I love taking planes, the sensation of being neither here nor there, simply in between, just up in the ether seems somehow comforting. As the plane to Sofia took off, I thought to myself, I am just air and stardust and earth, no different from what is all around me, what harm could possible come to me except what I perceive as my container? Simply air unto air, space within space.
This time, no Hail Mary.
When we touched down in Sofia, the people clapped, and I was happy to join in. Certainly happen to have a safe landing whatever my philosophical ponderings! I read once of someone callng people who clapped on airlines unsophisticated and saying that they they don’t fly often. What classism! As someone who didn’t take a plane until long after my peers, and who never expected to go up on a lark on a flight that cost less than 100 euro, I felt personally offended. Travel, no matter what one’s budget, is the ultimate privilege.
I was really excited to be back in the Balkans, a region of Europe that captures the tragicomedy and quirkiness of life perhaps a bit better than most. I had hoped to travel from Macedonia to Athens earlier in the year but a series of unexpected events forced me to change my plans, and I learned to read the signs and follow my excitement instead of the plan, and that travel is a state of mind. I didn’t go on the trip, but I met loads of cool people in the city where I live, and did not spend the cold lonely Easter I expected at all. I didn’t even make it to church. All this despite the excel sheet detailing where I would go and how I would get there and all the months spent researching the best transport connections and what I would do with my cousin who was unable to join me as it turned out.
But still, I was jonesing for a return to the Balkans, despite the fact that some see the term as an insult rather than a geographical description. Southeastern Europe I suppose. My long weekend became free, again unexpectedly, and I was excited to find the ticket to Bulgaria fairly inexpensive. I sketched out a basic plan for the trip with the idea of getting out of the city and heading to the mountains for some real refreshment, and then was dismayed to see a stormy weather forecast…
From the moment I got off the plane, I couldn’t help comparing Bulgaria with Albania, the last country I had been to in the region. The airport was relatively large and new, with two terminals and a free shuttle bus. Sure, drivers approached me for unofficial rides but then there was an official information window and someone who gave me advice in very clear English. The airport itself was newly renovated and very easy to navigate. And I could even pay for my Coke Zero, which cost less than one euro for a bottle, by touch payment. I saw the sign explaining that the airport renovation was paid for by EU funds.
I made it in time to do the free walking tour of Sofia, favored city of the Roman Empire Constantine, who legalized Christianity and converted on his deathbed, formerly called Serdica. I went to the town museum as well, and was impressed with the collections ranging from Neolithic to Roman to Belle Epoque, with multiple videos to watch with English subtitles and and friendly docents. And again, the sign about the sponsorship by the EU. It was quite a contrast from the National History Museum in Tirana, which had quite a few exhibits lacking any signage outside of Albanian and where the Ottoman presence seemed to be viewed with ambivalence, as one conqueror among many, despite the people’s proud history from the Illyrians onward. The building itself was clearly recent communist architecture with minimal charm. In Sofia, the collections were housed in a former Ottoman bathhouse,again supported by European funds, and the emphasis was on the country’s emergence from Ottoman rule and turn towards Western Europe, with an early streetcar proudly on display. For a period lasting 500 years, there wasn’t a lot to represent the Ottoman period.
During the free walking tour, I met a Canadian girl living in New York. As I’m an American in France, we got to talking about the choices we made and how they affected us. It became clear that my dinner partner had travellled to more countries than I had, made more money than I did, and was a competitive marathron runner. With a competitive streak. We discussed sharing the cost of a tourist taxi with an English guide together in a few days so we could see more than was possible with just public transportation, and I was left feeling a bit down.
And then I went back to my hostel and a young Polish guy started talking to me. He looked like Drago from Rocky IV, and I’m sure a comparison to Russians would bother him much less than a comparison to Germans. He wore a Polish flag sweatshirt with a Polish falcon tee shirt underneath, and world youth day rubber band bracelets. He thought that Poland didn’t have a terrorist problem because it had no Muslims and he admired Donald Trump. His friend reminded me of the engineer who was my friend’s boyfriend’s best friend in college, and is now working for Amazon. Or Ebay, or who has gone on to become a billionaire tech entrepreneur. But he wasn’t an engineer, instead he studied history and was a confirmed atheist. We discussed world politics, regional stereotypes, the Polish education system, the ability of speakers of one Slavic language to understand other Slavic tongues, and eventually, sexual harassment when the Bulgarian owner of the hostel joined in and explained he told his new American employee he didn’t believe in. What was the girl who Tiger Woods raped thinking when she went to his apartment at 3am? So he said. A Taiwanese girl joined us, and we talked about America where she’d lived for a while, and China, and her route through Eastern Europe and what brought her there. Throughout, an Italian woman in her forties interrupted several times to say we were being too loud. Eventually around 3 we got tired especially since a Flemish guy ruined the mood.
I went to bed super happy and content, though I knew my chances of getting up the mountain the next day, in an attempt to see for myself beyond the weather forecasts, were scanty, especially since I’d risen at about 4 to start my sojourn to the airport, and hadn’t gotten much sleep the night before either.
The next day I considered going to a spa town nearby, then realized I didn’t have a bathingsuit and didn’t find one to buy cheaply in the town. I got some falafel and chatted with the Israeli owner, who used to live in Paris among other places. I discussed cost of living in various European locales and friendliness of the locals with him, he suggested I try flying out of Israel the next time I went home to the Northeast to get a cheap flight, and as to my travel plans in Bulgaria, he said, “You’ll go where the wind takes you.” When I got out from the bathroom and went to leave, he was gone back to the kitchen.
So Sunday I ambled about Sofia, discovered the main shopping street, bought some toiletries I hadn’t brought with me and compared their prices to back where I live, enjoying checking out the grocery store food to see what a typical diet was like, and generally was a grade A “flaneur” as the French would say.
You must also picture that throughout the center part of town, ruins are shown off to great advantage, displayed with great taste amidst the mostly European turn of the century and communist architecture buildings.
The humor struck me to go to Plovdiv, a town with a more ancient old town just two hours away by bus. I assumed the buses probably worked on a “mashrutka” as they are called in Ukraine, “furgon” according to Albanians, or “maxi taxi” as called by the Romanians, system, where the bus leaves when its full more or less and when the driver feels like it. Not to mention, it is usually a rather old vehicle. But no, when I arrived at the bus station after using the spotless metro which apparently took a long time to build due to all the ruins, the buses certainly ran on a schedule and I was lucky to get on a mere 2 minutes before it was time to go. And I even had an assigned seat, which I didn’t use.
I guess I should also mention that Bulgarian is written in Cyrillic characters, which isn’t a big problem for me as I have them about 80% figured out, and I think its fun to sound out the words and feel a little bit out of my element. I learned to recognize Plovdiv and Sofia pretty fast. But I have to say, there was not a lot of wordless communication through gestures on this trip, most people I had any contact with were either young and had learned good English at school (better than most Latin type Europeans- as in French, Spanish, and Italian not to name names…) although not as good as the Polish, or had some regular enough exposure to tourists that they could communicate fairly easily. So buying a bus ticket was not as much of an adventure as it had been in Ukraine.
I made it to Plovdiv around 9 pm. I negotiated for the cab as directed in the instructions from my hostel, and wasn’t overcharged or taken for a ride. That happend to me once in Bucharest, and so I was a bit wary. I was a littel nervous getting in the taxi seeing what looked like a (closed) bottle of clear liquid and a driver who smoked like a chimey who communicated iwth a fair amount of effort. I followed our progress on google maps, just be sure, thanks to the fact that I had data in Bulgaria as part of my normal French phone plan which also provides coverage in Europe al for 20 euros. A far cry from Albania where I failed to turn off roaming data for ten minutes and ended up with 40 euros in supplemental fees. But I needn’t ahve worried for the taxi, he took me right where he was supposed to and ran after me with my forgotten sweatshirt and other items that had spilled out onto the sidewalk due to my backpack not being entirely zipped.
Once in my hostel, I ended to check in and scoot out for a bite, but I got talking to the receptionist who studied ethnolography back in France and with whom I had an exciting conversation about travel, politics, danger, and Frenchness. As usual, finding a francophone brother abroad meant finding a fellow open minded and warm soul. I finally extricated myself form the conversation and went out to get some food, hoping something would still be open. I followed my google maps, rather than the map given me by the hostel, and ended up taking the road less travelled (not on purpose!) I decided not to go to the restaurant which seemed over priced or the pizza place, and I saw the Roman amphiteatre ruins by night, which were pretty impressive and are still used for concerts. I saw a bunch of guys congregating on a street corner and decided to wait for two harmless looking older gentlment to descend at the same time, not because I had felt frightened or harassed at any time in Bulgaria but just because I didn’t watnt o take any chances. The men were police and one insisted on walking me back to my hostel to make sure I was ok. He asked several young passerby to help translate, notified his post he would be leaving ot walk me back, studied the map and my phone for a while to be sure he knew where he was going, and eventually embarked to drop me off after having found a young translator. He made a thumbs up when I told him i was American.
At my insistence, they left me about a block from my hostel since I said I knew where to go. I can’t say I didn’t appreciate having such concern visited on me. That said, I needed ot hide until they were out of site so I could go and find a place to eat. I eventually followed the loud music and found an all night kebab, chicken wings, pizza, and all other kinds of fast food place, and proceeded to eat the best kebab in my life. Men and women were gathered around and I felt quite comfortable. After a few false turns I was safely back at my hostel.
So I sat down to chat with some Turkish guys in their twenties, the hostel receptionist, and a French guy who looked to be in his 40s/50s. We talked about Turkey, women’s rights, Bulgaria, and everything. Eventually I started talking to the older gentlemen and the French guy and we were off to the races. I had to excuse myself around 2 am.
I woke up for breakfast, hoping the excursion I wanted to do in the mountains would be running but there weren’t enough people and they were going for a monastery instead, and it would be a little tough for me to make the bus back to Sofia, where I planned to sleep since I had to leave for the airplane at 4 the next morning.
Naturally, it was discovered that the book about the young Alsacian who hitchhiked around the planet had also been read by the older French gentleman on the round the world trip, who was also Alsatian, and he took a picture of me with the book for his blog. Essentially we conversed as kindred spirits about life, the universe, travel of course, France, love, marriage, children, capitalism, Buddhism and onwards and upwards through both dinner and lunch. It was an absolute joy and pleasure and I felt I met a special angel on the road. He explained to me that one must come to peace with one’s contradictions, and that in life there are compromises but also dreams. I told him about my recent feelings of inadequacy in regards to the well paid well traveled Canadian and he said we can’t compare. And we agreed travel is not something that you can buy, and that we are none the worse for not having seen the waterfalls of Tanzania by helicopter. And that you the more you travel, you go for the atmosphere and the unexpected, and less and less to see sights although there are a few that truly touch your heart.
Since we lingered so long over lunch we had just a half hour to walk around the old town, which was sufficient to look but not enough to see the various museums of course. It was charming though small, and the souvenir industry was quite well developed. We went back to the hostel, he helped me hail a cab, and it was really an emotional goodbye. I didn’t see the natural wonders I expected to in Bulgaria, or have the cultural visit I’d settled for, but I made a friend that was more than worth the trip.
That night at the hostel, I did my best to sleep and woke up anxiously before my alarm went off. A girl my age joined me in the bathroom, and I wondered why she was up. We discussed in English and realized we were on the same flight, and then we started speaking in French and I found another friend and compatriot. We shared a taxi and then met up again when we landed and took the bus back to Paris together.
You might read my account and think I didn’t have any deep contacts with Bulgarians, and you would be half right. I did have some genuinely nice exchanges with Bulgarians, but no really deep conversations unfortumnately thanks to the limited time I had and the fact they were not on holiday and had other things to do and people to see.
My trip to Bulgaria is not the first time I went to Eastern Europe and met really cool people, and other travellers are often the highlight of a journey. I don’t pretend to be an authority on Bulgarian history, and I hope this whets your appetite enough to at least come to Sofia and see the free walking tour. My goal is not to feed facts but open hearts and minds, and share the spirit of my journey.
I would love to go back to Bulgaria again and delve more into the countryside and the culture. Whiel some of the tourist sites may not be quite so picture perfect and photogenic as the famed selfie stick locations of Italy or France, it’s genuinely interesting to bear witness to a country that has been a cross roads of European history bridging influence form the Middle East, Slavic culture, and Western Europe. And many many people speak English and the tourist infrastructure is pretty good. Plus Coke Zero is less than a euro and you can have gelato for about the same. I look forward to coming back and trying more traditional cuisine. As it was, my gyro, from what I foudn was actually a fast food chain of which there was thankfully one in Sofia so I could eat it a second time, was life changing. All white meat and delicious fresh ingredients.
i feel like I grew ten years wiser, and ten years younger, in three days in Sofia, and made the kind of connections I went for long periods of my life without experiencing.
Let the wind blow where it may.