Tuesday, October 23, 2007

The Choice of a New Generation

A slow moving mass with swollen ankles and an oppressive slouch shuffles along a narrow stone street in the old imperial capital of Bulgaria. The only part of the woman that does not suffer from the staleness of aging is a shiny green jacket, probably a gift from her children whose best years of life had not withered away under soulless communism. A string worn around her ankle looks as if it were meant to tie her foot to the rest of her leg. Somehow, though, she manages to shuffle out of sight, those aged legs still serving their purpose.

The deep blue October sky and the warmth of the day in Veliko Turnovo provides a spotlight for an ancient city to shine. Cafes with outside terraces move with the kinetic force of urban prosperity. A younger, much luckier generation sits at tables covered with umbrellas that proclaim capitalism's triumph: Coca Cola, Lavazza, and now, Kamenitza. Western pop music plays loudly from Japanese speakers as if it always had. Laughter, smiles, and conversation flow freely. The old woman is a relic from a much unhappier time.

What it must have been like then, and the youth don't even know it. Now they carry mobile phones and drink lattes and never get tricked into telling on their parents. To an American who grew up associating the Cyrillic alphabet with nuclear weapons and believing the gateway to Hell was located in Moscow, being in an ex-Soviet satellite with few visible reminders of that time is a bit strange. American kids had such an impression of life under communism that I couldn't envision anyone not sitting around in overcrowded apartments when even in July it was cold and damp and gray and miserable. There is such color here, such life, such potential, and I have been struck with a permanent and unsatisfiable curiosity about how it was back then. That is a good thing.

The old are suspicious. They stare at you as you approach from a distance, and you can feel their eyes on you until you disappear from their weak sight. They frown even as you try to compliment their gardens in broken Bulgarian, even as you smile to try to prove you are not out to get their meager possessions. Maybe their bitter faces are the result of hearts hardened by years under communism. Maybe they lament the invasion of materialism, which seems to have replaced the vapid spirit of the soviet system. The pace of change is so rapid that one can feel today is more hectic than yesterday. It must be difficult for someone who has been used to a slower – even more boring – pace of life.

But these are surface observations. How much has really changed? Bulgaria is the beneficiary of an influx of European Union money. Yet corruption runs rampant – some estimates put a quarter of the country’s money as dirty. It often seems as if the only transparency in the country is in those who partake in the corruption. They strut and fret upon the EU-built stage with their brand new SUVs and their leather jackets and their expensive watches as if God himself had put them on the Earth to rule Bulgaria. In Veliko Turnovo, they hide in the darkest corners of the city – and that little place on the corner of Vasil Levski Boulevard across from the Mother Bulgaria statue, the bar with the wooden d├ęcor and the waitresses you could confuse with prostitutes. They drink their Zagorka at ten in the morning, their beady black eyes shifting from left to right. Left to right. Right to wrong.

On the surface, there is color in Bulgaria, color splashed upon buildings of concrete and towering high rises built by the aesthetically blind communists, color covering the heads of citizens on a rainy day, color screaming from the political posters adorning every wall and fence in this fledgling democracy. Fledgling – or pretend? Do these bulky faces you see upon the walls represent the people, or do they represent profit? Will their promises of prosperity birth a cousin of the Celtic Tiger, or will donkey carts continue to be a common form of transportation while a select few drive their LX 470s across the crumbling streets?

And what of these latte sipping youth? Will they settle for the status quo now that they have their gadgets and some semblance of stability? Or will they stand up and say Enough!

These are questions only time will answer. Right now, it seems the nation is content enough to watch a gold and silver lev flip through the air. Heads, democracy. Tails, thugocracy.

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