The Past Crumbling All Around The Future – Baggage Claim: A Lost Arrival In Sofia (Travels in Eastern Europe – Bulgaria #4)

I can think of few lonelier feelings than being the last person standing in front of an empty baggage carousel waiting for your luggage to appear. This is after everyone one else has collected their bags and blissfully left the airport. The carousel goes around and around and around, emanating an eerie kerclunk noise, a conveyor conveying nothing, but the fact that all hope is nearly gone. Now imagine having this experience just after arrival in a new country for the first time, where you cannot speak the language or read the alphabet. Your final smoldering embers of hope are extinguished as the carousel comes to an abrupt halt. You look around to find only yawning space and a pervasive, uncomfortable silence. Minutes before there had been a crowd of eager arrivals, picking up their luggage and heading blissfully for the exit. Now you are the only one left, hopeless and helpless. I was faced with exactly this situation after arriving at the airport in Sofia, Bulgaria. To compound my predicament, I imagined that just beyond the exit doors awaited legions of aggressive cab drivers ready to pounce on me and my wallet.

Welcome to Happy Bulgaria

Welcome to Happy Bulgaria (Credit: Ali Eminov)

Everything I Knew Was Wrong – Meeting The Bulgars
After subjecting myself to ridiculous worries for weeks on end prior to departure, a real problem was upon me. How did I feel? Strangely calm. I have always liked the odds when everything seems to be against me.  In such cases, the situation can only get better and that is exactly what happened. I was sure my suitcase was still in Paris. I had barely made the flight, so my bag was probably sitting on the tarmac somewhere. A kindly woman in an official looking uniform approached me. From her lips came soothing words, not in Bulgarian, but perfect English. “Did your luggage not arrive? Well I can help you.” She proceeded to take down all my essential information, getting the name of my accommodation and providing me with a website where I could check for updates on the delivery of my baggage. The process was seamless, likely because the woman had done this many times before. American airlines and airports could learn something about customer service from the Sofia airport. My stereotypical image of the nation as cold and threatening had just been shattered. Welcome to Bulgaria!

As I made my way out into the main arrivals hall I braced myself for the legendary scamming cab drivers of Sofia. Men much greater than me had been fleeced out of hundreds of dollars during an hours long cab ride into the dark side of the city. I came though the exit doors trying to affect an air of cool detachment. And what did I find? A half empty hall with a few bored looking middle aged men asking if I needed a cab. From these somber types my pickup appeared with a gentle smile and quickly whisked me away. He looked to be in his mid-twenties, was pudgy, sweaty and friendly, the kind of guy who looked like he never skipped a meal of six sausages. His broken English was a mess of misplaced grammar. Somehow I was able to understand his general discourse.  We walked out to a car waiting at the curb and off we went. I was on my way to Hostel Mostel, supposedly one of the best hostels in Europe. It was known for its excellent service and had a reputation as the place to stay for affordability, service and meeting fellow foreigners while visiting Sofia.

Lying in wait - taxis at the Sofia airport

Lying in wait – taxis at the Sofia airport (Credit: Apostoloff)

Trusting Strangers With My Life – Taken For A Ride
The one word that best defined my first hour in Bulgaria was trust. There was nothing else this confused and disoriented foreigner could do other than trust strangers. Not all strangers, just the right ones. Trust that the friendly and professional lady taking down my name and information would actually help me find my baggage. Trust that my airport pickup would deliver me safely to my accommodation. There was really no way of knowing for sure if he worked for Hostel Mostel. Was the fact that he held a sign with my name on it enough to trust him with my life? Now that I was in a land where I knew no one, it seemed to make perfect sense to put my life in the hands of strangers. I had no choice, but to rely on these Bulgarians sense of duty, humanity and purpose. This trip would force me to rely on others as much as myself.

After leaving the airport we soon passed through an area I had read about it before arrival, specifically with warnings to avoid, a Roma settlement on the edge of the city. I had very little experience of the Roma (popularly and incorrectly known as the Gypsys), beside a few I had heard play music at restaurants when I was in Turkey. What I saw on the way into Sofia was sobering. People were wandering about aimlessly. Men stood listlessly in doorways staring at the cars passing by, women dressed in dirty, but bright clothing were surrounded by crowds of half clothed children. One home was little more than crumbling concrete walls. I could see a child inside playing with dirt that had been dug up from the floor. My driver started speaking in an angry tone, pointing at the Gypsies and shaking his head in disgust. This introduction to the Roma left a lasting impression. Unfortunately I would see lesser versions of the same scene on future trips to Eastern Europe.

A state of transformation - commercial advertising on a building in Sofia, Bulgaria

A state of transformation – capitalism not communism on a building in Sofia, Bulgaria (Credit: Juan Antonio F. Segal)

The Architecture of Everything Imaginable
It was not long before we were making our way into Sofia proper. The city was a maddening jumble of architectural styles, ramshackle houses and concrete tower blocks with everything imaginable in between. Here was a city in a state of transformation, trying to rise above its difficult past which was crumbling all around it. Meanwhile sparkling new capitalist constructions in the form of hotels, service stations and office buildings were surfacing. It was a city of confusing contrasts, snarled by dilapidation and innovation in unequal measure. It was hard to believe that this mélange had been the setting for so much history, but Sofia was a city with a gloriously checkered past and an uncertain future.

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