An American Redneck in Bulgaria
Sofia train station
The morning blasted us out of bed and right out onto the streets. Never before have I felt so ready or so happy to be awake and outside. It was absolutely beautiful, and as Jason and I said our farewells to Steve, we were halted by a portly, old Russian man selling caviar out of a plastic department store sack. We chatted about Russia and Bulgaria and he mentioned his love of travel and the simple beauties of our differences. I felt strangely at ease with this perfect stranger…he was just like us: a wandering soul in a place that makes no sense. He asked us for ink pens for his daughter back home. “She collects them,” he said matter-of-factly and with no further explanation. Jason later pointed out that she probably needed the pens, as most tourists will readily part with them and they’re quite expensive to buy. I didn’t see any lack of pens in Bulgaria, but at least we got to see the unbridled joy on his face when I produced my telescoping, multi-colored ballpoint pen from my backpack.
We moved slowly through the day, staring in disbelief at the beauty of the city in the light of a fresh new day. Finally, we boarded the train to Kazanlak, the Valley of Roses and the generosity of a 16-year-old girl named Julia. We rolled out of Sofia, through crumbling, post-industrial strips of concrete and trash…all framed by the snow-covered mountains to either side of the valley.
I stood in the aisle of the packed train, smoking and staring…arms holding the broken window open. Teenage rave-kids pushed past, giggling to themselves about weekend conquests as they sped back to school in the Varnas and Plovdivs they called home. I wanted to ask them about their favorite music, about their friends and what they did for fun…but the ones that I did greet didn’t speak English. The language barrier between aging punk rockers and Bulgarian ravers is far too wide and steep, even in America.
Or so I thought. Across the floor from our seats, a Roma woman and her daughter sat quietly. My hands in my lap…head back, staring to the left as the mountains spun themselves away into the growing clouds, I caught the girl eyeing Jason’s Wired magazine. He did too, and he handed it to her with a smile and arched eyebrows. Her eyes lit up as she thumbed past pictures of computer geeks and their precious toys. Eventually, her mother noticed the brash, typically American tabloid and leaned in to investigate. Soon, we were all making introductory eye contact and smiling occasionally at each other’s gestures of happy confusion.
We rode in silence. I remembered my phrasebook and pulled it out of my bag. I fully intended to speak to the family sharing our car, but all I could find in the book that was remotely appropriate were phrases like “how much for the blood-sausage?” and “where do they make those pants?” Finally, after minutes of intent searching, I settled on a polite “where are you going?”
It seemed perfectly logical to ask fellow travelers questions like that. I hadn’t thought ahead to how I’d decipher their response, and what I got was a snort and a giggle at my overzealous pronunciation. But I had done it. The crack was well formed and conversation flooded the car…as best it could.
I spent time in the aisle with an older Roma man asking him the words for such bare necessities as “tree” and “snow” and “mountain”. I scribbled on a receipt, pictures of the objects I needed to identify and he labeled each with the appropriate word…words that I would never use, but words that satisfied my immediate curiosity. The world outside of the train was vibrant, it didn’t need to be labeled, but I wanted to identify with the physical scene I was scrolling through. The beauty of that moment…me drawing a tree atop a snowcapped mountain and he, raising his eyebrows in understanding, fixing his black eyes on my brown eyes, and saying slowly and deliberately the name that existed in his world for what I was trying to incorporate into my own new world.
We lit each other’s cigarettes and shared each other’s books, none of which were mutually readable. We did have a Bulgarian/English dictionary, which eventually yielded such classics as “you smell like tuna”. We spent the rest of the bumpy ride through the pass, which once funneled Roman, Byzantine and Ottoman troops into Sofia, playfully insulting each other in our respective languages. At one point, Jason got the words friend and wife mixed up…and suddenly I was married to a tall mountain boy from North Carolina.
Roma family on the train
I snuck stares at the young girl. She smiled at my clumsy attempts to say even the most basic things in Bulgarian and I was struck by the sheer beauty she possessed. How her people left Rajastan and ended up in Bulgaria was beyond me. Nearly a thousand years of wandering; letting their moustaches grow thinner; families dispersing and meeting again by campfires to keep custom alive…and somehow, they ended up in Bulgaria on a train with me.
I imagined her with her ornaments and her dotted forehead, but then noticed the reality of her life. She was both child and woman, curiously asking about our marital status’ at the hilarious delight of her glowing mother, while simultaneously bubbling over with girlish enthusiasm and mock scorn for all of the decidedly useless garbage American travelers tend to lug around.
And then suddenly, the train lurched to a stop. The sign outside said Kazanlak and its backdrop was brown speckled snow and scrubby bushes. Jason and I spun in circles, gathering our bags and magazines and cigarettes. As we stepped off of the train and scanned the platform for the face that we had yet to meet, we turned and looked back at the car. The family was leaning out of the window shouting goodbye to us and waving frantically.
The train pulled away and disappeared down into the valley, and we were on our own again.