In the oldest European capital, things are happening. Funded by the European Union, the rather chaotic city is constantly being upgraded. The construction of a third metro line might have started 30 years late, but at least it is occurring. The city planners are hoping to at least slow down the ever worsening gridlock on the streets. Other steps they have taken since Bulgaria joined the E.U. in 2007, such as the construction of the second metro line and refurbishments of some important intersections, have had an effect. Also, the city finally purchased a large number of eco-buses, which replaced 40-year-old vehicles with huge mushroom-clouds of Diesel fumes in their rear. Those should have been dumped much earlier.
Driving through Sofia will still ruin any car’s dampers in record time, due to thousands of unrepaired potholes and it will still freak you out. But, 10 years ago, it was far worse. Crossing the “Ruski Pametnik” intersection used to require a Land Rover. For about a year now, the asphalt there has been as smooth as glass. Using the Ring Road around the city, which did not deserve that name 12 years ago, is now an indulgence. Still, there is a long way to go. The pollution continues to be alarming, in the dirtiest European capital.
While workers keep on digging into the ground underneath, they find precious walls and foundations, dating back to the Roman Empire. Those finds were basically lost under an ugly bridge in the very center. Now, the city is digging for more, and trying to give that archaeological site the kind of surrounding it deserves. Even in Sofia’s parks, ancient ruins and stones demonstrate what kind of culture existed here, thousands of years ago.
The center is surrounded by hundreds of industrialized apartment blocks in the outskirts, built in Socialist times, which could not be uglier. Back then, beauty was not among the regime’s priorities. This aspect is still obvious today. Among all Eastern European capitals, Sofia is the least beautiful one. But it still offers certain facets, such as the huge Vitosha Mountain range, which is only minutes away and visible even from the city center. It offers skiing slopes in winter and great hiking trails in summer. Also, the center does have a few nice areas, countless inexpensive restaurants and a pretty good night life.
During Socialist times, Bulgarians were not allowed to move to Sofia without permission. Since the big changes occurred, a quarter of a century ago, the city’s population quadrupled to 2 million. This huge influx is one of the reasons for the chaos and the fact that the country is striving to make its capital more livable. Without the rampant corruption, this process would probably be happening a lot faster.
One thing is certain: The livability they are striving for at City Hall will not be for everyone anytime soon. The upper 10,000, including mafiosos and entrepreneurs, can already steer their German-built limousines across some repaired intersections. They, as well as the small Bulgarian middle class, can go shopping in the far too many, newly constructed malls. But there are several demographic groups and minorities, who are far from having those privileges.
Most pensioners receive around 200 Euro per month, an amount which might just cover their heating costs and a few, modest purchases in supermarkets. City employees, such as teachers, clerks, policemen and nurses do not get too far either, on salaries between 300 and 500 Euro. But it gets even worse: Most members of the Roma community (gypsies) live in slums equal to those found in African or South American countries. In Sofia’s Fakulteta quarter, children play in the dirt, families live in make-shift huts and nearly all of them are being discriminated in all walks of live.
Most Bulgarians, who are not of Romani origin, would not admit there is a huge discrimination issue, saying the plight of the Roma was their own fault. Many, even intellectuals, keep on citing “all Roma” were “lazy criminals”, who did “not want to work”. When I posted this blog in the Facebook group “Foreigners in Sofia & Friends”, some people left comments full of denial and hatred as well, while according to the E.U., the U.S. and NGOs, there is a huge problem indeed. Of course, it is not limited to Sofia and the issue is very similar in countries like neighboring Romania, Slovakia or Hungary. But that does not make the situation any better. What is the issue? A lack of empathy is definitely part of it.
The yearly Sofia Film Fest draws thousands of visitors, the opera house has international audiences too, excellent live clubs organize brilliant gigs and the hot summers drive hundreds of thousands of people into the city parks or the mountains. At the same time, the kind of poverty and injustice many inhabitants are confronted with, should not exist anywhere, especially not in the E.U..
Sofia is an ambivalent city. Many aspects are absolutely unacceptable. At the same time, it is likable for some of the relatively few who make a decent living. Many Bulgarians, who move to Sofia due to the fact that it is the only Bulgarian city with a proper job market, do actually not really like it. To them, it is basically a city of hope. But, they too notice the improvements which are occurring, step by step.
Personally, I have been living here for five years. And, surprisingly or not, I actually like living here, maybe because I see Sofia as an exotic city, because I know where to go, because my big daughter, my love and several friends are here and because I do not feel unwelcome. The latter aspect would be very different if I was e.g. Black, a Syrian refugee or if I wore my kipa.
By Imanuel Marcus