Friday, October 29, 2010


(Warning - long post.)

Photo shows Tiber river at evening.

From June 6 to 11, I attended the Cell Model Systems Summer school at Tor Vergata Research Establishment, Rome. It was great experience and I learned a lot about liposomes and other membrane models, cytotoxic membrane-permeabilizing peptides, new materials based on plasma technology as well as current concepts about the origin of life - all this quite interesting and useful for a teacher in a broad-spectrum biology course like me. I saw first-hand how liposomes and nanomaterials are prepared, and how the atomic force microscope works, about which I had only read in articles. I am very thankful to my professor who recommended me for the summer school, to the organizers who approved my application, to the lecturers, and to my fellow participants. I whole-heartedly recommend CMS to every young researcher or teacher in life sciences. I also keep warm memories of our late-afternoon tours in Rome and in the beautiful nearby town of Frascati where we were accomodated, at the excellent hotel Cacciani.
But this is just an introduction - the post, unfortunately, is centered on something else.
Back in the 1990s, Bulgaria was even more miserable than it is today. And even more depressing than the crude reality was the feeling of hopelessness, of a lacking future. The ability to see future where it actually isn't, to see open spaces and blue skies while looking at a brick wall, was a vital skill. Those who hadn't it had to emigrate or let misery crush their souls. Among them was my brother. He had a rare gift in math that he later developed into computing, he was a good musician (though this was not his favourite occupation), but he was completely unable to see dungeon walls as open spaces. So he wished to emigrate to a country with a future.
From the European countries, three were considered seriously as prospective new homes - Germany and Switzerland, where we had relatives, and Italy, where my brother (sometimes accompanied by my sister in-law) traveled several times for temporary work with a student orchestra. Switzerland was most hostile to Eastern Europeans and was soon cancelled as a realistic possibility. My brother travelled to Germany to apply for a job, but without success. We had there a first cousin married to a German who owned small but successful business. This man said, "If you had a permit to work in Germany, I could give you a job at my shop. But I cannot obtain this permit for you - according to our laws, I have to prove that I cannot find a German to do the job, and this is impossible."
My brother actually liked Italy most because, as he said, the Southern temperament of Italians was making them similar to Bulgarians. A short Italian dictionary and a booklet titled Buon giorno - How to learn Italian in 10 days are still kept somewhere at my mother's library. But there, again, the attempt was unsuccessful. What to do - Western Europeans in those years were shutting us Eastern Europeans out as if we were leprosy-infected.
At the end of 1990s, my sister in-law and my brother obtained immigrant visas for the USA and settled there. He worked at days and learned English and computer science at night, then enrolled to study at a local college, then became computer programmer at the same college. He fulfilled the American dream... as more than one person said at his funeral ceremony.
You have surely read about parallel worlds - that when reality faces an alternative, it goes both ways, splitting into two. As a description of the physical world, parallel worlds are bullshit, but they excellently reflect the attempts of our mind to protect itself by shielding itself from unacceptable reality. The "what if" magical thinking. I still have a strong feeling about parallel worlds, and the impression that I have wandered into the wrong one that is not truly real. On Monday, March 22 I met my mother and we discussed the menu for the Friday dinner, when my family had to visit her. I asked her to fry meatballs, and we were very happy. This last happy day was in fact undeserved, because my brother was already dead - we just did not know it yet. Then on Friday, I felt trapped in a parallel world, in a wrong reality. Why was I in my home, when I had to be at my mother's apartment, eating meatballs? My mother of course had not cooked meatballs - she had flown to America the previous day to attend her son's funeral.
I had a similar feeling the night of June 6th when I arrived to Rome. The organizers of the summer school had sent a shuttle car to pick me and an Italian participant from the airport. As we travelled, my Italian colleague chatted with the driver. I was silently watching the landscape and I imagined that the shuttle car was actually sent by my brother and sister in-law, who were living in Italy. At one moment, the driver asked me in English whether I spoke any Italian. I said no, he jokingly asked why not, and I answered that I had no relations in Italy. As if reading my thoughts, he said, "Now is a very nice time to have relations."
In the next days, the summer school and the majesty of this great city distracted me and helped my recovery, well described by some psychologist as "adaptation to a world from which one's loved one is missing." Rome, Frascati, Italy are names that evoke good memories in me. Yet at the same time Italy, Germany, Switzerland and the entire "old Europe" carry for me the cold touch of the rejection. Because they did not accept my brother, that is, they were not here when I truly needed them. If he had gone to Italy or Germany, his life would not have ended so early. Or, at the very least, I would have seen him more often during these last years, and I would attend his funeral.
I have never want to emigrate myself - in fact, I spent most of my adult life struggling against other people urging me to emigrate, for my own good. But the visa refusals obtained by my loved ones scarred me with a rejection trauma without which I would be another (and almost certainly better) person. In particular, it made me more xenophobic than I would have been otherwise. Of course many immigrants are wonderful people and gain to old Europe, as would be my brother if he had been accepted. However, there are also the other kind of immigrants (let's not start a topic about freedom of speech, films, cartoons and so on). And I think I would not rant so much against multicultural Europe if I were not asking myself why such and such people have been allowed into Europe and my brother was rejected.
It is no use to try and explain down the world to me by reason. You need not mention that many immigrants are such and such because "old Europeans" wanted illiterate guest workers to clean their toilets for no money, rather than educated immigrants with Western mentality to join them as equals. My reason knows it perfectly but the irrational core of me refuses to come to terms with it. It is also of no use to mention that today Bulgarians, or at least white Christian Bulgarians, can move to any European country of their choice. In my world, now is just too late. This is my experience, and I give it absolute importance. For other people, especially for younger people who do not clearly remember the 1990s, my experience will be irrelevant. So, with rare exceptions such as this post, I'll keep it to myself, like a gem too precious to be appreciated by the populace. Value your experience, even if nobody else does. For good or for bad, it makes you who you are.


Mi said...

Hi Maya,

I am sorry about the loss of your brother. I hope he felt he led a happy life in the U.S.

I found this post very touching. Maybe because of my own angst... America has been good to me...and even West Europe has been good to my relatives... However, I do ask myself this very often: "What have I done for my native country?"

I really admire those who choose to stay in the country of their origin despite the circumstances... I feel they carry a bigger burden to contribute to the country's future.

Maya M said...

Thank you, Mi.
Yes, my brother had a happy life in America. I would publish photos of it if I were not concerned for his family's privacy.
I also agree with you that all countries need some people to stay in them, to put and keep them in order :-), and my general advice to young people is - not to regard emigration as default, but to emigrate only if they feel they could not be happy at home, otherwise to try to build a life in their home country and to improve it. I hope that in the distant future, all countries will be made inhabitable and people will emigrate only for reasons such as career or love, rather than to escape misery.

Peti said...

I am really sorry for your loss... And especially sad when you say the obstacles your brother faced caused you a trauma that made you a less good person. Life is full of obstacles and it usually works for the best if they make us better people, if we learn from our experience overcoming them and triumphing over them, as your brother certainly did.

But even if they don't, I think your xenophobia as consequence of those obstacles and rejections is misguided. Why? It's the Western Europeans who rejected, not the poor and uneducated immigrants they welcomed do the low-qualified jobs they had available. And many Bulgarians were in that same position as well. Spain is full of Eastern Europeans who immigrated illegally years ago to take low-paid jobs. Same with other countries. They did what they had to do to survive, even if they had qualifications and education, and are still very much rejected, culturally and otherwise, by the locals. Are you saying that because of a traumatic experience our reaction should be to do exactly the same thing that caused us the trauma?

You definitely have the right to your own emotional reaction, but it is just sad and illogical.

Maya M said...

The sad truth is that the behavior of the old immigrants has created stereotypes that harm prospective new immigrants, and also mere visitors. E.g. there are many people from Bulgaria and other countries who are staying or working illegally in Western European countries and also in USA and Canada. Many residents of there countries view these illegals as nice, hard-working people who just happen to have less-than-perfect papers. We, however, pay for the undeserved good fortune of these "nice" people by being forced to wait long lines at embassies, endure humiliating interviews and often ending with visa rejections - all this because the embassy officials fear we, if allowed once, could decide to stay like those "nice" people.
It is also not true that Westerners reject while poor uneducated immigrants don't. Before Bulgaria joined EU, I have watched interviews with such immigrants and they, logically, were against us. They did not seem to ask whether they had been welcomed when THEY had become EU citizens.
Unfortunately, life generally makes us worse persons than we have been in our early youth. This is because the ideas of good people clash too severely with facts. So I have become bad, but this is still OK, because I do not intend to emigrate anywhere.