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BANYA, Bulgaria — Like the storks that glide in on their annual pilgrimage from Africa, we try to spend every summer in my wife’s home village of Banya in southwestern Bulgaria.
Fittingly, it was one of Banya’s storks that saluted us as fellow returnees this year by bombing our car with its well-digested lunch of frogs as we turned into the street where Anna grew up. With their 2-meter wingspans, these ain’t pigeons, and the stork shit caked the roof like a jumbo pot of yoghurt. Anna studied the mess with approval, as if reading her fortune from the muddy dregs at the bottom of a coffee cup. “Kâsmet, kâsmet. It’s good luck,” she concluded. “It’s a sign. It’s going to be a great holiday.”
She was right. Banya’s swimming pools, quince rakiya and long mountain hikes were exactly the detox that a frazzled news editor needed. I was determined to discard my journalistic hat over July, and tune out as soon as anyone mentioned the news. Even though I would be in the country during an election that was meant to spell the end of Boyko Borissov’s more-than-decade-long dominance of Bulgarian politics, I was not going to let “Boko the pumpkin head” — as he is nicknamed — foil my pursuit of Balkan Zen.
I will never downplay the importance of Bulgarian politics, I just naively thought I could ignore it for a while. In fact, there are high-stakes questions weighing on the nation. Is Slavi Trifonov, the showman who won the July 11 election, serious about flushing out the Augean stables of corruption and fixing a rule-of-law crisis that erupted in massive street protests last summer? Why are Bulgarians such bloody-minded conspiracy theorists on the coronavirus vaccine? I’ll admit these are vital topics but, on my holiday, I’d vowed to be thoroughly selfish and treat Bulgaria as a Never Never Land, where I could go off in search of golden eagles and Thracian hillforts and refuse to have anything to do with the grubby circus of vote-buying and the EU’s lowest vaccination rates.
As you will see, my ostrich strategy did not work out, but I did come close to my goal of disconnecting for days on end. That was thanks to Bulgaria’s mountains. Banya, a terracotta-roofed village of 3,000 people, nestles in its own hot, dry microclimate between three ranges: Pirin, Rila and the Rhodope. On the twisting tracks up to the granite peaks and lakes, no one could trouble us with news of coalition talks and COVID theories. Many days, we would encounter only the occasional wild strawberry picker as we followed tumbling rivers through conifer forests thick with the scent of resin and thyme. I’d done it. I’d escaped.
Tortoises and saints
Home to brown bears and chamois, this corner of Bulgaria is one of the last European wildernesses, and nothing matches the magic of sudden encounters with creatures that you would normally only see in books or on TV. My highlights on this trip were a pair of hoopoes and a venerable Hermann’s tortoise, who shambled out onto a mountain path. I developed an immediate fraternal affinity with the tortoise after counting his shell rings and calculating we were both 42 years old. Alas, a subsequent Google search revealed this was a totally unscientific way of aging a tortoise, and he could equally have been a sprightly 80-year-old.
Of course, this prescription of wildlife as an antidote to stress does depend on who’s lurking round the next corner, and what mood she’s in.
The hot-button regional political issue of my first few days in Bulgaria involved a bear, who gravely mauled a woman out mushrooming at dawn near Belitsa, a town neighboring Banya. The attack made the national news, triggering a surprisingly energetic backlash against suggestions that the bear should be shot. An environmental lawyer collected 50,000 signatures in a petition to prevent the authorities from issuing a hunting license to a marksman, and large graffiti proclaiming “Bear Lives Matter” was spray-painted on a bridge between Banya and Belitsa.
The story generated more local excitement than the election and my family in Banya and Belitsa, who don’t generally share my soppy English sentimentality about wild beasts, were roundly pro-bear in this debate. The last I heard, the bear shuffled off to the higher ridges, oblivious to all the fuss she’d caused.
I am always highly superstitious, habitually greeting magpies and never opening umbrellas indoors, but there’s an aura to the Bulgarian mountains that pushes me to the next level. Hiking at altitude, I am unable to pass any mountain chapel along the trail without lighting a candle before the icons to protect my family. Not exactly grateful, our nine-year-old son, Kaloyan, complained these time-wasting mystical detours were a sure sign dad had finally cracked.
In more practical terms, I also hadn’t done my homework on which saint covers what. On stepping into one riverside sanctuary, I was immediately attracted to a gilded icon of Saint Antipas. As with the tortoise, we bonded instantly. With his pronounced frontal lobe and wispy white beard, I identified Antipas as a sage who could surely help me resolve the eternal mysteries. Only later did I learn he dealt primarily with toothaches.
Heart of Old Europe
The problem is you can’t linger in the mountains communing with tortoises and saints forever. At some stage, you have to come back to the village, and I’d been dreaming to think I could evade all the latest gossip, local and national. Sure, the villagers are garrulous but I’m also very nosy, so my hermit fantasy never stood a chance. Did I not know that election winner Trifonov, who’d just beaten Borissov, was now dying? Hadn’t I heard that hotels were buying up all the milk from Banya’s cows down by the cemetery and leaving none for the village? Bastards. Hadn’t I seen there would have to be a new election in the autumn? Or maybe not. And Boris’ water pump just blew up, and he can’t irrigate the beans, and that woman — you know the one — well, she had to flee through the woods wearing only a plastic sheet after her husband caught her in the act. You get the picture. You just can’t opt out of the news cycle. Banya doesn’t do Zen.
My favorite scandal of the summer involved a grandmother who, suffering from a persistent cough, wolfed down all 10 jars of pine-cone honey that her son and daughter-in-law made last year. (Definitely an urgent case for Saint Antipas!) The honey-makers were apoplectic that their stocks had been devoured, and granny was mortified by the gravity of her crime, to the point of threatening to die of shame. I initially took the whole family feud over honey to be touchingly comic, but my mother-in-law Maria regarded this as a biggie, way more serious than adulterers streaking through the forest. Things were pretty tense for several days. Then, just like that, peace was restored. Things flare up suddenly here, but blow over equally quickly.
Before I finally admit total failure and we have to plunge headlong into what rural Bulgaria makes of Borissov, Trifonov and vaccines, the village itself probably needs a more formal introduction. Its original name of Guliina Banya denotes that it was built around a) sulfurous hot springs and b) red kohlrabi plantations. The kohlrabies are no longer a big selling point, but the hot pools have turned it into a popular spa resort that runs some risk of overdevelopment.
Owing to COVID, the normal summer rush of Macedonians and Ukrainians didn’t come, but there were still plenty of invalids from Sofia and Plovdiv to clog the pools like water buffalos, seeking a cure to their lumbago and throbbing piles. For our son, it’s a paradise of swimming, ice creams and equally trigger-happy cousins who roam the streets with (plastic!) Kalashnikovs.
Anna is always keen to point out that Banya has been a center of civilization for more than 3,000 years, while my pasty ancestors in Britain were, as she puts it, “still swinging in trees.” Annoyingly, there is recent archaeological evidence to support her on this. An excavation found the locals had a roaring trade with the Greeks of the Trojan War period, even exporting the boars’ tusks that were laced together into the distinctive helmets of Homer’s heroes like Odysseus. So don’t do a Donald Rumsfeld and suggest that “Old Europe” is in France and Germany, with “New Europe” to the East. Old Europe is right here.
Indeed, the village often still ticks along to an ancient and grueling rhythm. Very, very few people are living an easy life like me, the spoiled tourist. The white-headscarved Muslim Pomak women in their floral dresses scrub carpets at the hot springs, and bare-chested Roma men load up unstable horsecarts with tottering towers of hay in the shimmering heat.
Often trying to scrape by on pensions as low as €150 per month, the villagers toil hard in their gardens just to have decent food stocks. They rise before dawn to pick their peppers and green beans, and doze off to Turkish soap operas when the dead mid-afternoon heat weighs like an anvil. You often smell woodsmoke as the older generations use the summer to boil up fruit compotes for the winter in blackened copper cauldrons. Obsessed by their vegetables, everyone fantasizes about rain, but superstitiously swears the downpour will never come, even when a storm is crackling overhead. In a legacy of Ottoman rule (which only ended here in 1912, later than most of Bulgaria), this mainly Christian village greets the final opening of the heavens with a relieved “mashallah.”
So — I finally admit it — it was futile to attempt to hide in my bubble and pretend the election just wasn’t happening. Bulgaria has reached a crucial inflection point. There’s broad unease that something turned very ugly under the rule of former Prime Minister Borissov and his GERB party. The sense that a red line had been crossed came with a spate of chilling revelations in the past year or so about how powerful oligarchs weaponized the judiciary and security services to serve their own interests and shook down rivals with threats of violence. It’s no exaggeration to call Bulgaria a captured state, and people hit the streets in outrage in big numbers last summer.
Chat show host and singer Trifonov was a peculiar beneficiary of that wave of public fury, as he had been conspicuously silent on the corruption crisis at the time. His subsequent promises of a clean broom won him the July 11 election, but without enough votes for a governing majority.
This meant the political soundtrack to my holiday was Trifonov’s messy attempt to build a coalition that could tackle the mafia state and haul the nation into the post-Borissov era. He’s still trying. Trifonov is not after the premiership himself and has nominated Plamen Nikolov, a virtually unknown businessman working for a swimming kit company, as prime minister. It should become clear in the coming days whether a Nikolov-led government can be formed or whether Bulgaria’s political deadlock will splutter on into the autumn, and even on to another election.
Every house I went into, the TV would be on, and somebody would be lambasting whichever hapless politician was pontificating on the screen about what kind of government Trifonov should cobble together.
Bulgarian has a rich vocabulary for identifying subtly different grades of moron and almost everyone in public life would be dismissed as a glupak, prostak, tâpak or kreten. It’s hard to imagine another country where politicians are held in quite such Hadean depths of contempt. When Trifonov, who should have had more terrestrial goals after winning the election, stated his priority was to send more Bulgarians into space, along with a Macedonian, the proposal went down like a lead balloon. Our Uncle Vanche from Belitsa (scene of the bear attack) retorted he’d rather lock all the politicians on board the rocket and blow it up like a firework. “Everyone would cheer then,” he quipped. Tongue-in-cheek headlines suggested that Bulgaria now wanted Macedonians in space but not in the EU — a reference to Sofia’s recent opposition to Skopje’s EU accession talks. (To be fair, Trifonov’s nominee for prime minister, Nikolov, has subsequently sounded supportive on North Macedonia’s EU ambitions, not just a joint moon mission.)
Despite the hunger for political change, there is still palpable suspicion about Trifonov, and whether nefarious puppet-masters are driving his agenda. Bulgarians are too scarred by experience to hold out much hope of a white knight, and the 2-meter-tall entertainer is certainly divisive. One of my immediate family, who has run into some of the more menacing aspects of the mafia state, voted for him as the only guy with the momentum to break the status quo and end Borissov’s cronyism. By contrast, Anna is a skeptic on Trifonov and sees him as a vulgar egoist, not dissimilar from Borissov, and grumbles the pop star has cheerily paraded his underworld friendships, like a Balkan Frank Sinatra.
The Number One controversy over the past week has been that the slippery and enigmatic Trifonov has had to face down accusations that he has warmer ties to Bulgaria’s highly controversial ethnic Turkish party than he should do. Any association with the widely distrusted Movement for Rights and Freedoms (MRF) would prove toxic because it is the party of the country’s two most contentious behind-the-scenes powerbrokers: Ahmed Dogan and Delyan Peevski.
The protesters who packed the streets in major anti-mafia demonstrations last year specifically attacked Dogan and Peevski as the key oligarchs at the heart of Bulgaria’s rule-of-law crisis, and argued Borissov was shielding them.
Hristo Ivanov, leader of the anti-corruption Yes Bulgaria party, has had testy exchanges with Trifonov over ties to the MRF, and has said that it is clearly an “uncomfortable” topic for the TV star. More vicious opponents of Trifonov argued his ministers would simply be “janissaries” — a historical reference to the Bulgarian boys snatched by the Turks to be molded into élite Ottoman administrators.
If that weren’t all bad enough for the election victor, I heard weeks of continual speculation that the increasingly gaunt and sallow-skinned crooner is seriously ill. Everyone has a different theory of what’s wrong with him. In relation to both the Turks and Trifonov’s health, his party is firing back, but not yet with the two barrels required to fully allay concerns. Trifonov’s spokesman insisted he was not seeking MRF support for his government, and the man himself then took to Facebook after a hospital check-up to quote Mark Twain that reports of his death were “greatly exaggerated.”
All politics is local
Trifonov was not, however, the dominant topic of political conversation in our mountainous, southern corner of the country. At least in our family, sometimes over dinner under the corrugated iron porch roof, there were far broader discussions about whether it would ever be possible to make a fresh start in Bulgarian politics. And a lot of that all boiled down to the all-important countryside, where the old parties are still deeply entrenched through mayors and municipal administrations. It was in these discussions that I got some of my most eye-popping insights into how the country’s politics really operates, at its most venal. While outside analysts gaze down from 30,000 feet to analyze Sofia’s position on Russia, pipelines and NATO, these sort of topics don’t drive the more primal political equation. Out in the rural constituencies, the game hinges on sprawling patronage networks that tie in huge numbers of people.
Let’s give you one example of the way the game works at municipal level. I’ve changed all the names, but this is a real case from the region. Let’s say Mrs. Petrova works as a fairly senior official in the forestry department in her little town. Equally, she could work in a hospital, or the town hall or a library. If she works anywhere in the public administration, there is every danger that she can be persuaded that her job, or promotion, depends on Mr. Ivanov staying on as mayor. If Mr. Ivanov doesn’t win, she could be out, or so she’s told. So Mr. Ivanov’s people make sure that Mrs. Petrova warns everyone in her department that their fortunes are somehow tied to him. Some money can magically appear. (Yes, Dutch voters, that is where your EU funds go.) Mrs. Petrova is encouraged to give this to people of influence in the neighborhood. Old Kossyo in the pensioners’ club is a perfect candidate. Everyone listens to him over coffee. Give him some of the dough, and he can spread the little sweeteners around too and ensure the oldies vote for Mr. Ivanov.
It’s important to stress that such stories aren’t just about the long reach of Borissov’s GERB, which proclaims a “zero tolerance” approach to corruption. Far from it. This is the rural control mechanism of all the traditional parties. The Turkish party will give you meatballs, and the Socialists have long had a dismal record on corruption. What it means, though, is that people feel beholden, trapped and nervous. Even Roma women with menial jobs as cleaners can be persuaded that their fortunes are tied to a particular political party staying in the mayor’s office.
The big argument — and it gets heated — is to what extent Mrs. Petrova really has to worry. Is her job actually at risk? Is this just emotional blackmail, or will the parties snoop around to find who really voted for them? Did Old Kossyo in the pensioners’ club just pocket the cash and tell people to vote for whoever they damn well like? Is everyone lying about who they really voted for?
The fact that people aren’t wholly confident about the answers to these questions shows that root-and-branch change will be very hard to enact through the Bulgarian countryside. I found members of our extended family near Banya were sticking with GERB precisely because they felt their own jobs were tied to the ubiquitous patronage webs.
People are also quite capable of disliking Borissov and GERB as a national government but loving their own GERB mayor, who’s built a nice park and attracted investment. To the party’s critics, GERB is behaving just like the nepotistic mobsters that the Communists were. Trifonov and the new anti-corruption parties might well be able to rise to the top at a national level, but it will be far harder to dislodge the corrupt traditional parties — and their political culture — from the more tribal rural municipalities.
Corona crisis? What corona crisis?
Perhaps the biggest single shock of the entire trip was that coronavirus wasn’t seen as such a big deal. A few days into my holiday, I often forgot about the pandemic. COVID-19 just wasn’t a thing. Masks were extremely rare. People shook hands and hugged. They packed around poolside bar tables, bare shoulder to bare shoulder, despite a feeble vaccination rate of under 20 percent of adults.
It’s not as if the virus hasn’t hit the region hard. Many people have died, and others, including Anna’s aunts and cousins, got the disease excruciatingly badly. At one tragic moment last year, Anna’s terrified mother even told us where she was hiding some cash, just in case we needed it to meet the costs of her funeral, and my father-in-law’s. On my first night in Banya this year, an elderly neighbor suffering from long COVID died.
This all begs tough questions about why Bulgarians are European champions in not taking up the vaccine. In a country with such a fragile and often horrifying-looking hospital system, you would think people would be doubly keen to be jabbed. But not a bit of it. When asked about their reticence, people tended to be at their most furtive and evasive, bashful about their belief in the conspiracy theories: Well, I don’t know, maybe I’ll get it done in the autumn. You know, a couple of rakiya shots are the Bulgarian vaccine, ha, ha, ha.
Online conspiracy theories have a lot to answer for. When really pushed, people admit they fear the vaccine will screw them up, in some unspecified way or other. The best conspiracy theory I’ve heard is that, if vaccinated, you’ll be able to stick a 50-stotinki coin to your upper bicep thanks to the magnetic field produced by the microchip planted in your arm.
There’s long been a generous approach to explaining why Bulgarians need to be cut some slack on their profound mistrust of the authorities. They have sure had a brutal ride. There were 500 years of the Turks, who burned Banya down, and there were the Communists, who were thugs too. Go right back to the Byzantines and they viciously persecuted the Bulgarian Bogomil heretics. The Bulgarians’ lesson from history is: Don’t trust advice from those in charge; they just aren’t on your side.
Blame the grannies
But I am going to take a more radical view on why Bulgarians are so off track with their disastrous approach to contagious disease, and blame grannies. I can hear the gasp of horror already. Bulgarian grannies — the babi — are almost sacred figures. Everyone loves them, but I am afraid the nation must face up to the bitter reality that they can be a lethal menace.
Our son agrees with me on the babi. For him, the problem with grannies is that they are the sinister informant network of the village, sitting on their benches outside every other house, tracking all activity. One recently deceased baba — one of the charming ones, alas — used to patrol the village with an empty bucket, pretending to be going to collect water, but actually simply spying through fences.
As far as Kaloyan is concerned, they are just the sort of traitors who have held Bulgaria back through its history, betraying patriots to the Ottomans. In his case, two grannies both called Baba Mara, who share the same observation bench, informed Anna’s mum that he’d been climbing the roof of the house. Big trouble ensued. The two Baba Maras weren’t worried about Kaloyan’s safety, they just relish snitching. Amusingly, those two informant grannies became the focus of the snooping themselves a few days after grassing up my son. Usually a lethal double act, they fell out. Baba Mara One suddenly turned all the heads in the street by bawling at Baba Mara Two: “You come here and I’ll give you two slaps, if you lie like that.” I loved the specificity of the two slaps. Once again, the scandal blew over quickly and the two of them were soon side-by-side again on the bench, double-teaming it on all the comings and goings.
OK, you say, they might be a nuisance, but they’re hardly a risk to public health. Wrong! Bulgarians are continually misled into some of the craziest notions of how disease is spread — and when to take antibiotics — and much of the disinformation is based on friendly advice from those lovable babi, who have no sense of the difference between viral and bacterial infection. Grannies will insist diarrhea comes from being out in the heat, and meningitis from draughts. Babi are consulted as fonts of wisdom on health issues and they haven’t got a clue about epidemiology.
The most worrying factor is antibiotics. To a Bulgarian granny, antibiotics are the answer to everything. Got a bit of a headache? Chow down some antibiotics. Even a tingle of something you can’t quite identify? Antibiotics! Coronavirus? Don’t listen to that nonsense about a vaccine, just take some super-strong antibiotics. As a prophylactic. And one or two will do, you don’t need to complete the course; they are just like aspirin.
These adorable pensioners are actually octogenarian drug dealers, who have created illegal supply networks, working with pliable doctors and pharmacies, or going round them. They swap pills with each other while having no idea what they are. They could be past their sell-by dates, or people could be knocking back Greek horse tranquilizers for all they know. It doesn’t matter, the pills hit the spot. Any plea that this is incredibly dangerous, and that overuse of antibiotics is accelerating the moment when the drugs will stop working for mankind, falls on deaf ears.
I don’t want to end a light summer feature on an unduly bleak note, but when antimicrobial resistance prevails and humanity is wiped out, you know who to blame.