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A Bulgarian Oddysey

A Bulgarian Oddysey

Story and Photos By Susan Gunter


Running past "Sector 15 G" of the Levski soccer stadium in Borisovo Gradina, the enormous Sofia park, I saw a dozen or so Bulgarians outlined on the path before me, walking slowly and deliberately in their dark clothes between the tall denuded oak trees. They seemed to process in an outdoor funereal rite. This looks like something out of a Truffaut film, or perhaps it is the recession of Eastern Europe, I thought. Stray dogs moved at random in and out of their parade.

For the past five months I lived on Shipka and San Stefano streets, lecturing at Sofia University through the Fulbright program. It was a paradoxical experience: wonderful for professional and personal growth, but sad as I experienced the poverty and suffering this small country endures as it moves from communism to democracy.

In its scenery and topography, Bulgaria is a truly beautiful country. Sofia is situated in a broad valley along the spine of the Balkan range, with Mt. Vitosha looming above it. The country has many striking mountains, and its eastern border is along the Black Sea. Outside Sofia ancient Thracian burial mounds dot an enormous plain where people have raised crops for at least 8,000 years. In the other direction from the capital are the Rila Mountains, covered with fields of red poppies and blue cornflowers and small patches of snow on the mountain caps. In Veliko Turnovo, Bulgaria's medieval capital, a large silvery river winds through the valley floor, and wild chives grow in the crevices of the small stone walls that stagger up the hillside. When spring comes to Sofia, despite the disorder pervading the Salt Lake-sized city, I sit in the Doctors' Garden Park, which my apartment building faces. I see green leaves, white blossoms, small pink and white flowers, pansies, black tree trunks dripping water, dogs watching for a passerby who might drop something, a Roma (Gypsy) woman nursing her baby near the fence, and the cars eternally parked on the sidewalk.

The country's history is one of change and conquest: the Thracians, who numbered Alexander the Great, Orpheus, and Spartacus among their leaders; the Romans, whose magnificent ruins punctuate Sofia and the beautiful Old Town of Plovdiv; the Bulgars, a Persian tribe; the Byzantines, who occupied Bulgaria from A.D. 900 until 1200; the Bulgarians of the second kingdom; the Turks, who occupied the country from 1387 to 1878; and the Communists/ Soviets, who controlled the country from 1945 to 1989.

Underlying these historical revolutions, a substrata of pagan customs offers stability to Bulgarians as they struggle to survive these perennial changes. I
visited the Mummers' Festival in the Rhodope Mountains, where I witnessed colorful dances and mimes, ancient spring fertility rites. Many of the mimes featured cross-dressing wedding ceremonies where young men, heavily made up and dressed in white gowns, play the bride's role. According to ethnographers, these same-sex weddings were "stronger" because only the stronger male gender participated, thus ensuring a bountiful harvest.

Though despised by many Bulgarians, the Roma provide another cultural continuity. The Roma, still hunters and gatherers, speak their own language and follow their own customs, including the Gypsy bridal fair, a colorful affair I attended in Stara Zagora. I expected something out of Thomas Hardy's Mayor of Casterbridge, where a drunken man sells his wife and daughter at a horse auction, but instead the girls seemed happy and excited. These brides were 15 or 16, most with deep blue or rose velvet costumes, wearing thick iridescent makeup and rhinestone tiaras perched on their elaborate lacquered black curls. The group was most festive. The fathers arrange these marriages and negotiate the bride price at the fair. The young couple is engaged once their elders reach an agreement. The payment is in gold or sometimes horses. Although today the couple probably plays some role in choosing, they cannot refuse the contract. If they do they go to the Roma court, where they will be ordered to leave the tribe if they reject the marriage. I was warned that I would be "robbed blind," but instead the Roma were affable, delighting in posing for pictures.

What a wonderful country: beautiful scenery, unique culture, delicious food, and superb music-I attended world-class opera and symphony weekly for a few dollars. But despite these riches, the country describes itself as the "Prozac nation" as depression and self-doubt are rampant during this "Change;" the change, that is, from a communist culture to a free-market democracy. Older Bulgarians remain perpetually disoriented and paranoid, lost in a country where everything, even street names, has changed or disappeared. The unemployment rate is approximately 20 percent in the cities (and as high as 80 percent in the villages), government corruption is rampant, and the Mafia (many former KGB officials) reportedly controls most of the economy. I could never get used to the sight of so many dignified-looking people eating from garbage bins. And saddest of all, Sofia University, the flagship university in the Balkan Peninsula, may close for five months because of budget cuts. My beloved colleagues and my superb students in the Master's program in American studies, many of them continuing in Ph.D. programs at Ivy League institutions on full scholarships, will be homeless. The library has not bought books in two decades, and students achieve their academic success by copying long passages from the few books available and paying what they can afford for Internet research. What a tragic waste of human resources. (The real "gift" of the Fulbright program was giving the university 160 books, with postage provided by Vice President for Academic Affairs, Stephen Baar.)

I have not left Bulgaria forever, as I return next August to teach in the Fulbright international undergraduate summer institute, a program focusing on the challenges of the post-Cold War world. Perhaps a few Westminster students will accompany me, to study and to experience the mysteries and beauties of what U.S. Ambassador James Pardew described as "the last forgotten place."

Susan Gunter is a professor of English at Westminster College.