Thursday, September 30, 2010

With Willie and Bogdan under the stars

I may not like working at night but I love my colleagues. For instance, I first got an inkling Bogdan, my Bulgarian counterpart down the hall, liked Willie Nelson when I heard his Level 1 English class singing Willie's version of "Crazy."  I went to investigate and saw him standing in front of a dozen or so bewildered Korean and Farsi students urging them to sing along with the words he'd written on the board. Later he explained Willie's lyrics are quintessential American expression: simple, yet understood around the world. I had to think about that for awhile. I love Willie too, but for his wild rebel ways. Tom and I saw him in concert a few years ago with a stage full of musicians celebrating his 75th birthday; he sang for hours, the younger band members, including his son, barely able to keep up with him.

But Bogdan was onto something, so when I saw Willie was slated to play the Greek Theatre last Friday I bought two tickets and invited him along. 

We met on Vermont and drove into the park, arriving as the first act was getting under way. Bogdan didn't care for it much, so we sat at one of the tables in front and ate sandwiches. I've never met anyone as easy going as Bogdan, a trait I attribute to life under Communism, which ruled Bulgaria for 45 years. During the first few years after the 1944 takeover, Bogdan told me, Communists controlled the country with a Stalinist iron fist, going into villages and imprisoning or killing anyone (teachers, intellectuals, writers) who opposed the regime. One learns to cope under such circumstances.

Bogdan's father, Boyan, learned the lessons of coping, first under the Nazis. He'd been stationed in Paris during the war, as part of the diplomatic core of the monarchy. Bogdan remembers as a child walking the streets of Paris, playing in the beautiful gardens, but soon was being bundled back to Bulgaria as the Nazis took control of the city. As the war intensified, his father received desperate pleas at midnight, knocks on the embassy door, from Jews and other Bulgarians fleeing the Nazis. Before long, hundreds of political refugees were gathered inside, and although Boyan didn't know how he'd keep them safe he hatched a plan. Calling around to every German contact he had, he secured a train car (or two) to transport the refugees back to Bulgaria— the only European country that refused to collaborate with the Germans in deporting or exterminating its Jews. 

Unfortunately the real suffering for Bulgarians came after the war. When Bogdan's father returned from serving in Portuguese and U.S. consulates, he was striped of his diplomatic duties; he found a job through a friend as a gravure, a glass cutter. (Bogdan chuckled at the memory because his father couldn't cut a straight line and was fired.) He then loaded scrap metal onto a truck. One learns to cope, a lesson Bogdan mastered as well, as an English professor in Sofia. Under Communism, Bogdan earned 40 dollars a month and was banned from furthering his studies.

When Willie appeared, Bogdan applauded loudly, whooping it up with the crowd. He was in heaven, especially impressed by the massive Texas flag draped across the back of the stage; Bogdan was amused by, and kept repeating, Willie's use of the vernacular (he seemed especially fond of "little shack in the woods.") Willie sang straight that night, with little gabbing or socializing, going from one classic song to another.  What a great night we both agreed, hearing Willie under the stars, the heat from the day still lingering, and for me, seeing Bogdan revelling in Willie—as free a spirit and as American as my friend from Bulgaria ever imagined.

 In front of the Greek Theatre

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