Wednesday, 22 December 2021

It's Christmas



First of all, apologies that this isn’t a directly personal letter. I had good intentions, but then there were booster jabs to be sorted, applications to get our Bulgarian residency permits changed in line with the new post-Brexit regulations before the 31 December deadline, Sarra’s extraordinary Birds.ofthegarden art project, day-to-day work stuff and so on and so on. And now it’s a few days before Christmas and there’s the usual pile-up of things to get done before the holidays and so …


Like many people, we’ve spent most of 2021 adjusting to the various adjustments that we’re all having to deal with. And then adjusting again when the adjustments get adjusted. The situation in Bulgaria has been relatively calm - despite the scary reports in the autumn that it was the ‘sick man of Europe’ with the highest Covid mortality rates - and people are now finally getting themselves vaccinated: I think we’re up to 50% of the population for a first jab, which isn’t great, but it’s better than it was. Bulgaria also now has a government, which will probably help. There have been three general elections this year, the first two of which didn’t deliver a viable coalition. Now we have the so-called ‘Harvard boys’ - under the banner of a brand new party called We Continue the Change - who have vowed to defeat the endemic corruption that’s blighted Bulgaria ever since the so-say transition from communism to capitalism began back in 1989. “Good luck with that” is probably the most reasonable response - especially as they’ve had to form a coalition with the Bulgarian Socialist Party, whose record on corruption isn’t exactly pristine. Still, on the day the new PM went to the Presidential Palace to sign on the dotted line we saw him twice on the streets of Sofia - once waiting at the pedestrian crossing at the junction of Rakovski and Tsar Osvoboditel and again outside the Palace surrounded by reporters (in four years of living here we hadn’t seen the previous incumbent Boyko Borisov in person so much as once). No limos and security guards with flak jackets and pistols for the new guy - well, not just yet anyway.


Despite recurrent lockdowns, it’s not been a year without things actually happening. Poems and translations have seen the light of day in various journals; I put out another free online pamphlet of poems in the summer; and the book of critical essays I edited, Peter Robinson: A Portrait of his Work, was published alongside his own book of essays A Personal Art, by Shearsman in the autumn. As some of you might know, the book of critical essays has been several years in the making so it’s been especially pleasing to see it in print (albeit only held up to a laptop camera by Sam during a Zoom call). In other book-related news, the translations of the Bulgarian modernist Geo Milev that I began producing as my first ‘lockdown challenge’ last year have also appeared in various guises - after Raceme in Bristol published a sizeable sample last year, The High Window followed suit with what are arguably Milev’s most famous works, The Icons are Sleeping and September, while the Elizabeth Kostova Foundation - which promotes Bulgarian literature in translation - invited me and my translation buddies from Sofia University, Angel Igov and Bozhil Hristov, to stage a webinar about the project which received some very positive comments from the ‘big names’ in attendance (whose presence was thankfully unknown to us at the time as it would have cranked up the anxiety level!) The upshot of it all being that, this time next year, a selected Milev - poems, prose poems and some critical texts - will be published by Worple Press in the UK - the first major publication in English of work by a writer who’s a key figure in both Bulgarian and European modernism in general.


Sarra too has been busy. Although Artist Tree Sofia dissolved as a public art project/space last year, we’ve kept the studio on for Sarra to work in - at least when it’s not perishingly cold. Over the summer, she also came up with the idea for Birds.ofthegarden which came to fruition in the autumn when, early one October morning, you might have spied us wandering through Borisova Garden, leaving her small hand-crafted clay birds under benches, on tree stumps and in the clefts of branches. Each one has an Instagram link attached - the idea being that anyone who finds a bird can take it home, give it a name and post a photo of it in its new home. To date, we’ve ‘landed’ some 90-odd birds in five parks and gardens in Sofia - Borisova was followed by Zaimov Park and we’ve just completed three special Christmas ‘editions’ in City Gardens, Crystal Garden and the garden of the Church of the Seven Martyrs. Not everyone who’s found a bird has posted a photo, but the project’s obviously proving popular and there are some regular ‘fans’ who have become quite obsessive about tracking the birds down. Bulgarian National Radio broadcast a short interview with Sarra only the other day and she’s now preparing an even larger flock to be distributed around South Park for 1st March - i.e. Baba Marta, the day we all adorn each other with red and white bracelets in order to cheer up Grandma March and ensure that the weather behaves itself in the first month of spring. Do go and have a look on Instagram and Facebook.


Needless to say, various days jobs have accounted for much of my time: writing articles about contactless technology (I am now something of an authority on China’s experiments with digital currency), teaching a couple of Bulgarian businessmen English (or rather listening to them speaking English fluently and occasionally correcting minor mistakes) and running various online creative writing courses for Sofia University. Indeed, this year has seen the creative writing ‘department’ (i.e. me) expanding its activities so that I now have a first-year course as well as a fourth-year course and an MA module - which was run in partnership with the University of Bokhara in Uzbekistan last year and I’m hoping will be again as it means I have a real mix of Bulgarian-, Chinese-, Russian- and Uzbek-speaking students, each of them drawing on different cultural traditions, even though for my course they write in English. It also means that I’m sent homework assignments that begin ‘I was sitting on the train to Samarkand …’


Our own travel ventures have, of course, been somewhat restricted, although we did manage to get to the Black Sea over the summer, following a tried and trusted route from Sozopol in the south and then northwards via Nesebar and Varna to Balchik and then a night in Veliko Tarnovo on the way home. When she wasn’t on a train or bus, Sarra spent most of the time in the sea, while I reclined on a lounger with Henry James and Cervantes for company (yep, four years into ‘Don Quixote’, I’ve still only reached the early chapters of the second part). Beachside cocktail bars also seemed to figure quite prominently and there was a particularly splendid moment when we were sitting on the terrace of one such bar in Varna and realised that what we were looking at were sea otters frolicking in the sea.


The news from the UK-wing of the family is a little mixed: both my aunt and Sarra’s mum have dementia and my aunt’s has now reached the point where she’s had to move into a care home. Our dog Odie finally shuffled off this mortal coil too, having succumbed to an almost impossible to imagine range of chronic health conditions, but then, he was also a rescue dog from the RSPCA home and had been on ‘death row’ there when we took him on because nobody else wanted him, so he had ten years of life with us that he wouldn’t have otherwise have. Sam, meanwhile, has gone back to university and is currently studying for an MA at thee University of Bristol and Lydia is teaching - although the film she was in with Judi Dench and Eddie Izzard did finally surface earlier in the year and we were able to watch it twice on Bulgarian TV (viewings mostly punctuated with yelps of ‘That’s Lydia! There she is!’)


Otherwise there has been quite a lot of reading going on and my ongoing jaunt through Bulgarian literature’s taken me through Zarev’s blood huge trilogy ‘The Tree of Life’ (a sort of ‘Downton Abbey’ set in Vidin), Blaga Dimitrova’s slightly disappointing ‘Journey to myself’ (disappointing after her absolutely wonderful ‘Avalanche’), Elin Pelin’s short stories, Kristin Dimitrova’s fine re-imagining of corrupt Bulgaria as a world populated by Greek mythological figures and, currently, Donchev’s ‘Time of Separation’, which I just know is going to culminate in a huge massacre of Bulgarians who refuse to convert to Islam in the 17th century. Reading in English has been a bit less dedicated, although reading a slew of F. Scott Fitzgerald short stories got me through the languid days of my first Astra Zeneca reaction and subsequent visits to the excellent multi-lingual secondhand bookshop on Gladstone, just behind the City Library, have yielded all sorts of gems, including Naipaul’s ‘A House for Mr Biswas’ and ‘A Bend in the River’, Henry Miller’s ‘The Colossus of Maroussi’ etc - most of which are currently lying around our flat, partially begun.


Despite the seemingly inevitable ups and downs, however, we’re generally fine and in no worse a position than we might have been had we not moved to Bulgaria. We obviously miss family and friends in the UK, but we have a wonderful circle of friends here and it only takes a brief hike up the hill from where we live to see the golden domes of Alexander Nevsky Cathedral and Vitosha mountain on the horizon to remind us why we came here in the first place. Chumerna Street (where we live) also remains an endlessly fascinating micro-environment and in the autumn my sequence of poems written on our balcony, ‘Kvartal’ (‘Neighbourhood’), was published in Bulgarian translation (by our great friend Kristin Dimitrova) in the ‘Literary Newspaper’ here as a sort of chronicle of life in this particular part of Sofia.


With luck, we’ll be visiting the UK towards the end of January - me for two weeks, Sarra for a month - and then perhaps things will open up a little in the spring, but who knows?


The most important thing in the meantime is that you have as good a Christmas and New Year as you can and that we stagger on into a 2022 which might be more forgiving than either 2020 or 2021.


Much love from both of us,

Tom & Sarra XXX