Monday, October 16, 2006

[The Life of Shaun #74] The City of Knowledge

Bulgarians do not breath - they smoke.  I have never taken in so many bucket-fulls of smoke, and I lived in Paris in the 90s.  But once I learned to adapt to not needing my lungs to survive, things got looking up.

So, wow, Sofia!  Bulgaria!  Who'd'a thunk it, eh?  I am fascinated with Eastern Europe, always have been, especially since I took German and our teacher, Frau Ranz, would tell us stories about growing up in East Germany.  I'm sad I didn't get to see the divided Berlin, but I loved seeing East Berlin a couple years back when I went and after that I wanted more exposure to less-changed ex-communist states.  And Sofia delivered in spades.

True, it's not communist anymore, but you'd be pretty hard pressed to notice if you fell into a coma in 1990 and just woke up.  It's full of the prototypical expanses of concrete residential developments, crumbling older buildings, odd local brands that would never make it outside Bulgaria, insanely crooked & cracked sidewalks, sometimes with holes covered with a slab of concrete, sometimes just open to rebar wide enough for you to fall into the sewer below if you're not paying attention.  In general in really, really poor shape.  But there are some exceptions, of course.  Oddly, the metro is gorgeous and spotless, and there's a mobile phone signal throughout.

There's an amazing dearth of things to see for a capital city.  There are some churches, some government buildings, but nothing "wow" at all.  But for me this was all part of the fascination, this city the old government basically neutered and whose spirit they did their best to destroy.  And the poverty is rampant, which leads to nice prices for foreigners, a hard life for Bulgarians.

But what's so odd is, I went to Prague, which was also communist, but it's much richer than Sofia, and it's also gorgeous and thriving, and the people there are downtrodden and depressed.  In Sofia, where it's much worse, they are just the opposite - everyone's optimistic and happy and just purely golden.  Down to the last one, every single person we met was exceedingly friendly and went out of their way for us.  The Bulgarian people are beautiful.

There's a small but respectable gay scene, even a couple genuinely good bars.  And again, chock full of friendly, smiling people.  It makes such a difference to a holiday, and we had correspondingly great nights out.  The Friday we just started talking to someone in one of the bars, Exit, and he ended up taking us around in his car (with driver) and we found out the next day he's a top TV personality in Bulgaria - very cool.  :)  We also met up with a friend of a classmate of mine who's from Sofia on Saturday and hung out with him, which was great.  And I did well - I only knocked over two drinks all weekend!

BTW, eight beers, £5 - Sofia rocks!

We had a really hard time navigating at first because Bulgarian uses the Cyrillic alphabet, not Roman, so we're looking at road signs and such that look like "На сайта можете да намерите интересни материали от архива" - not easy for Westerners (but also part of the exotic charm!). 

But it was hilarious because we had our little gay guide, which has been transliterated to the Roman alphabet so Westerners can read the bar descriptions and addresses.  Great, right?  Well, no, because since the street signs are in Cyrillic, the listings you've printed out are useless.  We thought briefly about buying a map in Bulgarian, but then we realized since our listings were in Western script, the map would be useless.  It was an auspicious start!  Fortunately Nick noticed the sign for Exit and from there we just counted streets to find another bar.  Then we met Evgeni Minchev (the TV personality) and it was smooth sailing from there.

I took some photos with my mobile phone, you can check them out here:

or the full URL:

My favourite's the "canal".  :)

So had a lovely time, and give Sofia high marks.  Go see it!  I am excited to see more of the East - it's good I've found a friend who wants to see these places as much as I do!  Next we're thinking Bucharest or Kiev.  But with school and all it won't happen for some time, but it will definitely happen.


Shaun Coley
Clerkenwell, Islington
London, UK
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