Squads of muscled police officers in slate-colored jumpsuits crowded together on the sidewalk as we made our way up Stamboliiski Boulevard in Sofia, Bulgaria, on June 23, two days after we touched down in the country’s capital. A few officers smoked cigarettes or sipped coffee from plastic cups, while others bantered in tight circles, waiting for a riot that never happened.
My wife, who was born and raised in Bulgaria, and I brought our son and daughter, ages 11 and 13, to Sofia to visit family. We traversed Stamboliiski Boulevard each day on our way to and from my mother-in-law’s apartment, and every day the protesters came by the thousands. They began in the morning as a trickle, and by evening they covered entire sections of central Sofia.
Despite the U.S. State Department’s warnings to steer clear of the protests, which, officials worried, could turn violent, we never felt unsafe amid the tumult. The police provided a reassuring presence.
Officers stood ready with large buses to detain protesters if they got out of hand as they marched through the streets surrounding the National Assembly building, an off-white masterpiece of neo-Renaissance architecture on Tsar Osvoboditel Boulevard, Bulgaria’s “yellow brick road,” made literally of mustard-colored cobblestones.
The protesters decried alleged government corruption, saying that it held back Bulgarian economic development. Wrapped in Bulgarian flags, they shouted, blew horns and whistles and brandished signs, remaining peaceful all the while. Tour groups from around the globe circled the protesters, snapping photos and shooting videos with their phones, while Bulgarian TV crews filmed the scene from atop their satellite trucks.
No, this was no trip to Walt Disney World, but I wouldn’t have traded it for the world. It was life outside the U.S., up close and personal. It’s often harsh, but at times it can be beautiful.