It only began to strike me on the second or third day of my stay in Bulgaria. It was so subtle that it was almost imperceptible. There was no major change in the tone of voice. There was certainly no anger or bitterness, nor was there any seeming nostalgia. It was simply the grammar that I noticed. My girlfriend was talking about the village in which she was brought up and also about the small town a few kilometres away. She was doing so in great detail and was describing everything there was to see. But, as she did so, I began to notice that she was using predominantly the past tense.
As we walked through the village in which she grew up and where her family still live, she was telling me about everything. She seemed to know every inch of ground and every brick of every building. However, it seemed that she spent the majority of the time telling me what each building used to be rather than what it what had become – most of the buildings had become abandoned. For example, in the centre of the village she explained that two or three of the buildings had once been factories, but were now derelict. She also explained that this had all happened in the years since the collapse of Communism.
I am offering no great insight when I explain that once the subsidies of nationalized industries stopped after 1989, the economies in Eastern Europe changed dramatically. Factories that employed hundreds of workers, but made large losses – which probably described the majority of factories in Eastern Europe – closed pretty quickly when the demands of the market economy began to bite. This meant that much of Bulgaria's industry disappeared. The majority of it is now in China or other developing nations where wages, costs and safety standards are lower.
The gradual decline of industry was clear everywhere. In my girlfriend's village, Stoyan Mihailovskiy, there were two former workshops that were now derelict. In the bigger towns of Shumen and Novi Pazar close by there were plenty of examples on show. In Novi Pazat there used to be three large factories that employed hundreds of workers. These have given way to one. In Shumen, there are still several smoke-stacks that serve major factories and pump grey smoke into the otherwise clear blue sky, but there are also countless others that stand rather forlornly inactive.
The decline of industry and the scars it left on modern Bulgaria was something I predicted I would be writing about even before I set off for Bulgaria. However, an aspect that took me by surprise was the impact the dramatic changes had had on culture. In Stoyan Mihailosvskiy, there was a building that used to be set aside for plays and cultural events. It still stood, but was now rarely open. My girlfriend explained that just like industry, arts and culture had been heavily subsidized, which meant that nowadays there are far fewer cultural events to attend and that most of the people do not have the money to attend them anyway.