Saturday, April 9, 2016

Sofia in 2016: Striving for Livability

In the oldest European capital, things are happening. Funded by the European Union, the rather chaotic city is constantly being upgraded. The construction of a third metro line might have started 30 years late, but at least it is occurring. The city planners are hoping to at least slow down the ever worsening gridlock on the streets. Other steps they have taken since Bulgaria joined the E.U. in 2007, such as the construction of the second metro line and refurbishments of some important intersections, have had an effect. Also, the city finally purchased a large number of eco-buses, which replaced 40-year-old vehicles with huge mushroom-clouds of Diesel fumes in their rear. Those should have been dumped much earlier.

Sofia shot from Hotel Hemus. (Photo: Imanuel Marcus)
Driving through Sofia will still ruin any car's dampers in record time, due to thousands of unrepaired potholes and it will still freak you out. But, 10 years ago, it was far worse. Crossing the "Ruski Pametnik" intersection used to require a Land Rover. For about a year now, the asphalt there has been as smooth as glass. Using the Ring Road around the city, which did not deserve that name 12 years ago, is now an indulgence. Still, there is a long way to go. The pollution continues to be alarming, in the dirtiest European capital.

While workers keep on digging into the ground underneath, they find precious walls and foundations, dating back to the Roman Empire. Those finds were basically lost under an ugly bridge in the very center. Now, the city is digging for more, and trying to give that archaeological site the kind of surrounding it deserves. Even in Sofia's parks, ancient ruins and stones demonstrate what kind of culture existed here, thousands of years ago.

The center is surrounded by hundreds of industrialized apartment blocks in the outskirts, built in Socialist times, which could not be uglier. Back then, beauty was not among the regime's priorities. This aspect is still obvious today. Among all Eastern European capitals, Sofia is the least beautiful one. But it still offers certain facets, such as the huge Vitosha Mountain range, which is only minutes away and visible even from the city center. It offers skiing slopes in winter and great hiking trails in summer. Also, the center does have a few nice areas, countless inexpensive restaurants and a pretty good night life.

There is some beauty in Sofia: The Ivan Vasov Theater. (Photo: Imanuel Marcus)
During Socialist times, Bulgarians were not allowed to move to Sofia without permission. Since the big changes occurred, a quarter of a century ago, the city's population quadrupled to 2 million. This huge influx is one of the reasons for the chaos and the fact that the country is striving to make its capital more livable. Without the rampant corruption, this process would probably be happening a lot faster.

One thing is certain: The livability they are striving for at City Hall will not be for everyone anytime soon. The upper 10,000, including mafiosos and entrepreneurs, can already steer their German-built limousines across some repaired intersections. They, as well as the small Bulgarian middle class, can go shopping in the far too many, newly constructed malls. But there are several demographic groups and minorities, who are far from having those privileges.

The part of Sofia nobody wants to see or know about: Here, in Fakulteta,
thousands of Roma live in terrible conditions. (Photo: Imanuel Marcus)
Most pensioners receive around 200 Euro per month, an amount which might just cover their heating costs and a few, modest purchases in supermarkets. City employees, such as teachers, clerks, policemen and nurses do not get too far either, on salaries between 300 and 500 Euro. But it gets even worse: Most members of the Roma community (gypsies) live in slums equal to those found in African or South American countries. In Sofia's Fakulteta quarter, children play in the dirt, families live in make-shift huts and nearly all of them are being discriminated in all walks of live.

Most Bulgarians, who are not of Romani origin, would not admit there is a huge discrimination issue, saying the plight of the Roma was their own fault. Many, even intellectuals, keep on citing "all Roma" were "lazy criminals", who did "not want to work". When I posted this blog in the Facebook group "Foreigners in Sofia & Friends", some people left comments full of denial and hatred as well, while according to the E.U., the U.S. and NGOs, there is a huge problem indeed. Of course, it is not limited to Sofia and the issue is very similar in countries like neighboring Romania, Slovakia or Hungary. But that does not make the situation any better. What is the issue? A lack of empathy is definitely part of it.

The yearly Sofia Film Fest draws thousands of visitors, the opera house has international audiences too, excellent live clubs organize brilliant gigs and the hot summers drive hundreds of thousands of people into the city parks or the mountains. At the same time, the kind of poverty and injustice many inhabitants are confronted with, should not exist anywhere, especially not in the E.U.. 

Children in Sofia's Fakulteta quarter. (Photo: Imanuel Marcus)
Sofia is an ambivalent city. Many aspects are absolutely unacceptable. At the same time, it is likable for some of the relatively few who make a decent living. Many Bulgarians, who move to Sofia due to the fact that it is the only Bulgarian city with a proper job market, do actually not really like it. To them, it is basically a city of hope. But, they too notice the improvements which are occurring, step by step.

Personally, I have been living here for five years. And, surprisingly or not, I actually like living here, maybe because I see Sofia as an exotic city, because I know where to go, because my big daughter, my love and several friends are here and because I do not feel unwelcome. The latter aspect would be very different if I was e.g. Black, a Syrian refugee or if I wore my kipa. 


  1. Imanuel, this is an excellent piece of an article. I agree with everything but one - the night life is awesome, not good. However, it is true that it is unacceptable that Roma people are living in third-world slums and retired people can barely live off of their miserable pensions.

    The good thing is that there are good things.

    I love that your article shows everything - that is how our media (I am a local) should be. Objective and critical.

    1. Very kind, Svetoslav. Merci mnogo!

    2. A lot of Roma are lazy, have 4,5,6 children, were as many Bulgarians strive for good education, work hard and mostly have, 1,2 children

  2. Nice article ! I used to live in Sofia in the period June 2009 - October 2011 and it has been the best experience in my life so far. I come back two or three times a year just because I love the city. I still remember my weekend trips to the mountains. Only 20 minutes with a bus and I was in the very nice nature around Sofia.

  3. Very good article, reminds me of the many aspects of my life in Sofia 2009-2010. When I visited in 2015 I was able to ride the second metro line.

  4. nice article, but I have to say Sofia has improved a lot in the 12 years I have been living here, yes a lot more needs to be done and corruption/mafia needs to be dealt with, but young Bulgarians with good education can and will bring this interesting city forward, I like the city and it's people very much and have now made this place my home !

  5. Thank you, Jo! Yes, I fully agree.

  6. Solving the problem with the Roma is gonna be hard, and will mostly require a complete overhaul of the education, coupled with a jump in salaries of about 2-3 times at least (because if we don't see such a jump, the only ones who are ready to become teachers will continue to be those who are too stupid to do anything else). Frankly, nothing other than figuring out how to keep the Roma children in school is going to help in the long run. But the trend is the opposite: less and less BULGARIAN children stay in school.

    Having said that, you can see why "solving the Roma problem" isn't particularly high on the priorities of even as-liberal-as-they-get Bulgarians. They just perceive it as a small part of the much larger problem with the education.

    1. Thank you! Yes, work in several areas are necessary in order to start resolving the severe issues with minorities.

    2. No, really, I indeed think it will resolve by itself if we manage to create a decent educational system. While we are at it, I think any and all problems the Turkish minority has had have been created by Ahmed Dogan and his party. So Bulgaria is a relatively simple case. Now, tackle the black supremacists in the States, that's gonna be a fun thing to figure out how to do, and will require attacking of the same problem on as many fronts as possible.

  7. Hi Imanuel!
    I just read your post and thought a lot of the issues are illustrated through the concrete example of my work. You can check it out here: and if you read Bulgarian also look around the blog.


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