Obsessive Propulsive – Still Running: 2 A.M. Through The Streets Of Sofia (Travels In Eastern Europe #40)

Running is a ritual and an obsession for me. No matter where I am at, no matter how far from home, no matter what my schedule, a daily run has been a necessity in my life for well over a decade. Some might call my daily runs, a jog or even a trot. That is because I do not aim for speed, just to keep going for one hour. I have been told – quite correctly – that if I would take a day or two off every week my runs would be much better. That is heresy to me. If I can get in in an hour running each day, then I am satisfied. Life would not seem normal without the daily run. Trying to maintain such a rigid standard can be difficult, nowhere more so than while traveling.

Sofia

Sofia

Dogged Persistence – An Exercise In Cultural Understanding
I have been a lucky man when it comes to running during my travels, specifically in Eastern Europe. I have run along the Danube in Bratislava, Budapest and Belgrade, across the Stari Most in Mostar, the Charles Bridge in Prague and the Latin Bridge in Sarajevo, dodged traffic in Transylvania and cut corners across Krakow. Most of my runs have not been in or around famous sites, but in neighborhoods or other run of the mill places such as a sports club in Kispest and farm fields on the outskirts of Debrecen.  These places I recall just as fondly as the old cities of Vienna or Vilnius. The runs helped me familiarize myself with local areas and life, especially in Hungary. By running I have learned that many Hungarians have large ferocious dogs guarding their yards. I cannot count the times that I have been startled by a massive dog suddenly smashing their snout up against a fence, snarling and salivating at me. Anyone who would consider robbing a house in Hungary better be prepared for a fight to the death from an oversized rover ready to have them for brunch. Hungarian dogs have helped keep me aware of my surroundings.

I have also learned about the stoicism and reserve of Eastern Europeans on these runs. A smile is at best met with a shrug, greetings are ignored. The people I have met along these runs are not the superficial, perpetually smiling American types. Friendliness seems to be forbidden, they take a “do not talk to strangers” attitude seriously. I can see this in their look away avoidance, a willful attempt to ignore my existence. This left me with a rather lonely feeling, making me feel more foreign than I already was. Nevertheless, I would not trade my experience jogging down the cracked sidewalks and unkempt parks found in every former Eastern Bloc country. I have gotten to see so much that I otherwise would have missed. The drunks passed out in the woods in Warsaw’s Saxon Park , the Romanian soldiers slouching while standing guard in the early morning hours at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Bucharest, the empty serpentine streets of Sibiu just after dawn. My daily run may be an obsession, but in eastern Europe it has also enhanced my passion for travel and given me unforgettable experiences. My favorite run was also the toughest, one that coincidentally happened in the earliest hours of the morning, when I could see next to nothing and the experience devolved into a dream.

The Final Destination –Running To Stand Still
I crawled out of the bed in Sofia at 2 a.m. on a Monday morning, knocked back a cold cup of coffee and grabbed my IPod. It was time to go for a morning run, a very early morning run. This would be the earliest I had ever went running before. Why was I going for a run in a strange city, where I could not speak a word of the language or even read the alphabet at such an early hour? The only reasonable explanation – as though anyone going running at 2 a.m. can provide a reasonable answer – was that I had a 6 a.m. flight from Sofia to Paris. This would be followed by two more flights to get back home. If everything went according to plan I would not arrive in my final destination of Billings, Montana, until 10:00 p.m. This meant that it would be especially difficult for me to get in my daily run unless I did it in Sofia. I had barely slept during that short night. Even so I did not feel that tired. I was in a wired state of sleep deprivation, shaking slightly with a fast forward like motion sickness.

My nerves were on edge. I was kept awake for most of the night with worried thoughts of impending danger. What if I ran into a crowd of drunks or a gang of young males looking to kick the ass of a stupidly dressed stranger in sweats, a hoody and trainers on a street in Sofia during the wee hours of the morning? What if some corrupt police officer noticed me? I imagined being dragged away to the police station for questioning then missing my flight while trying to explain away this daily run madness. As I walked outside into the chill morning air, I noticed that the streets were deserted. There was scarcely any traffic except for the random taxi. I began to run down one of the main streets, a moving target in super slow self-propulsion. I quickly formulated a plan to safeguard my existence and remain anonymous. I would find a quiet, mostly dark side street, then repetitively run back and forth along it. This would be quite tedious, but the goal was to complete the daily run, not try for speed or stimulation. It was not long before I found such a street. For the next half hour I did little more than jog 400 meters one way and then do the same again in the opposite direction.

Isolation Chamber – Passing Thoughts
Boredom got the better of me halfway through the run. I found another street, rather well lighted where I could do the same thing. It was not much better, but at least it was different. With music blasting in my ears I lost track of everything. I was in another world, beyond Bulgaria. It was like being in an isolation chamber, alone with just my thoughts. This must be what it is like just before dying. Then suddenly I was frightened into reality. I found myself suddenly upon the heels of two people who were walking up the street in front of me. I almost ran into the back of them. They were startled, said something which I could not hear, then parted so I could pass. I accelerated out of fear and did not look back until several minutes later. When I did glance behind me, they were nowhere to be seen. I realized that they were probably more scared of me, than I was of them. It was not long thereafter that the run was finished. I was relieved to be done with it. My daily run goal for the day was attained. I could live another day in contentment. Now all I had to do was spend the next 24 hours traveling. I was not worried about the flights or the waits or the lack of sleep. My only worry was about tomorrow and the next daily run.

The Red Star of Sofia – Falling Up:  From The Sky Down In Bulgaria (Travels In Eastern Europe #39)

Boykan, our Bulgar guide, began the Free Tour with a short overview of the importance of Sofia in the history of the Balkans and Bulgaria. Today Sofia is one of the least visited European capitals, but it had once been of great importance. During the Ottoman occupation, which all Bulgarians, including Boykan, refer to as “the 500 years of slavery” Sofia was of prominence due to its location as the midpoint between Constantinople and Belgrade. Like so much of Eastern Europe, Sofia was a “used to” place. This was a recurring theme in the region’s history. The Bulgars “used to” have an empire, the Hungarians “used to” occupy large swaths of Eastern Europe, the Lithuanians “used to” have a massive kingdom and so forth. Sofia “used to” be important. As a marker of just how far they had fallen geopolitically, Bulgarians were elated when they were allowed into the European Union. This seemed to re-legitimize their importance. Sofia and Bulgaria were not what they used to be, but the decline provided some fascinating history, especially during the 20th century.

St. Nedelya Church after the assault in 1925

St. Nedelya Church after the assault in 1925

Terror In Bulgaria – An Explosive Situation
The inaugural tour stop was at St. Nedelya Church, which had also been the first attraction I noticed upon my arrival in the city two weeks earlier. At that time, there had been crowds coming out from a noon time service, the same was true today. A crowd gathering in and around a church is usually not of great interest, but once I learned the history of St. Nedelya that crowd took on a whole new meaning. The church looked ancient, but its Byzantine Revival architecture was deceptive. While there had been a church on this very site since the 10th century, the latest version was only consecrated in 1933. The church I attended while growing up in my little hometown of western North Carolina was older than the current iteration of St. Nedelya, so much for Old Europe. To be fair, any architecture in a region as riven by conflict as Bulgaria has been over the last thousand years has virtually no chance of still standing in its original form. The present St. Nedelya was the umpteenth version of the church. The previous one was irreparably damaged in the spring of 1925, during what has come to be known as the St. Nedlya Church assault. Boykan pointed out a memorial plaque which commemorated that event. A plaque can never do justice to what happened during the worst terrorist incident in Bulgarian history.

On April 16th, Holy Thursday, a funeral was held at St. Nedelya Church for General Konstantin Georgiev, who had been assassinated a few days earlier by communist radicals. The assassination was actually part of a larger plot to murder important Bulgarian governmental and military leaders who would attend General Georgiev’s funeral.  The act was carried out with almost perfect precision. During the funeral, 25 kilograms of explosives were detonated in the attic of the church causing the roof to collapse. 150 people were killed and another 500 injured. The church was condemned and had to be completely rebuilt. What our group stood looking at was the result of that effort. As crowds milled around outside, I tried to imagine what the scene must have been like on that horrific day. Terrorism does not care about churches or beautiful blue sky days, families or their loved ones. The ends can always be made to justify the means. And sometimes the terrorists eventually end up in charge.

St. Nedelya Church as it looks today

St. Nedelya Church as it looks today (Credit: Stolichanin)

Long Shadows – The Death & Life of Communism
Twenty years after the roof was blown off St. Nedelya Church, the communist radicals were ruling the country. Communism’s long shadow loomed over Sofia and informed the tour. At one point a Bulgarian man who looked to be in his sixties was drawn to us. He must have heard Boykan speaking in English. He suddenly let loose with a rant of “Death To America” and yelled at all within earshot that “the Soviet Union will rise again”. Boykan hardly batted an eye. He calmly ignored the provocateur, than after we moved on told us how much of the older generation had trouble letting go of the past.  The upheaval experienced in Eastern Bloc countries during the fitful transition to capitalism had made many look back on the era of communism as a time of stability, a time of full employment and few worries about life’s necessities.

Even if the country was impoverished during that time, everyone shared in that poverty. The problem with communism was that it was static and intolerant of dissent. This made the system incapable of reform. Any hint of reform was met with the black boot of repression. This rigidity led to a total collapse from which Bulgaria had yet to fully recover. It would take generations before the legacy of communism would finally fade. Its symbols had disappeared much faster. One of these was the red star of Sofia. For decades a five pointed red star crowned the pinnacle of the Communist Party Headquarters building. When it was finally taken down, this red star was left propped up against a wall in the courtyard of Sofia’s Central Bathhouse and that was where it had stayed.

The red star of Sofia

The red star of Sofia

The Star That No Longer Shines – A Symbolic Message
Boykan was proud to offer us a peek at the red star. Without his guidance, we would never have known that it was hidden in plain sight behind a fence. Looking at it, I was astounded by how fragile and nondescript it looked. This symbol of Soviet might, that Bulgarians had been forced to look up to for years, was now abandoned. It looked rather lonely and pathetic. A few months later, the red star would be removed from the courtyard. It was taken away to be displayed at the forthcoming Museum of Totalitarian Art. When I first heard this, I was saddened. I felt that the red star should have been left where we saw it. It was a stark illustration of just how far the Soviet empire had fallen.  I could not thank Boykan enough for showing everyone the red star. Boykan was part of a new generation, pro-European, looking to the west. The generations that had grown up under communism were still struggling to make sense of this new world. The old stars from the east had fallen, including a large red five pointed star. It was tucked away behind a fence and propped up against a wall. Now it was history.

Ghosts In Daylight – The Largo: Sofia’s Spectral Presence (Travels In Eastern Europe #38)

Several stops on the Free Tour were in Sofia’s most famous architectural area, known as the Largo, home to some of the most outstanding examples of Communist architecture to be found anywhere in the world. The buildings themselves dwarfed our group. As our youthful guide, Boykan began to talk about these buildings, I wondered how his generation felt about what they had inherited. He, like other young Bulgarians I had met, were cautiously optimistic. This was totally opposite of the menace expressed by the architecture of the Largo. The future of Bulgaria – even a democratic one – would be decided within the confines of Stalinist-inspired structures. Aesthetically the buildings were impressive, if uninviting. Their style, a megalomaniacal neo-classicism enhanced by the ideological steroid of totalitarianism.

The Largo under construction in the 1950s - Party House in the background

Largo under construction in the 1950s – Party House in the background (Credit: stara-sofia)

The Nightmare Vision – Landscape Of Intimidation
The most magnificent or revolting of these buildings, depending upon one’s political persuasion, the Party Building, reminded me of a gigantic ship that had been anchored in the heart of Bulgaria. While the country sank into stagnation around it, this grim beast of a building stayed afloat. The Party Building was flanked on either side by a pair of sizable monoliths. Presently these structures housed, among other things, offices of the National Assembly of Bulgaria, the President’s Office and the Council of Ministers, as well as a department store, archaeological museum and hotel. Much of the current Bulgarian government worked out of the same buildings that the communist party elite had inhabited less than thirty years before. How much had really changed in the country from a political standpoint was open to debate.

The Largo is both the most enduring symbol of Bulgaria’s communist era and of the post-communist cronyism that plagues the country. The actors had changed, but the setting was still the same. Standing in the cobbled square, I found the inhuman scale of the architecture intimidating. Row upon row of windows lined these buildings. I had the feeling that someone or something was watching me, whether it was or not seemed beside the point. I could not shake the feeling of me versus the massive, a place where the individual did not stand a chance then or now. For all the showiness and symbolism of the Largo, there was a pervasive lack of transparency to the space, a sort of facelessness to these facades. It was difficult for me to envision what went on behind all those windows. Bulgaria was riddled with corruption, there was virtually no separation between government and business, one was used for the purposes of the other or vice versa. How could it be otherwise when the most important governmental space in the country was hidden behind monumental amounts of concrete and murky windows.

Lenin's replacement - The statue of Saint Sophia

Lenin’s replacement – The statue of Saint Sophia (Credit: Bin Im Garten)

Dream Quest – A Tantalizing Transparency
At least there had been a few superficial, yet symbolic changes to the Largo since the fall of communism. The ruby red star of Soviet power that once crowned the Party Building, had now been replaced by a Bulgarian flag unfurling in a gentle, spring breeze. A gigantic statue of Lenin on the western end of the Largo had been removed for a much smaller statue of the city’s namesake, Saint Sophia. Sophia had been selected because she was viewed as a non-ideological figure, symbolizing wisdom. She looked like a miniature goddess, her golden skin covered beneath the folds of an immaculate robe. The utter antithesis of Lenin, erotic rather than revolutionary, open armed instead of close fisted. If the statue of Sophia was viewed at a certain angle, a Unicredit Bank building stood positioned perfectly in the background. Perhaps Sophia was promoting the wisdom of capitalism, the benefits of which most Bulgarians had struggled to acquire amid the scourge of endemic corruption.

The west had won the Cold War and colonized Sofia with capitalism, paradoxically it was also the West that was inadvertently responsible for the Largo’s totalitarian architecture. In 1944, American and British bombers had badly damaged this area of the city. Once the rubble and ruins had been cleared away, the post-war Stalinist government decided to rebuild the area as a symbolic showpiece for the communist ideology. Despite such a gargantuan makeover, one set of ruins were not plowed under. These undergirded a greatness that had not been seen in Sofia since antiquity, namely that of the Roman city of Serdica. When I visited the Largo, the remains of Serdica could only be viewed by going underground. That situation has changed. Now visitors walking along the Largo can look down through glass at them. Ironically, this is one of the only transparent things to be seen in the Largo. It is also a reminder of Sofia’s former importance.

Serdica was made an administrative capital of the surrounding region in the first century AD. Two hundred years later, it gained eternal fame when the Roman Emperor Galerius issued an Edict of Toleration from the city in 311 AD. The edict was the first time Christianity was legalized in the empire. In the coming decades, Rome would increasingly turn to Christianity, but this did not save Serdica or the empire. In 447 AD the Huns destroyed the city, but it was rebuilt by the Byzantines. It would be several centuries later before the Bulgars appeared on the scene. The subterranean ruins of Serdica were impressive to look at, several streets have been unearthed. The remnants of what were once the city’s protective, eight-meter high, stone walls could still be seen in shortened form. I found these ruins interesting, but not much more than that.

Larger than life - The Largo in Sofia

Larger than life – The Largo in Sofia

Staying Power – The Free Tour
I could not help but wonder how Roman ruins had anything to do with modern Bulgaria. Maybe the point was to link Bulgaria and Sofia with the greatness of the Roman Empire. It was a strange, disconcerting connection. The ruins were worth seeing, but the giant buildings now towering over the Largo somehow seemed less worthy. I wondered if, in two thousand years anything would be left of the Party Building. Despite the colossal structure’s size, I doubted it. The Soviets were no Romans, their presence lacked permanence, instead it was spectral. A ghost that could be seen at any time and was just as frightening in the day, as it was at night.

Boykan led us away from the Largo to show us a few more of Sofia’s sights. I eagerly followed, soaking in everything he said. Just a couple of hours earlier, I had barely been able to entertain the thought of doing anything in a city that I felt was forgettable. I had been wrong, Boykan changed my opinion of Sofia. The Free Tour introduced and then interpreted Sofia as a place with a rich spirit, despite or perhaps because of its deep and dark history. All this left me enthralled. When the tour ended I thanked Boykan profusely, then began the walk back to my accommodation. It was not long before that last day travel depression started in on me again. This time it was different though, I felt it not because I wanted to leave Sofia, but because I wanted to stay.

 

A Second Chance For Sofia – Boykan The Bulgar: The Cure For Anti-Curiosity (Travels In Eastern Europe #37)

It was my last day in Sofia and I did not have the eagerness or energy to explore the city. I have always found the day before the end of a trip to be among the most difficult. The moment when there is nothing left to look forward to is fast approaching. A feeling of resignation sets in, putting an end to any ambition I may still have to explore. My thought process can best be described as: “it will all come to an end soon enough, so why bother.” Everything I see or do on the last day will be a painful reminder of all that I will leave behind.  The mysterious, the exotic, the otherworldly will soon vanish, replaced by forty hours a week of frustrations, made worse by the displeasures of domesticity. Such a fatalistic instinct does not lend itself to site seeing, it is more conducive to laying in the bed at midday with the curtains closed and covers pulled over my head. I have come to understand this as a form of travel depression. It is quite the opposite of the usual maladies that plague travelers such as bad flights, impure water and foreign food. Instead, my depressive malaise was induced by a counter-reaction to all the life altering experiences and magnificent memories that came earlier on the same trip.

A Second Chance For Sofia

A Second Chance For Sofia (Credit: Falk2)

Sleepless In Sofia – A Broken Relationship
To be honest, thoughts of re-experiencing Sofia did nothing to lift the cloud looming above my final day in the city. My flagging spirits were reinforced by thoughts of when I first explored the city two weeks earlier. I had found it confusing and disjointed. The main attractions, such as a clutch of magnificent churches and a fine mosque offered windows into the mysterious beauty of Bulgaria, both spiritually and architecturally, but I had trouble developing a coherent idea of the city or country after hopscotching around for a couple of days. The gigantic Stalinist structures in the government quarter had left me aesthetically intimidated. While the seemingly endless rows of concrete apartment blocks that loomed on the urban horizon were the height of soullessness, both literally and figuratively.

There was a disconnect between me and Sofia. I could never mesh the city’s beautiful name with what I felt while visiting it for the first time. My intuition told me there was something wrong.  In short, Sofia and I were headed for an inevitable breakup that I was looking forward to. My attitude was not helped by the fact that I had barely slept in the stifling hot box compartment of the night train from Belgrade. A couple cups of ultra-stout coffee kept me upright as I stumbled down the street wondering just what to do. I was not a day sleeper, even when at the point of exhaustion. Besides, I would likely be kept awake by the screaming sunlight of a brightly lit Sunday morning, thus I had a choice to make, either summon what strength I had left or hide beneath the bed sheets. This was likely to be my last day in Sofia, not just on this trip, but forever. I had to do something, but did not have the energy to formulate an independent plan. In my current state, all I could hope for was to be led around.

Free Sofia Tour Logo

Free Sofia Tour Logo

Motley Crew – Foreigners On A Free Tour
There was one thing that might provide an antidote for such overwhelming lassitude, the Sofia Free Tour. My friend Tim, who had first introduced me to free tours in Bucharest and Budapest, had recommended the Sofia tour. I discovered that the tour would meet at the noon hour, ironically outside what I imagined to be one of the least friendly places in Sofia, the Palace of Justice. The Bulgarian government is notorious for its opacity and corruption. I half-wondered if the tour was meeting at the Palace of Justice so the government could keep all foreigners under surveillance. In my groggy, zombie like state I found it to be an unsettling thought. Just making it to the meeting spot at the appointed time was a triumph. I was surprised by how many other foreigners were there as well. Tour participants numbered well into the double digits. All were foreigners, the lone exception being our guide.

I met a very handsome and well-spoken Spaniard who enjoyed having photos taken of himself. An older Swedish husband and wife couple. I admired the husband more than he could possibly imagine because of one simple fact, he was retired. His wife had taken a job with a multi-national company in Sofia. While she worked, he planned on hanging out. With a Swedish pension, he could live like royalty in Sofia. According to the husband, wine was very cheap in Bulgaria. From the look of glee on his face, he planned to enjoy many libations.  There was also a short, skinny and rather scared looking Argentine. I imagined his role in life was to look frightened. I just had to talk to him, if for no other reason than to ask how he found the courage to travel abroad. He looked terribly worried when I asked him where he had been. His previous stop had been Edirne in the European part of Turkey. It was famous for a beautiful mosque, I inquired if he had visited it. Yes, he had, but he was glad to get away from the city. I asked him why?

He said the Turks would not leave him alone. They kept trying to sell him things and followed him everywhere he went. He could not get away from them. Listening to this man, I began to get worried as well. Not so much about Edirne, as to how many nervous breakdowns he had each day. By the looks of it, he was on the verge of another one at any moment. There was also a Greek family, with an older mother who could not understand a word of English, but smiled pleasantly. I talked with her daughter about how I had planned to visit Thessaloniki, but the debt crisis had hindered that trip since all international trains into Greece had stopped running. She gave me a go to hell look that put the fury of Electra to shame.

Boykan the Bulgar - Sofia Free Tour guide

Boykan the Bulgar – Sofia Free Tour guide

The Optimistic Bulgar – A Guide To The Future
Our pleasant and affable guide, a young Bulgar by the name of Boykan, was there to greet everyone. He was young, still at university and very enthused about Bulgaria’s membership in the European Union. His English was excellent. The cold diffidence with which older Bulgars treated strangers was nowhere to be found. Communism was history, rather than a memory for Boykan. I was looking at an exemplar of Bulgaria’s future. Youthful optimism was something Bulgaria badly needed. As Boykan began the tour, his affable nature and intelligent discourse helped clear the cobwebs out of my head. This tour might be better than advertised. I was ready to give Sofia a second chance.

 

 

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.

An Affair With Sofia – A Bulgarian Beginning (Travels in Eastern Europe – Bulgaria #1)

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.”

East Berlin Before The Wall Fell

The Way Things Used To Be – East Berlin Before The Wall Fell

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.

House Monument of the Bulgarian Communist Party on Mount Buzludzha

Dreaming of a nightmare – House Monument of the Bulgarian Communist Party on Mount Buzludzha (Credit: Nikola Mihov)

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.

Looking towards the National Assembly Building in Sofia Bulgaria

Post-Communism illuminated – looking towards the National Assembly Building in Sofia, Bulgaria (Credit: Mir4o86)

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.

Visions of Greatness, Delusions of Grandeur – Eastern Europe: Too Much History

For the Romanians it is ancient Dacia, for the Czechs it is the Kingdom of Bohemia, for the Slovaks it is the centuries long fight for independence, for the Poles it is the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, for the Hungarians it is Saint Stephen and the Arpad Dynasty. For the Serbs, it is the Serbian Empire, for the Croats, it is the Kingdom of Croatia and so it goes on. Each one of these peoples had a period of greatness that they can look back on with adoration. Even if it was hundreds of years ago, in a world much different than the present, that scarcely matters. What really matters is that once they were the rulers rather than the ruled. In Eastern Europe, it seems every nation enjoyed a long ago day in the sun.

Detail from Arrival of the Hungarians by Arpad Feszty

A Great Place To Start?- Detail from Arrival of the Hungarians by Arpad Feszty

The Past Isn’t What it Used To Be
In an essay titled Historiography of the Countries of Eastern Europe: Hungary, Istvan Deak states the following: “Public fascination with national history, especially with a faraway often mythical, past as a guide to future action is hardly a Hungarian monopoly! Rather, such fascination is common to East Central Europe as a whole. Romanians, Czechs, Slovaks, Poles, Hungarians and South Slavs have had little choice but to find inspiration and consolation in visions of past greatness when faced with the miseries and powerlessness of the present.”

Dealing with the challenges of the present often is easier for an Eastern European when they can recall a historical past where their people were on top. It is as though, if it happened once, it could certainly happen again. It is the possible dream. A glorious period deep in the past allows for optimism, even if the future is filled with uncertainty or gloom. I once asked a Hungarian about what would happen if one side or the other won the next election, their reply was revealing, “well whatever comes, we all know it won’t be good.” That was a statement informed by history. I can’t imagine my opinion would be any different if my nation had suffered through a 20th century like Hungary’s. Or for that matter, had been overrun by the Mongols, occupied by the Turks for a century and a half, and then followed by another century and a half of Habsburg absolutism. This same Hungarian talked of Saint Stephen, a man who lived over 1,100 years ago, as though he had just left the building.

Tomek Jankowski writes in his recently released Eastern Europe: Everything You Need To Know About The History (And More) Of A Region That Shaped Our World And Still Does: “The past for Eastern Europeans is not restricted to dry, dusty books on shelves that only a few socially maladjusted nerds read; the past is a living part of life for Eastern Europeans, and their discussions about the present are often clothed in language of the past.” Jankowski quotes historian Lonnie R. Johnson who says: “Some of the problems Central Europeans have with themselves and with one another are related to the fact that their history haunts them.”

The former Soviet Bloc illuminated

An Invisible Iron Curtain – the former Soviet Bloc illuminated

An Invisible Iron Curtain
The final part of that last sentence, “their history haunts them” is an eloquent critique on the presence of the past in the psyches of Eastern Europeans. The ghosts of empires, wars and revolutions past exists somewhere in that nebulous space between reality and imagination. This is in contrast with how the past is viewed by western Europeans. In the Netherlands, Belgium, France, Italy or even Germany, the past is to be respected, but the present is still pretty good and the future just might be better. It is as though an invisible iron curtain still divides Western and Eastern Europe. In the west they look forward, in the east they look backward.

Quite obviously, none of these countries are glorifying the present or recognizing it as a golden age, despite the fact that Eastern Europeans are freer than at any time in their history. Even Ukrainians, who just ousted the oppressively corrupt Yanukovych regime, at present, enjoy freedom of movement, relative freedom of the press and a degree of civil rights unprecedented in their long and contentious history.

Lest They Forget
Is it really possible for a people to have too much history? It is not so much the quantity of historical events as it is the depth to which these events have skewed the perspectives of Eastern Europeans. In Bulgaria, time and again I heard the phrase, “five hundred years of slavery” in reference to the Ottoman Turkish occupation. The people I heard this from, were not historians or geriatric wanna be khans, they were students working the front desk at hostels or leading the free city tour in Sofia. Their average age could not have been more than twenty-two. Yet they spoke of the dreaded Turk as though he had just been run out of the country last week.

But the past in Eastern Europe is not just about what is remembered, it is also about omission, about what is forgotten. In western Ukraine, there is the wonderful mittel European city, par excellence, Lviv. It is identified by the catchy phrase, “the most Ukrainian city in the Ukraine.” This conveniently ignores the fact that it was majority Polish right up until the Second World War. Polish Lwow is ancient history. In Kosice, Slovakia there is the beautiful old town which was the main reason the city was named the European Capital of Culture in 2013. It is packed with buildings that were the handiwork of the Hungarian bourgeois and German burghers who respectively called the city Kassa or Kaschau. This is supposed to be Slovakia? It’s quite the trick to fool the tourist; it’s quite the feat for the Slovaks to fool themselves. Lest they forget!

Forgetting and remembering, it’s all about the past in Eastern Europe. The past really is a different country in Eastern Europe, it bears little resemblance to the present and for that reason it is all the more appealing.