Interview with the initiator of Project Danube, through which she wants to draw attention to the Romanian-Bulgarian periphery and its stories
Smaranda is a communications and media planning specialist; she worked in Romania as a PR & journalist in the cultural press, and later in a global advertising agency (Oglivy & Mather). She currently works as a media planner with a London based agency, where she coordinates advertising portfolios for the British government.
Smaranda, you are the founder of the editorial project “Project Danube” which aims to focus on a less publicized space – the cross-border area of the Lower Danube. How will you present this project? What are your goals and at what level of achievement is it? What else do you want to do with this project and what do you need to develop it?
In the summer of 2018 I read the book Border, by Kapka Kassabova, in which the writer of Bulgarian origin who emigrated first to New Zealand and then to Scotland, returns to explore the borders between Bulgaria, Greece and Turkey, until 1989, the southeastern border of the Iron Curtain. Partly a travel book, partly an autobiography, the book made me instantly think of another little-known border, the Danube, the part that separates Bulgaria from Romania. If you look at the map you will see six pairs of mirror-cities, from west to east, and I kept wondering what connections there were between them, it could have existed if a second bridge had been built between Calafat and Vidin earlier than 2013.
Reading other books about the Danube (Danube – Claudio Magris, Blue River, Black Sea – Andrew Eames The Danube, A journey upriver – Nick Thorpe, Between the Woods and the Water – Patrick Leigh Fermor), I noticed that as soon as the Danube enters Romania, it seems to lose its charm for some travelers, once it leaves the castles and mountains behind, giving way to plains and inaccessible areas, due to poor infrastructure, and especially language barriers. I think that these are mysterious lands, for both foreigners and ourselves, Romanians and Bulgarians, even today; one of my goals is to go beyond the mystery, the stereotypes with which we describe each other and see what else exists between us, apart from an arbitrary border I do not intend to analyze the relations between two countries at political, institutional level, etc. I am more interested in the day to day relations between people and that is why I need to go back and do some ethnographic research. I obviously dream of a book like Border, or like the more recent one, To The Lake, a journey into a geographical space superimposed on a journey towards the self. At the moment the project lives more on paper, I am waiting to be able to go back.
What is your connection with the Roman-Bulgarian space?
I lived in Bulgaria as a child from 1985 to 1992. My father was the priest for the Romanian Orthodox Church in Sofia; I grew up in Sofia learning both languages at the same time, among Romanian, Bulgarian or mixed families, and even though we repatriated when I was only 9 years old, I had my own strong, stubborn conviction that I belonged to both countries equally, at the same time, that there was no delimitation. I returned to Bulgaria a few times after moving back and I have strong feelings for this place, as for a kind of home.
So far, you have made two trips to the Romanian-Bulgarian cross-border area. What did you discover in this space? And what do your findings reveal about the mutual attitudes of our peoples and states?
I made two very short trips, not enough to have solid observations, and the interactions with people were even shorter, on the one hand because I was still re-learning Bulgarian, on the other hand because I spent little time in the towns I chose. It’s handy to talk about the evidence regarding the economic level of the regions, or about depopulation, but that’s not what I’m interested in, I’m looking for more subtle things. In Oryahovo, a Bulgarian border town opposite Bechet, I came across a terrace where I ordered a snejanka salad and a beer with my precarious Bulgarian. The waiter measured me from head to toe and asked me in Bulgarian if I was Romanian. So a glance it’s enough to recognize and differentiate ourselves. In Vidin and in the villages surrounding it I noticed how many inhabitants speak both languages often in the same conversation, the Bulgarian words mix with the Romanian ones in a natural way, as if the speakers were not aware of differences and maybe not even are. I heard this anecdote about a woman from a village in the area, heavily populated by Vlachs, who proclaimed herself Bulgarian, although she spoke only Romanian. But I hardly heard any Bulgarian spoken on the neighboring shore. The first conclusion I draw is that we are sensitive to differences, perhaps less to similarities, but there seems to be a tendency to distance ourselves from each other.
What else do you want to do in the Romanian-Bulgarian space? To what extent does this imaginary and real space contain the resources and potential for creativity and social change?
First of all, I want to go back to a few cross-border cities and spend a lot more time there, to do field research and look for things, don’t ask me what things, I’ll tell you when I find them. Certainly many stories are waiting to be collected and, I imagine, starting from them, resources and the potential for social change will be (re) discovered. I think if there was more interest in that area, not just from the media, I would say human, if we turned our attention to what we might call the periphery, I think we will find that the resources are there, maybe they just need an impetus to materialize.
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