A Letter Home to Patty
Sofia, Bulgaria, August 1997
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Date: Tue, 26 Aug 1997 21:41:44 +0300
From: Linas Vepstas
Subject: letter to patty
I miss you very much.
Traveling is good for the soul, or at least it can prompt a
re-examination of the soul. I saw myself in a mirror today, and
suddenly saw that I was looking at an old man. It was
disconcerting. This capped a series of vague, malingering,
unpleasant thoughts that have been coming out in states of
half-wakefulness. I am not sure if I can recall all of these,
or, if I could, that I should lay them in this letter. Yet somehow
I sense that these thoughts, if closely analyzed, would reveal deep
truths of my psyche. More accurately, I sense that these thoughts,
if analyzed, would reveal all of the various ways in which I have
been fooling myself, in which I have been blind to the truth, in
which I have been ignoring facts and truths that should be horribly
obvious in full wakefulness, and yet, for some sinister reason,
I am suddenly struck by the notion that maybe I am being haunted by
a ghost that inhabits these parts; a ghost that haunts many, and
maybe all who live in this country. It is a certain feeling of
helplessness. A wondering about the fate that brought me here.
A question of what I had done wrong, what mistake that I had
made, that I should be here. The ghost insists that this is life,
that it is inescapable, and yet I sense that this is not so.
I can escape, I know I can, and yet the very means quite elude me.
I can search out this ghost, I can track it's scent. It's a scent
that I know, I scent that I innately recognize, an ability that
I know must be in my genes, something that I inherited from my
parents some time in 1955, some time during the worst of the
Of course, any materialist will calmly point out that ghosts
do not exist. There are other, rational explanations for moods
and emotions. You know, of course, that I contribute often to
the materialist subscription. Perhaps we both subscribe
to this religion a bit too much.
The materialist will point out that this afternoon is grey (it had
been sunny earlier). The materialist will point out that I am
nursing a hangover from liquors and spirits distinctly ethnic.
Could these simple aspects of lighting and bodily chemistry be
pre-determining my mood with Newtonian exactness?
The materialist will point out that the window that opens onto the
square is of a construction that is not one that you nor I am
familiar with. All of the windows here are quite interesting.
They are always double windows, and they open like two pairs of
French doors. Tall and skinny, there is a handle in the middle.
Turn the handle and pull, and the first pair opens on hinges.
Inside, there is a second pair, just like the first, just ever so
minisculy smaller, so that you can open them inside the first pair.
These windows are thrown open daily, and they let in the noise of
the pedestrians and the street on the one side, and the quite and
peacefulness of the stately, tree-lined court-yard on the other.
On the street side is one corner of a square. Across the square
can be seen the bright red brick and white limestone trim and
black bronze roof of what might be an 18th century Viennese
opera palace, or the yellow Italian ochre and red tile roof
of a Hotel de Ville, or the Byzantine spire holding it's
encrusted dome above the horizon of burnt sienna tile rooftops.
The view is purely and uniquely European, and it is gorgeous.
The materialist would also point out that the beauty is of recent
mint, that it is the result of a careful reconstruction of what
must have been dilapidated shells not all that long ago. The
materialist will point out that a patina of road grime and soot
still covers chipped corners, spalling stucco and peeling paint.
That in the distance lies the unmistakable stocky silhouette of
grand yet massive, immense yet immovable Soviet architecture.
For a good materialist, saying that the air is thick with the
sociological detruitus of the Soviet era would be crossing the line
into the ethereal. Lets stick to the facts: The grand stairway up
to our fourth-floor office is dark and dank. It is peppered with
graffiti, in Bulgarian and rebellious James Dean American, rebellious
pot-smoking heavy-metal American, rebellious punk and pierced-ear
post-punk hitch-hiking-across-Europe-with-one-pair-of-jeans pidgin
English. The walls of the wide, broad stairway are darkened with
a decade of finger-prints. Near the windows that open on the
landing lie large concrete planters, broken and spilling dead,
dry soil. Yet there is a certain modernity here, a certain
vibrance: the walls have been recently patched to hide
newly-installed telephone wires that seem to run into every
apartment and office.
Our office is clean, bright, whose large rooms are well-lit,
respectable by any standards.
The stiff, chalky white paint on the ceiling is spotless. The
textured white wall-paper is almost so (there was a prior tenant).
The wooden parquet floor squeaks and squeals when you walk on it:
This is one of the reminders that it must be older than it looks.
There is one tall, built-in dark, almost black oak display case
whose sliding glass doors are etched in a wheat motif. There is
another floor-to-ceiling Scandinavian teak bookcase darkening with
age. Some oak hot-water radiator covers. A few scattered
statuaries: each no more than ten inches tall, each no less than
six: a bust of Nefertiti, a folk-art camel, a pretend-Picasso, a
pretend-Brancussi, and a pretend-Miro. A wooden candelabra with
inlaid copper and amber. Three soft-cover computer books that I
brought piled up here, another two there. More computer books,
papers, magazines and newspapers scattered about. Five PC's in
one room, five more in another. Ethernet wiring lies on the floor.
There is a reception room (a living room?) with a Burgundy velvet
sofa, two matching seats, and a small table with an olive-green
telephone on top, not the kind of telephone that you would see in
the United States, but only something that you would find in a
foreign country. There is a full kitchen, a bathroom, a toilet.
This is a nice, clean, well-lit and respectable enough office/
apartment that one can easily forget that in the dank hallway
outside, we have four neighbors, judging by the dark, impenetrable
neighboring doorways. I have seen one doorway open. A woman came
out and looked at me, almost scowled. Tight, bleached hair, a
sharp, beaked nose, a strong stern stare coming from a wrinkled,
lined face. Old, but still young, and clearly once strikingly
beautiful, she must have joined the Communist Party at an early
age to better advance her career, her social status, her wealth
and health and well-being. You could almost hear her saying:
If the Communists were still in power, we would have a place to
put you, you young, vile, disgusting, long-haired, rich, filthy
depraved American pig. I was uncertain as I passed by. In me
re-awakened a wondering whether I could find some listening devices
implanted behind the teak shelves, the oak cases. They must
almost certainly be there, and the only mystery was whether they
still worked, and where the wires went: into the apartment from
which she stepped, or into the basement with it's chained-shut
Most of the programmers that John hired are young, many still
in school. I wonder if they know of the fear and paranoia that
coursed through these very streets, these very hallways, this
very room in which I sit. Maybe it is true that they know it, but
it seems like a detail that is no longer important to them, no
longer holding a sway. Other more important concerns hold them:
young, smart, ambitious, they are trying to understand how they can
leave this country, at least for a little while, and earn a salary
the likes of which one can only dream. The dream is sweet, and at
the same time frustrating: What had they done wrong, what was their
sin, that they should be trapped in this country, with its low
wages, its ugly buildings, its dirty streets, its blocks of modern
white-washed concrete flats in the midst of decay, apartments that
are too small and unfit for human habitation? How can they come to
America, the land of milk and honey?
I try to point out the beautiful tree-lined boulevards, the shady
courtyards brimming with magnificent specimens of a broad variety of
trees, broad-leafed and narrow, stout oak and weeping willow, pine
and birch. They see only the graffiti: a giant penis, the name of
John Lennon written in Cyrillic. The population of the entire
country, at eight and a half million is smaller than New York or
Chicago. Sofia, the capital, with two million, is larger than
Austin, and is a real city with sidewalk cafes and restaurants and
electric buses and trolley cars. It bustles with activity: Like
Austin, there seem to be new buildings going up everywhere.
Everything is under construction: on every street, piles of brick,
hills of sand, brand new windows dusty and splattered with concrete,
not yet washed, on every corner, stout men in overalls pushing
wheelbarrows overflowing with tools.
But this vibrance seems invisible to the young: still needling me on
salaries and wages, I try to talk of crime and welfare. Too late:
how much does an unwed welfare mother get from the American
Government? I name a sum, and they don't believe that you can live
on that sum. They are right. I don't know either. How much does
someone who works at McDonald's make? How much does a programmer
with one or two years of experience make? They are tripping me up:
I cannot name the astronomical American salaries because that would
all the more clearly high-lite their plight and the urgency of
leaving this place.
The damned ghost is there, is still perennially there. The ghost
lingers in the half-sleeping hangover-induced state. In talking to
them, in working with them, I see that I am a light to them, a ray
of hope. But, like something that can be displaced but not
eliminated, the hope I emanate leaves behind a void that is filled
a dark syrup of hopelessness. I cannot quite determine how it
creeps into my soul: Is it in the rakiya that I drink? Is it in the
white cheese that is sprinkled on everything? Is it a heavy vapour
that lies close to the floor, and creeps up through one's nose as one
sits reposed in a chair?
The damned materialists all make one crucial mistake: there is a
soul, there is an ineffable spirit of being, and therefore there are
ghosts: no amount of psychology and self-analysis can explain
the room, the walls, the chair in which you sit as you read this,
my letter to you. No amount of economic theory can explain your
place in the world, your career (my career), your personal successes
and personal failures (my successes and failures). No amount of
civilizational studies and cultural understanding can explain the
gnawing feeling that life can still hold yet more, that the contract
of life has yet been unfulfilled. No amount of science can explain
history and the trap that we call the here and now, the present.
The present is liquid and unreal, in my face and unstoppable, a
dream, a slumber from which I cannot wake. It offers a destiny
that I cannot control, and lays bare before me my fate which
I cannot master, which, by its very actual nature, can have no
I miss you very much, and I miss Wolfie. I wonder what I am doing
here. I wonder when this headache will pass, and when I will once
again submerge under euthanasia, senseless and unfeeling to the whims
of fate, again bright and cheerful and vivacious, filled with good
words and good deeds and encouraging all to shine forth upon the
world as humans were meant to do. To become again one of the
million points of light, to again submerge myself in work and
creation and speech and thought, to once again become ignorant and
shut out the dark, lurking monsters that inhabit the coves and
submerged nooks of consciousness. What am I doing here? What
brought me here? Why cannot I control my fate? And why am I not
with you, my wife, near you, where I can at least hope to clutch
for a straw, hope to discover your empathy and love and support,
and hope that I might be warmed by the sunshine of your love?
I miss you, I hope that this letter is not too dark, and that you
understand all that I have written, and I hope that you understand
that this is all but a passing impression of a short moment of life,
sustained only by the will to write you a letter, and a certain
perverse pleasure that I have just derived from sulking and tasting
the juices of despair. And I also hope that you know, and will
understand that the half-sleeping nightmares are very real and
quite painful, and that you will view this not as something awful
and repugnant, but as something truthful and honest. I hope you
judge it not as good or bad, but rather as a photograph, a
snap-shot, a vignette of a day of life.
Sofia, Bulgaria, 24 August 1997