Sunday, 29 March 2015

Bulgarian Jottings I: And In The Beginning…

world-map varna


There’s just under three weeks to go until I launch myself into this year’s big trip, so there’s no point starting to post a big long travelogue if it gets interrupted halfway. So instead, I’ve rummaged around into the archives and have pulled out a series of jottings I made on various topics whilst living in Bulgaria 12 years ago. Since I’ve just met up with two old Bulgaria friends in Paris, then when more apt to start posting them. So, here we are, the very first Bulgarian Jotting, a short account of how my fascination with that incredible little Balkan republic began, almost twenty years ago, in the heat of the Israeli desert…

Oh yes, and sorry for the late posting this week. No excuse whatsoever, just crap, that’s all.

Keep travelling!

Uncle Travelling Matt

Links to all my Bulgarian Jottings

I: In the Beginning…

II: Shumen

III: Nazdravei!

IV: Razgrad and Isperikh

and remember, you can also read about my 2011 travels around Bulgaria!



…there wasn’t a lot. I knew that Bulgaria existed of course. Scouring over maps of Europe as a kid had taught me that much. The same activity had also rendered unto me the fact that he capital was Sofia. Primary School lessons during the Cold War Era added the information that Eastern Europe was Communist, and that all of those countries, (including Bulgaria), were in some shady, threatening group called the Warsaw Pact, (how evil that sounds next to our own benevolent North Atlantic Treaty Organisation), which possessed lots of nuclear weapons, all of them ready to be dropped on us at a moment’s notice. “They could attack us any day,” one class teacher had warned, “ and with nuclear weapons the war and indeed the world, would be over in minutes.” To be fair, the guy was a devoted Quaker who had a penchant for ‘We’re all doomed!’ theories, but nonetheless, these Communists were a people to be feared.

Not that they had it as good as us mind. In fact, in-between forever queuing for bread, waiting for that knock in the middle of the night that would carry away Mum, Dad or Uncle Jack, and working like robots in some vast industrial plant, I was rather surprised they had any time left to blow the world up. And living in fear of the Secret Police all the time, the terror of it all… ah yes, there’s another Bulgaria fact that I knew. Can’t remember where I picked it up exactly, probably my Dad, but I also was aware that the Bulgarians had killed some freedom-loving writer of there’s with a poison-tipped umbrella as he was walking over Westminster Bridge.[1] Urgh! Scary stuff! Straight out of a Bond film.

georgi_markovGeorgi Markov: Bulgarian dissident murdered on Westminster Bridge by a poison-tipped umbrella

From my Stanley Gibbons stamp album, new information was added. Firstly that these Bulgarians wrote in a different alphabet and whenever saw a stamp from there, I had to look up in the index as to which country’s name was spelled out. And also that they produced a hell of a lot of stamps too. Several pages in my album, bettered only by Britain, the USSR and Hungary. “Communist countries usually produce a lot of stamps,” my dad explained. Too little bread yet too many stamps and nuclear weapons. How strange and evil those Bulgarians must be!


Yes indeed, we rejoiced when the Wall fell and then at the, (infinitely more spectacular in my opinion), Coup in Russia when old Yeltsin climbed up on the tanks. And lamented too at Tiananmen Square that the Chinese too could not be freed. But still, the Big Red Menace was gone, well, in our continent at least, and all and sundry could sleep a little easier in our beds.

Quite when Bulgaria changed however, no one seems to remember. As I said before, the USSR and East Germany were far more memorable. The Romanian Revolution too, with that huge building in Bucharest, the killing of Ceaucescu and all those orphanages is also clearly etched in my mind, and I have vague recollections of Solidarity in Poland and the crowds in Wenceslas Square in Czechoslovakia. But Bulgaria? They must have taken a more low-key approach I suppose.

But finally we all, at long last, did notice Bulgaria in spectacular Technicolor, when they burst onto the world stage during the 1994 World Cup Finals in America. With a team consisting entirely of players whose names ended in ‘ov’, they first of all defeated the indomitable newly-united Germany, before going on to reach the semi-finals of the Globe’s biggest sporting event. The arrogant yet brilliant Hristo Stoichkov became a household name and Letchkov and Markov were not far behind either.

So that was it. A former Communist state, peopled by people whose names all ended in ‘ov’ and who produced a hell of a lot of stamps, a deadly secret police and an even deadlier strike force. That was my entire knowledge of Bulgaria.

Hristo-StoichkovHristo Stoichkov: deadly

Until I went to Israel.

Israel might seem like a strange place to discover Bulgaria. Normally people go there and find God, or a bullet where it hurts, but I was an exception. Besides, if one thinks about it, why shouldn’t one learn about Bulgaria in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem? Virtually all of Bulgaria’s Jewish population had been saved from the evil hands of Hitler by the combined actions of the then king, the Church elders and some MPs, thus making it the only European country on the Nazi side where the Jews escaped. It is only natural that many of them emigrated to the Promised Land afterwards, and carried happy memories of their tiny Balkan homeland with them.

Not that I’d gone there to discover all about Eastern Europe though. No, I’d headed to the Holy Land to, err… to, erm… hmm… I can’t quite remember what exactly… Get away from home most likely, and there was a swig of idealism too. Work on a kibbutz, a socialist commune, equality and fraternity, Further the Revolution and all that! Good stuff, count me in.

hashomer-hatzairA Bright Red Dawn: Israel… or Bulgaria?

I was a fortnight or so into that trip when a couple of New Zealanders whom I’d befriended and whom were living up to everyone’s stereotype of an Antipodean abroad by having a big red camper van in which they drove around the Old Continent and beyond, invited me on a day trip in that said motor home to Jerusalem.

“I’d love to come,” said I.

“Great. Oh yeah, and Pippa and Simon are coming along too.”

And that was how I met my first Bulgarians. Pippa and Simon, (or to be more Slavically correct, Pepi and Simeon), were a young married couple from Stara Zagora. She was ravishingly beautiful and spoke good English whilst he was short, pronounced the ‘k’ in ‘know’, was an infectious joker and looked the spitting image of Charlie Chaplin.

The trip to Jerusalem was a success and by chance, the following day was her birthday and we were invited to the party as new-found friends. The Kiwis were indisposed, so I went along with my Dutch roommate[2] for some English-speaking support. It was an experience that I shall never forget. The party, held in the classroom of the Hebrew Language School, turned out to be a gathering of over thirty, of which all attendees, barring the Dutchman and myself, hailed from behind the former Iron Curtain. It sounds naïve looking back now, but I was amazed. All those hard-faced, stern and downtrodden Russians, (aside from Pepi and Simeon, all of the others were from the former USSR), from Cold War TV programmes, turned out to be friendly, normal and as drunk as we were. Why, they were human after all! And that exotic gent from across the North Sea was foreign no longer. We were so similar in outlook and culture that we could have been from the next town!


revivim 2With the Bulgarians on Kibbutz Revivim, 1997

And so it was that on that day my own personal Berlin Wall fell, and the flame of my curiosity for the Eastern Bloc was ignited. If they were all so human, how had they survived, (and indeed, created), a regime that was so inhuman? Or was it actually so bad? Perhaps the propaganda on our side was as misleading as it was on theirs? Only as the victors, we had never realised it. My friendship with the Kovatchevis, (that being Pepi and Simeon), and also some of the Soviets, (particularly a young Ukrainian named Pavel), deepened. By the time that I left Israel by ferry bound for Greece, I knew without a doubt that it wouldn’t be long before I’d be heading for Eastern Europe.

Before I’d have chance to do that however, I had a university to attend. A mere six months after leaving the Holy Land, I was entering the main Sports Hall of the University of Leeds as a fresh-faced Fresher, about to choose the modules of my first year of study, the final aim being a Bachelor’s Degree in Politics and Social Policy.

That however, was at the end. At the beginning, it’s a different story entirely. For the first year of study, grades mattered not so long as one passed, and a third of what you studied was completely up to you, a hundred per cent free choice. That’s why I was stood in the Sports Hall, trying to decide whether to go for Archaeology or Art, Marine Biology or Mechanical Engineering. Lost in a sea of subjects, I was searching for a guiding star to bring me home to an academic port. Then I located not one, but two.

The woman stood in front of the Russian and Bulgarian flags was chirpy, cheerful and seemed surprised that anyone was actually interested in the Slavonic Studies Department.

“You’d like to take Russian as an elective?”

“If I may.”

“Right then. So, to what level have you studied it previously?”

“Erm, well… I haven’t.”
”Ok, hmm… well then, that doesn’t matter. What other language experience do you have then?”

“Oh plenty. I can swear fluently in Greek, and say ‘My mother is a fan heater’ in Hebrew. In fact, I even have the ability to call you a ‘cancer-carrying grave digger’ in Dutch should that be of any help.” (Ok, so I didn’t actually say that, but I might as well have. A GCSE French Grade D qualification was about as much use).

“Oh, hmm… so you’ve no language experience at all. Well then, why do you wish to study Russian?”

“Well to correct that total lack of experience really, plus I met some Russians in Israel and well, I quite fancy going there.”


“So, can I…?”

“Well, I’m sorry but we don’t really allow people onto the Russian course with no previous experience of the language I’m afraid. It’s a shame since you are so enthusiastic, but for an absolute beginner, I’m afraid that all we can really offer is Bulgarian…”


“Yes, would you be interested? It is sort of like Russian, and the class is rather small…”

And so that is how I enrolled as one of the ten university students in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland studying Bulgarian, under the auspices of the excellent Dr. Kalina Filipova who must have been dismayed at having to teach such a blatantly useless student, but stoically persevered nonetheless. And at the end of the year, thanks to her, (and a trip to Israel at Christmas where I had more than a little help with my coursework), I emerged with my first ever foreign language qualifications, (Bulgarian Ii: 55/100; Bulgarian Iii: 43/100, ok, so not quite Berlitz, but considerably better than a D in French), and a much deeper of that tiny Balkan country, plus the knowledge that Bulgaria was definitely going to be my summer travel destination that year.

cyrrilicBulgarian: Not as hard as it looks

I’d done some research in other quarters too. Pepi Kovatcheva’s best friend had visited England and we’d got acquainted, and in an attempt to learn more about the home town of my two comrades in Israel, (which I fully intended visiting, but which was included in no guidebook), I posted a query on the message board of the American University in Bulgaria and as a result, started up an email correspondence with a young lady from that city. And thus it was that armed with a rudimentary knowledge of the tongue, invitations from two locals and a Lonely Planet Eastern Europe on a Shoestring guide, (they didn’t do a separate one for Bulgaria at that stage), I flew out to Bucharest’s Otopeni Airport, (it was cheaper than flying to Sofia), and entered the country via the magnificent Druzhba Most[3] at Ruse.

The two weeks that followed were amongst the most memorable of my life. I visited Stara Zagora, Veliko Turnovo, Plovdiv and the Rodopi Mountains, got on splendidly with my new Bulgarian friends, and got acquainted with the families of both Pepi and Simeon. The following year I was back, this time flying into Thessaloniki in Greece, and visited Blagoevgrad, Melnik, Sofia, Stara Zagora, Pleven, Belogradchik and Vidin. That trip was the most memorable of my life, and by then I had fallen well and truly in love with Bulgaria.

smolyan 2 

smolyanIn Smolyan on my first trip to Bulgaria

Then it started to go wrong. The lady I’d stayed with in Bulgaria, who had by now finished university came to live in Britain for six months and we shared a room together. During that time I discovered that it was not only her country that I’d developed an attachment to. She however, had other priorities. My next visit, in the Spring of 2000 to see the returned and now divorced Pepi from Israel and her family, was a far less happy one, but worthwhile nonetheless. Relationships with one of the daughters might have come to an end, but did I still have place in my heart for the Mother Country? It turned out that I did, and my first trip to what was to become my favourite spot in Bulgaria, Tutrakan, just intensified that. What’s more, a spot of voluntary teaching at the Stara Zagora Language School, (where Pepi, her sister Maria, and Delyana had all been schooled), pointed the way to something far more important. I discovered, to my amazement, that I actually liked teaching almost as much as I enjoyed travelling. My short term future career was decided.

stara zagora Stara Zagora, 1998

It was over two years later however, before I returned. The teaching that I’d trialled in Stara Zagora had led me to the other side of the world, far away from Europe. But memories stayed on in my mind, and when an advert appeared on the internet for teaching positions in Bulgaria, I applied.

And thus it was that I gained a position at the George Byron Private Language School in Varna, commencing in the September, two months after my Japanese contract ended. Those two months I wasted not, travelling with the aforementioned Dutch friend across Asia to Moscow, and then with my brother and another on to Sofia. It was thus a very tired and weary me that arrived that September evening into Varna’s fine red railway station. I was excited about coming but it was not the excitement of the unknown. Indeed, if anything, it felt almost like coming home.


Matthew E. Pointon Copyright © 2004

Next jotting: Shumen

[1] Georgi Markov was his name. Not to be confused with the footballer of the same name.

[2] Although he has no part to play in this book, some readers might be interested to know that he is the same Netherlander as the one who featured in my Trans-Asian travelogue Across Asia With A Lowlander.

[3] Druzhba Most, lit. ‘Friendship Bridge’, the only Trans-Danubian bridge linking Bulgaria and Romania. Completed by the two socialist governments in 1954, it was intended to usher in a new era of fraternity and co-operation between the two countries. That ideal alas, never materialised.

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