Dancing Bears: True Stories about Longing for the Old Days
(Text Publishing), by Witold Szablowski (translated by Antonia Lloyd- Jones)
Witold Szablowski is an award-winning Polish journalist. His book, described as brilliant, funny and heartbreaking, is an account of people in former communist countries who remain intriguingly nostalgic for how life once was.
For hundreds of years, Bulgarian gypsies trained bears to dance, welcoming them into their families and taking them on the road to perform. In the early 2000s, after the fall of communism, they were forced to release the bears into a wildlife refuge. But, even today, we are told, whenever the bears see a human, they still get up on their hind legs to dance.
In the tradition of acclaimed Polish writer Ryszard Kapuscinski, Szablowski tells stories of people throughout Eastern Europe and in Cuba who, like Bulgaria’s dancing bears, are now free but long for when they were not.
Szablowski likes to wander and his book includes accounts of him hitchhiking through Kosovo as it declares independence, arguing with the guides at the Stalin Museum, and sleeping in London’s Victoria Station alongside a homeless Polish woman.
Dancing Bears is a portrait not only of social and economic upheaval, but a lesson in the challenges accompanied by freedom; it reveals, for some people at least, the seduction of authoritarian rule.