“There’s no work for us,” Ali said, “because we’re old.” The sound of the Bulgarian words was familiar to my ears by now. My friend L. was translating. Ali and his wife C. were only in their fifties, but considered themselves old – and, to be honest, their hard lives had aged them prematurely.
We had driven much of the day on narrow mountain roads to this Muslim village in southern Bulgaria, a country overwhelmingly Eastern Orthodox. The women all wore the traditional Pomak dress of pantaloon-like pants down to the calves, with a long jacket over it, an apron, and a kerchief, often with felt slippers. L. began a conversation with a woman passing by and after a few moments introduced us to her. Shy but friendly, older than the others we saw around us, she invited us to her home nearby.
Descending a muddy track past a lean-to animal shelter, covered root cellar, and storage area, we stepped up into the one-room house hanging on the cliff side. She asked us to sit on the two narrow beds against the walls and brought a bucket of goat’s milk, which she poured into small glasses, and homemade feta cheese. Ali, her husband, joined us.
“Life is much more difficult now,” L. translated for Ali. At least, he said, under Communism they had jobs. He drove a tractor and she worked in the tobacco industry. The switch to the free market cost them their jobs and they couldn’t find new ones. With their goats, growing vegetables, and producing some tobacco, they managed to earn only about 3000 lev a year, about $2000, and prices had inflated. She also sewed and wove, making most of their clothes, as well as gifts, carriers for babies, and felt slippers to sell. “Young people do better, now,” Ali continued. “They have hope for the future. Not old people like us.”
Hope: without it we have no peace. The biggest challenge in countries around the world today may be the lack of hope. In some countries, such as Bulgaria and Russia, the older people despair, but in many countries it is the young. Here in the United States, people of all ages feel that hope was snatched from them as opportunities for a secure future faded when the country divided into a few very rich and everyone else. In the developing nations of the world, it’s mostly the young, especially young men, who despair. They can’t find jobs, have no way to earn a living or help their families, can’t afford to get married, and have no prospects for the future. Is it any wonder that they are bitter and angry? This is especially true across the Middle East.
This lack of hope for the future divides people, turns them against each other, sometimes within a country, sometimes between countries. A them and us mentality grows, as individuals struggle to survive and get by. Sometimes, it’s between generations, other times between ethnic groups or religions, or between neighboring geographic areas. When resources and opportunities seem to be scarce, people scramble to grab what they feel should be their share.
In Sophia, Bulgaria’s capital city, it was clear that the younger generations were embracing their new opportunities. They had the education and the energy to take advantage of the free market system, the new technologies, and the new kinds of businesses opening up. They knew or were learning foreign languages. With fewer ties to past traditions, they seemed eager to leave old ways behind and vault into the new world opening for them. They weren't afraid of the ruthless new system.
New businesses, ranging from internet cafes to boutique hotels and smart cafes and restaurants to shops selling Western clothes and electronics, were opening across the city. The older people scrounged for anything they might sell at flea markets around town: relics of the Communist past, handmade crafts, pictures and furniture, old clothes. Treasures of the past now became commodities to bring in a few lev.
The smaller towns and villages of this Eastern European country have had a more difficult time adjusting to the transformation. Young people have abandoned their home towns, fleeing to the cities, where they believe prospects are greater. No place was this more dramatically apparent than in the village of Pirin.
At least 30 houses have been abandoned in this isolated mountain village, now inhabited mostly by old people. Of a population down to 180, 45 of the women are widows. Walking along the narrow, rutted roads and alley-like streets of Pirin, we saw that many of the once handsome traditional houses were empty and collapsing.
Maybe foreigners will move in and fix up the old houses, some of the women told our friend L., but the task would be enormous – plus the journey to this mountainside village is long and difficult. Most of the men still in the village spend their days sitting in the little plaza, smoking and gossiping, while the women do what they can to bring in money. A group of them have perfected the region’s traditional style of singing and, wearing traditional dresses, many of them antique, perform for visitors to Pirin or travel throughout Bulgaria or to other countries, both preserving their traditional culture and earning money by sharing it.
Despite hardships, the people of Bulgaria seem to be finding ways to cope with a changed world. The population is small and foreigners are curious about this country so recently opened to the West. Other countries, especially in the Middle East, face a much more difficult situation, primarily because more than half of the population there is young and unable to find work. Hungry, ill-housed, and often ill-educated because there has been no money for schools and teachers, these young people see no hope for them in this aggressive modern world. They are looking for answers, but finding few.
Bruce Douglas Reeves, author of DELPHINE, winner of the Clay Reynolds Novella Competition, Published by Texas Review Press, also available from University Press Books-Berkeley (800-676-8722), Texas A & M Consortium, Amazon, and Barnes & Noble.