"What happened to Sofia? The last time I was here it was the early 90 and I got kidnapped, but luckily another mafia guy shot my kidnapper in the head and I escaped", said to me Sara, an American university teacher, now in her early 50s, while we were strolling around Sofia's Crystal garden - a place which gathers the alternatively-minded and some of city's artistic circles. "Because this is actually quite nice".
She says "nice", with a prolonged "i", like cautiously accepting the fact while verbalizing it. In her memories, Sofia in the 90s seemed like a Trainspotting movie with a random Vinnie Jones cameo. Even if the city was never that criminal, leaving your comfort zone for an Eastern European country, which is just recovering after a dramatic political change, might have felt like it.
Now, it's unexpectedly "nice" and international - Sofia hugely benefited from the low-cost airline hype of the last few years, which means that sometimes it's more likely to hear people awkwardly practicing "blagodaria" in the plane than being woken up from your nap because everyone is cheering the plane's landing (yes, Bulgarians do that). The presence of foreigners, both tourists and people residing temporarily or permanently, is not the novelty it was not long ago. If a foreigner in a bar was a curious sight up until a few years ago, now it's a weekend cliché.
Talking with them often puts the familiar streets, attitudes and places in a different light. It seems like Sofia provides an interesting balance - some of the chaos of Eastern Europe is still intact, yet the westernization is providing a rest from the rawness. A balance between the unknown and the known.
"I'm not English, I'm from Manchester", says an elderly Englishman, tongue-in-cheek, while drinking along with a Scotsman at Vitamin B, one of the many craft beer bars in the city. The barman is an American and a Brazilian is joining them to a watch a World Cup game.
"I'm amazed how safe if feels here", says a woman in her early 30s from the States with her friends nodding along on a noisy night in Gaba Bar, one of Sofia's late night hotspots, although a friend of theirs from India, who just spent some time in a winter resort, is a bit underwhelmed by the lack of people of colour around the streets.
"It feels so fresh here", says an Australian although the party at DaDa Cultural Bar is ending and by 3 AM the place is almost empty. "The people are communicating so differently here, you can sense that they are really talking, not just blabbering about something. Yeah, let's have another one here".
"What I find interesting is that it's so obvious that people are doing what they are doing since recently", says a woman from Canada in her late 20s, while trying some of the local beer brands at Kanaal. "They are not tired from socializing."
However, some actually are tired. Discos and clubs have 10% more in revenue in 2017 and that's not because the regular Bulgarian is becoming more of a hellraiser. In a place like Sofia where rents are rising and jobs outside of certain sectors are hugely unsecured, foreigners fill the gap for those who are local but too tired from the everyday survival to appreciate the nightlife.
"Take me somewhere where they are not foreigners", said to me a guy from Ireland. That proved a difficult task. However, the bars that often have presence from tourists and expats, don't think that this is ruining the authenticity in any kind of way.
"There is a direct connection between the sudden interest from the outside towards Sofia and the low-cost airlines. I would divide the foreign groups into three categories: those who pass through accidently while traveling to somewhere else; those who have read about us and know what to expect and usually hang around for longer; and those who live full time here and visit when there's a specific event", says Lyubo from DaDa Cultural Bar - a place reserved for jazz and indie parties, exhibitions, book presentations, small screenings, workshops, but also a place from which the weekend bar crawls start (and currently there are several types of this British tradition in Sofia). The usual crowd consists of people from the UK, Spain, France, Italy, Germany and Austria. "Our foreign clients are usually different in age and profession. However, almost with no exception, they are curious and positive people - it's a rare occurrence to see somebody making some kind of a mess or acting violently. Actually, the foreigners that hang in the bar are very similar in their attitude and their interests to the local clients."
Lyubo, however, is not sure if the hype won't wear off soon. "The municipality has to act more wisely in future and do their best so Sofia can become more welcoming and artistic. If the institutions don't work in that direction, Sofia won't experience a permanent rejuvenation nor its nightlife. Unfortunately, I don't see any real strategy about the cultural development of the city..."
For Martin, who recently opened the cozy Crafter, one of the cool bars for afterwork hangout, there isn't a day without a foreign visitor, usually from the US, Australia and different parts of Europe. "They're usually interested in experiencing something new like local wine and beer brands. We don't have any fear that we will become too touristy since those who visit our place have to do a bit of research to find us and are usually those who are curious enough to explore the smaller streets in the center."
That's not to say Sofia isn't also used as a cheap booze haven - wandering around the streets after midnight gives enough evidence. Also, wandering around is part of the experience - as the German-Bulgarian electronic artist Stefan Goldmann once wrote in an essay about Sofia: "The quality is questionable, but with guaranteed quantity, you can switch parties easily until you like something-or until you're drunk enough and it doesn't matter anymore."
But sometimes, or at least in one case, all the substance abuse is not for fun, but for courage. "I just want to find my Musagenitza girl from the previous summer", said to me a Swedish guy, who prided himself on getting cheaply every drug imaginable in Sofia. "Do you know where Musagenitza is? Do you want some?"