The first time I arrived in Bulgaria my luggage went missing for two days. I ended up staying in a hotel with a stain the shape of Switzerland on the floor, and the towels were the size of beer mats. As it turns out, the missing and subsequently ransacked luggage, was the fault of a major Italian airline and the hotel, well, that was just down to my poor judgement. Almost everything else has been a pleasant surprise and I've enjoyed getting the hang of the place.
Having worked on and off in Bulgaria for almost three years, I feel a sense of achievement when a friend suggests meeting somewhere in Sofia and doesn't bother giving me detailed directions.
Occasionally, if I can tell a taxi driver where to go in Bulgarian without receiving a baleful gaze in the mirror, I feel really self satisfied. Having said that, I'm still a Sofia novice.
Being accepted in any small way makes foreign cities seem a little more homely. Sofia is, almost always, blissfully unique and undeniably exotic in the increasingly homogeneous landscape of a rapidly developing Europe. Little things, like being able to decipher Cyrillic street signs without staring at them agape, and knowing what tarator or shashlik or even bread is on a Bulgarian only menu gives such satisfaction. Of course, it probably helps that where I work, in the industrial suburb of Gerena, you are straight in at the deep end with no compromises for the non-Bulgarian speaker. I think initially, my Bulgarian colleagues were a little hesitant when I set out for a lunchtime walk amongst the crumbling apartment blocks close to the local football stadium. True, it looks daunting and even a little rough, but this is the most common misconception about Bulgaria. The cafés and small bars of Gerena are modest, but like most Bulgarians, the hosts are usually extremely friendly. It's nice to end a working day with a cold Shumensko beer that you managed to order yourself. In fact, for almost two years I was too scared to attempt ordering Shumensko, as I couldn't read the label!
It's the small differences, like becoming accustomed to olives, tomatoes and yoghurt for breakfast. I like it now, but then again I'm quite adventurous and tolerant when it comes to food, which helps in Sofia. I've got quite tired of hearing some expats and visitors complain that it's impossible to get a decent Irish or English breakfast in the city. Can anyone tell me what the difference is between an Irish and English breakfast? There isn't one, but because one is Irish and one is English some differences must be created, or at least imagined. Anyway, I agree.
You can't get a good fry up in Sofia, even in a top class hotel with an Irish bar that we all know the name of. But we shouldn't be asking for one. After all, it's nearly impossible to get a tomato that would even compare to its Bulgarian equivalent back in Dublin. A small quibble, but as I said earlier, it's the little things that make lasting impressions.
On to a more serious note. I remember, prior to Bulgaria's accession to the EU in 2007, seeing several articles in the British and Irish tabloid press. They were relating to what they were calling the “Wild East”. Rightwing commentators in “classy” publications such as The Sun newspaper rallied against the admission of Bulgaria into the EU on the basis that they were nothing but criminal states, slavering at the prospect of marching en masse into Britain and enslaving the entire population. One cartoon above a Richard Littlejohn column in The Sun depicted Bulgaria as a pair of criminal thugs marching into Western Europe, dragging blood soaked trails behind them. Charming.
Having worked in the tabloid press, with The Sun no less, I have a little understanding of the power that this sort of press has over a readership that would do little, if any, further reading on any subject and would use the tabloid version of events as pretty much their entire knowledge of it. Frightening, particularly when the reality is so much different.
Your average large UK town, or Ireland to a lesser extent, would look on in amazement at the levels of petty and anti-social crime
perpetrated on Bulgarian streets. Amazement and jealousy, that is. While nobody denies the impact of the mafia in Bulgaria, my understanding is that it predominantly exists at a level that does not affect peoples' daily lives, at least not in a direct way unless you've had the misfortune of having been caught in the crossfire. Sofia is a safe city and Bulgaria is a safe country. I have never felt threatened on the streets and, the occasionally persistent Gypsy problems aside, haven't had any trouble whatsoever.
Antisocial behaviour does not seem to perpetrate itself in the same sort of menacing way as it can in other countries, where mobs rule street corners and fast food outlets can make certain streets absolute no-go areas. So, at a time when the Bulgarian nation seems desperate to move out of the hard shoulder and into the fast lane of European economic development, the civility and friendliness of Bulgarian society should not be surrendered or forgotten about lightly. The most attractive and important aspects of a nation are its people. It's not worth sacrificing all of that for a few industrial parks, call centres and a high-speed train to the airport. A high-speed train to the airport would be nice, of course, but Ireland joined the EU in 1972 and we're still waiting!
Of course, I don't live here all the time so I can understand the exasperation of dealing with the monolithic bureaucracy of the civil service or having to bribe someone in order to avoid a three day queue to get your car taxed.
My point is that Bulgaria is a place that makes a fool of your perceptions. It has certainly done so with me. The western European perception of many eastern European countries as terminally backward, surly nations casting a covetous eye on “Old Europe” has been completely disproven by my experience of Sofia and Bulgaria in general. My relationship with the country has gone on a lot longer than I initially thought it would, partly due to the lasting friendships that I've been lucky to find here. It's also due to the constantly shifting nature of the place and the positive approach of the people I've been fortunate enough to work with. At times it's been frustrating, at times endearing, but consistently interesting. It is a country full of surprises. I hope the current climate of change, albeit slow moving, does not sweep away the good with the bad.