Today in the European Union the concept of a border is all but lost, but here this man-made boundary is all powerful. Crossing it turns the money in my wallet into worthless paper. The language of the Serbs is reduced to strange sounds, and the driving style changes – snap – just like that.
In Bulgaria, overtaking cars goes more or less back to normal, other than the use of the hooter, which is still considered to be of utmost importance. This leads me to think that Bulgarians don’t use their rear-view mirrors much, and the hooter is there to warn other drivers that you are coming. Just as I start considering the wisdom of adopting this particular driving tactic, I get pulled over by a dark-blue uniform with mirror shades, who is wielding a radar speed gun. I was going at 70 km/h; we are in the middle of nowhere; what’s the problem here. But he informs me that we are in a 50 km/h zone; the speed limits in Bulgaria are as slow as their economy. He demands to see my car papers and driver’s license and then he gets quizzy.
‘Where are you going?’
I am sure he was not thinking any further than the next Bulgarian border post but I am the smart Alec today and reply,
‘I am driving to Shanghai.’
This makes no impression, so I broaden the scope of my destination.
He raises both eyebrows right over the top of his shades and after a moment of silence sends me on my way with a
‘Jus drrrive slooowly’ warning.
If I am to stick to Bulgarian speed limits, I will need the next five years to get to China.
But I soon reach Sofia, for which I am fully prepared. I have done my research, listed my sightseeing schedule, mapped my course through the city and booked a place to stay.
I hit the city, oops, big place, biggest since Rome, 12th most populous city in the Europe, and I have no map, no place to stay, no idea why I am here and, worst of all, I really should have paid more attention in Bulgarian reading class.
When I started on this journey, I felt that I would gain something, but up to now I have slowly lost all the guidelines that one doesn’t even notice in life. The first thing that went was the blindfolded drive to work. At the beginning of this journey I would leap into the Wish Mobile and drive off, only to have to stop at the next convenient spot as I remembered that I actually had no idea where I was going. I have, by now, acquired the habit of first spending a few minutes mapping my course before turning on the ignition.
The next thing that I lost was the ability to understand everything that was being said. Since leaving Germany every new hello has required thought and research. Understanding the written word went next, but, as I could still read and look up words in my dictionary, this was merely inconvenient. It also showed me how much of the information we absorb daily is completely unnecessary. I haven’t read a newspaper, book or magazine in months. I don’t understand the advertising billboards, radio or television programs and I don’t feel in the least deprived. Here I feel I am making some gains, as my mind is no longer constantly processing useless information; it is coming up with thoughts and opinions all of its own.
The loss of familiar brand names has made buying food a time-consuming mental challenge. Then at the shop pay points I smile blankly at the cashiers, who rattle off in incomprehensible language the amount owing. As till displays always seem to face away from the client, I constantly find myself peering over the cashier’s shoulder to try and see what my goods have cost me. I sense the people in the queues behind me mentally tapping their feet, while I try to get the correct amount together by inspecting each note and coin in ever-changing currency.
But now, staring at the street names, I realize I have lost the use of one of my most important skills, the ability to read. The Cyrillic script is completely meaningless, and for first time in my life I have a small inkling of what it must feel like to be illiterate. My chest closes in frustration.
The road signs have been in Bulgarian Cyrillic ever since I crossed the border. But I felt that in a big center, the capital of the country, the signs would surely be bilingual. No chance, all Cyrillic. But to make matters worse, pictographs, the savior of many a stranger in a new city, are completely missing. My navigation system falls to pieces. Driving aimlessly down a central city street, I stop at a huge intersection with tramlines and roads crisscrossing in all directions. At a complete loss on how to proceed I adopt the Zen ‘follow the car in front of you’ method of navigating – thinking that, as the car in front of me is a German make, it must be reliable.
The light changes, the car drives off, and makes a sharp, almost u-turn to the left. I follow and together we drive into a tunnel. It doesn’t take me long to realize I am driving on rail tracks and there are only two cars down here, the white Golf and the Wish Mobile. The Golf zips up a side tunnel that does not look like it was built for cars. Are we in a subway tunnel? In a complete panic I bounce across the tracks, turn a sharp left, abandon the road/tracks altogether and vault the Wish Mobile over a subway station platform, just before it gets too high to navigate. The commuters standing on the platform stare at me in amazement. Zooming up a tunnel with daylight at the end, I hope and pray it ends on a street. In the sunshine a quick left and I am once again on a road. Finding a parking, I replay the last few minutes. Was I on a road or actually driving down a subway tunnel? I have no idea. When my adrenaline subsides to normal levels, I spot just what I need, across the road, an Internet café.
The interior of the café is dark blue and stale, the silhouettes of young men and schoolboys are etched against their computer screens, where they kill, maim and destroy their virtual enemies. My enemy is once again the specter of sleeping in the Wish Mobile. I will have to cross that particular mental hurdle soon, as the business of finding a bed each night is fast becoming tedious, although I am getting very good at it. The biggest challenge today is getting Google to speak to me in English. After that has been achieved, I quickly find the local tourist site and a few hostel booking sites. With hostel addresses in hand I set out to find a map of the city.
Bookstore, map, one problem, the map is in the Latin alphabet, the street names are in Cyrillic. Which brilliant brain thought this out? Using a Latin alphabet map in a country that does not use that particular writing style is about as effective as finding your way by reading tea leaves. I cannot make the actual streets and those on the map fit together. The pedestrians whom I ask for help look at the map in blank confusion. They have no idea, have never seen a map before, let alone one in English. My frustration plus the heat and humidity put me into a foul mood. I start snapping at all and sundry until I realize that this is no way to befriend the locals; it is hardly their problem that I don’t read Cyrillic. In Bulgaria, Cyrillic is the written language of choice. Adapt or get lost is pretty much the situation I find myself in.
Back in the Wish Mobile I find my Russian phrase book. It has the Cyrillic alphabet translated from English. With this, I try my hand at some Cyrillic writing. The results are not perfect, but at least I have something that can be related to the streets signs. An hour after arriving in Sofia, not bad, methinks, I find the first hostel.
‘Do you have a room?’
The receptionist nods her head.
‘Excellent. May I see it?’
The receptionist nods her head.
I wait expectantly, nothing, I try again.
‘May I see the room?’
The receptionist nods her head.
Today perhaps? Then a guest ambles by.
‘They nod for no in Bulgaria and shake their heads for yes.’
Now I cannot even rely on gestures to communicate. My situation is getting fairly desperate.
But the management, reluctant to let a paying customer get away, sends me to some other rooms they rent out. I walk there; it’s less complicated; and gives me the opportunity to look at where I am. Sofia looks in worse shape than Sarajevo, and it doesn’t have a recent war to blame. The streets are bleak and devoid of plants; the most colorful thing is the graffiti that covers every surface. The pavements are cracked and uneven; litter is everywhere. The buildings are dull grey with years of dirt and neglect. Flaking paint and peeling plaster, which in Italy looked delicately aged, here is overwhelmingly depressing. Electrical cables of every type hang from drainpipes and balconies like nightmare ivy. Next to the building to which I have been directed, two oriental tourists, nattily dressed in spotless little tourist suits, stare in disbelief at the boarded-up ‘hotel’ into which they must have booked through the Internet.