Stories from a Balkan Ecosystem

“For millennia, the people of the Mesta Valley have lived in an intimate relationship with their environment. My enquiry is into the nature of this relationship as it survives today, after a succession of generational mass traumas in the 20th century: political persecution, economic upheaval in the wake of the collapse of the Communist economy, partial environmental degradation in the past thirty years, mass emigration due to unemployment and endemic state corruption and misuse of power, climate change, and a dramatic generational shift from a traditional, agricultural way of life towards a globalised, digitalised, and uprooted way of life. Even so, an interesting phenomenon can be observed in the Pomaks villages here: permanent emigration is very rare. These communities are held to the land by invisible factors that cannot be accounted for by pure economics.

The villages in the Mesta Valley are remarkable for several things: their exceptionally rich biosphere where some of Europe’s cleanest foods, animals, and medicinal herbs thrive; their historic cultural and religious syncretism; their existential endurance in the face of repeated trauma, and the fact that they export the greatest amount of cheap seasonal labour to Western Europe – the fruit pickers, planters, and builders on whom the wealthier European economies depend.

Within this specific local context, I will be asking some urgent questions about inequality and double standards in Europe, and just what this says about the much-vaunted European values today. Further questions will be: what are the connections between environmental health, human health, cultural syncretism and its relationship to tolerance, and is there such a thing as a modern European quasi-slave labour market? What can the lives of these remarkable people tell us tell us about the present and future of Europe?“

Kapka Kassabova

Kapka Kassabova is a writer of poetry, fiction and narrative non-fiction. The exploration of place is central to her work, with a focus on the intimate relationship between people and their environment. She wrote the childhood memoir Street Without a Name (2008) and the music memoir Twelve minutes of love, a tango story (2011). Her latest books, Border (2017) and To The Lake (2020), explore the complex trans-boundary human geography of the southern Balkans. Border journeys across the triple border of Bulgaria, Turkey and Greece. To The Lake explores the inter-connected lakes of Ohrid and Prespa at the triple border of Macedonia, Albania and Greece. Her work is translated into most major European languages. The latest editions of Border are Greek, Turkish, Serbian and Chinese. To The Lake is forthcoming in Bulgarian, German and French. Border was short-listed for most literary prizes in the UK, and won the British Academy’s Al-Rodhan Prize, The Saltire Book of the Year, the Highland Book Prize and The Stanford-Dolman Book of the Year. It was shortlisted for the National Circle of Critics Award in the US, the Angelus Award in Poland, the Nicholas Bouvier Prize and the Prix européen du livre in France.

Kapka grew up in Sofia, was university-educated in New Zealand, and since 2005 has lived in Scotland. The setting of her next book, Elixir (2023), is the mountainous basin of the Mesta-Nestos River in the southern Balkans.