A Marvelous City.

I’ve started Elias Canetti’s The Tongue Set Free (see this post), and have already fallen in love with it. He was born in what is now Ruse but was then called by the Turkish name Rustchuk or Ruschuk; I was barely aware of its existence, but his description brings it vividly to life and makes me think of Ottoman Selanik/Salonica (see this post and the others linked there) and other multiethnic cities now mostly homogenized by the forces of nationalism and war:

Ruschuk, on the lower Danube, where I came into the world, was a marvelous city for a child, and if I say that Ruschuk is in Bulgaria, then I am giving an inadequate picture of it. For people of the most varied backgrounds lived there, on any one day you could hear seven or eight languages. side from the Bulgarians, who often came from the countryside, there were many Turks, who lived in their own neighborhood, and next to it was the neighborhood of the Sephardim, the Spanish Jews–our neighborhood. There were Greeks, Albanians, Armenians, Gypsies. From the opposite side of the Danube came Rumanians; my wetnurse, whom I no longer remember, was Rumanian. There were also Russians here and there.

As a child, I had no real grasp of this variety, but I never stopped feeling its effects. Some people have stuck in my memory only because they belonged to a particular ethnic group and wore a different costume from the others. Among the servants that we had in our home during the course of six years, there was once a Circassian and later on an Armenian. My mother’s best friend was Olga, a Russian woman. Once every week, Gypsies came into our courtyard, so many that they seemed like an entire nation […]

It would be hard to give a full picture of the colorful time of those early years in Ruschuk, the passions and the terrors. Anything I subsequently experienced had already happened in Ruschuk. There, the rest of the world was known as “Europe,” and if someone sailed up the Danube to Vienna, people said he was going to Europe. Europe began where the Turkish Empire had once ended. Most of the Sephardim were still Turkish subjects.

I know I’m overly romantic about such things, but I’d love to hang out there, or in old Lemberg/Lwów/Lviv/Lvov, or old Alexandria, or any of those premodern cities where you could rub elbows with all sorts of people and hear a dozen languages on a short stroll. (Yes, I realize you can still do that in cosmopolises like New York and Paris, but it’s not the same. The small scale is part of the charm.)

Comments

  1. Stu Clayton says:

    I see you got Auto-da-Fé (Die Blendung) as an afterbirthday present. To read that was harrowing for me. I thought at the time that it is one of The Greats, but now I don’t know what to think. I tried to read it again last year and couldn’t continue. PTSD I guess.

    Lots of Viennese “local color”. Black and blood-red.

  2. I have been in Ruse many times. I find two odd things about the town. Firstly, there is seriously little cultural interaction with Romania these days. Maybe there was a century ago, but nowadays the average inhabitant of Ruse does not know any Romanians and might even have a very negative view of people across the Danube bridge. In fact, if you mention the official name of the bridge (“Friendship Bridge”) to people on either side, they will laugh and say “What friendship?”

    Secondly, while I like Ruse’s city center – and even if not all foreigners will, it seems like an ordinary Eastern European city – just mention Ruse to most Bulgarians and they’ll say “Oh, that’s a terrible gypsy city”. The town seems to have a bad reputation in the country that IMO is entirely undeserved.

  3. What’s odd about Bulgarians not knowing any Romanians? They were isolated from each other since 75 years ago, until very recently. And the decline of Ruse is a completely normal process — this isolation from other countries on the Danube turned it from this cosmopolitan city to a place at the edge of nowhere. And, as a border region, almost as isolated from the rest of Bulgaria also.

  4. Trond Engen says:

    Still, or because of that, I’d have expected local authorities on both sides to grab the new opportunitities with both hands, promoting all sorts of cross-border activities, from music festivals and football tournaments to school exchange programs.

  5. Stu Clayton says:

    Trond, you can’t be serious ? Big cross-border PR schemes are relatively new-fangled things. A lot of money has to come from somewhere to get them off the ground. I grew up in El Paso right across the border from Ciudad Juárez. Nobody was interested in organized cross-border shenanigans for TV.

    Because of reasons, mostly.

  6. David Marjanović says:

    Vienna and Bratislava are just 60 km apart. Since the Iron Curtain fell, almost nothing has happened: it still hasn’t fallen in people’s heads.

    OK, OK, one of Bratislava’s airports became Vienna’s cheap-airline airport for a while. Then the Bratislava-based airline Sky Europe went bankrupt.

  7. J.W. Brewer says:

    Quoth wikipedia: The Soviets named it the “Friendship Bridge”, but, since the fall of the communist regimes in both countries, the bridge got the more functional name of “Danube Bridge.”

    I would imagine the bridge facilitates long-distance movement of goods by truck and rail without any particular need to stop at Ruse any longer than required for whatever passport control remains between 2 EU members not integrated into the Schengen zone. It’s very different from being a port city where people will tend to linger and mix because one phase of a cargo’s journey is coming to an end and another phase beginning, and goods may change ownership and/or be warehoused for a while pending the next stage of their trip.

  8. Trond Engen says:

    Maybe, but the situations are different. The Rio Grande is a border very much felt as a border, and enforced culturally as well as by force — and the local economy is very much based on the complimentary industires of enforcing and penetrating the border. In what used to be an important port on the Danube, and now is a backwater, I’d rather assume the new openness to be seen as a possibilty. But I agree that official programs are of little significance if not accompanied by everyday economic transactions.

  9. Athel Cornish-Bowden says:

    just mention Ruse to most Bulgarians and they’ll say “Oh, that’s a terrible gypsy city”. The town seems to have a bad reputation in the country that IMO is entirely undeserved.

    The sort of thing Parisians used to say about Marseilles until the TGV made it much easier, quicker and cheaper to get here a few years ago, except they’d say it was a terrible Arab city. In Canada in 1989 we stayed at a bed-and-breakfast presided over by a very large lady whose idea of breakfast was to have all her guests sitting around a large table at which food was abundantly available. There was a French family who came, I think, from Toulouse, who were very interested to know that we lived in France, and wanted to know where in France. When I answered Marseilles they looked horrified and immediately checked that their wallets were still in place!

    The bad reputation of Marseilles is not entirely undeserved, but it’s greatly exaggerated, especially by people who live in cities like Paris and Nice, and even Avignon, who have more violent crime (per capita) than we have.

  10. Athel Cornish-Bowden says:

    I’d have expected local authorities on both sides to grab the new opportunities with both hands, promoting all sorts of cross-border activities, from music festivals and football tournaments to school exchange programs.

    When I was in Foz de Iguaçu a few years ago I didn’t get the impression that the Brazilians, Paraguayans and Argentinians had been particularly active in grabbing the opportunities. The Lebanese community, on the other hand, saw lots of advantages on being located on a border between three countries. Many of them came during the Lebanese civil war, and as well as building a nice mosque they engaged in cross-border trade in an energetic way.

  11. The bad reputation of Marseilles is not entirely undeserved

    That’s probably been true of all port cities since the beginning of time.

  12. My ancestors used to live at a similar border-bridge on the other side of Romania (connecting Mogilev and Ataki over Dniester river – with different branches of the family trying to make living on both sides). If you go there now, all you see are the vast and chaotic Romani peddler markets subsisting largely on the cross-border trade. The opportunity may be meager for all I know but they use it full way. My guess is that there just isn’t enough money to be made if one follows all the procedures, and only being able to skirt some rules and some government rackets makes it possible.
    It sure scares away many people from the nearby region who’d rather keep their wallets more safe from being snatched.

  13. J.W. Brewer says:

    If you look at the historically very porous US-Canadian border (more paperwork hassle and chance of delay in recent years than in former times) I don’t think you’ll see a lot of the “music festivals and football tournaments [or] school exchange programs” Trond hopes for. It’s typically more regulatory arbitrage of a less culturally edifying kind. US guys in the Detroit and Buffalo areas drive over the bridge to Canada to patronize the strip clubs; value-conscious Montrealers drive down to Plattsburgh to load up the trunks of their cars with cheaper (due to differences in tax policy etc.) groceries and other consumer goods. That sort of thing.

  14. Trond Engen says:

    I don’t particularly hope for culture festivals. I just would have thought that the political leaders on both sides would have used the opportunity to rebrand their cities and remind the local population and the larger community alike of ancient greatness and international flair. Economically speaking I understand that a river port is hardly a port anymore and that a bridge inside the common market is not a transit station with the kind of delay that creates opportunities for local businesses. But even without the red tape, the deep mental and linguistic divide means that being the Romanians who know Bulgaria and Bulgarians, and vice versa, is worth something.

  15. Stu Clayton says:

    US guys in the Detroit and Buffalo areas drive over the bridge to Canada to patronize the strip clubs; value-conscious Montrealers drive down to Plattsburgh to load up the trunks of their cars with cheaper (due to differences in tax policy etc.) groceries and other consumer goods.

    In El Paso people went over to Juárez for sex, cheap booze and piñatas. Or for good Mexican food. Mexicans came across the border to work as maids and on construction sites. A lot of money is made in cross-border activities, there is no incentive for music festivals.

    I was talking to my sister about this two nights ago, in the context of Trump’s anti-immigration policies. She says the entire Southwest would not be what it is without cheap Mexican labor. She says Mexicans work hard, and built much of the infrastructure – roads, buildings – and maintain it today. Not to mention the crop workers in California, the delivery drivers for Amazon…

    It’s not an ideal situation for either side, but Trump is shooting everybody in the foot.

  16. Trond Engen says:

    That’s the case in the economy of a semi-permeable border. There’s a competative relationship between border enforcement and border penetration that keeps the price of border knowledge high and allows the local economy to extract rent from the greater society. The situation of Ruse is more like what would happen if the border was almost completely closed, and hardly feeding anyone but an underworld of petty smugglers and small-scale gangsters, and then suddenly wide open. El Paso slash Ciudad Juarez would have to reinvent itself, not as the world capital of sex, drugs and red tape, but as the cultural and economic gateway between English and Spanish America.

  17. “But even without the red tape, the deep mental and linguistic divide means that being the Romanians who know Bulgaria and Bulgarians, and vice versa, is worth something.”

    It just is not seen as worth much to the Romanian people. The only place where you see vigorous cross-border cultural links is with the Republic of Moldova, where half of the population is ethnically Romanian, there are families split over both sides, and loads of those Moldovans have come to live in Romania. Otherwise, Hungary, Ukraine, Bulgaria, and Serbia register very little in the consciousness of Romanians even when they live right near the border.

    In the case of the border with southwest Ukraine and the border with Hungary, the peoples living on both sides of the border and willing to going back and forth are largely ethnic Hungarian (as all these regions were part of Austro-Hungary and divided by Trianon). But as a nationalist state set up basically for a single ethnicity to flourish, I cannot imagine much enthusiasm from the Romanian government about helping those non-Romanians interact with each other more.

    I don’t know Bulgaria well enough to say for sure, but considering how much the average Bulgarian detests Romanians (again, even in Ruse), how much they hate the Turks, and the southern border with Greece not being regarded as a particularly important part of the country, I assume that establishing cross-border interaction has little attraction for Bulgarians, except possibly with Macedonia with whom they share a language, and with Serbia who are fellow Slavs and formerly more economically prosperous.

  18. Poking around the Internet, Amsterdam seems to be the best candidate for most multi-ethnic non-cosmopolis: it has 120-180 ethnicities, depending on how you count, and about 800,000 residents. I can confirm that you sure do hear a lot of languages spoken on the streets.

    ~~ Warning: rants to follow ~~

    Trump is shooting everybody in the foot

    Except himself and his family and friends. We are now in a historically unprecedented situation: a man who becomes President of the U.S. basically for money, and a woman who becomes Prime Minister of the UK basically because she always wanted the job. Even Hitler took power because he had a political agenda to carry out, however horrific, which is more than can be said of Don’n’Terry.

    But as a nationalist state set up basically for a single ethnicity to flourish

    And for other ethnicities to be repressed. To compare awfuls with awfuls, even the German Nazis found the genocidal actions of Nazi Romania to be barbaric, unscientific, and anti-modern. If we must have mass murder, let it be done sanely and with sanitation in mind!

  19. “And for other ethnicities to be repressed.”

    Yes and no. Romania’s treatment of Hungarians in Transylvania has often been more neglect and petty spite than outright malice. After all, the Szekler land remains up to 95% Hungarians who often don’t really even speak Romanian, and a good number of communities across Transylvania have Hungarian mayors. There was Ceausescu’s industrialization drive that seemed meant to dilute Hungarian control of the Transylvanian cities, but otherwise things are pretty quiet on that front.

    According to a number of my Hungarian friends in Cluj, the real threat to a Hungarian presence in central Transylvania is not some kind of state repression, it is intermarriage with Romanians and the same outmigration for better jobs that attracts ethnic Romanians, too.

    Of course, being a Jew, Roma, in Uniate in Romania has often not been an enviable position to be in.

  20. I did not say “all other ethnicities”.

    has often not been an enviable position to be in

    Litotes.

  21. Trond Engen says:

    Christopher Culver: It just is not seen as worth much to the Romanian people […] even when they live right near the border. [… C]onsidering how much the average Bulgarian detests Romanians (again, even in Ruse), […] I assume that establishing cross-border interaction has little attraction for Bulgarians.

    Sad. Still, it’s strange that local leaders didn’t seize the opportunity in the period after the fall of the Eastern Block. It seems obvious that Ruse’s way out of a peripheral position in Bulgaria is (economically) to exploit the comparative advantage of closeness to Romania and (culturally) to turn its multicultural history into a source of pride and a national attraction.

  22. You appear to expect people to act rationally. I would recommend a study of history, but I don’t want to depress you.

  23. Stu Clayton says:

    It is rational not to establish joint music festivals with the neighbors when you despise the neighbors. Given enough starry-eyed idealism, it also is rational to establish music festivals to combat despising the neighbors.

    Rationality has many uses. The Devil is no fool.

    The experience of Buridan’s ass shows that it is even rational to push rationality aside when it would lead to starvation.

    Reasons are a dime a dozen.

  24. Lars (the original one) says:

    As a sort of counterexample, there is an official but vague concept of Øresundsregionen around the Øresund bridge connecting Copenhagen and Malmö (which is the third largest city in Sweden). The various local councils are more keen on developing the relations than the national governments, and have had enough clout to get various legal obstacles to the exchange of labor removed. (There are still corner cases like if a family lives in Sweden but the father works and pays taxes in Denmark, neither country is willing to subsidize his parental leave).

    And nobody is talking about having a formal entity with actual decision powers and popular representation. It’s all negotiated between purely Danish and purely Swedish entities.

    This is of course eased by Denmark and Sweden both being Schengen countries. But when immigrant paranoia struck Sweden a few years ago, the national government was totally oblivious to the fact that two-hour commuter delays for identity controls would cause a lot of trouble for businesses on both sides.

  25. Trond Engen says:

    Hat: You appear to expect people to act rationally. I would recommend a study of history, but I don’t want to depress you.

    I do believe that politicians mostly act rationally, but voters don’t (or we act rational from more limited information), so there are always several ways for politicians to act that all are rational based on different priorities. It might be perfectly rational to risk a devastating war or facilitate a genocide to consolidate power. What has become increasingly (and depressingly) clear cince the turn of the millennium, is that the kind of constructive compromise and long-term rationality that built the post-war world order (maybe especially in western Europe) has lost appeal with voters, and politicians are following suite. Or politicians have lost belief that long-term rationality will eventually pay off with the voters.

    But a local politician has very different incentives. And Christopher didn’t say that there’s outright animosity and fearmongering against people from across the bridge, just negative attitudes and lack of interest.

    Lars: As a sort of counterexample, there is an official but vague concept of Øresundsregionen

    Yes, and Øresund is much less of a linguistic and cultural divide than the Danube at Ruse, so it’s mostly about creating larger local markets, not mediating exchange between the two sides. When the divide is sharper, the potential economic rent is higher.

    Another large cross-border region of cooperation is Strasbourg-Ortenau in France and Germany. On a smaller scale there’s Haparanda and Tornio at the Swedish/Finnish border. Also e.g. Frankfurt an der Oder and Słubice in Germany and Poland. Different both in scope and outcome, as well as in local popularity, but they do exist.

  26. Rodger C says:

    As for voters being rational, I offer the latest Doonesbury. (Sorry for posting the image address; the site’s link and share button don’t work properly.)

    http://assets.amuniversal.com/4ddd60a0518701363b6b005056a9545d

  27. A rational voter wouldn’t vote at all, since the chance of affecting the outcome is nearly nil. Voting is superrational: that is, it is behavior that would be rational if everyone else were superrational, like cooperating in a non-iterated game of prisoner’s dilemma

  28. Why do you think that the purpose of voting is to affect the outcome?

  29. I have often compared voting to praying, and I suspect the expectation of direct results is similar in both cases.

  30. Athel Cornish-Bowden says:

    And Christopher didn’t say that there’s outright animosity and fearmongering against people from across the bridge, just negative attitudes and lack of interest.

    I observed such lack of interest about 20 years ago when we drove through Spain to Lisbon. We crossed the border on a smallish road, and as this was before the euro I asked at the exchange place in Spain if we would find a similar place for changing money once in Portugal. Not only did the person not know, but it was obvious that he was only vaguely aware that there was another country a kilometre away, but if there was it was totally without interest.

    In general the Portuguese are far more conscious of the existence of Spain than vice versa: they can understand Spanish, and they can speak Portuguese in a way (Portuñol) that Spanish people can understand if they try, which on the whole they don’t, saying that Portuguese is impossible to understand.

  31. DaviďM,
    Vienna and Bratislava are just 60 km apart. Since the Iron Curtain fell, almost nothing has happened: it still hasn’t fallen in people’s heads
    I doublechecked the date you posted this, but nope, it was 2018, so out to the woodshed with you it is: nonsense. I ride to Vienna 2-3 times a week to work, the same way I used to do 2 years ago in the opposite direction (coincidentally, that of the Bratislava airport), same as my other two Slovak colleagues at the Academy. Then on other days, I drive to Kittsee which is about 400-500 meters from the border where my former colleague L and her partner P bought a house, thus joining the large community of Slovaks who live in Kittsee, Berg or Wolfstahl. L still works at the HellPit (now renamed) and when the weather is nice and dry, she rides her bike to work. And if I weren’t such a lazy shit and my friends a bunch of drunks, back in August during the moon eclipse, we would have made the trek from Bratislava to that hill over Berg to watch it. Instead, we ended up in some pub somewhere, but the point it, had we wanted to, we could have.
    So for all intents and purposes, the border between Austria and Slovakia is non-existent.

  32. David Marjanović says:

    I retreat to the self-demonstrating position that it still hasn’t fallen in the heads of the people on the west side.

  33. John Cowan says:

    There aren’t any American-Canadian cultural festivals at the border either, but (a) as Etienne has pointed out with pardonable exaggeration, Anglo-Canada and the U.S. are almost one culture; and (b) almost all Canadians are border-dwellers anyway, with about 85% living within 100 miles / 160 km of the border. Two things that are distinct are politics and football; Canadian football is an offshoot of rugby union, and American football is an offshoot of Canadian football that has heavily influenced its parent. At the high school level, at least, there are international football games in border communities, using hometown rules (and obviously a hometown field, a full 120-yard rugby pitch in Canada but only 100 yards in the U.S.)

    While I’m at it, I will mention as Canadian virtues politeness, bagged milk, and above all Robertson screws.

  34. Concerning the West – East divide, the situation is similar in Germany: the fall of the wall changed life considerably in the former GDR, but in the Western half it was much more abstract and subtle, basically meaning that the German map on TV looks different, some extra taxes, and changes in politics, but on a day-to-day level, you can live as if it hadn’t happened, especially if you’re not interested in news and politics.

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