Our children both being in school during the day, I began working part-time (very part-time) teaching English to pre-schoolers in a private school with several бази (locations) in Sofia. One of these was in the Овча купел (Ovcha kupel) neighborhood. Овча купел is a large neighborhood. Its name derives from the sheep that not only gamboled in the meadows, but apparently happily waded through the hot thermal water that leached up through the surface—and even gushed up after the 1858 earthquake. Hence, the area was a овча къпалня (sheep bath).
Though less than 10 kilometers due west from where we lived near Sofia’s center, it was a long ride on маршрутка #27 or #29. The маршутка (marshrutka) is a mini-bus with a specific route but no specific stops. You stand along the route, flag it down like a taxi, hand the driver your money, and cling for dear life to a strap, seatback, or fellow passenger if there is no seat available (and there won’t be in rush hour). The driver smokes like a chimney just under the sign prominently declaring that smoking is forbidden, crams in as many passengers as seem willing to climb aboard, drives like a maniac, and comes to a screeching stop whenever a passenger notes that s/he would like to disembark. It’s a hair-raising experience that, like most other such experiences in life, you find yourself becoming blasé about once you’ve dulled the instinctive fear by repeated attempts. The long ride there and back together took more time than I actually spent with the children. But that’s not why I stopped teaching at the pre-school.
Once back on my own two feet at the corner, I had a 10- or 15-minute walk to the school building. I walked on the sidewalk near some stores and offices, and passed a large, green park. Within the park, though I never went to see it, is the abandoned remains of a public bath. It was built sometime after the earthquake to capitalize on the hot mineral spring. Once past the park, I would encounter on any day with any precipitation—or within a week of some precipitation having happened—the mud. Now, mud is not unknown to other neighborhoods in Sofia, or any other place in Bulgaria for that matter. There is a reason people have for centuries taken off their shoes before entering the house. But the mud in this particular part of Ovcha kupel was particularly puzzling, perhaps even telling. And not just because this might be seen as a modern-day sign of what the sheep gamboled through a century and a half before.
My observation is that there are three Ovcha kupels. There is the very old one of houses built before the war or at least before the Communist government started building the large-scale concrete panel residential blocks. There are the панелите (those concrete panel residential blocks) themselves. And there are now the new вили (villas) being built by the nouveau riche on streets such as the one where the pre-school rented its space. They are large. They have all the amenities. They have front and back lawns and tall fences to enclose those lawns. One can spend all one wants on one’s privately-owned space both inside and out, but that does not in any way motivate the municipality to spend any of the money it has on the spaces in-between. And the wide path separating one row of villas from another is a municipally-owned and municipally-ignored mud-covered space in-between. Not to be confused with what should be a road. Week after week, month after month, I tested the quality workmanship of my made-in-Bulgaria boots by dragging them through that mud. They passed the test, though I was more than irritated. But that’s not why I stopped teaching at the pre-school.
I did mention the mud problem to the director. She always drove so she didn’t need to worry about the daily slog. Still she was indignant about the state of affairs. “The EU has offered €20,000,” she said, “but it’s contingent on the municipality matching that with its own €20,000 and they just won’t do it.”
One day, I saw a group of people standing just where the road bordering the park became the “Road” of Mud. They gathered around a piece of heavy equipment, maybe a backhoe, possibly a grader. I didn’t intend to stop and chat, but then I heard one man speak English with an accent of the American south. It was my chance. “I don’t mean to be rude, but are there any plans to use this to pave the road? The mud is really awful.” Far from getting angry, the woman representing the local municipal government and translating for the American bewailed the situation as well. “And I’m just ruining my heels,” she lamented. I don’t want to overstate my influence or the humiliation the Bulgarian members of the group might have felt, but project street building began the next week and was completed within a month. The municipality must have found the €20,000 necessary. I notice that one of the villas on the street is now on sale for €249,000 and being marketed to British expatriates.
When I first started visiting Bulgaria in 1987, virtually no one in Sofia had a pet. In the village, there were dogs and cats, but these were in no way pets. They lived outside and fulfilled their purpose of guarding or sheepherding or rat/mice-eating. After 1989, it became popular to have a pet. Then came the difficult years of 1995-1997. People could barely feed themselves and their pets were abandoned to the streets. There were street dogs everywhere, and because they reproduced outside, there were often packs of feral dogs roaming in packs. It was scary. On January 9, 1997, the BTA News Agency reported “The cases of biting by stray dogs got frequent in the autumn of 1996 and a check by the competent authorities established that there are not reserves of antirabies vaccine which created panic among the population.” The street dog (and cat) situation is better now, but not a lot. The problem ebbs and flows. To euthanize them or house them is the continual debate that seems to have no end in sight.
On October 30, 2002, BTA reported that “A programme to be voted by the City Council on Wednesday provides for clearing Sofia of stray dogs within a year…There are 50,000 stray dogs in the capital.” Clearly, the public was aggrieved and the city not acting fast enough. On July 12, 2003, BTA unsurprisingly noted “One in four Sofianites identify the packs of stray dogs as the main problem for the capital city.”
I was often flustered not just by the muddy “street” itself but by the small pack of street dogs roaming up and down it. Small, well-groomed pet dogs behind the tall villa fences yapped as I went by and this seemed to rouse the fury of the large street dogs. Inevitably one day it happened. The pet dogs barked, three street dogs looked up, and I was the target available. They rushed toward me and even in my petrified state, the survival instinct kicked in. One stood on its hind legs and pushed on my chest with its front legs, bringing it almost to my height. Another took my right hand in its mouth, but without sinking its teeth in. I forced myself to stand still and to speak quietly and slowly, hoping they would be soothed. Somehow they were and backed off, but did not go far. I managed to walk to the pre-school gate, to press the buzzer, to announce my presence, and to enter without looking behind me. I spent the money for a cab home. And then I stopped teaching at the pre-school.