Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Choosing Bulgaria: An Essay

Sofia, Goddess of Wisdom

After dark, moon or no moon, the view from my fourth floor window in Mladost 1-A transforms. Where once I saw scattered concrete buildings with peeling paint, I see floating grids of bright windows. As if I had tuned into thousands of television stations broadcasting reality shows, individual lives and family dramas play in and out across these rectangles as I watch. The details of my own existence, backlit by my desk lamp, join me to my new community.

I live in Sofia, Bulgaria, a swirl of modern restaurants, scraggly dogs, cell phones, graffiti, and fruit stands, ruled over by crime families and a corrupt government. It is called “The City of Wisdom”, but right now it is also a city of struggle. Everyone must find their own way through the transition from communism to democracy, and my students are faced, at eighteen, with a vital question: should I stay or should I go? I am their teacher, but I have no idea how they should answer this question.

If they go, what do they leave behind? If they stay, what options do they sacrifice?

Walking along my street, I pass fashionable girls, leather heels tapping confidently over rutted sidewalks. I wave to the local parking attendant and his pack of strays – two dogs and a kitten, descendants of animals released by families who could no longer afford them. I’ve named the dogs William and little William, but they don’t know it.

I wander through rows of tiny stands, pinching my nose against the smell of fried fish, selecting cartons of fresh strawberries, and window shopping for Valentine’s Day napkins at the whatever store (there is just no way to classify its contents). I bump into a little girl, happy in pink tights and a new backpack, heading home from school. I watch two older women – one selling the rights to use the tiny bathroom in the market, another hawking milk in mismatched bottles.

On the way home I stop one last time for a farm-fresh watermelon, chatting in my rudimentary Bulgarian with the teenage vendor, flashing my usual I don’t understand everything you say but honestly I’m nice smile, as a black BMW with tinted windows eases by. Where is it going? Who is inside? Every day, every walk, I see the two sides of Bulgaria – the wisdom, the struggle.

My students who choose to leave Bulgaria will miss many things – Banitsa pastries, famous for their ability to swallow any imaginable filling (pumpkin, cheese, apple, Turkish Delight), time spent with their relatives in the mountain villages dotting the country, conversations and literature in their native language, perfect summers spent floating in the warm waters of the Black Sea coast or hiking the 7 Rila Lakes.

They will not miss their corrupt politicians, the mafia presence hanging like a cloud over the city, the downcast expressions of the people walking on the street, sitting on the packed buses, or waiting in line at the store. They will go to new opportunities, clean streets and parks, strangers who smile at them in passing. They will not have to watch as the pristine coastline and mountain ranges of their country are sacrificed to tourism.

My students at The American College of Sofia are brilliant and motivated: they have traveled and read widely, volunteered at orphanages, attended international math and architecture camps, competed in mock trial and model United Nations and lacrosse, studied German and French, taken curriculum in English and Bulgarian, formed addictions to coffee and pizza, and embraced goals for their future. For my husband and I, they provided a reason to move to Bulgaria. We are here for them. We enjoy Sofia as much as we can – croissants at its new French bakery, hiking trails on nearby Mount Vitosha, friendships with other expats and with our Bulgarian colleagues – but in the end, we are here to guide them on their way.

Whatever they choose, whether to become part of the wisdom of this city or to escape its struggle, we want to help. For now, I choose Bulgaria.


Anonymous said...

Are there risks in writing so openly of these problems? In the old Soviet Union, critical literature was published only as samizdat, typed and copied out of the sight of censors. I presume it was that way in communist Bulgaria, when you school headquartered part of the secret police. Would a Bulgarian feel able to post so freely to the internet? If so, that's at least a big step ahead from the communist days.

judy baker said...

Betsy, I so enjoy your written interpretations of life in Bulgaria. They help me to see what your lives are really like. You have a wonderful way of making what you write about, real and "picturable" to the reader.