Miglena Nikolchina

Coffee and the Balkans: another look

Coffee and the Balkans: another look
title: Coffee and the Balkans: another look
year: 2005
place: Sofia
publisher: Institute of Contemporary Art – Sofia
ISBN/ISSN: 0861-1718
language: english
author(s): Miglena Nikolchina
source: Balkan Reunion/Pub(lic) Conference, 2005, Sofia: Institute of Contemporary Art – Sofia, ISBN: 0861-1718

In my frequent and sometimes prolonged traveling ever since the end of the Eastern block system – which marked, as Maria Todorova pointed out, the return of Balkan discourses – what I missed most was conversation. This lack struck me, so to say, in all my innocence – I never suspected this thing was there until it was no longer there. I missed, moreover, nothing special about it (or this is how I felt about it) – not even the thing itself, just its sheer availability, the awareness that I could have it at any moment by just leaving my door. So when I had the chance to take part in a research project* that involved, among other things, some forty interviews with Bulgarian women-migrants to Italy and the Netherlands (it should be noted that it was not me who took the interviews so my specific experience of nostalgia could not have inflected the interviewees’ accounts), the topic of conversation and communication was what I began looking for. The question for me was: had my experience been the offspring of the mysterious thing called cultural identity?

And sure enough, there it was in one interview after another, a recurrent emphasis on the joy of conversation and on its little rituals (like having coffee or rakia with salad). Conversation – and I should emphasize here that there was nothing Habermasian about it – emerged in the interviews as the figure of a specific understanding of happiness – of happiness as essentially a good positioning in a fluctuating group where you can talk! “I always want to talk. I love talking.” It was not a question of friendship, of deep mutual understanding, of loyalty, of durability, or of being helpful and supportive; it was not a question of usefulness and it was not a question of fine moral attitudes but, rather, of a certain easy-going availability of people to whom one could talk.

I want to emphasize this effortless, easy-going aspect of “filling one’s time with people”, as one of the women put it. Communication should not be planned, negotiated, prepared. Its indispensable component is spontaneity – the option of meeting someone in the street and deciding to have coffee together immediately, without the other one taking out his/her calendar and saying “what about next Friday:” “It is very important for me... to be able to drop in at a friend’s for coffee without me calling first and she taking out her calendar “I’m busy tomorrow.” If she is in, in you go to have coffee, if not – on you go.” “If I am in, I’ll open the door.”

In a number of the interviews, in terms of the praise it gets, this vision of happiness where you can have coffee with people without taking out your calendar looms larger than love, larger than the chance to follow one’s vocation, and larger than economic success. The absence of the perpetually open horizon of spontaneous interaction seems to make other achievements insufficient. “I always wanted to have a life. If there is no one to meet and discuss my pictures... I don’t feel good.” Marriage does not seem to assuage such an absence, although work – any work that involves being with other people – might. As one energetic young woman, whose “golden cage” marriage seems to create precisely this type of dilemma, points out, she would prefer to work, in spite of her being abundantly provided for, “as a shopkeeper or in a travel agency just for the sake of being for at least four hours among people.” “I preferred working rather than staying at home... just to have a reason to go out of the house and then come back.”

It should be noted that the interviewees tend to interpret their own attitudes to communication in cultural terms. The Bulgarians are warmer than the Dutch and as warm as the Italians – or, perhaps, as warm as the South Italians in the case when Italians in the North will not do. These perceptions are frequently endorsed by attitudes in the host country. “Like most Dutch people my husband is a big enthusiast about this Bulgarian warmth, hospitality, broadmindedness, whatever you call it... It just flows out of me!” The disparity between the perception of Italy and the Netherlands reinforces the cultural perspective, especially if we take into consideration the fact that complaints about loneliness and personal failure in communication may still accompany the conviction that Italians are open and communicative.

Today, this complicity between the migrants and the hosts in conceiving differences as cultural, ethnic, or national is reinforced by current theoretical perspectives with their various emphasis on multiculturalism, on ethnicity, or on the local versus the global. If, however, the migrant women’s emphasis on communication is unpacked through an approach that takes into account certain comparatively recent contingencies we might be able to uncover a dynamism that is not reducible to issues of cultural identity. As it happened, communication became a dominant preoccupation in the last decade of communism in Bulgaria – in theoretical terms but also as a modus vivendi that simultaneously incorporated and kept its distance from traditional practices in a conscious effort to differentiate itself from the discursive monopoly of the state. The driving force of this preoccupation with conversation was the tacit knowledge that the recourse to orality, to speaking rather than writing, to the art and the “element” of conversation, to the voice that articulates the thought and is equally good in presenting its own position and the position of the other, was motivated by a censorship that could still control publishing but no longer controlled speaking. In his essay “On Good Conversations”, written in 1959 but published posthumously only in 1978, on the eve of the decade that would change Eastern Europe, Bulgarian writer Tsvetan Stoyanov speaks about “the conversation of the oppressed and the tortured, above whom there weighs the shadow of a gloomy tyranny and for whom it would be dangerous to even dream together – and yet, there is hope in each syllable they utter...” (Stoyanov 1988:69) What was impossible in writing took place in talking.

Dialogue was hence not only valorized theoretically but was also – or, perhaps, predominantly – enacted as conversation. It thus returned to the cultural substratum where – its theoreticians were perfectly aware – it had its immediate support. But not unchanged. While, in the 1960s, the conversations for which those who remembered him praised Stoyanov were still informal and took place in selected cafés and private apartments, from the late 1970s on dialogism turned into an increasingly deliberate practice. As Angel Angelov (1997) put it, “Dialogue” was a humanitarian mind-set, normative and unattainable, that was cultivated in intellectual circles in the 1980s against the complacent and monological institutionalized discourse of the state. This mind-set presupposed the self-discipline of listening to the other while simultaneously neutralizing the noise of your internal authority.”

The cultivation of dialogism took the form of what came to be designated as the seminar. (Nikolchina 2002) The seminar, which began in elitist groups discussing Plato’s distrust of writing or Wittgenstein’s critique of language, grew through proliferating circles of people and events and emerged as a major feature of the last decade of the communist regime in Bulgaria. By the end of the 1980s it spilled over from University auditoriums into street action involving hundreds of thousands of people. This was as much as Tsvetan Stoyanov had hoped for: “How often, since there are human beings and human history, have good conversations gone beyond their microcosm and turned into a huge social force! Now close by, now far away, the fires of good conversations are flickering all over the globe today... Conversations are weapons... Nothing was ever done without a good conversation – neither the building of the Parthenon, nor the tearing down of the Bastille.” (Stoyanov 1988:70-1)

While no Bulgarian intellectual today seems to be particularly concerned with the “complete unfurling of the element of speech” (Boiadjiev 1984: 20) or, indeed, with the virtues of dialogism, the belief in the value of communication seems to have accompanied migrant women (and it is my own sporadic situation as a migrant that took me back to it). Is migration, by some sort of deferral, keeping the traces of the political past of the home country? Some of the migrants do mention in their interviews the ban on communication and the isolation imposed by the ancien regime in order to “keep people in ignorance and disinformation”.

In a further echo from intellectual attitudes in the 1980s, there is, in the interviews, an awareness of the “dialogical” aspect of communication and a keen perceptiveness to the lack of dialogism as an internal component of thinking. “I always try to think not only my own thoughts but also the thoughts of the other. I don‘t think it’s good to be blind to other positions and believe only in your own,” says one of the interviewees whose pet shop in Pisa brings her in frequent debates with animal rights activists. She is worried not by their particular ideas but by their unwillingness to assume that the other’s position might have legitimate claims to what is right. “I cannot believe my own beliefs with such absolute conviction that I wouldn’t allow for the possibility that the other might be right. But am I right in being like this?” – she asks echoing claims about Tsvetan Stoyanov. “Easily, he guessed and sometimes expressed even better our own objections. He developed the counterarguments to his own contention with a torrent of eloquence. In his complex polyphonic mind, there lived both his and my (position)...” (Zhechev 1978: 10)

Or is there, perhaps, something in the situation of the migrant that carries on preoccupations already forgotten in the home country? Not their past but their very present situation. An easy-going, serene perception of movement is typical of new migrants for whom “patriotism” (unlike older emigrants, they never use the word) is not a country but the attachment to a certain type of sociality, to “just having coffee with people.” Are the lightness, the ease, the grace in the general attitude of new migrants to migration enacting the fantasy of the eighties, the fantasy of being “logged in” to the now close, now distant fires of conversations flickering all over the globe? And could the awareness of the values of understanding be the specific gift, to a world in flux, of this light-hearted mobility which voices its plea for “continuous dialectical communication” (Boiadjiev 1984: 21)?”

Last but not least, in the face of new challenges, could communication be the Bulgarian migrant’s “weapon” in times of need? There are cultural differences, all right, and this is what I want to conclude with. But do we or should we always care about them? The vital question that looks to the flexibility of the future rather than to the sediments of the past, is what mobilizes these differences and to what ends it summons their shifting meanings.


Angel Angelov, “Dialog i dialogizm”, Literaturen vestnik, 9 April 1997
Tzotcho Boiadjiev, “Nepisanoto uchenie” na Platon, Sofia, 1984
Miglena Nikolchina. “The Seminar: Mode d’emploi. Impure Spaces in the Light of Late Totalitarianism”, differences 15 (Spring 2002), 96-127
Tsvetan Stoyanov, “Za hubavite razgovori”, in Kulturata kato obshtuvane, Sofia, 1988, 65-72
Toncho Zhechev, “Tsvetan Stoyanov i negovata posledna kniga”, in Tsvetan Stoyanov. Geniat i negoviat nastavnik, Sofia, 1978, 5-15

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