Travel Writing Awards Entry
By Graham Walker
There are some basic essentials you need to learn before going to Bulgaria. First and foremost, nodding means no and shaking ones head means yes. This can be an endless source of embarrassment as I discovered to my chagrin when emerging from the swimming pool shower at the Sofia Princess, clad only in a miniscule towel. A large, buxom lady in a white coat accosted me and insisted that I have a massage. In my panic, I kept shaking my head, which encouraged her to try and drag me into her cubicle. There followed a tug of war with the towel in my endeavour to preserve my vanity and I was only rescued when a small, elderly Japanese gentleman replied to her advances by bowing and nodding profusely.
Secondly, never ever leave your bags on the floor. They are a very suspicious lot, the Bulgarians, and to do this would mean that you get instant bad luck and lose all your money. As a result, they constantly, remove your belongings and put them somewhere for safekeeping. That’s fine, as long as they tell you where they have put them. Unfortunately, this is often not the case and you find yourself frantically searching for them before descending on the local police station to report them stolen. Anyone who has ventured into a Bulgarian police station to be confronted by a form in Cyrillic and gun toting detectives blowing smoke in your eyes will tell you that it is not an experience to be savoured.
Thirdly, unless you like sky high blood pressure or chips covered in mountains of pepper, remember that the salt and pepper pots work in reverse with the one with the single hole being for pepper and vice versa. Oil and vinegar dispensers look almost identical in texture and colour and it is a good idea to try a sample before emptying the bottle over your food.
Fourthly, you need to enjoy cigarette smoke. None of the smoking bans in the rest of Europe apply here and practically everyone smokes regardless of whether you ask them to desist. Restaurants, buses, cinemas, museums, shops are all filled with that terrible acrid smell and even the toilets have nicotine stains around the toilet seat. The thought of relieving yourself on a seat where someone has had a *** between their legs is enough to induce instant constipation. Cigarettes are, unfortunately, locally manufactured and very cheap indeed. Many Bulgarians believe that it is their national duty to smoke to provide employment to the masses. Old Communist habits die hard.
Fifthly, you need to have a strong constitution to withstand the endless amounts of alcohol that you are asked to consume both socially and professionally. Evenings usually start with a large glass of mastica, Bulgaria’s equivalent of ouzo. This is followed by local beer, then wine, then Rakia. Interspersed with these are pints of Tarrators or garlic- flavoured yoghurt drinks, which are supposed to line ones stomach and enable you consume even more quantities of alcohol.
Sixthly, you must be a dog lover. There are some estimated 30,000 wild dogs roaming the streets of Sofia with the authorities unable to cull them because they are protected following Brigitte Bardot’s campaign to protect their rights. The net effect is that dogs are everywhere. In the streets; in the doorways; outside the restaurants; and on the front steps of the Government buildings. Many have been hit by cars and hobble around on three legs. Returning to your hotel at night, you soon find yourself followed by an individual dog, which is soon joined by others until you eventually arrive back with a pack following you intent on getting some food. Hopefully, it si not you that they want to eat.
Seventhly, never use a taxi. Most are old, badly maintained and deathtraps. On top of that they have seatbelts, but nowhere to clip them in. You finger in vain to find the lock only to find the driver shaking his head and pulling his own belt forward to show that he is a real, macho man. At the same time, he blows his smoke in your face whilst endeavouring to navigate through the traffic with his knees whilst he consumes his multi-layered kebab.
Lastly and this is a plea to all who consider themselves football aficiandos. Never ever go to a local football match or even worse one where an English team is involved. If you want a very short life, fine. If not, stay away. Football is war in Bulgaria and rival teams regularly set about each other in way that would make the Celtic-Rangers derby appear like a kick about in the park with your mates. I once foolishly bought a ticket to watch Levski Sofia play Liverpool only to find that I had entered at the Levski side of the stadium and to be surrounded by a less than amicable group of supporters in dark blue dragging their fingers across their throats and threatening to destroy what was left of my manhood. Riot police kept the 45000 opposing supporters away from us at half time who seemed to think that chanting about our mothers would endear us towards them. At the end, we were forced to endure an hour freezing to death in the stadium, since they had not dispersed despite teargas and water cannons and wanted to exact revenge for their defeat.
Apart from these few minor points, the countryside is beautiful and unspoilt. The wines and food are excellent. You can ski cheaply in the winter and enjoy continuous sunshine on the Black Sea beaches in the summer. And if you want some culture, there are plenty of monasteries hidden away in the mountains where you can hide away and reflect on life’s idiosyncrasies. Contrary to what most people think about Eastern Europeans, the Bulgarians are passionate, endlessly romantic and incredibly sociable. That is apart from the taxi drivers.