Tag Archives: Sofia

Lamartine in Bulgaria

Many years ago in graduate school, I took a course that required each student to have a subscription to the renowned and self-described “authoritative” British weekly magazine The Economist. I don’t recall what the professor’s purpose in such a requirement was, but for me the unexpected benefit was reading about the world—and in particular the United States—from a non-American vantage point. I understood then how different the view of a country, its history, its current events, its people could be from the outside looking in. Enlightening and sometimes even salutary. Perhaps my writing about Bulgaria offers that sort of vicarious vantage point for Bulgarians. And this sort of prism disperses even more light on the subject when the author is writing not only from another place, geographically and culturally speaking, but from another time.

Lamartine House PlovdivPlovdiv is said to be one of the oldest cities in Europe and has seen many peoples— invaders and locals—call it their own. Next year it holds pride of place as the European Capital of Culture and will surely welcome many who have never visited before and who will jot down observations and take pictures that will be instantly conveyed to a wider audience. Some of these might wander the Old City and take note of a house built in the classic Bulgarian Renaissance (1762–1878) architectural style called the Lamartine House.

Lamartine stampAlphonse Marie Louis de Prat de Lamartine (October 21, 1790-February 28, 1869) was poet, historian, writer, and statesman. An aristocrat whose parents remained loyal to the monarchy after the French revolution, Lamartine both headed the provisional government of the Second Republic and sympathized with the plight of the working class, predicting that it would rise up in rebellion. That he wrote about such things while Karl Marx was still studying art history, translating Latin classics, and writing love poetry to his fiancé no doubt was met with approval by the Communist government that allowed the house to be named after him—and even circulated a stamp featuring the house shortly after their takeover of the country.

This despite the fact that Lamartine didn’t own the house, live in it, or even stay there for more than three days during the summer of 1833.

What allowed that 1833 three-day stay to last beyond the momentary impression of a French traveler passing through town is that Lamartine wrote a book, Travels in the East, Including a Journey in the Holy Land. Given Lamartine’s fame, it was quickly translated into other languages. He did not write much about his time there (see text beginning on page 164 in the link above), but he wrote enough of Bulgaria to endear himself to Bulgarians. He entered Bulgaria on his return journey from his eastern travels and described the three days in Philippopolis (as Plovdiv was then known) as “passed…in the enjoyment of the agreeable hospitality of M. Maurides, in going through the environs, and in exchanging visits with the Turks, the Greeks, and the Armenians…The position of the town is one of the most beautiful that can be imagined…”

What likely was Lamartine’s most enduring gift to Bulgaria was his identification of its people, already more than 400 years an unwilling dominion of the Ottoman Empire, as Europeans. Seeing themselves as closer to the Christian West than a subjugated people of the Muslim East, Bulgarians were actively forming the nationalist sense that would form the basis of serious indendence efforts. It no doubt was reassuring and uplifting to be told that peasants they might be, but of the sort seen in the Western Alps. “They are quite the same as those of the Swiss and Savoyard peasants…I have witnessed rural dances amongst the Bulgarians, exactly the same as our villages in France.” And he pleaded their cause; “they are quite ripe for independence..The country which they inhabit would soon be a delightful garden..” He praised the mountains (“very similar to those of Auvergne”), though he gave Sofia short shrift. “There is nothing worthy of remark in the town.” And if you look at photographs of Sofia and Plovdiv taken around 50 years later, you can see why the latter impressed Lamartine more than the former.


Пловдив около 1878-1880
Plovdiv, circa 1878-1880
Пловдив в центъра “Куршум хан”, 1895
Plovdiv, 1895

So enduring are Lamartine’s words that the Sofia News Agency published an article in 2012 entitled Lamartine’s Hardworking, European Bulgarians as though to reiterate, in this time of persistent European refusal to allow Bulgaria into the Schengen area, that Bulgarians had their European bona fides given weight nearly two hundred years ago by a French icon. A Western icon, by the way, who admired the East, famously writing “If one had but a single glance to give the world, one should gaze on Istanbul” and “If greatness of purpose, smallness of means, and astonishing results are the three criteria of a human genius, who could dare compare any great man in history with Muhammad?”

Sufficient French travelers wrote their impressions of Bulgaria that that Engin Deniz Tanir was able to write an entire doctoral thesis, The Mid-Nineteenth Century Ottoman Bulgaria from the Viewpoints of the French Travelers, on the subject. But for Bulgarians, Lamartine holds a special place as one of the earliest. And Sofia citizens hold nothing against him for finding nothing worthy in their city; they named the French language high school in the capital, Alphonse de Lamartine.

френска гимназия

Stoyan and a Village / Стоян и село

Satirical TheatreFor three years after serving his mandatory two years in the army and fruitlessly applying to the Art Academy in Sofia, my husband worked for the Сатиричен Театър, the Satiric Theater at 26 Stefan Karadja Street. His politics prevented his acceptance in the higher levels of academe, but seemed to be of little importance when working in theater set design.

The work wasn’t onerous, it was in a creative environment, the theater operated at a very high professional level in all aspects, and he met a friend he still has more than three decades later.

Станислав СтратиевThe Satiric Theater’s literary director at that time was Stanislav Stratiev. Stratiev was a playwright, screenwriter, satirical essayist, and short story writer. According to his website, “Stratiev’s plays have been performed in Belgium, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Ireland, Italy, Poland, Romania, Russia, Sweden, the Slovak Republic, Turkey, the USA, and others.”

Stratiev died in 2000, having worked at the Satiric Theater since 1975 and producing an enormous body of work, much of it still performed and read and cherished.

Not long ago, my husband pulled off the bookshelf a volume of Stratiev’s short fiction, Избрано 1. Белетристика (Selected Works 1. Fiction). After a few minutes of listening to him chortle, I had to see for myself. The character Stoyan is a sort of Everyman, or perhaps Everypeasant. Bulgaria has seen enormous changes in the last 130 years, but the village is the ironic harbinger of the news that for many even seemingly cataclysmic change results in little advancement in day-to-day life—and sometimes in reversals. Here then is my translation of Stoyan and a Village.

Stoyan and a Village

Somewhere—mineral water, elsewhere—oil, in Stoyan’s village—backwardness.

Backwardness and barbarism.

Mountains, forests, rocky peaks, and hobgoblins.

The population, of course, doesn’t believe, but when it comes and sits at your table, how can you not believe?

Either that, or it reaches for you in the middle of the day so that you circle the village while someone knocks the head off a black hen and throws it across the path of the hobgoblin.

The village is small, twenty houses, but when a hobgoblin is chasing you it appears to you as large as the capital Sofia.

Big backwardness.

The last hope of the population is at least democracy to come, because electricity and water don’t come, and they don’t have anywhere to come from—no road, and it also is not coming.

Instead bears come and they blow in your eye in the middle of the square.

Wolves throttle the sheep, boars ravage the potatoes.

The people number less than the beasts.

Big backwardness.

Big backwardness and explosives.

The village lays on explosives.

Somewhere God gave gold, elsewhere—pyramids, here—explosives.

On the very top are those from the Second World War. They are, let’s say, two hand spans down. You dig the cucumbers in a little deeper and you fly in the air.

Below this layer are the explosives from the First World War. They are at the depth, let’s say, of a latrine.

The population is in shock and has already stopped digging latrines. At the smallest occasion, one runs into the woods.

Big backwardness.

Backwardness and barbarism.

Under those are the ones from the Russian-Turkish War.

You go to dig a well and after forty-five minutes, you don’t need either water or food.

So the village has no water, and the population drinks like beasts from bear paw prints and from forest springs.

Farther down no one has reached; no one knows what is below this layer.

The population with reason supposes that further down are sabers and maces.

One can’t say that this is fertile soil and that the harvests are very bountiful in Stoyan’s village.

Despite everything, life here passes like it does everywhere.

One’s birthplace, there’s nothing like it.

Judgement in Sofia

In January, I wrote the following:

I have an unwritten rule that my blog will not discuss politics. Not because I do not have strong feelings about various matters political, but because most people do and the possibility of unknowingly giving offense is quite large. Giving offense is unpleasant and unproductive so one should try not to do it, however much politics seems often to depend on that very thing. I know more about U.S. politics than I care to and not enough about Bulgarian politics to form any but the most general of opinions.

But to the extent that we wish our politicians to act ethically, to make and uphold laws against behavior that most would call wrong (e.g., murder, theft, rape), and to straightforwardly and firmly denounce contemptible behavior by those in office, politics is something about which we can all have an opinion. I know quite little about Bulgarian President Rumen Radev and only slightly more about Prime Minister Boyko Borissov, but I took note of their respective reactions to an ongoing scandal highlighting what Radev referred to late last week as “a creeping indulgence of Nazism.”

Prime Minister Boyko Borissov recently formed a coalition government that includes the far right Patriotic Front (sometimes referred to as United Patriots) party, whose leader Valery Simeonov currently serves as Deputy Prime Minister. Simeonov has refused to resign over the scandal of two Patriotic Front members appearing in photographs making the Nazi salute: Deputy Minister for Regional Development Pavel Tenev and Ivo Antonov, an official in the Ministry of Defense. Tenev resigned on May 17. Antonov has not yet offered his resignation. Simeonov dismisses the photos as having no significance or relevance.

After too much time spent silent on the subject, Borissov finally commented on Tenev’s Sieg Heil explaining “it’s human while on business trips to make such jokes.” BNE Intellinews reported that “Borissov assessed that Tenev was the best and the most prepared of all the deputy ministers from the United Patriots, and the scandal is a blow to his career.”

right-wrongWhatever his motives may have been, whatever policies he may wish to forward in other spheres, however much easier it may have been in his capacity as head of state rather than in Borissov’s as the head of government, it is laudatory that Radev for his part did not mince words or equivocate.

“We do not accept the approach where in order to wriggle out unscathed those in power offer evasive commentary about the perpetrators’ professionalism. That [professionalism] is not the issue—do we condemn these phenomena or not? I am buoyed up by Bulgarian society and its reaction. I think that the condemnation of Nazism must be absolutely obligatory.”

Radev went on to criticize the notion suggesting that it is permissible for an ordinary citizen to pull stunts like this, but absolutely forbidden if one enters in government. “We are all part of society, irrespective of whether you are an ordinary citizen or a politician with responsibility. These roles change very fast, especially in our time,” the President declared. And he emphasized, “No one doubts the high professionalism of these people, the problem is a moral one. Whether the representatives in question withdraw themselves [from office] is also a moral choice, one which each must decide for himself.”

good-evilIt seems to me that no matter with which political party or politician one is affiliated, one can appreciate an absolute condemnation of the expression of Nazi ideology or symbols and that such expression has no place and no excuse. And if Nazism in all its forms is widely, frequently, and strongly condemned, such expression will find no safe haven and utterly fail to thrive.

Happy New Year / Честита Нова Година

I often feel that I am supposed to be having a lot more fun on New Year’s Eve than I am actually having. If you stay home, it seems like just another evening and it’s easy to fall asleep before that magic midnight moment when the old year becomes the new. If you go out to some event, it seems that you’ve spent far more than you’ve gotten in return. Once we planned a quiet dinner and a classic movie with another couple and that made it easy to meet expectations. Too often, though, the big day is upon us all too soon and without the necessary planning.

Once in Sofia, though, our friends Nasso and Dessi suggested we spend New Year’s at Spaggo at 9 Dr. Peter Beron Street near the National Palace of Culture. We had been to Spaggo several times with them before and loved it. It was, at least for Rumen and me, a unique place because it had what Bulgarians refer to as a детски клуб (children’s club) on the second floor. You simply take your children to the second floor, sign an exceedingly brief form relieving Spaggo of obligation should your children injure themselves, and go back downstairs to enjoy the company of other adults and very nice mostly Italian cuisine.

The children are cared for and entertained by young, energetic, and very caring young women and the entire floor is a playground with soft play equipment, arts and crafts, and child-sized tables and chairs. You can send meals up to the children or having them eat downstairs and go back up again. They’re happy because they can be children and you’re happy because you can be adults with names and not merely parent-policemen moderating behavior and encouraging more salad before dessert. The fee for the children’s club was so minimal I’ve completely forgotten what it was. The value was, of course, incalculable.

Many times Rumen and I thought how much families in the United States would appreciate such a restaurant. Not a family restaurant, not a chain, not dull food, but an actual adult restaurant with ambiance, good food, AND a place for children. We imagined what a draw it would be, but at the same time knew that in the United States it would be simply impossible. Either the lawyers would make it prohibitive or the cost of the childcare would.

So when Nasso saw that Spaggo was planning a New Year’s Eve celebration complete with multi-course meal and DJ, we were in. We made reservations, chose our courses from the prix-fixe menu, and told the children they definitely were staying up past midnight (naps for all being the requirement).

The children now being old hands were eager to get to the second floor. We adults enjoyed a wonderful meal, danced like we hadn’t in years, and tried a few karaoke numbers with one of the waitresses happily accompanying me to the tune of “I Can See Clearly Now” by Johnny Nash. Yes, Happy 1972 for a few musically nostalgic moments. Four-year old Yoan came down to see how we were doing, and immediately saw the possibilities of a microphone and a bigger audience than heretofore imagined. He promptly rattled off the entirety of “Twas the Night Before Christmas”—stunning his Bulgarian audience, most of whom very likely had no idea what hit them—concluding with “and to all a good night” before triumphantly running upstairs for more games and face-painting.

dessi-new-yearsmallSpaggo is no longer on Petur Beron Street, but they have other locations and are still offering the adult and young alike New Year’s Eve meals and entertainment. For that, and many other reasons, I wish I were celebrating the holiday in Sofia. Wherever you may happen to celebrate, whether in ways large or small, Happy New Year! Честита Нова Година. За много години!

Various and Sundry

My in-laws were the first of their families to leave their respective villages. With great difficulty, they made their way to the dream destination of all dissatisfied, striving peasants—the big city. But moving to Sofia then was difficult. They had no residence permits. They began by working on laying railroad tracks, eventually making it to Sofia to a one-room “apartment” with a communal sink. Everyone referred to the neighborhood as “Atomic Center,” after the nuclear research reactor completed there in 1961, the year my husband was born. They built a life there, made friends, obtained the residence permit. My husband Rumen remembers that when, somehow, they managed to buy a television, children came from their single rooms to crowd around and watch. When Rumen was seven years old, they were assigned a coveted one-bedroom apartment in the then new Druzbha residential block complex. A younger brother was born. Not long after the move, they discovered that another family, also with two children, was assigned to share the same apartment. The village with so little opportunities had far more spacious living quarters.

Rumen spent much of his early years and each summer visiting Dolno Ozirivo (maternal relatives) and Kozlodui (paternal relatives). It was clear to him that there were two sorts of village residents. There was the house-proud resident of the spic-and-span variety. For him/her, everything had its place and nothing extraneous marred building, yard, garden, or animal pen.

Then there was the far more common house-proud resident for whom future building plans necessitated hoarding every possible (and even more impossible) item for potential future use. Chipped bricks in piles, twisted wire netting, wood with nails from previous uses still remaining and now rusted, washed out tins that formally contained sunflower oil or cheese, clay pots, drinking gourds. All leaning up against the side of the house or the barn or perched precariously by the outdoor sink or bench.

Rumen preferred the first kind. He had a favorite place to stay in each village, a spic-and-span relative for whom even the outhouse had to be first-rate rather than indistinguishable from the chicken coop adjacent.

Having worked so hard to obtain Sofia residence permit and apartment, my in-laws embarked upon recreating the village ambiance they had so recently managed to escape. Despite the ruling Communist theology and harsh rules and too many fines to count, they purchased a small plot high in the mountains above the Rebrovo train station. It was a 40-minute train ride from Sofia and a 40-minute walk up. Over many years, they built a small cottage and a large garden. The cottage started with one room, but grew steadily. The first floor had an ample bedroom, living area with another double bed, table, wardrobes, and family photos on the wall. The second floor envisioned two more bedrooms, with the Bulgarian tradition of a narrow outdoor stairway leading to them. The kitchen was equipped with a wood stove and all the necessary implements both for making meals and putting up the garden produce for the winter.

With others of the same bent and after many years of backbreaking work, that 40-minute walk ended in what can only be called a village, albeit made up only of Sofia weekenders. Having hauled up sand, cement, bricks, furniture, pots, pans, wood, perennial bulbs, recycled two-liter plastic bottles, canning jars, and other various and sundry materials, they were understandably reluctant to dispose of anything that might later prove useful. The cottage had a below-earth room for cold storage (and whatever else might be put there in a pinch) and a shed for tools (and whatever else might be put there in a pinch).

My father-in-law passed away in the cottage that he built with his hands and that was his favorite place. My mother-in-law continued to make weekend jaunts and garden there. When we lived in Sofia in the mid 1990s, we spent many weekends there in orgies of shelling peas for canning, taking naps in the sun on the wide porch, fetching water from the spring, taking walks to gather herbs for winter tisanes, digging out parsley roots for fall salads, filling watering cans from the catchments to save the strawberries in a drought year. One chilly late fall mountain night, my mother-in-law heated bricks in the wood stove, wrapped them in towels, and put them at the foot of our bed to keep our feet warm in the first hours of sleep. It was hard work and it was idyllic and we enjoyed it immensely. But we grew tired of constantly fighting the various and sundry that prevented easy access to the tools and materials we really did use. Asking whether this item or that could be thrown away or even moved to a new location always met with a certain hesitancy; my mother-in-law seemed truly pained at the idea. The village ethos had a clear hold.

Then one day she sent me below to get a few onions to start a soup. I had started to peel one when I suspected what I really had was a flower bulb. I was that close to making a truly poisonous soup. Finally, I had enough—enough irritation, enough Bulgarian, and enough courage to tell my mother-in-law I was cleaning it out.

We hauled out the broken ladder that would never be fixed, the single shoes missing their mates, the watering can with a hole at the bottom. She watched, first nervously, then—because she had the ability to laugh at herself—with amusement as the pile grew. After we tossed out the old and the odd, the unused and the unloved, my mother-in-law put a match to the pile and nursed the fire until all that could burn had become ash. What was left, we bagged and asked a neighbor to haul down in his truck. Fifteen years later, my mother-in-law having moved from the dream of Sofia to DC where her grandchildren were, we sold the Rebrovo cottage.

This summer, we will spend a month in Bulgaria. We will visit relatives in the village. We prefer to stay with the spic-and-span relatives rather than the various-and-sundry relatives, but we don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings. En route, we will pass through towns and villages with many of the latter sort of houses. Houses with the first floor built surrounded by all the building supplies needed for an eventual second floor, so eventual that the second floor likely awaits a second generation. Houses surrounded by the debris of what was demolished to make way for the current structure, because of what might be salvaged for yet another use. Houses that have accumulated various and sundry, because every purchase was a hard-won purchase and is memorable and just can’t be let go unless the owner has a ruthless American daughter-in-law bent on cleaning it out.

Nellie / Нели

old Sofia mapFor two years, we lived on Han Krum Street. Han Krum or Khan Krum is something like a founding father in Bulgaria. He led the First Bulgarian Empire at the turn of the ninth century and is probably best remembered for instituting the first written laws in his people’s history, mostly along the lines of no drinking, no stealing, and no lying. Like all good monarchs, Han Krum—aka Krum the Fearsome—vastly increased the territory over which he ruled. He defeated the Bulgarian arch nemesis the Byzantine Empire and made it as far north, east, and west as Hungary and Ukraine. He died before he could attempt taking Constantinople, though his preparations were apparently well underway. A map of Sofia marked “Plan of Sofia 1887-1912” shows the street with the name of “Tzar Krum,” but really the first Bulgarian leader with that title was Simeon the Great who won it after his own defeat of the Byzantines. It’s odd to see a map purporting to represent a city undergoing near constant change and development labeled as though frozen in time for 25 years.

Actually many maps use the name Tzar Krum Street well into the 1930s and so do the engraved words in the wall at William Gladstone Street, Tzar Krum Street’s north terminus. Perhaps the Communists changed the name not for historical accuracy but instead to remove monarchical presence of every kind. Having ousted the royal family, the change of a street name was likely a simple matter.

Sofia, like all cities, continues to change even as there are streets and buildings in the city center still recognizable from photographs a century old. Though car ownership has skyrocketed since the political changes of 1989, the garages that could be housing them have generally been converted to stores and offices and ateliers, perhaps nearly as many as those built specifically for those uses. All the garages of our small apartment block save one had been converted. One of these now serves as a плод и зеленчук (fruit and vegetable store). Tall and smiling black-haired Nellie presides.

In two years of daily shopping, I never saw anyone working there but Nellie. Her husband Sasho was sick, so much so that not only could he not help her but frequently could not even take care of their large, brown dog. The dog therefore is often in the tiny back room or curled up behind the desk that serves as Nellie’s office. Behind the desk, she watches movies, usually American children’s movies dubbed into Bulgarian, when business was slack. She has an identical twin who I never met. Nellie is not merely tall, but had a certain heft that one doesn’t associate with a purveyor of fruits and vegetables. Periodically she comments self-deprecatingly on her need to lose weight. “I used to be the thin one,” she said, “then my sister lost weight and I gained what she lost.”

We talked almost daily. I would wait until there was a break in customer traffic. The store was so tiny this necessitated a delicate dance with the one or two other customers who might be positioned between the crates, peering closely at apples imported from Greece or which bunches of green onions appeared the freshest. We talked about Clinton (she didn’t like him, didn’t find him sincere) and Obama (she felt enthusiastic). We talked about Bulgaria’s endemic bureaucracy and endemic corruption and how those might be entwined. We talked about her husband who she always referred to as “the boy” and “the poor thing.” When I visited a couple of years after we moved back to DC, she told me Sasho had passed away the year after we left.

white vanNellie has a round, childlike face and short-cropped hair only just beginning to show some flecks of white. She is younger than me, but she has a grandson just a few years younger than my son. Despite her daily, lonely grind, despite her sick husband, Nellie smiles a lot. Her eyes crinkle up, she laughs aloud, and she lets you know without actually saying it that the world was ever thus and ever will be so why complain. Her dog curls up on the floor. Her white van is parked out front, visible even in DC when I look the address up on GoogleMaps.

She knows her fruits and vegetables. She used to be an x-ray technician before the hospital downsized and before that a furniture maker, but now it’s the fruit and vegetable stand and she doesn’t look back. If you ask, she tells you what is Bulgarian-grown vs. a Greek import, which apples are the firmest, when the tiny sweet seedless oranges known as мандаринки (mandarinki), often with the stems and bright green leaves still attached, will be available. She advises you to buy the French-grown potatoes. Once I saw a neighbor point to some fresh apricots and ask Nellie, “Do they speak Bulgarian?”

Iranian datesNellie introduced me to large, fresh, soft, candy-sweet dates imported from Iran. The dates are a bit expensive for many and she doesn’t have a big demand for them, but she would make sure to have a box or two on hand whenever I asked. In the winter, she and many market stands and small stores have vats of pickled vegetables, but you have to plan in advance and bring your own empty jars to fill.


Sometimes I’d discover in the midst of cooking something that I was missing a key ingredient and was able to run downstairs, buy it, chat with Nellie, and return before the contents of the pot even started to simmer.

My daughter took riding lessons when we lived on Han Krum Street and often went herself, quite early before her lesson, so that she could go into the barn and feed the horses, avoiding the small white one whose stall sign warned he was a biter. She made sure that she had some coins, asking Nellie en route which apple or carrot was the best for horses. Nellie agreeably advised for even this request of her fruit and vegetable expertise, “Пиленце (Peelentze), little chick, the horse will eat any one you choose,” holding in her laughter until reporting to me later.


The Palace of Sports

Пламен Атанасов

After ten months of whining that I wasn’t exercising after years of regular gym attendance, I finally walked into the Sportna Palata, the pool and fitness center attached to the Ministry of Physical Education and Sports building, and turned myself over to personal trainer Plamen. Other than a few weeks here and there, for the rest of our stay I went five days weekly to the basement gym. It was just a ten-minute walk away and I felt I was in the best shape of my life—largely due to the fact that I wasn’t left to my own devices and Plamen deftly contrived an ever-changing fitness program.

Спортна Палата

The fitness center at the Sportna Palata does not have the most luxurious surroundings or the latest equipment, but the staff is made up of knowledgeable and warm professionals and the atmosphere couldn’t have been friendlier. That is, in the fitness center itself.

The expansive locker room above the fitness center has banks of showers, a wonderful sauna, one squat toilet, one quiet cleaning woman/attendant who is fond of needlepoint, and one not so quiet cleaning woman/attendant who did not like the fact that I used the locker room to change into my fitness gear. Perhaps a week or two after I started, she came to me and asked if I was using the pool. I said no. She then questioned why I was changing in the “pool” changing room. I assured her that I had paid for the fitness center. “Oh no,” she asserted, “they have nothing to do with us. There is a changing room there.”

Well, that’s true in a manner of speaking, but the basement changing room is simply a closet with a curtain, less than ten lockers, and not even one squat toilet. So I explained that I preferred changing in the larger room, using the one toilet in the entire building and then taking all of my belongings downstairs. She retreated. After somewhat nervously confirming with Plamen my right to use the upstairs locker room, I felt better. For sometime after, I was happy to see that the attendant ignored me when she saw me there during her shift.

Weeks passed and then, as if all was new, she approached me in the locker room and asked if I was using the pool. This time, I felt assertive and, looking deliberately around at the nearly empty room, asked if I was bothering anyone. “Oh no, of course not,” she was quick to answer. And didn’t I have the right to use the toilet?, I asked. “Of course, there’s only the one,” she reassured. I take all my belongings downstairs, I pointed out, and I change back into my street clothes there as well. Was I causing a problem?, I challenged. “No, no, of course not,” and she backed away.

At that point, she started a sweetness campaign that baffled me, greeting me the next time with “Hello little dear, how are you?” and using the familiar form of “you” that is used only between relatives, friends and colleagues. Over the coming days, the sweetness campaign progressed to greetings of “My little one, little golden one.” Upon Sportna Palata’s re-opening after a two-week summer closing, I entered to find her waiting with open arms as if to hug me and I instinctively stepped aside, though normally I strive to be as polite as possible.

My husband contends this approach is a form of manipulation, used particularly by those guardians of the gates (e.g., porters, security personnel, attendants) who feel they justify their presence in their positions by zealously exerting control. His cousin suggests that this is the way a person of relatively low status “feeds the soul.” The control and/or soul-feeding continued. The saccharine applied intensified as the week progressed. By the end of the first week back, she was positively a fan, “I’m filled with admiration for you, you come so regularly.” This continued, addressing me as “daughter” even as she assiduously searched for opportunities to admonish me—for washing my hands with the bar of soap left on the sink by the toilet, for letting my bare feet touch the floor while I changed, (Q: “How can I take off my pants otherwise? A: You put your ass on the bench.) and other sins.

There is no smoking allowed in the building, which is used particularly for the large pool and the swimming classes for all ages. And so what seemed like the entire Sportna Palata cleaning/attendant staff, men and women alike, smoked like fiends just outside the door of this building dedicated to healthful activity while children scrambled in and out. My son began going to swimming lessons shortly before he turned five and my daughter joined a class for older children some months later; the quality of the teaching staff was excellent and both children made great progress. To get to the fitness center in the basement, I had to walk along the length of the Olympic-size pool. It was always a treat to see a group of young girls training for their synchronized swimming team while their coach beat out a rhythm with a rod or eager pre-schoolers in the small rear pool dedicated to beginning swimming lessons.


Having finished swimming—be it laps or lessons or synchronized training—it was apparently a requirement to blow dry one’s hair. There is something indescribably sweet seeing grandfathers and fathers assiduously blow drying their young children’s hair in the unshakable belief held by all Bulgarians I have ever met that no matter the season or temperature cold and flu viruses immediately target, in the manner of heat-seeking missiles, anyone with wet hair, and thereupon immediately strike without mercy.

1980 JulyOf course, not everyone has the time, resources or inclination to go swimming or to a fitness center. But Bulgarians believe strongly in the constitutional, the physical and mental benefits of a walk. Let’s take a walk, let’s walk there, no matter that we’re early or s/he is late—we’ll walk around. It’s an airing out, it’s getting the kinks out of your legs, it’s clearing your head, it’s time for food to digest, and it’s an opportunity to talk to friends. Everyone loves to walk. I have to go pick up my daughter at school—no problem, I’ll walk with you. You don’t know where that is?—we’ll take a walk and I’ll show you. National Geographic’s July 1980 article observed that “everywhere in the country—it is practically a national pastime—Bulgarians walk.”


Nicely paired with the value of the walk is the cult of “clean air.” Many locations rise and fall in Bulgarian estimation depending on the assessment of the air’s cleanliness. In the late 19th century, beloved Bulgarian writer Aleko Konstantinov founded the Bulgarian tourist movement with calls to “Sofia lovers of nature” to re-energize themselves physically and mentally by climbing Mount Vitosha. Mountain air is lauded for its clean air, critically important for physical and mental health. Mountain hiking is a strong part of the national ethos. But even in Sofia, even on the coldest winter days, windows in homes and offices will be repeatedly opened for “clean air.” Different neighborhoods will be valued according to their reputation for having more or less clean air. With no apparent irony, even passionate cigarette smokers (Konstantinov was among them) often use weekends to flee the cities for the mountains’ health-giving clean air and then light cigarettes as they sit peacefully at the summit.

Considering his plea to get out of the city for one’s health, Konstantinov might have been surprised to find that Sofia has been proclaimed the European Capital of Sport 2018. I hope the cleaning woman at Sportna Palata is prepared for the influx into her domain.

Спортна Палата вън

NatGeo Does Bulgaria

Looking at National Geographic back issues is not only a lot of fun but offers snapshots of a place over time. The National Geographic Society first turned its attention to covering Bulgaria in February 1903. For the next three decades, the magazine’s writers explored Bulgaria’s history, its place in the region, its current development, and its great natural beauty, and they offered assessments of its national character and predictions for its future. The writers too often displayed the prejudices of their time, ascribing strengths and weaknesses to various European and “Oriental races”, and they sometimes offered conflicting assessments. But they also unknowingly provided fascinating historical parallels: what they observed in Bulgaria’s potential and progress after the long period under the Ottomans is often echoed in contemporary Bulgaria’s potential and progress after the long period under Communist rule.
1903 February cover

Bulgaria in the Balkans

  • The next, like the last, battleground of Europe will be the Balkan Peninsula…1
  • In appreciating the progress made in Bulgaria, it must be borne in mind that the country is situated within a very absorbing political atmosphere, which has certainly been a drawback to its fuller development. 3
  • It is difficult to assign exact territorial limits to the Near East; and as for the Balkans, it may be said, as did Dooley of the Phillipines, that before the World War few Americans knew whether they were mountains or canned goods. 6
  • Bulgaria bulks large in Balkan history. In one generation of freedom she made incredible progress and crowned her achievements with exceeding prowess in the First Balkan War.6

Hospitality (or Not)

  • Hospitality is based upon the ancient oriental laws. No stranger is ever turned from the door if he comes in peace. 1
  • Bulgaria may be a brigand land, and there are parts of the southern frontier where it must be admitted we did not feel any too safe, but Bulgarian people as a whole are among the friendliest in the world to the stranger within their gates. 2
  • Unlike most southern races, the Bulgarians are reserved, taciturn, phlegmatic, unresponsive, and extremely suspicious of foreigners.3

1907 October cover


  • Without money, with only a few educated leaders and the mass of peasants illiterate, surrounded by jealous and much more powerful states, their future independence seemed remote, if not impossible of achievement. But the leaders had grit and common sense, and realized that there were three essentials: (1) To educate the people; (2) to grant religious tolerance to all, and (3) to require of every man two or three years’ military training, so that every Bulgarian would be a capable soldier in time of need…today 92 per cent of the male city Bulgarian population between the ages of 10 and 30 can read and write and 74 per cent of the female, and 68 per cent of the male and 18 per cent of the female rural. This is a result which none of the countries, neighbors of Bulgaria and others to the west, can show. 3
  • Youngest among the nations of the Balkan Peninsula to be freed from Turkish domain, it being less than forty years since they threw off the Turkish yoke, illiteracy is less common in Bulgaria than in any other country in that region. In 1880 only one out of ten soldiers in the Bulgarian army could read and write; today only one in twenty cannot…The amount spent for educational purposes in 1912 was $1.20 per capita, as compared with 67 cents in Servia, 50 cents in Greece, 40 cents in Montenegro, and 20 cents in Turkey. 5

1908 November cover

Charm and Beauty

  • ’Why can’t we overnight at Tirnova?’ he pleaded. ‘Von Moltke calls it the most charming spot in the world.’ 2
  • …and, to tell the truth, all Bulgaria is so picturesque one is loth to go through any faster than he must. 2
  • …on [cliffs] perched the town—Tirnova the Beautiful—every house a blaze of color; the roofs of red terracotta shingling; the walls painted over in washed-out pinks and browns; the eaves and cornices set in relief by heavy beams that are browned to black by age. Yellows and blues marked other homes. We stopped to take in the perspective—a second Naples—from the sea—for here, too, the homes are three and even five stories high, a most rare architectural form for the Orient. 2
  • Sofia has been called The Little Brussels, just as Brussels in times of peace was called The Little Paris. 5
  • The country possesses great wheat fields, extensive forests, rich mines—all of which have been made to respond to that patient industry for which the Bulgarian peasant is the model for all his Balkan neighbors. 6
  • The Rhodope, Rila, and Pirin Mountains constitute the outdoor playground of Bulgaria. Where revolutionists used to hide from the Turks, city folks now escape from their cares. Evergreen forests, clear mountain lakes, and dangerous precipices all have their devotees. 7

Tourist Troubles

  • Today, however, I am inclined to believe it is the work of local politicians, in order to give the cabbies of their constituency a chance to make a living at the expense of the stranger. 2

1912 November cover

Progress and Leadership

  • No people have greater cause for satisfaction and honest pride in what they have accomplished during the last 30 years than have the Bulgarians. Their progress in self-government and education since 1877-78, when, with the aid of Russia and Rumania, they threw off the Turkish yoke, is one of the most remarkable records ever made by any people within a similar space of time. Industry, courage, and compulsory education have won for them a position unsurpassed by any country of their size, and have made them in less than a generation a powerful, and perhaps the determining, factor in the settlement of the Eastern question. 3
  • Twenty-five years ago the country had recourse to foreigners for professors, engineers, men of law, financiers, and specialists for all the administrative branches…and for the organization and command of public forces. Now all this work is done by specially educated Bulgarians. There is not a foreigner in the service of the state. 3
  • The resurrection of the Bulgarian nation is one of the wonders of the past century.
  • From the first hour of their liberation the Bulgarians of the newly created principality manifested a strong democratic spirit, and a firm determination to secure for themselves a full measure of political freedom and complete national independence. 4
  • There can be no question that if the Bulgarian people are allowed to develop their country and themselves—and they will do so if they can enjoy the advantages of a long period of peace and satisfactory commercial relations with their neighbors near and far—that the rapid progress of this people in every way will astonish the world, and to say the least, disabuse the minds of many who now think Bulgaria in a more or less semi-savage state and peopled by a race who would rather fight than not. 5
  • [The Russian-Turkish] war was ended by the Treaty of San Stefano, which essayed to establish a big Bulgaria; but, thanks to Disraeli, British influence brought about the Congress of Berlin, and it was a little Bulgaria which finally secured a place at the world’s council table. A lowly place it was, but with splendid courage the Bulgarian set out to make it better, and the story of Bulgarian development in a single generation finds few parallels among modern nations. 6

1915 April cover

National Character

  • The peasants of Bulgaria are industrious, ingenious, and intelligent. Both men and women are of fine physique, capable of great endurance, and few are idle, intemperate, or vicious. 1
  • In the short period of their political existence they have gone through so many vicissitudes that they have become inured to desperate situations. Their tenacity, their shrewdness, their dogged perseverance—the characteristics of an agricultural race—their cool-headed judgment and intuitive sagacity, and—shall we add?—the luck which has hitherto attended them, may once more stand them in good stead. 4
  • This virile, laborious, thrifty, and persevering race has displayed many qualities which entitle it to play an important part in the future history of southeastern Europe. During the thirty years of its troubled existence the young Bulgarian State has made almost phenomenal progress. Education has advanced rapidly; public works have been instituted on a large scale; the country has been covered with a network of railways; wealth has undoubtedly increased, and order has been maintained, often in circumstances of great difficulty…Not withstanding the recent economic crisis, the financial situation compares favorably with that of the sister States, inasmuch as the national debt is proportionately small. 4
  • There is an initiative and a power of organization in the Bulgarians that is unusual in the capricious and fatalistic Orient. Our Bulgarian students had a certain sturdiness, an out-of-doors quality, a sanity which marked them from the fanciful, sentimental, and weaker-nerved girls of some other nationalities. 5
  • The Bulgarians have shown themselves eager for education and for civilization, and their women acquire culture with the ease of the traditional American woman. Often, the daughter of an unlettered peasant, living in a remote village, after some years of schooling will take her place in Sofia or Varna as a teacher, or lady of fashion, or leader in civic betterment. 5
  • Among the more or less formal Thanksgiving proclamations of recent times, surely one of the most arresting was Bulgaria’s ‘Our poverty is our riches.’ A land of homespun may be proof, not only against spiritual, but also economic depression.7

1921 February cover

In 1932, a graduate of Constantinople Woman’s College explained the mood of Bulgaria as the different generations struggled with enormous changes: “…but this seems a confusing time. The old folks seem pessimistic. Perhaps because they are ill at ease. Light living engulfs them, ostentation violates their traditions. The young city folks are living beyond their means. We have long sought progress. Now we can’t escape it. But I have great faith in my country. We are honest, industrious, and eager. In most matters we are tolerant. We have vast reserves of courage and character. “7

1Curtis, William Eleroy. The Great Turk and His Lost Provinces. National Geographic Magazine, February 1903.

2Koch, Felix J. Tirnova, the City of Hanging Gardens. National Geographic Magazine, October 1907.

3Bulgaria, the Peasant State. National Geographic Magazine, November 1908.

4Bourchier, James D. The Rise of Bulgaria. National Geographic Magazine, November 1912.

5Jenkins, Hester Donaldson. Bulgaria and Its Women. National Geographic Magazine, April 1915.

6Moses, George Higgins. The Whirlpool of the Balkans. National Geographic Magazine, February 1921.

7Williams, Maynard Owen. Bulgaria, Farm Land Without a Farmhouse. National Geographic Magazine, August 1932.

Complications and Others

Complications, Communism, Culture

The “culture shock” of the Bulgarian head nod for no and shake for yes is one thing. But it is bewildering to realize that Bulgarians have not set up systems with the goal of accomplishing something with the least waste of time and effort. The efficiency Americans are always striving for has not historically been a cultural value. After all, how many people could the communist state have employed that way? But it’s more than a leftover from communist rule.


Съдбата Ни

How to identify what may be at the core of many of the problems—both commonplace and crucial, surface and systemic—inherent in the functioning of Bulgarian society and state today? It’s easy to point the finger to the much discussed and certainly prevalent corruption, fraud, and organized crime. It’s easy too for the fatalism that flows in the blood of so many to cause the body politic to shrug its shoulders and insist everything is predetermined. “Съдбата ни” (“Sudbata ni”). “It’s our fate,” they say, and so accept that the current situation is the only one possible. My modest proposal is that behind much of the systemic inefficiency that allows criminality and cynicism to thrive is the tendency to overcomplicate…just about everything.

център за градска мобилност

1 Ticket, 1 Lev, Countless Iterations 

Overcomplicating everything means the public transportation fare system covers so many eventualities that the print needed to contain them is tiny and the signs on which they are printed are large. No passenger can possibly have the time, space or inclination to read or comprehend any of it on a crowded rush hour bus, to say nothing of the ineffectiveness of administering such a system. Prices of the Transport Documents for Trips on Public Transport on the Territory of the Municipality of Sofia has 75 items organized by four articles, many of which are further divided in up to nine sub-articles. It begins with the following:

1.1 Single-trip ticket 1.00 lev
1.2 Single-trip ticket sold by the driver 1.00 lev
1.3 Single-trip ticket issued by on-board ticket vending machine in trams and trolleybuses 1.00 lev
1.4 Single trip ticket issued by ticket vending machine at underground stations or by cashier at underground ticket desk of Metropolitan EAD 1.00 lev

It should go without saying, though apparently the Sofia Urban Mobility Center needs it said, that one could simply combine the four for a concise:

single-trip ticket 1.00 lev.

Everyone Is Unique on Public Transportation

The Sofia Urban Mobility Center has further constructed different payment schemes for public school students, university students, PhD students, children without parental care, Mountain Control and Rescue Service employees, disabled people whose fitness for work has a 50% to 70.99% rating and many other sorts of people considered to require their own societal—or at least transportational—categories. And many of these require further breakdown into varying pricing for one-, three-, or six-month cards for one, two or all lines of transport. As is often the case, the individuals responsible for such a system somehow still worry that a wayward permutation has still been left undeclared. Thus much signage, whether on a pack of herbal tea or on Prices of the Transport Documents for Trips on Public Transport on the Territory of the Municipality of Sofia, has an ending qualifier which sometimes literally and sometimes figuratively says “and others.” Article 24 now allows free three-month cards for all lines for “preferred-unnamed persons.”

So Many Signs, So Little Information

Once I saw pasted up behind the bus driver a sign entitled Ordinance On Passenger Transport and Terms of Travel in Sofia’s Public Transport. Even longer than Prices of the Transport Documents for Trips on Public Transport on the Territory of the Municipality of Sofia. And just in case you should doubt that it was birthed by the halls of officialdom, the Ordinance begins with the following:

Adopted by Resolution № 458 as per Minutes № 17 from 24.07.2008, enforced from 01.09.2008, amended by Resolution № 675 as per Minutes № 24 from 13.11. 2008; amended by Resolution № 176 as per Minutes № 36 from 26.03.2009; amended by Resolution № 433 as per Minutes № 43 from 25.06.2009; amended by Resolution № 767 as per Minutes № 54 from 17.12.2009, enforced from 01.01.2010

For the sake of argument, let’s assume that well-intentioned and honest Bulgarian civil servants wished to demonstrate the utter transparency of the Sofia Urban Mobility Center. Let’s assume that all of the seemingly endless items describing in excruciating detail the rules for transport documents, conditions of travel, categories of travelers entitled to various concessions, penal provisions and so on are there not only so that citizens have confidence in the workings of the Sofia Urban Mobility Center, but so that they are truly informed as to all their rights and responsibilities as passengers of the public transportation system in the capital. And they are modern, yes they are, at the Sofia Urban Mobility Center. No need for the digitally-connected passenger to read through such an extensive document on the bus, tram, trolley or subway car. The Sofia Urban Mobility Center’s website allows you to view every word in Bulgarian and English as well as to download the file on a mobile device. And yet, once I was on the bus from Druzhba and saw a small printed sign near the driver reading, “Here there is no information.”

Confusion Breeds Suspicion, Suspicion Breeds Cynicism

Does the average passenger feel confident in the information provided? Does s/he feel confident in the governmental body that created such ordinances and their publication? The opposite is true. All that impenetrable verbiage not only fails to inform, but is received as an assault on the system of the body politic and the individual. Rather than being perceived as system transparency, it’s seen as yet another example of too many words rendering any comprehension utterly impossible. The system remains opaque, and thus suspect, and thus all the more susceptible to at best a lack of trust and at worst fraud. And all of this costs the Bulgarian state enormous human, time, and financial resources it can little afford.

Steep Slope Up or Steep Slope Down?

Continuing in the transportation complication theme, because picking one theme for our tour of overcomplication somewhat simplifies the endeavor, we move to street signage. In group A of the “warning travel signs for danger,” there are 40 different signs, plus variations on two of them.

As with ticket prices on the Sofia public transportation system, conciseness is not a value. There is no Bulgarian equivalent for “short and sweet.” So there is one sign for “steep slope during ascent” and another sign for “steep slope during descent.” There is one sign for “uneven roadbed” and another for “artificial uneven roadbed.”

As we drove through central Bulgaria on a recent spring vacation, we wondered about a sign with an exclamation point in a red triangle. My husband didn’t remember what it meant and we couldn’t figure it out, though we saw it repeatedly.

знак А39

It turns out that this sign is the pictorial version of “and others,” conclusively demonstrating that the individuals responsible for the signage have considered absolutely positively all possibilities. “Road sign A39 is used to signal danger, for which there are no stipulated road signs…” The explanation goes on at some length to describe these possible dangers that have not been stipulated before and finishes with the words “and others.”