Sometimes remnants of animosity between the two nations float across the bridge between them, but the need for fresh thinking is always relevant
The existentialists of the mid-twentieth century were fond of saying that man is “thrown” into existence and inhabits an absurd world in which he can create meaning through his free will and choice. As the author of the blog “The Bridge of Friendship”, one of my thrownnesses is that I am crucified between the world of Bulgarian and Romanian existence. I have access to both cultural spaces, I speak both languages, I am active in both countries.
This gives me access to knowledge that is unique in a sense. I see how Bulgarians and Romanians have historically developed negative stereotypes, dislike or indifference, which are somewhat mysterious and inexplicable from today’s point of view, when the two countries are together in NATO, the EU and have many common problems. Standing on both sides of the imaginary border, I can’t help but be struck by how similar the two nations are, including in the degree of “creativity” with which they rhetorically humiliate their neighbours. Are these, after all, one and the same people who treat the other as an oppressed aspect of their own selves? I’ll share a few stories and leave it to you to ponder.
The theft of Romanian/Bulgarian cars
The occasion for this article was a conversation I had in Ruse with one of the local intellectuals. The topic was the relations between Bulgarians and Romanians. I also shared that, in my view, Bulgaria as a country has not done anything substantial and conscious to change the negative stereotypes about Bulgarians that Romanians have developed during socialism and the transition (1990s). My example was the case of the theft of Romanian cars in Bulgaria.
In Romania it was believed for years that Romanian cars were stolen in Bulgaria on purpose. I remember how some Romanians avoided coming to the Bulgarian Black Sea coast for years because they were afraid they would have to leave without a car. This insecurity had rubbed off on me as well at some point when I had guests from Bucharest in Ruse. To find out what the facts were, in 2018 I requested information from the Bulgarian and Romanian Interior Ministry, added Eurostat data and told personal stories. The article can be read here in Romanian and here in Bulgarian. To my knowledge, it is one of a kind even today.
The reason for my current text is actually the reaction of my intellectual acquaintance from Ruse. She shared how, perhaps 15-20 years ago, an acquaintance of hers advised a relative to drive as fast as possible through Romania on his way to Western Europe and, under no circumstances, to stay overnight there because his car would be stolen. Her relative followed the advice. He drove quickly through Romania, not stopping on the way there or on the way back. He arrived at the Danube Bridge on the Bulgarian side and called his girlfriend from a phone booth to say that everything was fine – he had passed through Romania without any problems. When he returned to his car, he was gone. Someone had stolen it.
“Bulgarians/Romanians… well, they have no history!”
The other story is also from recently. One of the blog’s regular readers commented on a March 21, 2022 post containing a review by the famous Bulgarian literary scholar Milena Kirova of Gabriela Adameșteanu’s novel Fontana di Trevi, saying, among other things:
“Unfortunately (in Romania) there are political decision makers who are less interested (in relations with Bulgarians) – these decision makers neither have much culture nor know history very well. I told someone in 2018 about my beautiful impressions from a trip to Bulgaria about how Bulgarians respect a holy past. Do you know what they replied to me? “Ha, ha, well Bulgarians don’t have any history”.
I have to try telling this to an acquaintance of mine with a degree from a university in England, who at one point got tired of hearing me talk about Romania and sarcastically suggested, “Why don’t you ask them to tell you about their medieval history? I want to know more about it.”
“Bulgarian/Romanian is not a nation, but a profession”
Based on several different sources – for example, the book of Zhivkov’s and Ceausescu’s translator about the two leaders’ meetings, and my own conversations with Bulgarians and Romanians, I get the impression that Bismarck once claimed, and that this was a popular phrase among Bulgarians in socialist times, that “Romanian is not a nation, but a profession.” Interestingly, however, I have come across the same phrase in relation to Bulgarians formulated by Romanians online.
There are actually more stories – the mirror works in a different way and sometimes the stigma that one imposes on the other has a different content. It is as if Romania continues to find in Bulgaria a little Russia, despite the fact that we have been together in NATO and the EU for more than 15 years. There seems to be an opinion in Romania that to have sympathy for Russia is to be “stupid”. In Bulgaria, various people associate Romanians in some way with gypsies, which again is a stigma and again prevents one from seeing the value in neighbours. In both countries there is a sensitivity to the nationalism of the neighbours and the idea that the neighbours are big nationalists. And so on and so forth.
One of my hypotheses is that both countries have, to some extent, an old mindset that makes them see themselves as an island surrounded by enemies and, accordingly, leads them to seek interaction not with their neighbors but with their neighbors’ neighbors. This is why nations treat each other with clichés that block the emergence of new interactions, so that neighbors evolve into some degree of interaction.
These negative stereotypes, among other things, somehow fix the notion of the other and the self – preventing evolution from occurring within them. And perhaps the underlying idea is that there are some eternal Bulgarians and Romanians who eternally possess the same qualities or deficits. This, of course, is not true. It is much more interesting to make an effort and trace how the neighbors evolve, to see the other side as containing contradictions and moving in some direction. Of course, that requires an effort.
By getting to know the neighbors, we can see ourselves in a new way. After all, the point of international relations should not be simply to expand our egos into new territories. Identity is a dynamic thing. Opening up to neighbours, engaging with them, it is inevitable that we will go through transformations. And this is where the question of whether Bulgarians and Romanians have something to offer each other in terms of change is interesting.
As the editor of this blog since September 2015, the answer is obvious to me. Bulgarians and Romanians have resources to offer each other dynamics that they could not have while staying only within their national borders. They can offer each other both the opportunity to be in a larger part of the West and to be more understanding and aware in their relations with the East.
Of course, in this process of communication and getting to know each other, there is mistrust and inhibitions. The region in which we find ourselves is marked by trauma, by backroom deals, by lobby games. But even under these conditions, Bulgarian-Romanian relations can offer experience and a compass so that we can navigate together in an increasingly complex world. If we do not follow this path, we will simply never develop the skills to be more than members of our own taifa and tribe.
And it is namely the mirror story of Bulgarians and Romanians that could be suggestive, that we have the tools and the means to understand the neighbour, because he is a way an in-version of what we are. By knowing the other, we inevitably will now ourselves too.
So let’s look in the mirror. Let’s endure the gaze coming from it. And let’s build our bridge of friendship!
Photo: Could we navigate the mirror land togather (source: YouTube)
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