After spending almost two weeks in Greece, it is now time to move on to country number 19 on the list: Bulgaria. More than just passing a national border, this change of country also feels like heading for an entire different part of Europe. From Mediterranean Europe into the former Eastern Bloc. When traveling from Thessaloniki to Sofia, the change in landscape and building styles leaves little of that difference to the imagination. Another challenge: people nod when they say `no` and shake their heads to express `yes`. Making any normal conversation just a little bit more complicated than usual.
While I got to know Greece as a lively, bustling place, Bulgaria shows itself as a more tranquil and introverted country. The light of the Bulgarian sun seems to be less intense and the buildings along the railroad are less colourful than those in Greece. The track is further aligned by impressive apartment blocks and huge chimneys. There seem to be few villages in the surroundings, other than the ones whose stations we pass.
..knows how to stay happy and healthy
After my arrival in the capital city Sofia, I soon find out that I missed quite a few events that took place during the last few days. I am happy not to have been involved in the first event: a train accident that killed 8 young people, just a few days ago, somewhere in the Northeast of Bulgaria. The second event would be nicer to attend. Martenitsi was celebrated on the first of March, and Liberation Day just yesterday.
During these days in March, almost every single person is walking around with some kind of red-and-white fringe on their coats, around their wrists or anywhere else. Street stands also sell a variety of red-and-white accessories, most of them costing no more than the equivalent of 20 eurocents. Marina (20, photo) tells me what the Martenitsi tradition is about. `On the 1st of March, everybody buys their friends and family a small red-and-white thingy which they are supposed to wear until the trees start blossoming, or until they see a stork. Either of the two occasions is supposed to mark the start of spring. If you hang your Martenits on a tree at the beginning of spring, it is said to bring good luck, health and happiness. Doing this with only one Martenits is sufficient, but many people are wearing more than one. Maybe they need more luck, but they may also want to silently show off that they have many friends.`
The second event I missed was Liberation Day, when Bulgarians celebrate the 1878 victory over the Turkish Empire and the first independence of Bulgaria since the Middle Ages. Yesterday was Bulgaria`s 130th anniversary as an independent state, but I unfortunately missed the fireworks and military parades that marked the event.
All that served as a long introduction to the actual introduction of Bulgaria in figures. The country has roughly 7.5 million inhabitants of which almost 1.5 million live in the capital of Sofia. Local language is Bulgarian which, like Russian and Serbian uses the Cyrillic alphabet. Bulgaria is even claimed to be the birth ground of the Cyrillic alphabeth, which in its turn is has its origins in Ancient Greek. Local currency is the Lev, split up in 100 Stotinki. One Lev represents the value of about half a Euro. Bulgaria joined the EU only recently, on 1 January 2007, together with its Northern neighbour Romania. The Euro currency has not (yet?) been introduced, but many establishments including hotels, do accept Euros.
Bulgaria joined the European Union only recently: on 1 January 2007, together with its northern neighbour Romania. Both countries have a standard of living which is significantly lower than the rest of the European Union. Bobi (28) says that she only sees little improvement so far, `or it has to be the subway they are building. Look this station here, they have been working on it for three years now. That`s all we have seen of the EU so far. Whether or not foreign investment is on the rise is not something we see in everyday life. Having said that, travelling has become lots easier indeed, so that is at least something positive. In the past, we needed visa for most European countries. Now we don`t even need a passport anymore. Maybe there are also more Western European immigrants and tourists coming to Bulgaria, but I am not too sure about that.`
George (27) has lived in England for five years. `Many Bulgarians now see opportunities to find work in other countries. I don`t like meeting Bulgarians abroad. We are not like the Serbians or like Italians. We don`t stick together a lot when we are abroad. Actually, Bulgarians should pay attention to fellow Bulgarians abroad, because they will take advantage of each other rather than lend a helping hand. Or lend a helping hand but expect a more than reasonable compensation. The good thing about Bulgarians moving abroad is that they usually come back with new and good ideas.`
Most Bulgarians have not had much opportunity to travel the European continent. The country was under strong influence of the Soviet Union between World War II and 1990. Opinions about that period are very mixed. Anastas (25) thinks of Russia as a brother country: `Maybe some old people are frustrated about the communist years, but we have a lot in common with Russia and also with Serbia. We share a language, the Slavic background, many traditions and also a good share of history.`
Iordanka (23) has an opposite idea. She thinks that the young people are not so fond of Russia, but knows that her grandparents are sad to see the country change away from the communist times. `Everything was a lot easier then, so they claim. The money they saved up has now become pretty much worthless and they preferred the time when Bulgaria was under Soviet influence.` Iordanka also tells me that many Bulgarians of over 30 years old still speak Russian, but their willingness to do so may depend on the individual. In any case, fanatic refusal to speak Russian is not as common as it is in Estonian.
Two weeks ahead
Despite their tendency to drop rubbish wherever they like, Bulgarians claim to be very proud of their nature. `We have small country but we have everything. Mountains, sea, a good climate. Bulgarians are very sportive and we have good ski resorts. The cities indeed look like a bit messy and dirty and so do the shoulders of the roads. But there are many unspoilt places too. Bulgaria is a perfect holiday destination, it just waiting to be discovered. Which other European country has so much natural beauty on such a small surface?`, Iordanka says.
And so I know what to use the next two weeks for, beside finding sufficient English-speakers to complete my interviews. And I will also try the different Bulgarian yoghurt, cheese and wine ? but not after celebrating my arrival by having my favourite Bulgarian dish so far: cucumber soup, officially known as Tarator.
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