I always wanted to visit Eastern Europe, but to be quite honest I was scared. Fear of the unknown, fear of crime, fear of disappearing into some dark forest forever, overrode any fascination I had with traveling to the region. I imagined myself falling into the hands of the Bulgarian mafia or trapped by gunfire in some Balkan hellhole, men in Adidas tracksuits pummeling me to bits in Ostrava, succumbing to the fates after being duped by a scam on some provincial Polish train or being attacked by wild, rabid, stray dogs down a back alley in Bucharest. Like all fears these had little basis in reality. Why would the Bulgarian mafia take an interest in me? By the second decade of the 21st century the Yugoslav Wars were a distant memory. I had no reason to visit Ostrava, let alone seek out the local Adidas clothed thugs if any even lived there. Of course, these imaginings were ridiculous and informed by reading too many back issues of The Economist and online Stay Safe travel accounts about places in the region. Nevertheless, there was something standing in my way, not physically, but mentally, an invisible barrier that kept me from making arrangements to visit the “unknown Europe.”
Dreams of Decadence & Underdevelopment – Beyond East Germany
Technically I had already visited the region, dipping my toe into Europe’s backwater at East Berlin long after The Wall had fallen. On this trip there was a further foray to Dresden and the Saxon Switzerland. The problem with this part of Eastern Europe was that it had been rebuilt in the image of German prosperity. At one point I found myself just a couple of rail stops from the Czech Republic’s border. I debated making a dash across it to Hrensko, but decided to wait. I wanted to experience all that Eastern Europe had to offer, not just spend a couple of hours in a border town purchasing trinkets or declining solicitation by lascivious ladies of the night. Eastern Germany, despite its perceived developmental backwardness was too neat, too clean, too refined for the less than idyllic image of Eastern Europe I had in mind. Its communist past could only be caught in very brief glimpses. On the train between Berlin and Dresden I spied busted pavements, a gutted factory and a semi abandoned town. For some strange reason this got my adrenaline flowing.
East Berlin had its own share of concrete and industrial detritus to offer, but it was turning trendy with the smart upscale neighborhoods sprouting in districts such as Freidrichschain and Prenzlauer Berg. As for Dresden, there were plenty of concrete apartment blocks, but they were a bit too German in their tidiness. No, what I wanted was the mysterious, grimy, dark heart of underdeveloped Eastern Europe. The image I had in mind was a cross between extravagantly mustached, suspicious looking men chain smoking unfiltered cigarettes while Trabants crawled by squeezing 30 miles per hour out of a 2 stroke engine mixed with hopelessly unfashionable, purple haired ladies speaking an unintelligible language in an obscure dialect.
I wanted the Eastern Europe of mystery and intrigue, the one still recovering from a post-communist hangover, a place that felt dangerous and edgy, but actually was safe and welcoming once a thick veneer of grit and grime was scraped away. The kind of place where the weight of history could be felt on the streets, behind every stoic faced Slav or Magyar was a heart of liquid gold. This was the image I cultivated in my mind for many years. Yet it was fear that still held me back from purchasing a ticket and making that long leap over the western world into my imagined Eden of adventure and excitement. Then something began to change inside of me, slowly ever so slowly while suffering a southern Montana winter my fear began to subside.
The Fear Begins To Thaw – Approaching Eastern Europe
Montana is one of the most beautiful places on earth, but the winters are long, hard and all consuming. I had a good job, a great boss and independence. Nothing to complain about, except the fact that I was living at the end of a one way in, one way out 45 mile strip of icy asphalt. I felt both confined and cornered, my geographical location turned out to be a cure for anti-depression. Time started ticking slower. The clock suddenly had no hands. The brutal and bitter winter cold bit that much harder, my soul became buried in permafrost during days as dark as the night was long. By 4 p.m. the sun would be setting and the slow wait for bedtime had just begun. Life became one long shiver. Indifference and apathy ate away at my attitude. In the depths of those desperate evenings I began to dream of Eastern Europe once again. I may have been frozen in life, but my fear began to thaw. I began to feel the urge to travel farther than I ever had before.
I went online and began searching for the cheapest flights to various cities in Eastern Europe. After going through the usual suspects such as Prague, Budapest, Vienna and Warsaw I went further afield. When I searched Sofia, the capital of Bulgaria, I discovered a flight for under a thousand dollars. From Billings, Montana I would fly to Salt Lake City, Utah then over the Atlantic to Paris and finally to Sofia. The last flight would be on Bulgaria Air. I had no idea what to expect from that airline, would it be Aeroflot-lite or a wing and a prayer. I hardly cared. The cure for my bone chilling malaise was Sofia. What did I know about the city? Next to nothing! My knowledge of Bulgaria was not much greater. From memory I recalled one of those insane Bulgarian weightlifters from the Cold War-era Olympics, who looked as though he could have been a bouncer at the gates of hell.
Name That Capital – The Power of Useless Trivia
I did have one memorable personal experience with Sofia during my teenage years. In 10th grade French class, our teacher Ms. Twiss (the name has been changed to protect the guilty) was talking down to the class about American ignorance of European geography. She then took it upon herself to try and prove our ignorance, stating “I bet none of you even know the capitals of European countries. Can anyone tell me what the capital of Bulgaria is?” Reactively the word, “Sofia” flew out of my mouth. Ms. Twiss turned deathly pale. Her ignorance and self-righteous had been exposed. From that day forward she had it out for me. C’est la vie. How had I come up with the answer? I had memorized the capitals of every European country, along with many other relatively useless geographical facts, during a childhood spent pouring over the World Almanac. That day in high school French class, destiny had contrived to begin my affair with Sofia. Over twenty years later, in the icy depths of a Montana winter it was starting again.