I knew very little of Bulgaria before writing this post, except that Bulgaria was recently listed as the most miserable country in the European Union. Naturally, I wondered how it got that unfortunate distinction. But my gut told me there must be more to Bulgaria than its unfavorable position on an internet list.
I was right.
Bulgaria is bordered by Romania to the north, Serbia and Macedonia to the west, Greece and Turkey to the south, and the Black Sea to the east. Within these borders lies a people with a passion for art, music, and literature. Especially poetry.
One of Bulgaria’s most renown poets is Dora Gabe. After reading her poem, Don’t Come Near Me, I understand why. Brief but powerful, this is one of several Gabe poems taught to Bulgarian schoolchildren.
Then there is the Bulgarian language. Like Russian, it is written in Cyrillic script. But the earliest Cyrillic alphabet was not, as I thought, created by the Greeks or Russians. It was created by Bulgarians. Bulgarians are immensely proud of that. If you go to Bulgaria and get that wrong you will learn firsthand How to Piss Off a Bulgarian.
Heading to YouTube, I found a stunning Bulgarian violin and piano performance of Sevdana by Georgi Zlatev Cherkin. The pianist in the performance is the composer’s grandson. The music tells of unrequited love and it’s easy to see why this is one of Bulgaria’s most beloved compositions.
And here’s an interesting tip about interacting with the locals: nodding your head to signal “yes” will confuse them. Apparently, Bulgarians do the reverse: nod their heads to say no, shake their heads to indicate yes.
I found Charlie (Anelia), through Vanya, who is a friend of my Icelandic friend, Ella. Vanya was going to be my Bulgarian contact until she became ill and suggested Charlie as her replacement.
I’m so glad she did.
Charlie is a journalist and creative writer. She holds a masters degree in cultural studies. All photos are hers.
My Conversation with Charlie
Would you please look out a window in your home and tell me what you see?
I just sold my apartment so I’m in between homes, staying with my friend and her family who have a beautiful 17th floor view of Vitosha mountain.
If I came to dinner at your home, what would you cook for me?
Something light, like a salad with tomatoes, cucumbers, grilled peppers, red onion and feta; an eggplant spread with home-made bread. And a welcome shot of traditional Bulgarian grappa. We’ll decide on the main course later.
What myth or stereotype about your country/culture would you like to set straight?
Communist propaganda claimed that we are hard workers. It turned out that we were just hard players. Also we say our women are the most beautiful but I think it’s just in comparison to our men.
What brings you joy?
My pet, my BFFs, and yoga. When I see something functioning efficiently as a result of good partnership and selflessness. And just observing talent flourish.
What are your greatest fears?
Alarms. darkness, robots… and mean people.
What gives you hope?
Love and friendship. Certainly not our government.
What is the most unusual thing about where you live?
In Sofia, you can snowboard on your lunch break. The slopes are a 15 minute drive from the city center.
What is your opinion of the United States? Chicago?
I’ve never been to Chicago, but I hear a lot of Bulgarians live there. Lucky you! Growing up in communist Bulgaria, the U.S. sometimes felt like a fantasy land. It was where some of my favorite bands and movies and catch phrases came from. So naturally, I have loved every time I visited my fantasy land.
What is your favorite time of year in your country?
Spring in the countryside, summer at the Black Sea coast. Winter preferably in Africa unless you like skiing.
What does your country do well?
Rituals and celebrations.
What do you wish your country did better?
High quality education for everyone and more efforts put back in agriculture. Given the diverse climate, natural resources, our geographical position, and small size, it doesn’t make a lot of sense to me that the state doesn’t manage a higher quality of life for everyone. Our society needs to reestablish a culture of caring.
I’ve heard it said that Bulgaria is the most miserable country in the world. What do you think?
They say we are the saddest country, and maybe that’s true. I don’t really know. But what I do know is that we are definitely the most complaining one. So maybe it’s more correct to say that we are totally not in balance with what we expect and want from life. Still we are not that poor – there are far more difficult situations all around the world. Of course, we are very poor in comparison with the biggest European economies.
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Tags: Black Sea, Bulgaria, Cyrillic script and alphabet, Don't Come Near Me, Dora Gabe, European Union, Georgi Zlatev Cherkin, Greece, How to Piss Off a Bulgarian, Macedonia, National Palace of Culture in Sofia, Romania, Serbia, Sevdana, Snowboarding, Sofia, Turkey, Vitosha Mountain