Oh, the Places You’ll Go… in the Balkans

It’s really hard to update on the road although I have so much to write. As much as I hope you enjoy reading it, this blog is also partially a chronicle for me of my travels, so I want to get it all down eventually!

I’m on Day 5 of my Balkans trip, which has seen me go from Sofia, Bulgaria to Thessaloniki, Greece. Today I’m going from Thessaloniki back into Bulgaria, to the second-largest city, Plovdiv. I’m so excited. First of all, I got back to Greece after dreaming of it for 7 years, and second, I always think you should visit more than one city in a country to really get to know it. So, Plovdiv it is!

To keep this post simple til I get back home, here are some short thoughts / happenings with photos of the last few days of travel, which should illustrate how glorious and strange it is, and that’s why I love it.

1) Multilingual conversation

I stayed in a family-run bed &breakfast in Sofia, and none of the family members exactly spoke English well. However, it is nice accommodation for the price and location, plus a good cooked breakfast. One morning I was trying to talk to the husband &owner about his experiences, and we actually had to speak in a whopping combination of Bulgarian, Italian, Russian, English and Czech.

This proved to me that we could all communicate with each other, if only we really wanted to :)!

2) Communist-era elevators

One of the things that’s really obvious about Sofia is that its socialist past is very prevalent in the minds of its inhabitants. One of the young Bulgarians I met even said, “Communism, in some ways, isn’t even really over.”

You can see it in the architecture, the attitudes, and the functioning of the city. But one way in which Communism is definitely, painfully not over is the leftover elevator in the bed &breakfast building.

I decided to take it up to the 3rd floor for fun. The first night it was fine. The night before I checked out, I wanted to do it again. Thaaat was a mistake.

The elevator had a door that needed to be pulled shut with a handle, and on the side where you get out, a grille-door, as well as very outdated push buttons. I pressed “3” and the lift started jolting upwards. Seemed fine. But suddenly it stopped. I opened the left-right door, forgetting the grille one, and saw a concrete wall. Shut again. When I opened the grille door, I realized I was stuck between floors.

I was close enough to the door that opened onto the floor to try pushing it open. It was locked. I realized it was probably between the 1st and 2nd levels. Although I don’t look it in the photo, I quietly started to panic and hoped I wouldn’t drop either my keys or phone through the space between the grille-door and wall leading down into the chute.

I pressed one button with a bell on it, thinking this should call someone (but who? it wasn’t a hotel). Nothing, no noise. Another button with TWO bells on it. Again nothing. I pressed “3,” once, twice, three times. Nothing. All the buttons. Nothing until I pressed the ground-level floor. I sighed in relief. The elevator was moving down.

That teaches me not to mess with Communists…

3) Random fellow passengers

On the beautiful bus ride from Sofia to Thessaloniki, we parked at a rest stop near the border complete with amazing scenery that can’t be captured from the ground or in film at all.

I stood in a grassy area with many smoking passengers (we all know Europeans smoke like chimneys) and started to peel a tangerine. Suddenly I felt someone touching my back without warning, and heard them muttering good-naturedly.

It was a dark-skinned, glasses-wearing older woman who was picking the hair off my coat! I must not have realized how much I’d started to resemble a wooly mammoth, but I do shed a lot. While she did it, she talked in a steady stream of incomprehensible words, probably about how much of a ragamuffin I am. The Slav in me desperately tried tuning in, but I couldn’t understand. It was weird, so I waited til she stopped, paused a moment, and said slowly in English, “Bulgarian? Greek?”

“Ah!” she exclaimed, “Anglika.” She started talking again, and then realized once more I wouldn’t understand. Monolingualism can be a barrier, symbolic of the many possible kinds, but we have to get our points across somehow. She hesitated. She pointed to herself. “Bulgarka,” she said, and then a few more words. She saw my puzzled look. Then, she added more seriously, “Muslimanka.”

I raised my eyebrows. Why was she telling me this? I pointed to myself. “Czechia,” I said. (This is very neutral, and I don’t like revealing my Americanness when I don’t know how strangers will react.) She smiled. “Czechia, Bulgaria,” — and made a hand motion that indicated we were not that far apart.

It was time to get back on the bus. “Blagodarya,” I said to her, “thank you.” She nodded and smiled.

A strange encounter? Yes. I will never know what she meant to say. I am choosing to believe that she wanted me to see her as a fellow human, and also that we all have the capacity to be kind no matter our background, even if that is shown by grooming furry strangers.

4) On another note…

I usually have good experiences with this, but the Greek border guard was super grr. It was obvious I was the only non-European on the bus when he collected only one passport and the rest were ID cards. He looked at my picture and then at me, in a funny way. I was afraid then something was going to go wrong.

“Excuse me,” I said after he’d moved on. He turned back around. “I have a Czech ID too, would you like to see it?”

He looked at me, long, though in a short second. Then, wordlessly, he turned back around and continued collecting passes.

Rude. (And not multilingual.)

I did get my passport back, and successfully crossed the border.

5) This has nothing to do with anything, but…

As we ascended into the Greek hills, my ears popped. I lay against the window, sleepily watching the mountains and greenery twist and turn around me, feeling so thankful I got to be alive in that moment, absorbing so much beauty. It really brought me back to 2011, when I was in Greece alone (though surrounded by other fellow students). I was scared and lonely, but I survived it.

Fast forward seven years and I’m back, full of experience(s). I’m feeling really nostalgic as I return to a country I’ve loved from afar, another moment on my journey to try to feel at home everywhere. The multiple types of baggage I take with me through life are so important. And I hope you’ll enjoy my journey with me. More Balkan fun coming soon!

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