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Battling through Bulgaria: scoring a sofa in Sofia


Because I hadn’t known that Bulgaria was an hour in front of Serbia, I had arranged to meet Chavdar at 7am, an hour and ten minutes later than it now was. I only hoped he’d not had to rush off anywhere. I walked around the station’s main hall looking out for him and hoping that if I didn’t recognise him, he would me, but nobody stood out, so I tried calling his mobile. It went straight to voicemail. This wasn’t good.

Sofia is a dodgy station, full of gypsy youths looking menacing and almost certainly not waiting for any train. There are almost as many gypsies ‘working’ for the station as there are hanging about in it. They even wear name badges. Their job is to find foreigners looking confused, ask them what they need help finding, (foreigners need help with navigation in the station because literally everything is written in Bulgarian Cyrillic only. I just realised I said navigation in the station. This is turning into a poetry book,) and then after helping the lost foreigner they ask for one Lev; that’s about 45 of your English pence.

As I stood there wondering what to do next, I noticed a rough looking gypsy eyeing me quite intently. He was about 20, had a silly bum fluff moustache and wore a hoody. He seemed especially interested with my mobile phone. I looked at him; he continued to stare so I stared right back deep into his eyes with a look as tough as I could conjure up. I wasn’t going to back down. He then walked right up to me and said something in his language.

“What?”

He repeated his original sentence. There was a confrontational look in his eye.

“Go away. Go on. Fuck off,” I told him.

It wasn’t my usual conversation starter.

He then just stood right in front of my face, looking around, annoying me, trying to intimidate. I looked pretty big though, all padded out as I was in layer upon layer of clothing, and I puffed out my chest. We were like two tomcats in an alley. After a minute or two of this pointless standoff, I picked up my bags and moved away; making sure to keep eye contact until I’d disappeared out of the main door. It had become boring; and hanging around wasn’t going to get me anywhere. It had been an interesting welcome to Sofia. I spent the next hour walking around in circles in the thick snow outside the station, retrying Chavdar’s number every few minutes but always finding it switched off. Fortunately, I’d had the foresight to get the number of another Sofia Couchsurfer before leaving Belgrade the night before. Kremena had emailed saying she didn’t think she could host me but would be happy to give me a tour of the city if I fancied it. She was now my only hope for the night. I dialled the number and listened as her phone rang and rang without response. At least it was switched on, I thought, so I sent her a text explaining my predicament, and waited 20 minutes to read her reply: “You can stay at my place tonight, but I don’t finish work until 6:30 this evening. We can meet then, in front of the city’s court. It has two lion statues outside, you will find it.”

I looked at the station’s clock; it was 10am. I had eight and a half hours to kill, nowhere to go and I was shivering in the cold. It was going to be a fun day. My bag was starting to weigh heavy on my shoulders, so I walked across to the storage room and begged the old lady behind the desk to let me leave my stuff with her for free. She looked at me over the rim of her flask full of hot coffee before nodding in the direction of a door to the side of the counter. I pushed it open and chucked my bags inside, before waving her a “Blagodarya” followed swiftly by a “Doviždane.” ‘Thank you’ and ‘goodbye.’

I picked up a map that someone had dropped on the hall’s floor and headed out to explore. It took me a good half hour to so much as navigate my way out of the station’s complex, as no signs were translated into English, nor was anything even transliterated into the Latin alphabet. I suppose I shouldn’t really complain about this; after all, I was in a country that used the Cyrillic alphabet. Why would they transliterate things for me? We don’t do it in England for them.

Holes in Sofia's pavement: traps for the unwary

After a lot of guesswork I finally found myself following the main street towards the town centre. My route was lined by shopkeepers shovelling snow from their doorsteps; dirty, black snow that was melting around the city, turning it into a muddied swamp. It was impossible to even cross the road without first having to wade through a mini lake of brown sludge. I hadn’t been expecting to find such an under-developed city, especially after being so impressed by Belgrade. Drab, grey apartment blocks grew up from depressingly miserable streets. There were more open-air market stalls than there were proper shops, and even the proper shops most of the time just served the customer through a small window, much like an English petrol station does at night. Everywhere you looked you saw bony stray dogs; packs of them, even in the city centre. The local people hardly seemed to notice the infestation. I watched as a small pack chased and barked at a gypsy’s horse. The dogs seemed to have picked up the traits of young Roma children; they approached you on the street with sad eyes, begging for something to eat. I saw one dog get given a loaf of bread, which he ran off with to safety somewhere. It was news to me that dogs ate bread. Stray dogs were just one of many obstacles facing the unfamiliar traveller in Sofia. The pavements were rife with large holes that dropped down to God only knows where. My guess was the lair of Splinter and his ninja turtles. Walking from A to B in Sofia required serious concentration and awareness. It made me thankful for the snow, which made the deep soulless pits of darkness stand out. But how would it be at night, I wondered? Was it common here for men to leave their wives at home for a night down the boozer for a few glasses of plum brandy, never to return, left to rot in the pit after staggering slightly to the left?

The time to meet Kremena was approaching and I had no idea where the court was. My map was no good, as, quite ridiculously, all street and place names on it had been transliterated in to the Latin script, despite all actual signs being in Cyrillic. The best course of action, I thought, would be to go into a Tourist Information Centre and ask for the court to be circled on my map. The conversation that took place between myself and the girl behind the desk bordered on the farcical.

“You want court?”

“Yes. Court.”

“Bulgarian court?”

“I don’t know. Just the court. That is what I have been told. It has two lion statues outside it, apparently.”

“What is lion?”

“Never mind. Can you just show me the court please?” I asked, handing her my map.

She took it and wrote down the numbers 00359 on it. Then she handed it back to me.

“Here is Bulgarian court.”

“No. That is Bulgarian code. Bulgarian dialling code. I need Bulgarian court.”

“Yes. You ask for Bulgarian court, I give you Bulgarian court.”

“No. Code and court are different words.”

“Yes. Court.”

I saw now that I was going to have a bit of a problem here. The girl noticed my annoyance.

“I am sorry my English isn’t perfect.”

“I just want to find the court,” I said, attempting to mime the actions of a judge, without success.

“I don’t know what you want. You should ask someone on the street!”

“But this is tourist information. I am a tourist. I need information!”

“You come here, you want court and I give you court. You not happy.”

I came here, I wanted court and you gave me code. I’m not happy!”

“I’m sorry,” she said.

She wasn’t really sorry; I could hear it in her tone.

I wasn’t ready to give up, so I explained in Slovenian that I wanted to go to the place where the judge worked. She didn’t fully understand, so I tried the Serbian word for ‘judge’ which I knew from my days playing football (referee and judge are the same word). She understood! Why hadn’t I just done that from the start? She drew a circle on my map in black marker pen and I left.

Kremena – after meeting, she insisted I call her Kremi – was stood waiting for me, dressed in a business suit and with a welcoming smile splashed across her face. We were both freezing cold so she said we would save any further talking until we were heading for the warmth of her flat, 45 minutes outside the city centre. We waited 20 minutes in the kerb, trying to hail a taxi, but not one stopped for us. So we got onto what the Bulgarians call a ‘minibus’ but is actually a Ford Transit with a few seats put into the back. These White Van Men drive around the city at ridiculous speeds, allowing people to hop on or off wherever they choose. If you are waiting to get on one, you just put out your thumb. If you need to jump off, you either tap the driver on the shoulder or you shout at him. There is a set charge of 1.50 Levs (about 65p), and unless you’re very lucky – we weren’t – you stand up for the entire journey, clinging on to the body parts of the people around you, as everyone tries not to get thrown about too much by the roughness of the ride. I liked the system, and was even more impressed when our driver managed to smoke a cigarette, count a wad of money, drink from a can of Coke and drive his van full of people; all at the same time.

We made it to the flat and I was shown up to the attic where I had my own room for the night. The air in the room was freezing, but the room was clean and tidy. Kremi then took me around the corner from her flat to a home-style restaurant for dinner. By the time we had finished the food in front of us, she had already knocked back six shots of Rakija. I had been warming up with something a little softer ; a pint. However, as soon as the plates were taken away I had nowhere left to hide.

“You are in Bulgaria now. We like to relax in the evening with a proper drink,” Kremi said, whilst catching the attention of the landlady of the place who promptly brought over two more shots of the potent clear liquid.

We sat and talked for the next hour, downing shot after shot after shot. I think the conversation we had was funny, but to tell the truth, I don’t remember much after the third glass. Kremi could drink and smoke for her country and, come the end of the night, still seemed to be functioning normally. Meanwhile, on the short walk back to the flat I tripped on a step, walked face first into a glass door, mistook a fur coat for a small dog, and had to swallow some sick that appeared unexpectedly in my mouth. Then we got in and the first thing my host did was pull a couple of glasses out of a cupboard along with a jam jar filled with yet more Rakija.

“Homemade by my parents,” she told me proudly.

“No more for me. I will just have a glass of water please.”

“Yea right!”

As we sat and drank for another half an hour, my host reminisced about a previous Couchsurfing experience, giving me a real insight into the type of no nonsense character she was. A Bosnian Couchsurfer had turned up at her flat, not understanding that the movement is not intended as a dating agency, with a bottle of wine in his hand, already half pissed, and had gone straight for the kiss as soon as she’d opened the door. Rather than react with anger, fear or confusion, her response had simply been to tell him to behave himself, and then to drink heavily with him until he fell asleep on the couch.

Before retiring for the night, Kremi told me that she would like to buy me a train ticket to Bucharest, as she didn’t want me to have anything bad happen whilst in her country. I accepted her offer, as I really didn’t fancy my chances in Bulgaria.

The following day brought an email from Chavdar explaining that he had lost his phone and had waited at the station for me for three hours before giving up. He hoped I had found somewhere safe. It smelt a lot like male cow excrement, but it didn’t matter. In Kremi I had found an amazing host. I emailed six people in Bucharest asking for a place to stay once in Romania and received an almost instant reply from a girl called Adriana saying it would be a pleasure. I was sorted for the next leg of the journey, so I picked up the keys that Kremi had left on the kitchen table before going to work early in the morning and headed out to see if I couldn’t accidentally on purpose get lost and find something good about Sofia. I jumped on and off buses until I recognised absolutely nothing from the previous day, and then set about trying to find my way back to the centre of the city unaided. I was glad I did. Sofia seen through the eyes of a well rested, well fed and warm traveller is a lot more fascinating a place than it had seemed the day before. Getting out into the suburbs I came across the real ethnic Bulgarians. Every man had stubble, fluffy black hair and a confident and strong expression – the Hristo Stoichkov look. They were a surly bunch; they shrugged greetings to each other and refused to give way when passing each other on narrow pavements. But saying that, there was a warmth to it. The Bulgarians were (what I used to imagine to be) typically Slavic. Still, it didn’t matter how far away from the city centre I ventured, there was no decline in the amount of stray dogs roaming the streets. Walking down one particularly intimidating road, I stopped in my tracks as I noticed a psychotic dog up ahead, snarling at and showing teeth to anyone who dared stray into his territory. I had to get to the end of the street somehow, I had come too far to turn back and find another route, but I was petrified. You will remember I have already explained that dogs and I don’t get on very well at the best of times. What could I do?
Then an old lady appeared from behind me, striding purposefully towards the rabid animal. She was going to take him on. Like the real man that I am, I shadowed her the whole way, then as we got to within a couple of metres of the snarling creature I crouched down and hid behind her, putting her between me and a Korean’s favourite sandwich filler. The mutt growled, barked and jumped about but the lady was unflinching. She looked at me with pity; I was pathetic in her eyes. I didn’t care. I had survived. Later on in the afternoon the dog situation went from out of control to just plain surreal, as I watched a scruffy looking canine stand at a pedestrian crossing where he proceeded to wait for the green man to start flashing before crossing the road safely. Bulgarian dogs are nothing if not observant of the Green Cross Code.

Checking my emails later that evening I was surprised to see that every single Romanian I’d emailed earlier in the day had written back, and every one had offered me a place to stay. Despite all the horror stories I had heard about Romania, from reading the way these people wrote I had a very good feeling about visiting Bucharest.

Kremi and I sat up drinking until the early hours of the morning, and before going to bed she handed me a ticket for the 8:14am train to Bucharest. I got myself up bright and early the next morning at 6:30 and, with a slight hangover, jumped into the back of a taxi that Kremi had paid the driver of, to take me to the station. She had also given me a bag full of croissants, some homemade baklava, a bottle of water and a couple of cans of beer. What a host.

At the station, a gypsy with a name badge escorted me to my platform, as I wasn’t to know that ‘Букурещ’ was the destination I should be looking for on the information board. He got a bit angry when I couldn’t pay him for his 30 seconds of work, but I guess he figured it bad for business to be seen berating a foreigner, so he soon left me alone. Then I heard something amazing – English over the loudspeaker system.

“The train to Bucharest is delayed by 70 minutes,” it said.

I stood and waited on the platform, passing the time by watching the stray puppies wandering up and down the tracks in search of food. It was actually quite sad to see one of the tiny fluffy animals discover a plastic bag with something inside, and rather than trying to get the contents out, just eat the plastic.

The poo loo

My train left at 9:35 and I found myself comfortably sitting in a compartment all to myself. The journey through the snow-covered landscape was beautiful, especially for the first hour or so after leaving Sofia as we followed a river with snowy mountains staring down on us from all sides, and little valley villages popping up randomly every now and then. The train passed through numerous long tunnels, right through the base of mountains. Only the constant stream of stray dogs spoiled the vista. Bulgaria has more of them than we have teenage mums. After about an hour I got up to go for a wee. The toilet was locked so I waited patiently outside for five minutes before an old lady finally emerged and disappeared back to her seat. I went in and immediately started coughing and retching as I tried to cover my mouth with one hand and my eyes with the other. The toilet had overflowed onto the floor. This in itself wouldn’t normally be too shocking, but then let me tell you that these Eastern European train toilets don’t usually have any water in. So all of this brown lumpy liquid, with the odd random turd floating around, trying to make a break for it and get to the floor, had all come from the human body. Every last drop of it. As I choked on my own sick, I took my camera from my pocket to snap the moment, as I knew I could never do it justice with words. The most shocking thing is that the woman before me must have actually used the toilet. How was this possible? Actually, I would rather not know. I got out quickly, making sure to slam the door shut behind me before any of the overflow could escape into the carriage. I walked up the train to the next available toilet and found the complete opposite. Rather than overflowing, this one was completely empty and bone dry and had even frozen up. But strangely, despite there being no window, there was a thin layer of snow on the floor. Where the fuck did that come from?

After about two hours, a girl of about the same age as me came into my apartment, asking first in Bulgarian and then in English if I minded her sitting down. Why would I? She was followed shortly by an old Bulgarian man who immediately tried to make conversation with me, without luck. The man got off after an hour, the girl stayed. We both sat, reading in silence. It was clear that both of us would prefer to make some kind of chitchat to pass the time, but neither of us would be the first to open our mouths.

I felt like a football hooligan travelling to a match on this train. Police paced up and down the carriages the whole way. Their colleagues were also waiting for our train at every station. I didn’t know the reason why. At one station some gypsies got off with a sleeping baby, and instead of using a pram, they put the infant on a sled and pulled her along the snow. Improvisation. The heating in the compartment didn’t have a working lever to turn it down, so after a few hours the temperature was unbearable. I had peeled down to a t-shirt when, still sweating, I asked the girl if she would mind me opening a window.

The snow loo

“Go ahead. It’s baking,” she said.

Small flakes of snow blew in and slapped me across the face. It was a relief. At about 6pm we made it to the Romanian border. Still no conversation had been shared between my companion for this journey and myself. As usual I received suspicious treatment from the border police: Torch in face, look at passport, look at my face, look back to passport, look back to my face, look back to passport, flick through pages, wonder why there are so many stamps of Eastern European countries, then radio my details to some unknown place and wait for instructions.

“Where are you going, Mr. Mole?”

“Bucharest.”

“How long will you stay in Romania?”

“Three days.”

There was a pause and I was handed back my passport. A couple of minutes later in walked a new guard. Torch in face, look at passport, look at my face, look back to passport, look back to my face, look back to passport, flick through pages, wonder why there are so many stamps of Eastern European countries, then radio my details to some unknown place and wait for instructions.

“Where are you going, Mr. Mole?”

“Bucharest.”

“How long will you stay in Romania?”

“Three days.”

How do you say déjà vu in Romanian?

As we sat at the border and waited for movement, there was a lot of noise coming from other carriages. I can only describe it as the kind of sound you’d expect to hear if you locked a drug addict in a bathroom full of cabinets. It was 5:30pm when we started moving again – the very first ticket inspector of the morning had told me we would be in Bucharest by 5pm.

I got up for a walk to the toilet – the snowy one, not the pooey one – and saw that a few of the compartments had been completely turned over by the police, looking for something or other. When I retook my seat, the girl finally broke the ice.

“Excuse me, but is it normal for the police to ask so many questions?”

“It is when I am involved,” I replied with a grin.

Kris Mole: unreliable gurner

She laughed and introduced herself in a perfect American accent as Tsetsa, a 24-year old Bulgarian student at the American University. This was her first time travelling on an international train; she was going to visit American friends in Romania who were flying in from the States just to see her. She was anxious about the delays; we were now running about three hours behind schedule. We passed the time talking about border guards, different customs and funny travel experiences. As we approached Bucharest, I set the camera’s self timer and told my new friend that we were both to gurn in funny fashion for the picture. I didn’t entirely stick to the promise, resulting in an image that looked like I was escorting my companion back to the asylum.

After an 11-hour train ride we pulled in to Gara de Nord. It was 8:30pm.

Kris Mole’s book has been taken on by Valley Press and will be available as a paperback before too long: this is your last chance to buy the much cheaper eBook copy (till mid-September 2011) by visiting: https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/33529.

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