When you fly into Sofia, the first thing you’ll see is the panel Soviet housing, a.k.a “panelka”. Many foreigners, and even Bulgarians who’ve been away for a long time, are shocked by them. They see these buildings as ugly, cold, and even repulsive. Perhaps it is also what mushes up Eastern Europe into one big ball of indistinguishable stagnation, in the eyes of Westerners. But these are entire ecosystems, each with its own individuality, and I grew up in one of them. When the neighbor wanted to tell us something, she wouldn’t ring the doorbell or give us a call. Instead, she’d bang on our living room window with her broomstick. If someone is being noisy, the other occupants in the building won’t go talk to them or call the police. They’ll smack the radiator pipes instead. The building’s staircase is in cheap mosaic, the walls are covered in boogers, each balcony looks horrendously different from the rest, and someone somewhere is drawing a penis. But still, these buildings, made in Soviet times аs quickly as possible to fit as many as possible, have their ramshackle charm. An oh-so-trendy Wes Anderson esthetic if you will. Growing up in them has its downsides. For instance, the boys you went to kindergarten with later grow up to develop a career in small-time drug dealing. But there are important advantages as well. Most of all, you’re never fed with a silver spoon, you “Know 2 and 200” as Bulgarians like to say, and so later in life you are a Terminator who doesn’t bat an eyelid when shit goes down. Besides, there is a certain kind of magic in the hordes of old ladies, who keep a close eye on the neighborhood from their benches; the neighborhood drunks, who often fall asleep under those same benches; the basketball courts where you light your first cigarette, and the long nights with friends, over a beer, in the gardens between the buildings. Thousands of people in Bulgaria have grown up in panel housing and this kind of life has become an authentic part of our culture. It might not be the prettiest one, but it’s ours to the bone, and I always look back to it with a bit of nostalgia. If you’ve never been in a panel housing neighborhood, why not go on an in-city trip explore a bit? 😉