What's Public Television Doing in Bulgaria?
By Rick Steves
Which European country has changed the most in the last fifteen years? I'd say Bulgaria. It's gone from a Stalinist hold-over to a capitalist puppy and member of NATO. Markets formerly filled with cabbage and peppers are now nearly as colorful and tasty as markets in the West. Twenty years ago, Western influence was evil. I was sneaking around after dark, writing my journal in code and chatting with friends who masked our conversation by leaving a faucet running. Now... big welcome... after only 24 hours in town, my film crew and I made the front page. Headline: American TV crew films Bulgaria.
Travel in Bulgaria has become simple: no visas, easy and fair money exchange, plenty of ATMs. A taxi ride costs a dollar. A meal costs $3. Hotels are cheap: a simple double rents for $15, half that in a private home. Fancy hotels still have the old fashioned two-tiered price system, charging rich Westerners about double the local rate.
Bulgaria even revalued its currency a few years ago. One thousand old levs equals one new lev and the lev is now tied to the euro. So what? That means my favorite European coin — the stodinki, a one-hundredth of a lev — is back.
While the cities are changing quickly, time seems to stand still in the villages. Villagers are busy drying hay to get their animals through the winter.
The only anti-Americanism I felt as an aftermath of the Kosovo war was at the Eastern Orthodox monastery of Rila. Normally an oasis of peace and reflection high in the mountains, during this visit it felt tense and troubled. The Father Superior made filming difficult. One women raged at me, "I can't be involved with you because of what your government did. But God bless you."
Despite the war, Bulgaria is facing west, and joined the European Union in January 2007. Plenty of Westerners — and the Peace Corps — are here helping out. But in this land where a nod for no means yes and yes means no, that's not so easy.
Throughout the Cold War, Bulgaria was one of the Soviet Union's most loyal satellites. There was even talk of making Bulgaria the 16th republic of the USSR. Georgie Dimitrov was the local Lenin. His waxy body, like Lenin's, was even on display under glass. His mausoleum was the centerpiece of Bulgaria's largest city Sofia. A few years ago they blew up that mausoleum. But you just can't dynamite the legacy of 45 years as a Soviet satellite. In Sofia, souvenirs of its partnership with the USSR survive: cheap if rickety public transit, miles of blocky apartment flats, and Stalin Gothic buildings straddling yellow brick roads, which seem wider than necessary.
|Bulgaria is changing. Spartok and Krum: Dad does Stalin, son does nudes.|
A Bulgarian father and son, both sculptors, illustrate the tremendous change that's occurred within one generation. Krum Dermenjivie spent his life sculpting statues of great communists, both Bulgarian and Soviet. His son, Spartok, learned from his dad. But rather than heroic politicians, he sculpts erotic nudes.
Krum, whose powerful statues grace squares all over Bulgaria, is still passionate about the people's struggle. Spartok has made a name for himself with his nudes and we found a few we could actually show on TV. He explained that freedom is great — especially for an artist — but there's little money to enjoy the fruits of that freedom.
Bulgaria's second city, Plovdiv, is famous for its women. Young Bulgarian women don't walk — they prance. Their legs are long and their skirts aren't. Lolita-ville's main thoroughfare is nicknamed "Vanity Street." Some figure since it was officially an atheistic state throughout the Communist era, there are no moral hang-ups (or morals — depending upon your perspective).
Bulgaria has a strange and fascinating charm. Of all the countries the Peace Corps works in, more volunteers end up marrying locals in Bulgaria than any other. Of a recent group of 38 volunteers, seven have tied the knot Bulgarian-style.
On the main street of Plovdiv, sharing a corner with a cybercafe and McDonald's, stood my hotel: Hotel Bulgaria. I told the receptionist I was here 20 years ago. Handing me the key, she said, "It hasn't changed."
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