Like most college freshmen, I spent my first year of university living in a dorm on campus. There were five to choose from, and I vaguely recall my mother whisking the Residential Hall Form out of my hands, marking the one that had “the nicest name,” and ushering the lot of us into the car so we could make it home before her shift at the hospital. Sierra Hall was, in retrospect, the best choice for me and my absorbent, adolescent mind. I was surrounded by peers a bit older than I, who eased me into years of professional alcoholism in a most gentle and systematic way. We had the largest rooms, the cleanest bathrooms, and only one slack-jawed nutter who wandered the halls in her nude-colored bra with back support. We were closest to the dining hall, and there was a piano I could drunkenly bang on until unceremoniously shut down by a the resident of Room 23 and her bleary-eyed and half-naked boyfriend.
Sierra Hall also ended up being the first place where I realized (as all Americans must do at some point) that America is not the world. There is so much else out there, and I was hastily introduced to the fact by the masses of international students that used Sierra (also known as the “International Dorm”) as their landing pad. I must have met dozens, but those that I remember ended up being my first, rather accurate, introduction to the faraway lands from whence they came. When I traveled to those places years later, I found that Mark, our resident Australian, was typical of his country in being very tall, outgoing, and heartbreakingly handsome. Andrea, the Italian, was goofy and fun- I couldn’t understand his heavily accented English most of the time, but he came complete with a warm heart, and a face that was built for two things in this world: kissing beautiful women, and eating Nutella. Mario, the Mexican, was an olive-skinned Casanova that played a lot of soccer and spoke so little English that he almost always reverted to talking about the same handful of topics for which he had the vocabulary to carry on a conversation.
Alex, the last one that I can remember with any accuracy, came from Bulgaria. He listened to Slayer and Pantera, chain-smoked, and wore a lot of black. He studied engineering and spoke in a gritty mumble. He was a really nice guy and never shied away from helping me with my Math I (gulp!) homework, but I will always remember him by the air of congealed melancholy that clung to his clothes as fastidiously as his cigarette smoke. He was like a ginger chew- hard on the tastebuds (and sinuses) at first contact… but thoroughly enjoyable as a long-term endeavor.
When I arrived in Bulgaria, about a week ago, I expected a country full of Alexes… quiet, reserved, and covered in smoke (I know I keep hitting on this point, but he smoked a LOT), but always ready with an easy smile and an intrinsic impulse to help. How wrong I was. It turns out that my morose colleague was the jovial feather-in-the-cap of the country. I am unsure if I’ve ever in my life been to a less friendly, more dark, and, quiet frankly, scarier country than this.
Of course, I make a couple of concessions: 1- I am here in the winter. It is cold and empty… just like the hearts of the people. 2- I HAVE met some interesting and undoubtedly kind people. However, most of them are eager tell me all about the time they spent abroad in Cyprus, Japan, the USA, etc., and almost always finish off their tale with a decisive “THAT’s why I don’t have the Bulgarian mentality. I actually LIKE to help people.”
Anyway, it’s not nice to spend a whole blog post slamming a country, so I’ll chronicle some things that have happened since my last update, and let you come to your own conclusions.
My First Night: I crossed over from Macedonia after staying, primarily, in the biggest, most commercial, and most popular hostels in the country. I normally try to stray from this, and stay in smaller, lesser-known establishments… but the Balkans in the winter are deserted and cheap. There is no reason not to stay in the only hostel that is open in town. Anyway, I had stayed in some “it” hostels in Macedonia and decided to vary my routine by finding a smaller place once I got to Sofia. It looked pretty basic and didn’t have much atmosphere, but I was tired and the price was right. I dumped my things, did a cursory bedbug check around the foot of the bed, and paid the man.
Things started to go wrong once I finished paying. First of all, the dude didn’t know anything. Not a thing. How can you live in a city and not know where the bus station is? How can you go to work in the same building every day and have no idea where the closest ATM is located? Whether or not there is any kind of performance art in the area, or why the whole COUNTRY is sporting white and red wristbands (festival for the first day of Spring)? Moreover, how can you work in a hostel and not know this?! I’m not asking him where one could purchase an elephant harness and a soy-free, low-GI, vegan latte, for God’s sake. I’m asking for the damn bus.
Then, the guy began to pat my ass whenever he walked by. At first, I took it for one of those friendly upper-arm pats that seem to be so common in the area… just… a bit lower than normal. After a while, I just stayed in my room all the time and dodged his filthy hands every time my bladder could take no more and I had to emerge for the toilet. The dude was a scumbag… but I was tired, there was a heavy armoire with which I planned to secure the door, and I’ve dealt with plenty of handsy morons in the past. I thought, “Eh, one night. How bad could it be?”
Pretty bad, it turns out. I awoke at 2am thinking that I had some sort of allergy to the detergent used to wash the sheets. My chest and chin were itching like crazy and the tops of my hands stung. Like a fucking genius, I rolled down the blankets, and slept on my side, thinking to myself, “If there are bugs, I’ll bait them with my face.” Well, bait them I did, and bite they did, and I woke up in the morning with the rest of my exposed skin bitten off and one eye swollen shut. I’d had bedbugs before, 4 years ago, in India, and knew exactly what the bites looked like. I calmly peeled off the sheets and checked around the seam corners and found, at the head of the bed, THIS:
I immediately took a shower (and washed my hair about 15 times), scrubbed down my emptied-out bag and knapsack, and went to go inform reception. The guy couldn’t give less of a damn and tried to adopt the, “Well, if you don’t like it, you can leave” attitude. I don’t normally get nasty while abroad, but in this case, I turned into the version of myself that I ordinarily save for dishonest cabbies and moneychangers. I never thought it was possible to act like such a cunt while barefoot and clad in a pink towel, but apparently it is. And thankfully so! I got my laundry done and had plenty of time to pick over my things and ziplock anything that looked suspicious, while the idiotic receptionist hid behind his desk and sheepishly waited for me to leave.
The People: Like I said in a previous post… most people in the Balkans are really good-looking. In Albania, Kosovo, and Macedonia, these good looks are simply an outward manifestation of the beauty within. In Bulgaria, however, many of the people are composed like a piece of dragon fruit. Beautiful and exotic on the outside… grey, speckled, and sour-tasting on the inside.
I’m quite used to be stared at as an oddity while I travel. In Africa, the children run up in groups to touch my hair. In Latin America, little old ladies fuss over my diminutive chest. In Asia, shopkeepers’ jaws drop when they listen to the twangy, jumbled mess of Thai/Indonesian/Chinese that I’ve pieced together to get by day-to-day in the region. Yes, I’m a stranger to their lands, but stranger = guest, straight hair = plaything, small boobs = a chance to dress you up, and lack of a common language = an opportunity to teach you a bit over a hot tea and some homemade sweets. Never, in my life, and in all of the countries I’ve traveled, have I felt that being different would invite any kind of hostility. Until I came here. I’ve stopped people on the street for directions, and after giving me the full once-over, with a particularly revolted smirk at my flip-flops and beachy hair, they have spun on their heels and walked contemptuously away. I’ve had hoop-sporting waifs at the gym put down their 1kg weights and gawk in disgust as I march in clad in a yellow, threadbare Hawaii shirt and over-sized sweats, and go nuts on the machines while rocking out to The Beastie Boys.
I’m not the only one. Nearly every backpacker I’ve met so far has reported the same story: the flawlessly polished locals scorning the mismatched and disheveled foreigners that have come to explore their country. We’re backpackers. We’re scruffy, and we’re cheap, but we’re not coming here to burn down your houses and steal your children. We just want to know where Gurko street is, or how much this apple costs. Can’t you come down from your high horse to help us for one damn second?
It’s possible that this stings extra hard because, for the whole of my trip- and in fact, the whole of all of my travels- I’ve had crowds gather to look at my map, all getting on their cell phones to call their sister who speaks English, or their uncle, who used to own a shop down that way, or their friend, the milkman, who takes that street on his rounds. Even in hurried, impersonal Hong Kong, they may not have time to stop and help, but if your destination is anywhere near where they’re going, they’ll just grapple on to you, and drag you alongside them until you are within striking distance of your stop. Yes, of course there are some times when people don’t help, but it’s because they can’t- not because they don’t want to. But here, in Bulgaria, they can’t, and wouldn’t help if they could. Epic fail, Bulgaria. Epic fail.
The Other People: Coming from the U.S., we know very little about Gypsies (Roma) outside what can be reasonably ascertained from watching Disney’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame. From what I understand from talking to other people, the situation is this: Roma are originally from India, but have lived in Europe for thousands of years. They are nomadic and preserve their language and customs by mostly keeping to themselves. The issue in much of Europe is that, since they refuse assimilation, they are usually at a disadvantage to secure good employment, and often find themselves at the base of the economic ladder. This sometimes results in thieving and petty crime- as is the case with many poor and marginalized people all over the world.
I have heard similar accounts of impoverished (frequently native) peoples in South Africa, Australia, and the U.S. and I don’t claim to have an answer. What I do want to say, though, is that my own experiences with the Roma people of Europe have been overwhelmingly positive. A friend of mine from Belfast was picked up hitchhiking by a group of Gypsies that not only took him all the way to Sofia, but insisted on paying his accommodation for the night. Whenever I have asked a Romani person for directions, I have never been failed. They have never, ever refused to help, and I often find myself tagging behind one of them as he quite literally walks me the entire way so that I won’t get lost.
Anyway, I wanted to mention my first ride into Sofia. I was picked up by a really nice older man who, in the hopes of being able to practice his Japanese (he lived for many years in Japan while working for the UN), picked up what he thought was a Japanese tourist. I, of course, proved to be a huge disappointment, but he spoke fluent English and we had an interesting hour-long chat on our way into town.
I have a whole post on thumbing coming up, but hitchhiking is unique in that you are often forced into conversations with people whose opinions you do not share. However you may feel about any given topic, your job is to be a good listener and keep the peace, unless you want to find yourself out on the highway, trying to flag down cars that are whizzing past at 120 km/hr. It’s like being in the car with your boyfriend’s parents. It’s the McExperience of relationships: The People That Spawned Your Partner Are Always Right.
So, as charming as this little old man was, he was a native Bulgarian that had money and couldn’t understand why the Roma wouldn’t get jobs (which don’t exist) and become active members of society.
“It is a genetic difference,” he would remark disdainfully. “They’re like animals. Just disgusting.”
I sunk down in my seat, pulled my scarf halfway up my face, and feebly tried to talk about Bulgarian architecture until we arrived in the square and I was free to run away.
Anyway, yes, I haven’t had a very nice time in this country. I’m going to stop here, though, and not keep going because it’s not nice, and because I have yet to eat my breakfast, which means that my words are at their most scathing. It’s not usual for me to dislike a country, and so when it happens, I’m ill-equipped to deal with it. Therefore, I’ve decided to cut my losses and get going to Romania as soon as possible. For the time being, I’m going to go eat a kiwi. G’bye!
P.S. I DID really like Plovdiv. I’m going to post a picture of a cat here to show how much I liked it.
“Do what you can, with what you have, where you are.” – Theodore Roosevelt