Rather than dropping out of the sky into Bulgaria at the Sophia airport as I did, travelers would be better advised to enter by other ways. Driving up from Greece through the Rhodope mountains would be one appealing way. Another fascinating approach would be to sail into the Black Sea city of Varna or the town of Nesebar. The beauty of Bulgaria would strike one straightaway. Either of these land or sea routes postpones the inevitable blow of the Marxist “architecture” in the old Soviet Empire, a blow which has set back beauty by 100 years or so. The economies of Eastern Europe will have to improve dramatically before they can raze these buildings. The good news is that since many are very poorly built, they will not survive as long as the striking Roman amphitheater in Plovdiv, or the exquisite Backova monastery.

I was in Bulgaria partly because of the presidential elections. The office of the prime minister, which is the more powerful, was not up for a vote. This was just as well, for the present Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP), after being in office for about a year and a half, is extremely unpopular. The government allowed grain to be exported last year, and since domestic grain prices are kept artificially low, grain producers sold to the world market. Now there is a real grain crisis; there are long lines at the bakeries, and in some towns bread is rationed. The Bulgarian monetary unit, the lev, has steadily lost value in relation to the dollar. This time last year, with BSP in control, the lev was 70 to the dollar; last July it was 188, and in December it was 560-600 to the dollar. Naturally this affects inflation and interest rates. Inflation is expected to be over 200 percent for the year, and interest rates are well over 100 percent! Bulgarian families on average spend a little more than half their income on food.

All of this is not just the result of the BSP in the last two years. As in so many ex-Soviet bloc countries, the politicians and bureaucrats in place at the time of the “changes” have generally resisted privatization. Insofar as some businesses are privatized, they are tunneled to cronies of government officials, financed by spurious bank loans. (The Orion financial group is a good example, and its shenanigans have cast a long shadow over the current prime minister, Zhan Videnov.) Meanwhile the people are being robbed, and Swiss bank accounts continue to swell. To a great extent, therefore, the October election reflected this discontent.

The principal opponent of the BSP is the United Democratic Forces (UDF), an alliance of 15 parties and movements which include the Democratic Party, part of the Agrarian Party, part of the Christian Democrats, and also ethnic Turks. It must be said that while some of these coalition partners were in power from November 1991 to October 1992, they opposed mass privatization, too. The political reason for this is no mystery. Bringing about the necessary structural changes will be painful for some time. It’s much like asking someone to give up cocaine for the future rewards of a drug-free life; sacrificing the illusion of the free lunch of communism for the more realistic economic rewards tied directly to individual work is not a sermon any politician wants to preach with his eye on an election one or two years away.

Bulgarians are justifiably cynical about their politicians. I was told that a high police official drives a rare Mercedes that costs over $500,000. Some staff car! Just before I left for Bulgaria (but after I had bought my ticket), the former BSP Prime Minister, Audrey Lukanov, was assassinated in front of his house. Several days earlier he had announced that he was going to reveal widespread corruption in the government run by his own party. While I was there, one of the investigators working on the Orion scandal was bombed, but he survived.

Sometimes, a dark humor helps Bulgarians get by. Two comedians ran for president, and their photographs appeared regularly in the newspapers. One of my favorites was of them appearing before the country’s main prison, saying that they wanted to see where they would be living after they were elected. They drew, incidentally, one percent of the vote.

One of my great fortunes was to link up with Bulgaria’s premier photojournalist, ho Hadjimishev. He has worked for international wire services, exhibited in numerous international one-man shows, and currently is the photographic editor for Sega, Bulgaria’s equivalent of Time magazine, which self-consciously follows Time‘s layout. Ivo comes from a distinguished family, his grandfather having served as ambassador to England, his father producing operas all over the world and films in Bulgaria. His wife’s father, Valeri Petrov, is likewise a filmmaker and a well-known poet.

I mentioned an interest in the archaeology of the country, specifically Thracian, and it so happened that Ivo had photographed the famous Thracian collection in Varna, on the Black Sea coast. The curator of the collection was the current Minister of Culture, Ivan Marazov, who was the BSP candidate for president. Further, Ivo was friends with the archaeologist Ivan Ivanov, who had excavated the entire necropolis, and so off to Varna we went.

In antiquity the Thracians had occupied a region with east and west boundaries roughly corresponding to modern Bulgaria, a northern one north of the Danube in present-day Rumania, and finally south to the Aegean, the Black Sea, and the Sea of Marmara. They spoke an Indo-European language, but had no script or literature of their own. Some of what we know comes from Greek and Roman sources, which often are pejorative. Homer mentions the Thracians, and Herodotus describes them as more numerous than the people of India though unwilling to unite and thus unable to become the most powerful nation. The Greeks often looked upon the Thracians as troublesome neighbors, which they no doubt were.

The Thracians inhabited this region even before the earliest Greeks (Achaeans or Mycenaeans) made their way south to what is now called Greece. Thracians even preceded Greeks to important islands in the northern Aegean, e.g., Samothrace, Lemnos, Lesbos, and Chios. Early relations between Greeks and Thracians are evident in the Iliad, although they are fighting with each other. The Thracians were on the side of the Trojans. Later, as the intrepid Greek merchants and sailors made their way along the Thracian Black Sea coast, they established several cities in what is now Bulgaria: Apollonia Pontica (today’s Sozopol), Mesambria (Nesebar), and Odessos (Varna). The relationship was then one of trade. The Greeks sold wine, olive oil, furniture, and weapons, and in return got slaves, farm produce, and hides.

Michael Grant observes that one of the main aspects of the relationship was the diffusion of Thracian religious ideas. A goddess of the chase and fertility was identified with Artemis, a war-god with Ares. More importantly, perhaps, there is strong evidence that Dionysius had Thracian origins, although there is scholarly debate about this. Orpheus, too, is thought to have had Thracian origins.

Varna, a very pleasant coastal citv, has had inhabitants at least since paleolithic times. Archaeological evidence reveals Greek, Roman, and Ottoman occupation. The remains of the Roman baths are still to be seen. At the archaeological museum, Ivan Ivanov showed us around, and of course we spent plenty of time looking at the Thracian collection. Scholars are having to rethink the beginnings of European civilization after the excavation of the necropolis, because radiocarbon dating now places it at the end of the Stone-Copper (Chalcolithic) Age—the fifth millennium B.C. The artifacts, especially the golden scepters, reflect a hierarchical, not a classless, society, and a high degree of development. Metallurgy flourished, as did agriculture and animal husbandry. Incidentally, a Thracian exhibit is coming to the States within a year or two.

While we were in Varna, we visited what is known as Karin Dom, a facility for handicapped children which has just recently gone into operation and has an interesting beginning. Just before World War II, Ivan Stanchov came to the United States, where he worked for IBM and through business became well off. His family had their property confiscated when the communists took over. After the “changes” of 1989 in Bulgaria, very slowly some of the property has been returned to rightful owners. A family home overlooking the Black Sea was returned to Stanchov, and he donated it for the foundation helping handicapped children. One of his relatives had suffered from cerebral paralysis, but even so, she helped children all her life. The home is named for her. Ivo was covering the story of Karin Dom for Sega magazine.

Currently there are about 50 kids at Karin Dom, although there are at least 100 in Varna alone who need the help. The parents participate in the therapy, sometimes receiving counseling themselves. The hallmark of the method used at Karin Dom is for the children to play an active part in the therapy and not just have things done for them, whether it’s finger painting or singing, and we heard a lot of singing while we were there. Ivo remarked that it was good for his magazine to cover something besides just the election, politics, and the economy—in other words, something positive being done by people who were not on the take. Watching the kids throw themselves into their singing and painting was very moving.

Before we left Varna, the dark horse candidate for president, Georg Ganchev, showed up at a political rally in a huge theater in a mall. The place was jam-packed. The program was a real roadshow, with Ganchev’s own singing group, plus an assembly of Bulgarian folk dancers. After the fine dancing and singing, Ganchev led off his speech by saying, “Now isn’t that a lot better than all this American pop music?” I could not have agreed with him more. One of the minor exasperations of life in modern Bulgaria, and I might add all over the Slavic world, is the incessant loud music with beats that can knock you out of your chair. Every morning in my Sophia hotel, the Slavyanska Besseda, I sat in a deserted dining room for breakfast and was deafened by imitation American and European rock.

Ganchev is a curious, sometimes semi-absurd figure. He is a tall, large man, with a heavy Slavic mustache, and not incidentally he has been a world professional fencing champion. His fencing led to his teaching fencing to actors, then to acting, directing, and singing professionally, a great deal of which occurred in England and the United States. A paperback book on his life was handed out at the political rally; the book documented much of this activity and included a lot of promotional photos of most of his adult life, including his two or three wives. Nothing was too trivial to include: a fourth place win in a “World of Poetry” contest, a certificate from the governor of Oklahoma declaring him an honorary citizen, and, amusingly, a letter from Jane Fonda turning down an invitation to a film festival in Bulgaria “this or next summer.”

But politics and elections in Bulgaria have become so full of despair and low comedy, as in the United States, that the crowd is often looking for some relief, and they got it from Georg. Every minute or so he would conclude his criticism of the government by declaring that he would “take a stick of wood” to this minister, that politician. When the final results came in, Ganchev had pulled 20 percent of the votes and, as I recall, only two percent less than the Bulgarian Socialist Party.

On the way back to Sophia, we swung south briefly in order to visit a little jewel of a town, Nesebar. The colonies of Miletus had controlled most of the trade in the area, but this one was started by Megara. Later, when Roman power took over, Vespasian founded a colony of Roman veterans here, perhaps to counterbalance the Greek population. Today what is especially visible are the early Byzantine churches in various stages of completeness. The one called the Old Metropolis is very likely fifth century. Especially for an American, whose country is so young and where evidences of early man go back a mere 10 or 20 thousand years, it is exhilarating to sit by the Black Sea here and contemplate the rise and fall of peoples and empires, and even to turn an anxious eye toward what is coming for his own.

Back in the capital on the next day, a Sunday, the election got underway. After visiting a voting precinct, I strolled over to the magnificent Alexandr Nevsky Cathedral and listened to the powerful voices of the Orthodox choir, some of whose members sing for the National Opera. The cathedral was built in this century to commemorate the 200,000 Russian soldiers who died helping to liberate Bulgaria from Turkish domination. Below the church in the crypt is a fine collection of icons. I think this was the first time I have seen one depicting the child Jesus playing. There is little play or humor in Biblical stories, which is a pity, I think, considering the stories of Greek religion. Southern preachers in America, black and white, always had a store of funny stories or anecdotes to illustrate their traditional “three point sermons.”

The results of the election? UDF’s Petar Stoyanov won by a healthy margin, the ex-communists were rejected handily. As I said, Ganchev the fencing champion almost beat the ex-communists. In the runoff election in November, UDF took 60 percent of the vote. A Bulgarian friend of mine in the States told me gleefully that her parents had voted for the comedians in the first election. Unfortunately, the comedians did not get to run in the second primary in November.

Matters are more problematic back in the States; it’s much harder to tell the clowns from the jerks. To put this in focus, someone was judging the Tongue-Slipper Award for the recent Louisiana legislative session and had to choose between Representative John Travis (Democrat, Jackson) saying, “I can’t believe that we are going to let a majority of the people decide what is best for this state,” and Representative Cynthia Willard-Lewis (Democrat, New Orleans) declaring, “This amendment does more damage than it does harm.” Keep working at it, Bulgaria.