Rock On

Tram Riders, Sofia
SOFIA, Bulgaria
May 26, 2011

I must have made it pretty far west at this point in my journey: I've crossed into the European Union.

EU member nation or not, stepping into Bulgaria feels like stepping backward across time. The infrastructure was more built-up throughout the country I just left, Turkey. Roads there were better, shops there were both more numerous and better-stocked, and prices there were higher. It may not be entirely boxy, utilitarian, post-communist structure here--but what I saw in Turkey felt more like a part of the developed world than what I'm seeing in Bulgaria does.

Maybe what's re-inforcing my perception that I've stepped several decades back in time is the fashion on the streets. Most people under 30 are out wearing a particular style of black t-shirt that bears names and album covers of various rock bands: Iron Maiden. Motörhead. AC/DC. Twisted Sister. I remember thinking such shirts were pretty cool, myself: in the late '80s. I don't think I've seen one of those in at least 20 years. Is Bulgaria that mired in the past? Or, is it that two decades is the requisite length of time for music and fashion to go retro? Perhaps the rocker look will also be back in again throughout some of the other countries I visit this summer, 2011.

I confess that I'd buy into the nostalgia factor, myself. If I happen by a shop selling them, I think I'll have to pick up one of the various Pink Floyd shirts I've seen people wearing around town. I did wear a few of those black t-shirts back in my high school days...

Unexpected trip back through time as it may be, we have had a pleasant reception to Bulgaria. Irina and I are still travel partners over this leg of our journeys. Owing to the generosity of locals, our transport from Turkey all the way to the old city of Plovdiv, our first destination within Bulgaria, worked out to be free.

After walking across the Turkish border we expected to find a mini-bus or some sort of shuttle that would take us on to the nearest town with a railway station. We found nothing. We could have hired a taxi, but both of us prefer to make our way by public transportation when possible.

"Let's try hitching," I proposed.

Irina sat outside a currency-exchange house and smoked a cigarette. I stood on the edge of the road just beyond the border gate. Whenever a semi-trailer truck approached I held out my hand. A couple trucks roared by without slowing.

"This isn't going to work. I'm a guy. Nobody's going to want to pick me up. Stand next to me and look cute," I instructed Irina.

Irina and I stood together alongside the road. The very next truck to emerge from the customs inspection area stopped, picked us up, then drove us for over three hours to the edge of Plovdiv.

The road where the truck driver dropped us off was out on the outskirts of the city. An old public bus connecting nearby villages with Plovdiv brought us into town. The bus driver refused my fare when I offered the closest money I could: a 2-euro coin. EU member nation or not, Bulgaria still uses its own currency, the lev. After reaching the end of the line, a couple local girls also riding our bus insisted that we share their taxi into the city center. Even after we withdrew local money from a cash machine to chip in on taxi fare they refused to accept our offer of payment. Welcome to Bulgaria!

So, Irina and I spent a couple days in Plovdiv exploring its Roman ruins and 19th-century architecture. Even more of our time was spent exploring the eastern-European menu on offer. Food in this country is different from what we'd been eating back in Turkey: draughts of good, cheap beer; fresh salads; cornmeal mush with bacon and cheese; all accompanied with hearty fare such as liver, heart, and tongue on every menu. I'm happy.

Irina above Plovdiv
Since taking a train from Plovdiv on to Sofia our time has largely been spent visiting museums with disappointing collections. The National Gallery? Meh: by-and-large pastel paintings of landscapes and peasant women. The Sofia City Art Gallery? We couldn't tell you: that museum was "between exhibitions" the day we came by. Irina had bad recollections of a trip to the Ethnographic Museum from a previous stay here: we didn't even attempt to visit that one.

Which has left much of our time in Sofia to enjoy what strengths the city does have to offer in an outdoor setting. Sofia has pleasant parks, streetside cafes, and open-air restaurants. We've also been enjoying our time indoors vegging out. We're staying in an apartment let out through one of the local hostels: a large unit up on the third storey of 52 Solenko Street. We've resumed the ritual we started back while together in Islamabad: plowing through three or four episodes of "The Apprentice" every night. Our Sofia apartment has a speedy Internet connection that allows us to stream the old seasons from YouTube.

We're only midway through Season 2 of the U.S. production of the series yet far. But, I suspect that we'll have finished watching several seasons by the time Irina and I finally part ways, some weeks down the road...