interview and photography by Anthony Georgieff

Looking at Bulgaria through Parisian eyes

Stephane Moisset.jpg

Before he came to Bulgaria, Stephane Moisset, who describes himself as being 100 percent Parisian (meaning born and raised in Paris), lived five or six different lives. He went to a school of journalism and then to law school. He studied history of art. He lived in Spain, England and the United States. He worked as a press attache for the Israeli Embassy in France. He created an art auction house, the first in Luxembourg, and then a PR agency, both of which he sold. Then he started the first "luxury house" for dogs – which was later bought by a former neighbour, Gerard Depardieu. And then he met Bulgarian journalist Maria Kassimova, who had gone to France for an interview, and he followed her back to Bulgaria.

The truth is that I had no idea of what Bulgaria was about. Of course I knew the name of the country, but I had no preconceived notions. In France, if you say Bulgaria the first two things that come to mind are poisoned umbrellas and Gypsies...

My arrival in Bulgaria was an absolute culture chock, in both good and bad. First of all, I started to read as many books about Bulgaria as I could lay my hands upon and I discovered Bulgaria's rich history. The first question that came to mind was – and still is – why doesn't Bulgaria communicate more to the world?

I found the answer quickly. The Bulgarian Ministry of Culture is absolutely useless. The different ministers that you have had are more interested in themselves and their careers than in the country they are supposed to represent. Bulgarian politicians do not understand that culture and history are not only for books and museums, but contribute to the development of the economy and the image of the country. In France, culture brings in almost 60 billion euros a year and creates a lot of jobs. Culture boosts another sector of the economy, tourism.

Bulgaria has mountains, a sea, countryside. It’s rough, it’s wild, it’s genuine, it's authentic, in one word – it’s amazing! It is exactly what Western tourists are looking for. Unfortunately, the roads are disgusting and dangerous, the trains are so antiquated that I wonder how you can in all decency sell a train ticket and call this a "train." The service in most of the hotels is awful (very Communist mentality). OK, the prices are not that high when you come from Western Europe but as the service is bad you somehow do not get great value for money. If you do have a minister of tourism at all, then he should be fired immediately!

The culture shock comes also from the fact that people absolutely have no sense for the community, for what belongs to everybody such as streets, roads and so on. Bulgarians are always late and never apologise – and this is a Frenchman talking! When they drive, they are so aggressive that they would drive through your car if they could. I have seen people throwing garbage out of their windows. Excuse the metaphor, but it feels like someone urinating in their living room and then saying, well I don't care, it's not my room.

I must say that I know many Bulgarians who are involved in environmentalist matters. This makes me feel hopeful, but the way is long.

Stephane Moisset

Is Bulgaria depressed?

Depressed is an understatement. It is undergoing a total nervous breakdown. However, the Bulgarians have a good explanation, don’t you think? Bulgarians have no vision for their future, no hope. They are badly paid, badly governed, badly educated. They are rejected or vilified by everybody else. Can you imagine that in some factory in some obscure village people are being paid 300-400 leva a month to sew cloths for the Greek market and have the right to have a 10-minute brake in the morning, 20 minutes to eat lunch, and a 10-minute break in the afternoon – and have to raise their hand to go to the toilet? Is this Vietnam or China? No – this is Bulgaria, a “democracy,” a member of the EU, just 2,000 km away from Paris. It’s like living in a Victor Hugo’s novel.

Intellectuals, artists, writers and journalists are not regarded highly. Workers are underpaid because of the "crisis" – a good excuse. Retired people barely live to survive... No real trade unions to represent you, no real help from the state, the judicial system is biased, the police are corrupt and do not do their job... On the other hand, I have never seen so many fancy cars (maybe because the country is small). The only ones who seem to become richer are the politicians. Look at Boyko Borisov! Look at Volen Siderov, who is so "courageous" that he needs five or six bodyguards, carries a gun, and slaps women in airplanes... This country is a banana republic inside the EU.

So, when you work like crazy and are being treated like a slave with a ridiculous salary, how can you not be depressed?

What have you been doing since you came to Bulgaria?

Not as much as I intended to do. I wanted to invest in different businesses but I don’t trust the country and the authorities anymore. Too much corruption from head to toe. I don’t want to enter this game. There is too much political instability, too much paperwork (it’s worse than France, which I did not think could be possible). So, today I give some private language lessons and help my wife. I plan to go and invest somewhere else. I will discourage anyone who thinks of putting their money in Bulgaria from doing so. It is a country where the rich would rather sponsor churches than hospitals.

You seem to have cute observations about life in Bulgaria. What do you think of Bulgarian politics? Of the way Bulgarians discuss politics?

What politics? This is just business, man. Politics in this country is like neighbourhood bullies sharing territories. It’s pretty much the same faces for the past 25 years, excluding the ones who were already killed. The software in their brains is Communist. They have no sense of public service or serving their country. They claim to be "patriots" but this is just a word. All they care about is to have a free car, a nice salary, to be invited to dinner parties and to make profits. Nothing has changed since the time of Communism. Now Bulgaria is a “democracy” but the system that runs the country is the same. Half a year of street protests – and nothing has really changed. In France such politicians would not have lasted three weeks as the trade unions would have intervened and the whole country would have been on strike, rolling burning tyres at the cops. The problem is that Bulgarians are scared to move on. They are scared to lose their jobs because the economy is directly connected to whoever is in power. Is it normal in a democracy to be scared of the people who are supposed to represent you? It should be the opposite.

Usually when the government are not doing their job, the Church makes a stand and becomes a political power by itself – Stalin understood it very well. In Bulgaria the church is maybe as corrupt as the politicians, if not more. I must say that I am not a big fan of any organised religion but I respect religion as long as it doesn't try to evangelise me. I am amazed to see how people jump into the hands of the Bulgarian Church. Yet, what is the Church doing in this country? Nothing. It takes but never gives. It doesn’t build schools and hospitals, it doesn’t take part in the civil society. Still, the politicians use the Church to promote themselves. Bulgaria is back to the 19th Century. Bulgarians are waiting for a saviour, like they did in 1877-1878. I see the portrait of Vasil Levski everywhere, but I don’t see anything of his spirit.

Have you experienced any discrimination – against yourself or others?

As a Frenchman, I can’t complain. I am treated very well. France has a very positive image here. Bulgaria is a Francophile country and people always wonder why I came to live here when life is “easier”in France – which by the way is not true. Life is very hard in France, perhaps not as hard as it is here, but many young French people are leaving the country, tired of 40 years of crises.

Gypsies are a very complex problem that Bulgaria will one day have to face in earnest. You can’t continue to have such a strong social segregation within a community of Bulgarian citizens. To me – with apologies for the strong language – the situation in Bulgaria at the moment is unabashed apartheid. Gypsies are an easy target for the media and for the extremist parties, which are fascist. They are the easy scapegoat. I am not saying that the Gypsy community hasn’t any responsibility, but the question is not to know who is or isn’t responsible but what to do now to integrate a large part of the Bulgarian population. How is it possible in the 21st Century, in Europe, to see a five-year-old kid digging into the bins when they should be at school, provided that school is legally obligatory?

Concerning the Turks – the attitude towards them is explainable but not understandable. Let’s face it, Turkey is not an enemy of the Bulgarians. It’s an economic partner and the relations between both countries are not bad. Many Bulgarian spend their holidays in Turkey. There is no “Bulgarian Turks” or “Turkish Bulgarians,” there is just Bulgarian citizens in Bulgaria. Would you say the French in Alsace are "German French"? No they are French – and that's it.

The mass media, instead of analysing the situation, are jumping into propaganda. There is a fantasy which pushes Bulgarians to believe that Turks are conspiring against their country. What will Turkey do to Bulgaria? I don’t think Turkey invaded Crimea. Bulgarian eyes should be focused on the “Russian Brother” instead. I am very surprised to see some political leaders, such as Volen Siderov, defending Russia in its aggression against Ukraine, or to see that some of the monuments of the Red Army in Sofia and elsewhere are being cleaned and spruced up as if they were some kinds of relics. Those monuments belong to a museum. There was no liberation of Bulgaria by the Red Army. There was an invasion and a punishment for you folks being allied with the Nazis.

Of course it is silly to generalise, but if you were to describe the Bulgarians in three terms, what would they be?

This is a very hard question. As a foreigner I must say Bulgarians are very welcoming and very friendly to me. Let me tell you a story. We had a violent car crash thanks to the good maintenance of the road that brings you from Samokov to Sofia. I must say that most of the people involved were amazing. Some stopped and offered help, gave us water. Even the police behaved correctly without knowing that I was a foreigner. A lady pulled over and waited with us for the police as my wife had to fill in 100,000 different papers. The Bulgarians are very good-hearted.

Then, if I have to be impolite, I must add that they can also be suspicious, aggressive and very rude. I'd rather keep in mind their first qualities and also add a fourth one – they can be very generous.

What are your impressions of the way the system works in Bulgaria? Actually, what does work in Bulgaria?

Nothing really works as far as the public service is concerned. The administration is from the times of Communism. Most private businesses have no sense of serving or welcoming customers, strongly reminding me of Parisian shopkeepers who are constantly bothered by the presence of paying clientele. The whole system here is a fraud. But since nobody really complains, why change it?

The only things that really work in Bulgaria are the banks taking your money (like everywhere else) and the electricity bills that grow bigger and bigger even when you don’t use electricity. Oh, and in Sofia it is the towing service that takes your car, "the spider," if you have not paid for street parking. This is more efficient than in any country in Western Europe. You noticed that all these "services" are private, haven't you? And that someone from the government gave them a license to operate.

Would you like to live permanently in Bulgaria?

Yes, but I won’t for the reasons I described. I don’t feel protected here. Somehow I am (thanks to my French passport), but I don’t think that my rights will be defended by law enforcement or the judiciary if I had to fight against a fraud or a swindle. Also the way that nature is being destroyed here makes me think that soon this country will have more concrete buildings than trees. Just look at Sofia. The city has a beautiful forest and parks, such as Loven Park, which is being littered with detritus, plastic bottles and polythene bags... People throw their TV sets, computers and tables... in the small river, and the City Council absolutely does not care. People seem to be happy living on a mountain of garbage – and even dance in it. They live exactly like if they were in a Gypsy camp – without noticing it yet.

In fact the only place where I would live in Bulgaria will be Burgas. This city and the city of Plovdiv are really impressive. Burgas is lucky to have a mayor who cares about the city, who has a vision and who understands that art and culture as well as infrastructure bring money, jobs and respect. The people of Burgas understand that beauty has a sense which is not common in Bulgaria.

There is a very interesting theory called the Theory of Broken Windows. It was developed in America and New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani used it. According to it, when you have an abandoned building and one window in it gets broken, all other windows will soon be broken as well – unless the first broken window gets replaced right away. Pushed to the extreme, this theory leads to the "zero tolerance" which can be dangerous and unfair. However, if it is balanced well, it will force people to take care of things and respect what they have. Political leaders in Bulgaria should think about this.


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