From time to time my book collection has been significantly enlivened by obscure gems from old library stock, made available to the public for 50p or less. A few years ago I stepped out of a Leicester library clutching a copy of the wonderful Street Without a Name: Childhood and Other Misadventures in Bulgaria, by Kapka Kassabova (2008).
As Bulgaria was about to join the EU and I knew little about the place beyond its role as a cheap property magnet for some Brits, I was eager to get reading.
The author superbly combines travel and memoir with a generous sprinkling of Balkan history in a book that evokes the grim atmosphere, contradictions and absurdities of growing up under Bulgarian communism at the height of the Soviet Empire. As if in direct dialogue with the old regime, she quickly asserts: “Beauty might be more important to the ego of a country, but truth is more important to me.”
Now a successful expat writer living in Edinbourgh, Kapka travels back after a long absence to a changing country, yet brings the perspective of a sharp-eyed outsider with an insiders grap of the good, the bad and the unbearably nostalgic. Her travel companion is an English-speaking boyfriend which only adds to the feeling that she now occupies a very different world from the everyday Bulgarians they meet.
The chapters zigzag through various stages of the author’s life before emigration with vivid descriptions of Sofia life spent in a residential complex known colloquially as “Soc Bloc.” Nevertheless, as someone with professional parents, her family enjoyed occasional trips to Moscow and other foreign delights.
Indeed, one highlight of the book concerns her mother’s reaction while visiting her father in Holland on a 6 month job placement during the cold war: the “orgy of abundance” in department stores, the “supernaturally clean sheets” and the “sparkling, perfumed” toilets in a provincial Dutch town puts her on the brink of a breakdown. When a Dutch colleague and his family then visit her father in monochrome Sofia in their brand new camper van wearing “bright pastel colours,” it is a moment of real comic beauty tinged with sadness.
I have subsequently visited Bulgaria on several occasions and can honestly recommend the country as much as the book. Happy reading – and happy travelling.
About the reviewer
Lloyd Wright is an under-employed EFL teacher who values engagement with students and others from across the globe – Chile to China – and especially their quirky views about British life. He writes occasional articles for diverse outlets and was briefly on the Disney payroll while writing about the unfolding drama of the 2002 World Cup.