Kevin Lewis – Director British Council Bulgaria from 1997 to 2002
I like to think that the work of the British Council over its period of time in Bulgaria has contributed in some small way to opening Europe up.
London, Late March, 1997. Warm, spring sunshine. Drive south, nearer the sun.
Sofia, 1 April 1997. Snow, ice, penetrating cold. Everyone completely wrapped up and looking fed up. How did that happen? I didn’t go south to get cold.
Don’t worry, they say. In a month or so it will be warm. Blossom will be out, and so will the summer clothes. Pavement cafes alive with colour and people’s legs. It seemed wildly unlikely.
The weather proved to be a metaphor. Bulgaria was on the verge of economic and social collapse and the government had just been overthrown by peaceful street demonstrations. Beyond the near-miraculous achievement of immediate currency stability the new government had not yet taken hold. Times were tough. The economy was shot. There were queues everywhere for the small and uncertain supplies of dull, buy-it-when-you-see-it, end-of-winter foodstuffs. And even the only for those with ready cash.
If the weather was cold the welcome was however warm. Colleagues smiled and were eager to share the secrets of living in Sofia. These included brisk marches around the city centre to bring to life the buildings, statues, monuments which illustrated Bulgaria’s history and place in Europe, and equally anxious to demonstrate and develop the networks of people – students, young professionals, established intellectuals – who were hungry for any nourishment which a foreign cultural organisation, established only after ‘the changes’ could offer. For even though official permission to travel was no longer required after ‘the changes’ travel was not a reality for most. Few people could command the funds and the visas to benefit from what was for them a cruel freedom.
The brisk marches convinced me to live in the city centre. We found a wonderful, unique flat in Lozenets which brought us joy every day that we lived there. We were quickly able to welcome a stream of Bulgarian and UK friends and visitors. One of my strongest memories of living in Sofia is walking home in the early hours of a June morning after an evening making music and drinking wine with friends. The beautiful cobbles on the Lozenets streets glistened with dew, the air was heavy with the scent from the linden trees and the only sound was that of my steps. I felt entirely happy.
Our work premises – library, classrooms and offices – showed signs of the rapid expansion of our early years. We had colonised individual apartments in a bourgeois block on a city-centre corner. We crept further up the staircase as activity increased. Each apartment has its own front door, entrance area, kitchen, toilet, beyond which bed and sitting rooms were converted with varying degrees of success to library space, offices and, least successfully, classrooms. And each work group stamped their own character and working styles on to their apartments. So a working day consisted of endlessly running outside, up and down stairs, ringing on doorbells, and being let in to other people’s territory, with varying degrees of welcome. Some neighbours of course remained. Every time Mrs Malinova used her electric kettle some of our computers went off. I suspect though that we were much more of a nuisance to Mrs Malinova and our other neighbours than they ever were to us.
My first resolution was to move office. Suitable premises would provide visitors and staff with a much better environment and also make a statement about the seriousness of our commitment to working in Bulgaria. A move would also enable Mrs Malinova to make her coffee without sending our work into a state of suspended animation. I used to pass by an impressive unused building in Doctor’s Garden and say to anyone who cared to listen ‘that’s the kind of building we should be in here.’ Cut to four years later, and we moved into that same building. When I left Bulgaria colleagues gave me a beautiful impressionist painting of that building by Svetoslav Marinchevski; and it hangs today, admired by visitors and treasured by ourselves, proudly over my piano at home.
I had the pleasure and privilege of directing the British Council in Bulgaria for more than five years. As Bulgaria continued to change over that period the shape of our work changed. The appetite to learn English language increased, the opportunities and benefits of participation in Europe’s institutions, structures and networks grew, and so did the demand for information and cultural contacts. And then of course the internet and personal computers suddenly changed the way that many Bulgarians began to be able to satisfy these needs without external interventions. While we must never forget that difficulties remain, and are often distressing at an individual level, there was, and remains, a definite and positive sense of national direction. Beyond my five years the dynamic of course continued; and the pattern of our work changed further to reflect that.
A further five years or so after I had left Bulgaria, I found myself, late one March, in Rome on a work visit with a colleague from Belgium. One evening, after dinner, we fancied a nightcap. Rome, surprisingly, is not a late night city, and everywhere seemed to be closed. ‘I know a place that should be open,’ my colleague said, and led me up and down and steep streets and round some corners until we came to an Irish bar full of people. We were served by a good-looking young man who spoke easy English to us and of course Italian to everyone else. ‘I think he’s Bulgarian,’ I said to my colleague. ‘Why?’ she said. ‘Do you see that red and white band around his wrist?’ I replied. ‘Well, in Bulgaria, on 1st March and for a few weeks afterwards, …’ and explained what the wrist band looked like. When things were a little quieter I called the young man over. ‘Are you Bulgarian?’ I asked him. ‘Yes,’ he said, astonished. How do you know? And I explained that the martenitsa had given him away. ‘How do you know about martenitsi?’ he asked. And I explained my connection with Bulgaria. In turn he explained to me that he had been a student at Sofia University ‘and a member of your library. I loved it and used it all the time.’ He was now a postgraduate student at Rome University and felt that he would go on somewhere else in Europe to further his studies beyond that – he didn’t know where yet: he had to research the best departments. He then asked me, ‘Do you know X?’ and named one of my colleagues from Bulgaria. ‘Of course,’ I said. ‘Her daughter was here last week,’ he said. ‘I think she’s going to study in Barcelona soon.’
Two things struck me. One was how wonderful it was to travel from the UK to Italy to meet a colleague from Belgium and be served by a Bulgarian in an Irish bar. The other, far more interesting, was that for these people – the young man and my colleague’s daughter – Europe was now open. They could realistically consider and take advantage of opportunities. Unthinkable ten, or even five, years previously. The freedom to travel was no longer cruelly hypothetical. I like to think that the work of the British Council over its period of time in Bulgaria has contributed in some small way to opening Europe up. It certainly did so for that young man.
So the weather did indeed warm up after that cold Aril start. And that’s a bit of climate change I am happy about.