An American Redneck in Bulgaria
At about 4:00pm, we found a flustered and angry Steve near the McDonald’s. The three of us wandered around, Steve bitching about not finding a hostel, and stopped near some hotels that were far out of our range. Sofia is breathtaking in it’s own way. It has churches and avenues and it what it lacks in charm, it makes up for in logic. And part of that logic was that at sundown, people don’t linger in the streets. I’ve been told the reason for this is that at 5:00, the police force leaves work and doesn’t resume duty until 8:00 the next morning. While this may or may not be true, as we sat on that brick wall, staring vaguely at nothing, we noticed the crowds rapidly thinning. Suddenly, all that was left was a group of Roma teenagers and children wrestling and fighting over a milky bag of glue.
The incredible pain at seeing such a site can’t be explained, and I won’t even try to here. But seeing the hardened brows and lurching movements of a body obviously already destroyed by drug-use is staggering. Maybe it’s so abhorrent because they’re Roma…things probably won’t get better for them. They are the lowest of the low in the big cities of Eastern Europe and it seemed that nobody even noticed them, except us. And they never even noticed us, even as they careened past us after the bag of promise that kept being snatched out of their hands by someone stronger, someone bigger.
The sun was rapidly dispersing across the tops of buildings into a blue haze of cold air and smog. We found a tram that looked like it might be creaking it’s way toward the train station and we quickly boarded it. We had decided to head for Kazanlak as soon as possible because there were beds, hot meals and maybe even showers.
As the tram eased it’s way into a valley, somewhere in the city, streetlights became less and less frequent. The track started to wobble and the wheels stuck in tight curves as we descended deeper into the darkness. Standing in the shifting car, the interior lights flickering on and off as the contacts loosened on the live wire, we began to wonder why we were the last people on the train.
We could see the lights of the train station probably a mile away and jumped off and started strolling in that general direction. But it was dark. Completely. Catcalls rang out from doorways and when we realized two men were tailing us, we crossed the park that divides the poorer section of the city and the main highway to the station. Still they followed; several dogs joined in too. When we got to the street and into the loudly buzzing light of regularly spaced streetlights, we looked back. Nothing. We walked calmly the rest of the way, smoking and listening to the sounds of cars passing and our own beating hearts.
The station, like many of the buildings in Bulgaria, mimics the grandiosity of communism with ungainly chunks of concrete, imposing metalwork and statuary of heroic and long-dead heroes. It is a starkly impressive mausoleum of padlocked doors and distantly groaning trains. Drab suited guards and tired travelers scuffled and weaved the concourse in front of the ticket windows…craning their necks to read smoke-stained signs for places that I’ll never see.
Everyone is moving…moving fast in all directions and all with noble or ignoble intentions. The only difference between them and the others we met on this trip is that horribly ethereal concept of “closed-access”. They bounce between several jagged borders until they find a hole to squeeze through, and when they do, they find, unless they’re wealthy enough, that the rest of the world has changed without them.
I scraped my feet through the lower level of the station, searching for a place to peacefully relieve myself. I found myself in front of a doorway that crooked off to the left as I entered and yielded the sounds of water, sloshing footsteps and sharp, echoing voices. I paid for my piece of toilet paper and slid past the chattering old men smoking their Victory cigarettes.
I got lost on the way back to the main concourse. The Cyrillic signs failed to ring bells of memory or meaning in my brain and I found myself wishing that I had left a trail of familiarity behind me. When I finally found my way back, Steve motioned to a small Roma man who had offered to help us find a hotel nearby. I watched him as he smiled pleasantly enough and gestured for us to follow him out the main doors. Steve kept up with him, speaking in broken German as the man led us past the towering Novatel Europa Hotel and up a dark street lined with cheaper hotels.
As our friend worked out the specifics with a ghost of a man behind the screen, we trudged up the six flights of stairs to our room. Each of us threw our bags down as we counted out the money we owed him and the proprietor and then we all set off back down to pay our fee. We shut the door to the room and locked it, and as we turned to follow our man down the stairs, the lights went out. The timer had expired and the stairway went black. We heard him running out the front door before we even realized what was happening.
Almost immediately, Jason and I started to laugh after realizing what had happened. The man at the desk looked at us pathetically and shook his head, which made Steve fly into a rage. He tried to run out after the thief, but we stopped him and casually explained that while losing 45 dollars is bad, at least he spent the quality time with us to get it. Besides, he just fed his family for a few weeks on one hour of work.
That night, we paid nearly $150 for a hotel room at the Novatel. We had no other choice. It was either that, or return to the cavernous train station and wait till morning for a train to Kazanlak. The hotel was born in a time when “modern” meant “big”. The bathroom fixtures were straight out of the Brady Bunch. The hot water was plentiful, though, and although it took a good 10 minutes for the water to reach the degree of hot required to remove four days of dirt and sweat, Jason and I managed to be diplomatic about the rights to the shower. He went first. I went second, and Steve was last. By the time I had finished nursing my wounds and washing up, Jason was asleep sitting up.
Steve asked me for a cigarette. Steve isn’t a smoker, he just wanted to talk. So we talked, crouched on the worn low-pile in the hallway, and talked…seriously. He was upset at the sudden turn of events and I think he just needed to put them in some sort of familiar framework. And what better way to make things make sense than to drink till they fall where they may?
We decided to go to the bar on the ground floor for drinks, but they had just stopped serving. Instead, we sat and watched a platinum-haired prostitute, with a jaunty scrap of material covering her crotch, wander from table to table feigning interest in the businessmen finishing their drinks.
Steve left after seeing the woman’s roving eyes settle on me. She made small advances toward the table, but my notebook and blurringly fast moving pen must have given her the hint. When I looked up for one last glimpse, she was gone. Two more cigarettes…and then I collapsed into bed for the first time in days.