ALMOST, BUT NOT QUITE

by Jeff Nix

Stumbling along in Bulgaria

bulgarian woman.jpg

Sitting here with my purple foot resting gingerly on the terrace chair, I look back on my first month or so in Sofia. While reflecting on my experiences here in my attempt to get my head round the place, I find that the more I try to come up with a word to sum up the city, the more I can only come up with "almost, but not quite". OK, that's a phrase, but it kind of works. Sofia is a well-cut Kenzo suit... with white socks. It's a land of contrasts.

OK, what am I on about and what's with the foot? Right. Forget the foot for a moment, let's take the man in the street. Maybe the fact that I've been based in Paris for several years has made me more appreciative of basic human decency and politeness, but I find the people here extremely friendly, especially to foreigners.

Having become accustomed to being regarded as someone who might as well have urinated on Napoleon's tomb if I happened to make a pronunciation mistake or forget an irregular verb, here I am greeted with genuine smiles and appreciation for managing a butchery of "Where is......?" However, go into any government office or bank and suddenly I'm reduced to feeling like Solzhenitsyn daring to beg my Gulag masters for a new piece of leather to chew on. Yup, contrasts.

Having held certain assumptions about the eastern European consumer goods market, and specifically about the availability of some western brands and products, I feel a bit silly. They've got everything! Looking out over Vitosha Boulevard from my spacious, modern apartment (MUCH nicer than anything I could hope for in Paris), I watch the well-heeled of Sofia parade and stroll, popping in here for a coffee, perusing the latest brands there, and babbling away on the newest mobile phone. I decide I'm starving and descend to the street in order to find a butcher, a baker, a....well, mobile phone shops on my street and not a baguette in sight. Forget your Ralph Lauren. I want a goddamn steak!

Eventually I give up, smoke a cigarette and order a pizza. When it's time to pay, I ask the helpful young waitress for the bill. She smiles, shakes her head and walks away. Oh yeah, that means the bill is on its way.

Maybe this apparent lack of food shops has something to do with another thing I have noticed which, incidentally, is connected to the purple foot. I arrived in the heat of the summer and immediately set out to explore my new home. Whether it was a museum mission, or a stroll in the park, my head kept snapping round like a gecko during a mayfly hatch. The place was crawling with models in micro minis! I've never considered myself a gawker, but it was during one of these cultural explorations whilst shod in flip flops that I strode, head up, into a piece of steel jutting from the lunar-like pavement. Result: mangled toe, purple foot.

All in all, though, I like Sofia and think if I just follow the old Canadian saying "There's no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothing" I'll be fine. With a little alteration it means "I'll be the guy in the steel toes".

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