I have known Irit Lillian, the outgoing Israeli ambassador, since before she actually came to Bulgaria in her official capacity. An archaeologist by education, who had had wide-ranging experience in both diplomacy and off-the-beaten-track travel. During her tenure in Sofia Irit made a name for herself as being extremely active: both in matters related to promoting Israeli interests and maintaining close links with the local Jewish community. She never shied from discussing controversial topics such as Bulgaria's role during the Second World War and she used strong language to condemn the extremist Lukov March, named so after a Bulgarian wartime Nazi leader and now, sadly, held in Sofia annually. As she was preparing to depart, after four years in this country, I asked her whether she thought Bulgaria was a better place now compared to when she first arrived.
Bulgaria was love at first sight. In the past four years, love has matured and as it happens in life, new nuances have enriched the affair. Bulgaria is not as simple as it looks for a tourist or a short-term visitor. It is complex. However, it is indeed a better place now. I wish I could come to live here again in the future – it will be even better.
Three things that have changed for the better?
Some would probably argue with me, but to my mind some better practices of governance are visible. The judiciary is more independent, it has improved significantly. There is still a way to go, mainly in the fringe and more remote parts of the country. However, judging from business people who are more acquainted with the situation, as well as from the EU reports, there is space for hope.
Did you notice that Sofia became much more beautiful? Greener, cleaner, more vibrant? The city is definitely growing bigger, lots of construction, more people more colours to the local population. The bright side is that it gains the character of an energetic European capital: Restaurants, cool cafés, galleries, nice spots with open wi-fi…
Near the Museum of Modern Art in Sofia
Variety is bigger almost in everything – more variety in food, more options for contemporary art lovers, more alternative cultural institutions, interesting festivals all over the country, beautiful hotels all around, more Israelis who appreciate it.
Last but not least, Bulgaria is better at coping with its historical past. Four years ago when we mentioned the Holocaust and the events in Bulgaria during the Second World War, most people from top politicians to school children would single out the rescue of the Jews as a separate event. Today, there is much more willingness to discuss the narrative, to speak about the deportation of the Jews of Thrace, Macedonia and Pirot, to mark the locations of labour camps in Bulgaria (as it was recently done in the Nedelino). Bulgaria became a member of IHRA (International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance) and the good results of the process are already here.
Receiving the Madara Horseman medal from President Rumen Radev
Three things that have changed for the worse?
The number of young Bulgarians in the country. It is sad to see the effects of the negative demographic change. In Sofia it is hardly noticed, but elsewhere you can see how beautiful villages are deserted, hardly any kids in the streets, more and more empty school buildings. Thinking about the younger generation, who should define the future of Bulgaria, and chose leaving over making a change – it's heart breaking.
Intolerance – maybe I am wrong and the love-at-first-sight effect blinded me, but I have a strange feeling that while more steps have been taken against racism, intolerance and hate speech all of these are actually on the rise. More hate speech graffiti in different towns against different minorities, more politicians who do not hesitate to speak against their compatriots and singling out "the others." The fact that the Istanbul Convention was not ratified was a symptom indicating that something changed for the worse.
In the nature reserve of the Erma Gorge near Tran, in western Bulgaria
Prices… Bulgaria is still a relatively cheap attractive destination, but in a very short time it became definitely more expensive. The weekly supermarket cart, the price of tomatoes at the market, not to mention the price of a nice apartment in the centre of Sofia (well, I admit I was considering living here in the future…).
What was your biggest accomplishment during your tenure in Bulgaria?
An old Jewish proverb says: "The baker cannot praise the quality of the dough." Still, one of our greatest achievements is the change in the narrative of the Holocaust memory preservation. We did not do it alone, the organisation of the Jews of Bulgaria, Shalom, colleagues in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs – namely and mainly the members of the Bulgarian delegation to IHRA, politicians, academics, the teachers who assisted in Yad Vashem training programs and many other members of the Bulgarian society all assisted in the process of creating a more accurate historical narrative. The two monuments erected in Sofia and in Tel Aviv are a token of this more thorough achievement, and I am grateful for all those who dared to take this path together. I am very proud of sowing these seeds because I know that they will bear the sweetest fruits.
Wild flowers near Sandanski
What was your biggest failure?
My biggest failure is a temporary one: the inability to construct the Jerusalem Garden, a special playground for children with special needs, on time. This park should have been ready more than two years after we initiated it. Unfortunately, the municipality did not grant us with a construction permit on time and the bureaucratic process is still going on. However, I am optimistic and I hope that such an important opportunity for the kids of Bulgaria will not be wasted. Even if I do not see it with my own eyes, I know it is a temporary failure and the Jerusalem Garden will become a reality – it is too good and too important not to come true.
What was the most pleasant thing you did while in Bulgaria?
The most pleasant thing was travelling all over the country and meeting the people who make Bulgaria what it is. Wherever we went – and believe me, we were never tired of discovering more new spots – we met open and warm people, willing to tell and share the culture of the land and make you part of it. The landscape is glorious: the mountains, the water, the seasonal changes – this incredible unity of people and nature was so powerful, it will always stay in my heart.
And what was the most unpleasant?
Definitely the so-called Lukov March. Bulgaria is a very pleasant place to be in with wonderful warm people. Such demonstrations deface it. The inability of so many good people of the highest ranks to prevent it has left a bitter taste.
At the Propada necropolis near Malko Tarnovo in the Strandzha
If you have a friend coming to visit Bulgaria what would you advise them to do?
The best answer to this question should be "everything," but knowing that it is impossible, I would recommend some of the favourites of both my guests and myself.
The Rhodope mountains are my favourite spot for their natural untouched beauty changing every season and leaving the visitor craving for more. Plovdiv is my favourite city, it has a special energy, it is young and old at the same time and its potential is endless. Sofia offers the delights of a big city. I would advise visitors not to miss the synagogue and the mosque – both a few meters apart, just to get an idea of what historical tolerance looked like. As for eating and drinking, "everything" covers my ideas. It would be careless not to mention tomatoes in summer, yogurt all year round and exquisite wine that is not sufficiently well-known in the world.
And what would you advise them to be careful about?
Service. Bulgaria has so much to offer but experience can become very frustrating when the waiter or the shop-assistant would not be helpful, would intentionally avoid eye contact in order not be forced to speak English and would not smile.
Other than that, visitors should be cautious of not getting addicted to this amazing country and constant beauty – I know how it feels when you have to leave.
Volunteering at the Bishop's Basilica of Philippopolis archaeological digs
And if a Bulgarian friend wants to visit Israel, what would you tell them to do and what should they be cautious about?
Unfortunately, only 20,000 Bulgarian tourists visit Israel every year while more than a quarter of a million Israelis visit Bulgaria during the same period. It is quite surprising as we have many direct and cheap flights. Therefore, the first thing I would advise them is not to confine themselves to Jerusalem and the holy sites (although they are extremely interesting) but to go see the nature that is so very different: the desert, the archaeological sites and so on and so forth. Do not miss Tel Aviv: the rich cultural scene, contemporary vibrant creation in arts, music, cinema, dance, cuisine – you name it! In Israel, you can really see with your own eyes what innovation means – many of the startup companies have visitor centres, so does the Peres Centre for Peace and Innovation. It is impressive.
Always keep a day or two for doing nothing special, just feel the country and its spirit. The only downside one should be cautious or rather prepare for is the cost of living – Israel is not cheap! But it is fabulous.