My first trip to Europe was a visit to Scotland where I stayed exclusively in Bed and Breakfasts. On my next trip, I visited Berlin and Dresden where I stayed in hotels. Then for my trip to Bulgaria, I decided to spend several nights in hostels. I was going backwards in the world of accommodation or so it would seem. As someone who had just turned forty, I was about to discover whether I was getting too old for this kind of thing. I had visions of sex crazed backpackers, gap year wild asses, scruffy hangers on and legions of misfits acting out juvenile fantasies. The idea of noise all night and day sleepers was not very appealing, but this trip was supposed to be an adventure.
A Hostel Situation – Running Into An Obsession
I had selected Hostel Mostel because it received rave reviews. Travel websites consistently named it one of the best hostels in Europe. It did not disappoint. I got my own room, which was a small apartment in a building close to the main sights. The room was small, but spotlessly clean. The only issue was trying to sleep. A group of American expat teachers bunking next door to me drank themselves to oblivion until the wee hours of the morning. They taught in Saudi Arabia so this was their release. During my stay I also met a few memorable people, mostly at the free spaghetti dinners each evening. My favorites were a couple of smiling, elderly German women bounding with energy. Their backpacks and trekking garb were in contrast to their age which had to be close to eighty. I spent one evening listening to a young French financial consultant tell me how he was setting up a business in Bulgaria because it was easier than in France. He was staying at Hostel Mostel to save money. He had no idea whether his business would work out, but it was still better than France. Everyone else was either glued to the internet or in the process of getting very drunk before, after or during spaghetti.
My first foray onto the streets of Sofia was quite unorthodox. I wanted to go running. It was a daily ritual that I had been doing for years, less a passion and more of a commitment. The problem was that my running shoes were in the lost luggage somewhere between Paris and Sofia. Being a totally committed obsessive, I had no choice, but to attempt a run in dress shoes, khaki slacks and a buttoned up shirt. The idea was ridiculous, my execution not much better. I tried to look as though I were running to catch a bus or taxi. Block after block I feigned a hurried rush. The dress shoes were surprisingly comfortable, my clothes less so. To say I was a bit self-conscious would be a massive understatement. I kept watching out of the corner of my eyes to see if anyone was noticing me. The great thing about cities is that they offer even the most bizarre behavior virtual anonymity. There is so much going on that no one notices people acting out of character. And if they do, something else soon distracts them. Perhaps this was why the Bulgars paid me little to no attention. They were busy with all the distractions around them.
Herd Mentality – Man’s Many Best Friends
I finally ran right into a park that offered refuge from the crowded sidewalks. I started running circles across the grassy expanses. I was now almost totally anonymous to the Bulgars. The same could not be said for Sofia’s stray dogs. Each time I made a circle, groups of stray dogs trailed close behind me. Other groups of dogs eyed me warily. They were everywhere. I counted at least fifty stray dogs of every size, shape and color. The dogs tended to collect in packs of five or more, wandering aimlessly until something or someone caught there attention. Stranger than the stray dogs was the fact that almost every person in the park was walking their own dog. I thought this might be a clever ruse. These Bulgars could have just showed up at the park with a spare leash and picked out whichever dog they wanted to walk for the day.
The stray dog population of Sofia has been estimated at anywhere between 35,000 and 70,000. Though official estimates of the number of stray dogs are much lower, the mayor of Sofia acknowledged that stray dogs are the city’s biggest problem. This problem has turned deadly on occasion, most notably when an American businessman was mauled to death by a pack of stray dogs in 2012. At least the dogs accompanying me all had tags. Otherwise contracting rabies would have been a real concern. The park was in an area of the city that was middle class. I shuttered to think what the stray dog problem might be like in poorer districts of Sofia. The problem originated during the years of communist rule when tens of thousands moved into the tower apartment blocks of the city and were not to take along their dogs. It was hard not to be both touched and bemused by this surreal experience. No human being in the park paid me any attention, but the stray dogs certainly did. I felt like I was being herded.
Running To Stand Still – Sofia Without A Suitcase
When I finally left the park and headed back toward the hostel, the stray dogs of Sofia abandoned me. This was a relief. I can only imagine what it would have been like trying to weave my way through foot traffic with a pack of stray dogs in tow. By the end of my run I was haggard. My clothing was soaked with sweat and my feet were developing large blisters. In the most literal sense, my first day in Sofia had been an exercise in exhaustion. My luggage was still lost, I had seen next to nothing of the city and had no idea what tomorrow would bring, though I hoped it would be a pair of running shoes.