The bright prospect of EU membership involved lots of promises, and the honeymoon may be over. 

The Black Sea

Sochi, 2014. What a strange Winter Olympics! I was glad when the events got underway so the journalists would have something to do other than whine about how bad the hotels were. It all worked out wonderfully from what we could see. Well, if Shaun White hadn’t cut his hair it might have come out a little better for the USA.

And the weather! It was so warm that between events, people were swimming in the Black Sea. It was probably a little chilly for swimming, but it’s a thing to do. At the beach near where we used to live in Southern California, the tourists would go in the water on winter days for the novelty of it. They would stay in for a minute, then come out and run for a towel to dry off and sit shivering in the sun, saying “How about that! February and it’s warm enough to swim!”

I swam in the Black Sea too. It was in summer though, years ago, when I was helping run a summer camp for boys. It was on the shore directly across the sea from Sochi, in the Bulgarian town of Balchik. I remember it as a time of volleyball and sunbathing, swimming and long talks about life. I remember too, feeling like one of those California tourists marveling at the delights of waves and salt water.  From the book…

The weather was agreeably warm for enjoying the beach most of the days we were there, but about the fourth day an afternoon thunderstorm stirred up the sea so that the deep cold water was brought to shore. The water was too cold for all but the hardiest for the rest of the week.

With the water affected as it had been, the temperature varied sharply from one spot to another. Little streams of cold and warm water swirled around silently in the shallows. If you moved a few meters one way or the other it would change from warm to frigid and back again. [My friend and fellow volunteer] Justin said he had read that at the lower levels of the Black Sea there was cold fresh water, from its ancient origins as a lake fed by the Danube and the other rivers going into it. Riding above this cold layer was the salty seawater from the Aegean (or in Bulgarian, “The White Sea”) across the Dardanelles where treacherous currents form at the boundary of the two large seas.

Since salt water was heavier than fresh water, it was a bit of a mystery why it was this way instead of the other. It was as if the seawater were balanced precariously atop the lighter fresh water, and had been for a long time, since the channel between the two seas opened up. Some scientists saw a danger in this seemingly unstable situation, that something could cause the two water masses to flip over, destroying the ecology of whatever lived in either zone. As I moved from one stringy stream of cold water to another I wondered what intricate balances there might be, that we were completely unaware of, in things we see and experience every day.

A Breeze in Bulgaria, p. 211

Lately we read of trouble in Ukraine. I think of instability and balance. Halfway between Balchik on the west shore and Sochi on the east, the Ukrainian city of Sevastopol has installed a pro-Russian mayor, staking claim to the strategically important Crimean peninsula. It sits between the pro-European demonstrators in Kiev to the west, with its ruins and bloody confrontations and smoldering fires, and the Russian-leaning eastern half of Ukraine. In the east, the ousted president is hiding out from criminal charges pressed by those in the western half, taking refuge with the Russian majority. Mr. Putin, coming off his successful run as scowling emcee of the Sochi Olympics, wields a bludgeon comprising, of all things, economic threats.

map, black seaThe map (click to embiggen) shows Sevastopol on the big peninsula resting in that unstable Black Sea, balancing Ukraine above it precariously on a point. It looks like a seesaw, a child’s teeter-totter. The Black Sea, where that fulcrum rests, has Bulgaria and Romania on the west shore, both members of the EU albeit in a marginalized status with limitations and contentious conditions. On the east shore, Russia and its other little problem, Georgia. In between, literally and figuratively, geographically and philosophically, Ukraine.

I hope the idea that the Black Sea is potentially unstable is a baseless worry, and that nothing will ever cause the two water masses to flip over and destroy the ecology of the sea. And I hope the dangerous instability in Ukraine will resolve itself without damaging either side. If one kid falls off a seesaw, the other one gets hurt too.