The quick answer is that it is very green right now. Recent weeks of rain keep trees, bushes, and grasses in and out of cities fresh and chlorophyll-rich. Even with the bright cascade of yellow leaves that the Roma women sweepers whisk up all day long, greenery abounds, even in late October.
In my temporary city of Plovdiv, the topped-up Maritza River keeps vegetation thriving along its banks, the rain-blackened bark of trees sprouts new growth, moisture darkens the soil of parks and hills, and the air smells not just of pleasant decay but of quenched musky earth. That apparently wafts up from fragrant bacterial spores in the soil bounced aloft by raindrops. The pleasures of this wet, green autumn stimulate multiple senses.
However, visual blight offsets sensuous pleasures – trash lies just about everywhere. A wet blanket of plastic, paper, and glass blemishes the ground, pavements, and hillsides. The locals seem to sow this toxic crop deliberately as if to reap a noxious harvest. Instead of winter wheat, they lay down a year-round garland of garbage, sad adornments to a health-conscious land that touts its yoghurt, honey, rose lotions, and bodybuilding, but also where a quarter or more of the population still smokes.
In squares and plazas one spies occasional containers for this unnatural cornucopia – green for glass, blue for cardboard, and yellow for plastic. But people toss just about anything into these ECO-PAK recycling bins and seem not to differentiate them from the regular all-purpose containers that line side streets. Scarce and misused, ECO-PAKs stand as silent, half-filled witnesses to a failure of consciousness about trash and its effects on the land, and on us.
My Plovdiv University students abhor this junked landscape and eagerly agreed to a clean-up sweep of our own university front yard, decked out as it is with discarded plastic water bottles. Perhaps enrolling in my course in Environmental Approaches to American Literature provides some impetus for wanting a hands-on experience in ecological fix-up. But any stimulus would likely motivate these with-it college seniors. It seems no one has asked them to pitch in. Consciousness about environmental repair seems absent here, so no one takes initiative, gets a bag and picks things up. Trash here is in sight and out of mind – or is it?
You may have heard of Balkan gloom – that bleak cultural atmosphere that used to hover over the tortured peninsular lands of southeast Europe, including Bulgaria. But even with EU accession and somewhat improved economic prospects, that gloom lingers. Corruption, sinking standards of living, and a limited future drain off lots of personal energy, especially from the young, who often dream not of homegrown success but of emigration.
Components of the current gloom have to include the psychological effects of a disorienting, unhealthy townscape. Things shift from new glass and steel tower blocks to sagging, rusting homesteads all within a few metres of each other. Mounds of bags, cups, food wrappers, picked over by dogs and cats, fester by the side of ultra-modern storefronts. Turn your head, the scene flips from gloom to glory and back to gloom again.
Walking anywhere but along the grand promenade requires deft footwork since broken paving, dented, wobbly grates, abandoned work sites strewn with debris, and ominous openings seem to tilt one toward oblivion. It’s a dizzy dance through a scary urban "fun house". This reminds one of how uncaring of others we can be, a gloomy thought sure enough. Add graffiti, peeling posters, and grim photo death notices and it can push gloom to blind denial.
Some places are refreshing. The central park near the main square is very clean, requiring full time attention from the women eco-workers just to sweep around and empty the stubby trash containers. Many people will use them when they are available and not overflowing. That’s the first problem – not enough or big enough public trash bins.
But climbing venerable stairs up one of Plovdiv’s ancient hills for photo prospects, one comes across crevasses, cracks in rocks, alcoves stuffed with garbage, as if stashed for a future archaeology of trash. It’s mainly ephemera but it could last for ages – plastic bags, bottles, some electronic components and plenty of paper, on hill and dale and spread on open ground. It dominates the current settlement of old Philippopolis.
All of this un-recycled trash reminds one of the extravagance of modern society everywhere – over-consuming, useless products, mounds of packaging. In cash-strapped Bulgaria, near the bottom of the EU economic ladder, it’s doubly obvious.
However, just a little better management of the city’s "ecos" or household, which is where the words "ecology" and "economy" originate, could spruce up the town’s look, its health, and the general mood as well.
The appeal to one’s green, altruistic consciousness may have played out here without much effect. Any local "green" organisation or activism seem invisible even if you search them out. Until further systemic revisions of the deep infrastructure – sewers, garbage, water, streets, run-off, transportation, pavements, etc. – make a bit more headway, ordinary citizen involvement could necessarily focus on the surface stuff. But that’s important.
A new tack may appeal to the Bulgarian flair for fashion and strength, particularly in the young. The women here are mainly thin and shapely and the men buff or working on it. Physical health and beauty motivate interest in sports, clothing, make-up, and demeanour.
A Bulgarian environmental programme that portrayed trash as a sign of sloppy style and unfit, out-of-shape civic bodies might just shift consciousness and promote clean-up. The slogan, "Give Plovdiv a Makeover" could turn a few heads to want to deep cleanse the smudged face of the city. One that urged a physical tune up, such as "Buff Up Plovdiv," might just see a few more folks twisting and bending their bodies to get more things into what bins there are.
The university and the environmental community could promote ecological civic engagement by holding a conference on Plovdiv’s very prominent environmental feature – the Maritsa River itself. Multi-disciplinary study and reports on the biological health, aquatic and riparian creatures, and basic economics of the river would likely show its intrinsic value to the city and region. It’s taken for granted, unremarked, but a prime candidate for renewed emotional attachment and respect. Historical review of its ancient past and living present would highlight its influential association with Bulgaria, Greece and Turkey as well.
The Humanities areas can showcase that history as well as art and literature treating the river’s impact on local lives. Galleries, writing groups, and schools could sponsor exhibitions and readings inspired by the Maritsa’s "cultural flow" through the life of the community.
Throughout this "eco-festival," the environmental health of the river would get proper attention and the impact of trash, urban and rural run-off, and industrial toxins would be revealed.
Perhaps more than anything to Plovdivians, the daily presence of so dominant a natural feature as the Maritsa would remind all that keeping it in shape requires attention to the greenness of both city and river – their interdependent ecological health. The fitness, beauty, and mental and physical health of ordinary people surely depend on it.
*Chianese is currently Fulbright Senior Specialist in American Studies at Plovdiv University, and Professor Emeritus from California State University, Northridge. He is also president elect of the American Association for the Advancement of Science- Pacific Division. This is his third Fulbright residency in Plovdiv.