Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Everything Will Be Alright In The End... and If Everything Is Not Alright... It's Not The End /BULGARIA

 I use all the time when I am looking for a nice break away with a deep discount on a hotel.  I grew up in the hospitality industry.... and I am somewhat privy to the thoughts behind pricing and the seasons and the subtle nuances of finding the right place for the right price.  I also think I probably have a second sense for the places that will most suit me.  Too bad there isn't a that could do the same thing.                                                  Oh well.
     Kurban Bayram -(the Islamic holiday that celebrates Abraham's willingness to sacrifice his son) was coming up quickly.  That would mean nine full days away from work.  My heart was broken and my plans for romantic getaway dashed.  Woe is me.  On the recommendation of a friend I booked a stay in the sleepy little town of Alexandropolis Greece where I planned to drown my sorrows in ouzo by the beach.  Then I would bus up to the much more cosmopolitan Thessoloniki...second largest city in Greece and home base for many day trips to interesting sites.  My friend Prags said he would go with me to Besiktas and help me book the bus in person as he had made the same trip.  We got there and oh the humanity.  The small office was packed with people trying to book some kind of cheap getaway and alas... the morose and unsympathetic clerk uttered "Hayir!."  (NO emphatic) when I managed to tell him what I was trying to do.  He explained that three extra buses had been added to the route to accommodate the multitude of people who evidently had exactly the same idea as me and even these were booked.  Not possible.  No way.  No how.  This only served to add insult to injury.  Now I would be stuck in Istanbul.  To compound matters even further... it was too late to get a refund on my first night's booked stay in Alexanderoupolus. is a great deal but if you don't pay attention and cancel reservations within the allotted time period when you can't make it.... so sorry charlie you still have to pay.  OK...I am NOT sitting home for 9 days staring at the 4 walls and feeling sorry for myself.

     I happened to mention my sad predicament to John... our deputy principal at the school.  "Well come to Bulgaria!"  was his default response.  He was heading there to meet up with some friends from Canada. Hmmm.  I had wanted to see Sofia since a friend of mine had raved about it last Spring.  Why not.... what did I have to lose by taking a late night bus to a former communist block country?  At that point.... nothing at all.  Oh I forgot to mention the big thing about this holiday... my birthday fell smack in the middle of it.  Yep.  That fixed it in my mind.  I booked a ticket on-line for a one way trip to Sofia Bulgaria.... no idea how or when I would return.  It was just going to be one one of those kinds of getaways.

     Friday came and I scooted out of school right after getting the kids off. We had a taxi booked for exactly 4:00 so that we would be assured of arriving at the service bus that would take us further to the gigantic Otogar where we would board for Sofia.  After some confusion with the taxi we arrived in Besiktas with plenty of time to spare... but one never knows in Istanbul where it can take an hour and a half to go eight miles.  The service bus was standing room only and we sped off towards the Otogar.  Hundreds of buses were lined in this massive complex of transportation.  We ended up waiting for quite a while as our bus was late arriving.  The only toilets available were Turkish toilets.  Oh how I hate public Turkish toilets.  At any rate we were on our way just shortly after six pm and the busy streets of Istanbul faded into the distance.

     I will say the bus services were exemplary.  There is no toilet aboard the bus, which is fine because there is no stench, and there is a woman who serves waters, coffee, tea and little cakes.  Entertainment was available on the back of the seat in front of me, and the room was spacious.  I opened up my Android to do a last minute check on FB and my mail.  Knock me off the bus with a rocket... a message from my long lost "love".  He misses me.  I am on my way out of town to forget him... and he manages to send a message.  What can I say.. he is a talented Turkish man.  As Turkey recedes into the background...the seed is planted.

   It was a bleary eyed ride, with bathroom and snack stops every few miles.  Quite comfortable.  Every stop I manage chat with other teachers and the dp... it will be a ways to the border and I manage to sleep a bit.  My dreams are fitful.  When I wake... we are passing miles of trucks backed up to get through the border.  Bulgaria is an EU country and the trucks moving goods from Turkey to Bulgaria are required to go through rigorous checks.  We must have passed almost a thousand trucks... miles and miles of goods waiting for bureaucracy and centuries old prejudices to halt, then approve their journey.

    The border is another experience... we get off the bus... hand over passports, get back on the bus, go to the next stop... repeat... hit the Duty Free shop where I buy some wine.  The night drones on.  A sleepy stop at Plavda... a tourist town with ruins and history and a nightlife.  Most of the teachers get off here.  I and the dp only remain bound for Sofia.  We arrive and grab a taxi, the drive of which instead of driving me the 4 blocks to my hotel... drives all around Sofia looking for the place.  I check in finally and fall into about 4 AM.

     The breakfast next day is pleasant enough... pork is plentiful... and though I don't crave it at all in Turkey where it really isn't available... I do have some sausage.  The weather is lovely... the view from my suite is typical eastern European rooftops, and ivy covered buildings.
 I can tell I am not in Turkey easily.  The feel of this city is much more relaxed.  I am to meet some new Canadian friends and John at the train station at noon and we will take a taxi to the central area to have lunch.  Cars actually stop to let me cross the road.  I find myself somewhat annoyed by this initially as I am used to dodging traffic on my own wits at my own peril and this takes all the fun out of crossing a street.

There are vestiges of Communist rule everywhere...
 giant iron statues to honor the strength of the "state", rigid plain cinder block buildings that scream conformity with every square centimeter.  And then there are the people... dour and unsmiling.  Unwilling to use English.  Unwilling to help a stupid tourist like myself.  One lady at a small cafe clearly understands me when I ask her where the train station is... even stooping so low as to utter "chug-a-chug-a-choo-choo" whilst making train like actions with my arms... yet she turns away and tells me ""NO ENGLISH.  I am more than miffed.  But low and behold the "choo-choo" station is about 50 meters away from the cafe... and it is massive and cold.  While sitting inside waiting however, I notice that there is a train to Montana.  That is somehow comforting.

My friends show up and we take a taxi to an upscale area where they are staying.  Lunch is great and we spend the rest of the day exploring the area and drinking good wine had at a cheap price (finally) on their lovely terrace that comes with the suite they have booked.

The taxi ride was fun... you can see in the background if you look carefully, a horse drawn wagon in downtown Sofia taking produce to some market. Everything in this country is inexpensive. From clothes to perfume to alcohol.  Parts of the city of Sofia are very upscale and high end...with lovely parks and pleasant strolls, and yet a few blocks away is the charming "ladies market" where goods can be had for very few lev.

As we chatted over lunch on a lazy warm fall Saturday, John mentioned that there was a morning service at the stunning Alexander Nevski Cathedral, and it was something that I might be interested in.  Not fluent in Bulgarian (which is a cyrillic language and still uses that particular alphabet) I wondered if the service would be meaningful to me.  It turned out to be one of most important moments I have had since leaving my home country to become a vagabond.

I ended my day back at the hotel, tired and at peace.  I did log onto my FB account to have a rather lengthy conversation with my long lost "boyfriend".  Endearments were uttered and he asked if he could pick me up at the Otogar upon my return.  I wasn't ready for that.  Still unsure as to his sincerity and trustworthiness... I put him off and went to sleep.

Not realizing how close everything was to my hotel... The Favorit... I called for a taxi to the cathedral the next morning.  The service was at 10 AM and I didn't want to miss it.  When I arrived, the square was empty, but a few people were straggling into the large and magnificent church.

As I entered the knave... I could hear the most beautiful holy voices from above.  Literally.  A choir was singing a Capella from a hidden balcony.  There were no pews... instead people were standing to worship... The service began in Bulgarian, but it didn't make any difference.  I understood the language of Christ.  Everything receded and all that remained was pure worship.  There were actions like crossing one's self and bending down to sweep the floor with one hand.  I didn't not follow suit, but again... it made no difference.  I belonged.

The rest is very personal.  Suffice it to say that I will never forget my experience in this church.  For a moment... I glimpsed heaven... and I did not want to leave.

But leave I did.  I am still in the world.  My new found Canadian friends met me and we strolled through the park past various artisans and vendors hawking icons and post communist wares.  They returned to their hotel to freshen up and I shopped a bit buying little trinkets and bargaining for a memento of the cathedral with a Bulgarian woman who made me feel like I was her long lost cousin who got a great deal from her because of our relationship (though I saw the same exact item later for 3 lev less).  

One of the most striking things I noticed that Sunday was the religious men, dressed in black garb with their floor length robes and tall black hats... and yet ... leaving the church, many were accompanied by beautiful young women in very smart dress.  I inquired about this at another church we visited and was told that the priests in Eastern Orthodox Christianity are allowed wives and these women were their partners.  Nice.

We had also been told by John  that the catacombs of that same church housed some of the most amazing iconography to be seen in Eastern Europe.  We made arrangements to meet there later to view this portion of the church.  We were not disappointed.

As I write this... I am almost a month past this trip to Bulgaria.  I do remember it vividly... and it remains a high point of my journey here.  I will tell you the love affair did resume upon my return to Istanbul... but it was not to last. As Rumi... a much revered Sufi poet who lived, loved, and died in Turkey, states:

“A thousand half-loves must be forsaken to take one whole heart home.” 
― Rumi, Words of Paradise

Truer words have rarely been spoken.  Before the end of this tale... a whole heart will be renewed, and a half love will be forsaken.

Until then.... may the bells of Alexander Nevski Cathedral echo in your memory.



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