From The Paris Review:
A Bulgarian grocery store opened for business in my Amsterdam neighborhood. On the inside of the plate-glass window they hung a Bulgarian flag, making the store highly visible from the outside, but dark inside. They sell overpriced Bulgarian groceries. And the same can be said of almost all the ethnic markets. First come the migrants, and after them—the markets. After a time the ethnic food markets disappear, but the migrants? Do they stick around? The number of Bulgarians in the Netherlands is clearly on the rise; two Bulgarian markets have opened recently in my neighborhood alone.
And as to those with a “Balkan tooth,” they have famously deep pockets as far as food is concerned; they’ll happily shell out a euro or two extra to satisfy gourmandish nostalgia. The markets sell Bulgarian wine, frozen kebapcheta and meat patties, cheese pastries (banitsas), pickled peppers and cucumbers, kyopolou, pindjur, lyutenitsa, and sweets that look as if they’ve come from a package for aid to the malnourished: they are all beyond their shelf dates.
The store is poorly tended and a mess, customers are always tripping over cardboard boxes. Next to the cash register sits a young man who doesn’t budge, more dead than alive, it’s as if he has sworn on his patron saint that nobody will ever extract a word from him. The young woman at the cash register is teen-magazine cute. She has a short skirt, long straight blond hair, a good tan. Her tan comes from her liquid foundation; her cunning radiates like the liquid powder. She files her nails, and next to her stands a small bottle of bright red nail polish.
The scene fills me with joy. She grins slyly. I buy lyutenitsa, Bulgarian (Turkish, Greek, Macedonian, Serbian) cheese, and three large-size Bulgarian tomatoes. Dovizhdane. Довиждане.
. . . .
The division into those who work and those who do not—the hardworking and the indolent, the diligent and the ne’er-do-wells, the earnest and the couch potatoes—is hardly new, but over the last few years it has become the basic media-ideological matrix around which revolve the freethinkers of the general public. Joining the category of the indolent, ne’er-do-wells, and malingerers are the ranks of the jobless (for whom the employed claim they are simply incompetents and bumblers), along with the grumblers, indignants, and the groups defined by their country, geography, and ethnicity (Greeks, Spaniards, Romanians, Bulgarians, Serbs, Bosnians—all shiftless riffraff!), anticapitalistic elements, hooligans, vandals, terrorists, and Islamic fundamentalists.
In response to the question of how to become a multimillionaire, one of the wealthiest Russian oligarchs replied, “Don’t you forget, I work seventeen hours a day!” The very same answer is given by criminals, thieves, politicians, porn stars, war profiteers, celebs, mass murderers, and other similar deplorables. They all say seventeen hours a day, my career, and my job with such brash confidence, not a twitch to be seen.
On Meet the Russians, a TV show broadcast by Fox, young, prosperous Russians, many of them born, themselves, into money, fashion models, fashion and entertainment industry moguls, pop stars, club owners, and the like, all use the following phrases: I deserve this; everything I have, I’ve earned; my time is money; I work 24/7; I never give up.
. . . .
The native armed with bow and arrow, railway line, village, town, may the country thrive and grow, long live, long live work. These are the lyrics of a song that was sung during the Socialist period, when workers’ rights were much greater than they are today.
I confess I never made sense of these verses, perhaps because I didn’t try. What possible connection could there be between a native armed with bow and arrow and railway lines, villages, and towns, unless the lyrics are an anticipatory tweet about the eons of history of the human race: in other words, thanks to the appeal of hard work, natives traded in their bows and arrows for railways, villages, and towns.
Or, perhaps, it’s the other way around: without the redeeming balm of work, those same natives would have to return to the age of bows and arrows, while weeds would engulf the railway lines, villages, and towns. Although the everyday life of socialism in ex-Yugoslavia was like a hedonistic parody of the everyday life in other communist countries, Yugoslavs shared with them a packet of the same values, a set of common symbols, and their imaginary.
And at the center, at least as far as symbols and the imaginary go, was work. Work was what persuaded the native armed with bow and arrow to evolve from the ape, and the “peasant and worker” and “honest intellectuals” evolved thereafter from the native.
“The workers, peasants, and honest intellectuals” were the pillars, in the socialist imaginary, of a robust socialist society and were cast in a powerful positive light, especially because the honest intellectuals were separated from dishonest intellectuals just as the wheat is winnowed from the chaff.
The “bureaucracy” was the necessary evil, the “bureaucracy” flourished, while feeding, parasite-like, on the people. In any case, the word “work” was heard everywhere: in the news shorts that played before films in Yugoslav movie theaters, in the images of eye-catching, sweaty, workers’ muscles, in my elementary school primers where the occupations were unambiguous (male miners, female nurses, male blacksmiths, female backhoe-operators, male construction workers, female teachers, male engineers, female tram-drivers), in the movies, and in the First-of-May parades—pagan-like rites, honoring the god of labor as tons of sacrificial steel, coal, wheat, books were rolled out.
The heroes of the day were the record-breakers, the men and women who went above and beyond the norm. The heroes of today are pop stars, Marko Perković Thompson and Severina, and the many clowns who surround them.
. . . .
Today the vistas I see are post-Yugoslav. Perhaps the view is better in the postcommunist countries like Poland, Romania, Bulgaria, Hungary … I hope representatives of other postcommunist countries don’t hold against me my geopolitically narrow focus. Everything I’ve said refers only to little Croatia, little Serbia, little Bosnia, little Macedonia … And this crumb of badness in the sea of postcommunist goodness can easily be ignored, can it not? Although to be honest, research from 2007 shows that fewer than half of the Germans living in what used to be East Germany were pleased with the current market economy, and nearly half of them desired a return to socialism. As a return to the previous order is now unimaginable, the lethargic East German grumblers have been given a consolation prize, a little nostalgic souvenir, a MasterCard and on it the face of Karl Marx, designed and issued by a bank in the city known today as Chemnitz, though earlier it was called Karl-Marx-Stadt.
. . . .
In Russian fairy tales, Ivan the Simple earns his happy ending and wins the kingdom and the queen. Does he do this by working seventeen hours a day? No he does not. He does this thanks to his cunning and his powerful helpers: a horse able to traverse miles and miles at lightning speed, a magic shirt that makes him invincible, a fish that grants his wishes, Baba Yaga who gives him sly advice, and powerful hawks and falcons for brothers-in-law. Even our hero—Ivanushka, grimy, ugly, slobbering Ivanushka Zapechny, he who is the least acceptable, who lounges all the livelong day by the tile stove—even he, such as he is, wins the kingdom and the princess without breaking a sweat. Our modern fairy tale about the seventeen-hour workday has been cooked up as consolation for the losers. Who are the majority, of course.
Link to the rest at The Paris Review (PG added a few paragraph breaks.)
PG recalls one of the impressions of a college friend who studied and extensively traveled all over what was then known as the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics – “Anything that is not at least 75 years old looks like it was put up cheap.”
On a brighter note, PG is greatly enjoying reading Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman. It is the second volume of quite a nice four-volume set by Robert K. Massie, The Romanovs. The series starts with Peter the Great (Pyotr Alekseevich), born on February 8, 1672, crowned as Tzar at the age of ten, and ends with The Romanovs: The Final Chapter that, according to the book’s description, begins at the end of the end of the Romanov line in Siberia with “the infamous cellar room where the last tsar and his family had been murdered” on the night of 16–17 July 1918.
PG seldom provides book recommendations on TPV, but will say he is greatly enjoying this history. While by no means any sort of historian, PG has read quite a number of well-written accounts of various times past and Catherine the Great would be up towards the top of PG’s “best of” list.
FYI, he doesn’t think you necessarily need to read the books in sequence. Each one is very good at setting its current subject in her/his times and place in history.
PG notes that Amazon list used hardcovers for very reasonable prices. That said, “Catherine” is 656 pages and, since PG does a great deal of reading in bed, he is happy to have his featherweight Kindle Paperwhite on his chest instead of the hardcover.
A note on PG’s experience with his Paperwhite – He doesn’t mind the ad-supported version because, at least in his, he almost never notices the ads. While PG also has an iPad, he much prefers his Paperwhite for book-length fiction – much lighter, longer battery life and, at least for PG, a much better screen for reading text than the iPad (or the Fire or any of the android tablets PG has owned in the past).
PG is not terribly familiar with the differences between the earlier generations and current generations of Paperwhites. His is a first-generation model and, if it stopped working, he would probably by another that was identical if it were available.