Dangerously cheap beers on Sunny Beach
Words and photography by Ewan Waddell
I had read somewhere that in Bulgaria, hitchhiking was quite an accepted part of the culture as a result of the socialist regime. Supposedly, during these times when a lot less people had cars, it was the norm to hitchhike to get where you needed to be – so nowadays, older generations who grew up during those times, will often return the favour and pick up young travellers.
For almost every other country I’ve visited in my adult life I’ve had at least some idea of what I was to expect. Even if it’s merely a hyper-realistic caricature in a television programme or a movie, I usually feel somewhat prepared for the sights and experiences that await me when going to a new place. Bulgaria, on the other hand, is a country of which seems to have never been affectionately depicted in the media of Western culture – and rather simply included in the group of countries people consider when they refer to ‘Eastern Europe’.
As a Brit, prior to the anecdote about hitchhiking, my understanding of Bulgaria was limited to the vague knowledge of dangerously cheap beers on the Black Sea coast town known as Sunny Beach. The notion of vomiting British tourists on a foreign beach was not something I particularly wanted to experience, but the mystery of exploring a culture so unfamiliar to me was.
The soviet architecture was striking and unavoidable. The towering blocks of historically brutalist apartments peppered many areas of the bigger towns and cities, allowing their populations to be quite densely contained.
Each town I visited had their own fringe community of gypsies on the outskirts; small shacks for houses constructed from scrap iron and wood scavenged from the area. I gathered from the locals I spoke to that there wasn’t much integration between the Romani gypsies and the Bulgarians. Sometimes it felt like there was a tension between them, and I was often told to avoid the gypsy areas.
There were occasional pieces of graffiti and vandalism which depicted racist symbols and ideas, but this graffiti was often countered by vigilante vandals who would deface it in disagreement. The occasional derelict building and abandoned construction projects were fiercely contrasted by the clean, newly built highway which cuts through the centre of Bulgaria East to West, and connects the major towns and cities.
Many times when I would photograph an imported car by the roadside I would think about how, merely a couple of decades ago, there were none of these – and now there are probably a couple of hundred thousand. I didn’t expect the highways to be as quiet as they were. Quite often there were tranquil periods of a minute or so when you couldn’t see a car in sight anywhere.
I didn’t know what to expect of Bulgaria. The impression that I formed was that the country has experienced a lot of changes in the past few decades. From shifting away from socialism in the 1990’s, to joining the EU in 2007, Bulgaria’s inclusion in the global economy seems to be quite a new concept. The young people that I met however, were infatuated with foreign cultures, which one can hope would suggest that the country’s future lies in further globalisation.