Sofia is a city where the grass grows as it likes. Where the hedges are unkempt and the street signs grungy, where cables hang down the front of buildings and a double bed blocks the sidewalk. "It's chaotic," says Maria Iliycheva, as she steps off the subway train. Or, as she describes the Bulgarian capital, "scattered" – a puzzle of hills, streets and parks with no clear layout. She says it took her awhile to get used to the city again when she moved back in 2016. Prior to that, she had spent much of her life putting together a resume of the kind the European Commission would no doubt find admirable: She studied sociology, nationalism and human rights and spent time living in Bosnia, Montenegro, Italy, Poland and Romania.
Scattered in Europe, so to speak.
She says she wouldn't give up her Bulgarian citizenship for anything in the world. Even if a European passport is introduced at some point in the future, she says, "it has to say that I'm Bulgarian." Maria Iliycheva is a 43-year-old with dark-red hair and subtle glitter on her eyelids. She's drinking a soda on the terrace of a café in a "good neighborhood," and she is almost impossible to hear because of the roar of the traffic on the four-lane boulevard that runs past on its way to a shopping mall and two McDonald's restaurants. If you've lived for a long time abroad, Iliycheva says, you know that you are always seen as a newcomer. "In Poland, I'm 'the Bulgarian.' That's just the way it is." Despite the wanderlust that she still feels frequently today, and despite the worrying nostalgia for communism in Bulgaria, she says she wouldn't dream of giving up her Bulgarian passport.
Iliycheva thinks it's "good to know how your adversary thinks," which is why she is taking part in Europe Talks – and because she finds the idea abhorrent that people within a society would stop talking to each other. "What kind of society is that supposed to be?"
Not long ago, she answered seven yes-or-no questions about her political views. Are there too many migrants in Europe? "No." Should Europe maintain tighter ties with Russia? "No."
Now, she's one of 16,200 people who have registered to speak about Europe with a complete stranger from another country. An algorithm developed by ZEIT ONLINE has matched up debate partners with particularly antagonistic views. And so, Iliycheva was contacted by a man from a coastal city in Greece who doesn't believe that the EU improves quality of life for its citizens at all. A man who describes the eurozone as a battlefield.
The man's name is Stamatis Zográphos, and the two have been in regular email contact since he first got in touch with her. Just before the European elections, they will meet up in southern Bulgaria – halfway between the two of them.
"We'll see." Iliycheva works in her company's personnel department and she believes that she and her Greek debate partner might actually be much more similar than the algorithm thinks. She believes Bulgaria and Greece have similar problems with EU sovereign bonds and the influence of their countries' elites – "mediocre politicians" and an unwillingness to question the past. "The communists of yesterday have become the business leaders of today," she says.
Iliycheva also believes that the emigration of 2 million Bulgarians doesn't just have an economic explanation. She thinks it could also be a reaction to the prohibitions of communism.
And, she says, the left-wing liberal spectrum has huge communication problems. She says it's not all that different from cliques at school: The leftists talk to the leftists, the center-leftists talk to the center-leftists. Anything else is too stressful.
Last week, the pope visited Sofia to kick off his trip through the Balkans. He said what popes always say: "Don't close your hearts." And yet, the message came across loud and clear, particularly in Bulgaria, which has set up a barbed-wire fence on its border with Turkey to keep out the refugees.
It's actually a "global message," says Iliycheva as she heads back to the subway. One that applies to all eras and all crises.