A couple of weeks ago, I was in Munich for Oktoberfest. Germany is, of course, the economic and political powerhouse of the European Union. As one of the E.U.’s newest members and arguably the poorest, Bulgaria is the antithesis of Germany. Not surprisingly, there were some things about German society that jumped out at me as compared to Bulgarian society.
German society seems incredibly structured. There are lots of rules, and almost everyone seems to abide by those rules. As a result, Germany is remarkably clean and efficient. Things are new and well maintained. Buses, trains, and other forms of mass transit arrive and depart as scheduled. Indeed, German society is a well-oiled machine that hums along in such a way that you can easily tune out, jump on the conveyor belt, and let the system do most of the thinking for you and not worry one iota. And I understand the appeal in that. There are certain things most people don’t want to have to worry about – hitting a pothole while driving, stepping in dog shit when walking in the park, being stuck on a broken down bus, being late for an appointment because the train was late. When I first got to Munich, the efficiency and structure of German society was beyond refreshing. I saw it as everything Bulgaria can and should be.
In contrast to the Germans, many Bulgarians ignore rules entirely or intentionally attempt to skirt them. When caught, they’ll generally plead ignorance and beg for leniency or argue vehemently with whoever is charged with enforcing the rule. And then they’ll go right back to breaking it again. Maintenance usually means fixing something after it breaks. The thought of preventative maintenance rarely enters the consciousness. Things generally run on schedule but not always, and Bulgarians seem to be conditioned to expect delays. Except for the main highways, roads are more potholes than roads, and sidewalks are uneven and ankle-buckling. Walking in winter is always an adventure because, for a society that loves to salt the hell out of everything, Bulgarians generally don’t salt the streets and sidewalks. As a result, walkways resemble ice skating rinks for a good part of the year. And then there are the animals. Stray dogs nipping at your heels. Stray cats jumping out of dumpsters. Goats, sheep, cows, horses, and donkeys all walking the streets and sidewalks and leaving their droppings behind.
For a first time visitor to Bulgaria, all of this can be overwhelming and a bit intimidating. Once you’re here a while, however, it all seems second nature and no big deal. And as refreshing as it was to see a society humming on all cylinders, if given the choice between a structured, predictable society with impeccably clean and level sidewalks and an unstructured, unpredictable one with uneven sidewalks covered in goat shit, I’d rather walk through goat shit.