Jun 10, 2007

Notes from Bulgaria III

A visibly pregnant woman is smoking near the entrance to the Maternity Ward of the Sofia Central Hospital. She chats with the father-to-be as he lights his own cigarette. Nobody seems to notice or care.

Following one of the most dramatic declines of fertility rates in all of Europe, the pendulum has reversed, and the Bulgarians who remain are now making babies with reckless abandon. Pregnant women are everywhere Sofia. All of those who are not pregnant are either pushing strollers through the city’s treacherous sidewalks or scheming to become pregnant.

When all else fails, they come to Dr. Bogden – the leading fertility specialist in the Balkans. I was introduced at his office inside the Central Hospital. He poured me a glass of whiskey and lit a cigarette. It was 11 o’clock in the morning. We talk about the only possible topic of conversation in Sofia these days: Bush. “Half my staff won’t be able to get to work," he says.

For two days, Sofia will be under a blockade and everyone gets the day off. The highways will be closed. Buses won’t run. The main road from the airport is lined with American flags and police officers, one every fifty meters. In the city’s kiosks, newspapers give front page coverage to the arrival of the President’s security team. All flights from the International Airport are canceled – in or out – while the President is on the ground. And then there’s the Macedonian medical student in Stara Zagora. He was arrested yesterday for threatening Bush's life on an Internet forum. The student won’t be charged, but only released after the President departs.

Hours before the entire city center is to be closed and evacuated of all people, we pass by the gold and black statue of Sofia near the former headquarters of the Bulgarian Communist Party. A group of eight American Secret Service agents walk past wearing Oakley sunglasses, wrinkle resistant Dockers, and golf shirts. They are trying to blend. “Welcome to Bulgaria,” a friend says in halting English. “Thank you,” one says, somewhat taken aback. “Glad to be here."

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