An old man, wearing a clean white shirt, selling flowers on the street. Brand-name sunglasses that cost as much as the median monthly wage. A cream-coloured kitty with a huge cancerous growth on its right eye. The ripest, sweetest, home-grown water melons you have ever tasted. Beauty pageants more frequent than a much awaited rainfall.
This is Bulgaria, an Eastern land of surreal, mutually exclusive concepts that somehow manage to co-exist.
Sitting under a lime tree in a small village tucked in the outskirts of Stara Planina (lit. “Old Mountain”), the largest mountainous chain in Bulgaria, I contemplate the state of the nation, who I was when I lived here and who I am now.
This morning, I lined up in front of the U.S. Embassy in Sofia to apply for yet another work visa. It was just what needed to be done. I didn’t think much about why.
In every country, there are national traits that annoy you or that you don’t associate with, no matter who you are. I suppose I could, by identifying all the pros and the cons through a careful SWOT analysis, determine whether I could be happy here once again but it all comes down to how much you are willing to put up with on a daily basis and what you consider essential vs. simply desirable.
During the first two and a half days of my annual trip to Bulgaria, I’ve already experienced what you could call the essence of Bulgarian reality. It’s a cruel summer, for those who can’t afford $400 Roberto Cavalli dresses, or even the cheaper, more mainstream version, whimsically referred to as “Just Cavalli,” at just $50, as if taking the designer’s first name away would somehow make the piece more affordable and wearable.
You can spot retired men and women trying to make an extra lev or two to make ends meet on the city streets, selling flower bouquets they picked in the fields outside the city, where they still grow, collecting change and folding rations of toilet paper at public restrooms (still very much not free in Bulgaria) and really early in the morning, when no one can see them, going through garbage cans for leftovers of someone’s supper the night before. I stop and buy a beautiful hand-picked bouquet of summery wild flowers from the old man who could be my grandpa. I wish him a good night. He seems almost surprised at how polite I am. Maybe I’ve been spoiled by my 11 years in the U.S. Maybe I’m nice because I’m on vacation and I feel like giving. Or maybe I believe in the ability of words to brighten someone’s day and restore their dwindling faith in human goodness.
Travelling to my current destination is an adventure in itself. Driving in Bulgaria can be brutal. No other way of putting it. People complain that there are X number of road accidents each year but it is surprising the death toll isn’t higher. In order to pass barely moving cars from the Communist era and horse-propelled boogies, one must successfully manoeuvre their way around, crossing into incoming traffic, often unintentionally splitting two-way lanes. Angelina Jolie and James McAvoy’s high-speed car stunts in “Wanted” seem like child’s play next to the mad skills every driver fit for the Bulgarian roads needs.
Among the horse/donkey -driven carts, one can find other just-as-stunning vehicles on the roads of Bulgaria. With a myriad of Ferraris, Lamborghinis, Maybachs and other brands you didn’t even know existed (the highest per capita in the entire European Union), the streets of Sofia are like a never-ending car show. Even the longest-standing loan on one of these would by far exceed the lifetime income of most Bulgarians.
One of the most perplexing phenomena in Bulgaria is the lack of a middle class. A fledging layer of society, this group of folks is tucked in between the households spanning three generations that share the same two- or three-bedroom apartment and the ultra fashionable Lamborghini owner (one can only speculate what he does for a living) and his model girlfriend, who settles for nothing less but a prime spot on Bedroom Beach, (the Bulgarian prototype of Mandalay Bay’s cabana beach), next to local celebrities including Miss Bulgaria 2003, 2006, 2012 and beyond.
Those who seem like they should belong to what the western definition of middle class is, work for a few hundred U.S. dollars a month and have just enough to afford public transportation, the daily espresso and the indispensable pair of heels too high to walk in (gotta have heels). That’s because their parents and sometimes grandparents help pay for all living expenses, including groceries — survival is a family affair here.
The “middle class” are people who have highly respectable government or private sector jobs, yet few of them can even imagine escaping the concrete high-rise lifestyle. Confined within the poorly noise- and weather-insulated walls of the project-esque monstrosities built during Communism to house hoards of people flocking to the Capital, the middle class slaves away each day but manages to survive while looking somewhat presentable. Any unexpected expense would likely need to be financed by a peer-to-peer community loan (pool of cash, self-financed and made available to members in need at more affordable interest rates and amortization terms) or a loan from a friend/family member.
The middle class never manages to escape this vicious cycle. As Murphy would tell you, there are always unexpected expenses, making them rather predictable, really. Yet, they are still better off than those on food stamps. Families with four or more members live with one of the spouse’s parents, and in some cases a grandparent or two, in concrete blocks of flats consisting of two to three small bedrooms and one bath. It’s been a while since I had to live with my parents and grandparents but there is such a family in my close cirle who’s been doing it for years, rendering it a rather permanent situation. You had better get along with your in-laws or your life could turn into a living hell.
Yet, people always find ways to not get completely depressed and are able to appreciate the far-outnumbered benefits of such a cozy atmosphere, including the free, 24/7 daycare provided by the live-in retired parent/grandparent, home-cooked meals and a handful of others. There must be others.
Here is where the dissonance becomes visible. In stark contrast to the aforementioned existence, Bulgaria is likely the country with the largest number of night clubs per capita. What’s even more perplexing is that they’re always full. A drink at a Sofia club won’t cost you a penny less than the average club in Western Europe, though. And why should it, Bulgaria’s part of the European Union now. Yet, incomes lag largely behind those of our Western counterparts and even nearby neighbours. How young people pull off looking the way they do and are able to afford the spendy weekend club crawls remains a mystery to me.
There is a bigger theme here, I’m afraid, having to do with the commoditisation of sex, relationships and people. Should the poor die poor? They can certainly try to change their fate but hard work alone isn’t going to cut it. Therefore, it becomes acceptable for young women to have purely physical arrangements with wealthier gentlemen in exchange for gifts of varying monetary value, status or both. Women do not feel used or objectified in the least. Or maybe they do but they choose to ignore these creeping thoughts in the name of perceived well-being.
The prettier the woman, the better package she can score. No one really expects monogamy these days, or demands it. The wealthier the gentleman, the better chance he has at sponsoring several willing débutantes and grooming his disproportionately large ego. It seems as though a person’s bank account size is an indicator of how successful he would be on this bullish sexual market.
What happened to values? What about the beauty of human relationships that are built on mutual respect, honest desire and attraction? Have they lost their relevance in today’s materialistic world? Should youth be pressured into thinking they need to look like supermodels in order to be worthy of someone’s attention?
Fortunately, for the nation, there are still some true people. The rest have immigrated to less absurd parts of the world. Those who remain work hard, may not make much but know how to maximize every lev. They spend on the inevitable and enjoy the free pleasures this world still has to offer. The sun, the parks, the sea, the mountains, the running paths, family… There is a lot Bulgarian nature has to offer to those who choose to take advantage of it, rather than spending every night in a crammed, smokey bar. I still know people who may not have food on the table but will buy a book and impress you with their knowledge within the first few minutes of meeting them. There are still kids who go to public schools, don’t take drugs and are better educated and more intelligent than the lyceum goers and their fancy private teachers. These are the people who hold the key to a new Bulgaria. Here’s to them.