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Bulgarian Impressions Part 2 New and Old

We like to engage those we meet in conversations about their country and give our impressions and this is easy in Bulgaria as so many of the 35 and under group speaks English and most speak it far better than some Americans I know (at least grammatically and enunciation-wise)

So it was at dinner the other night at the Hadji Nikolai restaurant in Old Veliko Tărnovo which is housed in the last remaining old Inn of it’s type left standing in the city where we had a long conversation with our waitress. This is just one of many such conversations that led me to this post.

We had met very many young Bulgarians working in Alaska last summer and spent some time with them and learned that many many of them go overseas to work for economic and opportunity reasons. We discussed this trend with our waitress. We have also discussed this with 4 or 5 other Bulgarians along our way now and what I am hearing pretty much supports my view of Bulgaria at this point:

Bulgaria is split generationally, technologically, entrprenuerally along a divide that spans either side of the 35 and younger age group from the lets say 40 on up. Of course this is a generalization but I think it is still instructive. The younger side of that split are world-wise, politically astute, ambitious, and dragging the other side of Bulgaria into the 21st Century kicking and screaming in some cases.

They are the first truly “Free” generation of Bulgarians and as such are impatient for progress, politically and economically. They are tech savvy as most people their age around the world and have access to all the same outlets as American youth.

Now you can argue, as I am sure some will, that what I wrote above is true of many places even the US. Well maybe but here the difference is far starker and much more noticeable. There is some consternation here as we were told by several that so many young people are leaving to go overseas to work. But their choice is staying in a minimum opportunity job here at 1.5 € per HOUR or go to England the US or Dubai and Make $10 to $15 per hour. Many do and come back to open small businesses or turn part of their family home in to a really nice AirBnb (as the woman did to the one we are staying in)

The Bulgarians we met in Alaska were working two or three jobs while there to earn as much as possible. The Grandma’s want them home. The older men stuck in a job they will have all their life are jealous and envious. The legacy of decades of depressive communist rule has left it’s mark for sure.

The YouTube effect: We have met several young people who have told us they learned (their near note perfect English) entirely from YouTube and the web, games and movies. This is undoubtedly happening all over the world. But the Bulgarians are seemingly very good at it. And the young are very good at putting that new knowledge to work for them.

Bulgaria is a fascinating country of contrasts Sofias modern new Airport and subway, the modern industry, more and more opportunity (but still very low) and the Old Bulgaria you can see all around you and mixed in with the new. The horse carts hauling hay and ancient toothless Bulgarian Grandmas hobbling down the lane with their long dresses and head scarves and canes. The young ambitious on-the-go, stylish, impatient for progress younger generation with their thumbs flying across their phone keyboards heading off to school or work.

I urge anyone looking at a second trip to Europe to consider adding in some time to Bulgaria. The scenery alone is worth it but the people and the experience are the real reasons to come.

Posted by
8274 posts

Very interesting. I could hear Anthony Bourdain asking them about how they see the future of their country while preserving their uniqueness.

Could you address the influence of the Ottomans who ruled until a hundred years ago. In 1971, that influence was what stood out to me.

Posted by
6854 posts

Now you can argue, as I am sure some will, that what I wrote above is
true of many places even the US. Well maybe but here the difference is
far starker and much more noticeable.

The experience of Eastern Europe/ former Soviet block countries is a more apt comparison to Bulgaria because they shared similar centrally planned economies (Communism), oversized trade and influence from the Soviet Union, no market based pricing signals so there were surpluses and shortages of goods, and a huge agrarian sector that has not modernized. Then they were forced to industrialize Soviet style (leading to growth of energy sector). The older people grew up under that system, and understandably many of them have had a hard time adapting. Even today, Bulgaria is less western-leaning (as in Western Europe) than Russian/ East leaning, and there are historical reasons for this. Entrepreneurialism requires a much greater openness, interaction with different people and ideas, and more flexible/ encouraging government policies and economic frameworks than were possible for older folks.

The one thing I wonder is why Bulgarian young people go all the way to Alaska to work instead of an EU country where they're also allowed to work. Is there too much competition for work from other countries (Romania, Southern Europe, etc)? The exchange rate with the lev would still be very favorable for them, so it would pay to work in an EU country. I'm thinking the living costs would be very high though in comparison to Bulgaria, but isn't the same true I Alaska (or are they provided with free lodging there?)

Posted by
6854 posts

I don't know the early history of the Ottomans but I assume they swept across the Balkans, just as they did in Bosnia and Croatia, and remained in those countries. Turks in Bulgaria were forced to assimilate or expelled entirely in the late '80s. "The migration of the Bulgarian Turks to Turkey constituted the biggest mass migration in Europe since the Second World War"

Posted by
546 posts

Agnes, The reason they go all the way to Alaska is simple. Alaska needs them and reqruits them. The summer season in Alaska sees a need for about 47,000 jobs to be filled that are directly linked to tourism. The vast majority of Alaskans are employed and a few do work for the season but a huge need exists for workers. Holland America Princess Cruises Alone employs thousands in their hotels such as the Denali Princess Wilderness Lodge and their Restaurants, trains and logistics. And they have many hotels around the state.

Most of the Bulgarians and others including from places as diverse as Dominican Republic, Bulgaria, Croatia etc work mostly in Fairbanks, and Denali (the hotels restaurants and businesses) But of course many work in Anchorage, Seward and virtually every other tourist destination in the State.

And almost all workers who go for the season are given some sort of housing or extra for housing. HAP has a vast complex at Denali that houses the workers there that is a small city, with a cafeteria, a bar, Movie theater, Laundries etc.

I know one young Bulgarian man I keep in touch with that went from his job in Alaska to a permanent job on a cruise ship.

Many do go to other European countries but my impression is those jobs are harder to get but cheaper to obtain for the Bulgarians however the earning potential is not as great. Alaska holds out the prospect of big tips and multiple jobs. Everyone we met there had TWO or THREE jobs at the same time. That probably isn’t happening in other places as much.

@Bets: As for the Ottoman issue I see very little of that influence here. I saw and felt much more in Bosnia, Serbia and Montenegro. They have been natural enemies for a long time and my guess is they didnt hang on to much of that cultural baggage.

As for the Soviet vs Bulgarian idea...since traveling through Montenegro, Serbia and Bosnia then coming here I actually find Bulgaria much freer of that old Soviet mindset than Serbia and Bosnia for sure. The difference coming from Western Europe to South Central Europe which had about 44 years of heavy handed Soviet controlled Rule is stark. These countries are still trying to shed that legacy and mindset, get rid of some of the hideous Stalinist/Modernist Architecture that scars their cities and that legacy just seems like a virtual weight upon the people and landscape. It is palpable and the crumbling Soviet Era buildings, infrastructure and psychology are a constant companion on any walk around any of these cities.

However there is much new, vibrant, active and a lot of economic activity especially in Bulgaria. Actually I told my friend Mary that coming to Bulgaria from Serbia was almost like stepping into Switzerland by comparison.

Posted by
546 posts

Much of what is written above is certainly true and rather than rebutting my claim of a generational divide actually makes my case for me. Although to a degree beyond most folks endurance.

But I do have to take Great Exception to one statement Kaeleku made which I feel is demaeaning and certainly not true of the young Bulgarians I have met here and at home:

These are the people in their 20s now that Arthur crows about – and they are superficial, obsessed with status and money, frankly a pale shadow of what Bulgarians were 20 years ago.

The young people I know and have met are serious, world wise, politically savvy, ambitious and very hard working. I don;t get the feeling from any of them that they are “obsessed by status and money” rather if they are obsessed at all it is by trying to ensure a better life for themselves either inside or out of Bulgaria.

My guess, and it is just that because you dont have a geographical tag on your screen name, is that you come from or were born into or early in life emigrated to one of the highly privileged democratic countries of either the US, Canada, Australia or Western Europe. And I find your take on the young Bulgarians from that perspective very disturbing. It is easy to snipe from a high position.

As for the Ottoman influence I would only ask as I have before that more care be taken in reading my posts. I clearly conditioned my statement with the term “that I see”. In addition I did say that the Ottoman influence is clearly stronger in Serbia, Montenegro and Bosnia than here and that is undeniably true as can be seen by the arhetecture, the number of mosques the dress and habits of the people etc.

Posted by
6854 posts

I think Kaeluku is referring to a similar trend that occurred in Romania with a subset of its population. Look at the photos in the article and you'll get the gist. There's definitely a decadence and gaudiness about it, and the money for these nouveau riches came from the type of theft/looting that Kaeleku referred to after Communism fell. Where there's a vacuum, greed takes over indeed.

That's an extreme example (so please don't take this as a literal comparison - only an example of how far a culture can stray from its roots when there's a giant opening for greed to take over and so called "entrepreneurialism"). I can't tell you how many articles I've read about how much more mundane but still pervasive consumerism has taken root and reshaped the culture of many young people in countries that finally experienced new development. That's not to say there aren't other fine young people who don't fit into this mold, but it's not surprising that consumerism is in hyperdrive when giant malls that didn't exist before with countless varieties of goods suddenly sprout up all over the place. I wouldn't expect Bulgaria to be that different than Romania in this narrow respect. I remember my own childhood not growing up with many consumer objects and what a shock it was finally to lay my hands on them (this happened after my family and I left).

The younger side of that split are world-wise, politically astute,
ambitious, and dragging the other side of Bulgaria into the 21st
Century kicking and screaming in some cases.

Please do report back on how the young kids see their role in affecting a system of longstanding political corruption and how they see their future if they stay in Bulgaria...this does seem like an oversimplification of what's going on in Bulgaria (at least from what I know, which is incomplete to be sure).

Posted by
546 posts

Agnes what you say may be true, and perhaps that is what was meant. But that is not what was written.

On the Ottoman influence question I was asked a simple straightforward question to which I gave an honest and equally straightforward answer...which by the way is true. My answer does not mean the influence does not exist or that it isn’t there under the surface. It means “This is what I saw”.

My post was not meant as a detailed exploration of the post Communist Bulgarian mindset. But a quick peek at the very obvious dissonance I have encountered here.

It was meant to hopefully interest others in going to and experiencing this beautiful and interesting country. I fear this derailment into the minutiae of Bulgarian phsycho-political existence worthy of a Mihail Bulgakov novel like Master and Margarita doesn’t put them off.

Posted by
546 posts

Agnes I think I should add to be fair to all the good points you raise about this subject that from my perspective I try to ask open ended questions and see where it leads when talking to folks abroad and here I do get comments all the time about the bad government and the corruption. But the people I have talked to give me the impression they understand it’s not Capitalism, or Government that is the problem...they are clear that it is the people in positions of power in those systems that are the problem.

I do get a sense of helplessness but not HOPELESSNESS from some. Others see history as I do, as something you must get a big picture of, things do change sometimes very slowly sometimes dramatically quickly and with little notice.

But I can tell you with absolute certainty that if I was a Bulgarian 18-25 year old I’d be looking for a good job overseas too. With no regrets.