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Identity and Coincidence: I Am

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Our writer above the rooftops of Ruse (Photo: Private)

13 March 2012

She is 23 years old, from Munich and nearing the end of her studies. The only thing she had in common with Bulgaria was her surname. Now, Julia Serdarov went there in search of her roots.

Thirty pairs of eyes look at me, attentively anticipating the first words in a foreign language. I am standing in front of a group of about thirty people of various ages. The small room in the autonomous centre in the heart of Sofia is completely packed; interest in free German lessons by a native speaker appears to be great, greater than the interest in the discussions that my acquaintances here otherwise hold: discussions about capitalism, racism, and corruption, perhaps the most urgent issues in Bulgaria. But, the people come to German lessons; so many that not all of them have found a seat on one of the grey office chairs, some are standing in the doorway, holding notebooks and pencils in their hands.

I am, you are, he is, we are, you are, they are. I am German. I hesitate briefly before putting the chalk to the small slate board; usually I avoid such a sentence. Yes, I have a German passport, German is my native language, but it’s not as simple as that. Maybe that’s the reason I have come here, to this country on the borders of the EU, perceived by many as a country at the periphery of Europe, the poorhouse of the EU in the figures and charts of statisticians.

I am German. Aren’t I?

I am German. The chalk squeaks, my fingers turn white and dry. Didactics win out over lengthy explanations. You are Bulgarian. He is Bulgarian. She is Bulgarian. Where are you from? I randomly indicate the people in front of me with my hand, and carefully, still somewhat uncertainly, they speak their first words in German. I am pleased; I’m beginning to enjoy it. I am Nigerian. The young man with the dark, nappy curls and white teeth grins at me. I met Ole at an event a few months ago – instead of German for Beginners, that evening the subject on the programme of the autonomous centre was Refugee Rights in Bulgaria. He had told us how he noticed as a pupil that there was a long number next to every name on the class list – but not next to his. When the officials also noticed it, he had to spend a few months in a closed camp on the edge of the city. In the place where I too would stand up and chant “Svoboda!” – freedom – shortly after each event. In the country in which Ole grew up and the language of which had become his native language.

This article originally appeared on jádu: To the German-Czech youth portal

I am Nigerian. I’m surprised at first. Would he have said that during the lecture? Then, he had spoken in a firm, loud voice of the homeland of his father that he had only seen once in his life. Again, didactics win out over lengthy explanations and I am relieved over the variation between we are Bulgarians, you are Bulgarians, they are Bulgarians.

From the back shelf of memory

“Have fun exploring your roots!” three of my girlfriends had written in a card before I left. “No Regrets,” it said on the front of the orange-coloured card. Exploring roots: the term made me uneasy. I did not want to link my stay in Bulgaria with my father or with the fact that he had left the country more than thirty years ago and had never returned. That he so strived to forget the places of his youth that he strictly refused to teach his children the language in which he had written his first alphabet, read his first books and spoken his first words. The first time I returned from a few days of a summer holiday in Bulgaria, though, he wanted to know everything: how does it look now in the little wine village he grew up in; the neighbours, the streets, whether anyone asked about him. Whether I had seen his room, the walls of which are still adorned with the flowery wallpaper and the yellowed passport photos of his grandparents. Yet all of these were not the reasons I had come here, I told myself often. When people asked, I liked to quote Iliya Troyanov, who once said that biographical coincidence had brought him to Bulgaria. That was it, a biographical coincidence, nothing more.

Then, on a hot summer day in Mladeži Park, the Park of Youth, the grass is still somewhat wet from a sudden shower and the sunlight is falling through the green leaves onto a picnic blanket where Bulgarian puff pastry and Swabian cherry cake are spread out in plastic containers. Next to them lie a rattle, nappies, and jars of baby food. Two young parents are playing with their one-year-old daughter; begin singing children’s songs, first in German, then in Bulgarian. Something flashes through me briefly, and then slowly snippets of words enter my head. Words that were once only abstract sounds to me and now suddenly make sense after learning vocabulary and grammar lessons. My father takes me by the hands and turns me in circles, singing beli peperudki, white butterfly. A scene, a few lines of a song come back to me from the far back shelf of my memory on a picnic blanket in midsummer. The children’s song came to me like someone one sees on the train and only slowly recognizes as an old friend. These ties are strange between language and memory, language and identity.

Who are you?

A five minute break; my mouth is dry and so is the blackboard eraser. I have been talking and writing too much. After I wiped away the last verb declinations, I am looking for some w-questions to make use of the new verbs. Where do you come from? Where do you live? What languages do you speak? I come from Germany. I live in Sofia. I speak German, English, and Bulgarian.

But, no, I’ve forgotten the most important thing. I am Julia.
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