Eric Rubin, the outgoing US ambassador, is a man of many vocations. He effortlessly alternates between State Department duties such as enhancing security and police cooperation and going to open-air opera performances, from patronizing the arts to visiting some of Bulgaria's off-off-off-the-beaten-track locations, and from hosting business lunches and receptions to quietly contemplating the beauties of Bulgarian nature. Eric is no newcomer to what used to be the Communist bloc. His first experience of the Behind-the-Iron-Curtain countries dates back to the 1980s when he was still a student. Then Bulgaria came into the picture.
I first came to Bulgaria in 1992. It was grey, dark, smoky and grim. There was very little soap and there was very little food. People were pretty sad. I know it's easy for me to say this as a foreigner coming from the United States, but I really think that during the past several years I have seen real progress in so many respects: job creation, a very slow shift in young people coming back.
Think about this. Now everyone has the chance to travel and live in 27 other countries. Unlike the United States, where we have no low-cost airlines, people in Europe can now jump on a plane and go to Bologna for the weekend. And I don't mean rich people – everyone can do it for 30 euros, and they take it for granted. Then we have this generation of young people who have been exposed to the world because they have had the opportunity to go and study abroad. Of course that will leave a lot of sad grandparents wanting to have their grandchildren back, but still it is a very, very positive thing. It would have been unthinkable just 15-20 years ago.
In terms of the US-Bulgarian relationship during the past several years we have made real progress in security and defence. We are doing so much more both bilaterally and in NATO as well. We now have what we hope will be the first major progress toward modernisation whose impact will be felt for several decades. This is just one example. Another would be the level of American investment, including high tech investment that has created tens of thousands of jobs for Bulgarians. I have been privileged to participate in the ribbon-cutting for some of these places. They are truly top-of-the-line 21st-century-economy investments, some of them very large. Bulgarians may not even be aware of some of the things being made here, from catalytic convertors and emission sensors for a huge percentage of Europe's cars to much of the programming and high-tech work that goes across the continent and globally. A lot of that has happened since I've been here. I also think that infrastructure keeps getting better although there is a lot more to be done in that respect.
Obviously, in the context of a very difficult world and European situation I wouldn't say all is well, but overall – yes, better.
Eric Rubin presented his diplomatic credentials to Bulgarian President Rosen Plevneliev. After the ceremony, he was greeted by soldiers in front of the Office of the President
And some of the setbacks?
The demographic crisis is not diminishing, it is still a real problem. The regional situation is tougher. When I arrived in Bulgaria almost four years ago Bulgarians were just beginning to experience the migrant crisis. Bulgaria dealt successfully with it with the help of the EU, from us and others. However, the security situation beyond Bulgaria's borders is not better. It's worse. Since I've been here we've seen the tragedy in Syria, which is now in a bloody stalemate. The war in Ukraine continues – thousands of dead and all the resulting tensions that come with it as well.
I also think the situation facing the EU is tougher. With the challenges to the fundamental values of the EU, this is a tough time – and it is a tough time for newer members like Bulgaria. Still, I do not think that the loss of confidence in the European idea is finite. Europe will recover. The European project, which we've supported since 1945, will get back on track.
Ambassador Eric Rubin at the groundbreaking of the new American College of Sofia Student Center. The America for Bulgaria Foundation donated $8.6 million, covering 80 percent of the new building expenses. Among the other donors is the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) through its program American Schools and Hospitals Abroad, which donated over $1 million
During your tenure in Bulgaria you traveled widely both on business trips and for leisure. Can you name a few places that you liked so much you'd want to return to at some point in the future?
My wife and I really love Belogradchik – not just the peaks but also the caves, Magurata. It's a remarkable part of Bulgaria that few of my Bulgarian friends get to see. We've been there also to the opera festival.
We really like the Danube. Again, I'm sorry to say, most of my Bulgarian friends have never seen the Danube. It is truly one of the world's great rivers. It is an astonishing sight. My wife and I had the privilege of cruising up the Danube for a week. Ruse is a remarkable city with a much more Central European feel than most of Bulgaria.
Perperikon in the Rhodope is one of the highlights that I will keep thinking back of. The feeling up there at the fortress is incredible, almost magical.
I can also think of Nesebar and Sozopol without the tourists. I will admit I wouldn't go in high season. But when they are not crowded they are a gem.
At the groundbreaking of the new American College of Sofia Student Center
And perhaps there are a few places that you have not been particularly impressed by?
There are a lot of sad scenes in the Bulgarian countryside: abandoned villages, derelict factories and plants. The landscape when you enter Pernik is somewhat depressing because it's just abandoned factory after abandoned factory. I know the history and all the reasons, economic dissolution and so on. But when I see that I think of all the jobs that were lost and the lives that were changed so dramatically. And the hardships that people had to experience when their collective farms were dismantled. I am not speaking for the Communist-era plants and collective farms, but I keep thinking that there were a lot of human lives involved and the transition was a very painful period.
To that I can add that the Black Sea coast in the middle of summer, and especially the more developed areas, is not pleasant. I think it's a challenge to the tourist industry here to cope with that and upgrade it to make it more family friendly and get more business from people who are more interested in beauty and quiet and less in noise and drinking. I will not be going back to Sunny Beach in the summer.
Now you are going back stateside and you will be reuniting with your old friends and acquaintances. I'm sure you'll be telling them about Bulgaria and some of them may want to come and visit to see for themselves. Three things you would recommend to them?
I always tell people to get out of Sofia. Rent a car and explore. Get off the beaten track, out of the usual places. You will get some wonderful moments in the small villages, in Vidin an along the Danube.
Talk to people. Bulgarians are very friendly though they sometimes don't think so themselves. Foreign visitors will find a lot of English speakers.
Explore the cultural side a little more. There is tremendous art and music here. We've had a lot of fun going round the galleries and the concerts.
At the opening of the new playground at the Varna Briz Kindergarten. The US Embassy Bulgaria invested $205,000 to build two playgrounds, designed for children with special educational needs in Varna. Since 2010, the US government has invested approximately $6 million in Humanitarian Assistance projects in Bulgaria
And a few things that you would tell people to beware of whilst visiting Bulgaria?
There are not a lot. Bulgaria is a very safe place. However, I would stay out of the casinos. I would also stay out of some, shall we say, less cultured parts of the nightlife. Beyond that I would tell people to be careful on the roads. Driving here is not as bad as some people think but still there is a very high accident rate.
We joke about it, but probably the single most dangerous thing when visiting Bulgaria is falling in a hole and breaking your leg. I would encourage people to look down when they are walking.