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Letters from Bulgaria

Jennifer H. Fortin

Nonexistent Album

I could be collecting them, but I know that the opportunities I come across here daily would overwhelm me–their ripeness, their screaming-to-be-seen a disruption. Given my penchant for thoroughness, I know I'd become unable to stop thinking about them, taking them. I am a Peace Corps Primary Education Volunteer living in Shoumen, Bulgaria. I've been in the country since last April, and, for precisely these reasons, I've used only four rolls of film.

Illustration by Dan McCoyMy reverence for the image–the image, insistently present in the modern world, arguably excessively so–has been with me as long as I can remember. On receiving the phone call from Peace Corps informing me of where I'd serve, my immediate reaction after hanging up was to flip through my atlas and find the place. To see its rivers veining through, where its heart lived, the neighbors it touched, whether its vertebrae were made of mountains. Of course this was only a first impression, basic, a distortion: it was me in the darkened box of my room, the pin-hole map a tiny aperture, like those earliest cameras.

A photograph is a delicate object, so easily bent, tucked-away-forgotten, lost by the careless. Living here, I choose to refrain (for the most part) from taking photographs and instead to record as many of these moments as I can verbally. I'm also trying to avoid the danger of disproportion, of certain instants shackled and their importance inflated while others are ignored, merely depending on whether or not I happen to bring along my camera.

Part of my series (only through training, April to July–and only part), pictures I didn't take, arranged chronologically:

-Close-up of the searing cut on my left middle finger, knuckle-upwards. I did it the night before I left home–some door-frame collision, me distracted–& it's deep. It will scar. It looks like a torrent you fly over in an airplane, but with an angry-pink perimeter instead of shore.

-Snap landscape from the bus window, on the way to the village of Strelchya from Sofia's airport. The tree line, tall, elegant, like noble old men with admirable posture. A donkey & cart in the foreground.

-Extreme zooming-in of my 82-year old host baba's face, her wrinkles like spaces between lines of text. You should read things there.

-A few quick shots of my first view of a Bulgarian classroom. Wide patches of wall color where at home learning aids would hang. Desks in twos instead of individual. A chalkboard with smeary & mysteriously permanent erase-lines under illegible writing (the board resists). Kids all over the place, toothy beaming of third-graders the same wherever you are.

-From below, looking up, a shot of the statue–bust of a man I don't know–behind the community center in my town (Batak). It's crumbling & spray-painted with a Bulgarian word I don't know. Degradation & so much I don't understand. Politics, switches from Communism. Bulgarians call this time "The Change."

-View of a Bulgarian typewriter from straight above, appears to be 30-plus-years old. What words must have gone through it!

-Wide panorama of the reservoir in my town, the surreal view of about fifty postcards scattered in the high weeds by the water. They're dated 1972 & all are scrawled in Bulgarian by the same hand.

-Knee-height, the morning schoolyard, 7:30 mountain mist, all those students' knees rushing to get through the front doors. Inspection at this level, because that's what they seem to be doing to me–too shy to look me in the eyes, although some say "Hello" passing.

-Just two faded colors framed, shapes of pale-red & pale-grit brown, texture. The wall of the old church in Batak, where hundreds of years ago Turks trapped and massacred Bulgarians, leaving bloody bodies and walls. Religion can drive people, can create colors good & bad.

-From the side, the desk in my room, its thick layer of dust, particularly visible in daylight. Dust collects here so quickly. Mostly dead skin cells. & then I remember the massacre of the majority of Batak's population. Dust.

-From about twenty feet, a horizontal shot of this perplexing night-time vista, downtown Pazardjik (near to Batak) & spotlights left on after vendors have left, stall-after-stall, glowing & capless liter-bottles filled with varying levels of dirty water. Intricate-seeming arrangement. I stare until I understand: flower vendors at the bazaar, saving the water for the next day.

-Diptych, the two groups of old men who sit at perpendicular corners of Batak's square. Every day, the bus-stop-bench men & the fountain-bench men, reliable as time. Like rival teams. How long have they been gathering there?

These images, just a few of many, impressed me and have been developed. I've used natural illumination the way photography (light writing) initially intended, but these photographs continue to develop for me, organically building from the original print as I learn more about Bulgaria. Perusing my nonexistent album, I understand which elements have been distorted and why. My hand did scar, a memory of that torrent of night-before-leaving; the students would prefer not to sit in pairs; the statue is of a political leader and the word on it is the name of a football team here.

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