My Bulgarian Piano Teacher’s Eastern Identity

My mom thinks that my first piano teacher was picked for me because his name was Slavic. The administrative staff at my conservatory thought that we would have a natural rapport. Somehow, though we’d be speaking English, the fact that our families’ mother tongues were mutually intelligible would not only aid our own communication, but help me rise to the ranks of his favorite students. Obviously.

My memory of my first lesson is a little fuzzy, but I do remember the first exchange we had with my teacher. My mom and I walked into the dimly-lit, circuitous bowels of the conservatory where I studied and found my room. A scared-looking preteen scurried out as soon as the door opened, leaving my teacher, dressed entirely in black, with a scruffy head of similarly dark hair, framed by the door.

We all introduced ourselves and shook hands. Of course, after saying “nice to meet you,” the next sentence out of my mom’s mouth was “So, where are you from? We’re Polish.”

Dr. K (as his students called him, since his two-syllable name with an unfamiliar consonant cluster clearly required too much effort for the untrained American tongue) looked unimpressed, and told us he was from Bulgaria. Then my first lesson began.

Our inauspicious beginning wasn’t a fluke. Since I wasn’t the most committed student and Dr. K hadn’t lost his communist-style relationship to music and its performance, our efforts never really jived. After lessons, I would laugh with my mom about how he sometimes suddenly exclaimed “Heeere eet eez!” after my tenth repetition of a difficult passage. Or about how he needed to clip his nose hairs.

Given that I’ve ended up a total Slavophile, sometimes I wonder what went wrong with me and Dr. K. Less than 10 years after Bulgaria became an independent, seemingly-democratic country, was he offended to be continually lumped in with other post-Communist countries like Poland by uninformed but well-intentioned westerners like me and my mom? I would wager that he got asked by at least a few of our compatriots if he had seen Dracula, even though everyone’s favorite vampire is from Romania (and, needless to say, fictional). If I saw Dr. K today, what would he think about the interest I’ve developed in “his” region over the past 14 years? Would we speak Russian and Bulgarian and get along, or would I offend him by even suggesting such a thing?

Neither outcome is totally unlikely. Former bloc members still struggle to define their membership in their own continent, thanks to the labels the West constantly slaps on them. Hungarian author Peter Esterhazy aptly described the Eastern Europe’s 20th Century identity crisis:

“Once, I was an Eastern European; then I was promoted to the rank of Central European. Those were great times…there were European dreams, visions, and images of the future…Then a few months ago, I became a new European. But before I had a chance to get used to this status – before I could even refuse it – I became a non-core European.”*

Bulgaria is often referred to as one of the EU’s “problem children.” Experts say that it was admitted too early, that not enough reforms had been implemented before accession, that its economy drags the EU further into recession. By many accounts, it is because of Bulgaria and Romania that the EU is experiencing such strong enlargement fatigue. And it’s understandable, really. Any moderately wealthy, “old” European country must look at a chart of GDP per capita in the EU and cringe:

eurostatbulgariaGDP
Bulgaria’s GDP as compared to other EU countries. Via Eurostat.

Sadly, Bulgaria’s problems are not contained to the economic sphere. In March, the country was engulfed in nationwide protests against monopolies of the energy sector.  In late April, the country was gripped by an illegal wiretap scandal that reeked of the work of communist-era security services. Today, the country faces widespread voter disillusionment as its parliamentary elections approach with no clear majority in sight. Though it may seem that a political plague has struck Bulgaria, it’s not alone; most post-communist countries have seen a major decline in voter turnout since independence. It’s one more thing we can use to label this part of Europe “Eastern.”

I think of Dr. K every time I pour myself a drink; our glasses are from IKEA and were made in Bulgaria. I wonder if Bulgaria’s 2007 EU accession has changed his defensiveness about his identity, or if, like his government and the rest post-communist Europe, he is struggling to define exactly what it means to be both European and Eastern.

—–
*(Quoted in “Naming Europe with the East” by Pekka Korhonen, in The East and the Idea of Europe, eds. Katalin Miklossy and Korhonen (Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2010), p. 20.)

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