One look at New Rochelle’s Eric Rubin, and President Barack Obama knew he had a winner, which is why the 44th president of the United States appointed the polyglot public servant the ambassador to Bulgaria in 2015. Fluent in six languages, the veteran State Department employee had served his country in Russia, Ukraine, Thailand, and Honduras prior to his appointment to Bulgaria. Recently, we had our own summit with the ambassador, to get a better sense of him and his new Eastern European home.
What foreign languages do you speak?
I’m fluent in Russian, Ukranian, Spanish, French, and Thai.
What’s your favorite native-Bulgarian cuisine so far?
They have an amazing red-pepper relish called lyutenitsa, which is fantastic on meat, fish, and vegetables. It is kind of a red-pepper puree with onions, tomatoes, spices, and sometimes a little chili. I find it addictive.
Which American businesses have permeated Bulgarian society the most?
There are many big American companies that have large operations here, such as Coca-Cola and HP. Also, there are a lot of US-branded hotels, restaurants, and fast-food places here. McDonald’s is probably the most ubiquitous.
Is there an aspect of American culture—or perhaps an American celebrity—with which the Bulgarian people seem particularly fascinated?
American movies are definitely dominant in movie theaters here, as they are in most of the world. They have their own Bulgarian versions of multiple American shows, like Jeopardy!, American Idol, and The Apprentice. Coming from a small country, I think Bulgarians are fascinated by America’s size and diversity most of all. But they are also fascinated with our educational system—not surprising, considering Bulgaria boasts the oldest American institution of higher learning outside the US, the American College of Sofia. Also, several thousand young Bulgarians come to the US each year to work, study, and travel.
What should Americans who are just visiting Bulgaria for a day or two do while they are there?
Eat some great local food and drink some great local wine; the prices are phenomenally reasonable, and the quality is great. Go for a hike in the gorgeous mountains that surround Sofia. Visit some of the ancient monasteries in the hills, some of which are surrounded by cliffs. Take in some of the ancient local customs, like fire dancing and the annual rose harvest, if it’s that time of year. And, if time permits, fly to the coast and see the Ancient Roman, Greek, and Thracian ruins next to some of Europe’s most beautiful beaches.
• Bulgaria has the oldest American institution of higher learning outside of the U.S., the American College of Sofia, which was founded in 1860. The American University in Bulgaria, in Blagoevgrad, was founded in 1991 and is the first American-style undergrad liberal-arts school in Eastern Europe.
• Bulgaria is the world’s largest producer of rose oil, an essential ingredient for perfumes and cosmetics.
• One of Bulgaria’s most revered national heroes is Vasil Levski (1837-1873) of Karlovo. Dubbed the Apostle of Freedom, Levski strategized a revolutionary movement to liberate Bulgaria from Ottoman rule.
• The Bulgarian army has never lost a flag in battle and is the only European country that hasn’t changed its name since its founding.