Seven days of thunderstorms

June 5, 2012

My arrival in Bulgaria was marked by an earthquake and seven days of  thunderstorms. Apparently such weather is rare this time of year, but I had no way of knowing that – of all the countries I’ve walked through, Bulgaria is the one I knew the least about. The only things I knew about the country were five centuries of Ottoman rule and the Cyrillic alphabet – Romanians had cheerfully joked about how the Bulgarians would drug me and sell my organs on the black market, but none of them seemed to have any clue about what the place was like either. I’m glad I had so few preconceptions before I took the little ferry across the Danube to the town of Vidin, because exploring a country without expectations, either good or bad, is far more wonderful. Everything is new and unexpected. The process of discovering it is a process of letting the unknown reveal itself, until, by a slow-working magic, it becomes familiar.

The first thing I noticed was the plants. Romania was a green country, but here the greenness was somehow lusher, brighter, more vivid. I followed a small road eastwards through dense foliage, poppies scattering the verge. There were lime trees, acacia trees, banks of wild flowers in yellow, purple, pink and blue, unknown stalks densely clustered with buds, and thickets of wild cannabis. With the humidity and the rain, the atmosphere was almost tropical – a sense of the south, the other side of Europe.

On my second day out of Vidin, hoping the rain had stopped at last, I looked behind me and saw clouds gathering like a child’s picture of an approaching storm. A brilliant band of light lit the sky, but the storm soon broke. I took cover beneath a dripping tree under my inadequate umbrella and waited for the rain to end. The rain didn’t end. The light was dying and I was far from any village, so began vainly casting about for a sheltered spot to camp. There were no sheltered spots. I resigned myself to heading for the fields and pitching my tent in the pouring rain, then decided to walk on, for just another fifteen minutes. After ten, I rounded a corner and came upon the only guesthouse I’d seen all day, with windows lit and smoke rising from the chimney. The owner greeted me delightedly: ‘Come in – you can take a hot shower, dry your clothes and then come down and drink a glass of rakiya with me.’ These were the finest words I could imagine.

The next afternoon, in the town of Lom, I was resting in a café by the Danube and wondering whether or not to walk on. The table next to me was occupied by a group of Bulgarian men, and when they saw me switch from coffee to beer, a look passed between them. One of them, a lean man with the permanent squint of eyes adapted to a never-ending stream of cigarette smoke, introduced himself as Vesco. ‘Tomorrow is a holiday – we’re having a big party in my village. You should join us. There’s a spare room. You can stay a few days.’

We drove to the village the next afternoon, having spent the morning picking up supplies – meat, vegetables, fresh goat’s cheese, beer, rakiya, homemade wine, bread, more meat, potatoes, more beer – and then coming back to the same café for ‘a drink to relax from all this shopping.’ At last we arrived at Vesco’s village, a ramshackle house built by his grandfather, adjoined by various sheds and outhouses all in a state of glorious decline – buildings of crumbling wattle and daub, surrounded by vegetable patches and trailing grapevine. Vesco worked to fix the pump so we could drink water from the well, while me and his friend Itso, a great bristly hog of a man, heaped the table high with chopped vegetables. I glanced outside to see Vesco wringing water out of something that looked like a long white dishcloth.

What’s that?’ I asked.

Guts,’ he replied, flinging a flailing wet lump of it to the waiting dog. ‘We will fry them later.’

More friends arrived, Petar and Georgi, bearing an enormous jar of red wine. They swept out the little tin pagoda – unused since last year’s party – and the eating and drinking began. Vesco seemed to be cooking about seven things at the same time. First he served chicken soup, then came salad and rakiya – in Bulgaria, these always go together. ‘Drink slowly,’ Petar said. ‘We have a long time, and this ends tomorrow morning.’

I settled in for a long night. A sheesha pipe went round the table, sweet apple and pear tobacco. Wine was poured. Meat was grilled. Potatoes were fried. The rakiya got stronger, and it was explained: ‘The first bottle was for kids and ladies. This one is for normal people. There’s another bottle later, and that’s for professionals only.’ Darkness fell, dogs yelped in the lanes, and the wheedling rhythm of Balkan music drifted from the village.

There’s a big gathering in the square,’ said Petar when I asked what this was, ‘but you don’t want to go there. It’s full of Gypsies. We have a big problem with Gypsies, like with you and niggers.’

When I objected to this, he shrugged like he was expecting it. ‘You are tolerant people. We are more racist than you. They are not human beings. They’re animals, they’re not people.’

Instantly I felt my good mood spoil, and a sense of exhaustion come over me. I’d encountered the same attitude towards Gypsies all over Eastern Europe – Slovakia, Hungary, Romania, here – and had long-since ceased to be surprised by it, but the casual hatefulness of this language, the ancient and endless tribalism, suddenly got me down. Drunkenly I tried arguing with him, but there wasn’t much point. ‘You believe that people are good, that different races can live together happily,’ he said with a kind of wistfulness, as if he never could. It was an abrupt reminder of how different our cultures were, how conflicting our beliefs, no matter how well we might be getting on. I was a total stranger here, and yet they had taken me into their home, fed me, given me a bed, entertained me, translated for me, offered me everything. How could I reconcile this warmth, kindness and generosity with such unpleasant views?

I couldn’t. Some things just don’t fit. I continued drinking.

In some strange act of reconciliation, sensing how my mood had changed, Petar approached me later with two long nets. ‘Here, take one of these, I’ll show you something. I’ve been waiting for weeks for these little bastards, and now, after the rain, they’ve come out. We’re going to catch them and eat them.’ The little bastards turned out to be snails, working their way through the vegetable garden. Georgi already had a whole sack of them. ‘You call black people animals,’ I was tempted to say, ‘and you’re crawling round the garden eating snails?’ But already my bitterness was dulled. I just had to let it go.

Much later, sometime after the professional bottle of rakiya appeared, Vesco was dancing in shuffling steps around the little tin pagoda, howling with laughter which descended into a hacking smoker’s cough. They were telling jokes about the Bulgarian folk hero Krali Marko, with most of the punchlines centring on the size of the great man’s penis (large). Vesco was still howling and choking when I finally collapsed in a bed. My last vision of the night was Itso wolfing down fried guts from the sizzling plate before him.

I walked on, severely hungover, the next afternoon. I had the sense they were slightly offended that I was leaving after one night – they were only just getting warmed up – but I was itchy to move. I headed away from the Danube, out of the flatlands, south.

Days of rain followed, and days of green mountains. The night before I reached Sofia, I turned down a dirt road towards a monastery, hoping to find shelter. The church was locked up, the monastery deserted, but a glimpse of lined-up slippers in the corridor convinced me that someone lived there. I sat down to wait, and after a while a guy puttered up on a motorbike – a tough, friendly man with a humorous face, who didn’t seem at all surprised to see me. His name was Ivo – from what I could gather, he worked as a kind of caretaker there. He located the keys under the doormat and ushered me into a neat, cosy room where I could stay the night. But first – in what I am quickly learning is true Bulgarian style – he insisted on driving me down to the village to eat and drink at his home.

His family and neighbours gathered round, piling the table with beer, bread, meat, stuffed peppers, strawberry compote, salad fresh from the garden, and, of course, rakiya. Ivo said something, and everyone laughed. His neighbour’s daughter translated for me: ‘When he saw you outside the monastery, with that beard, he thought you were one of the monks!’ My glass was filled for the third or fourth time. The rain continued falling.

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