Finding beauty beyond America's borders

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I met and married my wife while serving as a Peace Corps volunteer in Bulgaria from 1991 to 1993, teaching English at the Vasil Drumev High School for Mathematics and Natural Sciences in Veliko Turnovo. We have returned to Bulgaria a number of times since — both our children first flew to Sofia when they were 6 months old.

You would have thought the protests might put a damper on our family vacation, but instead they filled us with hope. My wife and I explained to our kids that, before 1989, when Bulgaria peacefully transitioned from a communist bloc nation to an independent social democracy, such protests never would have been allowed. But there the people were, exercising their rights to assembly and free speech, calling for radical reform of their government. It was democracy in action. It was beautiful.

Like any mass protest, subgroups had their own agendas, but the overarching theme was simple: Change was needed –– now!

Bulgaria is among the European Union’s poorest countries, with a per-capita income of $6,640 a year, according to the United Nations. Its gross domestic product –– the sum of its goods and services –– was $51 billion in 2012, roughly what President Obama proposed in February to repair America’s roads and bridges.

Bulgarians are a highly educated and proud people, with a deep-rooted history. In the late 1300s, the nation fell under brutally oppressive Ottoman Turkish rule for 500 years before gaining independence in 1878 during the Russo-Turkish War. Thereafter, Bulgaria was reborn as a constitutional monarchy, with trading partners throughout southeastern Europe.

After World War II, when Europe was divided between East and West, Bulgaria fell under Soviet communist control, which led to political and economic stagnation. More than two decades after the country embraced democracy and capitalism in the “quiet revolution” of 1989, it struggles still to catch up economically with the West, and Bulgarians, particularly young people, want a fairer shake.
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