Post-communist Bulgaria, solar eclipses, and NZ Level 2 restrictions

In August 1999, I had the opportunity to travel from the U.K. to Varna, Bulgaria, on the Black Sea coast, to view the European Total Solar Eclipse. Just why we ended up in Varna, as opposed to a plethora of other possibilities in Europe, is a bit of a long story, but a substantial part of it was a near guarantee of cloud-free, Black Sea summer.

The eclipse itself was fantastic. Unfortunately, unless you are very lucky, you will need to travel to see a total solar eclipse. That said, New Zealand, which is currently in a bit of a solar eclipse drought (there’s a tiddly partial visible in the south of the South Island at the end of next year), will experience monsoon eclipse conditions in 2028. In the subsequent 17 years, it will get three total eclipses and three annular eclipses – enough to satisfy any eclipse hunter. However, eclipses are not the point of this story…

It was a decade since the Iron Curtain had fallen. Well, politically speaking, it might have fallen in Bulgaria in 1990, but practically speaking there was still lots of evidence of it remaining ten years later. Basically, there were two forms of operation in evidence. There were the businesses, organizations and processes that had embraced capitalism, and those that hadn’t. In the former group were most of the restaurants that lined the seafront area*, complete with their expectation of large tips for lousy service. In the latter group were the museums (plenty of these showing off Varna’s extensive Greek, Roman and Thracian history, but with a generous sprinkling of communist flavour), the airport, and our hotel.

The hotel proved no end of amusement to our group. (And we probably proved no end of annoyance to the hotel.) It’s not that the people there were obstructive, it was just that the hotel functioned in a different way from what we had experienced. There was the appropriate way to do everything, and that was the way things had to be done. Breakfast first meant collecting a meal ticket from reception. Then one had to walk about eight paces across the foyer to the entrance of the cafe area, and present the ticket to the person at the door, who had just watched you pick it up from reception in the first place. (And don’t even think about skipping the hotel breakfast and going out to a cafe instead…) Once shown to the table, we were presented with the breakfast menu. As I recall, there were five or so ‘set’ breakfasts, with each breakfast containing an assortment of items, for example tea, coffee, boiled egg, cereal, yoghurt, muffin, toast, orange juice… etc. The items on the list were robustly set – we quickly discovered that if ‘tea’ were on the list for menu 1 say, one could not substitute it with coffee. If we wanted coffee, then we needed menu 2, and that came with menu 2’s food, not menu 1’s. Flexibility? Not here. Being the capitalists we were, a group of four of us (brother, sisters and I) ordered four different menus and then traded amongst ourselves, much to the horror of the staff, who clearly thought this was inappropriate behaviour. (With hindsight I do hope that this behaviour was considered as no more than inappropriate and not downright offensive.)

So there were those who had grasped change, and those who hadn’t. Just like COVID-19 Level 2 in New Zealand. Some people have grasped the fact that Level 2 is not Level 1. Behaviour has changed. They are social distancing, washing hands, working from home when they can, wearing masks when approriate, considering whether they really need to meet up with their friends in person. And there are those who are still at Level 1. And these scare me**.

*Not quite on the sea – Varna has an extensive parkland (banner photo) that stretches along the shoreline for many kilometres – a really great arrangement in my opinion that keeps the seafront clear of ugly buildings and urban development.

**On the plus side, there are fewer of these than this time two weeks ago, but I am still seeing far too many people who are still living in a COVID-19-free New Zealand.

Photocredit: By –, CC BY-SA 4.0,

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