Bulgaria is a fascinating country still trying to find its place in the world economy and culture even after 20 years post-Communism. The country borders the Black Sea and is a beach resort for many Europeans and eastern Europeans. For Semester at Sea students, faculty, and staff visiting Bulgaria was a time to relax in the fairly quiet port city of Varna. Students met with Bulgarian college students, visited orphanages, took jeep safaris to rural areas, toured UNESCO sites, and were first-time visitors to small Bulgarian villages eager to welcome them. Below are some reflections of both faculty and students on their Bulgarian experiences. And, click on the short video at the end to see some photos. Be sure to check the Semester At Sea website for the longer audio slideshow.
Rocky Rohwedder, Semester at Sea Faculty (Visited a Bulgarian village)
If you solely based your impressions of Bulgaria on the port city of Varna, it might be easy to typecast the country as just another former Soviet territory struggling with its identity and becoming a free-market economy. However, after a trip to the rural countryside, a far richer story begins to emerge. It’s a story of people deeply connected to their historical roots, their local community, and what today we might call sustainable living.
As part of an SAS trip to a small village on the Doubroudza plain--considered the breadbasket of Bulgaria because of the many grain varieties grown in the area--we glimpsed the heart of Bulgaria and the depth of spirit of its' people. The mayor, along with passersby on the street greeted us, shook our hands, and welcomed us to their special place. We may not have understood their language, but their actions clearly communicated that we were welcome.
We toured the ‘community center,’ where villagers share books, art, theater, dance and stories, the mayor’s office, the local church (where we were moved by hymns sung by the priest), and finally the mayor’s home. There, we were treated to a 14-course feast of local foods, many of which were grown in the village’s organic garden. The food was prepared in a wood oven and cooked by the local village women. These same women also shared their circle dances, native crafts, lively music, and silly jokes.
This trip epitomizes what Semester at Sea is all about—a glimpse into the lives of everyday people where we saw not only the uniqueness of their culture and earth-based living, but also a reflection of our own visions of a slower, simpler life focused on the importance of family, friends, rich conversation, and healthy food enjoyed at a pace that allows us to savor it all.
(Rocky Rohwedder teachers a shipboard course on sustainable communities. You can follow his blog at www.sonoma.edu/ensp/rocky)
Sara Pecoraro, San Diego State University
I really enjoyed going to the Welcome Reception with the medical university students. My parents are from Central and South America and the educational systems are similar. In those countries, students declare their major or academic focus in high school and then go directly into university for that subject. I think it’s interesting that more countries are like that than like they are in the U.S.
I also appreciated how incredibly friendly the students at the medical university were. I felt like a saw a real part of Bulgaria with the music, dancing and just watching the Bulgarian students hang out with one another. And, I really enjoyed speaking with students who are around my age, but from another country and culture.
William Moore, Marquette University (Roamed throughout Varna)
Personally, it wasn’t my favorite port, but the one thing that I liked out of Varna, I liked the way the city was designed. I liked the way everything was juxtaposed because you had art museums in parks. The construction of the city was beautiful, even the low-income housing I thought the way that was put together was very nice. However, I didn’t have the best experiences with the people. But I could see Varna being the place to go to for private time. I walked around Varna and sat down and wrote in my journal. I wanted to feel the pulse of the city by walking around it. I really found things by walking around on my own which is the same way I walked through Spain. Bulgaria was a place that I had read about because I’ve always loved Slavic languages and life, so I did research before so I could discover the place on my own.
David Swerdlow, Semester at Sea Faculty
The Shabla fishing village has never been a site for tourists, our tour guide Lyuba tells us. Lyuba clearly loves her country, including this old fishing village, which she has chosen for us. She wants to give us a behind the scenes look at her country. Ours is the first tour bus to come down this road. We’re a group of nearly 30 people. Lyuba is nervous that we’ll find this village to be a backwards place, that we’ll be uncomfortable with its primitive toilets and lack of technology, that we’ll suffer in its heat. What she doesn’t know is that many of us are anxious to leave comfortable tourism behind. This is exactly the kind of experience we yearn for.
The first person we meet in Shabla is the oldest fisherman in town. He’s shirtless, up on a ladder, painting a sign. Lyuba gets his attention and asks if he’d like to talk to us. He turns to us, and we see his broad grin gleaming against his fisherman’s tan. He tells us that he’s making a sign to let people know that he has rooms to rent. Not only is he the oldest fisherman in town--he jokes--he’s the owner of the only hotel. Climbing back up his ladder and beginning to paint the next letter, he looks at his brush, waves it in our direction, and tells us that now he’s the town artist as well. It’s impossible not to laugh along with this good-natured man. As we walk through the communist era homes, we meet several other villagers who chat comfortably with us about their lives. They show us their fishing boats that the old men know how to build from oak trees. They’re afraid it’s a dying art in Shabla.
Eventually, we come to the home of the family that is preparing a picnic for us. We meet their dog. We see their chickens. We admire their garden. Proudly, they give us tomatoes, peppers, and cucumbers to taste. They are delicious.
Along the coast, just past the fishermen’s makeshift shacks, we come to the site of our picnic. Amidst the gorgeous formations of limestone that line the clear water of the Black Sea, our fisherman family has found three flat places to set three lovely tables. Each table has its own large umbrella and portion of chairs. Two empty chairs are by themselves, facing the sea, with their legs partially covered by the water. The table cloths and umbrellas flap elegantly in the light breeze.
Our meal is stunning. That morning, the family fished for us. We eat fresh steamed mussels, fried smelts, grilled mackerel, and quick fried sea snails. The tomato salad is fresh from their garden, as are the potatoes and fried zucchini. There are hearty loves of bread. There’s an incredible fish soup that we drink eagerly. There’s beer and soft drinks. At the end, the men carve watermelons for us. We cannot finish it all, as much as we try. In truth, it’s one of our best meals of the summer, if not the best. It is made with care, and we realize that we’ve not been treated as tourists. We’ve been treated as friends, and we reciprocate. At the end of our lunch, many thanks are given. Hugs and kisses are offered and received. As our bus pulls away from Shabla, our Bulgarian family is waving, and so are we.
Eric Brindle, Univ. of Pittsburgh (Jeep Safari in Rural Bulgaria)
First experience studying abroad. I went on the Jeep Safari tour and that was a lot of fun. I’m not sure where we were, but it was this wooded area with a bunch of open fields. I thought Bulgaria was nice, I really liked it there. It was kind of more laid back than the other countries we’ve visited and I kind of enjoyed that part.