Pieces of Student Life in Sofia

By Geert Luteijn

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It is my last night in Sofia. Walking through the streets of the center, I can sniff the energy in the air. Even though many have left the city for the seaside, the parks are still full of youngsters. The social life of Sofia takes place in the protests and the parks these days. Beer is brought in cans and plastic bottles from one to two and a half liters, everyone has their own group and some people move between different groups and even parks.  Fast food joints have bright neon lights and even the Billa Supermarket on Rakovski  is still open. I got to experience Sofia from various sides during my stay in the past week, trying to become part of it.
Together with my Hitchhike partner Theresa, I caught a ride all the way from Bratislava (Slovakia) to Sofia. We were incredibly lucky! Karolina and Adrian, sister and brother from Poland, came from a festival and were on their way to visit Sara. Sara lives with her mother and father in a neighborhood relatively close to the city center of Sofia. Sara studies with Karolina in Brno (Czech Republic). We arrive around nine in the evening, but the welcome couldn’t be more enthusiastic. The mum hugs Karolina and start to talk in Bulgarian with passion. Karolina doesn’t understand half of what is said, and neither do I. Theresa and I feel a bit like intruders, but are welcomed with the same warmth as the long expected guests from Poland.

The apartment has two rooms, a small kitchen and a bathroom. The kitchen and bathroom are of lower standards than we are used to in western Europe, but the hospitality and dinner are more generous than I have ever experienced in the Netherlands. Theresa has her birthday the next day and is immediately invited for  dinner with typical Bulgarian dishes the next day. We are offered a bed and the family goes out of their way to make us feel at home. Before we know it we have agreed to come to the village to meet the rest of the family and friends and eat the giant tomatos that are grown on the countryside (nothing like those watery things that are grown in the greenhouses in the Netherlands).

The next day I have to leave the group and arrange accommodation for the arriving participants of the hitchhike competition that is finishing in two days in the City park in front of the National Theater Ivan Vazov. Together with Krzystof, a Polish friend in love with Bulgaria, I head down to studentski grad. The student city is a part of town you find in many eastern European cities and houses the student population. Rooms are often of poor quality. I heard people compare them to German prisons, but than you have to pay for them. After an afternoon and morning of bureaucratic procedures and favors we managed to get five  student rooms with twin beds at the Technical University.

We started with an address to a block and room 137 in student city, we got this through a Bulgarian student. A bus from the central university building took us to this part of town, about 30 to 40 minutes from the center. In the bus we find some helpful students that point us in the right direction. From the bus stop again we ask someone walking by for directions. Lucky for us, he has a key card to get into the building and he brings all the way to the room. The room seems like an ordinary dorm room and is locked. So our helpful guide brings us next door. Again nobody around. So we introduce our selves to our guide, and Stanislav hears our story about the hitchhike competition and picks up the phone and starts calling in favors for us. The third call is a success. We get an appointment at the Technical University the next day with Petar,  the Secretary of the Student Council.

The next day we head over there, make the mistake of asking older people in Bulgarian for directions and get send from one university to the other, but not the Technical University. Lesson number one: always ask young people in English. We decide to call our Student Council contact and before we know it, he picks us up by car from the Metro station. Than we get into the bureaucratic paper labyrinth. First, we wait in front of one office, while Petar takes care of things. Than we pay to a woman behind glass at the end of the hall, 9 Lev per person per night (2 lev is roughly 1 euro). We receive a piece of paper with a receipt attached to it and walk to Block 4 of the student housing of the technical university. There the personnel of the flat is sitting outside smoking and having drinks on the porch. Incredible how a student flat can provide jobs for so many. It is immediately clear a big woman with glasses is in charge. She puts out her cigarette and after a minute takes us to her office. She takes our papers and studies them looking under her glasses and than looking up to Stanislav and asks us questions through him: ‘How many boys and girls?’ I am startled for a minute and than start counting on my fingers.

After the official business is done. The woman in charge smiles at us and calls in a maid. She walks into the office and hands the keys from the wall two meters from the desk. Some orders are dispensed in Bulgarian and verified through the maid.’ Are those and those rooms empty and clean?’ I imagine her asking. Stanislav accompanies us following the maid to rooms and sees to it that everything is in order for us. I invite him to Delft, since he is interested in the Technical University in my hometown. We exchange contact information and are all set for the participants of the hitchhike competition to experience a piece of student life in Sofia.

Next to communist style flats, the student city consists of fast food places, kiosks and bars. Some university buildings are bordering to it like the Technical University others lie closer to the center. Students in Bulgaria have a totally different environment than what I have experienced in the Netherlands, Germany and England. It helps me to understand their position in the protests and in the parks. More about that in my next post.

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