When I arrived in Bulgaria shortly after mass street protests had helped force the resignation of the prime minister, the country’s problems were still far from over. Government corruption remained rampant and slow economic grow had placed many Bulgarians on the brink of economic ruin.
As a reporter tasked with explaining the situation to people, I knew that one of the biggest challenges would be finding a way to make the nation’s problems relevant to American and Western readers who probably couldn’t find Bulgaria on a map and who likely didn’t even loosely understand or follow news from inside the country.
As an overseas reporter, this has been a constant struggle even when I’ve covered big stories like Iraq or Afghanistan. Often the important issue driving news at a given moment – say, something like land disputes that fuel tribal feuds and destabilize the country – are not something that will interest a casual consumer of news.
Reporting in these situations is always a bit strange, because for those in the midst of what may likely be the biggest hardship of their life, there is an expectation that the entire world wants to know about them and cares enough to have an opinion. Sadly, it’s been my experience that sustained global interest in everyday crises is not common.
What I’ve always found a bit frustrating is that an Afghan who is outraged that the world doesn’t react to the theft of his ancestral land couldn't have cared less about a similar problem that someone in Africa experienced long before the Afghan had any problems. It’s rare to find people with the self-awareness and perspective to understand how the world will perceive their internal crises.
But in Bulgaria I was surprised to find this wasn’t always the case. When I started talking to Bulgarians, I found that very few people had any illusions about what their political drama meant for those outside their borders.
During interviews, local experts would start to get incredibly detailed in their analysis of events. After a while I’d say something along the lines of, “I don’t mean to be rude, but most people don’t follow Bulgarian news closely. Could you explain what’s happening here within the context of what’s happening throughout Europe.”
The first time I said this, the interviewee laughed and almost seemed to be apologizing when he said, “Yes, yes, I know. Bulgaria is a very small country.”
Later I met someone who described Bulgaria as being so small and powerless in stature that it was like a child strapped in the back of a car at the mercy of its parents' driving in perilous conditions. This man had also written a report about Bulgaria titled “The Periphery of the Periphery.”
At times it didn’t even feel like the Bulgarians took their own crisis seriously. During protests, I constantly ran into people walking their dogs during protest marches. They had the demeanor of someone who, while out for a weekend stroll, happened upon a block party and decided to stop in and see if they knew anyone.
None of this is to belittle Bulgarians or their current difficulties, nor do I think I met a single person who wasn’t deeply concerned about their own personal future and that of their nation.
But what was refreshing to me as a reporter about Bulgarians’ outlook was that many people could see their situation within the context of world events. They didn’t have oversized expectations for how my reporting could bring international attention on their plight.
In the end, I’d like to think that the Bulgarians’ outlook allowed me to leave the country in peace, knowing that I’d done my part as a reporter to help people understand the problem there, but I also knew no Bulgarians would get frustrated with me or the media in general for not doing enough.