Cafes of Bulgaria

Trip Start Jul 28, 2004
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Trip End Sep 21, 2004


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Thursday, September 16, 2004

I wouldn't have thought to tack Bulgaria onto a trip to Europe, but my friend Alex, who I met in the Peace Corps, provided the perfect excuse. She's been living in Sofia for the past year, teaching English, working for USAID, and getting a basic grasp of the Cyrillic alphabet (a full-time job in itself). She met me at the airport on Tuesday and we were off.

My first impression of Sofia, the capital city, was surprise (and surprise at my surprise) at its apparent normalcy. The average person on the street is easily old enough to remember the fall of communism in 1989, and I guess I thought this would lend people a different air. Trite as it may sound, one benefit of travel for me is the ongoing realization that They are just Us on different soil.

That's not to say that you could confuse Sofia with New York. For one thing, sitting in her apartment near Vitosha Street, Alex and I would occasionally be called to the window by the clip-clop of a donkey or horse pulling a cart through the side streets of the city. The more common method of transport, though, is the long orange trolley cars that creak through the city, constantly emitting what sounds like final death gasps, though they supposedly rarely break down. The buildings have that stereotypical Eastern European look, dark and gloomy with large chunks of plaster falling off to reveal dingy bricks underneath. Everything is covered with layers of soot from winters heated by coal. Another idiosyncrasy of Sofia is the difficulty with which stores change even small bills. One would think that these stores take in quite a bit of cash over the course of the day, and yet change is often provided in an odd combination of money, band-aids, gum, and whatever else they have on hand. But without a doubt, my absolute favorite quirk of Sofia is the ability of their Guinea Pigs to tell your fortune. Alex and I had our fortunes read for 50 Stotinki (about 30 cents?) by a Pig named Gabriella. I have no idea what my fortune says, given my rudimentary knowledge of Bulgarian (so far, I can say, "One More Wine, Please"), but I'm eagerly awaiting the translation.

The communist-era artwork is interesting, if not particularly cheerful. All the statues are big, dark, and a little creepy. More colorful are the contemporary murals that ring some of the statues, brilliant images reminiscent of gang tags in the U.S., whose meaning I could only begin to guess. One wall near Alex' apartment, oddly enough, features a huge, stylized portrait of a Native American.

Our first trip out of town was to Rila Monastary, and on to Blagoevgrad. As is our custom, Alex and I sat down for a cup of coffee at a café near the monastery and accidentally stayed there for three hours. Many coffees, teas, beers, and salads later, we explored the woods around the monastery and then listened to the afternoon chanting of the monks in the main chapel. The chants sound something like the hum of a beehive, harmonic but with no solid melody. After perusing the detailed religious paintings covering the walls of the building, it was back to the café, then on to the café in Blagoevgrad before settling back into our favorite café in Sofia. Alex swears I'm getting an authentic Bulgarian experience and, I have to admit, we're never sitting in these places alone!
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Comments

milenska
milenska on

hi from Sofia!
nice comment...that was interesting 'US in a different soil', wonder what's the image of Bulgaria in the States, especially after I saw Jay Leno's show featuring Scarlet Johansson, who just came back from a movie shooting in Sofia. Jay Leno: 'So you ended up in Bulgaria, hahahahaaa' - Scarlet Johansson: 'people are quite nice, but in the cafes you see NO GUNS sign' - Jay Leno: 'Hahahahaaaa'...
My impression is, as a Bulgarian, that we are quite normal people, many of us civilised and educated ;)

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