Since we last spoke, I headed back to the hotel taking the long way around, so I could get a better feel of the city by foot. I was shocked and dismayed to see the following things (in no particular order): Kentucky Fried Chicken, Dunkin Donuts, Pizza Hut, Burger King, and many more McDonald’s. It seems McDonald’s goal is to litter every part of the world with its fascist arches, gaining more control over the globe than Rome ever did in its most powerful and glorious times! But I have to say, it’s good to know the cheeseburgers are there.
I decided to make my first attempt at Bulgaria cuisine. I read in my Lets Go Europe book that street venders were a good source of cheap food and stomach cramps. I gave it a go at the first one I saw. The dish was some sort of bratwurst looking thing (you know, those long thick sausages you can get at the standard NY street fair). Of course, I did not have a clue how to order, so I simply pointed at the thing and held up my index finger indicating I wanted one.
The perceptive Bulgarian went to work frying up my lunch, and in a matter of minutes I was handed a charred sausage in a toasted bun, drowned in sauerkraut and mustard. As I was wolfing, I began to ponder exactly what it was that I was eating and ruled it to be mystery meat (in fact, it is still a mystery, but I am inclined to say it came from a pig), but it tasted decent. Hours later, I am still tasting the nasty stuff that stubbornly will not digest. Note to self: Stay away from strange mystery meats!
When I got back to the hotel, my father and I decided to hire a cab to take us around Sofia. We flagged down a guy named Vladimir who was more than willing to take our American money and show us around. He actually proved to be quite informative, and he even spoke some French so I could converse with him (yes, I speak French…surprised?).
We first went back to the house of my dad’s birth to give it a more thorough checking out. I really wanted to go inside, but my dad didn’t. He said it would ruin his memory of days of yore. I said, “But isn’t coming here and seeing it in that condition doing just that?” Logical, right? Well, he wouldn’t agree to go in, but I wanted to anyway.
I had the cab driver ring the bell at the door of the house for me and propose to whoever answered that I am the son of the former owner of this house, and I would like to come inside to see it. No dice. Each one had a sob story, or suspiciously backed away from the window they were peering out of to see who was ringing their bell. One lady reluctantly agreed to let me in. We waited 10 minutes, and she never came back. I never got to go in. The contents of the house remain a mystery. Perhaps it is better that they do. People are not overly friendly here.
As we continued to drive around, my dad would get all excited every time he saw something he recognized, such as his former school, a bread bakery that was still in operation, and a street he once played ball on. He would start screaming at me in Bulgarian, as if I understood. I just kept nodding and encouraging him.
We ended up at a very old synagogue, the biggest Sephardim Jewish synagogue in Eastern Europe (Sephardim Jews are those who originate in Spain and left during the inquisition in 1492). It turns out my grandparents were married there, and my father had many memories of the place.
An old Jewish Bulgarian was kind enough to show us around, and my father spent about an hour talking to him. I obviously didn’t understand what they were talking about, but that’s okay. The big story behind this building is that the local Jewish population holds it to be the site of a miracle, because during World War II, a bomb fell right into the courtyard of the synagogue, but it did not explode, averting the destruction of the place. Thank God, right? 🙂
After we left Vladimir, we decided to have a nice dinner of authentic regional cuisine. We picked the most civilized looking restaurant and ordered a series of local treats. I enjoyed a cold soup concoction of yogurt, dill, garlic, and cucumbers called “Tarator”. We also had a very strong alcoholic drink (the name escapes me), which gave me a nice buzz in a matter of a few sips. There were some musicians playing local sounding tunes, which my father enjoyed. He tipped them 20 Leva (roughly $10) to play a little ditty, and that made their night. They dedicated the rest of the evening to their rich American guests (us). These people are very poor, and they have very little direction, so there is much desperation and poverty. For us to spend a little extra, which is nothing to us, makes all the difference to these people whose lives were ravaged by communism.
After dinner, we concerned ourselves with nightlife. We were advised to stay off the streets and not wonder around, because apparently it is pretty dangerous at night. Even the police are frightened, so I am told, so we hit the Casino in our hotel. Let me see if I can draw a comparison for you that will give you an idea of what this was like. If anyone has seen the most recent James Bond flick, there is a Casino scene in the movie, which would give you a good idea of it. It seemed like a pretty shady mafia-run operation with underdressed waitresses coaxing you with their batting eyes to empty your pockets at the black jack table. Lots of screaming and yelling in Bulgarian. We had to pass through this bulletproof glass revolving door. My dad got happy and blew $100. Waste ‘O Cash. Well, I guess the casino business is the most profitable industry here.
That night, I was alone in my hotel room (we decided to get separate rooms after all, and thank God, because my father snores like a dying bear). It was really freaky, the realization that I was in some grungy hotel in the middle of a run down, formerly communist city in a forgotten country, once behind the iron curtain and now hopelessly set back by its 50 years of darkness, barely able to stay alive in the modern world. It was hard to sleep with the fear that I could wake up to some intruder who heard some Americans were in Bulgaria and decided to break in and do some looting. Of course, I was fine.
We set out to find the best “Banitza” in town. Banitza, or Boraekas, are a regional pastry made with filo dough (ever have spinach pie in a Greek restaurant?) and cheese. We got in a cab that took us to this little back alley place where we found what we were looking for. Good stuff! I still can’t get over how cheap things are in this country. A bottle of cola goes for the equivalent of 40 cents in American money. Last night’s dinner with all it’s courses, came to less than $10. Unreal.
After breakfast, we hopped on one of the many public trams that run to and from the outskirts of the Sofia to the city center. It was a good way to get a real sense of what life is like here. Folks, let me tell you, we Americans are very lucky to have what we have. This city is so run down and neglected, yet evidently once quite glorious. It’s obvious that in its time, the architecture was quite beautiful, but now it’s mostly crumbling away. The streets are very dirty, and the roads are full of potholes. There are so many people just standing around with nothing to do and nowhere to go, and many beggars who plead with even more emotion than the ones on our very own NY subway.
One thing I realized is that the way we nod our heads to say, “Yes” and shake our heads to say, “No” is actually reversed here. Shaking is yes, and nodding is no. Quite confusing, and I kept forgetting. When I hailed a cab and motioned to the driver as if to say, “Are you free?” he shook his head (which to me, means no, but to him means yes) and then motioned for me to get in. I find it very odd, this reversal.
OK. Long enough, right? Sorry…well, not really. Tonight we may go to a Bulgarian opera. Tomorrow, we set out for Plovdiv, the next biggest city here, and then on to the coast of the Black Sea. From there, I leave to Istanbul, Turkey! Stay tuned…same Bat email…
P.S.: I would love to hear from all of you!