“We’re not in Kansas anymore, Toto”

18.06.2013 § 2 Comments

This is a guest post by my friend Kate Latimer, who accepted the invitation of a fellow Bulgarian expat to visit Bulgaria. These are her impressions. 

I was sitting over a toilet at 2:30 in the morning, vomiting up the last of my shopska salad I had eaten for dinner, in the early stages of what turned out to be a 48 hour flu that was travelling, if not around the city, then around the apartment I was living in. Three weeks earlier, my Bulgarian best friend had convinced me to get on a plane and travel from Toronto to Sofia so I could see her homeland. It didn’t take much convincing because she had, for the entire time I had known her, lived a double life. She would disappear for months at a time, travelling back to this tiny Eastern European country, and each time she would come home different, somehow transformed by this seemingly sacred experience she would have each Christmas and summer vacation. So when invited, I leapt at this opportunity to go see the place she escaped to, this double life that was moulding my best friend into the person that she is now. Having sat through many history classes in high school, I was confident that not once had Bulgaria been brought up, not once had a history textbook mentioned Bulgaria. My only knowledge of Bulgaria came from sitting around the dinner table with my friend and her parents, as they explained to me the dark and violent history of Bulgaria.

It was this well informed state that led me to ask questions such as, “You guys have electricity, right?” or “There’s gonna be indoor plumbing in the apartment, correct?” My friend rolled her eyes. And so I got on the plane, having no idea what to expect.

I got off the plane and entered a country different from anyplace I have ever experienced. My cab ride from the airport to the apartment consisted of me gasping at the sights: the churches, the colourful streets, Saint Sofia herself, standing guard over the city.

St. SofiaMy first gander into the city I was greeted by camels lounging in a park, just on the outskirts of downtown Sofia, sitting as if waiting for a circus. I was suddenly Dorothy talking to her dog, “I don’t think we’re in Kansas anymore, Toto.”

CamelsThroughout my trip I met a lot of new people. I was amazed at how they loved their country. And it’s not easy to live there. For the tourist, it was perfect. My dinner of shopska salad, kebabs, fries with feta, and Zagorka beer was 10 leva, about 7 Canadian dollars. Everything is less expensive by Canadian standards, but for a person living and working there, the pay matches the cost of living. Most people, those lucky enough to have found a job, work long days and often six or seven days a week.

The elections took place while I was visiting, taking place half a year earlier than expected due to the resignation of the entire party earlier that year. The people I spoke to, young and old, had a well informed opinion. It’s not a simple process, with over 20 parties. Voting day is an experience in Bulgaria. My friend’s grandmother dressed up, put on makeup, and the three of us walked down to the local school, bumping into the whole neighbourhood on the way. Apparently the voting process is very corrupt, as those parties willing to pay can buy the votes of those who didn’t turn up, marking these empty ballots as a vote in their favour. That night we watched the news and saw protests outside the Palace of Culture, protesting this very corruption. And yet that day I sat at a table while a group of 20 year olds discussed who they would vote for and why. It was on this day that I saw the hope this new generation brings to its country. They see the corruption and worry about the future of the country. But it is their worry, their concern, that can perhaps slowly bring about change.

And yet it was not only this hope that made me fall in love with the country itself.
It was the afternoons spent wandering around the streets, looking at the architecture and town squares. The one-man music festivals and antique fairs. It was the coffee shops with hand made books that served as menus (Made in Home), and restaurants where each room had a different theme (The Apartment).

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It was the street markets and stray dogs sleeping in the sun. The middle aged women whose only concern when dressing is the act of matching the shirt to the belt and the belt to the shoes. There are no causal outfits, but only blazing blues and reds dominating the sidewalks.

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It was the hillside monasteries and churches.

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It was the Open Doors festival where every museum and gallery opened their doors, free of charge from 6pm to 2am, and where every Sofian dressed up to walk around their city. For those of us in Toronto, it was a mix of Nuit Blanche and the old magic of a field trip to museums, running through the streets with your friends, giddy because you’re escaping school.

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IMG_0869It was the cobblestone streets, uneven and romantic, the perfect canvas for walking home at night with a gentle rain and a light breeze.
It was the great church set in the middle of the city with green and golden domes, sitting right next to a temple. We wandered in one late Wednesday afternoon, from what appeared to be an empty square. As we wandered around inside, the church began to fill up, people streaming in. And then, without realizing it, a mass had begun. Priests with long grey hair and beards walked in, wearing purple robes, accompanied by bells and smoky incense. The Bulgarians crossed themselves 3 times and some even kissed the ground. We quietly made our way out to the street, still not quite believing we had managed to witness this.

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I have travelled all my life, with family and friends, but I have never gone to a foreign place to live like a local. We lived in an apartment, buying food, sleeping in, visiting friends, spending long afternoons drinking beer in parks. I was with a local, listening to my friend speak the language and move about the city with the confidence of someone who knows she’s home. By the end of my trip I felt more comfortable than I ever thought imaginable and at times I felt like Julia Child in ‘Julie and Julia’ chatting away in English to a librarian, “Oh dear, was that not French? I could have sworn I was speaking French.” (insert Bulgarian where applicable.) To live like a local, to perhaps delude yourself that you are in fact a local, is a rare opportunity to experience a country not as an outsider, but as a fellow countryman. Of course I don’t speak the language, I don’t have to work or vote there, I do get on a plane after 20 days and return home, but what I came to understand, perhaps most importantly (after discovering there is in fact electricity and indoor plumbing) is the love Bulgarians have for their country.

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And so it was, at 2:30 am, barfing over a toilet, so nauseous I couldn’t sit up, that I realized there was no place I would rather be. My three weeks there had filled me with such great respect for this country – the landscape was beautiful, the culture amazing. But what filled me with awe was the new generation of Bulgarians, devoted to their country, to making it a better place, their devotion to making this country the best version of itself. It is a kind of nationalistic pride that’s rare where I come from. I was on a bus heading out of Sofia to the small town of Lenovo. As we drove out of the city the buildings began to become more rundown with shattered windows and the buildings themselves so fragile they seemed to sway in the wind. But despite the poverty, or the lack of education, those fortunate to have escaped both these fates, were filled with hope and determination to make things better for everyone in the country. As the bus drove along the highway and the mountains appeared behind the old buildings (a staple in any Bulgarian view), a Killers’ song came onto my iPod and I couldn’t help but think how appropriate it was, “I’ve got soul, but I’m not a soldier.”

And so lying on the floor of that bathroom I became aware of how transforming this country is, how boldly these people throw themselves into the simple act of living. And so I can tell you with confidence, get the flu while falling in love with a country, because those few moments of clarity while lying on a cold bathroom floor allow you to realize there is truly no where else you would rather be.

While in Bulgaria, Kate saw some of the civic pride and leadership of Bulgaria’s youth, but she left a few days before the Delyan Peevski fiasco, when thousands of Bulgarians young and old turned out to exercise their democratic rights and protest against a known mafioso being appointed head of the Bulgarian equivalent of the NSA. I am proud and privileged to say that the protests have been peaceful and non-destructive on one hand, and, to the government’s credit, have not been crushed or met with hostility as they are in some of Bulgaria’s neighbours.

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