SEE and-in the media - Part 4

posted by sab on 2005/11/26 20:22

[ SEE and-in the media ]

The winner of APA’s” journalism prize “Writing for Central- and Eastern Europe” is Diana Ivanova, and her biography plus the text “Frau Bulgarin, Ivan Milev and Gustav Klimt“can be downloaded from this site (in German). Here’s the English version:

Frau Bulgarin, Ivan Milev and Gustav Klimt

by Diana Ivanova

Die Vergangenheit war noch nie so schön wie heute.

from a poster in the Vienna Cafe „Das Möbel”

The first story I hear from anyone in Vienna is about a woman without a name – she was simply Frau Bulgarin, Mrs. Bulgarian. Suzanne tells me the story while we are having lunch at the Institute for Human Sciences. Her voice is full of loving nostalgia: “Many years ago there was a Bulgarian restaurant at the Guertel roundabout near the Gumpendorfstrasse metro station in the 15th Bezirk. Rila, it was called. This woman [Frau Bulgarin] was the spirit of the restaurant. I never knew her name. She was always in haste, never quite happy with her customers’ orders and she dropped the plates on the tables with a bang… She always wore an apron, to wipe her hands in it. The place was grim and old-fashioned but we all went there because of this grumpy woman – she served the best food in the world at the lowest prices… But the pub is no longer…

The West – Us and Them

When I travel in Western European countries I see that the us and them division really exists. I always know when I am in Western Europe – the feeling of nostalgia is not forbidden there.

I have my own theory of a successful Bulgarian expat – it is how good you are in translating your nostalgia for your forbidden past to them, the people in the West. You are successful, if you are using these forbidden feelings to your advantage. You are not, if you shut them in and become their victim.

A year ago I met Kinga, a Hungarian from Budapest, at a seminar in Austria. She told me: “It’s just great that I don’t have to explain everything to you – communism, democracy – there is no end of it, I use so much energy in explanations. You and I can simply talk without these explanations and you know exactly what I mean…”

I am no longer surprised when I meet West Europeans who know nothing about Bulgaria. It’s happened so many times that it’s no longer a problem. I don’t even have a desire to explain anymore. I simply accept reality, just like Kinga.

But what surprised me in Vienna is that there are plenty of people who know nothing about Slovakia and have not once been to the capital Bratislava, forty minutes away on the train.

Elizabeth is in her late twenties, a web designer in a software company in Mariahilferstrasse. Wolfgang is 37, an architect, born in Bodensee, Germany. He has lived in Vienna for 12 years. Neither of them has been to Bratislava. At the Institute for Human Sciences I meet other people who have been to Slovakia just once for the last 15 years.

Austria and Slovakia are divided by the Danube but have a common future now – both are members of the European Union. What many people in either country have yet to discover is that there is more than the river that divides them -- their memories, their pasts are different. Could it be that these memories can also be points of unification? This question comes to me after I talk with two more people who have rarely or never been to Eastern Europe.

Michail Staudigal and Astrid Svenson know little about Bulgaria. Instead of trying to fill in the gaps in person, I give them the address of a website which I have recently put together with a group of colleagues in Bulgaria. The website,, is a growing collection of personal stories about Bulgaria’s communist period posted by people of different age and background.

Michail is a lecturer in philosophy at the University of Vienna and a post-doctoral student at the Austrian Academy of Sciences. The effect of our website on him surpasses my expectations. After reading some of the stories Michail tells me that for the first time he has a feeling that he understands something about his neighbours, the Slovaks (read the interview with him). “Our knowledge [about Slovakia] was very general. We know that [during the communist period] there was the intelligentsia and the common people. We used to walk along the Danube and Morava and what we saw of Slovakia was a poor wasteland. There were no ordinary people in sight, just soldiers. And factories. This was our image of the country. We never had any details. But it is exactly the details that make all the difference. There was a sense of fear because these soldiers were only 50 meters across the river from us…”
Astrid Svenson is German, a Ph.D. student in history at Cambridge University. The Bulgarian website stories bring back memories from her childhood. She was born in 1977 in Cologne. Her family has successively lived in the Netherlands, France and Belgium. Eastern Europe for her was ‘as far away as Asia’. She was 12 when the Berlin Wall fell (“I remember a long summer evening in France. My parents were discussing Gorbachov, the perestroika, glasnost with friends who were over for dinner, while I was destroying a bowl of chocolate teddy bears. My father explained to me that this was not a polite thing to do in front of our guests.”) “In school communism was simply absent from out textbooks – with the exception of the communist manifesto, the movement from the 30-ies and the Weimar Republic – all heroic images. It wasn’t until later that I realized that the history books and the discussions at home had made me internalize a great contradiction: communism in the 30ies was a good thing but communism after 1945 was a bad thing.” There was little on post-war Germany in Astrid’s history books. “I had a great history teacher but even she had a strange explanation about it: ‘The two parts of Germany have now reunited so there is no more need to discuss their history.” At the time Astrid accepted this statement but when she went to the university and met with students from Eastern Europe, she realized how influenced her thinking was by Cold War rhetoric. She became more and more interested in recent European history and in the place of her own memories in it. Astrid saw herself in one of the Bulgarian stories on – the story of a Bulgarian guy who went on a trip to Western Europe and discovered how provincial and isolated his own country was. “This is how I feel when I go back home to Cologne,” Astrid continues. “I’ve had the privilege to be able to travel ever since I was a child. And I always feel the same way when I go back to my parents’ home in a middle-class suburb outside Cologne. There is no excitement whatsoever, life has no pulse in Cologne. I had the same feeling when I returned to my university in Meinz after two years in France. Berlin is the only place that’s different in Germany.”

When we part, Astrid is grateful for the stories ‘you’ve given me’. They’ve reminded her of long-forgotten words, images and smells, and she has shown her feelings to me. I am grateful too.

The Alchemy of Nostalgia

It seems to me that Europe has a trap for Eastern Europeans. If they stay in Eastern Europe, they feel nostalgic for their communist past. If they move to Western Europe, they deny themselves the right of memory and this opens the door to melancholy. It’s painful and there is no easy way around it – I’ve spoken to many Eastern Europeans who feel the same way. The key is perhaps in the words of Eva Hoffman (author of novel Lost in Translation) who wrote after she immigrated to the United States: “To a certain extent you need to rewrite your past to be able to understand it… If you’ve been cut away from certain parts of it, you tend to see it either through the veil of nostalgia – which is an ineffective relationship with your past, or through the veil of alienation – which is an ineffective relationship with your present…”

Havelka Cafe

I keep thinking while I am in Vienna that if you don’t have your own kind of nostalgia, you need to invent it. I am surprised to see layers of nostalgia in the Havelka Cafe. Any Viennese will be willing to show it to you. The place is barely lit, the chairs squeak, the upholsteries are old. But Havelka is full of people. Mr. Havelka is at the door showing his guests in. Mrs. Havelka died a few months ago, so you can no longer order her home-made sausages and pastries. People come here to talk to each other. There is no music in the old Viennese cafes and all you can hear are the conversations.

Havelka brings back to my mind the story of Frau Bulgarin, the grumpy woman with the stained apron. It’s the most authentic story about a Bulgarian immigrant anybody ever told me in Vienna. The questions keep coming: why have we buried these stories, why are we running away from our past?

Havelka is about nostalgia, you can savour all its nuances here. Nostalgia is made up of nostos – return, and algia – pain. There must be too types of nostalgia. One insists on nostos, on return. It is the dangerous type, the one that makes you oblivious of the present. The other, the curative type insists on algia – on reconnecting with pain and accepting it as an existential inevitability. It was St. Luke who said: “Pain is a story that exists in the whole world.”

Ivan Milev, Adriana Czernin and Gustav Klimt

In Vienna I also meet with Adriana Czernin, a successful Bulgarian artist who has lived in the Austrian capital since 1990. Adriana is another person who makes me think that the ‘translation’ from ‘our’ language into ‘their’ language is yet to happen. That East and West are still divided.

I come across Adriana’s works at the prestigious Albertina Museum, as part of the exhibition Seven Women – Contemporary Austrian Art (October 2004 – April 2005). I look at her paintings and I think I recognize that she, like me, is also trying to reconnect to an elusive, nebulous past. Her work reminds me of my own fears: that I have no common ‘Balkan’ memories with the Serbs (see Prague: Hermelin and Depression), that my memories of communism are different from those of the Czechs and the Slovaks, that my nostalgia for the past has nothing in common even with the feelings of my own fellow countrywomen (see Lyutenitsa, Rholik and Vaclav Havel). I fear that I’ve been left alone with my own memories and that I will be able to make sense of them only if I go through them one by one. Only then will I be able to connect to other people.

I really enjoy talking with Adriana Czernin after seeing the show. She was born in 1969, just a year younger than I am, and I find we have a lot in common. She also tells me a story I am not sure what think about. Here it is.

Many of the critical reviews of her work compare it to the Jugendstill and personally to Gustav Klimt. I ask her if this is intentional.

“Not really. But there is an interesting story behind it. Someone who has had a great influence on my style is the Bulgarian painter Ivan Milev. He is completely unknown here but he created his own, very personal version of Jugendstill in Bulgaria 10-15 years after the style was introduced in Vienna. I really admire his work. I used to have a book with reproductions of his paintings which at the time I studied with great attention. I was fascinated by the decorative elements, the interplay between foreground and background which confuses you and makes it impossible to tell which is which. Years later when I saw Klimt’s works in Vienna I thought that Ivan Milev had more force, more tragic energy than Klimt and that Klimt’s paintings are somehow more decorative. So if there is a connection of my works to Klimt, it is through Ivan Milev. … Curiously, when I started painting in this style in Vienna no one thought to compare them to Klimt. But someone made this comment in the United States, where I took part in an exhibition of contemporary Austrian artists at Mass MOCA, Massachsetts. And the Austrian media picked up…”
I ask her, if she has told anybody – the journalists, the critics – in Austria anything about Ivan Milev. “Not really.” “No one is interested?” “I don’t know…”, she replies.

This is what confuses me – Ivan Milev has been replaced by Gustav Klimt and this affected no one, absolutely no one. Why?



The imagineSEE-weblog is a space about ideas, images, (re)inventions and (re)constructions of and about the Balkans, from outside and within SEE.

Any comments or suggestions are welcomed and appreciated, please use "Reply" at the end of each posting or post directly to Sabine Ballata.

This is a part of the collage 'The Black File' by Croatian artist Sanja Ivekovic, who will be represented at documenta 12 (16/6-23/9) in Kassel this year.

> RSS Feed RSS 2.0 feed for Kakanien Revisited Blog imagineSEE