Saturday, 21 May 2011

Plovdiv, Bulgaria

I took an overnight train from Istanbul to Plovdiv, and arrived in the cultural heart of Bulgaria at 11 a.m.

The city struck me as tourist-unfriendly from the get-go.  I went to reserve a train ticket from Plovdiv to Sofia.  I showed the woman behind the counter my Eurorail pass and I pointed to the train I desired to take from a Eurorail book.  She stared at me with obvious irritation, finally blurting out the word "information" and dismissing me with a wave of her hand.  

I headed to a nearby Information desk.

I'm in a foreign country and I don't speak any language but English so I don't have a leg to stand on.  However, wouldn't you think that a woman manning an Information desk at the train station in the 2nd largest city in Bulgaria would speak a few words of English?

Her inability to understand me was not what irked me, however.  It was her haughty attitude.  After I asked her where I could go to reserve a train ticket to Sofia, she started rambling off to me a string of words in Bulgarian even though it was obvious I didn't know what the hell she was saying.

She had the most disgusted expression on her face and looked like she wanted to reach through the glass window and slap me.  I'm sorry I don't speak Bulgarian, lady!

I walked back to the ticket counter and asked a man in a business suit if he spoke English.  Another man in his mid-20s heard me and swooped in, "I'll help her."  He was a Bulgarian college student that spent the last two years studying abroad in Vienna.  He was the sweetest guy.  He escorted me to the ticket counter and translated for me.  Turns out I can't make a train reservation from Plovdiv to Sofia.  The woman behind the counter said that if I showed up on Monday morning with my Eurorail pass it would be good enough to walk on the train.

I headed toward my hostel, but my impression of Bulgaria was tainted from the two women at the train station.  I found myself being as intolerant as both of them, looking down my nose at everyone I met.  Many of the women in Plovdiv looked out-of-it.  They looked strung out, had ratty hair, bags under their eyes.  It didn't help that they were decked out in American 1980s fashion, wearing an inch of makeup, and sucking feverishly on cigarettes.

Smoking is the national pasttime in eastern Europe, so it seems.

I also found myself looking down my nose at the hordes of fat, dull-looking men...

And the screaming children darting to and fro.  Oh, the screams!

It made me happy, so happy, that I don't have any rugrats of my own.  One day, I'd like my very own scream machine but not now.  God, not now!

I saw these thoughts running through my head and I felt guilty.  I knew that I was being intolerant.  I decided to give the Bulgarians a second chance.

I headed into a Tourist Information Center to get a map and was again treated rudely by a Bulgarian woman behind the desk.  Ummm, WTF, do I have "asshole" written on my forehead?

I went to lunch and decided to take myself out of the equation.  I sat back and observed my Bulgarian waiter talking with other customers.  He looked pissed off.

I looked around.  Everyone looked pissed off.

The only conclusion I can draw is that, for Bulgarians, life is difficult.  It's a harsher life than the life we live in America.  

When I was in Istanbul I met Fikret and Veysi, two guys that work at the Sydney hostel.  When I met them, I assumed that they were 30, 31, 32...

One morning they started talking to me in stilted English and I learned that they are 22 and 25-years-old (the 25-year-old already has three children).

I told Yusef, the hotel manager, how surprised I was that Fikret and Veysi were younger than me.  "They look to be in their early 30s," I said.  Yusef told me that life ages people faster over here.  There's more stress.

I know this to be true.

I deployed to Afghanistan when I was 24.  Before the deployment, people mistook me for 18, 19, 20.  People asked me all the time how I was old enough to be a Second Lieutenant.  After the deployment, people assumed that I was 23, 24, 25.  Seems like I aged five years in 15 months.

In fact, I did look much older upon return.

Life in Afghanistan is rough.  My skin developed wrinkles and sun spots.  I lost 15 pounds.  I chipped several teeth.  There wasn't a beauty parlor around the corner, garbage men to clean the streets, bottles of cleaning fluid readily available to keep everything spick and span.

Instead, there was war, poverty, and sand storms.

It made me realize how lucky I've been, how easy my life has been compared to so many others.

Once, at a family reunion, one of my relatives remarked that people in developing countries deserve to be poor.  "They're so lazy," she said.  "They have no ambition."  I knew then how wrong she was.  And that was before Afghanistan.  Before Turkey.  Before Bulgaria.

We got in a little tussle.

Look, I'm not some bleeding heart liberal.  Far from it.  I believe that people can rise up out of poverty, from less-than-ideal circumstances through hard work and sheer determination.  But I also know that it's far easier to do so when you're born with a silver spoon in your mouth.  When you come from an upper-middle class family, from a two-parent household.  When you don't have any disabilities.  When you're sent to the best schools.  When none of your friends do drugs or are in a gang.

This is a rambling post.  What is the point?

I'm trying to say have tolerance.  Realize that the people you meet on your travels have a story to tell.  (Even if the story they teach you is how NOT to treat a foreigner when you're back in your home country.)  I'm trying to say be compassionate.  Realize that life for others is oftentimes harder than the life you've lived.  Or just a lot, lot different.  

Today I'm trying to be a tolerant traveler.  I'm trying to be compassionate traveler.  It's time to give Bulgaria a 3rd chance.



  1. It seems most of the people here working in the tourism sector would rather be shot dead than make the slightest attempt to help a foreigner.
    Sorry to hear you had a lousy time in Plovdiv. I hope next time will be better.

  2. Ilko, I am trying to give Bulgaria the benefit of the doubt. I was only there for 2 or 3 days, so my bad experience could have just been a fluke. I did enjoy the food in Bulgaria and the countryside around Plovdiv was stunning.