Lost in Transition: Ethnographies of Everyday Life after Communism

Lost in Transition: Ethnographies of Everyday Life after Communism

by Kristen Ghodsee

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Lost in Transition tells of ordinary lives upended by the collapse of communism. Through ethnographic essays and short stories based on her experiences with Eastern Europe between 1989 and 2009, Kristen Ghodsee explains why it is that so many Eastern Europeans are nostalgic for the communist past. Ghodsee uses Bulgaria, the Eastern European nation where she has spent the most time, as a lens for exploring the broader transition from communism to democracy. She locates the growing nostalgia for the communist era in the disastrous, disorienting way that the transition was handled. The privatization process was contested and chaotic. A few well-connected foreigners and a new local class of oligarchs and criminals used the uncertainty of the transition process to take formerly state-owned assets for themselves. Ordinary people inevitably felt that they had been robbed. Many people lost their jobs just as the state social-support system disappeared. Lost in Transition portrays one of the most dramatic upheavals in modern history by describing the ways that it interrupted the rhythms of everyday lives, leaving confusion, frustration, and insecurity in its wake.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780822394617
Publisher: Duke University Press
Publication date: 09/14/2011
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 232
File size: 6 MB

About the Author

Kristen Ghodsee is the Director and John S. Osterweis Associate Professor of Gender and Women’s Studies at Bowdoin College. She is the author of Muslim Lives in Eastern Europe: Gender, Ethnicity, and the Transformation of Islam in Postsocialist Bulgaria and The Red Riviera: Gender, Tourism, and Postsocialism on the Black Sea, also published by Duke University Press.

Read an Excerpt

Lost in Transition

By Kristen Ghodsee

Duke University Press

Copyright © 2011 Duke University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8223-5102-3

Chapter One


I had already been in the compartment with the five Yugoslavs for almost two hours when I noticed the unlabeled cardboard boxes tucked behind their legs underneath their seats. The Bulgarian border police had just entered the train. I watched the young men all sit up straight, pressing their knees together in a vain attempt to hide the boxes from view. As the surly uniformed officer collected our passports, I realized that I was in a lot of trouble. I was sharing a train compartment with smugglers. They might be smuggling drugs. The Bulgarians would surely think that I was one of them, and I would end up in a dark communist jail cell until some underpaid American diplomat found the time to rescue me.

When I realized that I was in a compartment with smugglers, my first thought was to grab my rucksack and get out as soon as possible. But by the time I managed to get my things in order, the Bulgarian border police were already walking past our compartment down to the first compartment on our train. One of the officers glanced in and made eye contact with me. He had already seen where I was sitting. It would look suspicious to move now.

Maybe it was nothing, I told myself. This was my first time in a communist country, and I didn't know how things worked. Maybe they were smuggling banned books or bootlegged Western cassette tapes. Maybe it was some special kind of booze. Perhaps it would just be confiscated. As much as I tried to tell myself that I was overreacting, my mind kept imagining the worst, that those sealed unmarked boxes were full of drugs. If the Yugoslavs were caught, it would be difficult for me to explain that I had nothing to do with them before finding the free seat in their compartment back in Istanbul.

I shuddered at the thought that I might end up in some cold, gray Bulgarian prison. Unlike the other former communist countries in June of 1990, Bulgaria was still quite unwelcoming to foreigners, especially Americans. Since I was traveling from Istanbul to Belgrade on a thirty-hour transit visa, I could not register with the American Embassy in Sofia. No one knew that I was here. In fact, nobody at home had any idea where I was. I told my mother that I was leaving Turkey, but I had not given her the details of my trip through Bulgaria by train. I had written a few letters to friends telling them that I was planning to go to Eastern Europe, but I told others that I would be going from Turkey directly to Greece.

But here I was in Bulgaria with five young men that I did not know. Perhaps they were hoping that my presence would distract the border and customs police. Or perhaps they might just say that the boxes were all mine if they got caught, that I had hired them to help me smuggle whatever it was I was supposed to be smuggling. I kept thinking of all of the horror stories of tourists who have drugs slipped into their luggage and get arrested. I was only twenty. I did not want to go to prison.

These young men did not look like smugglers back when I boarded the train. It was early June, and I had been traveling alone through Europe and the Middle East for the last nine months. I had a system for choosing what kind of people were the safest to share a compartment with, a system that maximized personal security and minimized the potential risk of harassment. For any given train journey I was planning to make, I would get to the platform early and watch as other people boarded the train, carefully scanning the crowd for families and old women, the safest compartment mates. I would always board the train just five minutes before departure, even if it meant the possibility of not getting a seat. As a young woman traveling alone, the biggest mistake you could make would be to sit in a compartment before the train was fully boarded. In that case, you had no control over whom you shared the compartment with.

The problem on this particular journey from Istanbul to Belgrade was that almost all of the passengers on the train were men. There were no families. There were hardly any women at all. Traveling from the Middle East and NATO-controlled Turkey through Warsaw Pact member state Bulgaria to nonaligned Yugoslavia by train was apparently not yet a common occurrence for ordinary Turks. Furthermore, while other countries had immediately opened up after the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989, Bulgaria stayed stubbornly closed, waiting to see what would happen in the Soviet Union (which would not finally collapse until 1991). I had just over a day to get through my first communist country. I had to choose my compartment wisely.

I waited until about five minutes before the train was going to depart, watching the steady stream of men board the train from the platform. I was wearing very loose cotton khaki pants and an untucked man's shirt. My hair was tied back in a bun at the nape of my neck. I wore no cosmetics or jewelry. My feet were shod in worn Birkenstock sandals. These were my traveling clothes, as androgynous as possible. I was also quite emaciated at that time, having suffered from a terrible bout of dysentery in Syria.

I boarded the train and walked down the narrow corridor peering through the glass into the various compartments. There was no one yet crowding the aisles; the train would not be full. I could take my time deciding where I wanted to sit. Most of the compartments were occupied by an assortment of middle-aged men who, in my experience, would be the most lecherous toward a woman traveling alone. At my tender age of twenty, I had come up with what I called the Universal Law of Men, which helped me choose train compartments. As men in all cultures gained weight and replaced the hair on their heads with thick carpets of hair on their backs, they were more likely to come untied at the sight of a young woman traveling alone, assuming her to be a prostitute or libertine of some kind. Old men might stare at me, but in those pre-Viagra days they were almost entirely harmless. Young men might try to flirt with me, and there was always the danger that they would take rejection badly, but for the most part they were the least likely to be interested in a woman dressed as boyishly as I was. The key thing with young men was to deal with them only in groups of three or more. Groups of young men inevitably included a leader, a top dog, and as long as the leader was a good guy, the others would be fine, too.

And so it was that I chose a compartment with five young men who looked to me like students. I guessed that they were between the ages of twenty and twenty-three. The first one was a handsome blond man with an angular face and light peach fuzz on his chin and upper lip. He wore jeans, an AC/DC T-shirt, and what looked like a knockoff pair of Converse high-top sneakers. Across from him was another blond man. I later learned that his name was Goran. The other three young men in the compartment were slightly darker than the first two, with deep brown eyes and longish brown hair. They also wore jeans, and one wore a frayed Beatles T-shirt. They all looked to the man in the AC/DC shirt when I pulled open the compartment door and pointed to the free seat nearest to the corridor.

The AC/DC guy (whose name was Sasha) said something to Goran in Serbo-Croatian. Goran then looked to me.

"Speak English?"


"Where from?"

"USA," I answered. "I am going to Belgrade."

Their eyes all seemed to widen simultaneously. They looked from Sasha to me, back to Sasha, and back to me.

"USA?" said Goran, "Jimi Hendrix? The Doors?"

"Yes, USA. Bruce Springsteen." I smiled. "May I sit with you?"

Sasha nodded to Goran while eyeing me with his pale blue eyes. He was very fair and Slavic looking; he looked like what I imagined a Russian would look like.

"Please sit down," Goran said, gesturing to the free seat. "We have long journey."

I hoisted my rucksack up over my head to throw it onto the luggage rack. One of the darker boys stood up to help me.

"Thanks," I mumbled, as he wiggled my pack in between their du?e bags.

He replied with something in Serbo-Croatian that I assumed meant "you're welcome."

I sat down in the free seat, feeling for the money belt under my pants at my waist. Once the train started moving I would excuse myself and go to the bathroom. There I would remove my passport and train ticket before returning to the compartment. I had brought some bread and two bottles of water in my pack and hoped that I would be able to find some cheese along the way. If the young men had brought food with them, I did not see it. Instead, they were all clutching newly opened cartons of Marlboro Red cigarettes.

"My name is Kristen," I said, pointing to my chest.

"My name is Goran," said Goran. "He is Sasha."

The other young men introduced themselves as Pavle, Nikola, and Miloje. The train lurched forward. We sat in silence. Sasha then carefully opened a box of his new cigarettes, pulling several cigarettes so that they protruded out from the box. He offered them to me and said, "Smoke?"

"No, thank you," I said.

He proceeded to offer the box to all of the other men. One by one they each took a cigarette and fumbled for lighters in their jeans. In an instant, the compartment was filled with the smoke of five Marlboros.

"You go Belgrade?" Goran said.

"Yes. It is my first time in Yugoslavia."

"You meet someone?"

"Yes," I lied. "I am meeting my boyfriend."


"Yes," I said. "He is American, too."

Goran nodded. Sasha said something in Serbo-Croatian.

Goran translated. "You like rock music?"

"Yes, of course. I love rock and roll. I am a huge u2 fan, you know, the Irish band."

At this, all five young men leaned forward, smiling at me.

"Yes, the Edge is a great guitarist," Goran said. "Do you like Yugoslav music?"

"I am sorry. I don't know any Yugoslav music."

Goran translated and the men nodded again, curls of gray smoke twirling toward the ceiling as they paused between their exhalations. The man directly across from me, called Pavle, was blowing smoke rings. Miloje, the man seated next to him between Pavle and Sasha (who was gazing out the window), was alternately blowing smoke out of the left and right corners of his mouth. Sasha did not need to do any smoking tricks to be cool. He was James Bond cool. It was clear from the way Goran deferred to him for everything that all of the men looked up to him. I imagined for a moment that he might be some kind of local rock star, but his white blond hair was too closely cropped for 1990. He looked as if he was in the military, or perhaps he had been recently discharged. He had perfect posture and a perfect body to match it. While the other young men reclined in several different variations on the standard male slouch, Sasha leaned back into his seat with his broad shoulders thrown back in a pose of confident defiance. He might have seemed very uptight with his rigid back and his short hair if it were not for his fashionably torn black jeans and the rows of leather bands wrapped around both of his wrists.

Across from him sat Nikola, the shaggiest looking of the lot. He had long, stringy hair that looked like it had not been washed in several days. Whereas Sasha's Slavic features were fine and angular, Nikola's eyes, nose, and cheeks almost seemed a caricature of the Slavic stereotype. His dark eyes were angled upward toward his temples making a perfectly parallel line with the steep diagonal of his cheekbones. His lips were thin, and his nose was narrow but tall. It seemed small from the front; his nostrils were close together under an almost delicate pointy tip. But in profile, his nose descended in a forty-five-degree angle from his brow, straight but somehow oddly out of proportion to the rest of his face. When smoking, Nikola inhaled the deepest. He was not smoking to look cool; he was smoking because his body craved the nicotine. When he spoke to Sasha in Serbo-Croatian, I could see that his teeth were the most yellow.

"Are you a student?" Goran asked me, trying to break the silence.


"Are you rich?" Goran asked.

I laughed. "No. Not really. I am just backpacking around," I said, pointing up at my rucksack.

"What do you study?"

"I don't know yet. Maybe political science."

"I study English," Goran explained. "Sasha is a physicist. He is very intelligent."

Upon hearing his name, Sasha looked up at me and nodded. It occurred to me that he probably understood English. He said something to Goran.

"He wants to know why you are alone." Goran translated.

"Well ..."

"Are you a spy?" Goran interrupted.

At this I laughed again, feeling uncomfortable. "I am only twenty!" I said.

Sasha laughed, too. The other men in the compartment laughed with him, probably wondering what we were laughing at. Sasha crushed his cigarette out into the ashtray by the window. Outside, the Turkish countryside between Istanbul and the Bulgarian border was rushing past in a kind of impressionistic blur. It was a sunny day; the blue of the sky rested lightly on the greens and yellows of the fields. I wondered how long it would take us to get to Bulgaria and whether I should excuse myself to the bathroom to retrieve my ticket and passport.

Sasha spoke again.

"Why do you dress like a boy?" Goran asked.

It was a fair question. Sasha was now staring at me, looking at my plain face and my man's shirt.

"So that boys don't pay attention to me," I said directly to Sasha. Goran translated, but I think Sasha understood on his own. He smiled at me, nodding in understanding, and, at least in my mind, deciding that he would look out for me until we got to Belgrade. This made me feel comfortable (and added what I thought was more empirical evidence for my Universal Law of Men). I took a deep breath and let out a long sigh.

Goran opened a pack of his cigarettes, offering them to Sasha who immediately took one. He then offered one to Pavle, Miloje, and Nikola, and they all took one each. Goran turned to me, "Please join us. These are real Marlboro."

"No, thank you," I said. "I don't really smoke."

"But America is Marlboro country, no?"

I smiled. "Yes. I suppose it is."

"There are many cowboys, yes?"

I laughed at his question, shaking my head. A flash of confusion crossed his face as if he felt he had asked me something stupid. He looked to Sasha, who was also watching me with interest.

"Well," I said, "We still do have professional cowboys. Not as many as there used to be, but we still have some. Especially in places like Montana or Wyoming."

Goran took a long drag on his cigarette as if he were inhaling Montana and Wyoming through the thin barrel of packed tobacco. The end of the cigarette flared orange, and he breathed in. "I would like someday to go to America."

The conversation turned to the names of the places Goran wanted to visit. At the mention of the words New York, Boston, and San Francisco the other young men listened to us more intently, leaning forward in their seats. Goran explained that the five men were all grade school friends from Belgrade. He referred to himself as a Yugoslavian, and I was too young and naïve to ask what kind, although I later decided that they were probably Serbs. This was June 1990, still about a year before the Slovenes declared their independence, followed shortly thereafter by the Croatians. The secession of Croatia from Yugoslavia would lead to war, and that war would be greatly exacerbated by the subsequent secession of Bosnia-Herzegovina. But none of that had happened yet. Miloje wore a large crucifix around his neck, but I assumed that this was a fashion statement more than a religious symbol. They were in a band. Goran played the lead guitar, and Nikola was their bassist. Miloje was drummer, and Pavle played the keyboard. Sasha was the lead vocalist, writing all of the lyrics to their songs.


Excerpted from Lost in Transition by Kristen Ghodsee Copyright © 2011 by Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Preface. Echoes Off the Iron Curtain ix

Acknowledgments xvii

Introduction. The Road to Bulgaria, 1983–1990 1

1. Contraband, 1990 21

2. Kaloyan and Hristo, 1998 37

3. Her Lover in Cuba, 1999 47

4. Hair: Ethnographic Fiction 61

5. Shopaholic in Eastern Europe, 1998–2006 83

6. Carpets for Kilims, 1999 93

7. Comrades, 2107 101

8. Petar Hails a Cab: Ethnographic Fiction 107

9. Bassets in the Balkans, 2005 117

10. The Master of Conspiracies, 2005 123

11. An Explosion of Sofia, 2008 131

12. Coffee: Ethnographic Fiction 143

13. Kaloyan in Maine, 2009 151

14. Tito Trivia: Ethnographic Fiction 155

15. Pilgrims from Sofia to Zagreb, 2009 161

Afterword. Lost in Transition, 2010 177

Appendix. Timeline of Twentieth-Century Communism 195

Further Reading 201

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