Friday, October 29, 2010


(Warning - long post.)

Photo shows Tiber river at evening.

From June 6 to 11, I attended the Cell Model Systems Summer school at Tor Vergata Research Establishment, Rome. It was great experience and I learned a lot about liposomes and other membrane models, cytotoxic membrane-permeabilizing peptides, new materials based on plasma technology as well as current concepts about the origin of life - all this quite interesting and useful for a teacher in a broad-spectrum biology course like me. I saw first-hand how liposomes and nanomaterials are prepared, and how the atomic force microscope works, about which I had only read in articles. I am very thankful to my professor who recommended me for the summer school, to the organizers who approved my application, to the lecturers, and to my fellow participants. I whole-heartedly recommend CMS to every young researcher or teacher in life sciences. I also keep warm memories of our late-afternoon tours in Rome and in the beautiful nearby town of Frascati where we were accomodated, at the excellent hotel Cacciani.
But this is just an introduction - the post, unfortunately, is centered on something else.
Back in the 1990s, Bulgaria was even more miserable than it is today. And even more depressing than the crude reality was the feeling of hopelessness, of a lacking future. The ability to see future where it actually isn't, to see open spaces and blue skies while looking at a brick wall, was a vital skill. Those who hadn't it had to emigrate or let misery crush their souls. Among them was my brother. He had a rare gift in math that he later developed into computing, he was a good musician (though this was not his favourite occupation), but he was completely unable to see dungeon walls as open spaces. So he wished to emigrate to a country with a future.
From the European countries, three were considered seriously as prospective new homes - Germany and Switzerland, where we had relatives, and Italy, where my brother (sometimes accompanied by my sister in-law) traveled several times for temporary work with a student orchestra. Switzerland was most hostile to Eastern Europeans and was soon cancelled as a realistic possibility. My brother travelled to Germany to apply for a job, but without success. We had there a first cousin married to a German who owned small but successful business. This man said, "If you had a permit to work in Germany, I could give you a job at my shop. But I cannot obtain this permit for you - according to our laws, I have to prove that I cannot find a German to do the job, and this is impossible."
My brother actually liked Italy most because, as he said, the Southern temperament of Italians was making them similar to Bulgarians. A short Italian dictionary and a booklet titled Buon giorno - How to learn Italian in 10 days are still kept somewhere at my mother's library. But there, again, the attempt was unsuccessful. What to do - Western Europeans in those years were shutting us Eastern Europeans out as if we were leprosy-infected.
At the end of 1990s, my sister in-law and my brother obtained immigrant visas for the USA and settled there. He worked at days and learned English and computer science at night, then enrolled to study at a local college, then became computer programmer at the same college. He fulfilled the American dream... as more than one person said at his funeral ceremony.
You have surely read about parallel worlds - that when reality faces an alternative, it goes both ways, splitting into two. As a description of the physical world, parallel worlds are bullshit, but they excellently reflect the attempts of our mind to protect itself by shielding itself from unacceptable reality. The "what if" magical thinking. I still have a strong feeling about parallel worlds, and the impression that I have wandered into the wrong one that is not truly real. On Monday, March 22 I met my mother and we discussed the menu for the Friday dinner, when my family had to visit her. I asked her to fry meatballs, and we were very happy. This last happy day was in fact undeserved, because my brother was already dead - we just did not know it yet. Then on Friday, I felt trapped in a parallel world, in a wrong reality. Why was I in my home, when I had to be at my mother's apartment, eating meatballs? My mother of course had not cooked meatballs - she had flown to America the previous day to attend her son's funeral.
I had a similar feeling the night of June 6th when I arrived to Rome. The organizers of the summer school had sent a shuttle car to pick me and an Italian participant from the airport. As we travelled, my Italian colleague chatted with the driver. I was silently watching the landscape and I imagined that the shuttle car was actually sent by my brother and sister in-law, who were living in Italy. At one moment, the driver asked me in English whether I spoke any Italian. I said no, he jokingly asked why not, and I answered that I had no relations in Italy. As if reading my thoughts, he said, "Now is a very nice time to have relations."
In the next days, the summer school and the majesty of this great city distracted me and helped my recovery, well described by some psychologist as "adaptation to a world from which one's loved one is missing." Rome, Frascati, Italy are names that evoke good memories in me. Yet at the same time Italy, Germany, Switzerland and the entire "old Europe" carry for me the cold touch of the rejection. Because they did not accept my brother, that is, they were not here when I truly needed them. If he had gone to Italy or Germany, his life would not have ended so early. Or, at the very least, I would have seen him more often during these last years, and I would attend his funeral.
I have never want to emigrate myself - in fact, I spent most of my adult life struggling against other people urging me to emigrate, for my own good. But the visa refusals obtained by my loved ones scarred me with a rejection trauma without which I would be another (and almost certainly better) person. In particular, it made me more xenophobic than I would have been otherwise. Of course many immigrants are wonderful people and gain to old Europe, as would be my brother if he had been accepted. However, there are also the other kind of immigrants (let's not start a topic about freedom of speech, films, cartoons and so on). And I think I would not rant so much against multicultural Europe if I were not asking myself why such and such people have been allowed into Europe and my brother was rejected.
It is no use to try and explain down the world to me by reason. You need not mention that many immigrants are such and such because "old Europeans" wanted illiterate guest workers to clean their toilets for no money, rather than educated immigrants with Western mentality to join them as equals. My reason knows it perfectly but the irrational core of me refuses to come to terms with it. It is also of no use to mention that today Bulgarians, or at least white Christian Bulgarians, can move to any European country of their choice. In my world, now is just too late. This is my experience, and I give it absolute importance. For other people, especially for younger people who do not clearly remember the 1990s, my experience will be irrelevant. So, with rare exceptions such as this post, I'll keep it to myself, like a gem too precious to be appreciated by the populace. Value your experience, even if nobody else does. For good or for bad, it makes you who you are.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Arevik is free

This is old news, but still worth reporting.

In my April 20 post Help Arevik: innocent, pregnant, imprisoned, I wrote about young Armenian woman Arevik Shmavonyan, who wished to reunite with her beloved (and father of her child) David in Bulgaria but was instead detained at Busmanci for overstaying her visa.

On July 22, Arevik was released (hattip Svetla Encheva). Svetla made and published in Facebook some beautiful photos, one of which I cropped and posted above.
I hope everything is all right with Arevik, David and their baby. According to my calculations, s/he must already have been born, but I cannot find any information about this.
Update: On Nov. 17, Arevik gave birth to a boy who will be named Erik. Thanks to Svetla for keeping us informed.

Friday, October 01, 2010

Choice of profession

Generally, a person has to choose two important things in his life: a profession and a partner.
With the exception of traditional cultures where parents arrange marriages of their children, we choose our partners freely when we are already conscious adults. This doesn't mean that we are always wise and successful in this task. We actually seem to be even less wise and successful than the parents in traditional cultures. Very often we make serious mistakes and trap ourselves in short-lived or unhappy marriages. But at least the decision has been only ours.
Things are different with profession - at least in poor countries. The decision to acquire one or another profession has to be made in the teen years, if not earlier. At this tender age, it is heavily influenced by parents and other family members. And if the young person later wants to change his profession, it comes at a terribly high cost, or is not possible at all.
The written and unwritten laws of society are based on the working hypothesis that parents wish the best for their children. Unfortunately, too often this is not the case. And even when parents try their best, they are likely to make their child unhappy. They burden him with their own fulfilled and unfulfilled desires and ambitions, while neglecting or even fighting his wishes, gifts and inclinations. Just to give an example, here at the Medical University every year we have a legion of children of doctors, dentists and pharmacists, and a considerable part of these students lack the abilities needed for the chosen profession and/or the true wish to practice it. Their parents have pushed them into the medical profession, as commanders push their soldiers into battle.
Because this phenomenon remains in the private sphere of our life, the enormous damages inflicted by it are not very visible and the problem is not discussed in public. But it is real. Happily, economic progress brings spontaneous improvement. I mean, in a prosperous society young people are more empowered and independent and less likely to let their lives be ruined this way. And they have a second chance because they can earn the resources needed to change profession, even if it means new university study. So a mistake made early in life, either by themselves or by their parents, does not mean being directed into a one-way tunnel.
An improvement of the educational system would also help. I am against too early specialization which deprives the student from knowledges and skills in many area. Education must be broad and multi-disciplinary until the end of secondary school. And if some schools issue diplomas that are not accepted by universities, their graduates must be given the chance to obtain the needed certificate by some sort of exam.
Meanwhile, I wish to quote a man unknown to me but apparently a wise and good father. Talking to his teenage son about the choice of profession, he said, "This is very important for you and I do not wish to interfere with your decision. But please keep in mind that whatever you choose, you are expected to be doing it for 40 years to come, so it must be a thing you like doing."