(Part One of a multi-post story about an adventure in Bulgaria. Possibly entertaining. Informative by accident. Occasionally humorous.)
The good thing about the average age of someone having a mid-life crisis being redefined during the course of your lifetime is that you get to have multiple lapses in ‘mature judgement’. Just before my birthday a few years ago, I did what any middle-aged man would do. I purchased round trip tickets for ‘one adult’ on Austrian Airlines, packed a suitcase, and flew across the globe to the small, Eastern European country of Bulgaria.
I didn’t just spin the globe and stop it with my finger.
There was a very good reason for my destination of choice. Years beforehand, I was in the middle of my stint as an innkeeper. My cohort, Michelle, had changed course in her journey of life, leaving me one person short in a two person operation. Not long after Michelle had moved, one sunny afternoon, there was a quiet knock on the front door. There stood a young woman, a total stranger, who eventually became my very good friend. Lucy was in search of employment. There are potentially shady companies in the world that promise housing and employment to young adults who seek to travel abroad, for the low, low price of several thousands of dollars. The shadier side of the situation is that when you travel from your homeland to the U.S., you may find your living conditions quite crude and the promised jobs non-existent. Lucy had traveled from Bulgaria to Detroit. She stayed briefly with ten other Bulgarians in a two-bedroom apartment. With no promised job to be found, she took a 24-hour bus trip to meet a friend in Montana’s Glacier National Park. But no jobs there led her back to Detroit. A second-hand connection with the small Russian community of Harrisonburg, Virginia somehow led her to, of all places, my front door. Some things are just meant to be.
I had jokingly threatened Lucy many times that I would one day come visit her after she had returned back home. Be afraid, be very, very afraid. I always make true on my threats.
I flew overnight from Washington, D.C. to Vienna, Austria. After an hour and a half layover, a connecting flight took me to Sofia, the Bulgarian capital. In the span of eleven hours, I had left my little Small Town, U.S.A., enjoyed pre-flight cocktails with an Ethiopian-born bartender at Dulles International Airport, got minimal sleep at 37,000 feet sitting in the middle of a very chatty Russian tour group, and successfully passed through Australian and Bulgarian customs checkpoints, feeling nervously secure at the sight of security officers armed with semiautomatic weapons. The pounding of external stimuli had only just begun.
I eventually figured my way out of the airport in Sofia. A departure sign in the US might cheerfully read “Have a nice day!” In El Salvador, it would read “Que tengas un buen dias!” After my two years of Spanish class in high school and a year of living in Miami, I could probably guess what that means. In Bulgaria, the sign would read “Приятен ден” I was at a total loss of understanding anything written in a Cyrillic alphabet, the southern-most version of a Slavic tongue which derived from the 9th century. Originally, the alphabet had between 28 and 44 letters. In the 1800’s, 32 letters became the norm. In 1945, two letters were dropped, bringing the present-day total to 30.
Lucy was to pick me up that day at the airport. I kept checking over my shoulder at customs and at luggage pick-up, but Lucy was nowhere to be seen. As I opened the doors to the main parking lot area, I was more than relieved to see Lucy hurrying in my direction. Seems that life’s little hurdles had her running late. Alongside were her new husband Vasco and their 2 year old son Sasha. We loaded into their car and headed to town.
The music on the car’s radio was Classic Rock. Black Sabbath, Led Zeppelin, AC/DC. In my delirious mind, I was thinking how nice it was for them to provide me with the calming influence of familiar music. But it was just the radio. ‘My music’ was the music for a large cross -section of the population, ages 20 up to 60. Who’d of thunk it.
Lucy had a friend who owned a recently vacated apartment that I would be renting during the three week period of my stay. But it wouldn’t be available for the first three days of my adventure. So she had booked me another place to act as a temporary home. On the way to this apartment, we stopped off at Lucy’s place to drop off Vasco and Sash (who was in need of a nap), then went for a little sightseeing. At the scheduled time of 4:30, we met with the landlord of the temporary apartment. He was a little ‘Guido’ looking fellow, a Bulgarian mafia want-to-be. Black pants, a long-sleeved black shirt. All black clothing highlighted his gold necklace and gold watch. After he left with his signed documents, Lucy and I cracked open a couple of Zagorka beers and proceeded to snoop around the apartment.
The apartment was a nice enough place. Smack in the middle of the city of 1.5 million residents. It was on the fourth floor of a six story building. No elevator. I had a kitchen, bedroom and full bath. Off of the kitchen was a quaint little balcony over-looking the bustling activity below and the National Palace of Culture across the street.
After Lucy left for the evening, I tried to unwind. Which involved more beers and attempting to operate the television’s remote control. The remote was labeled in the English letter version of the Bulgarian Cyrillic alphabet. Which didn’t help in the least. But after a while, I had the TV powered on and could manage to change channels. Quite proud of myself I was. Until I clicked up one more channel. You know how in the hotels of America, you can watch dirty movies on pay-per-view for no charge if you spastically lean your head diagonally to the left in order to follow the changing images on the scrambled screen. Well, this channel wasn’t scrambled. Hard core porn, no ifs, ands, or butts (pauses for laughter). Well. I panicked. I thought that I had hit a pay-per-view button for “Olga Does Sofia” and I just could not figure out how to unsubscribe. I did figure out that the one button made the TV embarrassingly loud and that the next four channels were also hard core porn. I finally pushed the power button on the front of the TV and stepped away, my hands snapped back like I had just touched an electrified rattlesnake. Turns out that at 11 PM every evening, the Bulgarian equivalent of ESPN Sports Center changes its programming to adult movies until near breakfast time. That totally screwed up my TV viewing and sleeping schedules for the next three weeks.
I hinted to the fact that the apartment came with a full bath. I thought that a shower before bed would help me come down from the excited high that I was on. The only thing that was missing from my plan was a shower stall. I was very confused. It is not uncommon in Bulgaria to have a bathroom with neither a shower nor tub. The room is tiled from the top of the wall down the entire length of the floor except for the drainage hole in the middle. The tiles are often beautifully ornate while some that I saw were really gaudy. A handheld showerhead extends out of the wall. If you had any water pressure (an issue in the city), you’d simply stand in the middle of the room and shower away. Heck, you could clean the mirror, sink, toilet and bidet with the spray of the showerhead, and then just squeegee excess water down the floor’s drain. Families keep pairs of cheap flip-flops just inside the bathroom door, to wear while showering to keep from slipping on the wet tiles. To me, the design of the bathrooms was brilliant in a utilitarian sort of way.
I go half way around the world and come home writing reviews of bathroom design. What’s up with that?