I'm flying to Sofia, Bulgaria later today to take part in a rather interesting project. CafeBabel, a web site I write for, is sending five journalists and one photographer to live in the city for about a week in order to participate in one of their ongoing EU Debate on the Ground forums. The forums have been taking place once a month in various cities throughout Europe, hosting debates about the EU with the local population as a run-up to the European Parliament elections in June. Several journalists are chosen from various corners of Europe and they assemble in the city, reporting on a specific issue and speaking at the forum. I'll be writing a feature on vote-buying in the country, as well as a second feature looking at how the global economic crisis is likely to effect Bulgaria.
We have quite a diverse group. There will be a Bulgarian from Sofia, a Spaniard living in Berlin, a Romanian living in Paris, an Italian from Turin, a Spaniard living in Paris, and an Italo-American living in Brussels (that's me). None of us know each other, but we'll be staying together in a large hostel room in the center of the city. We'll each be reporting on different issues, but I imagine we'll be swapping observations and ideas throughout the stay.
It should be interesting, it will actually be my first time back in Eastern Europe since I lived in Prague. One thing that's already throwing me is the country's use of the Cyrillic alphabet. It makes it very difficult to locate addresses on Google maps! I have appointments scheduled tomorrow and Friday with various government officials and NGOs, hopefully I've arranged them in some kind of logical order geographically. I learned from reporting in India that in a city with bad traffic, trying to zigzag across town going from interview to interview can quickly spell disaster.
The EU Debate on the Ground panel will take place this weekend. The purpose of the panel is to get a snapshot of the feelings on the ground about the EU, and to analyze those opinions in a way that can be meaningful for the upcoming parliament elections. I'll be particularly curious to hear the impressions of Bulgarians, who were promised much after their entry into the EU two years ago but have seen their economy teeter on the brink of collapse since then as a result of the global economic crisis. After many years of double digit growth in Eastern Europe, the sudden reversal of fortunes could lead Eastern Europeans to be more skeptical about what the EU can do for them. Additionally, Bulgarians were less than impressed with how the EU handled the recent gas crisis in January which left thousands of Bulgarians without heat for several days during a bitter cold snap.
All in all, it should be an enlightening trip.