Today I am starting a series of blog posts about my home town of Varna and my home country of Bulgaria.
Even though I have been living abroad for fourteen and a half years now, deep down in my heart there is an unbreakable bond with my homeland. Sometimes it feels like a noose which wraps around me when I least expect it and a sudden longing to be near my family and my old school friends almost suffocates me. Other times, it is more like a tight chain which I desperately try to break, so as to be finally free of certain attitudes absorbed during my Socialist era childhood.
I make a conscious effort to return to Varna as often as I can. At least once a year, sometimes twice or even thrice. Had I put aside all the money I have spent through the years on airplane tickets to Bulgaria, I would have been able to go on a worldwide adventure or treat myself to a luxury cruise.
Still, returning to where I come from is non-negotiable as it is my time to recharge my batteries and reconnect with myself. I am like a tree with momentarily found roots, using every second to drink as much earth juice as I can before wandering off yet again.
So, fresh from my this year’s two-week stay in Bulgaria and having accumulated hundreds of photos, I want to jot down some thoughts and observations, some expressions of love and exasperation building an image in writing of my homeland the way I see it and feel it through the distance of living abroad and through the closeness of having been born and raised there.
We arrived in Varna on a hot weekday afternoon. The bright white sunlight dazzled our eyes as soon as we walked out of the airport terminal. We spent the first couple of days holed up at my parents’ house, sleeping all night and then again for long stretches during the day and eating my mum’s bountiful home-made food. Once the tiredness of having travelled by car for a number of days from Italy to England wore off, we were ready to explore.
Plans were made and put in action. My must-visit list was as long as my arm. I wanted to see, feel, explore and above all remind myself of what Bulgaria is in terms of history, natural wonders and present day reality. Living abroad makes you forget certain details or become very critical of certain attitudes back home which don’t seem to tie up with the logical and health-and-safety approach practised in other parts of Europe.
For the first time in many years I wanted to look beyond that, to silence my spontaneous disapproval of so many things which are the fruit of the current political environment and of the historically formed Bulgarian temperament. So I went out and met up with old friends, some of whom I hadn’t seen for many years. We chatted and laughed and I just felt carefree and young at heart.
Borrowing my father’s car (Thank you, Dad!), my husband and I travelled outside of Varna’s confines to places old and steeped in history. We climbed a precipitous hill to admire a breathtaking view of the valley below.
Hand in hand we walked through the ruins of Pliska – the first Bulgarian capital and one of the biggest and liveliest cities in Europe at its heyday, nowadays a flowering meadow through which the excavated foundations of former palaces and dwellings are dispersed.
We hired a boat and explored the river Kamchia which our guide lovingly called ‘The Bulgarian Amazon’.
We picked cucumbers, peppers and courgettes from my father’s garden for my mum to turn into tasty meals every lunch and dinner time with the addition of generous helpings of succulent pork meat. We ate peaches just picked from the tree and quickly washed in the cold reviving jet of the outside water tap, revelling in their juicy orange flesh.
At the same time, I couldn’t help but notice the general decay and slight desperation in the air, somehow disguised by the fact that it was summer – the season when Varna comes truly into her own with the beaches overflowing with sun worshippers and the night clubs bursting at the seams.
A planned beautifying effort by the city’s authorities was in full swing. Rows upon rows of flowers in bloom gave colour to the city streets and the wide alleys in the Sea Park. Pavements were being resurfaced. The city’s main fountain was being fitted with a brand new water propelling system.
Yet rubbish bins were overflowing just a step away from the main streets. The Roman baths – the forth largest in Europe and the largest in the Balkans – felt neglected and sad under the bright sun.
The resurfacing of the pavements was creating clouds of dust and ear-splitting noise, as large belt-saws were positioned straight on the pavements and men baked to crisp by the sun were cutting the paving stones to measure one by one by one.
Dirty red water was flowing from the belt-saws down the side streets and I wouldn’t have wanted to be one of the residents in the adjacent houses suffering the intolerable noise and dust for weeks on end.
Smoking, it seemed, continued to be a national pastime with people dragging a cigarette in any possible situation – from taking a coffee sitting outside one of the many coffee shops to walking hand in hand with their toddler down the street. Most shamefully, one of the mums whom we had said hello to at the local playground where our little daughter would go to play, ambushed my husband on his way to the local supermarket one day and asked him for money to buy nappies for her baby.
My husband came back home worried about the baby and asking me to go buy some nappies and take them to the mum in need. I had to sit him down and gently explain that only the day before said lady had been at the playground cigarette in hand talking loudly about how well-off her family was. Then I had to break it to him that there were still people in Bulgaria who thought that all foreigners were rich and didn’t have any scruples about taking advantage of them.
I had never been ashamed of my country, but at that moment I felt a hot wave of shame washing over me.
It has been now four days since we flew back to England from Bulgaria. And as it usually happens, I am feeling terribly homesick. I miss my family, I miss being able to call old friends and arrange to meet them for a coffee and cake. I miss some really small, even silly things – like my favourite Bulgarian spice, which this time I forgot to buy a jar of.
I know that as the days pass this feeling and this longing will slowly subside. Once again I will rely on modern technology to keep in touch with the people whom I love. Every now and then I will think of Bulgaria and of the things happening there and will get angry within myself that so many years after November 1989 somehow everything there takes such a long time to actually change.
Life will go on until one day I will wake up and feel that I need go back home to recharge and reconnect, that no matter how things are there, Bulgaria still remains my land.