I am proud to call Martin Dimitrov, an amazing guy and yet another People of Eastern Europe interviewee, a friend. He is one of those journalists who chase after stories, not because of scandal and controversy, neither as a way of getting famous. He does it because he truly cares and feels responsible to create well-researched, thoughtful, compelling content, which sparks both conversations and action. 

That’s why I’m really happy that Martin agreed to share his experience from living abroad with #POEE. We talked about what it’s like to be an Eastern European in the world, and what each of us can do to improve the region’s image. I’m sure that you’ll find what he had to say pretty interesting. Enjoy! 🙂

– Who are you?

In professional terms, I am a journalist, editor and correspondent for a foreign media outlet in Sofia. In personal terms, I am a seeker of stories and an inquisitive know-it-all. I also run a lot, dance and try to go out of town for long hikes as often as I can.

People of Eastern Europe Martin Dimitrov Interview

– What do you think of when you think about Eastern Europe?

That it is a lazily defined social construct that we got from the outside, yet many people proudly identify themselves with it. Everyone who has friends from Poland or Romania can tell how much we are different from each other in terms of mentality and a few days spent in Budapest or Bratislava are enough to notice the differences.

If there are things that we share with the other Eastern Europeans, they are very general – underdeveloped institutions that are shunned for informal ties, problematic understanding of concepts such as public space and how to take care of it. Of course, all of this is only applicable to a certain extent to certain areas. And we haven’t even started talking about the differences between cities, villages and capitals…

– You are a great example of a young Bulgarian who has a wide range of contacts in various countries and social circles. What would you say your acquaintances know and think about Eastern Europe?

This really depends on the person but generally, they don’t know much and what they do know is, at best, one-sided or twisted. But doesn’t this apply to any place? If you ask a Bulgarian something about the central US states or about rural Netherlands, you might get similar responses. Moreover, you can expect a similar thing if you ask people from the cities in these countries about life outside of the suburbs. While “developed” countries project their culture and social order (which were built over centuries) we – Eastern Europeans, have always been laggards in economic terms and we’ve mostly imitated others in cultural terms. Our modern states are young and we hardly have powerful united messages.

– Your education has taken you around the world, to places like Scotland and Hong Kong. Could you tell us a bit about some of the reactions you got from local people when they’d find out you’re Bulgarian?

The main reactions have always been mostly expressions of curiosity. I have never faced negative reactions because of my origin, regardless of the context – with people my own age or older, whether it be temporary projects or more professional engagements. If there have been any disagreements, they were mostly over my personality, which some people find a bit strong and associate with my nationality.

For instance, English people loved comparing their tea to ours (they called Bulgarian herbal tea “a potion”); I have very often been compared to Russians and accents repeatedly became an object of long conversations – apparently mine is reminiscent of a classic Hollywood villain. Also, they were surprised I am not a homophobe or a racist, but I would always say that there are plenty of people like this where I come from.

Another thing is that my sense of humor has been described as too sharp, but that might be an overall issue of mine, as some of my Bulgarian friends have had similar reactions to my jokes.

People of Eastern Europe Martin Dimitrov Interview

– We’ve talked about how some of your schoolmates in Hong Kong were very surprised when you couldn’t afford to travel to exotic destinations, unlike the rest of the exchange students. What did you use to tell them then?

Yes, that was quite a curious thing. While I was an exchange student in Hong Kong, many other exchange students took advantage of the cheap flights out of the city to Southeast Asia. I couldn’t afford their lifestyle with the money I had saved up. I was also friends with the local students and used to study with them late into the night, while many other exchange students were traveling to Thailand for the weekend. So there were a lot of questions about why I wasn’t joining them.

The reasons were more complex than “I have no money”, although this was also true. It was a bit complicated to explain to the locals that there are places in Europe that are poorer and where people can’t afford the same lifestyle that the rest of the Westerners have. On the other hand, it was these moments that I shared with the locals and the Chinese students that became key to my immersion into their world, and so my exchange was much more valuable than a cheap way into Southeast Asia.

– As a journalist, you often work on political and social topics in Eastern Europe. Are we in any way different than the “Western world”?

Of course, no doubt about that. I am not going to be the one to judge if it’s a good or a bad thing, but the facts are clear – politicians here are much less accountable for their actions, mixing private and state interests is much more obvious, we can hardly trust the judiciary, and poverty also works differently. In the UK, for example, underprivileged people are usually suffering from some sort of addiction or have lots of children, so they rely on state aid and live in social housing.

On the other hand here, in Bulgaria, poverty is most evident among the elderly because a welfare state is practically lacking. The poor work in the grey sector, but they are often home-owners.

People of Eastern Europe Martin Dimitrov Interview

– Where do you think the negative image of Eastern Europeans comes from? And what can each of us do to foster change?

I guess it mostly comes from the first wave of migrants after 1989, as well as the controversial media coverage of migration to the West. Yet the latter stems from the dysfunctional media environment we’ve been seeing around the world, rather than some conspiracy against us or ignorance. Partially, we are to blame too. For example, having a controversial (albeit colorful) persona like Boyko Borissov for Prime Minister for over a decade creates a certain image.

There are good examples too though. Estonia successfully rebranded itself as an e-state, Romania and the anti-corruption prosecutor Laura Kovesi became European-wide symbols of the fight against graft, etc. In the grand scheme of things, Bulgaria has been the middle ground of mediocrity, at least in the past few years.

People of Eastern Europe Martin Dimitrov Interview

– Could you tell us one story that describes Eastern Europe in your eyes?

Oh, there are many. One of my favorite ones is how the entire Hong Kong dormitory was trying to find me. A Briton with Bosnian roots (who claimed to have been the first child of Bosnian refugees born in the UK during the war in his country) had heard there was another “Slavic speaker” and wanted to meet me.

Apparently, everyone on campus had been trying to get us in touch, when one night, as a friend and I were having drinks outside of the dorms, a small group of people started shouting “Jacob, that’s the Bulgarian dude over there.” He then ran towards me, shouting “Kako si, brate” (Serbian for “how are you, brother”) and then started drinking with us, invited me to a Goran Bregovic concert (he knew a guy who knew a guy in the orchestra).

This was a shock to our mutual friends. They didn’t expect that people who didn’t know each other until minutes ago could drink together like old friends, talking in a broken common language of their own, and going together to a random concert.

– Let’s end the interview with something from the heart 🙂

In the last four years since I came back to Sofia I have tried to follow several basic principles and I’d like to share them in the hope that someone might find them useful: chose your fights carefully and take them to the end, don’t waste energy in useless arguments with self-centered people, and when you see someone doing something meaningful, back them up selflessly.