Bulgaria's Student City - Where Your Call Center Agent Lives
December 12, 2008: Thousands of students rallied to protest against the violence in Student City as Stoyan Baltov, a 20-year-old medical student, was beaten to death for no reason in front of a local disco on Dec 5, 2008. Photo by BGNES
A peculiar and refreshing article by Leif Petterse from Lonely Planet recently described several cities around the world as potential sex objects. Here is what it said about Bulgaria's Sofia:
"This one may not have a day job, because it seems like you only ever see her while you're out clubbing. She's probably the sexiest one in the room, but she always smells like cigarettes and alcohol."
While the curious traveler may indeed find an abundance of bargain opportunities to get a really heavy hangover in Sofia, there is a certain place which surely can be considered the epitome of the city's vibrant, "sexy" and dangerous nightlife. It is called Studentski grad (Student city) - and it is still considered a student campus area.
Built in the 1980s, during the communist era in Bulgaria, the Student city is designed to accommodate a vast number of students from almost all of Sofia's universities. During the 1990s, after the country's "liberation" from the communist regime - an astonishing amount of semi-legal night clubs were opened in this particular vicinity.
As the living conditions for the campus inhabitants worsened drastically due to lack of financing, the restless construction of all kinds of bars, discotheques and taverns continued in the new century.
There is one genre of music which prevails at these places - it is called "chalga". Despite being a specific Balkan phenomenon, chalga can be simply explained, as in its grotesque world, men are thugs driving shiny cars and women are having sex with them for money.
It would be naive and completely untrue to state that whoever listens to chalga necessarily has corrupt moral values. The real problem is that Student City is infected with actual chalga culture - which is the real-life inspiration for the grotesque chalga lyrics and videos.
Sofia's "campus area" is clearly far from being only about the students - not only casual youngsters, but also dangerous criminals and sociopaths from all parts of the city and the country are attracted to the cheap booze, drugs and sexual adventures this place can offer. Which, of course, has lead to not one or two tragic accidents.
The chalga culture may be considered a symbol of Bulgaria's disillusioned society. And its existence is closely connected to the problems Bulgaria's education system is experiencing.
When the ruling center-right GERB government took over in 2009, it pledged that education is its key priority. We will follow the Irish model, the politicians said, referring to the important role the enhanced education system had in Ireland's rapid growth.
Considering that two years later Bulgaria spends the least percentage of all EU member states on education, this promise is nowhere near its fulfillment. The results of the government's policy are also apparent - functional literacy rates among pupils are getting alarmingly lower each year, state universities are constantly facing financial collapses.
Problems with education funding are not just a Bulgarian phenomenon, there are only most severe in this country. Recently, student protests erupted in several EU states, most notably in the UK, where November and December 2010 saw an ongoing series of vast demonstrations in opposition to planned spending cuts to further education and an increase of the cap on tuition fees.
Meanwhile, back in EU's poorest member state, the university students seem to be making their first shy attempts at defending their rights after years of political apathy (which has been typical for the country as a whole for quite a while). Some 7000 students gathered at the largest protest up to now on November 16, 2010, peacefully demanding that the education crisis should be dealt with.
What do the Bulgarian university students want? Here is what Ivaylo Dinev, one of those most active in organizing the recent rallies, told me: " We demand that the funding for higher education be upped from 0.48% of GDP to 1.13%. But more importantly, our demands are about the future. We want to be able to be in charge of our own future."
Are university students in Bulgaria able to get in charge of their own future when chalga culture has hijacked not only their campuses but all layers of society, all the way up to the government?
The inhabitants of Sofia's "festive" campus area do not have many options to escape its wretched and dangerous living conditions - the most common is finding a full-time job.
Next time you hear a young individual advise you to restart your computer in an unrecognizable foreign accent, it is quite possible that he or she is a Bulgarian university student, who may be living precisely in Student City - and planning to move out. The growing number of outsourced call centers are among the very few options for Bulgaria's students to secure themselves a decent living - actually, most of those working in such places earn much more than their miserably paid university professors.
As a result of that, more and more young people focus on their jobs instead of whatever they are studying. The newest generation of Bulgarian university students has been widely condemned as ignorant as it generally does not seem to possess the same passion for books and learning as previous ones did, but it would be fair to say today's youngsters are forced to be more pragmatic than their parents, who lived in the oppressive yet somewhat financially secure and peaceful communist regime.
Needless to say, not all young Bulgarians or university students live in Student City - but this place epitomizes distinctly the clash between chalga culture - represented by vehicles of murky businessmen parked in front of its night clubs - and what will hopefully bring about a more decent future for the country - represented by at least some of its inhabitants.
However, if somebody does not show the political will to invest in higher education, more and more youngsters will be heading to Sofia's international airport instead - with a one-way ticket, that is.
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