The Olive Tree
by Marisue Pickering
Marisue Pickering, Professor of Communication Sciences and Disorders, and her husband John are Friends members. Marisue writes travel essays that have been published in the International Travel News, The Maine Scholar, Le Forum, the Northern New England Review, and the Bangor Daily News.
In late September 1994,1 I visited Rousse, the largest Bulgarian city on the Danube. Known as a major port throughout its long history, Rousse was called Sexaginta Prista or Port of Sixty Ships by the Romans.2 But when I was there, the Danube was a quiet, almost pastoral river as it followed its course along the city's edge. Its dormant activity was a casualty of massive economic and political changes in Eastern Europe following the fall of communism.
The first day with my Bulgarian hosts–parents of a UMaine student–was devoted to walking along Rousse's elegant boulevards and through its tree-filled parks. I learned of the city's rich, complex, and multicultural history that dates at least to the 1st century. Rousse's elegance is reflected in its Art Nouveau motifs, 19th and early 20th century pastel-colored buildings, and neoclassical-style public structures. During the Communist Era, many stately private homes were turned into museums, offices, and ceremonial houses; their graceful balconies overlooking the Danube remain reminders of a once affluent way of life.
Toward evening we walked to the almost deserted esplanade paralleling the river. I had thought of the Danube as flowing west to east in Bulgaria, which generally it does, separating Bulgaria to the south and Romania to the north. But because of the river's twists and turns, the sun was setting across the Danube, below the Romanian horizon, rather than upriver as I had expected. The sunset seemed prolonged, bringing out autumn colors in trees and fields. Flocks of geese flew overhead in their long V-shaped formations, heading upriver toward Romanian marshes and bogs. The current was visibly moving down river toward the Black Sea.
Only two ships were in view, both United Nations surveillance vessels docked here to prohibit water traffic into Serbia. The blockade was hurting other countries also, including Bulgaria–a major setback for the region's struggling post-communist economy. As we walked along, we saw two deteriorating Russian-made hydrofoils previously used to transport tourists on the river. They sat beached and empty because of lack of fuel and parts. Once the USSR collapsed so did much of the trade among neighboring countries. Items such as mechanical parts had become difficult to obtain. River tourism, once vital to Rousse's social, cultural, and economic life, was now absent.
Across the Danube is the Romanian city of Giurgiu with its notorious chemical plant, still spewing pollution into Rousse even after numerous protests by Bulgaria.3 My hosts told me of the chlorine gas emissions that for years had affected the inhabitants of Rousse, particularly children. During the Communist Era, in the 1950s, a "friendship bridge" (the Dunav Most) was built across the Danube, linking Rousse and its Romanian counterpart, but the polluted sky and terrible cough of my college-age interpreter were contradictions to that rhetoric of friendship. My hosts did not offer to take me to the bridge, and I did not ask to go. Relations between Bulgaria and Romania were not friendly, thus constituting another blow to the river's activities.
The Danube I was seeing was not the fabled river of Viennese song and romance; nor was it the Danube of European economic prosperity. I have seen the Danube elsewhere in Europe, but Rousse's Danube is the memory I return to. The river's beauty coupled with its silence has become symbolic for me of the complexities faced by Eastern Europeans as they continue their 'transition' out of communism, toward Western economic values.
1 My trip to Bulgaria was one of a dozen I took between 1991 and 1998 in my role as academic liaison between the University of Maine and the American University in Bulgaria. See Marisue Pickering, "Food for Thought: Excerpts from my Bulgarian Diaries 1991-1995," The Maine Scholar, Vol. 14 (2001): 89-114.
2 Information about Rousse can be obtained from the Web site of the University of Rousse, http://www.ru.acad.bg/en/rousse.php (accessed February 4, 2004).
3 Jonathan Bousfield and Dan Richardson, The Rough Guide: Bulgaria (London: The Rough Guides, 1993), 116.
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