When travel writer and Southeast Europe scholar Tom Phillips had a chance meeting with a Bulgarian student in Portsmouth, he couldn’t have predicted all that would happen next…
We sat on the grass and smoked fags. The walls of the Byzantine town heaved with warriors, dragons, spectacularly erupting brickwork. Music thrummed and lasers splayed across the sky. On the ramparts, dancers dressed in red appeared, juggling batons, breathing fire. Away to our left, others were striding across silvery night-waters on power-jets: hi-tech ballerinas bobbing and weaving against an archipelago of distant lights – the bars and hotels strung out along Sunny Beach. The Black Sea hissed under the force of hydraulic pressure.
We were only in Nessebar for one night, en route from Sozopol to Varna, and had arrived on the day of the town’s big summer celebration: both the anniversary of its patron saint and the annunciation. The long causeway which attaches it, polyp-like, to the mainland was blocked with people, all straining to see the light-show projected onto the ancient walls. At the new town end, a band was chopping together Balkan folk and ska, competing with the screams and jingles from a fun-fair where another crowd drifted beneath strings of coloured lights.
It was almost exactly a year since I’d been here before, following an identical route. That time I had been on my own and I’d spent the evening drinking with an Irish-Bulgarian who lived in Switzerland and a waiter who took us to a bar where we sat on artificial rocks in the middle of an indoor pond. It was probably a glass of searing rakiya which had finished me off. The bus ride to Varna the following morning had been a dehydrated blur.
This summer I was with my wife and son. Sarra and Sam had flown to Bulgaria to meet me after I’d been in the Balkans for close on a month, teaching in Albania, meeting colleagues in Kosova, seeing friends in Sofia. We stayed for a few days in a small hotel just off Dondukov Street, not more than the five minutes’ walk from the capital’s Yellow Pavements, the honey-coloured roadways running through the city centre. Trams woke us and we’d cut up Malko Tarnovo Street to the gardens outside the National Theatre to drink coffee by the fountains. In the evening, after churches and museums, cafés on Shishman Street, bookstalls in Slaveykov Square, we’d be back there, with bottles of beer and cider from the corner shop on Gourko, sitting among murmuring conversations, strummed chords. I remembered sheltering from a thunderstorm under the umbrella of a bar and a German art collector warning me that I should trust nobody in the whole of South East Europe, that everyone was out for themselves. I wished I’d told him then how wrong he was.
We were in Bulgaria because, eighteen months earlier, I’d gone to Portsmouth and told the story of how Sarra, Sam and our daughter Lydia had been held at gunpoint outside a bank in Albania. Whatever the situation might have looked like, the gunmen weren’t making threats. They were offering protection. The bank’s cash for the day was about to arrive. It was a vulnerable moment and they feared my family would be caught in the crossfire if a gang of real armed robbers turned up. For them, it was a matter of honour to keep my family safe.
I told this story at a reading in Portsmouth University, and while the other writers were heading downstairs for a glass of wine, I stayed behind in the lecture hall to sort out my scattered script and wrestle a recalcitrant sandwich packet into a bin. As I was doing this, a young woman came up.
‘Excuse me,’ she said. ‘I have a question. Have you been to Bulgaria?’
I had to admit that I hadn’t and that, although we’d very nearly got there when we’d been Inter-railing through eastern Europe, we’d run out of time and turned for home from Transylvania.
‘I think you will like it,’ said the young woman. Her name was Vassi and she lived in Sofia. She was an Erasmus student in Portsmouth. We chatted for a while. Her sister was an artist who’d worked with some young Bulgarian poets. I told her I was hoping to set up a project with writers in SE Europe so we swapped email addresses.
That summer, thousands of Bulgarians began protesting against corruption and the unlikely coalition of ex-communists, ultra-nationalists and liberals which constituted their government. When Vassi went home to Sofia, she posted photos from these protests on Facebook: people dressed as silent-movie convicts; parents carrying toddlers on their shoulders; hand-drawn placards; brushes (to sweep away corrupt officials); umbrellas (protection from the government’s ‘rain of lies’). They were the biggest pro-democracy protests in Europe since the end of the Cold War, but in Britain they went unreported. I emailed the Guardian: their foreign desk journalists were busy with the Edward Snowden case.
Adam, a friend at work, decided that we should do something. He found a venue, persuaded a couple of bands to play for free. We set up a Facebook page and joined the protestors’ online network, DANS with Me. The name was a reference to both the near-celebratory atmosphere of the protests and the incident which caused them in the first place: the appointment of a media tycoon as head of the national security agency DANS – as if Rupert Murdoch had been given the keys to MI5.
On the night of DANS with Me Bristol, I stood outside the Stag & Hounds, smoking a pre-gig cigarette. A few of the people arriving carried Bulgarian flags, spoke in a warm furze of zhs, tss and vs. One of them produced a roll of paper and a clutch of felt-tip pens. Sitting down at a long wooden table, they began doing what their compatriots were doing in Sofia: they were making a banner. What puzzled them, they said, was why two English blokes had wanted to support the protests. In their experience, most English people didn’t know where Bulgaria was or assumed that it was either somewhere on the Mediterranean or possibly part of Russia. They’d not met anyone in Bristol who’d heard about the protests. When they’d finished the banner, we lined up for a photograph – twenty or so Bulgarians living in Bristol, Adam and I. The banner read, in Bulgarian: ‘Even in Bristol we don’t want you – resign!’
That September, I was walking along the Yellow Pavements amongst other, similar banners. The protests were still going on, and although they were smaller now, there were still two or three thousand people turning out every night to blow whistles, beat drums, shout ‘Ostavka! Resign!’ When we reached the National Assembly building, the noise slowly faded and people began to sit down. It was the 35th anniversary of the death of Georgi Markov, the Bulgarian dissident journalist murdered in London. He’d been waiting at a bus stop near Waterloo Bridge when someone stabbed him with the tip of an umbrella containing a pellet of ricin. There was a two-minute silence. At its end, someone started to sing. Group by group, the crowd stood up and joined in until everyone in the street was quietly, defiantly singing the Bulgarian national anthem. Afterwards, in the National Theatre gardens, I sat with Vassi and her mum, Margi, drinking beer, eating ice-cream and walnuts. It was a warm summer night and there were so many people out we had to perch on a concrete ledge. It was the last night of my first visit to Bulgaria, but we were already making plans for the following year.
Back home, the BBC showed a documentary about British tourists in Sunny Beach, which blamed the drunken havoc on the Bulgarians for selling alcohol too cheaply. Then, after ominous rumblings from the autumn party conferences, the media storm about Bulgarian and Romanian immigration broke. Politicians queued up to launch Jeremiads about the end of civilisation as we know it because EU regulations were about to change, supposedly resulting in millions of Bulgarians and Romanians ‘coming over here to steal our jobs’. When the restrictions were finally lifted on 1 January, I received a laconic message from Sofia: ‘No reports from bus station of crowds fighting to get on buses to London.’
Slowly, more and more connections with Bulgaria began to form, like filigree crystals growing out of a chemical reaction. Vassi, her sister Marina and I launched an online project, Colourful Star, posting paintings from Bulgaria and poetry in English every week. A theatre company commissioned me to write a play set during the Bulgarian protests for its autumn season. Marina put me in touch with a writer called Iliyan Lyubomirov and, with the help of two Bulgarian students in Canada, I began to translate some of his poems. I bought a teach-yourself-Bulgarian course and filled exercise books with pages of vocabulary and grammar notes. From time to time, presents would arrive: traditional embroidered socks, calendars, tablecloths, martenitsi – the red-and-white bands, that Bulgarians exchange to placate Grandmother March and ensure both good luck and good weather for the spring. Later on again, Iiyan would publish his first collection and I’d find myself translating the bestselling book of Bulgarian poetry since 1989, while Marina’s newly launched online company would publish my first ever children’s story as an illustrated, animated app.
By the time we swooped on Varna in a choking, gear-wrenching minibus last year, I felt as if Bulgaria was some kind of home. I had no reason for this, just a vague, instinctual recognition, a memory of walking along the Yellow Pavements, one foot after another, or down Shishman Street where soupterias and secondhand bookshops vie for attention. That the minibus stopped in a neighbourhood I didn’t recognise didn’t bother me. A Bulgarian backpacker and a taxi driver soon pointed us to the main автогарата and we were yomping down a busy dual carriageway under steely Black Sea sunlight. Checked in to our hotel, we navigated cobbled streets to the tree-lined esplanade. A Cold War submarine loomed in the late-afternoon glow: Varna is the Bulgarian Portsmouth, after all. Outside a bar and surrounded by Mancunian tourists on a hot August evening, Sarra, Sam and I ordered coffee, lemonade and beer.
Photography by Sarah Cheverton.