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Sofia: a couch-surfer’s perspective

I met Maestross outside the Alexander Levski memorial church, a peculiarly constructed building with copper green roofs and built in a seemingly arbitrary and asymmetrical manner. Whole wings appeared to have been dropped into place with abandon, perhaps against the clock, like colossal stonework Tetris. I had arrived early and whiled away the hours reading in the shade. The truth is I had no idea when Maestross would show up, we had agreed on a place but failed to set a definitive time. It was a glorious day in Sofia, the sun was doing his very best work and the vague colour of the afternoon suited me just fine.

Maestross was shorter than I had imagined. Amusingly, all of his clothes, from his blue polo shirt to his trendy sunglasses, were far too big for him. He looked like an old man in hand-me-downs that he was doomed never to grow into. True to his age, he wore a pair of brown leather sandals over thin grey socks. We made small talk on the way back to Maestross’ flat, small talk about Bulgaria, small talk about England and small talk about Couch Surfing. CS is a web community where people from every corner of the world play host to each other in spare rooms, on sofas and floors. It’ about meeting new people and going to new places. This was how I found Maestross.

Maestross’ flat was bare. The walls all suffered water damage, all that remained of the once parquet flooring were dusty little islands in a sea of concrete. An upturned cockroach lay in the middle of the hall, his raft presumably broken apart in a storm. The kitchen was an impossible mess, every appliance seemed at least partly destroyed from disuse, if such a thing is even possible. Everything the eye touched was caked in a thick layer of dust, hunks of bread lay strewn about the table, the worktop, the floor and even in the sink. The only thing in discernable working order was the fridge which was full of cans of open dog food. A toilet that didn’t flush rendered the bathroom little better. None of this bothered me in particular; in fact it very much reminded me of a flat I shared in Chile. Apologising profusely for the mess, Maestross led me through to what would become my room. It was simple enough; a sheetless mattress on the floor would do just the trick. I dropped my bags and we retired to the main room; empty save for a chair at each end and a small laptop table. We sat this way, talking across an empty room as the sun sank lower outside of the dusty window. I was complimenting Maestross on his self taught English when I met Paul, Maestross’ canine companion of nine years, and very much of the female gender. I didn’t catch his reason for calling a female dog Paul, but if I recall it had a little to do with a Pope and a lot to do with Paul McCartney.

Unemployed, Maestross divides his time between walking Paul through the same park each and every day, composing music and surfing the net. Every notable series of the last 10 years has been downloaded for an audience of one in an empty flat in Sofia.

That evening, we drank to our good health and talked of all things under the sun; philosophies, stories and music. Maestross’ smoke filled lungs spoke of things that happened long before I was born; how he was banned from playing music under the Soviet regime; how his high school band “The Moby Dick Blues Band” rehearsed weekly in the basement of a disused warehouse to a hundred listeners; how at night, several dozen friends would gather in the dark to listen to records, dancing and singing invisibly. He spoke of music as the universal language. “Music” Maestross said through a billow of smoke, “needs no translation.” He spoke of bedding girls he met on internet sex sites and how he refused to sleep with any girl over the age of 30. Maybe it was true, maybe it wasn’t, but I didn’t think it mattered. The sun was setting across the dark, empty room as Maestross explained that Bulgarians shake their head for yes and nod for no. He played me Cage’s “4 minutes, 33 seconds” and I played him Van Morrison’s “Astral Weeks”. I told him about breaking into the Taj Mahal with my brother and about the penguins in Antarctica, he told me about meeting a Scottish woman in Paris and about embezzling funds from his last job to buy virtual land in Second Life and how he planned to sell it for a fortune. Maestross ground his teeth often and loudly, so loudly at times that one would think he was moving furniture, if he had any. I liked Maestross.

Sofia was hotter than I had expected. I had imagined some Eastern European tundra instead of the reality of a country bordering Greece and Turkey. Soviet relics were to be found everywhere in Sofia, the blockish Stalinist architecture of their grandest buildings, the utilitarian tower blocks that dotted an uneventful skyline. Little orange and white buses that clicked their way down roads named after legends of whom I’ve never heard. I liked to think that they are names of amply bearded war heroes who fought for weeks without limbs or instead frantically haired scientists who accidentally produced the first plutonium reaction while in the bath. Instead, I accepted that they were instead venerable politicians, financial thinkers and holy men. A less interesting bunch I would wager, but that is another argument entirely. The Bulgarian currency is the Leva, which means lion. Of course, nobody could tell me why this was the case, but it appealed to me none the same. I felt there was a touchingly gallant notion about having a currency with such a noble name, something I tried to remind myself of this as I handed over two lions for some “Endless” toilet paper. A big promise for some paper and card to live up to, but this was Bulgaria, and I remained hopeful.

I was taken to see “Ganja” Vassili, Sofia’s premier busker. I later discovered that Vassili had never been near marijuana in his life and that he had no idea where his nickname had come from. Anticipation was high as Vassili arrived, a small group of students who had been awaiting his appearance rushed over to greet him and to gawp at his now war weary Fender. As Vassili whimpered his way through an unforgettable rendition of “Sweet Home Alabama”, Maestross took it upon himself to introduce me to a group of young girls passing by. Not only did they have no idea who I was, but by all accounts they had even less of an idea about who Maestross was. Too late now, the damage had been done. I looked into three pairs of expectant eyes, and given that my Bulgarian so far stretched to “Cheers” and “One ticket please”, mentally braced myself for an uphill battle. I don’t know if you have heard my pigeon English small talk, but apparently it’s absolutely golden. After a while the girls had to leave and as I crossed the square to where Maestross and the others were gathered, my host turned to ask me

“Charlie, how was girls?” his lips parting with a smile that revealed his half absent incisor.

“Very nice Maestross, thank you” I replied, getting my thanks-but-no-thanks face ready. “But these girls are 15-16, too young, you go to prison for these girls.”

Maestross looked at me through his big shiny sunglasses, “Not in Bulgaria” he said with a cheeky grin. We laughed and winced as Vassili hammed his way through Nirvana’s “Lithium”.

“He’s good.” I said, turning to Maestross.

Without looking back at me Maestross agreed, “The best.”

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