“Bulgaria, I reflected as I walked back to the hotel, isn’t a country; it’s a near-death experience” – Bill Bryson, neither here nor there
Our bus lurched into Sofia in a rather dramatic fashion. After meandering out of the scorching heat of a Greek spring we headed north through villages with worn stone cottages and trellises draped in vines. I was regaling my traveling companion with unusual and often hilarious Wikipedia facts about Bulgaria, a country we’d only very recently decide to venture into and therefore knew almost exactly nothing about. As we grew closer the skies grew darker, an ominous welcome to our destination.
Daggers of lightning hit the ground and thunder rattled the buildings as we splashed through puddles from our bus to where we thought our hostel might be. We didn’t really know for sure as Bulgaria uses the Cyrillic alphabet. Not that it would’ve made much difference, none of the buildings had street numbers anyhow. I had already come to regret abandoning my raincoat back in Polykastro.
Aside from learning that we were living in an undesirable part of town (noted by the high proportion of abandoned buildings and ‘non-stop’ 24 hour liquor stores) the first week spent in Sofia was a pleasant daydream of fresh strawberries, open-air book markets and catching up on sleep. Walking away from three months of refugee camp work had left us both emotional and weary. This was the perfect retreat. Sofia itself never quite captivated me in the way I had hoped. The tourist information center that doubled as a small library, where the membership fee was to donate at least three books, had charmed me, as had Bulgaria’s penchant for an extraordinary number of fountains. But too many signs of a difficult past and a certain hostility of the local people left this capital city falling flat.
Sonia left Sofia after a week to pursue adventures in Thailand. Going with her was tempting, but I was pulled more to lay low in rural Eastern Europe and get back on top of my writing. I daydreamed of grassy hills, yoga and fresh cherries off the trees. Of completing my book in a matter of weeks. Of dissolving into northern Bulgaria for a few months, coming up refreshed, revived and speaking Bulgarian with that attractive Russian-esque way of pronouncing things.
The scenic highlight of my time spent in this country was a night spent in Veliko Tarnovo, a place I consider to be the most beautiful city in Bulgaria. Red-roofed houses teeter down the banks of a steeply sloping river like picturesque tiles. Students from the local fine arts school loll about in the sunshine producing oil impressions whilst everybody strolls around in what appears to be a perpetually upbeat mood. Veliko Tarnovo could easily pass for one of those post-card perfect Italian towns you always see on ‘20 of the most beautiful places in Europe’ lists.
I quickly settled into a daily routine with an English couple 45 minutes out of town. My days consisted of pulling weeds in the sun and painting the insides of a house during the rain. I’d wake up early and enthusiastically jog to the top of a nearby hill, taking in the sunrise and filling my lungs with fresh air; I was far away from sight nor sound of any other human being. In the evenings and weekends, I would work on my book. This lifestyle suited me well for a limited time, but quickly I grew frustrated. I had no exposure to Bulgarian people, culture, language or food. It soon became time, after two weeks, for me to move on and find myself the real Bulgaria.
Bulgarians appear to enjoy doing the opposite of whatever I have recently become accustomed to. Where Greeks use the term ‘nae’ to mean yes, now it means no. The western world nods theirs heads up and down to agree, Bulgarians shake from left to right. I had quickly lost track and continued to muddle my way oblivious to what anybody meant. As a new friend I had met soon explained ‘Once you get used to yes and no being backwards, then you’ll meet a local who realises you’re not from here and nods the way you’re used to, to help. You of course won’t realise they are helping. That’s when you’ll really have no idea’ Sure enough, it caught me off guard more than once.
Thirty years ago Claudio Magris traveled the Danube’s winding trail across from Hungary, musing on the philosophies of the area. His book was written the year I was born, and now, approaching my own 30th birthday, it felt a fitting time to explore. In the end I spent 4 nights in Ruse, although it felt considerably longer. The first two were a splendid affair of balmy evening walks through the riverside carnival, lazy mornings writing from my beautiful private room at the hostel and lounging about enjoying how nomadic my night had become. Despite being a glorious respite, I had just spent nearing a month in this country without ever experiencing its real culture.
As I had read numerous times, I can confirm that the Danube wasn’t blue and the black sea, I later discovered, was a misleading shade of twinkling navy. Bulgaria, as craftily charming as you are, you need to sort out your colour palette. Sell yourself on the lush shades of green that dabble your rolling countryside, or the candy yellow fields of rape flowers as you take a road trip across to the seaside. There are some gorgeous natural wonders in this country aside from the bodies of water that are most famous.
Two nights is a considerably long time if spent in the right manner, and you can learn vast amounts about a culture in this time, I soon discovered. My new host was a portly and charismatic gentleman, who welcomed me into his apartment and immediately got to work inquiring to my agenda and constructing travel plans, with the assistance of his translating phone app. With a deceased wife, a very recently ex-girlfriend and sons that had migrated to a different country, he enjoyed inviting people to his home and showing them around the city.
Dinner was spent at a local restaurant, doing as most Bulgarians do at night… Indulging in a classic combo of shopska salad and rakia, with a bottle of local red on the side. This is a country that loves its salads, and the produce grown here is outstanding. To date, Bulgaria has the most incredible (and pink) tomatoes I have ever tasted. Frequent chinks of glasses and rounds of ‘nos draves’ all around as the rakia continued to flow. Memories of Greek ouzo & raki clouded my mind. As it turns out, the vines I spied in front of every house on the bus ride in, serve a purpose; most people, especially rural ones, produce their own fermented, grappa like spirit made from grapes. Or, any fruit you can find for that matter, no need to get too fussy.After three months of similar spirits in Greece, I had begun the long road that is learning to appreciate a good rakia. The local wine was delicious too. Out came more plates of traditional foods, a earthernware dish full of steaming hot salami and cheese in a tomato sauce, little balls of cheese, similar to a haloumi, fried in a choux pastry. For the first time in my Bulgarian travels, I had found local food heaven. I had been beginning to doubt this country had anything to offer in the culinary stakes, but I was proven wrong on this one occasion.
One rakia turned into many as the bottle of wine diminished before my eyes. It was midnight and we had made plans to visit the seaside early in the morning. Clearly the only next-step was to head in to the piano bar. A local Ruse hotspot for Bulgarians heading out to party. I found myself in a packed club playing western top-10 hits with a live band and piano accompaniment. In a surreal travelers moment, I realised I was the only one who knew the words. Singing along, bottomless whiskey’s in hand, turned into dancing, turned into stumbling around the streets at 4am discussing a mutual love of nature and my wildly intoxicated and fantastical suggestions to ‘let’s just go camping right now!’ to my hosts patient friend.
Needless to say, the morning was not a huge success. I think it was the throbbing head that woke me first, followed shortly by the realisation I’d spent some of the early hours vomiting and my memories were a little patchy. I flashbacked to being 21 and at university. I wasn’t this kind of heavy drinker so much these days, now I could recall why. Finally, reality sunk in. ‘Oh shit’ I thought. ‘I’m going to Varna today’.
Varna is a tourist-centric city on the coastline of the black sea. Over populated with casinos and over priced tourist stops, the sea-garden and nature surrounding the seaside are it’s only redeeming factor. It is beautiful by tourism standards, but perhaps I prefer unspoilt beauty to that of somewhere foreigners come to sit in a nicer than usual starbucks and convince themselves they are getting some experience of a foreign country. Don’t get me wrong, there were some beautiful parts. It reminded me a touch of Australia’s gold coast. Also, I was hungover, grumpy and approaching writing deadlines that weighed heavily on my mind.
I was shown around by a local for a few hours, our conversation frequently returning to the problems of this country. It’s through these candid conversations where I have always learnt the most. I began to see how difficult life can be in these parts of the world. How communism is missed dearly by many, how Bulgaria has become by far the most corrupt part of Europe. Although prejudice and racism are critically important issues to me, and not something I have a tolerance for, I began to get small glimpses into how ingrained the resentment towards gypsies, Muslims and foreigners has become. These are a people who have been through a great deal economically, and still struggle just to survive whilst what appears to be everyone else receives special treatment around them. This dismal state of affairs is part of life here, and accepting the fact that things such as wealth and even overseas travel are out of reach for the majority of its citizens.
By the end of the afternoon I was exhausted. I could barely keep my eyes open. Bed was calling and I was calling back. “Anna, I will take you to my friend – we will have dinner in their village!” I visibly crumpled a little “Anna, it’s easter – very important weekend”. Ok, I resigned myself to one more activity. Sleep was calling me right to my bones, but the idea of a home-cooked Bulgarian easter dinner in a small village didn’t sound like the worst thing that could happen. I was fascinated and so I agreed.
It turns out Easter is a big deal here. With around 60% of the population Bulgarian Orthodox, this is one of the most important celebrations of the year. We pulled into a vaugely pretty village and his friend came running out to greet us with hugs and kisses. Visibly excited, I felt like perhaps I was a long lost relative, not a foreign stranger come to invade the dinner table. We sat outside around a covered table, with such hot summers al-fresco dining is common place through the spring and summer.
The family all took turns trying to practice their broken English, asking me all of the usual questions whilst plate after plate of food arrived. First, home made chicken noodle broth with large helpings of bread on the sides. Wooden platters of cured and smoked meats and poultry were laid out, and soon followed a plastic tuppaware bowl of green salad with a few forks dangling unobtrusively out. All the greens were grown here – lettuce, cabbage, pearl onions and gherkins in a tasty vinegar. It is apparent in Bulgarian food the Russian influence mixed with the Greek. After I had stuffed myself so full that I couldn’t possibly eat any more, the main dish arrived. Spiced rice with meat throughout served with a selection of handmade sausage and koftas. Eastern Europeans tend to verge on the carnivorous side.
Somewhere during the process of stuffing my face, a teenage girl appeared. The eldest of four children – three girls and a boy, all named after saints. Her mother nudged her roughly in my direction ‘you can be our translator!’ she said. And with that, the girl giggled nervously, clearly shy, and began speaking to me in near-perfect English. She was 16 and had been learning English all through school. A sweet girl, charming and intelligent. I spent the rest of my evening deeply engaged in conversation, relishing the experience of not only hearing my native language for the first time in a while, but meeting somebody so passionately in love with it. She is a writer, and has quite the following online for her fan fiction, interestingly enough she has always written in English. Her mother jokingly taunts her for spending her childhood surrounded by stacks of handwritten notebooks in English, her family with no idea what it all said. She told me with enthusiasm that she loves to write, her eyes lit up when she discovered I am a writer myself.
Something about this girl was special, her zest for life and unadulterated enthusiasm. Perhaps I hadn’t met enough young people recently. Through the evening I learned of her past, her near death experience as a child and how she dreams of one day becoming a psychologist. “I’d have to get a job in another country through, and our family is pretty close. My mother wants me to stay here, marry a Bulgarian boy and study to become a pharmacist, that’s where you earn money here”, she sighed “I hate chemistry, I’m no good at it”. Her words stuck with me for days. I wanted to take her by the hand and run away, to tell her to follow her heart, indulge her passions. To read, to write, to love and to explore. But, alas, the culture is different here. It is not so acceptable to break the mold. It’s widely accepted that leaving is unattainable and that you need to stick with your family for the rest of your life. She stayed on my mind for a long time as the most memorable character from my whole time in the country, I had a real soft spot for her.
We drove home late into the evening, an hour back to Ruse in the dark pot-holed roads of Bulgaria that got no less hair raising through my month here. I thought a lot about that girl, about this culture, about the difficulties faced by being born into a country that is still finding its feet and struggling with mass corruption and challenges. ‘Come, at midnight I will take you to church for Easter’. I flat out refused. I’m pretty confident I offended my host, but I couldn’t possibly take any more. I needed to sleep. So that’s how it ended, I collapsed into something resembling a coma and left the next morning en route to Romania.
Leaving Bulgaria I felt a little bewildered, like perhaps someone might have put me through a washing machine. I have come out not quite knowing where I am. I spend my final 45 minutes in this unusual country sat in a small bistro opposite the bus station, the room smells of cooking onions and the faint residue of stale cigarettes. I’ve ordered a simple omelette with a Bulgarian style mixed salad and I can hear my eggs being whisked out in the cupboard sized kitchen. My bill will be 4.60leva – around 2euro. Bulgarian food is adequate. I have tasted some beautiful local dishes, but the majority of the food to be found is, much like the culture, simple, sufficient and occasionally charming in, but in surprising bursts.
“It is comforting that travel should have an architecture, and that it is possible to contribute a few stones to it, although the traveler is less like one who constructs landscapes — for that is a sedentary task — than like one who destroys them. . . . But even destruction is a form of architecture, a deconstruction that follows certain rules and calculations, an art of disassembling and reassembling, or of creating another and different order.” ― Claudio Magris, Danube: A Sentimental Journey from the Source to the Black Sea