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In Bulgaria, Finding the Unexpected

by on November 13, 2019 4:00 AM

SOFIA, Bulgaria – First of all, the accent is on the first syllable. (I thought otherwise.) Greeks insist on this. Accent on the second syllable is their word for “wisdom.” Accent on the first syllable means the capital of Bulgaria. I don’t think the Greeks want to credit their northern neighbors with wisdom.

Never have I visited a place I knew less about. And what I knew was mostly a child’s garbled understanding of the Cold War, the Communist bloc and the Iron Curtain. 

Growing up in the 1960s, I heard Russia was wintry so I thought that must be why our war with them was cold. '

I didn’t know what a bloc was, but it sounded hard and unyielding. 

I thought the Iron Curtain was a vast chain mail-like barrier separating the evil East from the wonderful West. And I thought the people behind the Iron Curtain lived in an iron-gray world of short, stout, grim-faced grannies with babushkas on their heads and murder in their hearts should someone try to cut the bread line. 

I even found the names of many of the lands behind the Iron Curtain unsettling. In a friendlier world, all those second-position “U’s” in Russia, Yugoslavia, Hungary, Bulgaria, Budapest and Bucharest might have looked like little smiley faces. Believing these countries to be our implacable foes turned the smiles into sinister grins. 

Keep drinking your Coca Cola and watching your Mickey Mouse cartoons, they seemed to say. It’s only a matter of time before we take you down. 

With such residual foolishness settled in my brain like a layer of dust, I was surprised at how green and tree-lined and well-maintained Sofia is, at least in the център (center).

Some of the streets are pedestrians-only or pedestrians-and-streetcars only (I love streetcars), which makes them quiet and calm and makes me yearn for a future when cars will be banned from city streets.

In St. Nedelya Square, our walking tour guide told us, the gargantuan gold-faced goddess in the scandalously clingy and low-cut gown is a personification of the city. Comrade Lenin, who occupied that spot in the old days, was carted, Paterno-style, to a far less prominent perch in the Museum of Socialist Art (I ran out of time before I could pay my respects). 

All over Sofia are references to the Liberation. It’s embarrassing to say so, but I had to enlist the help of Comrade Google to find out that the liberation in question was from the Ottoman Empire in 1878. 

To paraphrase Walter Sobchak in “The Big Lebowski,” you can say what you want about the Ottomans, but they had some serious staying power – more than 600 years’ worth. 

Part of the secret of their success, apparently, is that they let the assortment of peoples in their far-flung realm keep their religions, languages and cultures (they were less generous in the granting of political and professional rights). Thus did the Jews of Thessaloniki flourish under Ottoman rule until the 20th century wreaked its havoc. 

The Jewish history of Bulgaria is strange. On the one hand, Bulgaria joined the Axis in World War II – yep, the Hitler-Mussolini side. On the other hand, enough Bulgarians opposed sending the Jews to Hitler’s death camps to persuade the country’s political and religious leaders to tell the Nazis the Jews were worth more alive (as laborers) than dead.  

Notwithstanding this rare display of human decency, after the war, the Jews wanted nothing to do with Soviet Bulgaria, and bolted for Israel. Today, there are a little more than 1,000 of them in a country of 7 million. (A lot of Bulgarians, meanwhile, want nothing to do with post-Soviet Bulgaria -- the population is cratering.)

During our stroll around Sofia we wandered into the Soviet-era Central Department Store (TZUM), now a sparsely populated high-end mall. Most of the action was outside, where kids studied their reflections in the plate-glass windows as they practiced their dance moves. Inside, was the Jerusalem kosher restaurant. 

Seeing a long table of obviously Jewish diners (men in yarmulkes, etc.) enjoying their post-Shabbat meal, I had an impulse to enter, tell them I was a landsman (fellow Jew) and express my admiration and appreciation for their pluck, but I chickened out. Probably a good thing: They might have ducked for cover at my approach. Or been emigres visiting the old country. 

I liked Sofia way more than I expected to, but like Ukraine, where I spent a season in 2012, it is part of the no-smile belt that stretches across much of the post-Soviet world. 

When we got back to Thessaloniki, the sun was setting on the throngs of Sunday strollers on the seafront. It felt good to be living in a land where people smile, even when they haven’t much to smile about. 

Russell Frank teaches journalism in Penn State’s Bellisario College of Communications. He is spending the 2019-2020 academic year as a Fulbright scholar in Thessaloniki, Greece.

A collection of Russell Frank's columns, titled “Among the Woo People: A Survival Guide for Living in a College Town," is available from the Penn State University Press. His columns for won first place for commentary in the 2019 Society of Professional Journalists Keystone Chapter Best in Journalism contest. The winning columns: The Women’s March: Notes from New York, It’s Time to Change the Script and Mixed Messages at Bellefonte High. Frank is a member of the journalism faculty at Penn State. Before launching his academic career, he worked as a reporter, editor and columnist at newspapers in California and Pennsylvania. He is, by academic training, a folklorist (Ph.D., UPenn), which means, when you strip away the academic jargon, that he loves a good story. His views and opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Penn State University.
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