David Stokes – Director British Council Bulgaria from 1991 to 1997
I felt very privileged to be part of the reestablishment of the British Council in Bulgaria, it was a unique experience and one that I remember with great satisfaction.
I learnt of my posting to Bulgaria whilst still in Sao Paulo and I looked forward to it with a mixture of anticipation, excitement and a few misgivings. My previous direct contact with the country had been limited to a failed attempt to get a transit visa in 1964 and my eldest son’s reports of his school skiing trip to Vitosha in the early 80’s. ‘They drink apple juice and there’s a place with lots of bells in a circle’.
In the spring of 1990 I was very fortunate to have lessons in the UK with a Bulgarian teacher who not only introduced me to the language and culture but kept me up to date with the fast moving events of that time. I also had the good luck to be briefed by none other than Simeon of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha after a talk on East West relations at a London institute.
Once in Sofia I continued my language lessons at the Institute for Foreign Students and during that time I believe I was the first western diplomat to be allowed to stay in a Bulgarian family, a practice commonplace now. Living with a family entirely changed my perspective – for one thing my previous misgivings were entirely forgotten, I acquired a supportive circle of friends and began to appreciate the challenges of day-to-day life outside the protective diplomatic bubble.
I was very much aware of the fact that within eight months of my arrival the Cultural Section of the British Embassy was going to be replaced by the British Council. For over 40 years the British Council had not been allowed to operate in Bulgaria and the new Agreement was to be signed in February 1991 during President Zhelev’s visit to the UK.
One of the first challenges was the conversion of my predecessor’s flat into the new British Council office. This was undertaken by ‘Hurst Interiors’ in a bizarre HQ project importing everything from Portland cement to incompatible electrical fittings in two enormous TIR lorries from the UK. The results were acceptable apart from minor irritations such as computers that could turn on light bulbs when wires were attached to their metal cases.
A much more rewarding process was the recruitment of new staff to cope with our greatly expanded programme of activities. I was very impressed with the high quality of the shortlists and some of those selected still work for the Council office in senior positions.
I have always remembered the advice I received while discussing the drafts of the new Cultural Exchange Agreement with the Bulgarian Ministry of Foreign Affairs in August 1990. ‘Run the British Council here as if it was in Western Europe.’
That took time as the rapidly evolving political and economic situation in the early 90’s was a major challenge and some of our partners were understandably sceptical and unsure of how to respond. I once had to wait outside a Teacher Training Institute whilst they phoned the Ministry of Education for permission to let me in – I should add that they later became a key player in one of our most successful projects.
By 1996 we were recognised as the leading foreign cultural and educational institution in the country as witnessed by the media coverage of our ‘British Days in Bulgaria Festival’, 14 major arts events which ran from March to June that year. There was a young but thriving direct English Teaching operation and exams business, six British Council managed libraries in outside institutions, projects in medical and vocational education (to name but two) and support for English language teachers in state schools and training colleges.
On the lighter side there were ingenious requests like the museum which suggested we could bankroll their activity and presented me with their monthly bill for staff salaries. Another organisation told me in confidence that no one would ever feel comfortable visiting our newly opened British Council library and it would be far better for our entire book collection to be donated to them.
Developing mutual trust and respect has become something of a cliché over the years but it was and remains at the core of our work. I felt very privileged to be part of the reestablishment of the British Council in Bulgaria, it was a unique experience and one that I remember with great satisfaction.