Thursday, July 16, 2009
Thursday, July 16, 2009
Greetings from Sofia Bulgaria. Kevin here.
Yes. It’s true. I left my passport in the bathroom of the train, along with my wallet--for an hour. Whatever. And yes, I’m glad I’m not being held in a cell on the Romanian/Bulgarian border. What Michael didn’t tell you was that I also left my glasses in the pub where we ate dinner tonight.
In the wee hours early this morning, as our train purposely climbed over the Balkans, and the clickity-clack of the tracks dragged on an on, our train car was occasionally ravaged by violent thrashing, crashing and screeching noises. Without evidence that would suggest any other reasonable alternative, and considering the folklore of the area, we naturally assumed that a dragon was assaulting our heroic little train.
Although sleep during dragon-assaults comes only at fits and starts, the creature left off as sunrise approached, and I did sleep a little. I was awakened shortly thereafter by the porter who rapped on our door a couple of times. As I opened the door he leaned in and said in a very ominous Bulgarian accent “Sofia.” I nodded. He paused for effect, then added very dramatically, in a very low tone, “Prepare.” You might want to see a short film Michael made of sunrise from the slow-moving train, taken as we “prepared”:
Today I think I would have to admit I was quite tired, and pretty hot. I never thought I would travel to Bulgaria. Until this week the word “Bulgaria” elicited from me nothing other than romantic notions; I pictured Bulgaria in the Balkan Mountains, snow-capped and deeply forested--filled with villages where dark fairy tales were likely to come true. What we’ve encountered today, however, is the city of Sofia, a cosmopolitan, and one might say, a very civilized urban environment. Compared to Bucharest Sofia is quiet and doesn’t have some of the tough ragged edges that we had seen in Romania.
Although I was impressed with Sofia I would have to say that a few of the building we visited were somewhat glum. Orthodox churches, for example, are very beautiful from the outside with their polished gold domes and sprouting towers, but they are frankly eerie and morose on the inside--caked in hundreds of years of lamp oil and candle residue--dark and foreboding. (Much more lively was the excellent pub Michael found for us later in the day (where I left my glasses). I believe Michael already shared with you an image of the latrine.)
Like Bucharest, one of the most striking elements of Sofia are the traces of Soviet-era influence, in terms of aesthetic design of public spaces. In the days of communism, throughout Eastern Europe, buildings of epic proportions were constructed. The second largest building in the world, in fact, was built by Ceausescu in Bucharest. These buildings and edifices are cavernous, and often “modern” in their post-art deco design. Now, some of these mythic spaces, built to inspire, are left mostly empty and without much function. One such space is the murky and bizarre Palace of Culture in Sofia. It is huge, imposing, and looks like a giant truncated rocket ship. But when you go into this building there is almost no one there, and most of the doors are locked and the empty halls run on and on forever in loopy weirdness, like the architecture from a Dr. Seuss book. Occasionally you catch glimpses of lone security guards, wandering the long halls at a distance--with nothing to do. I won’t soon forget the empty posh restaurant that sits atop this edifice, nor will I forget the hundred set tables draped in red table-cloth, with not one person to sit at them, nor will I forget the long brooding expression of the maitre de, when he realized we had not come in for a meal, but only to snap a photo of the view from the terrace:
Tomorrow it is back to nonsense in earnest, with our second meeting, the scholar Lilia Ratcheva, a native Bulgarian who teaches at the Institute for Children’s Literature and Research in Literacy in Vienna. She will be our guide to Bulgarian (and possibly some Russian) nonsense literature.
Until another time then.
Right now to my left, Kevin is waxing sublime, about our experiences in Sofia today. I, of course, will fill you in on the really important things: pull tops, meatballs, and nonsense concraptions. First off, then, is the Bulgarian pop-top bottle. It is an odd combination of the old (for us) pull tops—the kind your mama told you never, never to put back in the can for fear of swallowing it and growing a pull-top garden in your belly—and a “regular” bottle cap. Click below to see my effortless and graceful demonstration of its unheretofore-seen beauties. Is this the portmanteau of the drinking world?
Our next stop through nonsensitivities is the issue of meatballs. I present to you Exhibit A, our menu from lunch today from what should have been Divaka (according to Lonely Planet) but turned out to be a slight variant of that. Apparently, meatballs in Bulgaria fulfill new roles we strict Westerners have never dreamed of: not only are there “oblong meatballs” (a distant cousin of Edward Lear’s “oblong oysters” wethinks), but also, apparently, “nervous” meatballs. They seemed slightly sweaty. Later in the day, we went to Krâchme Sam Doidokh, where, fortuitously, we were served what appeared to be oblong meatballs. We couldn’t confirm this because the waitress spoke little English, but their oblongevity was undeniable. And tasty. Speaking of Krâchme Sam Doidokh (which was a lovely lovely pubbish place filled with cats and friendly locals), I submit to you Exhibit B, a photo of the nonsensical concraption over the toilet. I will leave its uses, of which I am sure there are many, up to you, my dear readers.
After dropping our bags off at the train station in the morning, fools that we are, we walked to the British Library in the sweltering heat and arrived sweatballs. After talking to a few helpful but befuddled Romanians, we came to the sad realization that the library had nothing, We were directed to two other libraries, but by the time we reached one, it had closed. Thus ended our fruitless hunt. Some days the nonsense sings for us; some days it flisters. The only nonsense we found today was the questionable shop name, pictured above.
In despair, we went for a lovely drink at the remote and tropical Piranha Club (complete with exotic aviaries, pools full of Piranhas, and huts on stilts), went back to the Gare du Nord (train station) and hopped into our fairly cushy cabin—or would be cushy if the air conditioning had been working. At one point around 11pm, the furrowed-browed border police came down the hall, knocking on doors, asking for passports. After a quick search in various pockets and socks Kevin took off for the bathroom at the end of the train car. It seems that, in a move of incalculable confidence, fortitude, and benevolent cross-cultural understanding, he had left his wallet, passport, a small stack of receipts, and a pile of change, all in a wee pyramidal formation in the bathroom at the end of the car, on a shelf next to the toilet under the sink. He thinks he’s losing his mind. We report, you decide.
Lastly, a quick mention of a new song borne: It's called "Das vedanya/pork and beans," features me and Kevin on vocals, me on the jaw harp, and the train on... the track. Wondering ears will know of it and others before the space ships land.