Learning to Love Bulgaria

by Jennifer Roberts

Despite dire warnings from a jaded expat and a graffitied train with drunk passengers, a traveler pushes on, determined to find the hidden culture of Bulgaria.

“It’s a shit country, no culture. You’ll see!” The middle-aged, balding man is speaking (almost yelling) in Spanish, which feels strange, though it really isn’t, as people from all over visit Sofia, the capital of Bulgaria. We’re waiting for a (late) train that will take us to the seaside town of Burgas. It’ll take six hours to get there – it would only take two or three in a car. 

We haven’t been in Bulgaria long, just a couple of weeks, and mostly in a small town south of Sofia. It hasn’t seemed so bad, but the Spaniard’s determination to make us hate the country comes from a place so full of passion that we begin to second-guess ourselves. He’s married to a Bulgarian woman, so he should know. 

The train is covered in graffiti, and our seats get mixed up with a man who seems too drunk to be able to read his ticket. But everything is comfortable enough when we finally settle in. Three hours later, the train stops, halfway through its journey. I look out the window, into the darkness, and don’t see a train station or platform, but almost everyone stands up and steps off the train and onto the grassy area between the tracks. My partner shrugs, smiles, and joins them, but I’m far too anxious to get off a train that hasn’t arrived at its destination. 

It turns out that it’s just a rest stop, mostly for everyone to have time to smoke during the long ride. 

We arrive in Sozopol late that night after taking a taxi from Burgas. When we enter the apartment where we’ll be staying, there’s the unmistakable sound of waves melting into sand outside the window; we hadn’t realized we would be so close to the water. A large, dark space lies beyond the balcony railing – the Black Sea. To the northeast, a war is playing out, but here, all is calm. 

Sozopol is a summer destination. It’s October, so no one is here. All of the restaurants and shops are closed, and there are more cats than humans in the historic center. In every direction we walk, we find the sea. This part of town, all rock and wood, juts out into it, creating a small peninsula. 

There’s a stone tower overlooking the water. A cat sits just outside its walls, licking from a small red and white plate that says VIENNA. We were there only two months ago, and seeing the plate here in Sozopol feels like destiny pinching our arms. 

The next day, we walk to the tip of the peninsula, where there’s a large rectangle made of smaller rectangular stones – ruins of a medieval monastery. I pull my jacket tight against the wind and sit on one corner, feeling into Bulgaria’s history, its culture… the culture that supposedly doesn’t exist. And I think our Spanish friend was wrong. 

Two days later, we’re preparing to go back to the train station, heading in the opposite direction, back to Sofia. We step off the bus a block away from where the train station is marked on Google Maps, but we get turned around and can’t figure out where to go. 

An older woman in a brown shawl notices us spinning in circles, looking at our phones, and asks, “Train?” We nod, relieved, and she begins to point animatedly in the direction of a green gate, where we can see tracks beyond. “Ah, ok, thank you!” we say, but she seems to think we’ll get lost on the way to the gate, which is only a few hundred feet away. She starts to gesticulate again and adds a loud, “Choo, choo!” to make sure we understand. Struggling to suppress our laughter as we wave, we thank her again and hurry toward the tracks. She continues to mimic the sounds of a train for the next thirty seconds, until we’re well past the gate entrance, and a bit more of Bulgaria’s culture sinks in.

Back in Saparevo, where we’re staying at a large, three-story house as Workaway guests, we go to work in the garden out back. There’s a small stream, and across the way, we can hear a man yelling, the rise and fall of his voice similar to the rhythm of a parent chastising a child. There are clinking cow bells, and we assume a farmer is moving his herd. When we ask our host about it later, he laughs, telling us that when the farmer yells like that, it’s mostly just a string of curse words and insults aimed at his cows. “He’s a bit strange.” 

That evening, we walk up a hill to a small monastery decorated with striped arches and walls of colorful illustrations. The gate is closed, so we can’t go in, but there’s a line of benches in front of it, sitting below strings of brown grape vines draped over a fence, dry in the autumn. We sit down and look across the hill, where the lines of the evening sun are illuminating the tile roofs and streaking down the brick and mortar walls. The town feels patched, houses unfinished and roads full of potholes, but the sun adds a touch of perfection. 

A gray-haired woman is walking determinedly up the hill. She’s just gotten off a rickety bus and is likely heading home. As she approaches, she smiles and begins to point at the monastery and speak in Bulgarian. We shake our heads and smile meekly: “English.” She pauses, taking a moment to think, and then puts her fingers to her mouth and throws them out with an imaginary kiss. “Beautiful,” she says, looking up at the monastery. 

“Ah, yes,” we nod enthusiastically, and I think, again, that the Spaniard was wrong. 

A few days before we leave, our hosts take us to the hot springs in Sapareva Banya, a series of large and small pools steaming against the cold air above. The water soothes our sore muscles, tired from moving rocks and stacking firewood the past few days, and we’re grateful. We have a view of the distant, dust-covered mountains, the same view we have from the balcony at the house. 

In a corner of the complex, there’s a pool that’s significantly hotter than the rest, which is where we’ve settled. A young man moves between our pool and a small square where cold water is being circulated. He jumps in every five minutes, only to return to the hot pool. “It’s supposed to be good for your skin,” our host tells me, and his wife offers to accompany me if I want to try it. I hate cold water, but the hot pool is only a few steps away. It’ll be quick. I have to dive into the reptilian part of my brain that feels nothing except cold and hot. I place no value on either as I slide into the cold water, managing to block out all emotion for a mere five seconds before scampering up the ladder and back to the comfort of the hot water. 

An older Israeli couple has joined the hot pool, and they speak to us in English. “We love coming here. Isn’t it just beautiful?” I lean into the rock wall behind me, feeling the heat in every pore, and nod. “Yes, it is.” And I know, once and for all, that the Spaniard was wrong. 

Photo credit: Felipe Oyarzun

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