Part two of extracts from a book in progress. Click to read part one in VAGABOND 1
A Palestinian in Sofia
Outside the Banya Bashi mosque in Sofia, we were taking off our shoes to have a peek inside, when a well-fed middle-aged man with Arabic features said in English: "It's lunchtime but I let you go in, just for you. Where you from?"
"I'm from here," I said, "and Michael is from New Zealand."
"Ah, you life here and your boyfriend visiting you," he interpreted.
"No, we live in England," I said.
"You live England!" he was impressed. "He take you England." Yeah, whatever. I was getting sick of being a Bulgarian bride for export.
"Where are you from?" Michael asked.
"I'm Palestinian. But I have Bulgarian passport now, I married to Bulgarian woman. And Swiss passport. I have so many passports but no Palestinian passport." He smiled with a mouthful of random teeth. He had a business in Sofia, but it wasn't doing so well at the moment.
"I'm thinking to going somewhere else. But I don't know where. My wife, she is from Sofia, and I like Sofia, it's okay. Maybe go to Italy, maybe go to Switzerland again, I don't know."
"What's your business in?" I asked.
"Import-export. You know...Small things. And I look after the mosque. Not for money, just to spend the time here, talk to people, you know..."
He drifted off uncertainly. Michael tried to speak to him in Arabic, but the Palestinian stuck to his blend of broken English and broken Bulgarian.
"Where you learn Arabic, my friend?"
"Syria," Michael said.
"Ah, Syria. Yes," he laughed in embarrassment, "Your Arabic better than my Arabic. I forget too much. Too much."
Then he abruptly terminated the conversation by shaking our hands, like a man anxious to get back to his job. Except there was nothing to get back to but the shade of the mosque doorway.
That day, I met another foreigner who spoke broken English. I never found out his name, so I will call him Fritz. Fritz was Austrian, and I met him at a friend's apartment in Sofia. My friend Anna is a Bulgarian painter living in Berlin who spends the summers in an old family apartment in central Sofia. Fritz and his Bulgarian wife turned up while I was there, to look at Anna's paintings. Fritz was introduced to me in German, I replied in English, and he sat down opposite me while his wife and my friend sat down aside to speak in Bulgarian.
Their young daughter was dressed, like her mother, in a little pink-shaded woollen suit despite the August heat. She adhered to her mother the whole time, ignoring Fritz. The mother was tall, elegant and beautiful, but her beauty was marred by a patchy discolouration which ran across her face like Nestle spread. Fritz was middle-aged and
choleric, with burst capillaries on his cheeks and a hairline that receded beyond the horizon of his skull. The small grey eyes behind the thin-framed spectacles were watery and frowning. They frowned at the book lying on my armchair - Teach Yourself Bulgarian for Germans.
"It's my boyfriend's," I said, "He's learning Bulgarian."
"Is he German?"
"No, he's from New Zealand, but he speaks German and he bought this in Germany. It's a good book, apparently." I held it out to him. He took it gingerly and turned it in his hands.
"Yes," he said, sniffi ng through his paper-thin nose, "It is good only if he intends to learn the language." He handed it back to me.
"You don't speak Bulgarian?"
"No, of course. I speak German and English. That is enough. I do not wish to learn Bulgarian."
"Your wife must speak good German," I said.
"Oh no, she does not wish to learn German." He looked at his wife with contempt. "She does not like Vienna, and I do not like Sofia."
"So, where do you live?"
"So, I live in Vienna, and my wife lives here in Sofia. It is better this way. And of course, I visit Sofia often. I have business here."
I looked at his wife who was busy talking to Anna. She seemed happy enough - after all, she didn't see much of Fritz, while having the fiscal advantages of a foreign husband. She was the kind of woman the peach-seller definitely wouldn't sell peaches to, if he knew about Fritz.
"Why don't you like Sofia?" I asked.
The sudden rays of the afternoon sun struck his bald head through the thin curtains and he twitched uncomfortably in his armchair.
"Have you seen the holes in the street? They are terrible. Every 50 metres seem like 500. All the time, you are falling. It is not normal."
He shook his head indignantly. "So, before 1990, Bulgaria was more normal. I have some friends here, some good Bulgarians. There are some good Bulgarians, not many, but some. They said to me before, you will see, Bulgaria will change, just wait a few years. They promised.
I waited, and now it is worse. I say to them, what happen with your promise? They just, you know, they are sad, they do not know what to respond. It is just so worse." He licked the saliva that was frothing on his lips.
"In what way is it worse?" I asked deadpan, trying to rise to the occasion.
"So, for example Bulgarian painters. They are good painters here. But their prices are now not normal, no. They used to be normal prices, I buy some Bulgarian paintings before, good paintings, but now they are just...too expensive, that is not normal price."
I was glad Anna didn't understand English.
"And what is your business here?"
"So, I have business in several East European countries: here, Budapest, Prague. But they are so better than Sofia, more normal. You can do business there. Here, you cannot. Everybody is lying to you, everybody, how do you say...strips you off. No, it is impossible."
He was shaking.
"So why are you still here?"
"I am seeing if I will continue my business in Sofia or not. I am deciding. There are some advantages." He drummed his thin fingers on his thigh, looked at his heavy gold watch, then looked around the apartment - ceilings, floor - and said: "This is a nice old floor, good boards, more normal. Not like our apartment, it is terrible, all the boards are like this," he crossed his shaking fingers, "with holes between. When they want, they can do good work, but Bulgarians are lazy."
I was trying hard to suppress the nausea of my antipathy and approach this specimen anthropologically.
"What is, in your opinion, a normal city?" I said, "Your favourite city, say."
"So, I am from Wien. I like Wien, it is a normal city. I have not seen other city better than Wien, no."
I was staring at him, probably with my mouth half-open. Fritz was amusingly grotesque here, in 21st Century Europe, but he wouldn't be so amusing in an SS uniform, signing somebody's death sentence with a thin-lipped frown.
"And what is your business?" he said, forced by my silence to maintain the conversation.
"I don't have a business," I said, "I'm a writer."
"So, this is a kind of business also." He said approvingly. "What do you write about - romance, crime, or thriller?"
"Literature," I said.
"Literature," he blinked with white lashes.
"I also write travel," I said, "A few years ago, I went to Vienna, but I found it so boring, I had nothing to write about."
He brushed off some invisible fluff from his jacket.
"Maybe it is boring, but I prefer boring than the holes in the street and the cars on the pavement." He paused and added, "If I travel to some place on holiday, I prefer to go somewhere clean, in the mountains."
"Have you travelled much?"
"No, I do not much like travel. But I have some friends from Wien, they have been to Nepal, and they said it is clean there. But I do not like travel."
"Yes, I figured that," I said. But he was a stranger even to mockery. I was getting up to go, and he briefly held my hand with his clammy claw and smiled thinly.
"I wish you success in your business," he said, and I could swear he was as sincere as he ever got. I don't think he had realised that I was Bulgarian until Anna came to show me to the door in Bulgarian. Not that he cared. His wife remained seated where she was in another corner of the room, the little pink girl still clinging to her, both of them turned away from Fritz who sat sweating in the sunshine, frowning at the perfect parquet. The invisible life-line of broken English ran between them like barbed wire.
We Didn't Like Sofia
It was time to go back to Istanbul on the overnight train. Sofia's central railway station squats at the edge of central Sofia. It resembles an empty hangar. The two modern Princess Hotel bus stations flank it like impatient youths pushing along a senile grandfather. Standing in the draughty station hall, you feel as if you are waiting for a phantom Orient Express that is indefinitely postponed to the past.
Although the station is at the northern end of Sofia's most fashionable artery, Europe vanishes here. What remains is neither East nor West, but an urban no man's land where a hotchpotch nation of passengers hangs listlessly suspended in a borrowed present: anxious citizens in crumpled clothes and battered shoes who are heading for their villages with bundles and pre-packed lunch; railway station louts with bluish stubble who lean in doorways, shell sunflower seeds, and wait for a "deal"; and the rare bedraggled tourist with a backpack who wonders if a passing train will bother to stop on its way to Istanbul. Trains are considered old-hat in Bulgaria; everyone with a little bit of money or a little bit of style takes the luxury buses.
On the sleeper wagons to Istanbul, there wasn't a single Bulgarian. The Bulgarians and Turks were in the cheap, sleepless wagons. Our fellow foreign passengers were just whizzing through Sofia on their way to Istanbul, like the twenty-something Slovenians in the compartment next door. They were blond and long-haired, and had Germanic accents. With their hard-core backpacks, scruffy travelling clothes and "I've been travelling this long" beards, they clearly felt European.
Across the thin wall separating our compartments, I listened to them tell Michael what a backwater Sofia was.
"We didn't like Sofia," they said.
"How long did you spend here?" Michael asked.
"Two hours. We just walked around the station. We didn't feel like going into the city."
"I like Sofia," Michael said, "It's my second time here." I was grateful for this small gesture of solidarity.
The train started to shudder in its customary coughing way, like an old man with TB. The long, steamy whistle announced, as always, the end of something, but I never knew what it was. Sitting on the bottom "couchette", my head bowed under the bunk bed on top, I bid goodbye to Bulgaria once again. It's a goodbye I've repeated several times since
1990, though of course each goodbye is unique. Sometimes I left with relief, sometimes with the constricted throat of separation, sometimes numb and confused - like this time. It was as if I didn't allow myself to feel anything, for fear that I might feel more than is absolutely necessary.
The velvety dark ranges of Rila mountain rose along the railway, multiplying in the summer haze. If a country has a soul, Bulgaria's soul is surely here, in the folding, wizened mountain ranges that never reproach, never complain, never give anything away. Like a human soul, if there is such a thing, they are full of shadows and sudden clearings, springs and sheer drops. They were also silent reminders of what I was leaving behind, yet again. Towns scarred by concrete blocks nestled in their soft laps. Strewn rubbish, car wreck yards, piles of black coal, yellow grass burnt by the summer, scruffy boys on old bikes gaping at the train, shrivelled women with bulging bundles at twilight stations - this too was my country, if only I wanted it. I guessed I didn't want it, not if it meant having nothing else. Not if it meant feeling like the peach man.
Like an ordinary foreigner, I was returning to Istanbul after my visit to little Bulgaria. But I wasn't an ordinary foreigner: I felt hurt by the Slovenians' comments, and I would have gladly punched Fritz if I weren't well brought-up.
Despite my best efforts at being an ironically detached cosmopolitan soul, I couldn't help being the zombie of my own past. The train trudged past villages forgotten not just by the world, but by themselves. It was an "express" train but it stopped in places that barely had a platform. Swarthy bystanders gazed dully at us, with distant sadness, as if remembering some old dream of travelling to Paris.
"Why are we stopping again?" Michael complained cheerfully from time to time. "For the train mechanics to get off? For all the Kurds to get off before we get blown up?"
At a village called Yabalkovo, Appletown, a ton of mail was unloaded from a carriage.
"So, we are the mail-train," Michael concluded with glee, "Delivering the mail to the entire nation en route to Istanbul."
"Can you be quiet for a moment?" I said, putting on his Discman. "I'm trying to figure out how I feel."
"OK, and I'm trying to study some Bulgarian over here, so can you be quiet for a moment?"
I listened to a CD of terribly haunting Bulgarian chants, drums and wind-pipes, while the country ran past me. I tried to write down how I felt, what I saw, what this meant, but nothing came out except a few matter of fact statements in English, despite the Bulgarian sights and sounds. I was afraid of writing my thoughts down, or perhaps afraid of having any thoughts. But the inside of the CD cover helped me. There, on a black background, the famous Bulgarian choreographer Neshka Robeva had written a short text on the dance-show based on the music: "Scared away by the impasse, the children of Bulgaria leave to look for salvation and a better life elsewhere. Scattered to the four corners of the earth, uprooted, they live timeless, spiritless lives. They search for a doomed happiness foretold. Those who remain draw faith from the history of the nation. Convinced of the endlessness of the Bulgarian genome, they accept their fate and go to the end of the road. Purified by suffering, they walk through fire and carry on with the new power of messiahs..."
Crap. I took off the headphones. It was the old expats-versus-locals debate. Mrs Robeva was evangelising to the locals, to boost their morale and make expat Bulgarians like me (who lived a timeless, spiritless life) feel even more rotten - if that was possible.
Because, in my benighted existence abroad, I could never be a messiah of my national genome. Well, thank god for that - I didn't want to be anybody's messiah. But what I did want desperately was for foreigners to understand and then like this country, the country that was still mine, genomes and messiahs notwithstanding. I wanted them to understand its difficult destiny, its battered people, its future.
In downtown Sofia, across from the now glitzy TsUM Shopping Arcade that used to be Communism's drab showcase of a "central universal store", stands the symbol of Sofia. A giant golden woman with an anatomically correct body, crowned in the medieval Bulgarian style, holds on her outstretched arms a wreath and an owl, the bird of wisdom, which is what Sofia means. The motto of the city is "Sofia grows but never ages". Yes, my cynical voice whispered, it has grown into urban shantytowns of concrete and mud. Didn't I grow up there, wounded by the ugliness and desperate to leave?
When I finally left at 17, didn't I rejoice that I never had to go back? Yes, but I'd been wrong to rejoice. Definite escape is not possible, and nor is definite return. Only transit is possible.
Only this air-conditioned night between Sofia and Istanbul, and the hiccups of the old "express". And nobody, nothing, can protect you from the things you long to escape. A moment comes when you realise, with a terrible vertigo, that they are indistinguishable from the things you long to regain.