After seven years in Sofia I realise that totalitarian regimes must have engendered a unique kind of thinking – or rather non-thinking. I’m not referring to Bulgarians born post-communism. Such people are invariably friendly and intellectually curious, especially once you tell them you’re British.
Those over 50, on the other hand, don’t ask many questions. Their typical conversation is impersonal, indirect, fatalistic, unsentimental and unimaginative. It doesn’t embrace concepts, ideas or aspirations. That is not to say they are unintelligent or unspiritual. Merely that that part of the brain that deals with deeper philosophical questions has been beaten down, almost extinguished. Their talk is about practicalities and necessities – their electricity bill, where to get the cheapest butter or how, if ever, they can replace their old wooden, panel-frame windows.
Neither do they go in for pleasantries or the solicitousness you find in British polite circles. Social etiquette is not observed. They talk over each other, interrupt freely and are not especially attentive. They don’t ask questions and wouldn’t heed your answers anyway. It’s just stream of consciousness conversation, often anecdotal and not profound.
These kinds of regimes bred poverty in the material sense but also a poverty of thought. I can only speculate that people learnt to suppress analysis. Apathy is the biggest legacy of all this. Nothing will ever change for the better, so why bother? Proof of that is that turnout in the recent general election was 49 per cent, shockingly low, especially when you consider how unpopular the last government was.
What is missing in Bulgaria is the kind of intellectual, affluent middle-class (satirised in the UK as the chattering classes) who get together, bottles of Jacob’s Creek at the ready, and discuss the day’s ‘great issues’. In the UK these kinds of people are usually somewhat liberal/lefty. Right now they’re debating whether Dennis Skinner’s memoirs would look good on their shelves.
It’s a kind of faux idealism but that’s not my point here. They at least discuss the great issues of the day. When you visit they would expect to discuss everything from the welfare state, the ‘cruelty’ of Cameron’s cuts, and the perils of UKIP through to Ed Miliband’s performance and the state of British schools. If you merely talked about which supermarket had the cheapest sugar, they would feel betrayed. They would expect some analysis.
In Bulgaria such conversations are extremely rare, especially in the over 50s. it all comes down to money. Most Bulgarians are scandalously underpaid. There is no middle class as such. Poverty weighs them down. The young cast an envious eye to the West. The middle-aged are somewhat downcast. The old in Bulgaria (by which I mean anyone over 60) are the most tragic cases. They won’t agree to you buying them a coffee because they know they can never buy you one back. They haven’t bought new clothes in years. And they hardly ever travel, although the more affluent pensioners may just be able to afford a bus trip to Greece or Italy, staying somewhere cheap. You may say – well, many British pensioners are hard up. Yes, but in Bulgaria you never see a pensioner having a drink in a café or restaurant, let alone a meal, unless their children have paid for them.
Most Bulgarians are dirt poor, even doctors and university lecturers – the people who would make up the aforementioned dinner party in the UK. Certain people obviously do better: lawyers and, strangely, (cough) customs officers, for example, for whom a nice house, even a second car, is more normal. Sadly, if you see a rich person in Bulgaria, they are nearly always criminals.
Communism bred not just poverty but poverty of mind. The same kind of banal banter could be found in elderly Portuguese who lived under Salazar. (I cite Portugal because I lived there for five years). Also, too, that very strange phenomenon (the fear of freedom?) whereby the elderly in Portugal , just like they do in Bulgaria , look back to the Salazar/Zhivkov eras, respectively, with a kind of wistful nostalgia. They got used to not thinking too hard because the state thought for them. Or the state operated in such a way that individualism became a crime. Orwellian thought crime.