It’s summer time in Sofia. Young Bulgarians are out at the park beside the National Theater, sitting on benches, drinking beer and talking deep into the night.
On the eve of a journey back to my homeland, it reminds me of arriving in the land of my adopted home. Nearly three years ago, leaving behind a life in California and a night out in London, I descended upon a skyline of Soviet block-apartments and emerged from the overly simplistic terminal at Sofia Airport full of excitement and naiveté.
I thought I could speak Bulgarian or at least try or pretend. That attitude served me well over months to come. Ditching it did not.
My first full day in Bulgaria included a 70th birthday party, which featured a full Bulgarian meal — several courses of food and drinks. I recall watching in amazement as Bulgarian fathers and grandfathers pounded out glasses, not shots, of rakia, the highly alcoholic national drink.
As the day came to an end, I was filled up with meat, salad and booze. I had received a personal tour of Sofia from a prominent Bulgarian who for whatever reason thought I was worth bringing out to Eastern Europe. Standing outside Alexander Nevski Cathedral — my primary image of Sofia before arriving — I felt fresher than ever before. The church looked a little weird, but its mystique was a symbol of the fresh slate I had been granted in life. I loved it. I was hooked.
But I didn’t have any friends.
Day 2 was a Monday. I returned to work. Well, not exactly. That day marked the beginning of my life as a digital semi-nomad. Come evening, I dropped the computer and scurried off. At that point, I didn’t know about Vitoshka, Sofia’s pedestrian street. I went straight for the National Theater park. Slightly nervous, but feeling excited and like IDGF, I started running up to groups of guys and girls hanging out and shooting the shit. Most seemed slightly amused that a Los Angelian moved to Sofia, but not particularly interested in me. Eventually, I hit one group positioned by a tree and a bench close to the fountain that leads up to the National Theater.
One member of the group was genuinely interested. He promptly invited me to watch Ninja Turtles with his sister and him at a movie theater in a mall. Not my cup of tea and not my vision of Bulgaria, but I was pumped to go. I made my first friend.
Two years and eight months later, I’m still here. It wasn’t planned that way. But it is that way, and for that I am grateful.
I arrived expecting to have the year abroad of my life. It’s been well more than a year. I am still abroad, and I am still in Bulgaria. I am even a card-carrying Bulgarian resident, and I sometimes claim to have a Bulgarian family. But I haven’t found home here.
What I found is home base.
Much of my time living in Bulgaria has been spent outside of Bulgaria. More so than being hooked on Bulgaria I am hooked on travel, international living, chasing news and witnessing world events.
Bulgaria’s location is prime, at least in my mind. Istanbul is just a night bus away. Numerous European capitals are within striking distance, and almost all of Europe is easily accessible by plane.
With so much in reach, I regularly travel to cover news in the region. The news gods have quite often been on my side. I was lucky enough to witness the peak of Europe’s refugee crisis unfold in front of my eyes.
After every trip, I return to home base. Sometimes the time I spend in Sofia feels rather dull. No war, no riots, no terrorism; a fair amount of refugees though.
Still, there is much to appreciate about Sofia and Bulgaria in general. There may be a lot of poverty and pessimism, but there is plenty of beauty and history. In Los Angeles, I can’t walk out the door, take a stroll for five minutes and come across Roman ruins, including ancient churches, which people still attend. The center of Sofia is built atop the ancient city of Serdica, which the emperor Constantine once considered making the capital of the Byzantine Empire.
Bulgaria has its less aesthetic elements. But I am appreciative of those as well. For instance, I am working on the world’s foremost collection of gypsy wagon (karutza) photos. Whether they are parallel parked in front of a grocery store or driving 20 km in the fast lane, karutzi (plural) are great fun to photograph.
While Bulgaria is plagued with gypsy slums, corruption, beggars and organized crime, it also, peculiarly, is a haven. Most notably, Bulgaria is a tax haven. It’s flat 10 percent corporate and personal income tax rates are among the lowest in the European Union. Additionally, many of Bulgaria’s laws are lax or unenforced. Whereas alcohol possession, use and sales are highly regulated in the U.S., in Bulgaria, a teen can go to the store, buy a beer and walk down the street while drinking it. Alcohol makes for a glaring example, but in general terms, there is a lot more fear of law enforcement in the U.S. than in Bulgaria. For me, the added freedom has been an added bonus to my time in Bulgaria.
As my personal haven, Bulgaria serves an escape from Hollywood and a front-row seat in the real world. If the world is a stage, then Bulgaria is my ticket to the dance.