“What would your papou say?” my mother said, partly in jest. Her father, my grandfather, like so many Greeks resident in America during the Balkan Wars, rushed back to Greece to fight in the war against the Turks in 1912, which almost immediately after became a successor war against the Bulgarians, in 1913. Bulgaria was, in some ways, the adversary, perhaps not as visceral as the Turks, yet in some ways more, because they were fellow Orthodox, and successors to a common Byzantine culture. It seemed like a betrayal.
I could never get my head around this, that Orthodox Balkan countries could be enemies. Bulgaria too, was for much of my youth shrouded in mystery, behind the Iron Curtain, tucked in on the other side of the Rhodope Mountains, the “Great Fence of Thrace” which long protected Byzantium and its Greek successor from the perfidious (yet achingly familiar) Boulgaroi.
In undergraduate school at Georgetown University, I majored in East European Studies, and in a year long module, my brilliant Polish-born professor required us to focus on two countries and learn their history in depth. I chose Hungary (where I studied in the Fall of 1990) and Bulgaria. I sought to learn everything possible about the country, including their side of the story. As I suspected, despite the antagonisms and differences with the Greeks, so many were the similarities.
Certainly, arriving in Sofia in 1994, it was the differences that stood out. Sofia was much poorer, and its concrete apartment buildings, while familiar for their lack of aesthetics, were a less climate friendly, less well-appointed version of Athens. The faces in the street were familiar, definitely of the same East Roman milieu as the Greeks, with north Slavic or Asiatic outliers. The food was “Greek without olive oil or olives, and with more peppers and sour cream,” as one food pundit told me, yet again well familiar and often sporting the same names, starting with feta, subject of a copyright fight in the European Union. Shopska salata was a northerly, olive and olive oil-less cousin to the Greek horiatiki salata, but grilled meats, baklava, moussaka, and other foods clearly revealed a joint heritage.
The language too, though vastly different at first, started to become all too familiar. The plethora of Turkish words used in Greek, and of course the Greek words used in Bulgarian, came forth. A grammar well similar to Greek, and the Cyrillic alphabet clearly showing its Salonikan Greek heritage. A millennium of common linguistic space resulted in an ability to translate the languages word for word, which I began to learn as a “plug and play” with functional success.
Working in a Sofia firm with a large Greek clientele, I quickly saw that business cultures, though separated by a half century of the Iron Curtain, were remarkably similar. Personal relationships, official and bureaucratic entanglements, together with oligarchs and a hint of a more commercial past—particularly in the Black Sea port of Varna—recalled a former (and perhaps future) common commercial zone (which did re-emerge only to collapse with the free fall of the Greek economy around 2010). There was also the rough edge of a mafia economy in plain sight which had no Greek equivalent (at the time).
The biggest barrier, as so often, was in the identities and minds of people. A fight over a common territory and heritage occurred, if not any longer in an active way, in a passive one. Many Bulgarians actively commented on their Macedonian heritage and being forced to leave the “other” parts of Macedonia (Greek or today’s North Macedonian) in order to preserve their Bulgarian identity. Greece and Serbia were the enemy that denied their very existence, and while at least the Turks were “outside” oppressors, Greeks and Serbs were fellow Orthodox who sought Bulgarian land and to claim that Bulgarians were either South Slavs needing to be Yugoslavized or Slavic speaking Greeks needing to be Hellenized. The newly independent (now) North Macedonia, which Bulgaria recognized immediately, was supposed to join, sooner or later, its “Bulgarian motherland.” The Bulgarians’ own depredations against Greeks and Serbs were of course, in proper Balkan fashion, either justified or forgotten. A timeless Balkan ballad, one which often occurred over coffee, drinks of various transparency and potency, and meze (the common Balkan word for appetizers).
As is often the case, the truth is more complicated. Further, the capital, Sofia, had a more declarative Bulgarian-ness than other parts of the country. As part of my work, I had the opportunity to visit several cities and to spend long weekends in several parts of the country, including the Rhodope Mountains bordering Greece, the Black Sea port of Varna, and the city of Plovdiv. In each case, in spite of the diminutive size of the country, vast cultural differences emerged.
Plovdiv, the former Philippopolis, named for Alexander the Great’s father King Phillip II, was a place with old Ottoman-Byzantine town architecture, reveling in its civic history and multiethnicity, where Greeks, Bulgarians, Turks, Jews and Armenians not so long ago rubbed shoulders in a rich though fragile mosaic. Sofia was monochrome and statist, but Plovdiv had a sophistication under its Sovietized poverty that shone through even then and would receive facelifts in the coming decades.
Varna was my favorite city in Bulgaria, as it felt most like a lost Greek homeland. Though forgotten now after expulsions, genocides, and assimilations, the littoral of the Black Sea was almost as Greek as the Aegean Sea over a century ago. Greeks were native to the Bulgarian and Turkish Black Sea coasts, and had heavily settled the Russian, Ukrainian, and Georgian coasts, in many cases bolstering Greek communities there since antiquity. Fish dishes (again, absent olive oil) readily recalled Greece, as did the tavernas on the often rocky escarpments with raven haired beauties showing off their menus, as music often as not Greek blared in the background. Here too, even though these things are so subtle, Varnans seemed Greek. Often too they spoke Greek, recalling bits of the language from assimilated grandparents, and further south on the Black Sea, even place names make the original heritage clear—Sozopol[is], Ahktopol[is]. The beaches were probably the most different, as the sun worshippers were Russian primarily and the beach culture was very different to 1990s Greece (though Russians were soon to become ubiquitous in Greece as well, but 1994 was too close to the Soviet collapse and an economic Iron Curtain had not yet come down).
Ironically, the most “foreign” part of Bulgaria to me was the region of the Rhodope Mountains, bordering Greece. In a land where Orthodoxy is not necessarily practiced yet adhered to as part of Bulgarian identity—and the country is dotted with beautiful churches, some of great antiquity and in a similar Byzantine style, though at a far lesser density, than in Greece—the local majority religion in the Rhodope region is Islam. This is the land of the Pomaks, who inhabit the mountain range straddling the Greek Bulgarian border. In an avowedly secular post-Communist society, the Pomaks, particularly the women, dressed in traditional clothing, though their veils often revealed blond hair, fair skin and eyes more akin to Poles or Czechs than to the generally swarthier Bulgarians. I had been to Pomak villages on the Greek side of the Rhodope Mountains as well, where they again stand out both in attire and appearance. This insular group practicing an eclectic Islam can hardly be called foreign, as they are native to the region and of course to Greek Thrace and serve as a reminder of the effect of five hundred years of Ottoman rule.
My Bulgarian summer was a great opportunity to put some in-country perspective to my intellectual and academic interest in the country. I made many friends, and I got to know a neighboring country that shares so much history—good and bad—with Greece. I am aware too that what I got was a snapshot in time—nearly three decades ago—and much has changed since then. Perhaps my memory is overdue a return visit, to walk the same streets as I did then, and see the same sights.
Stay tuned, hopefully sooner rather than later, for a Bulgaria Redux.