MINI-UPDATE: he says that moving from America to Bulgaria made an entire shelf of anti-depression drugs unnecessary. I can't speak to that, although I know that going from the Carpathian mountains of Romania to certain places in Sofia was a similarly refreshing grounding in reality.
I'm going to shock myself and say that the low ratings aren't quite accurate. I'm thinking it's only because I'm reading it as a foreigner in Bulgaria.
Let's get quickly to what's good, because it's quite hard to find:
-- It is an accurate depiction of how your typically self-centred, unconscious expat might view Sofia.
-- The generalizations about Bulgarian culture, when they come, come at an appreciable level for an expat staying a few months longer than normal. That's not to say that the ideas that Bulgarians can be pessimistic or that they are struggling psychologically with a history of foreign oppressors are insights that any Bulgarian couldn't tell you on your first day.
-- Unlike Theroux, who Baker suggests typifies the popularity of complaining travel writers, his day-by-day account is mostly positive or neutral, with brief, unemotional asides about what's bad, in the Bulgarian style.
-- His asides about how broken social and financial life are in the U.S. are telling, although he appears to be talking mainly about the city of Indianapolis.
-- His stated aim is to be funny, and several zingers and one anecdote "The Night of the Flying Banitsa" are hilarious. The anecdote is on page 287. You won't find it otherwise, because there's no table of contents or index.
His choice to fill the book with 2 or 3 years of diary entries means you have to flip through a lot of pointless nonsense to get anything of value. He says that he's both disorganized and despises the sausage making and/or number crunching in university publishing, so my comment isn't going to change his thinking. Somehow he spent many years working as a professor in the German-American heartland of the U.S., so clearly he once knew how to play the organization game.
As a matter of fact, it's not clear what sort of business studies he teaches. I have a slight hint that he teaches about Organization, but my real guess is that he teaches Marketing, because this book is a lot of pointless self-aggrandizing and little substance. It's hard to see how his style won converts in Bulgaria, but the students who drifted in and out of his class must have learned something about American-style success, which dispenses with Slavic or any other rationality.
Despite his professions of loving Bulgaria, you'd sometimes think that he has a kind of contempt for Bulgaria or possibly his readers. He has been visiting Bulgaria for 20 years, teaching here, and finally moved here wholesale, yet he doesn't speak Bulgarian and couldn't even recognize when new graduates were chanting countdowns to 12 in the Bulgarian language. The tone of the book still treats Bulgarians as a kind of alien race after 20 years. It also shows an indifference to things Bulgarian. If a government official in Bulgaria offers to talk politics, he ignores the offer and asks the whole group to read his novel instead. If a Bulgarian professor tells him the real reason Serdika (the old Roman name for Sophia) got its name, he doesn't bother to put it in the book, but quickly claims that he loves Bulgarian history. He only sprinkles his diary with tiny historical snippets, and maybe that is even a sort of kindness to Bulgarians or to readers, in his mind.
What's valuable is trying to understand why a professor from Wales, who teaches in the U.S. and has a wife in Paris, chose Bulgaria of all places to live. He claims that no one has friends in the U.S., whereas it's easy in Bulgaria, where he has either 3 or "many."
Ignoring the fact that he arrived in some position as a western "authority", which gave him access to the highest echelons of Bulgarian society, along with friends who do virtually everything for him, I think there is even more appeal for a certain kind of expat.
The one time I visited Indianapolis, they had a regular shuttle going from the airport to the downtown. The shuttle was a stretch limousine, with a small group of strangers all looking in amazement at each other. No matter how much he says he disliked Indianapolis or the U.S., and he goes back to that topic several times, life there probably had an order that gave him a certain amount of free reign.
But not as much as Bulgaria, where he could be both respected and disorderly. Sophia reminds me a bit of the northeast in the U.S., and not just because it has four seasons. The people are independent because social order institutionalized by industrialization has virtually disappeared, to be replaced by education and business models.
What Mr. Baker seems to have found in Bulgaria is a country with old world order, full of comically pessimistic characters who always find a way to muddle through, in a way that is both independent and acknowledges foreign powers, no matter how ridiculous they are, and yes the Bulgarians even laugh about it.
I am struggling not to make this crude generalization. It's possible being in one's mid-60s produces a kind of inevitable, meandering, anecdotal, apparently self-centred style about depending on others. The fact that he added no update for the 2014 edition is telling.
He goes so far as to even Google himself at one point. Why couldn't he have Googled more details about Bulgaria or at least put this book online so it would be easier to find the insights of value?