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Beating the Bulgarians at Table Football

For a few days Maestross’ smoky apartment was the base from which I launched 101 electronic missiles out into Sofia’s Cyrillic oblivion. Soon enough, the internet- in its benign glory, answered my call. It answered in the form of a 31 year old Hungarian called Tom, who was looking for a flatmate that wouldn’t “freak him out” and I appeared, initially at least, to fit the bill.

The flat itself was in a tranquil area of Sofia. The streets were full of parents pushing prams over the broken pavements. The streets are narrow and quiet, lined with small fruit trees that lazily drop their purple pieces underfoot. The little plum-like fruit is crushed by pedestrians and traffic alike, leaving whole streets with a pleasant fruity aroma. Were it not for the hobo that carries a pair of skis everywhere, I’d venture to say that it was dull. Down one such fruity side street, overlooking a concrete schoolyard was my flat. Comfortably decorated and with plenty of wooden features, the flat was split over two floors. The upstairs was where my room and the bathroom were found, while everything else was downstairs. The kitchen was equipped with a huge double door American style fridge, a washing machine and everything a person could expect. There was a balcony with four chairs and a small wooden table covered with a blue (royal blue) cloth. The television apparently had 700 channels but it was never turned on to find just how many of them were showing complete rubbish.

Tomas speaks a handful of languages, most of which I’ve never heard of. Rare dialects of Russian, Finnish or Slovak left us only English to share. His English however, was excellent and almost as impressive as his knowledge of English football. Things were looking sunny. Tom studied social linguistics to a Masters level and revelled in his linguistic acrobatics. The flat was covered in hand written pages of exotically foreign verb declensions, and large hardback books that I was unable to read lay strewn about the place. Another strange thing about the flat was the number of thermometers. There were two in nearly every room, all reading more or less the same thing. Naturally, they were only about 3 feet apart. Tom assured me that this was not his quirk but that of the landlord. I nodded in understanding but was sure that I caught him checking multiple readings on more than one occasion.

Tom and I were invited out for drinks in the centre of town by a Bulgarian friend of his. We arrived at “The Apartment” early and took in each of its little rooms and settled on a pokey room generously decorated with low, comfy sofas and footstools. Kalina arrived soon after with an American girl called Leah. After some time spent smalltalking, about Kalina’s upcoming trip to South America and Leah’s European tour to discover her family roots, two chaps- Alexi and Tim arrived. Alexi (Bulgarian) and Tim (Belgian) were organising a street party that Sunday with music acts, activities and spectacles including a troupe of dwarven synchronised swimmers. Quite how a street party incorporates synchronised swimming is anybody’s guess but where one gets hold of a troupe of dwarf synchronised swimmers is beyond me. I imagined them for a second, with their little hats and short legs making patterns in the water. At least they wouldn’t need much water. Eventually, everyone went their separate ways, shooting into the dark like electronic missiles.

Sadly, I never managed to see the dwarves. After a heavy night on Saturday, Sunday was spent feeling sorry for myself and taking small sips of water fresh out the hatch in my American fridge. Tom recommended an open air venue tucked away in a forested area of Sofia’s largest park. When we arrived, it was heaving with people. Anxiously, I realised that most of them were wearing black, metal style clothing and had tattoos or piercings, if not both. Worried I had accidentally found myself at a Bulgarian gay biker/metalhead sex-stop, I glanced at Tomas. Did he know it would be like this? His poker face told me nothing. “What if”, I thought to myself, “what if these are the kind of places he goes?” I decided not to comment until I had a better idea of what Tomas thought. “At least I can call for help” I comforted myself a little. I then realised that shouting “Cheers” or “One ticket please” was unlikely to help a great deal when they wanted to have their wicked way with my supple, innocent body. I decided that the only way I could survive was to blend in and not attract any attention. As “One ticket please” would only draw suspicion in such a place; “Cheers” became my chastity belt. One cheery seven letter word was all that stood between myself and sodomy.

Brushing these dark thoughts away for a time, I made my way to the bar, where I adopted my most masculine and powerful lean and looked around. At one end of the open area, was a music stand with (what I am told was) a Bulgarian thrash metal band of an unknown name. As I watched, a topless guitarist launched himself into what I could only describe as thrash metal’s take on the Ace of Base classic- “All That She Wants (Is another baby)”. After a few more beers, and feeling confused I noticed a raised marquee to the side of music stage. I pointed it out to Tomas and we made our way over. Joy to the world, it was a foosball tent. I asked if Tom played, he did. “You’ll have to play in defence” I said, hoping that he wouldn’t mind. “No problem” Tom grinned, “defence is my position.” He had a position, things were looking up. We approached the least populated table and asked to play the winning team, they accepted. Excellent. The winners turned out to be two Spaniards who had taken apart two locals who had already slinked off into the night. Tom and I had already made the mutual excuse of being out of practice so that by the time the game came around I was a little nervy. The Spanish pairing was a small, stout fellow in attack and a large, mop haired ogre running the back. The little one had some skill but it soon became evident that Tomas was an understated maestro at running D. We ran out 7-2 winners. Felt hard done by, the Spaniards produced a new 50 Stotinka piece and a rematch was issued and lost by a similar margin. Team England/Hungary was in full swing.

Two Bulgarian “regulars” noted our success and put three games worth of challenge on the line, the foosball equivalent of slapping someone with a leather driving glove. With the rematch over, the Spaniards left the table and the Bulgarians sauntered over, in a cocksure and brazen manner. One of them, a lanky waif, announced his arrival at the table by pointing at his eyes and then pointing at me. He did this a number of times, I was a little concerned. He then introduced himself as Cho-Cho, which Tomas told me means foosball in Bulgarian. Great. They were good, much better than the Spanish but still not good enough. 6-3, 7-2, 6-3 sent them packing with their tails between their legs, or so we thought. Cho-Cho ordered us to stay put and disappeared from the table. My chastity belt felt flimsier by the second. Some minutes later Cho-Cho returned with what I could only assume was the local foosball shark. He had a bravado that suggested that he was Picasso and this table; his easel. I had had the misfortune of briefly seeing him play earlier and he was very, very good. Shark played in attack so I quickly told Tomas what I knew and told him not to worry. Indeed Shark could play, and we went 0-2 down in a few seconds. Shark was the kind of adrenaline players that no sooner has the ball disappeared into the goal than he fires another one straight back into play. We rallied and soon were slightly ahead. It was a race between Shark and myself as to who could score fastest, as goals were coming freely. Shark shot the next ball into play and after a few touches I fired it home straight from midfield. He gave me a look that I’m sure would have been illegal in many countries. “If you weren’t ready” I said unapologetically, “then you shouldn’t have put the ball in”. Apparently, I had unwittingly stumbled across the exact Bulgarian phrase for “I slept with your sister and didn’t call her back”. Shark seemed completely incensed by this impertinence and redoubled his on-pitch efforts. We ran out 6-3 winners in a flattering scoreline.

Cho-Cho explained that in Bulgaria, scoring with the midfield was not allowed and that in effect we had cheated. Bloated with indignation, both Tom and I agreed that we’d never heard of something so ridiculous and that if they intended to play these rules someone should have explained them. Eventually we agreed to abide by local rules and the rematch was underway with this new rule in place. We beat them 7-2. Shark looked absolutely disgusted and not only refused to shake hands after the game but spat at Tom. Fortunately he missed otherwise there might well have been a scene and wading into battle against a group of hairy Bulgarian metalheads armed only with a chastity belt was recipe for disaster. Shark stormed off to a large group of people, all of which turned around to take a good look at us.

Feeling like marked men, Tom and I left the table and went to the bar, out of sight from the tables. Once safe, we exchanged laughs and high fives at a brilliant and unexpected partnership. We had played a dozen games, facing all challengers of all nations without defeat. We drank to our good health and to our hand eye coordination. Let the good times roll.

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