An American Redneck in Bulgaria
I swore to myself that it wouldn’t happen. I can even remember telling people back home that this sort of shortcoming, this distinctly American and horrible thing, would not be part of my trip. But alas, when we found ourselves face-to-face with it after walking around aimlessly trying to find a hostel, we succumbed.
The McDonald’s in the main shopping district was our sole source of discourse, and recourse for that matter. They seemed nice enough, spoke a bit of English and responded instantly to “Big Mac”. Success at last, but on such a degrading and diminished scale. We bathed nearly to the point of indecency in the upstairs bathroom and I watched with curiosity the woman who stood beaming next to the trashcan. Her job, from what I could tell, was to smile at people as they threw the remains of their meals into the swinging-doored trash bin. But as I watched further, I noticed that as soon as the diners left, she spun in place, almost a blur of professional poise, and wiped down the tray. And just as soon as it started, she was back at attention, eyeing the various levels of completion of hundreds of meals.
Jason, Steve and I sat for three hours studying maps, consulting the hidden wisdom tucked away in the looks of passersby. I sipped my coke and as we rose to leave, Steve struck out on his own to find a hostel and Jason tried to call the one person in Sofia that he knew. The line never picked up. It’s not even certain that it rang at all.
Everywhere we looked were the bare places where payphones once adorned the walls. Twisted bolts and chipped concrete attested solemnly to the fact that the very copper wire buried in the streets and snaking through the walls was worth more melted down and sold, than as telecommunications infrastructure. Coupled with the fact that when we could find a payphone, it wouldn’t accept the calling card we bought; a sleek piece of plastic with an Eastern Orthodox saint. Maybe his influence was too diluted and forgotten for the phones to honor his visage, or maybe it was the fact that there were at least three different phone systems in Sofia, each with their very own calling-card system. At any rate, we were limited to hand signals and carrier pigeons, if we could catch them.
The last attempted phone call did yield a crackled invitation by the younger sister of a distant friend’s fiancé. By this point, we could think of nothing else. We agreed to catch a train in the morning and come to Kazanlak for a visit and hopefully showers. Jason still wanted to get in touch with his contact in Sofia, so we decided to make the best of the beautiful day and do some urban hiking.
We wandered around, eventually taking a rest in a large park near the museums and government buildings. There must have been an entourage of visiting officials because gun-toting soldiers wandered around the front of a building looking stern and bored. Sitting on the granite wall of a long drained fountain, we smoked and watched the Roma children playing ecstatically with tennis balls in the dust of the fountain.
I heard music in the distance and slowly turned to see three older Roma: one with a flute, another with a tambourine and another playing what looked like a tabla. This struck me as interesting because of how distinctly Indian they looked. I knew in my mind that the Roma were a wandering tribe originally from northern-India, but this was proof and it shocked me. I felt I had found a connection between Delhi and Sofia, via a group of musicians, perched on a rotting bench and smiling into the cold wind.
As we listened, a man approached and tried to exchange money with us. He said he needed to get US dollars so that he could pay the visa to get to Germany and buy a truck and bring it back. I eyed him calmly and noticed as Jason talked with him, that another man was watching intently from a park bench far away near the end of the park. We finally brushed him off and watched as he strode right over to the man on the bench and sat next to him. The man that he sat with wore a vaguely police-esque uniform and as soon as he realized that we had not gone along with the scam, he scowled at us from afar.
That scowl followed me. It haunted my soul and dimmed the lights of my world, until we found an American Express office. Inside of this toasty, warm little Mecca of plastic plants and corporate posters, we flirted mercilessly with the two ladies that worked there. It just felt good to be able to “let it out” after such an odd 24 hours. They inspected the scripts expertly, holding them in front of lights, rubbing the edges briskly between their fingers…their gazes stern and intent on the task at hand. And when they were convinced of the validity of our ill-planned travel currency, they smiled again and handed us our cash.