interview and photography by Anthony Georgieff

US Ambassador on Bulgarian walks, wine and the need to raise awareness about it

ambassador Kenneth Merten 2.jpg

Three times an ambassador (in Haiti, Croatia and now in Bulgaria) Kenneth Merten has a wide-ranging career in various positions within the US State Department, including in the office of the director general of the foreign service. His postings abroad include the American Embassy in Paris, in Bonn (at the time of German Unification), at the US mission to the EU in Brussels and at the American Embassy in Paris.

In Haiti, in the wake of the 2010 earthquake, Kenneth Merten oversaw the US government's on-the-ground efforts to provide immediate relief through the deployment of 8,000 US military personnel. In the days after the earthquake he directed the largest evacuation of American citizens since the Second World war.

His numerous awards and decorations include the Shandling Humanitarian Award by US actor and movie director Sean Penn and his relief organization.

Born in St. Louis, Missouri, Kenneth Merten considers Hudson, Ohio, to be his hometown.

As we sit down for coffee at his minimalist yet swanky residence in the Boyana district of Sofia, I wonder whether a man with such varied experience in many countries was in any way surprised when he arrived in Bulgaria.

Yes and no. We were surprised at how much we really like it here. We've been having a really wonderful time so far. People have been very welcoming and super nice. We've had the chance to travel a bit, and I've been amazed at the kind of things we've seen and experienced. I guess the only thing I've really been surprised with is why there aren't more people visiting.

And why aren't there?

I don't think people know much about Bulgaria from a Western perspective – at least Americans, I won't speak for Europeans. We don't know as much about Bulgaria as we ought to. I will encourage the officials in charge of tourism here to be more active in the United States in talking about the plethora of historical artefacts that are still here, not just the existing and well-known sites. Some museums are absolutely incredible. Things you can see in museums outside Sofia surpass what we have in Washington and New York. If you were to see them in the United States you'd say oh my god, I can't believe these things exist. And you find them in town museum of, for example, Kazanlak. Amazing. 

Photo provided by the American Embassy: The Unknown Soldier Memorial in Sofia

If friends from the US came to visit, what would you advise them to do?

We've already had friends from the US, friends from Australia and from the UK have also come. We have taken everyone to Rila Monastery, which is one thing in Bulgaria everybody knows. We have also taken everybody to Plovdiv, which is amazing. Obviously, we take them for walks around Sofia, which people really like. One of the things I would suggest to people, if they like hiking, is to go up to the mountains. The Pirin and the Rhodope are on our bucket list.

Anything special in Sofia?

A standard walk downtown is a must. We usually start at the Alexander Nevskiy Cathedral and walk over the yellow brick road to the older buildings, including the Russian Church, the National Gallery, the National Bank and the government offices beyond. People really like the Roman ruins tastefully exposed around the Council of Ministers. Everyone that we've had so far has been amazed at the levels of history that Bulgaria has. The Roman era is of course important, but there are things well beyond that.

Photo provided by the American Embassy: At the American University in Bulgaria, Blagoevgrad

The National Archaeological Museum, which is also downtown across the street from the Office of the President, is another gem. For many, it is a mind-blowing experience, especially its treasury room. You would never see things like that in the United State until they are on special loan from counties like Bulgaria. Really, incredibly impressive.

And what would you advise people to be careful about when they come to Bulgaria?

The first thing I would warn them about is to watch how much they eat because the food is very good down here: surprisingly, uniformly good. People have to be careful because it is very easy to eat too much.

What do you like to do in your spare time? Do you have any hobbies?

Unfortunately, I don't have a lot of spare time here. What we really like to do is to walk and to hike. Apart from the mountains, Sofia is a good place to explore on foot as it has many very good parks that are dog friendly, which is very important for us. I like to play tennis, but so far I haven't had the chance to be very active on the tennis circuit here. I hope to be able to pick that up before too long.

Photo provided by the American Embassy: Meeting with Jewish leaders

Bulgaria has the reputation of being one of the least known lands in Europe. Do you have any observation on that?

I will go back to where we started. I think it will be useful to keep prospective visitors, especially Americans, better informed about what Bulgaria has to offer. It is a country where people are friendly, where it is easy to get around, where there is so much to see, and where there are many people interested in showing it to you. I think these need more publicity. Bulgaria has as much or more to offer than any country in the region.

Finally, I am really happy to be here for the 120th anniversary of US-Bulgarian diplomatic relations. It is an important milestone for us. Our mutual history has had ups and downs, but I am convinced the best is yet to come.


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