A popular English-language memoir of communist-era Bulgaria (not written by me!) was called Street Without a Name*. The book was not a one-off account of a deprived family. This sums up the current living conditions of most Bulgarians who inhabit prefabricated, identikit socialist housing in the suburbs of Sofia and all Bulgarian cities.
To repeat – most streets do not have names. Once you are in the “ghetto” you have to find a flat by block number. And most blocks, and the alleyways in between, look the same. They are also badly lit, making it harder for first-time callers. But even residents can get confused on a dark, foggy night – as (cough, cough!) I can testify! Hence many communist-era jokes describe the problems of a drunkard coming home only to find that the lady in “his” bed is a stranger! (In Sofia, by the way, keeping your front door open would not be dangerous).
The estates themselves are more spacious than your average flat in, say, London. Ceilings are higher and bay windows bigger but, I have to say, they still look grim. My wife was at least fortunate enough to live above a cluster of trees. Strangely, you seldom see squirrels in Sofia. Perhaps they are right-wing! I miss them.
Entrances are forbidding: heavy, steely prison-like doors that clang shut and dark, dirty, dingy corridors. Every surface is sharp and brittle. Outside it’s little better: uneven pavements, potholes and litter-strewn communal areas. Inside the buildings themselves life is strangely civilized. There’s a very good reason for this. Whereas, say, in London, council housing (which looks similar) is usually home to the unskilled working class, in Bulgaria these blocks are full of professionals – doctors, civil servants and teachers – whose salary is rarely much higher than the Bulgarian average of 350-400 pounds a month. (But the cost of living is much lower than in the UK). Salaries are so low that few can ever aspire to anything better.
The lack of social mobility means that people sometimes stay in such buildings for a lifetime. My wife had the same neighbours for 35 years. Children grow up together, attend the local school and remain permanent fixtures in a community, although, of course, the younger generation move around a bit more. But the areas themselves are usually quiet – no loud music, no kids standing outside the entrances intimidating people and no drunks urinating. Sofia is homogeneous which helps to build social cohesion. And when you know you’re likely to stay somewhere for a long time you take care not to antagonise your neighbours, not only to keep one’s self-respect but out of self-concern too. You never know when you may need someone to water your plants in your absence!
The living conditions are not so awful once you get used to them. But the ride out of Sofia airport IS off-putting to first timers. If my mother had ever visited we used to joke we’d blindfold her until we deposited her at her hotel in the historic – and infinitely more aesthetically pleasing – city centre. But that’s life for most Sofians, apart from some wealthier folk who live in the villas surrounding Mount Vitosha. Life for most is depressingly uniform.
When I stayed in Bushey recently (north London suburb) I appreciated the view to some thatched cottages in a country lane opposite. It’s the old story; you learn to appreciate what you don’t have. The owners of such houses don’t know how lucky they are. Doubtless, the squirrels agreed.
* Street Without a Name: Childhood and Other Misadventures in Bulgaria
By Kapka Kassabova