That, dear reader, is a good question. It is one that I have had to answer many times since I returned to Europe from my nearly five year stint in Yunnan. Why Bulgaria? Why move to a city called Plopplipplop in a country that isn’t even real but invented by either Borat or Tin Tin? Questions asked by friends who had actually heard about Bulgaria were more along the lines of concerns about gangs of Romani out to scam me. And, since February this year, worries about the war in Ukraine. Friends who have actually visited my new home country have never asked me ‘why Bulgaria’. They know I have made a great choice.
My city is actually called Plovdiv (Пловдив). It has a history of continous habituation of give or take 7000 years. It was a Thracian settlement and later an important hub under Roman, Ottoman, Soviet and Bulgarian rule. The history is part of the fabric of my city – I go and see opera performances in a Roman theatre that is about 800m from my apartment.
I walk on Roman streets and have my Turkish coffee at an Ottoman mosque and gaze at Alyosha, the Soviet statue of a lone soldier on top of one of Plovdiv’s seven hills.
The Thracian history may be a bit less visible but some traditions are still very much alive – such as the lovely martenitsa to celebrate the return of Spring.
As an architectural historian and practicing Situationist I really enjoy experiencing all this history on a daily basis. In 2019 Plovdiv was the European Capital of Culture and from what I hear around me more and more visitors are discovering my pretty gem of a city.
Further afield in the country there are more historical remnants. One of my all-time favourite buildings is Buzludzha – a former Communist headquarters that started to fall to ruin when the Soviet era ended. Last weekend I attended a festival organized by Buzludzha Project – a foundation that is trying to preserve and restore the building and the beautiful mosaics inside. I first saw this building in 2016, when I cycled up the Shipka pass and camped at the foot of Buzludzha.
Modern culture abounds too – music festivals and art galleries all over the place. I’m a fan of Ivo Dimchev who subverts the bougie chalga genre quite artistically. This is a song of his I didn’t know yet – it’s more subdued than his usual ironic-hipster-chalga theatrics:
Azis does something similar – it’s so over the top, so bling-bling and so exuberantly gay, I love it.
From the far south-eastern Tea Horse Road end of the Silk Road I have moved to a country on the western end. This region, like Yunnan, has also seen a lot of trade, exchange, empires and upheavel throughout the ages.
The Black Sea and the Turkish, Greek, Serbian, North-Macedonian and Romanian borders are only a few hours away by bus and the Bulgarian population is ethnically diverse – meeting Bulgarians of Romani, Armenian, Jewish and Turkish descent is pretty common.
Take a bus from Plovdiv and within half a day you can cross the Bosphorus to Asia Minor. This proximity to Asia is not just seen in my friends’ faces but also tasted in Turkish coffee and lokum, and heard in distinctively not-Western Bulgarian music.
I feel the (Middle) Eastern vibes in the kindness and hospitality of many people who I meet. A generosity of spirit that is not so much a part of the ‘colder’ cultures of Northern Europe.
From the mountains to the sea
Snowboarding, beach bumming, hiking epic mountain ranges, cycling, camping, swimming. What does your weekend look like? I love mountains, and Bulgaria has multiple stunning mountain ranges.
My dream is to buy a house in a village to renovate, just like I did in Dali. Here I can enjoy a cheap and quiet life with a cat, chickens, pumpkins and other veggies in the yard.
I will host visiting friends, cyclists and artists. One space will be solely dedicated to gong fu cha practice. I would love to develop an Artist in Residency, as I was planning to do in Dali. This is very much possible here in Bulgaria. Fingers crossed I will find my dream village home in the mountains in the next year or so.
I am back in the European Union. As a European passport holder I have the right to be here, to work, to buy property, to receive healthcare, to cross borders into other countries, to think what I want to think and to say out loud what I think – online or in person. I can vote, I can protest, I can organize and promote subversive meet-ups. I can start a foundation. I can send in letters to a newspaper that criticize the government. I can go into politics. I have rights and if they are violated I can use the rule of law. I cannot get tortured, I cannot get disappeared, I cannot get censored, I cannot get intimidated, I cannot get deported, I cannot get blacklisted. I am free.
Bulgaria is one of the cheapest countries to live in the European Union. My 90m2 apartment costs me less than 350 EUR per month and aforementioned Turkish coffee at a beautiful terrace outside the mosque sets you back a whopping 1 EUR. The train from Plovdiv to Sofia is about 6 EUR. A number of expats lives here precisely for this reason, but while it was certainly a concern I still put it last on the list as I am actually really interested in living in the region and learning all about the history, culture and language.
Still, the low cost of living means I didn’t have to stress about money and work since I moved here. It has given me the space to land and the time to travel and reconnect with friends and family. I work about 25 hours a week on my online job. Apart from work I do two Bulgarian language classes a week, spend my mornings drinking tea and writing.
I love challenges! But yes, there are downsides to living here. With the China years under my belt, some lovely new friends, my usual energy and curiosity and a pinch of patience I can tackle them.
The Bulgarian language is hard – but not as hard as Chinese. It has an алфабет! My teacher Boris is strict on grammar but fast and loose with the dirty jokes so I’m enjoying my twice weekly classes a lot.
The society is in many ways still pretty traditional so anything or anyone acting out of the norm can be frowned upon. Still, it’s not as bad as Hungary or Poland where the government is openly hostile towards to the queer community.
Corruption is a huge problem. None of my Bulgarian friends trusts their own government. Essential services like the railways haven’t seen a proper upgrade since the Soviet Union came tumbling down. Russia exerts an influence in media and politics. I have patience for bureaucratic mafan and try to look ahead – change is happening here too, slowly. Still, I get the sense that many Bulgarians don’t feel that they have much agency, or much of a future, and this sometimes translates to apathy or depression.
The upside of all these challenges: many people do start personal or small initiatives, taking on an issue that they have noticed and fight to make things better. They raise funds, they get people together, they DO something. I like this punk mentality and I want to get involved.
I’m now ready to start developing new cultural initiatives here. Finally, I’ve let go of the idea of producing more events in China as it’s too complicated with ongoing lockdowns. Here, I’m meeting interesting people who I would like to work with. My energy is back and I want to work with the here and now of Bulgaria.
If you still think ‘Why Bulgaria!?’ you’ll have to come and visit and find out!