As I mentioned, I was in Bulgaria most of last week for work. It's not a country I particularly enjoy going to - in fact, I am pretty sure this was my last trip there, as I have plans to transfer this account to one of my underlings (hey, there has to at least be some advantages to being a manager, non?).
There's just something about the whole country that I find depressing. Here and there, there are pockets of modernity, especially in the business district of the capital, but everything else is just stuck in time, like the clocked stopped ticking there 30 years ago.
Their national infrustructure is crumbling, and the three hour drive to my customer on their rickety highways always leaves my back in pieces. I can only imagine how it leaves my (older) interpreter feeling. But it's when you get off the main roads that really gets me. Driving through villages that just scream out poverty. Looking at the faces of young people who look much older than their years.
I want to take out my camera to capture some of the images, but don't for fear of offending my customer and those around me. But it really just breaks my heart. Groups of sad-looking, unemployed men standing around. Mangy dogs covered in fleas and scratching themselves. Crumbling buildings and broken windows everywhere, left-over vestiges from the Soviet rule.
But then there are a few things that cheer me up. Seeing that someone has made a flower out of the colorful magnets on the office whiteboard. The generosity of people wherever we go, always offering a coffee and a small snack, even though they had almost nothing. The connection I had with one particular man on site - even though we have never been able to communicate directly, we shared a special connection. As unlikely as it was - him, an older ex-USSR solider and me, a young American woman. But each time, we laughed and we made hand gestures and really, sometimes the eyes can say so much more than words can. And he took great joy in bringing me treats and having me try the regional specialties. As I left them Thursday for what is likely the last time, I listened with a tear in my eye as the interpreter translated his kind words about how much he has enjoyed working with me. And then he took my face in his hands and did the bises, three times, for that is what they do for loved ones in that region.
As we drove away, my head was reeling from everything I had experienced during the week. Mainly I just kept thinking - how is it possible that these people are also part of the European Union? I asked my customer what changes being an EU member has made for these small villages, and he said with disgust "Absolutely nothing".
It just so happened that it was his 60th birthday while I was there, and I asked him when he was going to retire. And he laughed and said "Retirement? That is a joke. There is no way I could live off the 180€ per month pension they offer, so I will work until I die." And I thought to myself, "It's only a three hour flight, but places like Paris and London must seem so far away to these people". I know it sure feels like a whole other world to me.
Once I got back to France, I began berating myself for being blogging about such foolish things. Here am I, complaining about my 1000€ gym membership that I can totally afford, while all the while, that is half a year's salary for your average Bulgarian. I mean, really Ksam - get a grip. Talk about first-world problems.
I keep thinking back to a trip to Russia I took while living in Finland. I have blogged about it before, but the image of waking up in the middle of the night and seeing these women starting a fire at four AM in the middle of nowhere has always stuck with me. You can't choose where you are born (well unless you believe in reincarnation lol), and it's just luck of the draw whether you are dealt a good hand or a bad hand. And that's probably what I struggle the most with - sure, I have worked hard in life to get where I am, but I also had a head start over a good portion of the world's population. And it just kills me that that poor man with the kind soul has had to struggle day-in and day-out. I keep coming back to a phrase Fab used to (jokingly) say - "Life sucks, and then you die"....but I'm pretty sure they wouldn't get the joke.