Until recently Bulgaria was pushing hard to embrace all aspects of the European Union, including adoption of the common currency, the Euro. That was then. The Euro zone crisis has forced a reassessment. As with many former Eastern Block states the post Communist honeymoon has long been overtaken by the harsh daily reality of free market economics. Newly critical perspectives on both past and present are sometimes cynical, one-sided and solely supported by hearsay, but nonetheless they are common currency. Earlier this year I had the opportunity to travel again through Bulgaria. The following text recalls two encounters with local residents that together offer a snapshot of contemporary life.
Arriving at the ski resort of Borovets in the Rila Mountains, I check into my hotel before taking a turn around the town. Flurries of white flakes swirl in the icy breeze and it’s difficult to stand on the compacted snow. It’s 17 below, unseasonably cold even for a Bulgarian winter, but despite this the lower slopes are busy with skiers.
Borovets’ planned development started with a few state-owned hotels during the Communist period, and ended with the advent of capitalism, when the gaps in between were filled by a hodgepodge of log cabin emporia. Many of these are bedecked by strings of flashing lights and non-too-subtle advertising promising ‘All Day Breakfast’, ‘Kiddie Karaoke Corner’ and ‘Exotic Show’ – though, it has to be said, not all in the same hut.
Numbed by cold I search out some warmth, mounting the steps to a cabin remarkable for its plain exterior. Inside the waiter is dressed formally in a waistcoat, white shirt and black trousers. A radio plays, and of the other tables only one is occupied by chatting Bulgarian girls. A fireplace glows comfortingly with a mountain of wood embers, and nursing a generously frothy Zagorka beer, I start to thaw out pleasantly.
A heavily built Bulgarian man enters and perhaps because he’s also alone, sits close by, soon engaging me in conversation. I ask him about life in Bulgaria. He hesitates and pulls a face, as though he’s chewed something bitter. ‘We have a big problem with gypsies, that nobody wants to talk about.’
‘You’re telling me’ I think, and brace myself for a sustained salvo of bar room polemic.
‘It was the Socialists’ fault,’ he says. ‘Gypsies travelled during the Ottoman time, there was a bridge between Europe and Asia and it was safe to do so. The Socialists made it so no one could travel, even between neighbouring states. The gypsies didn’t know what to do. And now the government just gives them money and welfare. They’re fucking like rabbits, having seven, eight kids – it’s a business.’
‘A business?’ I ask.
‘Their weddings are not official so the women are paid by the government as single mothers, whilst there are very poor Bulgarians, working and paying tax that supports these gypsies.’
‘So does everyone feel the same about them?’ I query, looking for some balance.
‘Look, for sure at every Bulgarian wedding there will be gypsy musicians. No one wishes gypsies harm. But no one likes them.’
I sip my beer – it’s starting to taste a bit flat. Then, the lights flicker and the radio dies. The waiter lights candles. The chatting girls continue chatting. Outside, a dog limps by in the snow.
Further south in Sandanski, close to the Greek border, there’s no snow or ice. The area’s sheltered position fosters a renowned microclimate and its bubbling mineral waters have for years drawn those in search of cures.
Amongst modern décor, stylish furniture and fashionably uniformed attendants I meet Dr Lilia Bakalova at one of the town’s swish new spas. Built to pamper those who’ve prospered in the new Bulgaria, it’s a far cry fry from facilities once prescribed to Bulgaria’s proletariat.
‘What’s it’s like to be a doctor here?’ I enquire.
‘Before 1989 you had to be a member of the Communist Party to advance your career.’ She says. ‘I was lucky. I travelled abroad to promote the benefits of our mineral waters. I saw life elsewhere and wondered why it was so different.’ She leans forward tossing me an incredulous stare.
‘Aren’t the hospitals better now?’ I ask.
‘Sick people are sick people, all over the world,’ she says. ‘Certainly, we have new machines and drugs. However, it’s my opinion that the mental health of the population is poorer now, because of stress. Before everything was secure. We had enough. Now it’s a struggle.’
‘And the future?’ I venture.
‘Professional people are not well paid,’ says Dr Bakalova. ‘Since we joined the EU they have all moved abroad. But my life is here, and as you see I work extra hours at the spa. And you know, Greece is only 20 kilometres away. I was there yesterday. Since the crisis they’re having lots of good sales…’