Sunday, 9 September 2012

Balkania Pt 6: Back to School…

world-map varna


After the conclusion of my Albanian adventures, it’s back to Bulgaria and Balkania which was interrupted unexpectedly several months back. In this week’s extract, I revisit a school where I enjoyed what was perhaps the happiest year of my working life. Why? Read on to find out…

Keep travelling!

Uncle Travelling Matt

My Flickr album of this trip

Index and links to all the parts of Balkania:

Balkania Pt. 1: Sofia to Varna

Balkania Pt. 2: A Drink in Varna

Balkania Pt. 3: Wedding Bells in Varna (unpublished)

Balkania Pt. 4: A Trip to Tutrakan: Tales of Devotion and Despair

Balkania Pt. 5: Of Love, Lust and the Nation (unpublished)

Balkania Pt. 6: Back to School

Balkania Pt. 7: On a Mission

Balkania Pt. 8: The City of Wisdom?

Balkania Pt. 9: And the Tsar, he chose a heavenly kingdom…

Balkania Pt. 10: The Bridge over the Drina

Balkania Pt. 11: The Death-Drenched Drina

Balkania Pt. 12: Jerusalem of the Balkans

Balkania Pt. 13: A City Under Siege

Balkania Pt. 14: Austrian Influences

Balkania Pt. 15: Along the Bosna Valley

Balkania Pt. 16: Under the Airport and over the Mountains

Balkania Pt. 17: A Day Trip with Miran

Balkania Pt. 18: The City of the Broken Bridge

Balkania Pt. 19: Up the Black Mountain

Balkania Pt. 20: Worth the Bones of a Pomeranian Grenadier…?


Varna (3)

I’d initially planned to stay in Varna for only a day or so after the wedding but there was one place that I definitely wanted to revisit before departing for the Big Balkan Unknown and that was the school where I’d spent a very happy year employed as a teacher of Англиский СИП, (which translates as English Language Option – except that it wasn’t optional).

Mr. Popov’s school was in fact not one single school but instead two separate institutions situated within the same building but running at separate times. The first was the grandly-titled ‘George Byron Private Language High School’[1] which specialised in foreign languages whilst its sister – or perhaps ‘brother’ – institution was the equally magnificently-named ‘Atanas Burov[2] Private Professional High School’ which shoved on extra Economics and Business Studies classes instead.

They way they managed to house two schools in one building was quite novel to me but apparently quite common across many parts of the world. Basically, the day is split into two shifts: 07:00 to 13:00 and 13:00 to 19:00 with one institution taking the early shift and the other the latter. To ensure fairness, (i.e. one unfortunate group of students not having to get up stupidly early every morning for five years), every half term the schools switched shifts. For me though, it made little difference since I taught at both and so some days I was starting horridly early and then taking a siesta whilst on others there was a nice lie in but then it was straight out onto the town afterwards. Can you guess which I preferred?

And if that took some getting used to, then so too did a few other things. I came to Byron/Burov straight from Japan where I’d taught classes of thirty-five or more students, all dressed identically in smart – if somewhat silly – uniforms that made them look like little soldier boys and little sailor girls; sat in rows, boy, girl, boy, girl; who stood up and bowed when you entered the room and had a student announce, “English studies: let’s begin!” at the start of each class and “English studies: let’s finish!” at the end. That’s what I came from. That was not quite like Mr. Popov’s school…[3]

For starters, the classes were smaller, twelve being large, and what’s more, no one wore a uniform. The desks were technically in rows but seats were not assigned by the teacher, (although interestingly, amongst the older students, there was a tendency to sit boy-girl together…). Some students did stand when you entered the class, but that’s because they’d been standing (and chatting) before you’d entered and indeed, they’d not even noticed your presence until you ordered them to sit, (and not on the desks!). These students however, were not the problem; the real problem was the ones who weren’t even in the room. They then had to be chased out of the coffee shop downstairs before the lesson could begin.

Not that beginning signalled much of a change mind. Lessons were hardly a reason to interrupt a). a chat, b). a card game, c). music on a personal stereo, d). a call on one’s mobile phone, e). the perusal of a fashion magazine, f). putting on make-up or g). a snog. Indeed, the main reasons why one might actually be inclined to pay attention were a). to try and wind up the teacher, b). to find out English swear words and, very occasionally, c). because Mr. Popov had threatened to expel you if you didn’t pay some attention at some time. After leaving Mr. Popov’s school, I later went on to teach at a Young Offenders’ Institute and nowadays I toil at a full-blown Category B (i.e. serious) prison. ‘How do you cope with them?’ is a question that I’m often asked by concerned friends. Well, put it like this, Britain’s criminal elite from car-jackers, armed robbers and cannabis cultivators are a doddle after Varna’s finest.[4]

Being a private school, one might be inclined to ask as to why there was such an attitude problem when surely only the best, hand-picked kids go to private schools. Well, in Britain, with its centuries-old traditions of private education, then that is maybe the case, but in Bulgaria where all schools were state-run until 1990 then the private sector exists mainly for those who can afford to pay and, often, won’t be accepted in any of the decent state schools. As I have already said, I taught at a Young Offenders’ Institute later on and believe me, some of them weren’t all that different, indeed, the main defining factor being that the kids at Mr. Popov’s school could afford to pay off the police. I vividly remember one male student coming in furious because the police had caught him drink driving. “I told the bitch who my father was and she said that she was very sorry but the breathalyser automatically sent the results to the computer in the hospital so I had to go there to get them wiped but the bitch there didn’t know how to do it, so I’m stuck with the fucking charge!”

“Bad luck,” I commiserated, none too heartily. “So you can’t drive now I suppose?”

“Oh no, I can still drive, but only in Varna. I can make sure that the police here stay quiet but in other cities I don’t have that kind of influence, bastards!”

Taking all of that into account, one might wonder why I was so keen to return to such a place since most people would probably prefer to run from the building screaming, but the fact is that I loved every minute of working there. For every coffee shop addict there was a Kristina and for every drink-driving son of a mafia don there was an Araksia. And besides, it is my firmly held view that the naughty kids are not necessarily the worst. One particular class at the school, Burov Year 9 – they are the ones featured in the video mentioned earlier – was infamous for its wild behaviour and minimal work yet after an initial sticky session or two where they, like all kids, decided to test the new teacher, I enjoyed teaching them and found them to be some of the friendliest kids I’ve ever come across. I regularly shared a coffee with them before lessons started on the early shift during the cold winter months whilst I also occasionally attended Cherno More FC matches with Nikolai, and went clubbing with some of the others in the summer.[5]

BK034Burov Year 9: Good kids if a tad unruly

Such interaction with one’s students was one of the main reasons why working in Bulgaria was so enjoyable. In Britain there sadly exists a culture of such hyper-professionalism that it results in students and teachers existing in totally separate vacuums, scared to associate with each other in any way outside of the classroom for fear of allegations being made which could result in a suspension or sacking. Such a state of affairs is ridiculous, buoyed on my an irresponsible media eager to generate a story and create an atmosphere of hysteria, for both teacher and student are human and it is natural for human beings working in close proximity to interact socially as well as professionally. Indeed, more than natural, I would argue it to be essential as a tool for teaching the young how the adult world works and for making each generation see that the one that passed before it was just as flawed, clever, funny, lazy, troubled and human as their own. Bulgaria embraces this heartily; I had coffee with my students, went clubbing with them and, along with Kate and Dave, invited them to our (rather raucous I’m afraid) parties at Villa Rai and as a result I connected with them better and got more out of them as students than I could ever do in a country such as Britain where the unbridgeable chasm between teacher and student cannot be crossed for fear of litigation. Ever wondered why our youth cannot relate to the values and culture of its elders? You may do worse than to look at our supposed ‘professionalism’ which takes out the ‘human factor’ of those elders.

BK035Socialising with students (for their educational good, I’m sure you’ll understand)

The same goes for the management. Pavel Marinov once commented to me that Mr. Popov was the best boss in the world. I replied that I could not say not having worked for every boss in the world, but that he was the best that I’ve ever had. Eight years on, after having toiled under many more bosses both good and bad, and I can say that that statement still holds true. The key to Mr. Popov’s leadership is again the human factor. He invites you in for a coffee, asks how your mum is, asks about your life and genuinely takes an interest in your replies be you the headmaster or the cleaner.

Another of the main planks of his strategy is the ‘Works Do’. Mr. Popov organises several of these every year and encourages your attendance at all of them through such devices as, “Well, the cost is 25 leva, but I’ll put five to it myself because I really want you to come along!” and naturally, put like that, how can you refuse and so in practice, few ever do. The result is a party that, unlike so many of its counterparts in the UK, brings a team together rather than dividing it into cliques. In Britain you see, we have those who will never attend a do, those who attend every one and even those who set up their own, rival, parties. Such would never happen in Mr. Popov’s school for you both like and respect Mr. Popov too much not to go. And whilst you’re there, rather than lording it over the whole event, the master becomes the servant, going from table to table, offering wine, chatting to spouses, cracking jokes and generally spreading them positive vibes.

Such a manager never has to disciple a member of staff for when you fall short you feel so bad about letting him down that you make sure that’ll you’ll never do so again. And as long as you get on with your work and fulfil all your obligations, then he leaves you alone. Unlike in the UK where one is obliged to fill your ‘free’ periods with paperwork or window-dressing or just looking busy for the sake of it, at Byron/Burov you can pop out for a coffee or a bit of shopping. As I said, so long as you do your job well, it’s not a problem. And so treated with such respect by a manager, you make sure that you do do your job to the best of your abilities. If only by ‘superiors’ at my last place of employment had attended the Dimitur Popov School of Management!

BK036 BK037A Mr. Popov Works Do: Fun

But the main thing that makes any school is its kids and at Byron/Burov, as I’ve already explained, we had the chance to get to know those kids very well. I drank coffee with them, went clubbing, watched the football and had parties with lots of them but there were two in particular who deserve a special mention since, along with Kate and Dave, I socialised a great deal with them.

Vika and Deni were in Byron 10a class. They were smart, fun-loving and mature beyond their years. Even so, at the start of the year, I wouldn’t have put them together as natural friends, for whilst Deni, (short for ‘Denitsa’), was a local kid and a bit of a glamour girl who knew she was hot and made the most of it, Vika, (short for ‘Veronika’), was a Russian, a native of Novosibirsk in far away Siberia and was altogether more serious and studious. Her dad was a big-time ‘businessman’ in the post-communist Russian mould and he’d deemed it safer for his only daughter to be as far away from the other local businessmen in Novosibirsk as she could get and so she lived on her own (at sixteen!) in a flat near the centre of Varna.

We started drinking in the evenings at Alba and other pubs with the girls and then going on days out, to the beach, or to Vika’s father’s other Bulgarian property, a house in a village some twenty kilometres or so down the coast where we spent a day once mowing the lawn. They were great fun, easy to talk to and a window for us three Brits into the lives of the younger generation in Bulgaria. They would come to ours for parties and we would go to Vika’s for beers and perhaps a cigar or two. They were happy days indeed but sadly I doubt that I’ll ever see those two again, leastways not together, for these days Vika is back in Novosibirsk whilst Deni was in for a while, then back in Bulgaria but the last that I heard, was in Germany.

BK038 Party in Villa Rai: Left to right: Kate; Me, Vika, Atanas (?); Deni

Another great thing about the kids at Byron/Burov was the diversity. People – not least me – talk about the ethic diversity of the Balkan countries, but that can be misleading for population exchanges, Great Excursions, visas to Israel and other such factors can make a population quite homogenous indeed and for the average visitor – be they worker or tourist – the only Bulgarians that one tends to come into contact with are the Christian Slavs. There are reasons behind this, from the minorities tending to inhabit the more backward, often quite rural areas, (e.g. the Razgrad and Shumen districts), to the Christian Slavs generally being richer and better educated, (and thus more likely to speak English or another foreign language and so actually able to converse with the visitor). Working at Mr. Popov’s school however, opened a window for me onto some of the other diverse peoples who found themselves in Bulgaria’s ‘Marine Capital’.

I’ve already mentioned for example, Araksia, but she wasn’t the only Armenian in the school, (and I taught one more in the Pushkin School). The most startling thing about the Armenians was their intelligence – all were exceptionally bright and studious. I tried out a brainteaser, (reproduced below), which I have tried on all my students over the years and only a couple have ever worked it out without any help. Except the Armenians that is; they all got it within seconds.


The Armenians mixed well with the Bulgarians and I never noticed any animosity towards them but at the same time they were always a distinct and easily recognisable group due to their strange names, (Araksia, Hacho, Kalust, Kevork…), and slightly darker skin tone. Interestingly, there did seem to be a difference between the Armenians born and bred in Armenia and those brought up in Bulgaria, the latter being far more liberal and thus like their Bulgarian counterparts.

The second notable group were the Russians of which I have already mentioned Vika, but there were many more in Varna, due no doubt to its location on the Black Sea Coast and as a major trading centre. Bulgaria has, of course, long-standing connections with its Slavic Big brother who helped to liberate the country from the Ottomans in the first place and then continued in its traditional role after the Red Army similarly ‘liberated’ the country from the Nazis, (on whose side the Bulgarians were fighting), one of their first acts being the imposition of Georgi Dimitrov, a Bulgarian communist who had been living in Moscow, as leader of the new socialist state. During the communist years, Bulgaria followed the Moscow line more slavishly than any other Warsaw Pact country and indeed on two separate occasions, Todor Zhivkov actually offered for his country to be incorporated into the USSR as the Sixteenth Republic, with the Soviets rejecting the offer both times! The coming of democracy has weakened the political ties but the cultural ones are still strong and nowhere more so than Varna and Burgas, the Black Sea ports. The ties these days are not altogether entirely legal, for several of the kids I taught were, like Vika, children of certain ‘businessmen’ whose sources of income are not always recorded in the tax ledgers. Like Vika, they often lived on their own or were at least given a degree of freedom that was quite startling even by West European standards. One might say that if the Armenians represent the conservative extreme of the Varnan spectrum then the Russians signify the liberal end. I remember very vividly a classroom debate concerning abortion in which one Russian girl, (whose boyfriend was a bodyguard to some local don), was at loggerheads with a Polish girl who was a devout Catholic. “Abortion is murder!” declared the Pole. “It should be banned!”

“It is a woman’s choice!” retorted the Russian. “Name one civilised country where abortion is banned!”


“Apart from Poland?”


“I said a civilised country!”

Aside from the Armenians and the Russians there was also an assortment of other nationalities sat in the classrooms of Byron/Burov. There were some Turks, (I always thought it sweet that Araksia was best friends with Sema, the only Turkish girl in her class – I asked her once about it and she replied that whilst she hated what the Turks had done to her people, she could not hate the individuals since Sema, after all, had never gone around massacring Armenians), a Romanian, a Greek, a Palestinian and a very shy half-Syrian girl named Lina. Once, during a discussion on marriage, when all the Bulgarians had been saying that they all intended to wait until thirty and then marry the partner of their choice, she announced that her marriage would be arranged and that it would be to a Syrian. This caused gasps of horror from the others so I asked her how she felt about it. “It is right,” she said firmly, “because that is our culture.”

BK040 BK041

BK042 BK043

Some of the kids at Mr. Popov’s school

In the school Mr. Popov was waiting to see me along with Mrs. Kiryakova who always spoke to me in charming English laced with speckles of French, and Mrs. Asparukhova, formerly one of the English teachers and now the Headmistress of the school, (Popov was the Director). I asked after absent colleagues, learnt that the secretary was now married to an Englishman, and they asked me about the wedding, Pavel and my family. It was great to catch up and then I had a lengthy discussion with Mr. Popov and Mrs. Asparukhova over the new business venture and issues pertaining to EFL. After that, Mr. Popov took me to an eatery for some breakfast and, worryingly, beer, (alcohol never appeals to me in the morning and after four nights of solid drinking, even less so), where he discussed the new business plans further before he bought a present for my son from a nearby souvenir emporium and we departed.

Trans Balkan Trip 2011 206

Probably the best boss in the world…

And that was that; all that I had come to Varna to do – Kristina’s wedding, meeting with Popov, Pavel and Plamen, driving out to Demir Baba and Tutrakan, sampling the thermal baths, dining at Gyularta and revisiting my old workplace – were all done and I was ready to leave. But whilst I was ready and eager, the trains were not; the next departure was not until ten at night and so I had the best part of a day to kill.

I started off by going round the back of the school to Varna’s ethnographical museum which, somehow, I had never got round to visiting before. Ethnographical museums are a speciality of the formerly socialist world and always, without fail, consist of an old house with one or more rooms preserved as it would have been in the 19th century and then in one or more other rooms some exhibitions of farming implements and folk costume. One imagines that if one were to look up the word ‘ethnography’ in the dictionary, the definition would be, ‘The study of old houses, costumes and farming implements’. Certainly, as a veteran of dozens such museums, I cannot see how it could be anything other.

This ethnographical museum was, as expected, just like all the others, but I must admit to finding the preserved rooms mildly interesting as they were pure National Revival stuff, that is to say a totally Turkish building with an interior that was a sort of uneasy mix between ottoman Oriental and European Belle Epoch. Again evidence that the Balkans truly is at the meeting place of two worlds: Oriental is what they were, European what they wanted to – and did – become.

Downstairs, alongside the farming implements and folk costumes, there was a small exhibition on the Gaugaz, another of those queer minority groups that the Balkans is so rich in. Tha Gaugaz speak Turkish but are Orthodox Christians and ethnographists, (when not studying farming implements or sewing folk costumes), argue as to what exactly their origins are, there being no less than twenty-one different theories to choose from, although the most common seem to be that they are a Turkic tribe who arrived and settled in Bulgaria before the Ottomans arrived, (hence their Orthodoxy), or that they are Bulgars who have been linguistically but not religiously Turkified, or perhaps Seljuk Turks who converted to Orthodoxy. Whatever the case, it transpires that there is a village just to the north-west of Varna that is full of them but there aren’t really any in the rest of Bulgaria, the majority of their number (around 150,000 out of 240,000), living in the southern regions of Moldova where they have some sort of semi-autonomy in an area called Gagauzia.

Having encountered a semi-Turkic people, I decided to dine my favourite Turkish restaurant in the city, (where I once wrote ‘The Villa on the Corner’ which I regard to be my best Bulgarian story), before then heading to the beach to read, sunbathe and watch the girls go by before returning to Druzhba to pack for the trip, read a book about Roma history and watch TV before I finally headed down to the railway station in Svetlo’s car.

And that is where I began this travelogue, waiting on that lamp-lit platform, next to a gigantic beast of the machine age that would soon carry me away from the Black Sea on the first stage of my journey across the most troubled, fascinating and compelling corner of Europe. I boarded the train, found an empty compartment, laid down across the seat with my bag as a pillow and waited. Very soon the whistle blew, the monster in front of me stirred into life and with a jolt we began and I drifted into a welcome sleep…

Next part: Balkania Pt. 7: On a Mission


[1] I’d never know that Lord Byron’s first name was ‘George’ before working there so they taught one thing at least!

[2] It seems to be standard practice in Bulgaria – and indeed across the Post-Communist World – to name schools after famous people. I also taught some classes at the Alexander Pushkin Russian Language High School whilst Dave taught at the Naiden Gerov High School. Burov, incidentally, was a famous (in Bulgaria) economist who used to be a member of the government.

[3] Whilst all the above is true, I must stress also that Japanese middle school students are not as well-behaved, studious and regimented as the stereotypes suggest as they aren’t. However, I have no doubts that in a contest with the boys and girls of Byron/Burov, they would win the regimentation prize hands down.

[4] For those interested, or somewhat sceptical of the picture that I paint, please check out this video, ‘Edin den v uchilishte’ (One Day at School) on Nikolina Kirova’s Facebook page. The American guy on it is my successor. He only lasted a few months.

[5] Nikolai was the worst behaved of the lot. After I left he was so badly behaved that he was sent to live with a family in America to get him away from bad influences, but he played up so much there that they sent him back after only a month or so. Cherno More were one of the two football clubs of Varna, Pavel supporting the other, Spartak Varna. Once, after Nikolai had been particularly naughty, I gave him lines, (the standard punishment). “How many?” he asked. “Oh, only twenty,” I replied. He smiled, thinking he’d got off light. “But there are conditions,” I warned. “You must write ‘Spartak Varna are the best team in Bulgaria’ and you must give them not to me, but to Mr. Marinov.” His face fell. “No! Anything but that!” He never (seriously) misbehaved for me again.

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