Return to Bulgaria

Today I found myself in a small, smoke-filled room, surrounded by cinema posters from years past.  Sitting on an old red naugahyde couch, I faced the two men in front of me, one in his early thirties and the other a generation older.  They fired questions at me, sometimes talking over each other.  Where had I been since leaving Bulgaria?  What was I doing there?  Who was I working for?  Why had I come back? Had I ever been in the military?  Worked for the US government?  The UN?  Finally we came to the CIA question…

Despite appearances above this was not an interrogation but an interview with a former student who now works for one of the two local newspapers.  I have been back for 6 days in the small Bulgarian town where my international experiences first started more than a decade ago.  My two years here as a teacher left deep impressions on me and connected me with some of the residents of this small town that was founded as a socialist model in 1947.

It has been fascinating to see both the changes and the many corners of the town that have remained the same.  Yes, three German supermarket chains have landed in the middle of town with their parking lots and spacious halls full of brightly packaged products.  Most of the smaller shops have also been upgraded to modern standards.  The formerly ubiquitous Lada passenger cars no longer dominate, though the police still drive them!   This model town was laid out with three elaborate parks that were in complete disrepair when I was living here.  They have now been cleaned up (at least the most visible parts) and the small zoo has been rebuilt and enlarged with lots of birds, and  my friends claim that the two large brown bears are the same pair that prowled a smaller cage years ago.

Perhaps most striking is the brand new bus station that just opened, a bright red triangular building that is a splash of newness just 50 meters from the marble plaza and stone arcades that have been the center of Dimitrovgrad for years.  Just beyond the bus station is the train station, which to my surprise has experienced absolutely no change since the day I left.  Many other things have not changed, both corners of the town that have experienced no renovations as well as the worries of many people who see a difficult road ahead.

The coutdown to EU membership for Bulgaria and Romania in the early to mid 2000s amidst the bubbling world economy led to a fair amount of optimism that the future was brightening.  Of course the global recession and european economic crisis has made it difficult to maintain this level of optimism, and many wonder how the Bulgarian economy can produce enough jobs for the current school graduates.  Bulgaria’s entry into the EU and the increasing prevalence of English has made it easier for Bulgarians to seek work abroad and many have done so.  As with migrants everywhere, this has mixed results for the sending country.  Remittances to family members here are important to the economy but there is of course also a loss of connection and talent

Many of my former students have left Dimitrovgrad for the cities of Plovdiv, Sofia, Varna and for other countries.  In this, they are taking advantage of the new opportunities of EU membership and their English (so my lessons apparently had some effect).  It is great to see them doing well but it is important that Bulgaria find ways to develop the whole country, not just the largest cities.  A much larger wine industry and efforts at attracting visitors to smaller towns and natural areas are a step in the right direction…


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