At night, as soon as the sun goes down, this town looks and smells like a giant campfire. In the morning, I look outside and I can’t see the beautiful mountains that surround us. I check the air from the balcony, quickly slamming the door. It’s bad. I complain. I cough. I blow my nose. My sinuses hurt. This has been my routine for the past two months since the good people of Blagoevgrad started heating their homes with wood and coal. I go outside. Cough. Blow nose. Spit. Repeat.
It’s no better inside. It’s hard to escape the outside smoke since everyone here also smokes inside (yes, there are new laws against indoor smoking, but no one around here seems to care about such things). So it’s all smoke, all the time. Not good for a gal with asthma and allergies.
Most people around here don’t notice the polluted air. When I point it out to them, they say things like “it’s so much better than it used to be.” They live with it. Why complain? Things are so much better now since “the change” (that’s their term for post-communist times). Our landlady told us that before “the change” they used to get up at 4 a.m. every morning to wait on long lines for bread and sometimes they came home empty-handed. Her relatives were tortured. The Communists stole their property. So what’s a little air pollution?
People here also tend not to go to doctors. Perhaps it’s the expense, but also culturally Bulgarians are more inclined to try and solve their own problems. I can’t tell you how many people, from my colleagues to the cleaning ladies, have heard me coughing in the hallway and tell me that I should be drinking tea with honey and Rakia (home made alcohol made from fruit with an alcohol content that can exceed 60%). That solves everything, they say. When I went to see the nurse in the AUBG doctor’s office, even she laughed off my concerns with a shrug and a smile and comforting words that went something like this: “It’ll go away eventually. You’ll see. You’ll be fine. Have some tea and Rakia.”
Unfortunately, that prescription did not work for me. Neither did the cough medicine or the two rounds of antibiotics prescribed by the AUBG doctor. He was about to give me a third round of antibiotics when Mark reminded me that I am allergic to dust and mold. All of a sudden, everything made sense. I am wheezing from the coal and I am allergic to the building I work in. I am officially allergic to Bulgaria.
Last week, I started taking some allergy medicine that I brought with me from the States. I also upped my asthma meds and things are improving. So the nurse was right; I am getting better. It wasn’t from the Rakia, but I like the attitude of these Bulgarians. I’m impressed with their strength, determination and their ability to shrug off things that should bother them but don’t.
There are still some days when I open that balcony door and I can’t see the mountains and I feel like I would like to be living somewhere clean and orderly with a good medical system. But then I shut the door and those feelings go away. As long as I can breathe here, we’re staying.