Thoughts on Bulgaria

Until recently, Bulgaria seemed to me to exist only in legend. I didn’t know anyone who had been there, there wasn’t anything there I’d heard of, and as a country that was behind the iron curtain for over 40 years, my only mental image of Eastern Europe was straight out of an anti-Communist propaganda poster. Heavy on the fog and concrete, full of threatening police and frowning people, and everything colored red, gray, or black. All in all, not very high on my list of places to visit.

But, I was in Athens visiting my friend Sarah, and had a week to kill between leaving Greece and meeting another friend in Italy. I didn’t have any plans for that week, so I started looking for somewhere interesting and relatively cheap…and to my surprise, Sofia, Bulgaria kept popping up! Everything I read was overwhelmingly positive, so I booked a train from Athens to Thessaloniki (in northern Greece), and a bus from Thessaloniki to Sofia.

It turned into an interesting journey! The train to Thessaloniki was overnight, and I only got a couple hours of sleep, but I figured I could nap between when my train arrived and my bus left. To my chagrin, I discovered that the Thessaloniki train station was open to the 30-degree weather, so I put on every layer I had, curled up on a bench, and shivered my ass off while I tried to fall asleep.

After a very long few hours of trying to sleep, I went to find my bus. I quickly learned that almost no one in Thessaloniki speaks English, and my Greek is non-existent aside from hello (Γειά σας), please (Παρακαλώ), and thank you (ευχαριστώ). I couldn’t figure out which bus to get on! A lot of pointing and Google Translate-ing later, I was moderately sure I had the right bus, so I got on to find the heat blessedly cranked to 11. I fell asleep in about ten seconds…and was woken up what felt like ten seconds after that by someone hitting me in the leg. I opened my eyes to a none-too-happy looking man wearing a gun, talking to me in Bulgarian! After a moment of confusion, he managed to get across that he wanted my passport…I’d slept all the way to the Bulgarian border crossing. Whew!

The next few hours were just as weird as the last few, but for a different reason. I began to notice how strange the sights I saw out the window felt to me. I tried to figure out why I had that reaction to seeing a new culture, and how out of character that was for me―in the past, I had always thoroughly enjoyed experiencing a new culture for the first time.

By the time we arrived in Sofia, I was feeling thoroughly uncomfortable, and I still couldn’t put my finger on why. But during the half-hour walk to my hostel, I finally recognized what was bugging me: what I was seeing looked like my (embarrassingly stereotypical) internal image of the USSR. It seemed that almost everything was conforming to my stereotype: the city was blanketed in fog, the architecture was dominated by huge, imposing concrete buildings, and it felt like no one was smiling.

Once I had that realization, I was able to put away the lens that I’d been looking at Bulgaria through. I started seeing things as they really were, instead of how I subconsciously expected them to be. The people of Sofia, who before had looked like they were frowning, now just looked like the people you’d see in any multi-million-person city―that is, in a hurry, and preoccupied, but perfectly friendly if you actually talked to them. The concrete construction was just a holdover from seventy years ago, and there were plenty of pretty, new buildings around. And the fog that had felt oppressive at first started to look less KGB and more PNW.

Many Americans, myself included, have been conditioned to be put off by anything that feels the least bit Russian. Think about the action movies you’ve seen: I bet many of them, especially the older ones, feature a Russian (or at least Eastern European) “bad guy.” The antagonist usually doesn’t talk much, and smiles even less…and after seeing too many movies that fit that description, it’s easy to subconsciously start to associate the movie characters with the place they come from, even if your conscious brain knows it’s not an accurate depiction. (This is especially ironic, because I’m half Russian.) There’s also an endless stream of news articles talking about Russia meddling in US politics, and many US high schools teach about the Cold War as a very black-and-white conflict.

But after a week in Sofia, I ended up liking it more than any other European city I’ve been to. The people are nice, the food is great, it’s really cheap, and it’s not super touristy (yet!). I’m glad I was able to realize why I unfairly didn’t like it at first, and by making that realization, experience what the city (and country) was truly like. It was a great lesson for me in recognizing my own biases, and it’ll help me be more aware of them in the future.

Bulgaria, I’ll be back!