"You can not have prejudices against a person who is like you" is the phrase that engraved on my mind after the interview with the young and ambitious teacher of Greek Kalina Bliznashka. She is the founder of the special Greek language school in Sofia, Panellinika. For GRReporter readers, Kalina speaks about the similarities and differences between the Bulgarian and Greek people and the prejudices facing us and preventing us to get closer.
Her love for the Greek language and culture makes her take a bold initiative and only for a year, she grew from a Greek philologist to a successful manager of a private language school with 5 teachers and over 60 students.
How was your love for the Greek language born?
I am a graduate of the National School for Ancient Languages and Cultures Constantine Cyril the Philosopher, and there I began to study ancient Greek language. I was greatly interested in the language from the outset and therefore continued to study it in the Modern Greek specialty at Sofia University.
The language itself is very exotic. Even the letters themselves are exotic, as if they are hiding some kind of mystery, which you are willing to unveil. In an earlier age, the fact that you have command of a language with such ancient roots makes you feel more special as if you have command of a magic. Later, when you get deeper into the language, you are aware of how many secrets it hides and how many words, terms and everyday expressions in Bulgarian come from the Greek language, it makes you confident that you have skills and knowledge that are useful.
How well do you think Bulgaria knows the Greek culture and literature? What do the Bulgarians know about Greece, except sirtaki and Zorba the Greek?
Although we are neighbours, the Bulgarians and Greeks know very little about each other, not only in terms of literature and culture, but also as in general. The two nations have many prejudices, which prevent us to get close. These are my observations for years. Some people began to study Greek with a bias towards the Greeks and the Greek culture. Gradually, by getting to know the characteristics of the people, their traditions and their behaviour, they realize that Greeks and Bulgarians are more similar than they previously imagined. Indeed, we are more alike than we realize.
At first, most students know the Greek culture in terms of tourism, cuisine and history. The Bulgarians as a whole have a serious interest in the history and development of the Balkans and know much about Greece from this perspective. However, little is known for the literature of the country. This is an almost unknown territory for the Bulgarians, mainly because there are very few modern authors and books translated. I'm not sure why. Perhaps because the Greek translators are too busy to serve businesses and companies and they have no time to translate books. Whatever the reason, there are many books, not only classic but also completely new editions, which I think would be of great interest to the Bulgarians, but they are not translated. In any case, much more efforts are necessary and focused policies so that the two nations get closer to each other.
Let us return to the similarities and differences between the two cultures and why are we strangers to one another, although we are neighbours and Balkan people?
I am not able to give a reasonable scientific explanation, because I am a philologist. A general observation of mine is that neighbours are often the least known not only on the Balkans but also in other areas. On the one hand, perhaps because they fear each other and historical stereotypes prevent them from knowing each other. On the other hand, they are probably afraid that they will find out how many things they have in common with their neighbours and then, half of their prejudices rooted for years should be abolished. You can not be prejudiced against a person who is like you. This means that you do not like yourself. Apparently, it is not easy to find the courage to make such a trip towards yourself with a Balkan sign, which is the key for getting closer.
Learning the language is one way to get acquainted with a culture. This process allows you to go into the essence of a culture easier and gradually and to know it as yours, no matter whether you will accept it or not. It is not foreign any longer. The language enables a person to understand the mindset, the customs and cultural characteristics of a people without having to comply with them.
When do you think the distance between Bulgarians and Greeks started to shorten?
My observations are from 2006 when I started teaching, and since then, in my work with people, I see many positive trends. First, in 2007 the Greeks themselves began to accept us differently due to our official accession into the European Union. The Greeks are people with a highly developed sense of commerce and business in general. Our accession to the European Union opened many doors. At the same time, the Greeks themselves might have recognized that since we are members of the European Union, we are more valuable neighbours than we have been before.
On the other hand, something I appreciate as a positive trend is that the Bulgarians began to travel a lot abroad and of course to Greece, which is in close proximity. Our southern neighbour is of great interest to the Bulgarians as tourists and they not only visit popular resorts and islands, but also seek information and find little heavens that are not approved destinations for the general public. I find this very positive because the more places you visit, the more things you learn. Bulgarians finally began to gain confidence, which is important for the others’ perception of you. Many of our students are in very close contact with the Greek reality and they themselves see that their prejudices yield in the direct contact with our neighbours.
Who are the people who study Greek in Bulgaria?
I would divide our students into two main groups. The first group consists of young people between 25-35 years, while others are more mature people to 50 years. Young people wishing to learn Greek are motivated by the fact that they are working in a Greek company and their proficiency in the language other than English will help them grow in their careers. Our other young students are interested to learn Greek, because they intend to continue their education in Greece, most often to obtain a master's degree. They choose our southern neighbour, because it is closer, cheaper than other European countries and they will gain useful experience.
The reasons for people over 35-45 years are interested to me as a teacher. It turns out that many of them not only travel around Greece, but also have bought property there. Most often, the Bulgarian owners of houses or villas in Greece are interested in the north part, which is closer to the border with Bulgaria - around Thessaloniki, Kavalla, Khalkidhiki. It turns out that they are unable to communicate with their neighbours because in most cases the local people do not speak English themselves or prefer to communicate in their own language. The Bulgarians from this group learn the language with great desire and are very consistent. Definitely, their learning of the language is a journey towards themselves.
What about the Greeks, who are learning Bulgarian?
There is interest generally, but the deepening economic crisis led to a decline in the market. I expect this interest to grow in the near future, because in Bulgaria there are still opportunities and market segments in which the enterprising Greeks could find areas for development. In general, the Greeks do not learn the Bulgarian urgently as they communicate successfully in English with their Bulgarian colleagues in the work environment. In other words, they have no need to learn the Bulgarian language for their work and their decision to do it is spontaneous and even emotional.
I would say that they are less motivated, and perhaps that is rooted in their mindset and their understanding of their own language. However, I think that Greece's interests in the Bulgarian language will only grow, mainly due to the increasing exchanges between the two countries. So far, the Greeks, who really want to learn Bulgarian, live here and want to better understand their friends.
For now, mainly large companies with heavy structures represent the Greek business in Bulgaria and their managerial bodies operate between the two countries. I think it is time to attract the small business, which is typical for Greece but is not yet known in Bulgaria.
How does it feel to be the founder of a school and share your knowledge every day, while consciously or unconsciously helping to destroy the prejudices between the two neighbouring cultures?
It may sound like a cliché, but teaching for me today is a dream that has come true. I knew even in the university that I wanted to teach, but you need courage to develop your own business. I saw that there was interest in the Greek language and I knew from the very beginning I had to make a language school specialized only in teaching Greek. In this way, we are able to provide individual or group training in general or special Greek language like business Greek, for children, legal, etc. I admit that it was brave to make Panelinika, but today it is clear that our efforts were not in vain, because we are growing very fast and the interest is great. I am glad that there are so many people who come with great desire and want to know not only the language but also the culture of the neighbouring nation. Some even say they have waited years before their final decision to learn Greek and they have chosen to trust our specialized school.
What would you say to someone who knows nothing about Greece and the Greek culture to draw his or her interest? What are your favourite things in Greece?
It would take a long time. Greece is hiding so many surprises and small wonders, and then less than four hours drive from Sofia. Therefore, it is high time those who have never set foot on Greek soil to start slowly and gradually to get to know it because there is something for everyone. Besides the magnificent Aegean Sea, it has a lovely cuisine, and of course - the songs, the dances, the historical sites. Whatever I say in terms of tourism will not be enough, so the people have to go to Greece and feel it in their hearts.