If you took Des Moines, Iowa, bombed it, took away everyone’s Prozac, supplied them with only beets and sporadically functioning electricity then added 100,000 gypsies, you’d have Sofia, Bulgaria.
My first thought at the train station was, ‘I’m most definitely going to be kidnapped, murdered and my organs harvested.’
“Happy-go-lucky” is not a term I would use to describe your average Bulgarian.
A Bit of History
Though Bulgaria is a member of the EU, they have their own currency, the Lev, and do not accept Euro. A Lev is roughly equal to $0.55 (USD), a beer’s about 2-Lev, a meal – around 10. Once part of the Roman Empire, Bulgaria had a few of their own and were then folded into the Ottoman.
Bulgaria, not super big fans of their “ethnic” citizens, joined Germany in WWII. After all of those shenanigans, they became part of the U.S.S.R.’s (CCCP) Soviet Bloc. However, Bulgaria is one of the only countries that refused to turn their Jewish citizens over to Hitler, and they still have that ballsy attitude, though there’s a touch of the “Big Brother” atmosphere left over from the Russian occupation. The Bloc architecture remains; drab, square, ominous buildings are everywhere. Along with those Soviet-propaganda-style sculptures you’re likely familiar with from those Bourne movies where the Cinematographer holds the camera like Stevie Nicks sings.
These posters, statues and other works always make me chuckle, reminding me of revolutions against fascists who control all the wealth. Revolutions that are successful install communist or socialist governments, meant to redistribute said wealth to a handful of new guys – with a nice honorarium for the old guys. Clever stuff. Come to Bulgaria if you think a few people being greedy and extremely corrupt doesn’t hurt everyone.
Modern Sofia wrestles with a drastic imbalance between wealth and poverty.The Russian oligarchs still make their mark in Bulgaria via a mafia of sorts. The regular folk struggle to make ends meet and look like old Great Depression photos in action as they board buses and meander the vast parks. A trip to the posh city center informs you that there’s a taste for Cartier, Prada and high-end caviar – the streets in front of the luxury stores lined with McClarens, Ferraris and the like. While a visit to any suburban neighborhood reveals that the regular folk live on bad bread, root vegetables and beverages rich in refined sugars.
It’s a lot like Chicago. But everyone’s paler.
For decades, Bulgaria was known for dominance in Olympic weightlifting and it shows. Gigantic men, bulk organically obtained or not, walk the streets in stretched out FUBU t-shirts and Zubaz britches and everywhere you’ll find bare-bones gyms with no nonsense free weights. The attitudes are as hardcore as the pastimes. So, for many reasons, these are not cheerful people.
Word of advice, pass by the old men playing chess in the park, don’t stop, no matter how good you think you are. I had my clock cleaned multiple times, with not a sniff of victory in the air once. Then again, there’s a pretty solid chance you could beat me at chess, perhaps it’s time to reconsider my hobbies.
Roma (Romani, Gypsy) people are from the Punjab region of India, originally. They roam. That’s what they do. And for the most part, are talented, fun, musical folks known to pick pockets and steal shit. When I was a grocery bagger in high school, I remember a “code blue” coming over the intercom and the Manager running past me saying, “G-d damn it, the Gypsies are coming.” The Roma in Sofia are many and have a quick, nearly undetectable, code. You can eat processed meat on a stick or airy cheese while sat on a park bench and watch tourists fall prey to well-orchestrated pocket picking.
Sofia’s Gypsies, used here, not as a derogatory term, rather for description of their actions, all carry musical instruments, homemade goods and a joyful energy, separating them even further from native Bulgarians. Often, they will find a hidden spot off the street and gather for an impromptu feast and concert, the music is absolutely delightful and the singing couldn’t sound happier.
A gentleman I had befriended at the local convenience store gave me his angry rundown of Gypsies much like the current U.S. president’s supporters would describe Mexicans. But he was friendly enough and spoke a little English, always a game changer. His name was Vladislav and he loves, LOVES Frank Sinatra. Took every opportunity to sing to me while he pulled from a warm beer and took drags off his rolled tobacco. “Come here tomorrow same time, I bring Rakia, homemade,” he told me. Sure, why not?
It’s important to mention that Vlad looks exactly like Bill Murray, if Bill had completely stopped taking care of himself in the 1980s and started a steady diet of vodka and bacon grease.
It was about time to meet my host, Ivanka, who would show me the “nice, two bedroom apartment in the city center with gym.” I told Vladislav I’d see him the next day and walked the two blocks to Ivanka’s. She showed up about an hour late, clocks are mere suggestions it seemed, but she was just delightful and in dire need of a sandwich according to her hollow, sunken cheeks. The apartment seemed to be in an old prison building, judging by the exterior. As she unlocked the door, she reminded me to watch my step. The giant door opened outward, into the hallway and over a set of perpendicular descending stairs.
Yes, you had to fully open the door then stay all the way to the left, on the hinges side, careful to not stumble downstairs in the dark hall. I’d have to monitor my alcohol intake.
Once inside, she showed me the beautiful, doily covered dining room, the nice-sized living room and the bedroom, which wasn’t two bedrooms, rather, two dorm beds in one room. The same room as the “gym.” The gym turned out to be one of those “feet-only” stair-climber things. The pièce de résistance… the bathroom/laundry room. The commode was IN the shower or maybe the shower surrounded the commode. Either way, um, yeah. Bonus, when you straddled the commode to pull the curtain around you, it stuck to your body.
Double bonus, the drain was near the floor-level outlet in which the washing machine was plugged, making life super exciting. But hey, four nights in this place was $100, total, which I later determined easily equaled a week’s salary for non-mafia people in Bulgaria. All checked in, time to explore the neighborhood. Once again without phone service – which I paid for in advance, I had to look up directions on the laptop and write them down.
One thing Western Sofia, Bulgaria doesn’t have a lot of, besides Lexipro, good cheer or hope, are street signs. Fortunately, there’s a rather large mountain range just to the south of town, which serves as an excellent compass… during the day. This was not daytime and Ivanka’s lovely flat was smack dab in the middle of Hookertown. Food for thought, low prices on AirBnBs in Europe usually mean you’re pretty close to some ladies of the evening. They’re usually very outgoing, kind-hearted people who keep odd hours, I can relate.
I wasn’t able to find the lounge I was looking for on the first night but I did find a very nice craft brew bar filled with locals. The Bulgarian language is a very difficult mashup of Russian and Turkish, to the best of my estimation. As of early September 2018, Google Translate didn’t have Bulgarian among its language choices, so ordering things once again became a confusing pantomime. And again, and luckily, “beer” is pretty much the same word all over the world. The regulars were kind, in that they didn’t kill me.
Hell on Earth
There was a kid named Fitzpatrick in study hall, sophomore year. I inadvertently drank out of a soda can he’d been spitting tobacco into. I can taste it vividly when I think about it and get nearly as sick as I did that very moment when I do. That’s how I now also feel about Hell Energy Drink. When you see the cardboard cut-out of Bruce Willis in the convenience store in Sofia, Bulgaria – you think to yourself, ‘Does Bruce Willis know anything about this?’ It’s the same thought I had in every single country in Europe about all 500 products that seem to be endorsed by Selena Gomez.
Is Selena aware she’s shilling pantyhose and yogurt in Slovakia?
Why did I try Hell Energy drink? Because it’s the only identifiable “beverage” in the store. At least it said “energy drink” on the can, and I hate energy drinks, but everything else was in Cyrillic and appeared to be different shades of Pepto-Bismol. Lesson learned. “But, Mr. Guy, didn’t they have bottled water?” Sometimes. What each store definitely had was some sort of cheese, unreliable meat-ish-looking things, and stale bread rolls. Sofia promised to be a culinary event. To my knowledge, Anthony Bourdain (RIP, sir), never stepped foot into Bulgaria.
A visit to Bulgaria was suggested by a friend of mine, it seems a friend of his visits Sofia regularly on behalf of our government and enjoys it. I chose Sofia over Istanbul. I chose wrong. Turns out this friend visits for business or what have you and “enjoys” what Frank Reynolds from Always Sunny would refer to as “Hoors.” And, dear reader, there’s one thing Sofia has in spades and it’s hoors. You couldn’t swing a veiny, Viagra-ridden… dead cat without hitting three or four street walkers, one fell swoop.
Let’s get this straight before you even get to the Prague and Germany chapters, hookers are not my thing. Sure, they’re riveting. Can you imagine sexual congress with disgusting strangers from God-knows-where as a career and lifestyle? But when you think about it even a little bit, “riveting” rapidly becomes “revolting.” No offense to those who sell their bodies for money and provide, and have provided since the beginning of time, a vital service – but unless it’s some type of “this is my first day” situation, yikes. Antibiotics and cheap stockings are no way to spend your hard-earned money. A gross pun. And another.
As stated, I’ve got an uncanny knack for choosing inexpensive AirBnBs near “street vendors.” Just so happens, they tend to be peddling ass.
The Convenience store
Mornings are a special time in Sofia. A time when nothing happens. I walked about five miles on a Thursday morning and saw maybe four people and very few cars. It was Day Two and I’d been all over the damn place, looking at churches and cool buildings and the Yellow Brick Road. It was nearing time to meet Vladislav and have some of his homemade Rakia.
“What’s the Yellow Brick Road?” you ask. The bricks were a gift from one royal guy to another about 120-years ago and they’re yellow and there’s now a road made from them. That’s about as interesting as that story gets.
The lady behind the counter was starting to become friendly, now that I was on my third or fourth trip to her store in a 24-hour period. She liked to smile big at me and slowly say, “HELLO!” Very proud of herself every time she completed. She then did the “…” sign with her hand, like a conductor telling the horns they’re next, or someone shaking a hat by it’s lid. This meant I was supposed to repeat after her, “Dobradrend.” Then I said, “Zdrastiuaidshi!”
Sure! I was a natural! Absolutely not. (1) She sounded like Natasha from Bullwinkle, but speaking a Cyrillic language. (2) She was not saying Bulgarian words as slowly as she said “hello.” (3) She looked like Dick Butkus without the mustache. I was intimidated. She would shake her head violently and say, “No, no, no…” then repeat these greetings(?) even faster. This went on until her facial expression changed. So I bought a beer and sat out front with the other miscreants and waited for Vladislav.
A few gypsies approached me, playing a song before they got within six-feet, which meant you owed them money. I’d turn my pockets inside out and and give them the, “Oh, man, sorry, I don’t have anything on me,” look. They’d keep playing, expecting me to create money from the ether. Vlad to the rescue! He yelled something rather aggressively and they dispersed.
Vlad was apologetic that he’d been delayed and blamed the Missus. But here he was in all his glory, new 1980s polo shirt and a plastic bag containing a clear, unlabeled plastic bottle. This was the Rakia.
That evening’s a bit of a mystery and my notes are unhelpful. I don’t have to tell you not to accept unlabeled, homemade liquor from a man at a street cafe – but you also don’t want to be rude. However, Vlad tried to kill me in broad daylight, the shots kept coming and – even though I chose to sip – he kept filling the cup. His ruddy, red face belted out Sinatra tune after Sinatra tune while his eyes pleaded to a former regime to give him a good life.
I slept well that night, having given the in-house gym a run for its money after pounding Bulgarian rotgut made from God-knows-what.
It was now my last day in Sofia. Though I spent most of it working in the apartment, I did walk around the courtyard a bit where a woman shouted down at me from her third floor window of an adjacent building. She seemed friendly, also seemed to be asking me a question I wouldn’t understand until I saw Vlad again later that day. Of course, her building was a brothel. Of course it was.
That evening, I watched what had to be a 70-year-old man cut down a tree in a small “park” and haul off gigantic pieces, no two men I know could carry without pulling something, across the street to a completely random spot that only made sense to him. I offered to help and he waved me off. Then I decided this was just an old-school Bulgarian CrossFit. He was just stirring the blood before his dinner.
A stroll around the closest farmers market revealed nothing but cheap luggage, root vegetables and red peppers. A bit of information for you, if you visit the Eastern Bloc, God help you if you don’t like red peppers.
Upon leaving by bus for Bucharest the following morning, I realized what a hard and beautiful country Bulgaria is, what they’d been through and what they were currently struggling with just to live. I felt lucky for being from a country that, despite its many faults, still has everything it needs or even wants.
The take-away – one person’s opinion – have you ever been at a party, work function, wedding, anything where a decent-sized group is having fun, then that one person walks in and changes the dynamic for the worse? You just sense something, they’re unsettling and carrying way too much weight on their shoulders and bringing the mood down? Yeah, that’s Bulgaria.