Paralel-Silistra / 29 July 2019 / Eurodesk
A LIFE SAVED or EUROPE IN MY REGION
RUSCHUK AND RUSE
“Ruschuk, in the lower reaches of the River Danube, where I was born, was a wonderful city for a child. To say that Ruschuk is in Bulgaria is to give an incomplete notion of the city, since it was filled with people from the most diverse backgrounds and in the space of single day seven or eight different languages could be heard.”
These were the first words Elias Canetti wrote in his autobiography  “A Language Saved” in which he describes the colourful multicultural life in Ruse (Ruschuk) in the early 20th century. When he was seven, a family drama took him to England, where he read his first books in English. Then the family moved to Austria and Switzerland, where he learned other local languages and dialects in order to be able to talk to other children and go to school. So in his early years, Canetti became part of the multilingualism and diversity of Europe. He was captivated by the possibility of communicating with people of different cultures; something that “enriched him with ideas and artistic power”.
My childhood also began in Ruse, more than half a century after Canetti was born. At that time, there was no trace of European diversity. The only language spoken on the streets was Bulgarian. Once a year, with special permission from the authorities, the people of Ruse could travel to the neighbouring Romanian town of Giurgiu. Before the age of twenty, I had only visited Bucharest on a day trip. I learned about Europe from the ragged map in the Geography classroom, and the teaching was based on the methods used by the teachers in Branislav Nusic’s “Autobiography”. The first time I met and talked to a foreigner was in our high school English classes, where we had a British teacher. My encounters with people from different cultures and countries were restricted to pen pal letters with a “Soviet comrade”. After graduating from university, life was mapped out by the authorities. We were assigned a mandatory workplace, membership of a particular political organisation, and involvement in political life.
However, 1989 arrived and the changes began. Bulgaria was looking for its place in Europe and public debates were filled with comparisons between “us” (Bulgarians) and “them” (Europeans). After about ten years, Bulgaria was invited to join the European Union. Simeon Saxe-Coburg-Gotha had made clear his desire to make the country a worthy member of the European club, although it was unclear how this would be achieved, how long it would take and how much it would cost. His missives gave encouragement to a large part of Bulgarian society and it began to “open up” to the cultural diversity of the European Union. My desire to participate in the process led me to find work in the local government offices in Silistra. Silistra is located in a multi-ethnic region, one of the poorest in Bulgaria. At that time, I was the only person working there who could speak English. This advantage gave me a “head start” and allowed me to participate in the Tempus programme, focused on “European specialisation in local government”, which is now part of the Erasmus + programme.
MY JOURNEY TO EUROPE
So one day in 2001, along with a number of other Bulgarians, I travelled to Italy to take up an internship at the local government administration in Perugia. I had already travelled outside Bulgaria for short periods and I could see the differences between our perception of Europe and that of colleagues from other countries. I found it hard to understand how the foreigners I met thought, and why their institutions and countries were developing more successfully. While waiting at Sofia Airport, I thought it would be a good idea to buy a book for the long flight. There weren’t many books in the small news store, I saw a white one in the front row. It had an interesting, but long title: “Cultures and Organizations. Software of the mind. Intercultural Cooperation and its Importance for Survival” by Heert Hofstede. I bought it mainly because of the hard covers that would protect it from damage during my trip and my stay in Italy.
I started reading the moment I took my seat in the plane. I became absolutely engrossed in the book, which provided answers to the questions I had been asking myself. I completely lost track of space and time. At one point I looked up and, to my astonishment, the plane hadn’t even taken off. Engineers had spent the last two hours fixing a problem in the plane’s systems and the flight was seriously delayed. Consequently, by the time we reached Perugia, I had read most of the book. Immersed in the mental whirlpool of cultures, cultural strata, and measurements of cultural differences, I accepted the idea of “the cultural programming of the mind” as a life line. In subsequent years, Hofstede’s slim, academically proven thesis was to help me communicate with “foreigners”. It has become an integral part of my professional development as part of the Romania-Bulgaria and Erasmus + cross-border cooperation programmes.
After about another ten years, despite my advancing years, I decided it was time to go back to university and complete a second master’s degree in “European Programmes and International Cooperation”. Once again, I turned back to Hofstede and his system of indicators for measuring cultural differences. Applying them, I began writing a dissertation exploring the impact of intercultural communication on relations in Romanian-Bulgarian cross-border teams. The research thesis and the Erasmus + programme took me to Danubius University in Galati, Romania. Thus, I was able to test my suppositions on the ground.
Then during an exchange of academic staff under the same programme, I conducted research on cultural differences and taught intercultural communication to students at Hubei University, Wuhan, China. If Bulgarian and Romanian cultures are relatively close in terms of Hofstede’s indicators, then the Chinese way of thinking and perceptions has evolved in a very different way.
I lived for three months together with Chinese students and teachers, during which time I tried to understand their point of view and style of expression. The Erasmus + programme and June Lee’s stories in her anthology “A Thousand Years of Prayer” helped me to overcome the culture shock. What I experienced there had certainly not happened in Ruse, and I never thought it would ever happen. My life was now free of any predetermined plan and offered me opportunities, encounters and ideas that would have been unimaginable before. It had been “saved”.
YOUNG PEOPLE IN OUR REGION
In recent years, I have been working for the Paralel-Silistra NGO (www.paralel-silistra.net). Under the name of Eurodesk-Silistra, we provide information and encourage young people from the region (still multi-ethnic and poor) to participate in the Erasmus + youth exchange programmes. So in October 2018, I started work as a trainer for a group of 30 disadvantaged young people, including some from our region.
Our partner project “New way – educated, motivated, and working!”, in conjunction with organisations from Spain, Portugal, Lithuania and Poland, and funded by Erasmus +, enabled these young people to interact personally with other young people of the same age from other cultures. For many of them, the trip to Spain was the first time they had travelled within Europe. Toledo, the city where Jews, Christians and Muslims coexisted in peace and understanding a thousand years ago, bore witness to our cultural growth. As we learned how to overcome our fear of interaction, we “opened up” to one another, understanding our strengths and shared common European values.
It was the same spiritual and physical journey, and that same self-appreciation that Canetti had written about; and it was now being experienced by the young people involved in the programme.
This is how the Erasmus + programme and books became my life companions. Their messages became part of me and helped me to overcome the closed world and restrictions of my childhood. They helped me achieve ideas that had never even occurred to me in the past. They gave me and the young people of the region new horizons and new potential to achieve. What lies ahead?
At the moment, I am absorbed by Norman Davies’ book: “Europe – a History”. Davies, the historian, presents European history in a comparative way and discusses it in its entirety. He applies a new approach to historical events and treats cultures equally and in interaction, without any nationalistic assumptions. This is absolutely in the spirit of a united Europe! Where will this book take me? Will I be able to accomplish projects inspired by it in our region? Which European programme should I turn to after 2020?
I don’t have the answers today, but I am ready to undertake a new spiritual journey!
Dr Diana Nedelcheva Bebenova-Nikolova
 By analogy with Elias Canetti’s “A Language Saved”.
 Canetti won the Nobel Prize and Literature in 1981, “for writers marked by a broad outlook, a wealth of ideas and artistic power”, WIKIPEDIA
 Branislav Nusic’s “Autobiography” was published in 1924, WIKIPEDIA