Escape From Ignorance and Chalga (Part 3)

Cross-posted from JohnFeffer.com. John is currently traveling in Eastern Europe and observing its transformations since 1989.

Read Parts 1 and 2.

So, you arrive in Canada and you make a decision not to pursue journalism…

I thought about becoming a journalist in Canada. But I was told at the National Institute of Broadcasting that I would have to take a training course. It would cost about $10,000. That was a lot of money for me, basically all the money that I’d brought with me. I had to think of my daughter and the cost of her education. But I said, okay, if I take this course, then I will be able to get a job as a journalist here in Canada. And they said, no, there was no such guarantee. They would try to help me. I thought that I just couldn’t take that risk. Same thing with teaching English as a second language in Toronto. One has to spend years to get their credentials acknowledged. Professionals trained outside of Canada, including teachers, have a very hard time to get certified to become even supply [substitute] teachers, to get their foot in the door. And still there is no guarantee you would get a steady job. However, I really needed to get a job. And, of course, the other experience I had in Bulgaria was driving a bus, so…

The very first year, before I joined the Toronto Transit Commission as a bus driver, it was difficult. I didn’t have money. The $10,000 in my pocket melts very quickly. The rent alone is $1200 a month. If you don’t work, you can spend it on rent alone in less than a year. Toronto, it’s not as expensive as New York, but it’s close. I worked two jobs for a year. One of them was as an interpreter for the Immigration and Refugee Board in downtown Toronto, and sometimes I was sent to courts or the airport. Lots of people wanted to immigrate to Canada, and Canada has a somewhat loose immigration policy. They need people, but being Canadian, they do not openly say, “we’ll take anybody because we need young blood to support the pension plan, decent people who will work and pay taxes.” They can’t do that, so instead they have a system of criteria and evaluation.

Some people are eager to get to Canada sooner rather than wait 2-3 years. They also maybe don’t clearly meet the criteria — the point system where you have to have education or language skills or be in one of those occupations that are required. If you don’t meet those criteria, you don’t have a chance. There were lots of people from Bulgaria who wanted to escape ignorance and chalga, from the late 1990s until 2007 when Bulgaria joined the EU. Hundreds of people from former communist countries would arrive and declare themselves political refugees or seek refugee status. Canada in that respect is very generous. You’re given social support, housing, medical support, until your case is heard. It goes to a kind of tribunal.

You know that a lot of these people are lying, and the judge knows that they’re lying and the ministry of immigration knows they’re lying. Many claimed that they were persecuted for being Roma (and organizations were regularly writing reports about the condition of the Bulgarian Roma). Or they said they were gay. Some people were obviously not Roma or gay. They had to pay tens of thousands of dollars to corrupt lawyers and interpreters who wrote them a story and worked with them on how to present the story, and produced counterfeit photographs or facts. I interpreted cases where the judge humiliated them by telling them that s/he didn’t believe them, and then the judge allowed them to remain in Canada anyway because they were needed.

I had a case where two pilots and a stewardess arrived together. They said that they were Roma and had been deprived of education. The judge told them, “There’s no way you’re not educated and you fly a plane!” At the same time, these people would probably find a job, get a good salary, and pay a lot of taxes.

So I spent a year working there. When I wasn’t working there, I was a mover, moving furniture and driving a truck, I learned the province of Ontario. Then I went to the Toronto Transit Commission, a.k.a. TTC, and they hired me first as a driver. You can become the chief general manager one day, but you have to start at the bottom first.

Two years later, I became a route supervisor where my job was to ”keep TTC on track.” In a nutshell, if and when one or more of the thousands of vehicles moving Torontonians around fell behind schedule due to construction, an accident, traffic or the weather, thus resulting in bunching on a line, and/or when delays to service happen during bad weather conditions or because of construction or traffic congestion, a decision is made and instructions are communicated, accordingly, by supervisory staff to make a service adjustment. A typical and easiest example of a service adjustment would be a short turn. That is when a vehicle will not continue to the end of the scheduled route but will be turned to travel in the opposite direction to balance service on the route.

There are dozens of other tricks, a.k.a. service adjustments, that route supervisors have up their sleeves to expediently ensure the provision of consistent service and uninterrupted flow of vehicles along all routes. One could compare the job of a route supervisor to that of air traffic controllers. Additionally, supervisors are middle management and are in charge of supervising the performance of hourly-paid staff (union positions, almost all operators – a total of some 10,000 – and maintenance workers). They are also first responders to all accidents, incidents and occurrences throughout the system, such as collisions – both property damage and personal injuries, all possible kinds of medical emergencies, assaults, fires, vandalism, loitering, sleepers, thefts, robberies, lost and found articles, lost children separated from their parents, lost and disoriented elderly, inebriated persons, mentally disturbed persons, counterfeit fares, various mishaps, all imaginable kinds of technical issues and equipment failures. It would take a multi-volume book to retell all the “usual, normal stuff” and weird things I have seen and dealt with as a supervisor.

My last position at the Toronto Transit Commission, which I held for some 7 years until I retired, was an instructor with their Operations Training Centre, which is a sort of vocational adult training facility where new hires are initially trained and the unionized workforce are regularly retrained in customer service, professional communications, safety at work, vehicle operation, defensive driving, various work skills and qualifications, etc. If I had stayed, I might have possibly become the chief general manager someday in the 22nd century, but I just got too old and tired and decided to return here: back to chalga and ignorance.

Varna, September 29, 2012

Interview (1990)

Vihar Krastev is an editor of Vek 21 (Century 21), the newspaper of the Radical Democratic party, which is a founding member of the UDF. The paper has a circulation of 40,000 and caters mostly to intellectuals. Krastev was recently chosen to participate in Tuft’s Fletcher School journalism program and will spending six weeks in the U.S. working at a local paper. Although quite busy, he was eager to sit down and tell me what distinguishes the Radical Democrats from other parties.

What does the Radical Democratic party stand for?

The RDP actually was reorganized 42 years after it was demolished by the Communists. The party branched from the Democratic party in 1904 by some famous intellectuals of that era who had decided that the Democrats were too close to the King’s regime. They were for a parliamentarian type of republic. They decided not to go deep into government: you should create the laws and not go into executive power. It happened that most of the people who founded the party at the beginning of the century were intellectuals–poets, playwrights, critics–it was considered to be a party only of intellectuals, too small in membership. When a year ago this party was reorganized by Elka Konstantinova, people again started thinking that this will be a party of intellectuals and it would not be easy for common people to be members of the party. This is not so true. The RDP does insist that members all have their own personal performance in society, to be good enough to stand by themselves without being a member of a large group of people, taking strength from a large party like the Communists do. We stand for radical democracy, for democracy that has no alternative, that makes no compromise.

How large is the party’s membership?

Difficult to answer. Maybe because everyone is too personal in this party, we haven’t made a serious effort to find out our membership. We view the party in horizontal principles. There is no hierarchy. There are branches based on the local principle. Some are even organized on a professional basis. There might be a club of doctors or a club of musicians in the RDP. We don’t want hundreds of thousands of members who are officially coordinated, who have cards, etc. Approximately, to my knowledge, somewhere between 25,000 and 40,000 members in the country right now.

The difference between RDP and other parties?

Again, the idea of the role of the personality in the process of democratization. The Social Democrats, for instance, work to make society democratic but they have the socialist idea that society is something organic and you should made the organic body democratic. We think that society will be more democratic when everyone of us is happy.

I need a concrete example of this.

Our party has never wanted to grasp, as I told you, executive power. We would like to make society more democratic through taking part in parliament, by making more democratic and just laws. We don’t want to become ministers.

A perpetual opposition?

Yes.

Are there any particular pieces of legislation that the RDP is pushing for?

Perhaps because of our tradition and the fact that most of our members are highly intelligent people, people believe that it is the RDP’s job to reorganize all the laws having to do with education, culture, law. More or less, we like this sort of work. We also have ideas about reorganizing the military. For example, our president, Ms. Konstaninova has been chosen to be chairman of the committee dealing with education, culture, and science.

What relations does an ostensibly intellectual group have with a trade union like Podkrepa?

I’ll tell you about something which will come out in the next issue of Vek 21. It is an interview with the president of Podkrepa, Mr. Krenchev. He says, and I totally agree: in times like ours, any kind of social organization, even a trade union, cannot help but be involved politically. If you are politically honest, you can’t be but anti-Communist. And if you are anti-Communist, you should be involved on the political level. Right now, we are all together. But when the Communist idea is gone, we will go our separate ways. A trade union will do trade union work and we will do our job in culture and the Social Democrats will try to organize society in smaller groups.

I ask because, in the region I’m travelling, intellectuals are the first to benefit from the changes in terms of culture and freedom. Austerity packages, meanwhile, hurt workers and farmers disproportionately. And the workers are now saying, heck, reform was great when we were all anti-Communists but now it seems that reform only helped intellectuals and we are the ones who have to pay for it.

This is a difficult question but this process is still in front of us: we have not come to the bottom of the crisis. The workers have not come to see the situation as the sin of the intellectuals.

In the elections, the intellectuals supported the opposition and the rest of the country voted for the BSP. Whether the workers blame the intellectuals or not, they certainly voted that way. Are intellectuals trying to bridge this gap?

Personally, I myself have been a worker as well as an intellectual. I started as a teacher, then I worked in TV. Then I was not allowed to do anything in the field of ideology any more. I was good enough to do ideology because I did not have the right thinking. So I had to do other work. My last work was as a city bus driver. I wouldn’t say that I know completely the psychology of the worker. But I more or less think that the mounting crisis will open the eyes of the worker because what has happened in Poland will be felt here in time, in the next couple of months. They have not come to see who their real enemies are. The Communists have managed to make them the spoiled children of the nation. They were given more care, more attention. Now, they will come to realize what they were being used for. They will now come to realize that the artificially created large industrial cities were needed to reproduce the proletariat.

Everyone in the opposition says that they won’t compromise with the Communists. Then, sotto voce, they say that some form of coalition will be formed although no one will call it a coalition.

I think that the Communists are not fit for negotiating because they have never negotiated in their past. If you talk with a Communist on a matter on which you don’t agree about. He might listen to you and not agree. The next day, he’ll come out with nearly your version of the matter as his own. This is their favorite style.

Let me be cynical, for a moment. What you describe as the Communist style could be called, simply, the style of a politician. It is the style of a politician to be manipulative, dishonest, to steal the opinion of others to make it their own.

I get the point. But, I’ll tell you one thing. Politicians in America and Western Europe are actually politicians and try to make the cosmetic effect on a beautiful or healthy body. They will oppose each other to make the surface look better because the body is strong enough. Here, we have to change something much deeper. We have to make the foundations healthy and strong. It’s not politics here.

At first, it seemed as though the opposition was united on the issue of equal rights for ethnic Turks. Now we have two separate movements. Do you think reconciliation is possible?

I think reconciliation is possible though it won’t be soon. You know, when I was a small child, growing up in a region where many Turks lived, we knew in school that some of our classmates were Turks. They got some additional lessons: they studied Turkish, they had Turkish books, they even had a culture house. They knew they were Turks and we knew they were Turks. We studied history and we knew about the Turkish yoke but we did not say that it was the most tragic period of our history. But sometime in the late 1960s, for the first time, the Communists had to do something after Czechoslovakia. They thought that what had happened in Poland and Hungary might happen here. So they tried to do something to release the tension here. Someone here actually created the problem then, here. It was not difficult to make a nation that has suffered under the yoke to feel angry. It was a small beginning, hardly noticed, but the virus was implanted. 1984 when they forced the name changes–this was the final move, the final recourse. They didn’t know what else to do so they used this card. This makes reconciliation difficult: a virus is a virus.

Why did the Bulgarian opposition fall for it? The Polish opposition learned not to be anti-Semitic after 1968 expulsion of 20,000 Jews by the government.

The opposition here was not so undoubtedly popular within the nation. The opposition was not so certain that it was popular within the nation. It felt unsafe, it felt that it might lose position if it stuck to it. Last year, on New Years Eve, the opposition was actually bound together. But the nation responded and said that the opposition was a traitor to the nation. And some people in the opposition did not feel certain enough that they could persuade the nation. We did not have any one of the opposition leaders so popular that he or she could come out in front of the nation and the nation would forget its hatred of the Turks because of their love of this person.

So you didn’t have a Vaclav Havel.

At that time, there wasn’t this someone who could say, “you shouldn’t believe what’s happening” and you should believe the nationalistic demonstrations.

Someone in the opposition told me that they didn’t want Bulgaria to be the path by which Islamic fundamentalism enters Europe.

That’s nonsense if you ask me. I don’t think Europe will need a road for Islamic fundamentalism: it won’t take it. And the best way, actually, to hold Turkey, if at all Turkish fundamentalism is aggressive, is through NATO. My personal opinion is that this nationalistic and chauvinistic remains in our way of thinking in this part of the world is directly proportional to the level of development of our country. Quarrels come with poverty.

And the Macedonian situation?

When Yugoslavia and Bulgaria become normal, well-developed economic countries, there will be no problems. Macedonia will become just another part of the world.

Economic reform will necessarily affect different parts of society differently. What kind of social guarantees, given your individualistic bent, do you support, if any?

It seems to me that the situation as it is depicted at times–with people dying in the streets and mass unemployment–is a portion of the Big Lie. When I am sick, I don’t want the cure to be slow. I want it to be quick. If it has to come, why can’t it be faster. I think everyone will find his or her best way to cushion the crisis.

End Part 3.