28 May 2013

The Europe I Didn't Know

Last month, I spent a short amount of time in Bulgaria. The chance to visit the country for a long weekend presented itself one day, so I grabbed it and went for a short stay of 3 days. During these three days, I had a chance to visit the capital Sofia, as well as hike in the mountains in the south, and visit a monastery in the middle of the forest. I also had a chance to meet other travelers from around the world. In short, I had a great time. I would definitely blog more about the other aspects of the trip, including pictures of course, but for this one, I would like to say something about the Europe I didn't know.

See, this visit to Bulgaria is my first proper visit to Eastern Europe (I am a splitter, so I consider the Czech Republic and Hungary to be in Central Europe). I say so because I don't want to count my daytrips to Poland as a proper visit, as I haven't even spent the night in there, instead just taking the trains from Berlin and back within a day. So spending three nights in Sofia is perhaps the first proper visit to Eastern Europe for me.

What can I say? It is definitely foreign. It reminds me of the time a couple of months ago when I ranted about the Netherlands not being foreign enough for my taste. This one definitely is foreign. First, the language is something that not only can I not understand, but I also cannot read. I have a beginner's knowledge of Cyrillic, and as I am a linguist, it was easy to learn the correspondences during my stay, comparing the Latin and Cyrillic road signs.

Second, the scenery is just different from the rest of Europe. I am not talking about gorgeous vistas or mountains. Bulgaria does have that; if you're in Sofia, just look toward the south and you'll see mountain ranges covered in snow. What I am talking about is the scenery of the streets depicting everyday life. Let me explain.

There are parts of Sofia that are glitzy (the malls) or majestic (the churches and the government buildings built during the Communist period). However, when you stray away from those, there are streets that look normal, but not for Europe. At least, it didn't look normal for the Europe I knew until then. What I thought actually was that the streets looked more like the streets I would expect to find in my grandmother's hometown in Batangas City, Philippines. This is not a major big city, but just a town. Granted, it is the capital of the province, but nothing much is going there.

There was plenty of dust. And, as I was remarking that the streets of Sofia looked like the streets of Batangas, I almost expected to hear the ubiquitous honking jeepneys that ply the streets of the provinces of the Philippines. And so whenever I see a government building, flying both the Bulgarian flag side by side with the flag of the European Union, a brief moment of cognitive dissonance strikes, as the scenery clashes with my image of Europe.

This cognitive dissonance was further enhanced when I took a daytrip to Rila Monastery and hiked in the mountains surrounding it. We passed by Bulgarian countryside, lots of them. Again, there were plenty of dust, and the cars needing a good carwash testify to this fact. There were old grandmothers walking slowly by the road, with their scarves wrapped around their heads, and with a waistline that looks like her uterus popped out at least 10 babies in younger years.

Plenty of houses in the countryside looked dilapidated and crumbling. It reminds me of construction work in the Philippines, whenever someone wants to build a house, and then suddenly realized that they don't have enough money, so construction stops, and yet they still have to live there. The dry heat and dirt and wind reminded me of the countryside of Mexico and Guatemala. It definitely didn't look like the Europe I knew until then.

There were tall apartment buildings in and around Sofia that looked like they were abandoned, but in reality, people still live there. But it looks like the buildings either need a major overhaul and facelift, or they should be demolished.

Overall, I felt like the city was in a constant state of crumbling in slow motion.

The paragraphs I wrote above might sound like a criticism. But it is not. It is just me, talking out loud, adjusting my image of Europe. Until now, my image of Europe corresponded to cities like Copenhagen, Vienna, Luxembourg, Prague, or Amsterdam. I am not saying I haven't seen gritty Europe; parts of Budapest or even Berlin definitely look gritty. But Sofia was just a totally different level. Sofia has parts that are beautiful, don't get me wrong. But there are parts in which I immediately thought whether I landed in the correct airport. I checked lists in Wikipedia and found out that of all the European countries I have visited, Bulgaria has the lowest GDP per capita. It's not a precise index, but it is good enough, and it shows.

So what next? I guess I need to adjust my image of Europe. It's a large continent after all. There are many different facets to it, and I just saw one I never expected before. And yes, I definitely want to go back and check out the rest of the country if I have the chance.


  1. Interesting observations! I don't know much about this part of Europe, it's very foreign to me. Must be a cool place to visit though, and these countries are changing fast.

    1. Zhu,

      It is a cool place to visit, and as you say, it is changing fast. There were plenty of construction with signs saying how it was funded by the EU for its rehabilitation and development. So new roads are springing up, and so forth.