This was our plan when we thought we had a lot of time: Fly from Israel to Istanbul, then work or way north through Bulgaria, Romania, Moldova, and Ukraine. From there, we’d swing west to Poland (because Belarus has an expensive visa) and continue up through Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia on the way to visit a friend in Finland.
By the time we left Turkey, however, our plans had changed. Our new plan was to go north to Bulgaria… and then fly directly to Helsinki.
We still had some time, but we came to this decision for two reasons. First, Oksana’s childhood friend, Karina, invited us to stay with her vacationing family in their Sveti Vlas condo on the Black Sea. Second, the stay was offered rent-free and without a limit on duration! It turned out to be a great opportunity for us to recoup some of the money we’d spent on our recent travels.
Staying with Karina in her one-bedroom condo was her grandmother and one-year-old daughter. They generously gave us the bedroom and we quickly settled into a routine. Babuska busied herself making three huge meals every day, Oksana and Karina spent every waking hour catching up and fussing over Liza, Karina’s daughter, and I spent most of my time in the bedroom (since I couldn’t keep up with the spoken Russian) making a lot of headway on my travel writing.
From time to time, we’d go for a walk with Liza in the stroller, pick up some groceries, go to the beach, or buy a beer at the pub across the street so we could use their wi-fi. A week turned into 10 days. 10 days turned into two weeks. We left Sveti Vlas on a bus, bound for the capital city of Sofia, where we spent just a couple of days before flying out.
Sveti Vlas was a total resort town, which was a great place to kick back and enjoy the warm weather, but it didn’t give us any idea about what the rest of Bulgaria was like. Sofia was more interesting; both Oksana and I enjoyed it a lot. It was in Sofia that Oksana first remarked, “You know what? I think I could live here for a little while…”
Here are some of the things I found interesting about Bulgaria:
The first thing I noticed was at the border crossing with Turkey. There was a sign up saying, “Bulgaristan.” Huh, I thought. Maybe that’s what they call their own country in Bulgaria! Turns out, no. They call Bulgaria, “Bulgaria,” in Bulgaria. But in Turkey they call it Bulgaristan!
The suffix –stan, it turns out, comes from the same root as “to stand.” -Stan would therefore mean, “stand,” or “stay,” or more accurately, “the place where one stays.” Kazakhstan is the “place where the Kazakhs stay.” I would hazard a guess that the original inhabitants of Bulgaria are called the Bulgari people.
Learn something new every day!
Sveti Vlas, the resort town on the edge of the Black Sea, is just one of a long string of resort towns. Traditionally, Bulgaria has been a summer vacation hotspot for Russians. Since Russia embraced capitalism some 20 years ago, it’s obvious that their wealth was trickled down.
Sveti Vlas itself is more a series of condominium complexes and hotels than an actual town. One after the other, there are probably a hundred complexes on the hill above the shoreline. Most of these complexes have open sidewalks – indeed even open courtyard, pools, and restaurants that anyone can use – that give it a nice community-like feel. The bottom floor of most condominiums, unlike their counterparts in the States, is filled with convenience stores, hairdressers, pubs, restaurants, and night clubs. If you had a car, you could drive a few kilometers to a grocery store, but if you instead simply stroll off in any direction, you can probably find what you need within a block or two.
Sofia was much closer to what I expected Bulgaria to be. I was under the (mistaken) impression that Bulgaria used to be a part of the Soviet Union (in reality it was only an Eastern-Bloc, communist ally), so I expected to see a lot of aging concrete buildings and imposing monuments. I wasn’t disappointed, but Sofia also had plenty newer buildings to gawk at.
While half the city seems like the fading remains of a broken communist system, the other half is a shiny, reflective-glass testament to the new wealth that capitalism and a unified desire to join the European Union can bring. And it’s not like there’s a “good side” and “bad side” of town. New buildings have sprouted up among the old. Instead of tearing down the crumbling concrete monstrosities from yesterday and building again upon their foundations, it’s as if the people of Bulgaria decided to keep the old buildings as a reminder of how far their country has come.
At any rate, there’s an impressive variety of multi-national corporations represented with big glass buildings. Samsung, the BBC, Siemens, and VMware. VMware. Seriously? I’ve never seen their name on a building before!
They don’t speak Russian in Bulgaria, but you could have fooled me. Except for spotting a few characters that I know are not in the Cyrillc alphabet, I couldn’t tell the difference. Oksana had a tough time with things, too; she felt like she could almost understand what was going on around her. If we ever do go back to Sofia, it would probably only take her a few months to learn the differences.
For this visit, however, we relied heavily on her Russian. I found it quite interesting that she could count on anyone our age or older to speak Russian fluently, but anyone younger very likely spoke English instead. Of course, everyone speaks Bulgarian, but the shift in school-taught, secondary languages tells a lot, I think, about the country’s shifting allegiances.
How’s this for weird: Every ATM we used in Bulgaria asked us for our PIN only after we had proceeded through the entire transaction. The process went a little something like this: English -> Withdrawl -> Checking -> Amount -> Confirm -> And oh, yeah, what’s your password?
That could be annoying for people like me who sometimes wonder which PINs go with which cards.
Negations and Confirmations
Bulgarians, I was told, shake their heads from side to side to signal an affirmative. An up-and-down nod means “no.”
Fortunately, I was hanging out with Russians the whole time, not Bulgarians, so I didn’t even notice.
Bulgarian currency has bills and coins, just like the other countries we’ve visited. What I found interesting was that there are 20-cent coins in the mix, and no “quarters,” or 25-cent pieces. (Since Bulgaria, we’ve seen that again with Euros.) Not a big deal, but it made me realize that growing up with quarters has affected the way I do math in my head. At least when counting change.
I wonder if dealing with ratios comes more naturally to people who learn to count change in one system over the other. Fifths and twentieths versus fourths and twenty-fifths. Probably not.
Bulgaria has amazing tomatoes, at least in August. We shared a perfect, red, ripe, round tomato or two with every single meal, breakfast, lunch, and dinner. God, they were so good you could eat them like apples! Sweet as can be, not a hint of sour.
On the bus ride between Sveti Vlas and Sofia, I noticed – couldn’t help noticing! – that Bulgaria is big on sunflowers, too. No, I mean, really big on sunflowers. They must be one of the world’s leading exporters, because the amount of countryside they’ve devoted to raising them is staggering. Imagine fields stretching to the horizon, rolling by for hours at a time. Whatever you’re picturing, double that and double it again. We’re talking Hitchhiker’s-Guide-to-the-Galaxy’s-entry-on-Space-sized Big here.
In the Sofia supermarkets, the shopping carts (or “buggies,” as we learned they are called in British Columbia) automatically lock together. In order to pull one free so that you can have a cart for your groceries, you have to drop a coin into a slot by the handle.
We made sure to use the smaller plastic baskets because we were never going to buy more groceries than we could carry back to our hotel, so I don’t know how much it actually cost to use one of those shopping carts. I sort of doubt it was a revenue-generating scheme for the store; far more likely it was a theft-prevention device.
I’d almost be willing to wager money that there isn’t a Bulgarian woman over the age of 13 who hasn’t dyed her hair at least once. Everywhere you look, colored hair. Raven black, auburn red, bone white. Pink-and-green braided together, pure blonde, sandy brunette; anything but grey. There was a lot of teased up 80s-style hair, too, but it was the coloring that caught my attention.
Could mean that hair style is an important part of a woman’s identity in Bulgaria, or maybe just that hair stylists don’t charge very much for their services. Needs more study.
McDonald’s in Bulgaria had a crazy assortment of new things to try. But we’ll get to that tomorrow…