An American Redneck in Bulgaria: Part II Kazanlak to Istanbul – Bulgaria

An American Redneck in Bulgaria: Part II
Kazanlak to Istanbul

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.

Julia approached us from behind. She was smiling nervously and brushing her hair away from her stunning face. We made our introductions and chatted on our way through the station, a one room building with an open coal fire in the corner. As we stepped out into the parking lot, we were greeted by a taxi with the door already opened and the heat emanating from inside. Julia motioned for us to get in and shouted curtly to the cab to follow her, and then she jumped on the back of a motorcycle and tore out of the parking lot into Kazanlak.

The cab followed through pock-marked streets and around massive holes in the pavement, and then climbed up the hill toward Julia’s apartment building. The view from her building was such that you could see the mountains to the west and the city sprawling out to the south. We met the driver of the motorcycle then, as we looked around. His name was Danil…and he sped off back down the hill as we trudged up the stairs to the apartment.

Julia has a sister. Eva lived in South Carolina working on a Fullbright, a privilege that allowed her no access to her home, family or friends. She was in effect living her dream in the US at the expense of her own life and her family in Bulgaria. Julia and Eva’s parents, not able to survive making Bulgarian wages, moved to Italy to work; making far more there than they could in the stale economy of Kazanlak. They left Julia, only 17 and still in school, to live alone in the family home with no visits, and occasional gifts of money and products that she couldn’t get in Bulgaria. So, in a sense, Julia was incredibly lucky…even though her family was scattered all over the world.

That night, we ate spaghetti. We talked and smoked and drank and listened to each other playback the tapes of their respective lives. Julia told us about how Danil and his partner bought beat-up motorcycles from all over Europe and fixed them up. They could either ride them here, or sell them back out into the European market and make a profit. They were, in effect, creating an economy for themselves and their friends. They had taken the initiative, a quality that seems to be missing in Bulgaria, and begun to build an empire of their own.

The next day, Jason and I sloshed through the streets to the post office, where all of the phones are. I waited for 45 minutes for an open connection to the US and called home to let my parents know that I was in Bulgaria. Between the hiss and crackle and overlapping conversations, I could tell that Ma wasn’t too happy about it all, but I promised to keep my nose clean and that seemed to appease her.

We walked through the main park, past rows of birch, stripping themselves in the wake of winter; husks of white moldy bark in piles at the base of each one. The statue in the center of the park was missing its arms and the steel cables that ran throughout the statue twisted out and down, holding onto bits of concrete. Disrepair. Forgotten and shunned. The only person that seemed to remember that the park existed was an old man with no legs, pedaling a homemade bicycle with his arms…wearing a tattered uniform and smoking a pipe. The sense of anonymity of this place drove us out again toward the bustle of town.

We ducked inside the 3-floored State Department Store to get out of the wind that had chased us out of the park. The inside was much like the outside; cold and dark, with cloth remnants meticulously placed on bent metal shelves. While the remnants outside were chipped, forgotten statues of past heroes, the ruins inside were no less startling. The floors were freshly waxed, yet cracked and worn, and the walls had long since yielded to generations of electrical work and poor construction.

Getting out of Kazanlak proved to be almost as difficult as getting in, but we managed to pull it off. All of our cash was gone and we were faced with the prospect of trying to cash more travelers’ checks. With the help of one of Dito’s friends, who knew someone who used to work at a local bank, we were able to get enough money to get tickets back to Istanbul on the train.

The train ride to Plovdiv started with a deserted train. We were the only ones in our car, save one young Bulgarian who repeatedly warned us about Gypsies and the dangers of darkness. At this point, we listened half-heartedly, glazed over by the last few days of incredible hospitality and cultural sharing. Still, he seemed intent on telling us about the prevalence of criminals on the Istanbul bound train we would soon be boarding.

I dozed. Jason rigged the cabin window with a soda bottle to keep it open and let some of the heat out. Outside, it began to snow heavily, in great rain-like sheets, but in the train the heat was stifling. As I lit another cigarette, the door slid open and a guy wearing a red coat and a Chicago Bears hat stuck his head in.

Martin, as he called himself, was a hip-hop fanatic from Romania. He lived and breathed American music and street fashion…right down to the white-boy goatee. We lingered around the hallway of the train, smoking and drinking the two bottles of wine he was supposed to be taking to his friends in Turkey and he kept making gestures toward the darkened cabin directly next to ours. Every now and then, a young woman with unkempt, sleep-messed hair poked slowly out of the door and looked up at him. He stared at us smiling, in conquest. I never asked him what exactly had happened between them; it just seemed like more than I was prepared to handle.

As we stood in the hallway, plotting our way to find more wine and talking about music, a large, waxy-faced woman in uniform plowed through the crowded hall. She was collecting small cards from people, eyeing them suspiciously and handing them back as if she had held them to the strictest possible test of validity. When she reached us, I suddenly knew that she wanted to see our Hospitality Cards. These were given to keep track of all foreigners in Bulgaria…each day had to be notarized or stamped by a hotel or a police official. And we had been quite lax, as the police department in Kazanlak always seemed to be closed. The fine for any gap in the timeline of your Bulgarian stay, was whatever they wished it to be, and I’d heard it climb to well over fifty dollars.

I’m still not sure what exactly happened next. By this time, I was completely drunk; having a great time riffing with Martin and Jason and maybe that’s what saved me. All I know is that I blurted out to her that the police in Kazanlak had told us we shouldn’t worry about it, because we stayed in a private home…and then I said something about her perfume, which was quite captivating. She smiled coyly, handed the cards back and drifted further down the corridor without another word. I collapsed, teary-eyed, into my seat and laughed until we got to the border check.

As the train groaned to a stop on the snow-covered tracks, I glanced out the window at the terminal building across the other rows of tracks. The building was low, with shining Cyrillic letters adorning the front. The snow was slowing and we could make out the figures of several men moving toward the different cars. People immediately jumped up and shoved themselves to the exits, running at top speed to a blindingly-lit building. Inside the building, which was fronted by a wall of windows, were travelers lining up and craning their necks to see ahead of themselves. We started to make our way out, but I stopped when I saw, on the dark side of the train where we had seen the guards entering, a man pleading with several of the police.

He looked Roma, through the snow and darkness, and he kept backing toward the train as they encircled him. Suddenly, he was flanked and the men dragged him, kicking and protesting mutely, into the building with the Cyrillic sign. I stood staring out the window as people moved around me on the train, listening to his screams and yelps of pain. My cigarette burned down and I stamped it out, looking down and moving my heel methodically over the butt. Then the men came out laughing, shouldering their rifles and lighting cigarettes of their own. The Roma man did not get back on the train.

I sloshed a little behind Jason and Martin as we all made our way to the well-lit room to be processed for entry into Turkey and, more importantly, exit from Bulgaria. Once inside, the concept of a line dissolved and those who could get an elbow here, or a leg there, made it to the processing windows first. Nearly last in line, I watched as a Romanian family, probably Roma, offered up their passports to the guard. Each one had a large sum of Bulgarian money tucked between the frayed leaves of the book. And once in awhile, the man at the window would signal for an armed guard to take them away. The looks on their faces…the sheer, panicked looks of betrayal they shot at the men in the windows clashed almost violently with the calm, jaded stares of the border guards. I sucked in my breath and kept my head down.

Suddenly, a resounding crash echoed through the building. People dropped instinctively to the linoleum floor covering their heads. Those of us who were either too stupid, or too tired to react were left standing, as another of the windows burst in a shower of snow and glass. Some of the windows had been buffeted by a gust of wind and come unhinged, launching downwards into the ones below…a chain reaction of noise and finely-tuned human reaction. We were asked politely how we enjoyed our vacation in Bulgaria, as we turned to fight our way back onto the train.

Returning to Turkey. Going back to the low doorways and greasy kebabs; dreaming of hard beds in damp hostels. It had only been five days since we left Istanbul, and yet I felt like weeks had passed. As the sun began to spread out to the east over the flooded fields just outside of Edirne, Jason finally fell asleep. Martin and I took turns leaning dangerously out of the train with my Super8 camera, filming the morning takeover, capturing the delicate curve of the train as it rounded a slight bend. Sheep stood unabashedly close to the rails, eating the breakfast that I suddenly discovered I wanted very much. The train made its way slowly through the same landscapes we had sped through on the bus earlier in the week, and in my mind, Bulgaria began to slowly fade in the distance. Still, I had the feeling that someday I’d come back. There is promise in Kazanlak, and there is beauty in the monastic reaches of the mountains, but the devil lives in Sofia and me and him are gonna do battle.