Saturday, May 15, 2010

Swimming in Sofia

In a chronicle today in my hometown newspaper Värmlands Folkblad, Clara Bodin tells about a number of ex-communistic swimming baths she has visited.

The article is a formidable read (in Swedish), and it brought back a lot of memories from the times when I was swimming twice weekly before going to work in Sofia.

But it also gave me a kind of bitter taste... why does every account from Eastern Europe have to repeat the same tired stereotypes? Even those written by well meaning and knowledgeable authors.

Palace of Youth and Sports, Sofia, Bulgaria
(picture from wikimedia)

Clara tells stories about the swimming hall in Chisinau that hasn't been renovated since World War II
(I doubt it was built before World War II, but I have never been there), about little old ladies with seemingly irrelevant occupations asking, and about the smell of sovietic detergents or maybe the lack if detergents.

The swimming bath in Sofia makes it to Clara's Top 5 with a 100 m. long pool, overgrown with weeds. I don't really understand which stadion she has in mind ("the olympic stadium"), but to enter it Clara had to pay one little old lady, give the recepit to another little old lady, and get a pair of sandals from a third.

Anyone with a basic knowledge of Easter Europe will smile at this description. It immediately brings a lot of pictures to my mind, even though I went to another bath with a tiny 25 m. pool - the Sport Chamber. I remember the lady who gave out the keys to my locker, who was so utterly disinterested that I had to tap her shoulder in order to get the key. I remember the shower with six showers, where the warm water finished if more than four people where showering at the same time.

But to be honest - this is not what I was thinking about at all at the time I was going there. These visits made my days a lot better - I remember the walks through the park from Orlov most to General Gurko bus stop. Once the winter was over in early March, it was wonderful.

Inside the floor was a little cold, but in which swimming bath is it not? The water was 26 C, and if I was not there on time I had to navigate between the other swimmers. It was neither very fancy, nor very exotic. Just a swimming bath. Dressed in swimming trunks, Bulgarians look very similar to Swedes.

The sad thing is that Claras description is that it is not a lie. It is one story about Bulgaria, one story among many. But this version of  Bulgaria - dirty, postcommunistic, outdated - is a cliché that all to often replaces a curious look at reality.

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