Lina Gergova: In Romania I got to know better the Bulgarianness

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Lina Gergova (photo: Lina Gergova)

An interview with the anthropologist from the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences about the Bulgarian places and communities in Romania, about the Bulgarian-Romanian relations and about the life in the northern neighbour

Vladimir Mitev

Doctor Lina Gergova works in the section “Anthropology of verbal traditions” of the Institute of Ethnology and Folklore Studies with Ethnographic Museum at the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences. She was born in Plovdiv in 1981. She has graduated from the University of Plovdiv with degrees in Ethnology, Bugarian Philology and Intercultural Communication. She has a Ph.D. from the former Institute of Folklore Studies in 2009 with a work on the subject of ”Ethnic Stereotypes in Everyday Culture”, which was published thanks to a grant in 2012 (Sofia, Publishing House Paradigma). 

She has specialised in Austria, Italy and Slovakia. Between 2010 and 2012 she worked at the Museum of Estonian Literature in Tartu, thanks to a scholarship from the programme “Marie Curie” – the most prestigious European programme for individual researchers. In 2013 she won the prize “Young scientist of the Academy of Bulgarian Sciences” in the domain of Cultural and Historical Heritage and National Identity. The researcher has taught courses in the universities of Plovdiv, Sofia and Kaunas (Lithuania). 

Starting from 2014 she lives in Romania. She continues to work on topics about the national character of the holidays in postsocalist Europe, the holidays in the traditional and contemporary calendar, the construction of national-cultural heritage abroad. Within these projects she made research in tens of places in Bulgaria, Austria, Slovakia, Estonia, Turkey, Greece, France, Great Britain, Ireland, the USA and Romania. 

She is the compiler of a few compilations (“Wellcome to Cyberia! Notes from the digital terrain”, “Bulgarian abroad, foreigners in Bulgaria: institutions, organisations, social life”, “The parents of Bulgarian ethnography”, “Folklore, storytelling, religiosity”, and others) and of the first volume of its kind of popular science “Cultural heritage in migration: good practices and problems”. Gergova is part of a collective of authors. She is the editor of the monography “Cultural heritage in migration: modes of consolidation and institutionalization of Bulgarian communities abroad” (Sofia, publishing house “Paradigma”, 2017). This volume is most thorough research on this issue, realised until now. She is the coauthor of the film “The puzzle: cultural heritage in migration” (2016). 

Gergova is one of the authors of the successful application for the registration of the Congregation of Koprivshtitsa in the World List of UNESCO for good practices in the preservation of intangible cultural heritage (2017). She is a member of the International Society of Ethnology and Folklore (SIEF). 

This interview was originally published in Romanian and Bulgarian on the blog “The Bridge of Friendship” on 31 May 2020.

Mrs. Gergova, you are a researcher of the Institute of Ethnology and Folklore Studies with Ethnographic Museum at the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences. On 8 May 2018 you presented before your colleagues in Sofia the places in Romania, which “attract the governmental and non-governmental, the group and individual, the patriotic and religious interests of Bulgarians”. To what extent do we, the Bulgarians, know our places of memory, related to Romania? What do we don’t know well about the historical connections between Bulgarians and Romanians, between Romania and Bulgarian history?

The seminar was dedicated to the places, related to Bulgarian history and to Bulgarianness in general, which exist on Romanian territory today. This is the first seminar of a series of similar events, dedicated to our cultural heritage beyond the state border of today’s Bulgaria. The next seminar will be about Thessaloniki. Then follow seminars about Italy, Czechia, Macedonia, Turkey, Serbia, and so on. The research, which we do with our team is not interested in the historical truth or in the material remains, but is rather interested in the practices, which construct certain places as part of our national-cultural heritage.

It seems to me that as a result of a tradition from the socialist times the historical conflicts between Bulgaria and Romania are ignored in the Bulgarian education. The same thing can be said about the conflicts with former Yugoslavia and partially with Greece. The places of memory from Turkey are put in the center of attention. At the same time very few things are known about the policies of the Romanian state in Dobruja in the interbelic period. 

It is not well known that in the XVII, XVIII and XIX centuries large groups of Bulgarian migrate in many waves in Vlahia and in the regions of former Habsburg Empire, which later become part of Austro-Hungary, and which are today part of Romania. The Banat Bulgarian are relatively known, but the horticulturists from Southern Romania and the migrants from the Danube areas, especially from  Svishtov and Silistra, who establish a lot of villages and even the town of Alexandria are not well known. I think that this is a big deficit in the education programme of Bulgarian high schools. High school education in Bulgaria is aimed at the construction of the notion that the Ottoman Empire is the big enemy, without taking into account the interactions with the other neighbours. 

My seminar didn’t discuss the issue of common history of Bulgaria and Vlahia in the late medieval times and after Bulgaria was conquered by the Ottoman Empire. It is a debate that unfolds mostly in the underground space of unofficial historiography, but has its effect on the cultural interactions between Bulgarians and Romanians today. A curious example are the tables, which are sold as souvenirs in the first Romanian school in Brashov, where “The Fish ABC book” of Petar Beron. They show the Romanian rulers in this order: Decebal, Traian, Asen and Petar (medieval kings of Bulgaria – note of the translator), Ionita (in Bulgairan – Kaloian, another medieval Bulgarian ruler), Radu I Basarab (or Radu Negru), and so on. The historical base exists, but in my view these maps doesn’t represent only a part of the mythologisation of the Dacic and Roman beginning of Romania and of the influence of the Bulgarian kings in the XII-XII century. They are also a result of their mythologisation processes. 

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Table with Romanian rulers, which is sold at the first Romanian school in Brashov (photo: Lina Gergova)

In general, I don’t think that the Bulgarian places in Romania are known in Bulgaria, even if there is a romantic notion about the so-called hashove (Bulgarian immigrants, who find refuge in Vlahia in the XIX century, as they organise and fight for Bulgaria’s liberation). But this is gradually changing, to a larger extent through media and through many tourist visits in the northern neighbour. But no excursion is advertised through the slogan: “Visit the places of Botev and Levski!”. They are promoted through the castles of Dracula, which is not correct towards our neighbour, who have so many more things, beside this imposed personality. There are also exceptions – travellings, organised by cultural associations, which are not aimed at the mass tourist and which deal with Bucharest, Braila, Galati, Turnu Magurele and other places, where there are monuments and commemorative notes about Botev, Levski, Karavelov, Rakovski and others. 

You have lived for four years in Bucharest together with your family. What impressions do you have about the communication between Romanians and Bulgarians? To what extent there is curiosity and reciprocal opening between our people? What hinders the bilateral contacts and what could stimulate them? You probably have your impressions and the point of view of an anthropologist – of an expert on the cultural practices and communities. How are Romanians presented in “the collective imaginary” of Bulgarians and how are Bulgarians presented in “the collective imaginary” of Romanians?

Romanians, in general, are very communicative and have a positive attitude towards strangers. I can say that I have never observed or been a victim of xenophobia – on the contrary. Romanians travel a lot and a large part of them has visited Bulgaria or has passed through it on the road to Greece or Turkey. It occured to me that they recite phrases, learned from our TV. For example “dragi zriteli” (dear spectators) is a well known phrase by the older generations in Romania, who watched in the times of Ceausescu the programmes of the Bulgairan TV.

So I can say that Romanians have more direct observations about us, than we, the Bulgarians have about them. Let us don’t forget that Bulgarians live or have lived in a lot of areas in Romania – and the big part of them are horticulturists. That is how there are some stereotypes that Bulgarian vegetables are the best. But this has also a negative meaning, because they are called “greengrocers”. “Greengrocers” was originally a neutral definition, but gradually as urbanisation and development took place, an opinion appeared that rural population is backward and this notion started having a pejorative nuance. This is not strictly a Romanian phenomenon.  

I would like to make a clarification immediately: when I mention Romanian stereotypes about Bulgarians, that doesn’t mean automatically that each Romanian thinks that about us, but that there are such notions in the collective thinking, which can be taken and transferred in time. But in Bulgarian Vlahs and Aromans are not so well known. I believe that this is due to the different attitudes at state level and in the media towards the ethnocultural communities, which are not perceived juridically as minorities – unlike in romania. I don’t mean to defend one or the other model, but the differences in the results are visible.  

As far as the presence of Romanians in “the collective imaginary” of Bulgarians, I would say that they have recently started to advance. The Bulgarians from Dobruja are different in this regard – they have an experience and a trajectory of memory, which are completely different. Our common points with Romanians in historic plan are not so many – we haven’t lived in the same empire, we were not allies in wars for a long time and they are not among “the popular nations”, which were considered modern in different historical times – like French, English, Russians… In my first book on ethno stereotypes, I wrote that Romanians (in historical plan – the Vlahs) are not considered important in the ethnic world of Bulgarians, if we judge by the fact that there are almost no notions about them. Romanians usually stay there, beyond the Bulgarian’s thinking. How surprised were we, or even insulted, when it was shown that Romanian outpaces us in many dimensions and that we are in one package in the EU!?

You have accomplished a detailed study on the ritual of “calush” and about the calushars in Romania, which makes parallels between them and the rusalii in Bulgairan lands (especially in Northwestern Bulgaria and Macedonia). What has directed you to this topic and what did you discover in the times of research and comparisons, which you did in Romania? If you look at the wider picture, how close are the rituals and the festival culture of the people on both riverbanks of the Danube? After the entrance in the EU and after the fall of borders between Bulgaria and Romania, do you see signs for development of a cross-border culture of communication, which is not related only to the absorption of the European funds and business, but also to cultural and human contacts?

My research is about the national festivals calendar in Bulgaria and Romania. The calush proved to be emblematic for the national heritage of Romanians and is closely connected to one of the  holidays in the calendar – the day of rusalii. 

I would not say that I have discovered something new about this ritual in Romania and Bulgaria (where there are also not only rusalii, but also calushari). My work was related more to historiographic information, to documents from the meetings of the two chambers of Romanian parliament, to observations about the current conditions of the calush tradition. I tried to prove that this is a phenomenon that is of prime importance to the state and local politics, because it is a ritual, which connects today’s Romanians to old Romans and which unites the territory of the country. The cultural policy of construction and affirmation of Romanian nation can be seen in the development of the ritual and in the research and the policies associated with it. We lack such equivalent. Kukers are a national symbol, but they are not at a fixed place in the national calendar. Even the day of St. George is written in the national calendar as the holiday of the army, but not as a day, which matters in the traditional sense. 

Calushers from Oltenia, Craiova, 2016

Calush is a ritual, which illustrates a non-relevant attitude towards the traditional culture in modern Bulgaria and in the whole of the Balkans, where we divide the folklore in ”our” and ”yours”. It is not realistic to divide the phenomena of this culture, because they are prenational. Many of them are related to regional and local specifics, to religion or to migration and not to ethnic belonging or to national affiliation. I think that the most serious step towards the overcoming of these confruntations is the candidature of the martenitsa (martishorul) for the list of UNESCO for intangible cultural heritage of humanity (martenitsa represents various figures and forms of red and white interwoven threads, which is a pagan omen for health – note of the translator). You know that the martishor is very popular in Romania, even if it is given only to women and children and exists to a lesser extent. On the initiative of Romania this symbol was defined as one that unites and doesn’t divide. The rituals, associated with the martenitsa were written down in the list in 2017, after a common application of Romania, Bulgaria, Macedonia and Moldova. I think that this is the road for cultural dialogue, which gives fruits not only in the northern direction. 

You have been to man places, related to Bulgarian history in the different parts of Romania. Which of the visited places has provoked stronger emotion in you and you will recommend it to Bulgarians, who want to know the northern neighbour in its Bulgarian dimension? Would you tell in short about some event from these travelling, which have provoked emotions in you? 

The meeting with Bulgarians from Romania are always emotional. I am accustomed to an extent in my research with these moments, because I have worked with Bulgarian migrants from many countries. But I have never eaten so delicious bantisas anywhere else in the world.  Their efforts to preserve their Bulgarian identity over the generations stir my admiration. It is not only an issue of national pride, but also something more personal and more intimate. At the same time in Bulgaria the places in Romania, related to our history are not well known. Would Bulgarians know that John Hunyadi has lived and is buried on the territory of today’s Romania? He fought for the salvation of the Second Bulgarian Kingdom together with the Polish king Vladislav Varnenchik and is buried in Alba Iulia.

There are many events. Unfortunately, some of them are negative. A lot of the places are not marked and in a bad condition. For example, in Babadag, in Northern Dobruja, there is a church, constructed by Bulgarians, who patron saint is St. Dimitar. When we visited the town, I tried to take a picture of the church. A Romanian appeared from somewhere and asked me why I took a picture. I said that this picture was constructed by Bulgarians, I am from Bulgaria and it is interesting for me. She said with indignation: “Bulgarians have never lived here!”. I am far away from historical revanchism, but I think that the reciprocal recognition is the first step towards knowledge and interaction. 

Within your travels you visited the celebration of “the Horse’s Easter” among Bulgarians in Targovishte. You were also at the festival of the kuchi in Branesti. What do the festivities of these two Bulgarians look like? To what extent do these communities keep relations with people from Bulgaria?

These holidays are occasions and contexts for the relations with Bulgaria. On these holidays the Bulgarians from Romania receive guests from Bulgaria. “The Horse’s Easter” is the day of St. Tudor (Todor), which is celebrated through competitions with horses. But it is not a competition in speed, but in various abilities of the horses and their drivers. Meeting follow and a programme, which take place in the beatiful cultural centre, where is the Bulgarian association of Targovishte. In Branesti the fourth edition of the festival of masquerade group took place this year. Local Bulgarian kukers (cuci) are hosts and the guests have come from Maramures, Vrancea (Romania), Sardinia (Italy), Alfatar, Kainarja (Silistra region, Bulgaria), Kabile (Yambol region, Bulgaria), Bela voda (Pernik region, Bulgaria).

The masquerade festivals have always been spectacular and attract participants and the public. The contacts with the local Bulgarians are strengthened through the visit of Bulgarian groups. My research expeirence shows thata Bulgarians abroad, no matter the time of migration, always search for institutional contact with their country of origin. For them the visits in Bulgaria, the granting of certain prizes, the reports in Bulgarian media are very important. The same happens in Romania with the events of Vlachs in Bulgaria. In both cases this communication is more important for the respective community, than for the policies of the country mother. 

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At the Horse’s Easter in Târgovişte, România, 2018 (photo: Lina Gergova)
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The day of cuci in Brăneşti, 2018 (photo: Lina Gergova)

You have two small children, who grow now in Bucharest. Where is it easier to take care of children – in Bucharest or in Sofia, and what are the advantages of each of these cities? In a purely social and mundane sense, how do you feel about life in Romania – are income, public services, administration’s work, the feeling of security and happiness are better than they are in Bulgaria?

Of course, my position is not completely impartial. My small boy is born in Bucharest. The big one says: “I am both Romanian and Bulgarian.” I had the chance to travel with my family almost all over Romania. I have known it and at the same time I am attached to it.

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Lina Ghergova in the ancient religious centre of Dacians – Sarmizegetusa, 2018 (photo: Lina Ghergova)

I don’t think that Romania has outpaced Bulgaria completely, includingn as far as the care for children or quality of life is concerned. Giving birth is well organised here, but the administrative machine after that is very difficult. There are kindergartens for all the children, but in the cafes, in the concert halls children are not welcome. In the educational system, at least in the part, which I have observations, I don’t see the pluralism, which exists in Bulgaria. Instead competition and ruling attitudes are promoted. On the other hand, Bucharest has many green spaces, with a lot of places for play for children. These are clean, healthy and protective places. In the small towns and villages there are schools and kindergartens. Children can be seen in the court of the houses and on the street. This can be observed in all of Romania (unlike Bulgaria, where the villages often lack life – note of the translators)! The life standard in Bucharest is very high. There is no fear for survival. Cultural life is very developed, and the education is at a high level. Unfortunately, this is not observed in the country with small exceptions.

In your research you step on a number of big names in the field of anthropology and ethnology: Andersen, Apadurai, Verdery, Eliad, and so on. You probably could live and make research in Western Europe and in the world, but you have chosen to open towards the region around Bulgaria. Why is a need that Bulgarians (and Romanians0 know and live more with the problems of our region, which remains more superficially known? Do you have an optimist theory about Bulgarian-Romanian relations and which is it?

I have worked in many countries in Europe – Austria, Italy, Estonia, Slovakia, but I don’t find the thread that leads me to self-knowledge there, the thread to understanding what I know best – the Bulgarianness. In Romania I discovered more about Bulgaria and Bulgarians, because I discovered the look from the sideways. Probably this is the most important reason for the development of reciprocal knowledge. I don’t expect that Romania will be on the top of Bulgarian tourist visits – the language barrier is too serious. But I hope that with the multiplication of the number of Bulgarians, who have visited Romania and of the people who work here, with the growth of the information current between the two countries, we could make steps above this abyss. 

Our region – the Balkans, Eastern Europe – is declared by outsiders as uncalm, problematic, aimed in the wrong direction. Various researches, the artistic literature and arts in all the countries in the region show in all the countries take place the opposite tendency – there are personal bonds between the borders of nations and they don’t lead to conflicts. My optimist theory is related to a look towards the interior, but through our eye, not through the eyes of the world’s elites. It is quite possible that this theory doesn’t ever come true, but we need to recognise that we are mobing in this direction.

Read in Romanian language!

Read in Bulgarian language!

Author: Vladimir Mitev

Жител на град Русе. Румъноговорящ. Locuitor orașului Ruse. Vorbitor de limba română.

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