An American Redneck in Bulgaria
In March of 1998, I traveled to Turkey and Bulgaria with my friend Jason. We wanted to go to Europe; not via London or Paris, but straight into the heart of the Black Sea, the crossing guard of Europe and Asia. Hospital bills abound as a result of my unparalleled success, but what I’ve learned about myself and other people is more than worth a couple of months of backed-up bills and a two-month limp.
My legs cramped up immediately. This is nothing new to me. Things in other countries never seem to be built with my size in mind, much less my comfort. I imagine that there are few seats in any bus or train or airplane that remain comfortable after 11 hours. Sitting for that long in claustrophobic quarters is like asking a dog to stand for 11 hours…attacks are likely.
We rode in absolute silence…the only sound being the driver’s Zippo every half-hour and the sound of his first exultant exhalation. As the sun slowly disappeared to the west and the clouds of a cold rain built to the north, I imagined myself in the villages we passed; growing up with everything planned out, going to the mosque and playing soccer in the grazing fields. I stared out the window like this watching the sun smooth out and die as a finished smoke flung itself out of the driver’s window, and the weather seemed to grow colder.
We met Steve outside of the bus as we stamped our numb feet and waited for the word to move to the next checkpoint. The border seemed to be just that; a long paved highway of checkpoints and crumbling gun bunkers from more “important” times. The thing that stuck out the most about Steve, other than being an American living in Istanbul, was that he just didn’t belong in this sort of situation. He was unnerved by the wait and made it known several times that he should have just crossed over to Greece to get his visa renewed. We listened with a mixture of patience and joy at hearing someone else complain as wonderfully as we could.
We talked and danced around in the frigid air, smoking and laughing at bad jokes…nervous laughter. Soon, however, a crowd began to form around us and we found ourselves deep in the midst of a full-blown multicultural conversation. Sardar, a Turk working in Sofia, kept offering his bottle of duty-free scotch to me and I accepted, a bit too often. His cousin, a hawk with what looked like a goiter kept whispering on about how badly he wanted to have sex with the Russian prostitutes on the bus. And the three young, tired-looking girls just sat and smoked, with their legs crossed protectively.
We chatted with two Bosnian doctors, who kept pointing out mine and Jason’s obvious weight issues with kind, yet disapproving looks. We were flanked by Turks and Kurds…and throughout all of this, all I could think of was where the bathroom was hiding. Someone pointed to one of the low, slit-windowed buildings along the side of the road and motioned covertly with his hand what the building was for. As I descended the stairs into the old bunker, my throat clenched. My life flashed in front of my eyes and I literally thought I would die if I continued down the watery decline into the toilets.
Inside. I made it, but not without second thoughts. The floor was littered with feces and trash. Condoms and empty bottles of beer and liquor were shattered and piled up next to the walls, which were discolored from some unknown contaminant. Public restrooms, I would later find out, were all pretty much the same. Little more than a hole in the ground with no running water and no way to “clean up” after the job was done. I grappled with my camera bag and my gag reflex and managed to take several photos of the room before staggering back out just in time to get back on the bus and move another 100 yards down the path.
After a brief stop at a border town called Svilengrad, where Steve was offered a cigarette vendor’s daughter for little more than the bottled water he bought and a rather raucous, desperately quick meal at an all night food shack, we began our final descent into Bulgaria.
Between sleeping and staring at the darkness outside of the bus, Jason and Sardar continued to talk until the scotch bettered him and Sardar faded back into his seat. We dropped off some people in Plovdiv, Bulgaria’s second-largest city, and began the steady climb into the highlands of the country, where Sofia, the stronghold of Bulgarian barons and kings, clings to the base of Mt. Vitosha. Mt. Vitosha towers above and protects Sofia from the elements, but not from the rest of the world; the Magyars, Turks, Celts and eventually the Nazis and the Soviets have successively sacked the city. The remnants of the last invasion are still pasted to the face of the city in the form of soulless concrete apartments, architecture that was designed to last forever, but built to crumble in a matter of generations.
Other buses labored into the parking lot behind the hotel and people milled around kicking trash and smoking. Street vendors stirred by the sound of the arrival crept closer and closer and the inhabitants of the makeshift campers along the perimeter of the lot creaked with the sounds of disturbed sleepers.
My breath mingled with the layers of dust and grime floating in the air and froze almost before I had rid myself of it. As I choked along in the morning glare…across the frozen river into town, I caught the mountain looking down on us. It seemed to be leaning in, inspecting the city below and regarding it with some dismay. The buses sped along, sputtering and forcing out anemic clouds of black smoke. The river, even frozen, reflected this appearance…as did the people that we passed on the street.
Faced with the undertow of stark hopelessness and depression, I made myself smile almost compulsively just to look approachable, to ease the fear and distrust skating across the faces. It didn’t work. Eye contact was limited to suspicious stares, the wrenching away of mildly curious eyes and the refusal to acknowledge that we were there.
I adjusted, like any traveler and found myself staring at the ground out of a mix of politeness and humility. I became intimately familiar with the Bulgarian way of life: the dirt on the ground and the unattainable hope of Mt. Vitosha towering above, a focal point that nobody seemed to look to anymore. Old habits are like favorite clothes, and communism sinks it’s teeth in far too deep.