Angela Rodel translating Alexander Shpatov

My Mother’s Birthday Party in Youth II

May 22, my mom’s birthday. I take the metro from the university towards Youth. Not only the metro, but tons of other stuff has changed since my parents really were young and had just moved into the muddy and still unfinished residential complex back in ’77. There was once a Construction Materials Factory on one side of our apartment block; the concrete panels for Youth III and IV were made there or something like that. I wasn’t born yet, so I have no memory of it, I only remember the time when everything was already abandoned and looted, making it one of the best (or the “bestest,” as we said back then) places for battles with the next neighborhood over. Now there’s a hypermarket where the ruins of the factory used to be, and in the lower end – a paid parking lot with a car wash offering special deals for washing rugs. Behind them – the excavations for the new metro station, which will be up and running next year.

Between the quad of apartment blocks on the other side, there’s always been a little park. Over the past forty years, the trees have grown to the sixth floor, while over the past fifteen – the benches and jungle gyms have disappeared amidst the brambles and weeds. There are no kids anymore. The mini-market, hair salon, bookstore, computer club, and Auntie Milka’s thread-and-button store, which all opened in the rear entrances at the dawn of the 90s, have long since gone out of business (we’ve got a hypermarket on the other side, as I already mentioned). In the first entrance in our block, however, they still sell alcohol and tobacco, the last little shop of its kind in the whole region it seems. My mother realizes that she needs more soda and beer and calls me to pick some up from there.

Station Youth I, the recorded voice over the metro loudspeaker announces, the doors open and we all pour out onto the platform. Over these forty years since my parents moved into the newly built part of the residential complex, only the name has remained the same. Where did the commies get the idea to connect panel blocks with youth? While I’m on the escalators waiting for the middle-aged matrons to lug their bags up, this is exactly what I’m thinking. Didn’t they know that names are for a lifetime? When they had come to live here, the matrons’ ankles were not yet swollen, they could run up and down the stairs with their bags and never get out of breath. But now? Yes, it surely was a cool slogan back then, surely people bought into it without a second thought. LET’S BUILD OUR YOUTH, I imagine the banner in the hands of the Gypsies from the construction military brigade as they hang it over the entrance to the factory. There it is again on the podium at some rally of the newly founded “Fatherland Front” club: Let’s build eternal youth, comrades, that it our task (or eternal comradeship, if the rally is in the neighboring complex).

But wouldn’t you know, our eternal comradeship with the USSR turned out not to be so eternal. How much longer can one youth last? Will there be some kind of celebration marking fifty years since breaking ground for the residential complex, it must be coming up soon? Incidentally, our block is already anything but youthful. Every attempt to repair the balconies looks like make-up that fails to hide wrinkles, like hair-dye that washes out after a month. Two hundred and seven apartments and 207 different glassed-in balconies. Those with money over the years have changed the window casings and have pasted up patchwork insulation on the façade, while those without – they can be picked out as soon as you look up. Add the air conditioners and satellite dishes that have sprung up like warts on the different floors and the picture is complete.

I get off Bus 314 and stop by the alcohol and tobacco shop. The owner and his wife are watching TV in the storeroom above the stairs. I suspect the only reason they keep the shop open is so they can live there. I buy beer and soda and go to our entrance. The lighting in the stairwell has recently been hooked up to a motion sensor and comes on on its own. Above the elevator door there is still half a lion sticker from the Union of Democratic Forces. I suspect the other half was ripped off even before the elections in 1991. The entrance hasn’t been renovated since then. My mom meets me at the door. I give her a present and hand her the plastic bag of beers and soda, in that order, I think. We sit down at the table and soon the neighbors we have invited start ringing the doorbell. (This was before they all had a falling out over repairing the block’s standpipes). We toast with full glasses of rakia and scoop salads onto the plates.

Most of the neighbors are recent retirees, so it’s to be expected – somewhere around the second rakia the table gives in to reminiscing. Uncle Petyo from the second floor, for example, tells about how the Beatles secretly went to Sunny Beach when he was twenty. The whole of Burgas flocked to see them, creating a terrible traffic jam around Pomorie and by the time they made it to Hotel Кuban the Beatles had already taken off. I rather believe him that he knew all their songs by heart – before moving to Sofia he would go down to the port every day, looking to buy new records from the sailors. There was no port in Sofia, so my parents’ group of friends relied on Auntie Bissie. She sang in the radio choir and went on tours to the West at least once a year. She brought back as much music as the dollars they rationed her could buy, then they’d get together in the basement beneath my grandma’s apartment and listen to Uncle Joro’s Mambo tape-deck. Before getting to know my Auntie Bissie, my mother goes on, there was this kid in my class, Krassi. His dad was a pilot and my mom would skip school so she and Krassi could go to his place to listen to the new stuff his dad brought back. The other possibility – here my dad cuts in – was Radio Luxembourg. Every night at ten they would start the countdown and everyone with a shortwave radio tried to find the right station so they could get the latest rock-and-roll soaring around the airwaves. Once tape recorders appeared things got a little easier, someone else adds – you just crank up the Top Ten on the radio as loud as you can and tape it. If the signal fades out or the tape crackles at the end, you record it just enough to learn the melody and write out in Cyrillic whatever you caught of the lyrics and then play it on the guitar yourself.

I’m the only one who isn’t from that time. I’m sitting at the table, spearing slices of summer sausage and listening to their stories. If something isn’t clear to me (when cassettes appeared, whether you can make a tape-recording of a record, what exactly an eight-track is), I ask. And then it suddenly occurs to me, it is my mom’s birthday, after all, and we’re constantly talking about music, right, so I’m like OK, Mom, tell me what you want to listen to.

Now, my parents know very well how I listen to music, it’s completely clear to them that you can find anything you can think of on YouYube, everyone around the table uses computers in one way or another, my dad still even knows more about them than I do, yet despite this – they still can’t quite make the connection.

“Whatever you want,” my mom says.

“Tell me what you feel like listening to.” I’ve already got the computer and am hooking it up to the stereo. “Something from back then, I mean.”

“Whatever you can find.”

“They’ve got everything.” I open up YouTube. “How about the Beatles?”

I don’t wait for an answer. I put on “Hard Day’s Night.” My favorite. My mom starts tapping her foot. My Auntie Tanya sings along from time to time. The song isn’t even over yet when Uncle Petyo is already asking: “Can you see if they’ve got ‘Yesterday’?”

“Of course they’ve got it. That’s what I’ve been telling you – you can find everything on YouTube.”

I put it on right away. And sometime around then, as soon as the first yesterday is sung out, they get it. See if they’ve got Paul Anka, too, Alex, my Auntie Vanya cuts in. And Dean Martin after that, Auntie Tanya adds. And Nat King Cole. And Chubby Checker, they keep going. And Roy Orbison, Elvis, the Beach Boys, Ray Charles, Johnny Cash … I open window after window in YouTube, I can hardly keep up. I find a long clip that I think will do the trick –  Classic rock and roll golden hits of the 50s, 60s and 70s, there’s no way I can go wrong with that. I let it play. The first song is “Pretty Woman.” My mother gets up, but before she can head for the kitchen, I invite her to dance.

And then everything gets unreal, I never suspected they had it in them.

One by one, all the others get up, too. I see my dad dancing the Twist. Never mind his limp. Uncle Petyo, who regularly goes hiking in the mountains, tries to out-do him by twisting a lot lower in front of my Auntie Tanya. His wife – Auntie Vanya – who had been complaining of a headache the whole night, has also gotten up out of her chair and started dancing. My mother moves with ease. I catch her for the first time. “Pretty Woman” ends, I go to sit down, since I see Uncle Petyo is also heading for the table. It turns out he only means to move it. We need to make more space.

All sorts of things run through my head – that any minute now somebody will trip during this geriatric twist, that someone will pass out or who knows what. But nothing of the sort happens. On the contrary, someone turns out the big light over the table. My mother and father dance, I’ve never seen them like that before.

I’d show them to you if I could. Then I would zoom out the camera, let it wander over the dance floor in that darkened living room and leave the birthday party through the balcony door. The frame would capture the whole apartment block (night hides all the ugliness) and slowly recede amidst the lights of nighttime Youth.

Until only the music is left.

Alexander Shpatov

Alexander Shpatov was born in 1985 in Sofia. He is a graduate of the American College of Sofia and the Sofia University Law School. Shpatov is the author of the short story collections #LiveFromSofia (2014), available in both English and Bulgarian, and Volume 2.0 (2015), an updated joint reprint of his earlier works Footnotes (2005), Footnote Stories (2008, published also in German in 2011) and Calendar of Stories (2011). He is the recipient of the 2006 National Best Fiction Debut Prize and the 2015 Sofia Award for Literature. Shpatov is also a co-scriptwriter of several short films based on his short stories and a screenwriter for the sitcom, “Clinic on the Third Floor,“ produced by Bulgarian National Television. Shpatov is the organizer of annual exhibitions of bookmark art and a participant in the Elizabeth Kostova Foundation’s Sozopol Fiction Seminars, and in the British Council’s Litager Project. Shpatov currently serves as a chairman of the Association for Small Urban Libraries.

Angela Rodel

Angela Rodel is a professional literary translator living and working in Bulgaria. She received a 2014 NEA translation grant for Georgi Gospodinov’s novel The Physics of Sorrow (Open Letter 2015) – the first time a Bulgarian-language work has received such an award. Six novels in her translation have been published by US and UK publishers. Her translations have appeared in literary magazines and anthologies, including McSweeney’s, Little Star,, Two Lines, The White Review and Words Without Borders