Saturday, August 30, 2008

An Innocent, a Broad...

Important things to remember to forget to pack, in order to make your international voyage more challenging (and thus enjoyable): a towel, for use after showers in hostels; an iPod charger (assuming you bring an iPod on your trip, which I did); a Nalgene bottle, or some other container intended for the transport of refreshing, crucial drinking water. I like to think that only wimps "come prepared."

I flew into Sofia, the capital of Bulgaria, a couple days ago. I was aided in my planning process by a friend and fellow retired Peace Corps volunteer, who offered me the following invaluable advice to make my overseas excursion more enjoyable: order kosher. It turns out that on some international flights, when reserving your ticket, you may select a "type" of in-flight meal, an attempt by the airline to defer to passengers' dietary preferences. Examples of such specialized meal options include vegetarian, low-calorie, low-cholesterol, gluten-free, halal, and, yes, kosher. My friend, on his flight back to the United States, sat next to a gentleman who ordered the kosher meal, and observed that not only did the man receive his tray before everyone else, but the food was of higher quality and quantity than my friend's own ordinary, gentile dish. And so I was counseled to benefit from my comrade's experience and request the kosher plate, which I did... not because I especially cared about what I would eat on the plane, but because the airline was German, and I am an ass.

According to various guidebooks, Sofia is one of the least attractive capitals in Eastern Europe; if this is true, then I cannot wait to see the others! I was warned to expect an urban sprawl of gloomy Soviety boxes, but plenty of older architecture abounds, mixed creatively with edgy, newer buildings. The side streets, in some areas, bring to mind fun, quirky parts of Brooklyn or New York's East Village. The signs on the streets, however, are going to take some getting used to, as not only do Bulgarians speak a different language, they use an entirely different alphabet! The Cyrillic alphabet, used in Russia, Macedonia, Serbia, Ukraine, and Mongolia (among other nations), was invented here in Bulgaria, and is a point of national pride. It is thus both amusing and depressing to witness the West's (i.e., America's) corroding influence on Bulgarian culture, as many of the flashier advertisements around the city use English slogans, or a bizarre mix of English and Cyrillic. Out of morbid curiosity, I wandered into a McDonald's in downtown Sofia to observe the menu, and noticed that a good number of their items were labeled "Mak-[gibberish]" or "[gibberish] Mak-[gibberish]." I was reasonably certain, though, that I knew what the "[gibberish]-Mak" was.

When the street signs aren't making my head turn, the Bulgarian women are. Don't get me wrong, I am not ogling (really!), it's just that I cannot get over this simple fact: all women here look cool—at least, the young ones do. The older ones all look tired... probably from the effort of looking cool for years at a time. To my eyes, Bulgarian men look like any regular guys I'd see on a street in America, but the women seem somehow... European? Does that work? It's the only adjective I can come up with to describe their collective appearance. In any case, they all look like either models or punk rockers, nothing in between.

Other initial observations... unlike Americans, Bulgarians do not throw coins in fountains, just their cigarette butts. Byzantine church artwork is amazing, dazzling and ostentatious in a manner that truly inspires awe. The Lady's Market, a large outdoor bazaar, is populated almost exclusively by older people; the only young people in evidence there are cops and kids being dragged by the hand (the kids, not the cops). I have yet to figure out where the younger generation buys their food. Oh, and I ran into a familiar problem, often experienced in Burkina... that of "Sorry, no small change," followed by a waiter's satisfied smirk. My solution? "Sorry, smaller tip." I'm not handing anyone 30% gratuities, especially just because they refuse to give me small bills.

Finally, I will leave you with one more story. As jet lag was causing me to nod off by 7pm the day I arrived, I did not end up going out my first night in Sofia. However, for those of you curious about the Bulgarian nightlife, here is a breakdown of my second evening in town, during which I tagged along with a multinational hodgepodge of other hostel guests: beer at an Irish bar, two dollars; dancing at a Bulgarian birthday party you crashed, three dollars; getting propositioned by a persistent hooker when you leave the party, who won't take "no" for an answer and won't let go of your crotch... priceless.

1 comment:

Darth said...

Great writing and perspective. Keep up the details but do not pay for priceless possessions!