A European Balancing Act

A European Balancing Act

The cities of Sofia and Granada sit at opposite ends of Europe. Alexandra Hodgkinson gives her insight on the balances struck between them. 

Studying Spanish and Bulgarian, I’m no stranger to the curious, bewildered, and sometimes downright reproachful reactions I receive when asked about my degree subject. So far, everyone who has asked me what I study follows up this question with a variation of the above quotes: why? Why such different languages? It is difficult to answer, as I never know what people are referring to when they say “different”. Different because linguistically they are practically strangers? Different because the countries are situated on opposite ends of Europe? Or different because the first is one of the most widely spoken languages in the world, and as for the other, a rather shocking number of people do not even know that it is a language.

However, what I found overwhelmingly more important, and what most people neglect to ask me about, is how through their differences I see their similarities. Looking through the Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s advice for British nationals travelling abroad, the words “basic” and “old-fashioned” crop up regularly in the section about Bulgaria. These warnings refer to facilities, hospitals, and even attitudes, whereas the dangers in Spain reflect something much more lively: spontaneous forest fires, strong river undercurrents, and a recommendation that I avoid all demonstrations and protests. I wondered if I would find my experiences there as different as these descriptions: one drab and dilapidated, the other a red-hot, impulsive flame.

Arriving in Bulgaria, I had arranged for my new landlord to pick me up at the airport, a decision that I was starting to regret as the minutes ticked by, waiting on an uncomfortable plastic bench next to the Arrivals sign. That being said, I could have just as easily been waiting in Departures, as those returning and holiday-goers setting off blurred into one group in the oval-shaped, plastic white hall. I am certain that most of the arrivals were Bulgarian natives returning home from holiday, unlike me, one of the few foreigners visiting Bulgaria in mid-February.


I was beginning to worry that entrusting the first day of my Bulgarian placement to a complete stranger was going to turn into one of the travel horror stories that one hears about. But I had done the relevant checks: I had looked up previous tenants, reviews, Erasmus forums, the Foreigners in Sofia Facebook group, which is a must for finding out information that only locals can tell you, and all the advice that the government’s Travel Aware Campaign had to offer. Eventually, my phone picked up a signal, and a string of messages from my landlord hurried in, assuring me that he was on his way.

Often the most effective way to explore a new place is on a train, coach or bus, or as in this particular case, an incredibly dusty yet hard and sturdy Jeep. Able to take in the lengthy view of the contours of the new horizons that would hug my peripheral vision for the duration of my stay in Sofia, the drive from the airport was grey. Not an English, drizzly grey, but a grey with shadows of forest green, a grey balance of vibrantly alive, plush yet silhouetted pine trees, and half-dead collections of dusty brown sprigs, somehow still uprightly sticking out of the ground and competing for height with their leafy cousins. Streets were lined with structurally identical, yet characteristically distinct, smoky and dilapidated buildings, the grey shadow of Communism uniting their brown suburbs. It was as if Bulgaria had its own filter, unsettling the balance, heightening the contrast on everything – green and brown, dead and alive, rich and poor – whilst covering everything with a stony, slate-like shadow of ash. Perhaps it was just the smoke from my new landlord’s girlfriend’s skinny cigarette getting in my eyes.

Landing in Granada proved to be somewhat more straightforward. Whereas Sofia had felt shrouded in mystery, the Spanish city’s secrets shouted at me and burned my eyes and skin with their colourful yellow heat. My friendly taxi driver mirrored the happy and curious questions of my Bulgarian landlord, both journeys tongue-tying me linguistically as I struggled to flip my brain between Spanish and Bulgarian modes.The lined olive face smiling at me in the rear-view mirror was kind, but his heavy Andalusian accent added a prickle of nervous sweat to my already uncomfortably flushed skin, which was slowly reddening under the flaming orange blue sky blasting in through the open windows of the taxi.

Here, the streets were cramped and narrow. The tanned buildings pushed into each other like chattering fans at a concert waiting for the famed flamenco dancers to flare along their stage: the yellowy-beige, hard, uneven tiles sparkling down the alleys of these long, winding terraces. Whilst the tops of the pale blonde buildings were taken over by sun terraces and curly black iron balconies, the bottoms belonged to the street-sellers and tapas bars.

The Arabic influence, present before the reclaiming of Catholic Spain, has maintained a stronghold in Granada; perhaps not politically, but certainly in the tourist industry. Rich purple and golds woven into tapestries drape along alleys, and thick, pungent incense coils into the street from below. But beneath the bitter scent of frankincense were all the classic smells anyone might expect to find when in Spain: aromas of tomato dishes cooking at the backs of restaurants, salty cured meats hanging over their entrances, red wine and cigarette smoke wafting from tables, and fold-up chairs lining every pavement. Sometimes stereotypes exist for a reason.

At first glance, the impressions that struck me when entering Spain and Bulgaria were polar opposites. Now, my perspective has changed dramatically. I picture the two countries on a map not as the bottom corners of Europe, but rather more akin to funnels: winding footpaths, through and between different continents, religions, communities, shades and shadows of the world. They structurally balance Europe between our neighbouring continents: Africa to the south of Spain and Asia to the east of Bulgaria. On my year abroad, I attempted somewhat of a balancing act myself between these two different funnels of Europe, splitting my time between both, and attempting to harmonise my view of each, rather than carrying with me the cultural conflict of East vs.West.

This article was originally published in Issue 722 of Pi Magazine.

Artwork by Carol Bartlett