Wednesday, November 21, 2007
When I was in Istanbul, I had to figure out how to get to Slovenia. The overland route is through the Balkans. Not having done any research on anything between Turkey and Slovenia, and in general being woefully uneducated about this section of the world, I made some lame excuse, mostly to myself, that I would visit the Balkans at a later date. Really, it was fear of the unknown. I didn't know anything about the Balkans, and I was too scared to just go in and figure it out. So I flew directly to Ljubljana. But then I started talking to people, changed my itinerary multiple times to include whatever sounded interesting, and city by city, worked my way into the Balkans, which aren't scary at all. Well, it's not just where you go, it's how you get there; had I come directly to the Balkans from Turkey, I most likely would have had a much different experience, since I wouldn't have the accumulated knowledge from my fellow travelers. Originally planning on going to Prague after Sarajevo, I changed my itinerary to go there after Belgrade, but Gaby and Chris convinced me that heading further east would offer more rewarding travel. Trying to hold my ground over a plate of pasta, I threw down the "Prague is supposed to be the most beautiful city in Europe" argument. Gaby defended her pro-Bulgaria stance over a half-eaten pizza, informing me that the people who were feeding me that line haven't been to half the places I have, which made me feel pretty pleased with myself, I can tell you that. But brushing my ego to a high gloss aside, they were right. Right now I'd rather be going places that don't appear weekly in newspaper travel guides, and which haven't been polished, overpriced, and irrevocably changed by tourism. I want places that challenge me by not having familiar comforts, like English and informative signage. I still want to see Prague, and will try to get there before the end. But I wish I could see it as it was twenty years ago, not the way it is today.
So that's how I ended up in Plovdiv, not Prague, a mere eleven hours train ride from Istanbul on the Balkans Express. Still traveling with Chris the Scotsman (remarkably coherent 96% of the time), we caught a sleeper train from Belgrade to Sofia. I stayed awake a bit to write in my journal, since I'm way behind. Making time for journal writing is hard. You'd think that with no work, and nothing to do but pootle around seeing the world, you'd have some free time to sit and write, but nooo...it's remarkably easy to kill entire days at a fell swoop. You roll out of your bunk bed, wander around strange cities, chat with people, share some meals, and then it's midnight and your journal is still tucked away in your bag. Days turn into weeks and then oops...I'm starting to forget what happened. Not big things, just little details. So I was trying to catch up, and asked Chris if the light was keeping him awake. Nope, he said he was just resting, listening to the train wheels kchunk kchunk kchunk through the dark. Train wheels are the sound of travel. It's the lullaby of the road.
We only stayed in Sofia long enough the find ATMs in order to get enough Bulgarian lev to purchase tickets to Plovdiv. I didn't see too much my first 48 hours in town; the drippy nose that had manifested in Belgrade developed into a full-blown cold in Plovdiv. It was as good a place as any to get sick, since the hostel had a cozy common room with wireless and groovy tunes playing all day. I sat around for one day, and managed to kick it into submission. Maybe the reason I got well so quickly was all the food we ate at a local comfort food establishment, Dayana Restaurant. Dayana was like the Bulgarian Denny's. The menu was glossy and full of pictures, and half of the waitresses looked like Eurovision Song Contest hopefuls. Bulgarian cuisine includes lots of innards and other bits that I'm not accustomed to seeing on menus, but maybe that's because I (a) rarely eat out and (b) don't eat a whole lot of meat (when at home). Eating the safer, yet intriguing, items for the first couple of nights (cheese balls fried in egg and coated in cornflakes. cornflakes!), I threw caution to the wind and ordered chicken pope's noses on the last night. Everyone was sort of curious about them, and for some reason, I kept forgetting to look them up during the hours I spent camped in the common room in front of the computer. By this time, I'd had several meals out with Chris during our travels together, during which he'd worked his way through at least one petting zoo. He seems willing and able to ingest pretty much anything edible, especially meaty, but his palate was finally defeated by a single pope's nose. Do you know what they are? Chicken butts. Just a little piece, but a chicken butt nonetheless. Chris couldn't stomach one. The guy adores haggis and looks forward to blood pudding for breakfast, but a little piece of chicken cheek sticks in his craw. Go figure! In all fairness, I didn't find them all that appealing, either; they were liked a lump of fried fat with a nubbin of gristle or cartilage embedded in the middle. Biting directly into this bit was what put Chris off his feed. Sort of the gastronomical equivalent of arriving in California for a holiday, and having a major earthquake hit moments after arriving. Speaking of, I kind of feel like I missed all the earthshaking fun back home.
With my nose drips drying up, I felt well enough to take in the town, Plovdiv goes way back in time, first settled sometime around 5000 BC. It's come a long way since then, being one of Bulgaria's most affluent cities, but horse-drawn carriages still clatter down the street hauling loads past casinos and concrete highrises. A number of historical homes in the old town area are house museums, none of which I bothered going into. Most of them have pretty decorations painted on the exteriors.
I did go into the Gallery of Fine Arts, since one of the guidebooks made mention of a few pieces that sounded interesting enough. No one was in the foyer when I walked in, but the door jingled a bell which brought a few ladies out of various offices. After taking my admission fee (one lev, which makes it the cheapest museum to date), one of the women preceded me up the stairs, turning on all the lights. I lingered on the stairs, feigning engrossment at the portraits displayed there, in order to give her a head start. The gallery is spread over several rooms on two floors, and includes quite a few eye-worthy works from Bulgarian artists from the last couple of centuries. Somewhere on the second floor, I noticed that the ticket seller was coming though behind me and turning off the lights as soon as I left each room. And since it takes far less time to flick off a light switch than it does to take in one room of art, she then lurked in the dark room until I moved on. I was feeling under pressure to take it all in quickly, and move on, which is a crappy way to view art. I wanted to stay in there longer, but lurking woman was getting on my nerves, so I just breezed through the last room and hallway, and bugged out. Maybe my one lev admission covered the electricity costs for a viewing, and I had stayed long enough to run the meters into the red.
Bulgarian uses the Cyrillic alphabet, and while street signs are posted in both Cyrillic and Roman, as well as the names of some shops, not a whole lot else is. At least, not to any level of consistency. Restaurants will most likely have an English menu, but the bakery pastries all have mystery fillings (I managed to divine a fruity filling rather than a meaty one). Needing to send off some postcards, I headed to the hulking telephone and post office building by the pedestrian mall, and stepped straight into a Kafka novel. Offices offering various services were scattered about, and at least half of them had a line of people waiting out front. Some of them even had some type of uniformed officer regulating admission beyond the doors. Mysterious pictogram signs directed those who were lost to their destination; that is, if they could make out what the signs meant:
After a couple of bewildering turns around the interior, I finally found the post office. Thankfully there wasn't a line out in front; given my profound lack of Bulgarian, I wouldn't even know if I was standing in the correct line until I got to the front. It was full of people gathered around a couple of tables, addressing envelopes and referring to very worn postal code books. Observing several people with stamps, I figured I was in the right place, and found the window that helpfully had a small sign in English reading "Correspondence." Getting into the queue, I got my first taste of the eastern European tradition of ignoring the queue. Or, more like they don't have the concept of the queue. Describing what happened to Chris, who's traveled throughout most of eastern Europe, he nodded. "If you're not first, you're last." People descend on the window from every direction, perhaps casting a glance at the person they just shoved in front of, but usually not. Eye contact makes you weaker. Taking a lesson from the blonde who nonchalantly cut in front of me, I muscled my way to the window, at which point all was peachy. Since most of my cards required two stamps, the woman who sold them to me carefully tore each denomination from the sheet, and arranged one on each card. Things were looking good until I tried to find the mail drop. I would have thought that the inside of the post office would have an obvious mail drop, but nope, nothing there. Deciding that I would find one outside, I just left with my successfully stamped cards. I had to ask Peter at the hostel where to find a mailbox, and it turns out I had walked past mail slots in the wall on my way out. Not that I would have known which one to use, since they were all labeled in Cyrillic. Peter wrote out the characters for the international slot, and once I found them I had to spend a couple of minutes standing there with my scrap of paper, going through each of the labels letter by letter until I found the right one. Turns out someone had helpfully scribbled the word "Abroad" next to it, just in tiny letters. Despite the happy ending, I decided I wouldn't be sending any more postcards from Bulgaria.