Monday, February 20, 2012

President's Day

Today is President's Day in the United States. To most Americans, I think, the holiday itself doesn't hold too much significance but it does sometimes mean having a three-day weekend (at least that's true for students). For my younger cousins in Seattle, today is the beginning of a week-long vacation aptly called "midwinter break." However, I really don't think that this holiday has anything to do with the memory of American presidents.

Of course, all kids know about politics and history from an early age they learn from their parents. My parents were ardent supporters of the Clinton electoral campaign and took me, a toddler, along with them to protest rallies against the Gulf War. When Bill and Hillary Clinton came to Seattle in 1992, I was there in the crowd cheering them on. All I understood was that Clinton was a Democrat (although I didn't know what that meant), and that it was a good thing he got elected. I remember as a four year old child making Bill Clinton a card for President's day. I cut out little pieces of construction paper and made a very realistic drawing of the President making a speech in crayon. We mailed it to the White House and a few weeks later I  received a reply. The letter, printed on official stationary, started something like "Dear Young Person: Thank you for your interest in (such and such) issue..." and was clearly a general response template. But it was still a proud moment for my parents, who laminated the letter as a keepsake.

Here in Bulgaria there isn't an official President's Day but there are plenty of other big holidays which commemorate important historical figures and events. Yesterday was the anniversary of the death of Vasil Levski, who was the most emblematic freedom fighter during the war for Bulgaria's independence from the Ottoman Empire in the late 19th century. In fact, most of these holidays are related to that historical period because it was the beginning of the modern Bulgarian state. March 3rd marks Bulgaria's independence day and September 6th marks the unification of the two territories that were combined to form its current boundaries.

The most interesting of these holidays for me, however, is June 2nd- when Bulgarians remember the death of another revolutionary hero and poet, Hristo Botev. I knew nothing about this custom last year when one of my classes went silent for about two minutes as sirens blared across the whole country. Afraid to interrupt this somber memorial (all of my students were standing at attention in complete silence), I waited until the sirens stopped to ask what was going on. I remember thinking how different this practice was from how we Americans commemorate our struggle for independence, and how much more emotional and vivid the impact would be for young people learning about this period in history. I think that part of the reason for this is the fact that Bulgaria is a much younger country than the United States, and therefore the memory of these events is clearer. One thing is for sure: this period in history was an extremely turbulent and traumatic one, and the breakdown of the Ottoman Empire dramatically changed the landscape of this region. It's admirable, from an outside perspective, that the poetry and memory of Botev still have such an influence on the public imagination and national identity today. 

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