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Angela Rodel: “I’m having too much fun in Bulgaria!”

April 1, 2012 by · 8 comments

An Interview with Translator, Singer and Actress Angela Rodel by Lauren Sophie Kearney

Angela Rodel

So, Angela, what brought you to Bulgaria?

I heard the Mystery of Bulgarian Voices choral music when I was a student at Yale University – I had joined the Yale Slavic Chorus and absolutely fell in love with the sound of Bulgarian singing. In 1995 I came here for the first time to go to the festival in Koprivshtitsa and have been pretty much hooked ever since.

And how long have you lived there?

I lived in Sofia on a Fulbright grant from 1996-1997, studying Bulgarian philology at Sofia University, then I went back to the US to do my graduate work (in linguistics and ethnomusicology), although I would hop back for summers and hang out with lots of Bulgarians in the US. I came back to Bulgaria in 2004 to do dissertation fieldwork and never left!

Do you notice many cultural differences between Bulgaria and the United States? If so, what are they?

The silliest example is the techenie – it dawned on me that Bulgarians and Americans have fundamentally different philosophies about illness. Here, it’s all about hot and cold – does your throat hurt because you drank a cold beer or went outside too soon after a shower? – Whereas in the US it’s all about germ theory – did some sick person take a sip of my beer or cough on me at the bar?

Generally Americans are far more optimistic – and certainly our charmed history gives us good reason to be. We tend to go into situations assuming that people are honest and mean well, whereas here, thanks to fifty years of socialism where anyone could be a government informer, people still are much more guarded and suspicious of others and new situations – although we foreigners are rather an exception to this rule, since we are generally greeted exceptionally warmly by Bulgarians.

What do you love the most about Bulgaria?

Besides the music, the fact that kef is still alive and well here. We Americans tend to rush around being “productive,” living our lives at hyper speed and overlooking the fact that the soul needs kef: sitting around a table with friends and family, talking, laughing, dancing…

You speak Bulgarian fluently; how difficult was it to learn?

I had studied Russian for five years before starting Bulgarian, so it really helped to know another Slavic language. Bulgarian is pretty much every student of Russian’s dream: no cases! But the verbal system and all the Turkish borrowings make it tricky.

Back in 1996 it was easier to learn Bulgarian than it is now, though, because back then very few Bulgarians spoke English so it was either sink or swim.

What advice would you give to other native English speakers wanting to learn the language?

Talk, talk, talk! – To anyone, to everyone. Old ladies in villages, taxi drivers, that guy at the pub haranguing about politics are all your potential teachers. Don’t be embarrassed, don’t worry too much about your grammar, it will come with time, just open your mouth and keep plowing ahead.

Have you faced many challenges during your time in Bulgaria?

Pretty much the usual challenges of being a foreigner abroad – a few years ago I read my diaries from when I was first in Bulgaria and was surprised at how lonely and disoriented I had felt when I was first here, despite the initial rush of exploring a new place.

I guess I had edited that out of my memories since I feel so at home now. And life here has gotten much easier – in the mid-90s I had to bring batteries for my walkman with me from the States because simple consumer items like that were still hard to find and the mail system was completely unreliable.

Tell us about your band, Gologan…

We started back in 2004 with Ivan Hristov and Petar Chukhov – they are both poets and for me it has been really great to work with people who are creative artists. I had done a lot of music in the US, but mostly folk music where the idea was to reproduce someone else’s model as “authentically” as possible.

I had played in punk bands as a teenager and wanted to somehow fuse the energy of rock with the energy of Bulgarian folk and Gologan has turned out to be the perfect vehicle for doing so.

What do you love the most about Bulgarian folk music?

The voice!! Singing with such a strong, loud voice is a huge rush, singing in this style with other women and feeling the sound waves beat in the air and literally rattle your ribcage is an amazing experience.

Angela Rodel

And tell us about your film career, how did you emerge into that industry?

Completely by accident – this is what I love about Bulgaria, these wonderful accidents. The great Bulgarian filmmaker Georgi Dyulgerov was shooting a film Kozelut (The Goat) and a month before shooting was to begin; he was left without a female lead. So he needed to find a foreigner who sang Bulgarian folksongs really fast, so he started asking around and eventually got my phone number.

He at first was cagey and said it was for a “small role” (which was merciful on his part, because otherwise I’m sure I would’ve freaked at the casting). But once he had me try a few scenes with Ivan Burnev, he announced: “You’re the female lead” (!).

Luckily he had lots of experience with non-professional actors and the whole filming process was incredibly fun, thanks to him and the other actors. It was essentially a three-month, paid course in Improv Theater with some of Bulgaria’s best actors!

You star in the Bulgarian TV series “7 chasa Razlika”; will there be a second season underway?

“Star” is a little exaggerated; I’d say I’m a supporting character. But it is a challenging role – whereas in The Goat I more or less played myself, in this series I’m playing someone quite different from myself (or so I like to think!). The second season kicked off on March 3.

Could you reveal to us a little bit about it?

I wish I could, but then I would owe the producers lots and lots of money. Suffice to say that things get quite interesting for Natalie…

What do you enjoy the most about being an actress? Would you like to continue doing it?

I definitely like working in the creative environment with others – most of the cast of the TV series are leading theater actors, so it’s a highly educated, intelligent and entertaining bunch to be with.

I would definitely like to continue, but I see it more as a hobby or break from my “real” job, which is as a literary translator. Translation is a pretty lonely occupation, it’s just you and your laptop day in, day out, and so filming is a nice way to recharge the creative batteries with a group of people.

What are you currently working on?

I just finished Zachary Karabashliev’s 18% Gray (really good stuff, read it if you haven’t!), and now I’ve got Angel Igov’s A Short Tale of Shame – both will be coming out on Open Letter Books in the US.

Would you ever consider returning to the U.S.A to live?

At the moment I have no plans to do so – I’m having too much fun in Bulgaria! Sofia is definitely a more humane place to live for folks who want a more, err, Bohemian lifestyle than the workaholic USA. Perhaps at some point I might consider it, but I would have to have a really, really interesting job offer to tempt me…

And you have a daughter; can she speak English too?

My daughter Kerana is now three and jabbering away in both Bulgarian and English. She used to mix them so much that no one could understand her, but now she’s figured out who she can speak what with. I’m wondering what to do when it comes to be alphabet-learning time, though; I definitely think she should start learning to read and write English from a young age, since our spelling system is a nightmare so you need all the help you can get, but I feel bad about confusing her with C, P, H and all those sneaky letters that are one thing in English and another in Bulgarian…

Are there aspects of the American culture that you would to install in her?

I hope she’ll absorb a healthy dose of American optimism and can-do-ism from me – Bulgarians tend to be a bit pessimistic (which is understandable given their history of being kicked around by bigger neighbors).

What do you hope for in the future? Is there anything else would like to accomplish in your life?

I would like to keep doing new and interesting things in arts, in music, in writing, in acting. For me what I fear most is leading a boring life… Bulgaria definitely helps keep things interesting.

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