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Sliven & Yambol: Life off the beaten path
Article by John Dyer, Sofia Echo, 5-11 August 2005


Sliven and Yambol occupy a grey zone for most expats in Bulgaria. Far from the ski resorts in the mountains and just outside the area marked as the seaside, few foreigners have reason to venture to the two cities. Theyre working towns. Regular people live there, the kind that get up and go to work in the morning.
I visited both cities recently for the purpose of asking mayors what they thought about American plans to lease out military bases in the area. I accomplished my goal (more on that later), and in the process saw a slice of Bulgarian life off the beaten path.
Sliven and Yambol belied some of my perceptions about the economy here. The CIA World Factbook says Bulgarians earn around 8000 US dollars a year per capita.
Expats know that figure is deceptive, because wealthy people in the capital and resort towns distort the average. So we sometimes think everywhere outside of, say, Borovets and Sunny Beach, is still in the Bronze Age.
But Sliven and Yambol felt like prosperous towns. They were pleasant and packed with fresh-faced people in clean, well-lighted restaurants and cafes.
Other than the occasional Communist-era concrete dinosaur, the architecture of both cities was humane and often older than the Second World War. Walking down their main thoroughfares, talk of Bulgarias transition and the challenges the nation faces seemed irrelevant.




Accordion players, teenagers smooching, old folks strolling and young couples pushing babies in prams fill the large park at the southern end of Slivens main walking street, Tsar Osvoboditel Boulevard. The park is better designed and better situated than the green spaces on the fringes of Sofias downtown, which lie beyond busy streets and which seem foreboding after dark (apart from the outdoor bars, that is).
We ate at Zamukas, an outdoor restaurant in the park where customers kept looking over their shoulders at us because we were speaking English. They werent being rude. A few people nodded, as if to say welcome. Dinner for two, without drinks, cost 10 leva.
Sliven has a large Roma community, and, on Tsar Osvoboditel, I saw Roma folks queuing up at ATMs to receive their benefit checks. In Sliven I didnt find any of the animosity between Roma and non-Roma people that Ive encountered in other cities. My guide, a native Slivenian, said that while rancour occasionally breaks out, on the whole people get along.
The Hotel Sliven (Tel: 624056) was a Communist-era behemoth that I wouldnt recommend to anyone expecting top-shelf service and quality. But at 20 leva a night, and located in the heart of town, I didnt care about the malfunctioning elevators and dingy rooms.
The hotel hosted a wedding on the second night I stayed there. Apparently, as part of the ceremony, the bride ran away from the party and the groom and his pals had to go find her in a game of hide-and-seek. We were invited to join in the game but declined. Everyone was pretty drunk, running around the town centre and yelling rowdily. They were loud, and I had a hard time getting to sleep that night, but I didnt hold it against them.
Since it rained on the day we planned to hike up the Blue Rocks, a mountain that looms over the city, we scrapped our plans for outdoor exercise. My guide told me a chairlift takes visitors up to the top, where one can see for miles around the Stara Planina. She described Silven, and Yambol, too, as cities where people enjoy the outdoors hiking, fishing and hunting. Ill return someday to enjoy those pleasures.
It seems odd that Sliven and Yambol are slated to become parts of Americans far-flung military empire. They appear to be in the middle of nowhere, but in fact theyre closer to conflict zones in the Middle East, the Caucasus and Central Asia than the USs current main European bases in Germany, Italy and the United Kingdom. Plans have yet to be unveiled officially, but the US wants to expand or reconstruct the bases and use them for American troops, planes and equipment.
Novo Selo, an artillery range, is near Sliven. Bezmer Air Base is near Yambol, in Tundja municipality, where less than 30 000 residents live.
Georgi Stoianov Georgiev, the mayor of Tundja, couldnt be more positive about the US proposal to come to Bezmer. The air base is 53 years old, Georgiev said, but its benefit to the area has declined with the fall of the Warsaw Pact. Its obvious that the base has to be reconstructed, he said.
Georgiev likened the USs presence to that of a large factory. Tundja has an unemployment rate of 20 per cent, he said. Most of those unemployed people live out in the villages away from the centre of town. The taxes from the local workers [at the base] are very important to the development of the region, he said.
The larger, political issues surrounding an American presence in Yambol werent really on the mayors radar. From his point of view, the short-term benefits outweighed any possible long-term problems. No country can escape from the influence of larger countries, he said. Im just thinking totally practically on behalf of the municipality.
An old mosque sits outside the mayors office, a reminder of Bulgarias past relations with larger countries. Hopefully this new era will prove more amicable.

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