Best of Bulgaria! A travel advertisement. Now, that sounds interesting. Friendly and generous people, scenic mountains and seashore, vibrant cities, bucolic villages, rakiya, Shopska salad… mmm, tomatoes! Peppers! Sausages! Best yogurt in the world! Oh, sorry. Where was I?
Oh yes. I saw an ad recently for a tour organized by Rick Steves, the famous PBS travel maven. It was billed as the “Best of Bulgaria in 12 Days” tour. Hm. Of course I want to go back to Bulgaria “someday” to visit. I want to see old friends and see how the country has changed since Stormy and I worked there as Peace Corps volunteers. How many years, let’s see… 2002 when we started… but… but… <counting, runs out of fingers> No, it couldn’t have been so long ago! What’s happened to all those years?
I looked around on this newfangled Interwebs thing and found a video of a travelogue that Steves had done on Bulgaria. About time! That beautiful country is long overdue for the kind of good press that Rick Steves serves up! I started watching and was surprised at how little the place had changed since I was there. The opening scenes showed a picturesque old city tram, just like the ones we used to ride. The street scenes, the way people were dressed. It all looked the same. Curious, I cross-referenced a bit and saw the program was produced in 2000. Whoa! That was just before we were there! I never saw that show and no one we knew ever mentioned it. Wow, I thought, what a great slice of information and color we missed! It would have been great to have seen it in preparation for going. We surely would have recommended it to friends and family to share the experience. (But oh, hey, instead I wrote that book…) We didn’t have much Internets back then, and YouTube had not yet absorbed the whole of human experience, so we didn’t know what we were missing.
So anyway, here’s a link to the Rick Steves video so you can see what Bulgaria looked like to an American visitor, way back in the early 2000s… (The video hangs up at 2 minutes but jumps back in after a 20-second gap. Amerikanska rabota.) Surprising Bulgaria.
I knew right off that this was a quality piece of work: he pronounced “Sofia” correctly, with the emphasis on SO. He also covered the obligatory head-nod and head-shake code, where n = y and y = n. Easy, right? Modern city life, shops and cafés contrasted with horse carts and rural workers hand-tilling fields. Check. Shopska salad with rakiya, check. Smiles, Balkan music, colorful costumes and folk dancing, check.
I really enjoyed his itinerary, covering some of my favorite places and giving some good, concise historical background as well. He introduced a young man, a Peace Corps volunteer, who seemed to serve as his tour guide. The volunteer was shown hosting a radio program, in Bulgarian and English. He was so affable and knowledgeable, I thought, wow, this guy was sharp! Brent Hurd. I looked him up and saw he came to Bulgaria as a volunteer in 1996, a few years ahead of us. He apparently stayed over several years after his two-year stint, as many did when they fell in love with the place and the people (or a person, such as the attractive fiancée who appeared in the show). He was an excellent co-host and guide for Rick Steves’ Bulgaria story.
The travelogue, under the easy and informative tutelage of Steves and his Peace Corps guide, featured cheerful little encounters with all kinds of people. It was a time of hope for the younger generation, he said, showing sunny pedestrian malls with full café tables and smiling young people browsing the shops. The older generation felt left out of whatever was going on, as he soberly noted a little harsh reality, with the old patterns changing too fast to keep up with the whirlwind of societal change.
Steves noted that Modern Bulgaria is a multiethnic yet peaceful state, which is a standout accomplishment in the Balkans. He was as impressed as we had been with the Bulgarian people he met during his tour.
“How do you make a modern Bulgarian? Mix Bulgars, Slavs, Thracians, Armenians, Greeks, Romans, and Turks. Cover and let simmer for about 45 years of Soviet rule. Break open and let run free.”
I think that’s a pretty fair summary to squeeze into a half-hour TV tour. Even though things have changed, it reminded me how much I want to go back and visit again. I looked up more on Brent Hurd, the Peace Corps volunteer who squired Steves around. He became a documentary filmmaker and journalism professor, worked for Voice of America, and was a Fulbright Scholar. He died in 2008, on the anniversary of John Kennedy’s assassination, in an accident in India.
We all know it’s important to tell people you love them, because you never know when it will be the last time. Seems like a good rule for places too. I still want to go back and visit Bulgaria again. Someday. Maybe this year.