Postcard From Bulgaria

25 February 2021  /  Updated 7 March 2021

by Tim Ireland

Bezgranichana vusmojnost (unlimited possibilities)

I’ve been coming and going from Bulgaria for 20 years – which is to say my knowledge of the country doesn’t reach back to the fall of the Iron Curtain, but it started in the heady days of pseudo mafia rule in the years that followed. Most of the people I know here were teenagers of young adults when the wall fell. Some were actively involved… they all remember what life was like before.

The somewhat depressing refrain I’ve heard from many – especially those with international exposure and who know how pervasive and demoralising the lockdown has been in the UK – goes roughly like “I thought we threw this junk out, dealt with the joblessness, disenfranchisement, and community decline of the transition to capitalism so we didn’t have to live like this. The reward for that price was supposed to have been liberty”. A high school best friend – still a very good mate and sardonic at the best of times – shrugs his shoulders and proclaims as if narrating the history of the human species from a pulpit “That’s it. Those that have lived, have lived. Those that have travelled, have travelled. The end.”

He’s actually among the more chipper of his countrymen, has worked hard to build a career, copped life’s knocks on the chin and still has a sense of humour, so he continues, more seriously: “We’ll learn to live with it, we always do”. Part of that adaptation has meant reverting to the kind of ground-up subversion of nonsensical rules. Decades ago, illicit restaurants and bars operated a series of code-name entry protocols, so-called ‘parola’ bars. Sometimes voiced, but more often just an unmarked door with a combination lock. No code, no entry. Another friend, a sickeningly multilingual pocket rocket who has spent the bulk of her career working for Belgian and Dutch outsourcing companies, grins conspiratorially as she explains “Do you know what’s the latest ‘hit’ in Sofia? – posting your restaurant bill on social!” It seems a small, humble thing, to have gone out to dinner, shared a meal with other people, but she makes no effort to hide the sheer triple-multiplied joy of both having socialised, screwed the authorities… and bragged about it publicly.

Such subversion might not always be necessary. I’m aware of at least one dance school that has remained open throughout the various lockdowns – door always open, music and foot-stamping rhythms wending their way onto the dark evening streets. They never closed… no one ever came to try and shut them down. During the winter they’ve seen an increase in participation, not the other way. In a city with rather too many bored-looking cops, that looks to me like some happily selective policing of the rules.

Another way people have adapted is by taking work-from-home to mean work-from-anywhere. Offices and workplaces here have only been formally closed very briefly, but many are at low capacity, with variously loose rosters of who’s at home and who’s at the office. My accountant isn’t doing anything face to face; my lawyer is – with desultory mask usage; and everyone who can afford it (it seems) has decamped outside Sofia; the air’s cleaner, and there’s less oversight of rules in the country. We try to catch some friends on a family ski holiday to find most hotels are full for at least the next 6 weeks – even midweek. In what has become a ridiculous but wonderful loophole, hotel restaurants may remain open, whereas independent restaurants must not serve indoors. So some enterprising hoteliers are pocketing ‘short stay’ fees (~20 lv per head) so people not actually sleeping the night can eat in their restaurant. Consequently some restaurants are allegedly operating at 120% of normal capacity.

There’s a familiar downside to prohibition-like rules for every aspect of life – inflation. Sharp entrepreneurs making a killing, restaurateurs included. The price of nigh anything has gone through the roof: markup on bowl of French fries – 400%; markup on a PCR test – 600%. Still, that’s less than the markup on PCR tests in the UK, and the results are swift, and the government operate a catch-and-release system, so you can quarantine if you don’t want a test, but a negative test sets you free. In the travel regulation stakes, Borisov beats Boris.

Disinfection station… at a ski lift. “Am I supposed to disinfect the hands, or the gloves?”

Indeed the general tone of the conversation here is much freer than in the UK. On local TV the morning news chat shows run long form interviews with a wide range of medical and epidemiological professionals. The hosts on these shows aren’t looking for a gotcha moment, instead, they provide a platform for airing detailed, professional opinion. Of several dozen such interviews I’ve half-watched while doing other things, my general impression is that they’re big on whole-of-health approaches; eat well, go outside and get exercise and sunshine, support your immune system whichever way you see fit. One further suggested that long lockdowns may harm our immune strength because of reduced interaction with diverse pathogens. I can’t imagine any UK channel have the balls to run a story like that at present. The mainstream news is – of course – full of pro vaccine propaganda, but it’s a credit to the networks here that they offer their audience a fuller and more nuanced discussion on health topics.

Speaking of vaccines, the rollout here is going slowly, for two reasons. One is the EU’s sluggish procurement, but the other again speaks to that underling Bulgarian fuckyouness: the Government keeps reminding that they’ve only ordered enough vaccine for 40% of the population… ”so hurry and get yours today!”… to which the oft-giggled refrain is that 40% will be plenty; citing a poll result that reckons only ~20% of so of the population actually want one. My wife regales us with a claim from her hairdresser that you can buy a silicon arm covering to be worn so you can pretend to have a vaccine, but which protects you from the needle. And another that you can already buy a vaccine certificate on the black market. Entrepreneurialism meets distrust of authority.

Street art on at the entry to a famous bar in Sofia

In England – and most of the west – the combo of policing and virtue signalling with respect to masks has been eye-opening. Here people seem more normal, less indoctrinated by the madness. You can’t enter a building without a mask, but as soon as I enter my friend’s office – the masks come off. We’re satisfying the rules in public, but in private few believes these measures help. At a perfectly legal birthday party with people from six households yesterday, none arrived wearing masks and just one of the six families even mentioned wearing marks, a suggestion of which they were promptly disabused by the peer pressure of the rest of us. In contrast to the UK, everyone here has either had Covid themselves, or knows someone who has… many have elderly relatives who have had it, some have frail elderly relatives who’ve been in and out of hospitals for months or years, and for whom it has meant their deaths. I’ve heard several say these were not untimely, and perhaps a better fate than languishing in substandard care homes. Bulgarians are not scared – they understand the life involves risk, and suffering.

And so presently Sofia city feels mildly schizophrenic – when the sun comes out the parks quickly fill with people lapping up the early spring warmth, drinking beers, socialising in happy unmasked couples and groups. But the restaurants are all closed; of an evening the streets are quiet. There’s begrudging acceptance that masks are required by law in enclosed spaces; malls have overzealous mask police stationed at each entry and exit. Schools are operating multiple shifts with fewer kids in each class, with everyone masked all the time – to gauge by the kids pulling down, and parents pulling off masks as they spill out onto the street. The younger kids have accepted the garment as a new normal; the parents still rebel in their own small way. My daughter isn’t much of a fan of theatre – long a proud national pastime here – but she’ll go along because it’s one of the few formal entertainment options where you can take off your mask. If a tree falls in a forest and noone’s there to hear it… does it make a sound?

This dual personality might soon be over; there’s lots of hope restrictions will be released in the coming week or two

Bulgarians lap up the early spring sunshine – and covid feels like it might already be history.

Image from Oxford Coronavirus Government Response Tracker, via Johan Hellström on Twitter