Technical articles, travel letters, essays, & translations
[home]         [about]         [links]

From Sofia

By Sahand Rabbani

from Sofia: Kindness of strangers

Dear Friends,

The bus arrived in Sofia one hour behind schedule. Sofia's central bus station is a frightening place. With no idea where the station was relative to the city and equally clueless about the location of my suspiciously cheap hotel that I had booked somewhere in the Sofian boonies, I was pretty sure that I could not connect the dots alone. All I knew was that the central Istanbul otogar (bus station) was far from downtown, and I also knew that my so-called hotel might as well be in a neighboring village; so if Sofia's bus station were anything like Istanbul's, the distance between my location and my destination had the potential of approaching unreasonable magnitude.

I grabbed the only map-like specimen that I could find: it showed an overwhelming number of transit lines, most of them the same color. Though I was now reading most words with the Cyrillic that I had picked up from the Bulgarian language Wikipedia page, I still did not know what the words meant. Were these subways, trains, buses? Was this a map of Sofia or a map of Bulgaria? Where was the central bus station in all of this? I knew the Latin spelling of my hotel address, but I certainly could not invert it into Bulgarian.

City maps in the bus station? Forget it. What's worse, Google hasn't yet charted the city! I urge you, in your free time, to zoom in on Sofia in Google Maps to appreciate twofold: the absolute dearth of charted roads and the discouraging complexity of the alphabet. "Sofia," written in the native Bulgarian, is five letters. The first letter looks like our Latin "C". The next letter looks like our Latin "o". The third is like the Greek letter phi. The fourth looks like a backwards capital "N", and the final looks like a backwards capital "R". Charted map or uncharted map, I could not manage an internet connection at the station anyway. Sunlight was running thin.

A taxi driver found me and offered to take me home.

"How much to this address?" I asked. It took him a while to back out the Bulgarian version. "There is traffic now. About twenty leva." Though this was about 16 USD, a pretty cheap ride, I remembered the advice that a Bulgarian Stanford-in-Berliner had given me not a week ago: "If you're paying anywhere close to 20 leva, you know there is something wrong. That's what it costs to cross the entire country!"

"That's too much," I said. "I'll give you ten."

"No. Ten leva? That's only five euro!"

I could do the math. "I don't have more than that," I lied. "Where is the bus that goes to the city?"

"It is four kilometers away by the football stadium. Listen, I want to help you." I suppose he returned the lie. "I'm trying to be fair. With traffic right now, the meter will be around twenty." (I later learned that the city buses do stop at the central bus station.)

This was very suspicious: the man had a meter and he was still charging me the bilmaz (Turkish for "one who does not understand") rate. I left him and found another taxi that promised 10-12 leva depending on the meter. Again, I later learned from a neutral party that one should only ride the Supertrans taxis. Any other service charges much higher rates to try to trap the bilmaz.

Indeed, my hotel in Sofia is better termed a motel in East Bumbleski Grad, Bulgaria. But with the ridiculously cheap taxi rates, one could go to the city center with 4 USD! In fact, I have found Sofia to be pleasantly inexpensive. I went downtown after checking into my room and ordered a meal the size of Kazakhstan at the only place that was open at 10 in the evening: an American-themed bar and grill. I was surprised that other restaurants had closed; perhaps I missed the main food district or perhaps it is only this way for Easter. The meal, which was three ordinary dishes and a half liter of Stella and an espresso, cost 24 leva or about 19 USD. I was starving after the ten-hour bus ride without a proper meal, so I ate my weight in food, but ended up paying my weight in sand.

It seems to me that Sofia's Cyrillic complexity belies its underlying innocence. The daunting bus station and taximan aside, the city center is very Western and almost everybody speaks at least some bit of English. Sofia does not feel like Central/Eastern Europe the way that Prague does or the way that I envision the post-communist bloc with its scary men in all black leather; the type of person my mother urges me not to imitate in fashion when I buy all black shirts and other dark colors. Rather, Sofia is very colorful indeed both in the facades of its buildings and in its kind and helpful people.

I learned that the particular distant Sofian satellite in which my hotel is located is called Studentski Grad, the center of student residence and life for Sofia's well regarded university. As a result, the average age is low and the fast food abounds.

The fifth day rolled around and I needed to get myself back into the city center for some hardcore site-seeing. There is a bus station about a kilometer away in the middle of Studentski Grad where the 94 swings by and takes the college students downtown. I was lucky to catch the bus while running, but once on, I had no idea where to get off. I wagered, however, that the young Bulgarian man sitting across from me did have the very idea that I lacked. So I asked him where I should get off for the city center. I asked in a combination of charades and Italian without thinking too hard, until we established that we both speak English. We got to talk about where we are from. This kind man is named Trayan and he is from the small Bulgarian village of Russe by the Romanian border. He lives in Sofia now as a student of dentistry at the university. I explained to him that my next stop was to be the Romanian capital of Bucharest. "That is only 60 km from my town." Trayan recommended that I take the bus, rather than the train. He was actually returning home that very night to spend Easter with his family. He was headed to the city for his part-time job. When I asked where I could buy the bus tickets to Romania, he offered to walk me to the ticket office. Indeed, he did, and he translated my needs into Bulgarian for the ticket vendor. Unfortunately, the bus does not run on the day that I needed it, so I booked a train later that afternoon.

Trayan and I parted ways. I expressed my gratitude in the languages that I could manage. In fact, in Bulgarian, much like in Farsi, one usually abandons the complicated native phrase for "thank you" in favor of the simple French "merci."

In town, I had a delicious veal fillet with a glass of wine at an authentic Bulgarian restaurant. The weather was great until the evening when it began to rain. I had trouble finding my way back with the bus at night, since I could not recognize the stops that I had only seen once, and that just barely.

I got off the bus with a massive crowd of students somewhere in Studentski Grad, but at what turned out to be the wrong stop. I did not have a map and could barely pronounce the name of the street that I was looking for. I watched many a Bulgarian wince at my attempts before they squinted, in the aural sense, to figure out what I was saying.

I asked one kind girl where the street was. She had some idea, but was not entirely sure. Her English was good. She took my wrist and directed me to follow her. She led me under a shelter where she proceeded to call her friend to ask about the street. Then she continued to lead to me, but made a few stops along the way, including one at a convenience store to buy cigarettes and chocolate. I followed her into the store. After the girl completed her transaction, the cashier looked to me and asked (I can only presume) what I needed. The girl smiled and looked at the cashier to say (I can only presume) "He's with me." They both smiled at me in an endearing sort of way. I was happy to be in good hands and was enjoying the ride.

The whole time I just smiled and said nothing more than "merci" and "chao," another Romance word adopted into Bulgarian for its simplicity. But I did not nod to accompany my smiling, since in Bulgarian culture, the meanings of nodding and shaking the head are opposite that of the larger West.

She led me, hand on wrist, a few more blocks before she called her friend again and eventually handed me the phone! By that time, I had figured out the way based on a landmark that I recognized from the morning. I was a little sad when she waved goodbye; there was another kind person whose name and story I had learned only to say ciao forever, like so many others that I meet during these travels. I get contact information when I can, but sometimes, like in the pouring rain and the excitement of the moment, it is hard.

I don't remeber her name, but she is from Macedonia and is studying something related to physical therapy.

I still have some time left in Sofia. Then it is Bucharest, Romania, where I have booked a hostel and where I look forward to meeting more people.

"You are going to Bucharest," Trayan had said, "which is better than Sofia. Then you go to Budapest, which is even better than Bucharest. It is nice that you are seeing the world. I would like to do this too." Trayan asked for my Skype name. I hope he follows through to find me. When the Bucharest train makes its final stop in Bulgaria at Russe, I will remember Trayan and his generosity. I am fond of Bulgaria and its people. I was at first unsure of my stop in Sofia, but now, I am very glad that I came.


from Sofia II: KONTROLA!

Dear Friends,

I am an outlaw, a petty criminal. An "irregular," as the term is roughly translated from Bulgarian. Though I still roam the streets of Sofia a free man, I bought this freedom at a price.

I hopped onto the 94 bus on the morning of April 26 (the sixth day) to head into the center of town for my final day in the city of Sofia. I bought the 0.80-leva ticket from the driver and sat on the bus across from an alternative-looking man with many earrings. The bus chugged along and this man occasionally glanced at me. Until, perhaps two stops after I had gotten on, he stood up.

He did not just stand though. He pounced. And he started in Bulgarian with a ferocious tone of purpose. It looked as if he were talking directly at me, but I did not quite believe it.

As he was delivering a scathing diatribe whose contents I could not remotely imagine, he lifted his jacket to reveal a hidden hip-sack. He then proceeded to unzip it, clearly about to produce from its contents something foreboding, something scary. But what? What could he possibly have in there?

It was a slim slip of paper with blood-red Bulgarian type. The only part of it that I could make out was the numeral: 7,00 lv.

What was this slip? It was the same size and in the same font as the bus ticket that I had just bought, but it was red and expensive. And he was showing it to me! He had finished speaking. He was staring at me. I thought maybe that he was a ticket scalper, trying to convince me to buy this extra-special ticket. But his presentation had been so ostentatious, and nobody had flinched.

I looked straight ahead. He said something else. "Kontrola!" This is Bulgarian for "inspector."

Ah, he wanted my ticket. But he didn't look like the Kontrola man from the previous day. He looked like a civilian. I considered that he could be trying to take me for a ride. But in front of all these Bulgarians?

I showed him my ticket. He pointed to a small mechanical device: a hole punch for ticket validation. I had not validated my ticket. I had not known about this device until he had shown it to me. This 7-leva slip was my receipt for breaking the law. He was demanding money, a fine. But he looked so unofficial. I glanced to my left in the hopes of finding some sort of advice from a native. Indeed, a fellow passenger confirmed that this man was legit. He had watched me board the bus, buy a ticket, and put it in my pocket. He had allowed me just enough time to validate it so that I could not make an excuse. Seeing that I did not reach for the machine given ample time, he blew his cover and called me out.

I paid him the 7 leva, leaving myself with only coins.

The Kontrola man walked away. My Bulgarian guide slid one seat closer to me.

"He is motherfucker," he said. "He dress like normal passenger to trap you. I do not like this. This is way to make money. It is not right." He continued, "I am sorry. I am usually polite, but Kontrola is motherfucker."

I did not understand this validation system at first. The machine did not stamp the date and time like most validation systems that I had seen in Europe. It merely punched a pattern of holes in the ticket. Why not reuse this punched ticket? If all you need to do is show the undercover Kontrola man a ticket with holes, just buy one ticket, punch holes, and reuse it until someone asks for it. This was the first time I had had to present a validated ticket.

My new Bulgarian friend, Vladimir, explained the flaw in this method: each bus produces a distinct hole pattern. The probability of finding two buses with the same pattern is low. Thus, the Kontrola will know if your ticket has been properly punched by comparing its pattern to those of the other passengers. Vladimir said that the Kontrola man will likely keep the fine for himself.

Either way, this meant that I had two good tickets that I had not validated, for a total savings of 1,60. This fine cost me 6,20 over the normal ticket price; less the savings of 1,60, the net damage had been 4,60 leva, or about 3.75 USD, a small price to pay for a decent story and a valuable lesson. That lesson was a reminder that I am not in the US, as if Cyrillic was not reminder enough. In the US, we are transparent and forgiving (with the exception of unadvertised speed limits in parts of Montana). In the US, there is no chance that the thrice-pierced chap in front of you is a Kontrola man. How Gestapo.

But through this incident, I met Vladimir, a student at Sofia's university. When he asked me from where I am, I answered Iran, as I am now wont to do. Then did I learn that Vladimir is an Iranian Studies major in his final year. The conversation continued in Farsi. Vladimir offered to show me around the city a little. He took me to a famous church and described the meaning of some of the depictions of Jesus and various saints inside. He was not religious, but he was knowledgeable.

I explained to him that I lived in the US and I had just finished college and would be starting work at a hedge fund soon. He knew all about hedge funds and the recent financial market debacle. He explained how he had invested some of his earnings from a summer in Alaska in the Bulgarian exchange and at some point had made good returns, but the market is "curious," he said, and now the Bulgarian one is not doing so well.

I asked him for a restaurant recommendation and, believe it or not, he pointed me to the very same American-themed bar and grill that I had visited on the first night in Sofia.

I taught Vladimir some Persian poetry. He told me about other nice places to see in Bulgaria. He recommended his home town of Russe (he did not know my Trayan from Russe) and a medieval village nearby. I have a ticket to Bucharest, I explained. Then he told me about the native trick to buy that ticket for 10 levas cheaper: buy a domestic ticket to Russe on the Romanian border and then buy an international ticket to Bucharest. It is the same train, he explained; no transfer, just cheaper. We eventually parted ways, Vladimir to take the tram and I to walk around some more.

In walking, I had an incredible craving for a Turkish döner kabob. Sure enough, I found a kabob place, but the inside was decorated with posters of Iran. I asked the owner the obvious question. Iranian indeed, he invited me to sit behind the counter as he made kabobs for the people in line. He told me about how he had only been in Bulgaria for eight months and that he'd like to go to the US if possible. His problem is less getting into the US than it is getting out of Bulgaria: his three-month stay had expired and any run-in at the border could cause serious issues.

He made a damn fine chicken kabob though. We talked for maybe forty minutes before I was on my way again.

That evening, I saw a native's perspective thanks to a connection from the Stanford-in-Berliner. My hostess, Veronika, and her friend took me through a brief walking tour of the city. Though the city looked dead to me by eleven, I was missing the various bars that are tucked away in dim alleys. From the outside, they are another dark corner of a quiet night, but on the inside, they buzz with the Easter-day celebrations and the young Bulgarian couples who, I have found, are more public with their affection.

I started with a light Bulgarian beer and a plate of traditional Bulgarian feta cheese on a recommendation and advanced to a darker Czech beer afterward. I must admit that my palette is loyal to the Irish Guinness, but I believe that when in Bulgaria, do as the Bulgarians do.

By that token, I followed my kind hostesses to an Easter tradition: at midnight, the townspeople gather around the largest church in the city, holding candles, and bear the words of the priest, who says in Bulgarian, "Jesus Christ has risen from the dead!" to which the masses respond, "Yes, it is true!" Throughout this ceremony, I was constantly reminded of the opera Cavalleria Rusticana, which is set during Easter in a rustic Sicilian village. In one scene, the choir sings a beautiful song in Italian, whose lyrics are translated, "We rejoice that the Lord is not dead." (I am excited to see this opera live for the first time in Chicago next March.)

The Bulgarian national television company was broadcasting the whole ceremony, and, I was told, the prime minister and president were in attendance.

After the priest finished, all the townspeople walked around the church three times, holding their candles and butting their beautifully patterned Easter eggs against each other to see whose was strongest.

The bus ran late that evening into the morning to deliver the people to their homes. The aftermath featured abandoned beer bottles on the cobblestone streets. Veronika explained that Bulgaria, its cities and countryside, are beautiful if not for the litter.

As I finish this email, I am arriving in Romania, headed toward the capital, Bucharest. I will report next from here.


Copyright © 2024 Sahand Rabbani
All rights reserved.