Today the temperature is 36 degrees. I have ordered a fresh fruit juice in The Kiss, my local cafe, on Christo Botev Boulevard, Sofia. I reach for my Bulgarian language course but it's too darned hot. My friend Vasil Petrov is meeting me here. He's a famous singer. I like this place. Four or five tables face the street and are ideal for people-watching. A woman in a fluorescent yellow jacket walks up and down the boulevard selling parking tickets for the city. Now you have to pay to park in the center and, more importantly, parking offenses are enforced. About a year ago I did something stupid in my car and was pulled over. A policeman invited me to get out of my car and talk to his colleague who was still sitting in his vehicle. I crossed the road reaching for my wallet. The sergeant in the police vehicle muttered something about "coffee...". I eventually handed over 10 Leva, about 3 pounds and 50 pence and was allowed to leave without a ticket. This, in broad daylight and in front of at least 20 people standing at a bus top. These days the police are more careful. Their open arrogance is being forced underground by EU legislation. I met the mayor of Sofia, Boiko Borissov, in my favourite piano bar one evening and congratulated him on closing Vitosha Boulevard to traffic. Against very stiff commercial objections, Sofia's most exclusive shopping street is now a pedestrian zone. Also, across the city a flurry of parking spaces have been painted in bright blue for the disabled and new traffic lights installed. Mayor Borissov was in the bar to celebrate his party's success in the European elections. I think he will end up as Prime Minister one day.

Vasil is late but in Bulgaria this is normal. Patience is an important quality to develope in this land. Two girls pass. They wear very short skirts and walk in a self-consciously sexy way. Gorgeous. When I first came here, like every new-comer, I was struck by the beauty of the Bulgarian female. I have been here long enough now, however, to be aware of the people walking between each eye-grabbing cluster of Sofian beauty. It is still a tough life for many. The old ladies singing on the streets or selling bread or selling small bunches of violets outside the churches were probably beautiful once. But life was a much more cruel and harsh master for them than for the young women of today. I had a beautiful Bulgarian girlfriend until about two months ago. Her mother is a doctor who cures psoriasis. In the West she would be earning thousands of pounds a year. Here in Sofia she lives in two rooms with her daughter and is lucky to earn enough money to keep ahead of the game. She supports her daughter while she takes her second degree (in film directing; her first was journalism). The old supporting the new until the old must give way to the new.

A gypsy puts only one foot on the steps to The Kiss before a waiter immediately shoos him away. I have heard many Bulgarians say "I am not racist but the Roma...!!!". In 2000 I came here for the first to make a film and saw a dancing bear in the street near the newly constructed Hilton hotel. One of the ways this patent cruelty was countered was a charity with funding from, among others, Bridget Bardot. They set up a bear sanctuary for these sad creatures in a lovely mountain setting near the town of Belitsa where the sickly bears, bought from their task masters, were released into the protected wild. Now a law has been passed banning this medieval practice. No more bears on the street. Fewer gypsies. Opposite my apartment, new plastic recycling bins were recently installed. Yellow, green and blue. EU regulation colours. The trouble was that the narrow opening at the top of these new-style containers was not large enough for gypsy hands, however deft, to do a little re-cycling of their own. The old hoppers had a sliding top which made sifting through the rubbish a relatively easy job. One morning I left my building and opposite were the smoking remains of three recycling bins. Whoever melted them to a flattened mess obviously felt that this kind of "progress" was not to their benefit. It was an item on the evening news. They have now been replaced by metal recycling containers. Fewer gypsies.There was a big protest at a land-fill by the Roma who lived there. They were complaining about their unsanitary living conditions. The general response to this was: "Nobody forced you to live there!". This may be true, but every small social change for the "better" that occurs here is a threat to the Roma community. This is not a problem easily solved but it is a problem that must be solved. What is Bulgaria going to do about it's Roma population? The new is backing the old into a corner in this case.

I moved here by default. A film brought me to Sofia at the same time that my now-ex-wife told me that she "couldn't do this anymore". I caught a plane to Sofia to fulfill my contract. The job was Hallmark's ICON. One film turned into another and I found myself buying an apartment in the centre. To date I have made 12 films or TV projects here and have worked for many different international movie companies. But also for locally based companies. Nu Image, for example, are based in LA but have offices in Sofia. They have made films here for years and recently bought Boyana Kino Centre, the national film studios. They are embarking on a multi-million dollar refurbishing program and have great plans for the studio's future. Some may regret the passing of this building into "foreign" hands but again, the building was falling down. The old patriotic style of movie-making must give way to a new style; one that has far more money. And a LOT of money is flowing into Bulgaria these days.

Vasil Petrov arrives. Bulgaria's Mr. Sinatra. He has a naturally gifted voice and really does sound like Ole Blue eyes. I have written four songs with him for his up-coming album but we are here to discuss the concept of the next album for which we will write all the songs. The piano bar I mentioned earlier (The Voice) is in part his business. The walls are adorned with photos of the real Mr.Sinatra from various stages of his life and the walls are jazz club red. The piano, a genuine Steinway, has a glass top around which many drunks, including me, have sat and sang and ogled girls and danced and flirted the night away. Thing is, "piano" bar is a bit of a misnomer because not only is the Steinway electrified but there is more often than not an electric guitar and drum machine to boost our enjoyment as well as a female singer. Vasil doesn't sing there very often anymore and when he does he makes sure he brings a pianist. Young people can't play Porter or Gershwin these days.

After Vasil and I parted company I went to an Irish pub just off Vitosha boulevard. I come here not to rub shoulders with the ex-pat community (I have been travelling for so many years now that I do not feel the need to bond with my fellow countrymen abroad) but to have a pint or two and read the Sun. Thank God for that glorious organ. It reminds me why I can never live in England again. My boy, Theo, lives in London and is the only reason I visit the city. An interview in a Bulgarian daily with this country's president was translated and reported in The Sofia Echo, an English language paper here. He said he knew that while Bulgaria was in the process of joining the EU the country would attract a lot of "scum". But wait! Here is the Sun warning us of hordes of Bulgarians and Romanians sweeping across our shores, making our lives a misery, and yet the President of Bulgaria is calling some of us scum! In this particular Irish pub, I watch as the fly-by-nights, those with a past and the opportunists circle each other like a school of nervy barracuda in a pool with no other species of fish. As sad as prisoners on death row handing out business cards to each other. They too will be swept away. The Bulgarians may be many things but fools they are most definitely not.
©  2010 Ben Cross. No material may be reproduced without prior written consent from Ben Cross. All rights reserved.


  1. What an interesting insight into your life in Sofia. I enjoyed reading your thoughts on Bulgaria. Well done!

  2. I thoroughly enjoyed this when I first read it last night. It gave me a glimpse of a place I will most likely never get to see. Thank you.


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