It was snowing. We were driving through a blizzard on April Fool’s Day, aiming our Subaru in blind hope towards a beach on the Black Sea: our first spring break since moving from sunny Florida to Bulgaria. My crazy-meter, never designed for such rigors, had long since gone on strike.
The whole enterprise had required a leap of faith. My wife would help run the embassy school, where our nine-year-old daughter would attend the fourth grade. I would transplant my writing from the fertile soil of Tampa to the rocky Balkans.
But just now, our needs were far simpler. Watch out for the pothole, the unexpected horse cart on the highway, the mafia Mercedes speeding from behind with darkened windows. Find our hotel on the cobbled, one-way streets of Nesebar, a history-laden peninsula on the Black Sea. Locate a restaurant that was open in the off-season. If ancient Greek mariners could find this port town on the edge of the known world, surely we could track down a bowl of spaghetti. Continue reading
It was bound to happen sooner or later.
After months – yes, months – of relying on taxis and the goodwill of friends to get around in Sofia, I recently took the bold step of beginning to look for a car. It’s hard to overstate the layers of complication and premeditation that led me to this point.
Those not living in Bulgaria might find it difficult to understand why it took me until November to begin this process in earnest. After all, we arrived on August 1.
But really, what’s the point when it takes three months for the government to issue the all-important identity card? Without it, the best I could have managed was renting or leasing a car or, more perilous still, buying one and somehow arranging to keep the papers in another driver’s name until I could by the car outright.
And honestly, we haven’t been in a huge rush to drive here. Crowded Tsarigradsko Shose makes the devilishly chaotic Route 4 in northern New Jersey look like a cow path. Please don’t take this the wrong way – no national insults are intended – but Bulgarian traffic operates according to a terrifying logic all its own. Tailgating has been refined to an art form, and slow driving is interpreted as a sign of mortal weakness. Horn honking seems reserved for expressions of fury. And the rotaries – I think here, particularly, of the infamous Circle of Death near the Carrefour – resemble nothing so much as a high-stakes game of Frogger. Continue reading
Volunteer guide Petar Stanchev speaks to a group near the historic Central Bath House in Sofia.
From a distance, it looked like any other tour group.
But right from the start on Monday, guide Petar Stanchev let his audience know things would be different.
“You’re free to leave at any time,” he told them. “Free to ask questions. Free even to correct my English.”
That operative word gets flung around quite a bit on the Free Sofia Tour, a year-old venture in the Bulgarian capital that doesn’t cost a single stotinka.
And it’s not just about the price. Unlike paid guides, who might feel bound to a just-the-facts approach, Petar freely offered his opinions and perspectives during a casual 2.5 hour tour of the downtown sights.
He criticized the government for knocking down the mausoleum of former communist leader Georgi Dimitrov in 1999. (“Erasing your history is not a good way to deal with it,” said the 22-year-old university student.) And he said it wasn’t a good idea to allow the Arena di Serdica Residence Hotel to be built atop newly-discovered Roman ruins. (“I personally believe that wasn’t the best way to attract tourists in Sofia,” he said.) Continue reading