That Unnamed Darkness – The Morning After Midnight: Imagining Bulgaria At 50,000 Feet (Travels In Eastern Europe – Bulgaria #2)

A long distance air traveler’s dream came true for me. On a flight from Salt Lake City to Paris while I was traveling to Sofia, Bulgaria there were vacant seats on both sides of me. I was actually able to lie down across three empty seats. This would be the first (and likely last time) I would ever have such luck. For once, I would be able to sleep on a trans-continental flight. This went some way in setting my mind at ease while traveling to Bulgaria for the first time. This would help me take a break from worrying about the fact that I did not know a word of Bulgarian, could not read the Cyrillic alphabet and my itinerary was changing by the hour. My worries went way beyond Bulgaria.

Entrance to the abandoned House of the Bulgarian Communist Party

Entrance to the abandoned House of the Bulgarian Communist Party (Credit: vitaligio)

The Will To Change – Impulsive Itineraries
My first plan had been to travel by train from Sofia to Thessaloniki, Greece by train via Macedonia. This plan fell through after Greece canceled all international trains to save money during the debt crisis.  I then considered taking a bus, but this would have meant making a transfer in Skopje, Macedonia at one o’clock in the morning. This idea gripped me with fear. In my experience, a public transport station late at night is a haven for sinister, seedy types with petty thieves and black market money changers at best, would be kidnappers and grasping thugs at worse. I do not consider myself a coward, just overly cautious, thus transiting through the Skopje central bus terminal an hour after midnight was more than I could fathom. I changed my plan to include visits to Veliko Tarnovo, the historical capital of the Second Bulgarian Empire and Plovidiv, the nation’s second city. Then I would double back across Bulgaria, making my way by train to Belgrade, Sarajevo and finally back to Sofia. This plan was open to change every other minute. I was sure of nothing on this trip, most of all myself.

Between fitful hours of sleep punctuated by strange bouts of night sweats I comforted myself by thumbing through a ten year old edition of The Rough Guide to Bulgaria. Contemplating a visit to places such as Varna, not for its beaches or the Black Sea, but because it gave me another option to further stimulate my restless, impulsive nature.  Actually, I never liked going to the beach and did not give a damn about Varna, but for some bizarre reason I still held a soft spot in my heart for the city mainly because I had memorized its name out of the World Almanac years ago in a bid to learn the five largest cities for each European nation. I had spent a fair amount of my life memorizing useless information and now was putting it to good use. This gentle madness acted as a welcome distraction, but the problem of Bulgaria still loomed.

Balkan Ghosts by Robert Kaplan

Required reading – Balkan Ghosts by Robert Kaplan

Looking Backward For The Future –  The Bulgaria That Was
Before getting my hands on a hopelessly outdated Rough Guide I tried to recall something about Bulgaria other than brute, steroid suffused weightlifters. There were the Maleevas, a trio of professional tennis playing sisters – Manuela, Katerina and Magdalena – who had climbed to the upper echelons of women’s tennis in the late 1980’s and 1990’s. There was the sensationally sinister murder of dissident writer Georgi Markov by poison tipped umbrella in London, a macabre touchstone of the Cold War. Then there were three chapters dedicated to Bulgaria in Robert Kaplan’s personal political-historical travel account of southeastern Europe, Balkan Ghosts. The chapter names – “The Warmth of Each Other’s Bodies”, “The Price of Friendship” and “The Bad and The Good” – go some way in explaining the reputation of Bulgaria as a less than inviting place during the latter part of the 20th century. Kaplan paints a vivid and devastating picture of the capital city with sentences such as these. “The first time I saw Sofia, in November 1981, snow was falling. White snow. Only after some hours did the polluting lignite fumes turn it brown. But the sweet, deathlike odor of the lignite reminded me of old steam engines and of burning leaves in autumn.” With travel accounts such as these it was hard not to worry. I could look forward to a rough approximation of Kaplan’s experience when I arrived or so I imagined.

In the weeks before departure I read the enlightening and intensely depressing memoir Street Without A Name: Childhood And Other Misadventures in Bulgaria by the superbly named Kapka Kassabova. The author grew up in one of the numerous concrete flats on the muddy fringes of Sofia. She relates her thoughts and feelings on what it was like to grow up in a stagnant hard line communist society, marked by rigidity, material poverty and little hope for a better future. Her writing communicated the mind numbing sameness of a system that valued the masses over the individual. Kassabova tells how, ‘Listening’ to the news was like ‘reading’ the paper The Worker’s Deed, which was the only national paper, and seemed to simply rearrange the same content on its pages from day to day, year to year.” There was the heart rending tale of her kindhearted piano teacher Keti, a woman who taught her more about life than anything having to do with playing the piano. That was until Kassabova “lost her to that unnamed darkness that slowly drains luminous people first of their dreams, then of their beauty and finally of their lifeblood. Keti was too refined for our lumpen world of humming trafoposts, burst sewage pipes, and dentists who pulled teeth without anesthetic. Between the garbage dump and her piano, the battle was cruelly unequal.” Passages like this one left a taste of rust in my mouth. They also made me question just what I was getting myself into. This was supposed to be a vacation, not a nightmare.

Street Without A Name by Kapka Kassabova - A fabulous and depressing read

Street Without A Name by Kapka Kassabova

Into The Half Light – Everyone Against Everything Else
Of course, Bulgaria was different now. There was capitalism, cars (real European ones not Ladas) and most recently membership in the European Union. From all accounts, the nation was moving forward if only in fits and starts. It was now much better off than the dystopian, Soviet-esque stolidity that had pockmarked this land for half a century of soul destroying communism. Expat entrepreneurs were moving in to startup businesses and take advantage of low labor costs, the mafia were killing each other and anyone who would not do their bidding with brutal efficiency, loads of college educated Bulgars were heading abroad and the Black Sea coast was packed with foreigners enjoying cheap holidays. Bulgaria was becoming a destination, while its journey out of post-Communist darkness into the radiant light of European prosperity was still years away. I was traveling to a nation in the midst of a slow and painful transition, being transformed by legions of outsiders who had no idea what to expect when they arrived. From everything I had read it was hardly ever good.