Is there creative freedom in Bulgaria?

Writer and co-founder of Artist Tree Sofia Tom Edward Phillips shares his thoughts

Edited by Lindsay Martin.


How did you end up in Bulgaria?

My wife Sarra and I lived in Bristol in the west of England for just over 30 years. The city has a great cultural scene so it’s perfect if you’re an artist (which Sarra is) or a writer (which I am). I was working as a journalist, mostly for a well-known Bristol arts and entertainment magazine called Venue, but also writing and performing poetry and writing scripts for theatre companies - including a play set in Bulgaria that was produced in Bristol in 2014. 

Around fifteen years ago, our children (they’re both adults now) decided they wanted to travel more and so we began a series of train journeys to eastern and south-eastern Europe. That resulted in me doing a PhD in travel writing at the University of Reading and so I started teaching creative writing and, after a chance meeting with a Bulgarian student at the University of Portsmouth, I began to make links with Bulgaria. I started learning Bulgarian and translating Bulgarian poetry - originally so that I could read it myself, but then also for publication in the UK. As a family, we’d also started doing voluntary teaching and environmental work with an NGO in the mountains in northern Albania and I was going to academic conferences and making connections with writers in other Balkan countries too. 

By the time of the Brexit referendum in 2016, it became almost inevitable that Sarra and I would leave the UK so that we could continue living in Europe. That summer I was a translator-in-residence at the Sofia Literature and Translation House and Scalino publishing house here in Sofia published Nepoznati Prevodi/Unknown Translations, a bilingual collection of poems that I’d originally written in Bulgarian and then translated into English (most people assume it must have been the other way round, but they really were written in Bulgarian first!) The following year, 2017, we moved to Bulgaria and since then I’ve done a great many different things - exploring Sofia and the rest of the country, teaching creative writing with Sofia Writing Challenge and at CY St Kliment Ohridski, doing commercial and literary translations, journalism and editorial work, and taking part in lots of literary projects, both in Bulgaria and beyond. 

We’ve also set up Artist Tree Sofia with Ruby Moore so that’s also been a lot of fun, meeting lots of new people and putting on workshops and events that have ranged from writers and artists’ get-togethers to multilingual art-music-poetry performances.


How have you chosen Sofia? 

I first visited Sofia in 2013, to stay with the family of the Bulgarian student I met by chance in Portsmouth, and I immediately fell in love with it. In fact, I remember walking along the street on my own one day and just getting this extraordinary feeling of being at home. I visited again in 2014, this time with Sarra, and she got a similar feeling, and so, by 2016, it really had started feeling like a ‘second home’. Part of my ‘job description’ at the Sofia Literature and Translation House was also ‘to meet Bulgarian writers’ - so I did. A lot. And so, by the time we were thinking of moving here, we already had a large circle of friends in the literary world - and I knew that the city’s cultural life is really lively and there’s always something going on somewhere, whether that’s a new exhibition opening or a new book being launched.

Meanwhile, a friend we’d made through my residency mentioned that her parents wanted to rent out an apartment they owned in downtown Sofia - and that sounded like fate! We knew very early on that we’d made the right choice, but it’s been nice to hear friends of ours from the UK who’ve come to visit tell us that they completely understand our decision - as one of those friends put it, Sofia is a city on a human scale. It’s not been transformed into a relentless parade of glass-and-steel skyscrapers, six-lane highways and parking lots. OK, there is some of that, but the atmosphere of the city as a whole remains essentially human - it’s not Manhattan or the City of London, and it’s all the better for that.


You are one of the co-founders of the Artist Tree, but that’s surely not everything you do. Tell us more about what you’re up to!

Artist Tree Sofia is certainly at the heart of what both Sarra and I do here and we’re hoping that post-Covid some of the ‘big ideas’ we were starting to discuss and plan pre-Covid will eventually happen. Just prior to Covid, we had meetings with a few other organisations to discuss a possible arts festival in the neighbourhood the studio’s in - with live theatre on the streets, exhibitions, workshops, poetry walks, arts and crafts stalls and so on. Unfortunately, Covid put a stop to that, but the idea is still there, it’s still ‘live’ for next year we hope.

As well as Artist Tree Sofia and the journalism and editing side of my work, I’ve continued to translate Bulgarian poetry and to promote Balkan literature in general to English-speaking readers. The Bristol-based literary journal, Raceme, is going to publish quite a substantial selection of translations from the work of Geo Milev which I’ve done with Angel Igov and Bozhil Hristov from Sofia University, while another UK journal, The High Window, is going to publish a selection of Macedonian poetry that I’ve put together with two Macedonian poet-friends. I also continue to write my own work - mostly poetry these days, some of which is published on my blog, Recreation Ground and some of which has been published in magazines or translated into other languages. I also have the manuscript of a novel that I’m trying to get published, but that’s even more difficult than writing it because there’s a lot of competition.


What do you wish you'd known before moving here? 

Not much, if I’m honest. We were lucky because we had so many Bulgarian friends before we moved to Sofia - they told us a lot before we even stepped off the plane! We also put in quite a lot of research before we moved here - visiting several times, including once in the winter, and I was here for a month living in an ordinary neighbourhood while I was at the Sofia Literature and Translation House so I got a good taste of what day-to-day life is like from that. What I didn’t expect, perhaps, is that we’d be so busy. Obviously, things were a lot quieter in lockdown and during the summer, but now everything’s started up again and we’re trying to catch up!


How has your life changed once you've settled here? 

The main difference, I think, is that we feel freer to do what we want to do and that there are more possibilities open to us as people who, not only make our own creative work, but also enjoy collaborating with other writers and artists - especially those who work within different traditions and with different ideas. In the UK, people usually react a bit strangely if you say you’re a poet (they frown, shrug and change the subject!), but I’ve never encountered that here. People are genuinely interested - especially if I mention that I’ve written poems in Bulgarian or am translating someone like Geo Milev. 

We’ve also done things we didn’t do in the UK - like go for long walks in the mountains or go to the opera - and we’ve certainly eaten out a lot more often, not only because it’s much cheaper to do so here, but also because there are so many great places to eat.


Would you consider moving back to the UK, or to another country, or would you stay here? Why? 

I expect we will move back to the UK eventually. In fact, we originally only came here with a plan to stay for two years - we’ve just celebrated three and I don’t think we’ll be leaving soon. I expect it’ll be when we get towards retirement age - I know a lot of British people have actually retired here, but I think we’ll want to be closer to our children by the time we’re getting decrepit! At the moment, though, we definitely want to stay in Bulgaria because even after three years we still feel like we’ve only just scratched the surface, we love where we live and we seem to keep turning up new opportunities and possibilities.


What would be your piece of advice to a newcomer here?

Learning the language would be one piece of advice - not that it’s absolutely necessary, because so many Bulgarians speak English, especially in Sofia, but I think you still miss a lot by not doing so. I’ve had conversations that I couldn’t have had in English, experiences I wouldn’t have had if I hadn’t understood Bulgarian, read books that haven’t been translated and so on. Much the same is true of Bulgarian history and culture - knowing at least a little about that definitely enriches the experience of living here - when visiting towns and cities with their own specific histories, of course, but also in terms of understanding things that happen in daily life more fully. I’d also suggest saying ‘yes’ to every opportunity that comes your way, make friends, relax.

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