Bulgaria is a beautiful country. Pristine rivers run through the Balkan and Rhodope mountain ranges, flowing across the Thracian plains, finally reaching the Black Sea. Its bordering neighbors include Macedonia, Serbia, Romania, Greece and Turkey. The country is about the size of Tennessee, with a population of nearly 7.5 million people. The cities have a very vibrant, modern feel about them. Venture out into the countryside and you’re very likely to find an older couple, sitting alongside of the road, proudly hawking yogurt, wine, potatoes and onions, all produced on their family’s farm.
An overly generalized description of the Bulgaria people would be black hair, pale white skin and physically fit. A majority of the youth speak some English. The percentage above the age of fifty that speak English is around zero. Bulgarians are a proud people. They’re serious about lessons learned from their past, eagerly open to the possibilities of a modern future.
I spent twenty-two days in Bulgaria, almost the entire freezing month of March. Why twenty-two days? Other than passport regulations, I had no restrictions on the amount of time that I could spend visiting. Twenty –two days was the result of searching on the Internet for the best deals on a round-trip ticket. Plus it seemed like a nice, round number. It turned out to be an ideal length of time. It gave me ample chances to see a good cross section of the country, from the big city to the little country village. And during the three weeks, I went from being nervous at leaving my temporary apartment, to feeling like a welcomed American ex-pat, to missing my own bed back in the States.
On my first full day in Bulgaria, I had one simple plan. That was to recover from the jetlag and lack of sleep during my trip. I needed one thing to go along with my sofa and non-English speaking television shows. And that was a big, fat liquor drink. I was positive that I had seen a liquor store on the way back from touring the amazing St. Alexander Nevsky Cathedral on the previous day with Lucy.
In preparation of my adventure in an Eastern European country, I had studied hours upon hours of Jason Bourne movies. I’m sort of not kidding. I had jokingly shown family members the location of my apartment and my emergency escape route to the U.S. embassy. Speed walk south (but don’t appear suspicious) for ten blocks. Cross east across a large city park. Forge a small river. Finally, sprint two blocks south-east to the safety of the embassy compound.
During the time leading up to my visit, I had conducted extensive research on the subject ‘Visiting Bulgaria’. One common thread amongst the articles was the threat of pick-pocketing, especially by the Gypsies. Yep, Gypsies. Gypsies, or the Roma people, are among the largest minority groups living in Bulgaria. Some native Bulgarians look down upon the Gypsies like bigoted Americans look down at our own minorities. They are stereotyped as a lazy, dirty people; a lifestyle supported by stealing, human trafficking and government handouts. Spotting a Gypsy in its natural habitat became a pre-visit goal of my adventure.
So based upon this new-found fear of Gypsies (gypsious-phobeious), I had brought along a security neck purse. My passport, travel documents, and cash were secured around my neck, hidden beneath my clothing, lying safely above my heart. And seeing as to how it was a very cold March, it was well hidden under several layers of clothing and a big, thick coat. Decapitation or kidnapping were the only ways that those mean old Gypsies would ever get to my purse.
Full of nervous excitement, I headed out of my apartment in search of essential survival supplies. Food and liquor. As I opened the big steel door leading out of the apartment building, I got the overwhelming feeling that I was walking into the film set of a foreign movie. I took two steps out of the door onto the sidewalk. And there I stood for a moment. The clear skies were a beautiful shade of blue, the sun provided warmth to my face, despite a chilly breeze on my skin. The sidewalk was alive with pedestrians; the four-lane avenue was full of honking cars. Being a good old country boy, I’m pretty good at keeping my sense of direction. Yesterday’s walking tour had ended up with a right hand turn into my apartment building, so today I decided to backtrack left, in search of that liquor store. My senses were clicking at such a high level; my liver could almost smell vodka.
As I ventured off into this strange new world, the external stimuli started their bombardment of my senses. I had felt safe inside of my locked apartment. But now I was open to attack by the sounds, sights, smells and feel of a totally new environment. I tried to blend in with the people on the streets, occasionally stopping to window shop, pretending that I knew that 236 Lev was a good price for a nice looking pair of бизнес обувки. But the big camera hanging from around my neck probably gave me away. Plus I really didn’t look the part. I didn’t have porcelain white skin, black hair and I definitely wasn’t physically fit. My big, green coat from the Tractor Supply store was a real contrast to the stylish black coats that everyone else was wearing. A majority of the people that I encountered on the city streets, both men and women, had a European stylish flair about them. At least through the naïve eyes of a ‘good old’ country boy. There were no Walmart beauty pageant contestants or John Deere ball caps. Everyone walked at a pace that was brisk, just like the weather. And there were serious, determined looks on their faces, like they were on a mission. Of course, I too, was on a mission. When I finally reached the liquor store, I began my first attempt at shopping. Водка is close enough to vodka, so that was easy. The price tag read 14.50 лв. My 20 Lev was more than 14.50, so I won. No speaking required. I was given some paper bills and coins of assorted colors and sizes, and out the door I went. I didn’t understand the signs and lights at the intersections of the roads, so I quickly developed an efficient strategy. When a group of people started across the street, I followed them. As we crossed at the traffic light near the liquor store, my plastic bag started to rip, and the glass vodka bottle fell. With Pele-like quickness, my foot broke its fall and the bottle rolled harmlessly on the stone walkway. Well, that was just about enough excitement for one day, so back to my apartment I went. Channel surfing was entertaining and the drinks were relaxing. Finally the exhaustion caught up with me and to nappy-time-land I went. Lucy had lent me a cell phone to use during my stay in Bulgaria; so she could keep track of me and so that I could call for bail money from a Turkish prison cell. Late in the afternoon, my phone rang, startling me from my sleep. It was Lucy (of course) inviting me over for dinner. We chit-chatted for a little while and then she wrapped up the phone call by saying “just walk to the mall area and find a taxi with the same number as the one that we rode in yesterday” O.K., no problem. As I’m walking past rows of taxis at the mall entrance, I’m wondering how in the hell am I going to find the one with the same number as yesterday. And then magically, there it was. Well the number wasn’t the vehicle ID number, but the cab company’s phone number, written in a format different from an American phone number. There were hundreds of cabs with this same number riding around the streets of Sofia. But that’s what put the word adventure into my “Bulgarian adventures”. Dozens of simple tasks each day became a challenge. I’d wake up in the morning plotting and planning my day and would be exhausted at the day’s end, both physically and mentally. Along with my travel papers, I carried with me at all times a piece of paper with the addresses of Lucy’s apartment and my apartment. I could jump into a taxi, and hopefully, eventually, end up at one of the two safe locations. Lucy lived in a massive apartment building, at least fifteen stories high. The structure was built during the Communism era of Bulgarian history. I always found it interesting that I was hanging out with someone who had spent their youth under the rule of the Bulgarian Communist Party (BCP). Similar apartment buildings were found throughout the city, painted in odd shades of yellow, blue and green. As with the others, this one was constructed of concrete and steel and will probably stand for a long, long time. It could laugh in the face of a tornado but wasn’t built to be aesthetically pleasing. I rode the elevator allthe way up to Lucy’s floor. The elevator buttons were either broken, unlabeled or labeled in Bulgarian. But I eventually managed to go in, up and out of the elevator’s doors. Living in the apartment along with Lucy, were her husband Vasco, their son Sasha, and Vasco’s Mom Maggie. Wearing shoes into a Bulgarian’s home is an insult, so my ratty old hiking boots were left at the front door. The apartment was small in size, but designed for efficiency. Just inside the front door was a combo washer/dryer, a single unit that both washed and dried the laundry. The living room had two sofas, a desk area, a big TV and a coffee table. The kitchen was small but featured a full sized refrigerator, rare in the homes around town. A balcony leading off of the kitchen had a second, smaller refrigerator and was used for storage of potatoes, onions and most importantly, beer. A second balcony, leading off of the living room, had a really cool clothes-line pulley system, another great utilization of space.The evening started off with a couple of cold beers. “Bira” is one of the nine words in my Bulgarian dictionary. The second word that I mastered was learned that same evening right before dinner. “Nazdrave!” was the toast before we slurped down a shot of rakia. Rakia is a fruit brandy that is traditionally popular throughout the Balkins and is typically distilled from plums, grapes or mixed fruits. Sort of like the moonshines of the Blue Ridge, different areas and families take pride in their secret recipe. The spread of food began. With a couple of cocktails under my belt, I tried to remain polite, yet gingerly be as charming and entertaining as possible. My education in Bulgarian dining began. We sat as a unit at one table. Music played on a radio but the TV was turned off. Sasha ate when, where, and what the adults did. Being a lifelong food and beverage guy, I couldn’t help to ask about the ingredients of the different foods that we were enjoying as we talked. Being a person who never met a food that he really didn’t like, I ate several things during my trip which I had no idea what they were. At around the seventh helping of tomato salad, I was thinking to myself “I’m going to have to eat a lot of tomatoes to fill up my fat ass”. Then Vasco asked if I was ready for some ‘meat and potatoes’. ‘Why, yes we are’ answered my stomach. The first dining lesson learned was that dinner was a nightly family reunion, where both food and conversation were shared and enjoyed by the entire family. Lucy and Vasco speak perfect English. Maggie spoke no English at all. Little one and a half year old Sasha spoke the Bulgarian equivalent of the universally understood baby-talk language. Yet even with the language barriers, I felt like a temporary member of the family. The conversation went round and round the table, usually skipping over Sash’s little head. Maggie would politely smile when I spoke. If I said anything of any intelligence, Vasco and Lucy would translate to Maggie, to which she would reply. Which then would be translated to me to complete the circle. She learned about my journey to her homeland, I learned how her day working at the bank had been. And so went the conversation around the table, the food winning the silver medal. After dinner, Vasco offered me my choice from a variety of Turkish candies. Not like ‘Belgium chocolate’ from K-mart. Turkish candies from his last trip to Turkey. With the evening coming to an end, a taxi was called and ‘home’ I went. From all of the Bulgarian traditions that I found myself a part of, the dining experience was probably my favorite. Real food and real conversation make for a great menu from which to enjoy.