Sat, May 25 2013
Wednesday, May 23. My Bulgarian students from the 12th class are graduating, so there was a big celebration at our school this morning, way out in Moderno Predgradie (Modern Suburb) - a forgotten section of Sofia where one can still find dirt roads and grazing livestock. There was lots of music, dancing and cheering at this joyous gathering, as well as some wandering horses. There was also a very special moment for me when, as klassen, or class leader, my name was suddenly announced over the loudspeaker and Bruce Springsteen's Born in the USA blasted through the Bulgarian morning. I pushed through the crowded courtyard and ran into the arms of my ecstatic 12th graders and we embraced in a circle of solidarity and sang as one. It was a moment of professional and personal glory for me but one probably never to be repeated in my American life. Like many Western foreigners living in Bulgaria, right now I am a big fish in a small pond.
I had to leave the school party early to catch my ride to the Black Sea with some American and Bulgarian friends. We travelled by private mini-bus through monsoon-like rains, but by late afternoon we had finally reached the blue skies of Sozopol to start our first beach holiday of the year.
Thursday, May 24. After spending a beautiful night in Sozopol, we headed out this morning for Bourgas. I lived in Bourgas as a US Peace Corps volunteer for two years, so going there always feels like coming home for me. It was a perfectly sunny day in Bourgas as we strolled through the lovely sea garden, through crowds of Bulgarian teachers and students celebrating Cyril and Methodius Day.
We made our way down to the local beach and walked out onto the pier. There were many Bulgarian boys in those tight brief-style trunks jumping high off the pier and into the warm water below. The beach and the pier in Bourgas have always been special places for me. As I stood there breathing in the cool, salty air, memories came rushing back like well, like the sea, I guess.
After an hour in Bourgas, we drove north to see the urban blight known as Slunchev Bryag (Sunny Beach) first hand.
It is difficult to describe how I feel about Slunchev Bryag. Seven years ago Slunchev Bryag was a tacky, soulless resort with a good beach. Now, Slunchev Bryag is unrecognisable - overgrown with miles of massive hotels.
Driving through the place made me feel small, sad and disturbed. I really wanted to vomit. As a lover of beauty, I was mortified by the endless concrete crimes against God, nature and architecture. What kind of person would want to spend a vacation in a place like this? My friend said that Slunchev Bryag was a good holiday spot for working-class Brits and Irish who can't afford to go anywhere else. At least in Slunchev Bryag, he explained, these workers and their families could live like kings for a few weeks.
I believe the worst part about Slunchev Bryag is that the package tourists who flock there this summer will probably be so disgusted by the place that they will never return. And those that do return probably care nothing about Bulgaria anyway and the money they spend in Slunchev Bryag will never make it to the local Bulgarian economy.
But maybe as an American and an independent traveler, I just don't understand European vacations. In Slunchev Bryag, I feel like an ant trapped in a crowded socialist ant colony overrun with pale, pudgy foreigners looking to have a good time. In short, Slunchev Bryag is how I imagine hell. It sucks that hell has now found a new home in Bulgaria. I can only hope that one day Sunny Beach will be swallowed up by the ground. (I won't mention our trip to Nessebur.)
Saturday, May 26. Our Black Sea trip came to an end today. It was a fun, relaxing time in Sozopol - sunbathing, swimming and hanging out at a beach bar. Unfortunately, I became ill with a mysterious virus, so my friend and I decided to take the night train back to Sofia. My friend loves taking the night train, but I can never get a good night's sleep. I tossed and turned all night with a sore throat and fever while my friend slept like a baby. Oh, yes - always travel first class on the night train. It's worth it. First-class cabins have only three bunks, while second-class cabins have six bunks. Basically, going first class decreases the risk that one will have to sleep in the same room as a creep.
Monday, May 28. Back in Sofia, I called in sick to work and rested at home, drinking lots of tea and a little rakiya. But my virus didn't stop me from attending the 12th grade ball. Perhaps you've noticed cars and limousines with balloons, honking horns and screaming teens whizzing around Sofia these past few weeks. These are Bulgarian "abiturenti" on their way to the ball - what we call the prom in the United States. As klassen, I was expected to attend the ball, so I went. Our ball was held at the swanky Military Club, not far from Alexander Nevski Cathedral. It was great fun, despite the fact that my throat was killing me. I spent most of the evening slumped at the faculty table trying to kill my virus with alcohol. Suddenly, I was summoned to the stage and pressed into service as a juror to decide who would be crowned Mr and Ms Ball - the 12th class king and queen!
The competition began as I joined the other jury members in front of the stage and a dozen beautiful Bulgarian girls in ball gowns were paraded before us - followed by a dozen boys. Then the DJ made them all dance together and we, the jury, took notes on which students were really distinguishing themselves on stage. After a few minutes of deliberation, the results were announced, and Mr and Ms Ball were crowned. I was drunk - with power.
Soon it was time to move down the street to the disco, but my ill health forced me to go home early. Before I left some of my 12th class students stopped me and gave me a gift - a bottle of domashna (homemade) rakiya. A Bulgarian friend in Bourgas had recently told me that rakiya would help my sore throat - just pour the rakiya on some cotton and then wrap the cotton around my throat and cover it up with newspaper. Well, I didn't take her advice, and I won't mention her cure for a chest cold. Just think honey.
Thabang Makwetla, South Africa’s deputy defence minister who was hosted in exile in Bulgaria in the early 1980s, interviewed by The Sofia Echo Editor-in-Chief Clive Leviev-Sawyer.
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Austrian ambassador Gerhard Reiweger in an interview with The Sofia Echo.