Tuesday, July 28, 2009

secret 28 - my first and only visit to bulgaria

looking for adventure one weekend in the balkans, several of us decided to head to sofia, bulgaria on a bus. we went armed only with an overnight bag, ATM cards and a dog-eared copy of let's go eastern europe. we arrived at the bus station and found our way to the center of town.

it was the late 90s and it was quite evident that the fall of the berlin wall had not been kind to bulgaria. we secured a room at the misleadingly-named grand hotel (why are those hotels always far from grand--it's true in oslo too). the hotel, still being quite soviet in procedure, took our passports. i was used to that and wasn't alarmed (not until later). we stashed our backpacks and headed out to see the sights.

the streets were curiously quiet and there was a feeling of waiting or even more, of hiding in the shadows. there were few cars and buildings seemed dilapidated and uninhabited, tho' they weren't abandoned. we walked around an art museum and in every room were the ubiquitous little old ladies who sit on a chair in the corner of a museum room in any former socialist country, ready to catch you making a suspicious move towards any of the objects. we were a little shocked to see one of them openly reading a blatantly graphic porn magazine. that seemed to underline how different things were in that place.

there was an art exhibition in a corner of an enormous concrete performing arts center, clearly built in its day (which could have been 50 years before or 5, thanks to that fast-aging concrete unique to such places) according to leftover stalinist plans. the place was crumbling and there was no one around, so we actually wandered around the whole building, taking in the stage and even peeking backstage, being struck quite silent ourselves by the post-apocalyptic quality the place had. we felt all day that we were the last ones wandering a city that had been abandoned, any people we saw were at a distance and hurrying along furtively, ducking into doors and alleys, or so it felt.

near the main square, we at last stumbled upon a little street market and bought an old camera--in fact, it's the one that started our collection. (it's the folding camera in the center of the picture above.) there was also an old mausoleum which no longer showed any sign of who had once been in it and which was all draped with cheesy banners for a big one hundred and one dalmations event. i wish i'd taken pictures, but somehow i didn't. the old hammer and sickles which had adorned the sides were chipped away at and it, like everything else in the capital, had an air of abandonment about it. we photographed the little lobster we were carrying around with us everywhere on one of the chipped away soviet symbols.

after struggling to find a place to eat lunch because places seemed so hidden away and the streets were so empty, we armed ourselves with let's go and headed out in search of, of all things, a tex-mex place that was mentioned there. it said the food was pretty decent tex-mex for bulgaria and that they had live music most evenings. we thought that sounded good.

to find it, we had to go down a dark alley and into a little courtyard in between buildings. unsure of the way, but trusting implicitly those snooty harvard brats who wrote those guides, we kept going, tho' there were no signs. we entered a doorway and went down some steps and there at last was a little sign, the sounds of people clinking glasses and chatting away over the music, and the unmistakeable smells of mexican food. we had found it.

we got a table and enjoyed quite a lovely dinner. after dinner, we moved into the bar, actually passing through old west-style swinging saloon doors, where the music was playing and ordered a margarita. the owner was a friendly young mobster man who came over and chatted with us in surprisingly good english. we told him we'd found him thanks to let's go and he smiled.

finally, around midnight, in good humor, but not even close to drunk after two margaritas over the course of the evening, we headed back through the dark, empty streets to the hotel. we took a shortcut through a dark park, laughing and joking our way, to keep any spookiness at bay and we walked up the stairs at the back of the mausoleum we had seen earlier in the day. our hotel was just across the square beyond it.

as we walked up the steps, laughing about some joke or other, suddenly we were surrounded by four uniformed policemen, accusing us of disrespecting the great monument to the great leader (whose name had been rubbed off the front and replaced by the one hundred and one dalmatians banner). i don't think i immediately appreciated what was happening. they asked us in bulgarian, what we were doing there and demanded to see our ID. of course, our passports were at the nearby hotel. not speaking bulgarian and having but rudimentary macedonian (which some argue is a dialect of bulgarian), i tried to explain this and turned, indicating the hotel. they thought i was trying to get away (which i wasn't) and one of them grabbed at the small purse (coach, of course) that i had cross-ways across my body.

completely operating on instinct and not thinking at all, i pulled the purse back, and then they grabbed me and suddenly i was fighting with several bulgarian policemen while they held back my companions. on pure adrenalin, i fought back, even biting one them--i'm sure he has a perfect scar of my teeth on his hand to this day.  but then i saw a giant clump of my hair lying on the ground. seeing that made me stop.

things cooled down, one of the policemen took the angriest one aside and talked to him. the other two remained there beside me, still trying to communicate. my russian kicked in (why hadn't i tried that before?) and we managed to get through to each other. they claimed to be calling a patrol car to come and get us and take us to the station, but their radios never crackled and and it was only then that i saw their guns in their holsters and began to shake, realizing the enormity of what was happening and fearing what could happen.

my companions were with UN forces in neighboring macedonia and finally, the policemen realized that after we repeatedly pointed it out on their ID cards. but more importantly, they also realized that we had no cash on us (the angriest one seemed angriest about that). we'd used a local ATM and had only a little bit of local currency on us and about 10 deutsch marks. that wasn't enough (and i'd been way too slow to realize that was what they'd actually wanted from the beginning).

because i spoke russian, they didn't believe me that i was american, but they did finally realize the gravity of the UN identification they'd been presented. so the one i had bit (he actually turned out to be the nicest one, so i'm a little sad it was him), told me that they were going to call off the squad car they'd ordered and let us go because i could speak russian and therefore he and i could talk--giving me a conspiratorial wink and a nudge--and oh, also that UN could be "big problem."

and so we walked away back to the hotel. me shaking more and more as we got closer. i remember that i got up to the room, sank against the wall and uttered an inhuman wail that still makes me shiver, just thinking about it. we left on the first bus out the next morning.  it was all a dozen years ago, but i can tell you i can tell you that i won't be going back to bulgaria ever again anytime soon.

afterwards, i was far more haunted by what could have happened than by what actually did. four armed men. visions of a bulgarian prison. questions as to whether they even really were policemen. their radios had never crackled, so i doubted they had actually ever called any squad car. who were they? what did they really want? just money from some foreigners? the whole city was so muted and depressed and sort of holding its breath that it lent to all sorts ideas crossing my mind on sleepless nights afterwards.

my hair, of course, grew back in time and it even came in much curlier. it's still a lot curlier from that spot to this day. i also had a black eye, but when i looked at the picture of that, it still bothered me so much that i couldn't include it in this post. time does heal things, but there are some things that you never really completely get over.


The Redhead Riter said...

Oh my goodness! What a terrible experience! So scary!!!!!!

That poor spot on your head and then you say you had a black eye too...just awful. What is that saying?
"Money is the root of all evil."
It sure seems that way, doesn't it?

Stopping by to give a little blog ♥

Unknown said...

Its the LOVE of money that's the root of all evil.

That's quite a story, I'll try and skip Bulgaria if/when I finally get to go traveling the world. At least it didn't go worse! :) Oh, and neat old camera! lol

Pattern and Perspective said...

There was a lot of imbalance in that country around that time, maybe more in the early 90's but some still in the late 90's. Scary stuff. I probably would have peed my pants...

Char said...

how completely and utterly terrifying

Cyndy said...

I've always said that the best way to be a writer is to read. I am wrong. It is to live it. What an amazing tale you have spun. Thanks so much for for sharing! (need to go and clip my bitten nails now...)

P.S. An evening with you would surely require a case of wine! A bottle alone would never do...

kristina - no penny for them said...

that is a really shocking story.

kristina said...

that's a scary story. I'm sorry that had to happen to you. the photo with your hair missing really shows how serious it was.

Jelica said...

i guess this was in the early '90s, which was a scary period everywhere in the region, bulgaria included. it's a very different place nowadays (although policemen are still as corrupt) and a beautiful country--you should give it another chance if find yourself back in the balkans some day.

Kim: said...

Wow!! What a scary but exciting story! I, for one, am really glad you're not in a Bulgarian prison.

That picture is stunning. I don't think I could have handled the black eye pic either.

heidikins said...

My X lived in Bulgaria for 2 years and thinks of it as the best two years of his life. Seriously.


Optimistic Pessimist said...

i literally got gooesebumps reading this. Sounds horrifying and the thoughts of what could have happened are so much worse. Glad you made it out of there.