Public art in Sofia–one of the city’s most attractive features is its wealth of public statuary
Most people don’t realize that my wife Helena’s maternal grandfather was Jack Nicholson. Okay, he wasn’t born Jack Nicholson—he was actually born Theodosius Voulgaridis (“Theodore the Bulgarian”)—and he wasn’t a famous film star. When he decided to make the big move from northern Greece to Canada in the early 20th century, he thought it would be a good idea to pick a real North American-sounding name for himself and “Jack Nicholson” was just the ticket.
Why, you ask, was Helena’s Greek grandfather named “The Bulgarian?” His father was a foundling, apparently, left as an infant at the church door just this side of the Bulgarian border, so the assumption was made that his family was Bulgarian. Thus, Voulgaridis it was for the family name.
Helena and I traveled to Bulgaria last weekend, not because of a deep yearning on Helena’s part to get in touch with her roots, but for more prosaic reasons. I needed to step out momentarily from the EU’s common immigration area in order to re-enter and get a new stamp in my passport, giving me another three months’ residency reprieve. And Sofia, being a quick and easy flight from Athens, was as good a destination as any. (I was not eager to repeat my last experience at the Athens airport in which I was eventually granted an informal “Greek mother-in-law” exemption, since one could never count on the vagaries of border control procedures in any country.)
I was also curious about this neighboring country and its capital Sofia, just a short hop from Greece’s northern border. The peoples of the two countries had lived side by side and intermingled for hundreds of years under the Ottoman occupation, to the point that they ceased referring to themselves as “Greeks” and “Bulgarians” but simply as “Christians,” to distinguish themselves from the Turks and those locals who had converted to Islam. I wondered how much the two peoples held in common today and to what extent the Communist legacy had affected contemporary Bulgarian society.
A colorful Orthodox church in Sofia
The short answer is that we found that Bulgarians seem to have almost nothing in common with Greeks aside from a fondness for moussaka and dimly lit Orthodox churches. The Greeks, despite a cynical, generally pessimistic view of the world, are gregarious, quick with a smile, and prone to fits of uproarious laughter, even in the face of crisis. (Think Zorba, an archetype who pretty faithfully represents this dual nature of the Greek character.) Among the Bulgarian people, on the other hand, the smile does not appear to figure prominently in the national repertoire of facial expressions. We found smiles such a rarity, in fact, that we began to think that smiling was one of the many things that was prohibited and subject to punishment in the country. (A Greek fellow who works in Bulgaria whom we met on our return flight confirmed this by repeating a joke that is apparently common in the Balkans: “How do you know if the joke you told was really funny? The Bulgarian guy laughed.”)
We did encounter one friendly person in Sofia, who happened to be the first person we met—our taxi driver from the airport. When we told him that we lived in Athens but were from the U.S., he became very animated. “America! I love America! Great country! Best country! Americans give big tips! I want to go to live in America. Las Vegas! Taxi driver make very much money in Las Vegas! You go to casino, pick people up, they are drinking, doing drugs, don’t know what they’re doing and they give very big tip!”
He went on in this vein for some time before explaining that his wife didn’t want to go to the promised land. “She no want to leave Bulgaria. She like Bulgaria. Economy very bad here–no can make money here but she buy, buy, buy, spend, spend, spend. But she no want go to America.”
We commiserated on the hard times and told him that it was tough times in Greece as well. Helena explained that while most Greeks were really struggling, the rich still seemed to be doing fine.
“Rich people? The Jews?”
No, Helena explained, Greece’s Jewish population had been pretty much completely decimated by the Nazis so the current crisis couldn’t be blamed on them.
So, the one friendly person we met in Sofia was an anti-Semite whose goal in life was to fleece drunken American gamblers. Not sure what the lesson is there.
Time for a quick geography quiz: Bulgaria is one of four countries with which Greece shares a land border. What are the other three? If you can answer this without cheating, you will win a fabulous prize. (Answer at the end of this post.)
To be fair to the Bulgarian people, from what I have read about the current state of the country, it seems that folks there have plenty of reasons to be grumpy. The economy is in a tailspin, the government in crisis, the banking system on the brink of collapse, corruption endemic, and the local mafia deeply entrenched and scarily violent (nearly 200 contract killings having been reported in the last 20 years or so in this small country, according to an article in the NYT.) So, yea, they can be forgiven if they don’t smile a lot.
Downtown Sofia scene
The Greeks are the ultimate anarchists, seemingly unable or unwilling to follow rules of any kind, whether related to driving, paying taxes, or standing in lines. The Bulgarians, in contrast, seem to be obsessively focused on order. On the positive side, this means one could walk confidently across the broadest boulevard of Sofia in a crosswalk with eyes closed, knowing that every car will stop well short of the lines. (In Greece, I often wonder whether anyone actually knows the significance of the faded white stripes that occasionally adorn busy intersections.) On the negative side, the focus on order means that the country still retains more than a hint of its authoritarian communist past. In our short 48 hours in Sofia, Helena and I were chastised more frequently than I can ever remember in my decades as a traveler—for having our hands in our jacket pockets inside a freezing church, for getting our faces too close to paintings in the museum thereby setting off alarms, for attempting to spend more than our allotted ten minutes inside a chapel looking at frescoes. (“Did you read the sign, madam? It clearly states that you have a maximum of ten minutes inside the chapel!”) Rules are rules and must be obeyed, no matter that such rules were presumably intended to ensure a reasonable flow of tourists at peak times and that not a single person was waiting to enter. At one point over the weekend, we happened to pass a guided tour in which the other 15 or so foreign tourists in Sofia at the time were participating, and we heard the guide tell them in no uncertain terms that if they violated the rules regarding photography and respect for the guards at this presidential building, they would be seeing some time in a Bulgarian jail. I had no doubt she wasn’t exaggerating.
Our experience in Sofia reminded me of just why it is that we travel and particularly why we travel to those places that are not the most spectacular—that don’t have the most beautiful scenery, the most delicious food, the most comfortable resorts, or the most perfect weather. We travel to experience differences, to stimulate our curiosity, to cause us to ask important questions about the endless variety of humanity on the planet. Questions like “Why do Bulgarian people have such small noses compared to their Mediterranean neighbors?” and “What do you suppose is in the dish that is called ‘Male Marrows Against Divorse’?”(We didn’t order that but Helena did enjoy the “Rabbit with Expired Game Shooting License.” (There must be a good story behind that one… In case you think I’m making this up, you can actually see the English language menu of this restaurant here.)
So I don’t regret our brief trip to Bulgaria, even if it isn’t a place I’m dying to go back to. Travel enriches our lives and I hope to visit many other strange and interesting places in the future.
Answer to the Quiz: First a hint—the name of one of the countries actually tells you not what it is, but what it used to be. Sort of like “The Artist Formerly Known as Prince” only a whole country. Figured it out yet? Yes, it is the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia or FYROM. Catchy name, huh?* The others are Turkey and Albania.
*You may be wondering how this name came to be—did the new nation’s leaders gather after the dissolution of Yugoslavia and ponder what to call their country and somebody said, “Hey, let’s just call ourselves The Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia,” and they all agreed that that was as good a name as any? No. They wanted to call themselves “Macedonia” but the Greeks had a pretty major conniption fit about this, insisting that “Macedonia” is a region of Greece and one of deep significance to the Greek people, being the cradle of the worldwide empire of Alexander the Great and Philip OF MACEDONIA, both of whom were GREEKS not Former Yugoslav Republicans of anything, and that if any other country tried to claim that name, they’d be itching for a fight. The Former Yugoslav Republicans of Macedonia argued that they could name their country whatever the heck they darn’ well pleased, but the Greek opposition was so virulent that the international community agreed to put the question to negotiation and essentially issued a “cease and desist” order to the former Yugoslavs and FYROM has been stuck with that sorry excuse for a country name for the 20-plus years since then, pending resolution of the conflict.