“They prefer Christian construction workers”: A trip with a Bulgarian immigrant

The trip started from Sofia

By Adi Halfon

The distance between Sofia and Berlin is enough to learn many political, religious and social lessons from a Bulgarian worker on his way from his homeland to a construction site in Hamburg.

There were still some unoccupied seats on the bus from Sofia to Hamburg when he was boarding. He decided to sit next to me.

He was wearing a blue sportive Puma t-shirt and a black Adidas training pants. His hair was a bit grey on the sides, and his face showed simplicity and kindness. He was too young to be a grandfather, and I thought that one day he would be one of those grandfathers all the grandchildren like.

My trip neighbor was surprised when he found out I am not Bulgarian. He was probably trying to figure out the odds that in a bus packed with Bulgarians he will seat next to the only foreigner.

He held three books in his hands. One of them was the bible in Bulgarian, the second was a praying book with a drawing of St. Petrus on the cover. “This is my life”, he said pointing at the bible. He opened it and I saw a lot of sentences marked and underlined, assumingly from religious studying. His eyes were shining when I told him I was from Israel. He opened the bible on the first page of the old testament, Genesis chapter A, and began to read for me in Bulgarian.

I followed his finger running along the Cyrillic letters. The language was strange, but I knew the text by heart. He stopped at ‘Let there be light’ and looked at my face, wondering if I had understoond what he wanted. “Sega gospodye makes svet”, I answered him with four words from three different languages. He smiled.

He hardly spoke English, and the conversation between us was a mixture of Bulgarian, Russian, Spanish and English. Actually, we were mainly communicating with hand signs.


Bulgaria's flag

His name was Todor, but he asked me to call him Toshko. That is how everybody calls him. I was surprised by the fact that he spoke Spanish. Toshko told me he worked in Spain for two years as a construction worker, in different cities as Valladolid and Leon. He had made a lot of money there, and since then he loved Spanish people very much. This was the main reason why he supported their national team during the world cup. Later on he came back to Bulgaria and worked in a local branch of Metro. The salary was not adequate, and he decided to work in construction once again. And decided to go to Hamburg where he has a secure job in a construction site.

“There is no money in Bulgaria”, he said in sorrow.

The third book Toshko was carrying was a Bulgarian-Turkish dictionary. On the German construction sites, he knew that almost all his work mates were Turks, and he would have to communicate with them in some way. He seemed like a person who liked to communicate. Journalists could define him as an excellent interviewee. He never stopped talking, and he told everything about himself, not saving any detail.

He took a photo of a woman and two children out of his bag. His wife is 36 years old, one year younger than him. She does not look very pretty, at least not on that particular picture, but her face, like Toshko’s face, showed simplicity and kindness. David and Josef, his two children, are 14 and 12 years old. Toshko is proud he gave his children biblical names. “You must know those names, Jewish people also use them”, he said with a smile. They live in Pleven, a small town in middle-north Bulgaria. The bus made its way to Serbia through small Bulgarian villages. As I was waking up for a nice morning, Toshko offered me some pretzels from a bag. “I guess now they are eating breakfast”, he said, already missing his family.

Trouble in Serbia

At the Serbian border I had troubles. The Bulgarian border control officer told me I needed a visa to enter Serbia. I was nervous because I completely forgot that the bus was leaving the EU and I had not checked out whether I was allowed to enter Serbia without any special permission. Toshko noticed my concerns and told me not to worry. When I arrived at the Serbian border my passport was stamped without any problems, and I was glad Toshko did not say something like ‘I told you so’. Instead, Toshko asked me to take a look at my passport, since he never saw an Israeli one before. The drawing of the light with the seven reeds was enchanting him. “Seven is a holy number”, he said. “God created the world in seven days”. He asked me about the American and the Jordanian stamps I have in my passport, amazed by the number of places I had been to. I noticed the Serbian stamp was the only one in Toshko’s passport.

After a while the bus stopped at a Serbian tavern. The driver announced something in Bulgarian, and Toshko drew with his finger the number 30 on the back of the seat in front of him explaining to me we have a half an hour break. The weather outside was wonderful. We got off the bus and sat in the sun. Toshko took sandwiches out of his bag that he had brought from Pleven, rapped in an aluminum foil. “I am very happy today”, he sang in a horrible English. I asked him why and he replied saying that  he “does not have to work and he can enjoy the sun”, at least for one day, then he will probably work in construction.

We don’t have money

The green beautiful Serbian nature was all around us. Once in a while a car was passing down the road. I told Toshko that Serbia looked richer than Bulgaria, judging from the first impression made by the locals’ cars and clothes.

“Bulgaria is the poorest country in the EU. Serbia is maybe richer, but it is not in the EU”, he calmly said. “They are not in the EU because if they will let them in, they will have to let in Croatia, Bosnia, Macedonia, Kosovo and Montenegro, just to keep equality. Otherwise there will be another war”, was his analysis of European politics. I asked him how come Bulgaria had entered the EU if its economy was so poor. He told me that since Bulgaria was in the EU, the rich countries will have the option to get hard working labor without experiencing any difficulties. “Bulgaria, Romania… We don’t have money but we have construction workers. They prefer us, Christians, to Muslims from Turkey”, he added.

I tried to ask him how it did feel to be a Bulgarian and an EU citizen who received more privileges, but he did not understand me. He said  that it did not matter if you were a Christian, Muslim or Jew, eventually we all had the same God. He also said that the same thing was happening in Israel and Palestine. “People are fighting over land and killing each other for no reason”. He could not understand why we were doing it, since we all believed in the same God, and that is why he was sure that peace was possible. I wanted to explain to him that Theodor Herzl had said the same thing over hundred years ago. I wanted to explain to him that the reality was more complicated and that human beings were not always choosing the most rational solution. But I could not translate my thoughts to the special language we were talking.

C.S.K.A. Sofia

During the journey Toshko talked with all the passengers around us. It sometimes seemed he wanted to speak with someone just in order to feel he existed. When you are in a bus for so many hours, you start wondering which one of the following does not exist: The outside world or you. He grabbed my hand and pointed a finger at the city outside the window. “Look! This is Belgrade”, he said. He was there for the first time, but he acted like a tour guide, making sure I would not miss the river, which crosses the city and the stadium of a local football club. He looked at his cell phone, disappointed. His wife had not send him a text message since the morning and he was a little worried. He maybe even felt offended.

On the screen of his mobile phone there was the logo of the football club C.S.K.A Sofia. Toshko is their fan, but seldom goes to the games. He did not have enough free time from work to travel all the way from Pleven to Sofia, probably also not enough money.

At the central station of Budapest two Hungarian passengers sat next to us. Toshko asked them which team they supported and what was the size of their team’s home stadium. The bus crossed the streets of Budapest, and we were both staring through the window, overwhelmed by the beautiful city we were seeing. “Look at that church”, he pointed at a sided street, sharing his emotions. The bus drove on one of the bridges crossing the Danube river and we became silent. It was dark outside, and thousands of lights were lightning along the mighty river. “Moi bien”, he whispered. We left the city, leaving the last lights behind us. Outside it was completely dark, and we fell asleep on our seats like babies.

I woke up finding out we were already in the Czech Republic. Toshko told me we had passed through Slovakia on our way. On the first break he did some exercise to stretch his muscles. After more than one day in a bus, the body starts aching. I asked him why he made the entire distance in a bus and not on an airplane. He said this was of traveling was the cheapest way. Besides he could get the chance to see a lot of places. He asked me why I took a bus and I did not have a good answer to reply. Toshko called one of the English speaking Bulgarians and asked him to translate something he wanted to ask me.

“He is asking if you are going to Berlin for business or pleasure”, the Bulgarian translator said. I explained to him that I was currently living in Berlin. He was the first person not asking me why I had moved to Berlin, or how I was making a living there. Maybe he was assuming everybody is eventually moving to another place to find new opportunities. The bus driver decided to show on the video the movie ‘Mr. and Mrs. Smith’ with Bulgarian subtitles. He did not consider the minority of non-Bulgarian speakers and turned the volume to minimum. Toshko asked him to turn the volume up. I thanked him and he told me he had also watched the movie in its original language. That was the way he was learning English.

On the second day of the journey we did not talk much anymore. The conversation between us was very slow due to the language barrier and it was very tiring. Both of us were also too exhausted to make every word clear. I was looking outside of the window and noticed I could read the road signs. We crossed the border to Germany, and a strong feeling of “coming back home” stroked me.

I never thought I would be able to feel that way towards this country, and yet, I was figuring out that I had become a part of it in less than six months. We stopped for another break, and Toshko had a conversation with a Bulgarian couple next to the entrance of a McDonald’s. Their body language, their clothes, even the food they were eating, all made them look different in the German landscape. They looked like strangers. I was wondering how much time would pass until Toshko would also be able to feel he was part of this country. Maybe one day he would speak German and support the German team the way he supported Spain now. The bus arrived to Berlin and I packed my bag. We said goodbye to each other. “God bless you”, he said.

I was getting off the bus and thought about the trip I had made. About 65 years ago some Soviet general and his soldiers had done the same trip from the East to the West during the war and nowadays people were following this route just to make a living.


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