I have been asked to contribute to a book that explores Britain’s relationship to Europe that will be published at Samhain, with all profits going to refugee charities. It will be called ‘A Love Letter to Europe’ and published by Hodder & Co. Here is my contribution:
Love seems to work best when we cannot fully understand what is going on – that delicious sense of mystery, of irrationality. My falling in love with Sofia was like that – drawn to the shabby chic of the buildings, the complete lack of ‘customer care’, the simplicity of the food, the warmth of the people once you gained their trust. And from that first visit in 1974 the love grew, and I would go every spring, when the cherry blossom filled the streets, and Mt Vitosha shone white with snow on the horizon. And I would go with my friends on the ski lift up on to the mountain and look down on the city, or I would sit in the crypt of the Alexander Nevsky cathedral bathing in the golden glow of its icons.
It was all impossibly ‘Other’ – so near to Europe and yet so different: the Iron Curtain, the sullen policemen, the stories of life under the dictator Todor Zhivkov. Drawn to this strangeness, flirting with learning the language, even with eventually living there, I got closer to a world of people yearning for Western freedoms, but also often loyal to their Russian friends who had saved them from 600 years of Turkish domination.
The darkness of this world that I had been enjoying as a visitor, amused and intrigued by its otherness, reared its head brutally when a friend was suddenly arrested in the summer of 1981. Months later, the doorbell of his apartment rang, and his wife and daughter were handed his clothes by a soldier. On the top of this neatly folded pile was one bullet, the one that had been used to execute him as a ‘traitor’.
At that time it seemed impossible that the regime in Bulgaria would ever change. But it did, in 1989, and since 2007 it has been a member of the European Union – not freed of all its problems, but freed of the repression of a regime that killed its detractors.
The Bulgarians have a long tradition of mysticism. It was here that the Bogomils, precursors of the Cathars, challenged the theology of Constantinople. It is in its southern mountains that the ancient city of Perperikon, the ‘Machu Picchu of Europe’, lays claim to being the legendary Oracle of Dionysus. And still today the Bulgarians’ passion for the mystical can be found in their love of another kind of oracle: reading the coffee grounds.
And so, when I drink a Turkish coffee on the streets of Sofia, and eat a banitsa – a national delicacy, a sort of croissant made with feta – I can look up at the cherry blossom and further on to the snow on Mt Vitosha, and still enjoy the uniqueness, the otherness of this place. But I can also do something I couldn’t do before: I can enjoy the feeling that the people here are at last free, and are part of the wider community that is Europe today. And I can look down into the coffee grounds in my empty cup and try to divine the future of my own divided country, caught as it is between dreams of past greatness and the fear of irrevocable loss.