Pickles, Prostitutes, and Smiles: Bulgaria

January 13, 2011

Our recent trip to Bulgaria was actually a return trip for me. During my senior year of college, I leaped at the chance to be a part of small student group that traveled to Bulgaria to study at the newly opened American University. It was fairly soon after the fall of communism and Bulgaria was not a top tourist destination. In fact, we never came across any other foreign travelers except for one brief encounter with some missionaries in line at what was probably the only KFC in all of Bulgaria at the time. My memories of that trip are a bit fuzzy now. 

We stayed in student dorms which only had hot water at certain times of the day. We learned to shake our heads for "yes" and nod our heads for "no". We ate a lot of cucumbers mixed with yogurt. We were overwhelmed by begging children as soon as we excited most buildings. We were impressed by the fact that we could use e-mail at a time when e-mail was just being introduced in the States and we had never really used it before. I was also impressed and a bit scared by the fact that one of the Bulgarian students was easily able to access the U.S. Naval Academy's computer system  and track down Adam's e-mail address. Our Bulgarian tour guide proudly announced that Bulgarians are very bright and some of the world's most talented computer hackers are Bulgarian. 

We traveled throughout Bulgaria and were awed by the beauty of the mountains, the monasteries, the Black Sea beaches. We traveled to Turkey and Greece and were equally impressed by those exotic spots. During those road trips, there weren't any public rest stops so our bus driver would periodically pull over on the side of the road and a gaggle of female students (did I ever mention I attended a women's college?)  would climb out, crouch down, and pee on the side of the road. I was glad that I packed several long skirts...much easier to pee in public in a long skirt than in pants. The cost of that month-long trip was about $800 for everything (flights, food, road trips, hotel and dorm stays). It was a strange, but good trip.

To be honest, I never thought I would have the chance to return to Bulgaria. I had those hodgepodge of student memories, but they didn't hold as much emotional weight as my time in Oxford, and I never felt a strong desire to return. But when our friends announced they were moving to Bulgaria, I eagerly convinced Adam that we needed to make the trip. And here are my impressions of Bulgaria fifteen years later. Once again, my impressions of the country are mixed.
 The roadside pickles in Bulgaria are divine. Seriously, I can't stop thinking about them. The woman who sold me the pickles (and apples) was welcoming and she had an easy smile. The two prostitutes standing across the road also smiled at me. Prior to the return trip to Bulgaria, I listened to a Rick Steve's podcast on Bulgaria. He proclaimed his long-time affection for the country and raved about the friendly locals. I remember being a bit puzzled by his comments, because I didn't remember too many overtly friendly or smiley Bulgarians during my first visit. That's not to say we didn't meet friendly Bulgarians, we did, but the more prominent feelings seemed to be distrust, disinterest, and puzzlement. So after hearing Steve's adoration, I was curious to see if there had been a major shift. I didn't see one. Smiles in Bulgaria are still a precious comoditity which explains why I was so touched by those smiling prostitutes on the side of the road between Sofia and Bansko. 
 The traffic in Bulgaria is more packed than before, but part of that is because there are still horse drawn carts. Yes, there really are. On major roads. Traveling long distances and creating frustrated drivers or crazed passengers like myself with a camera trying desperately to capture it all. Modern and old world co-mingling and surrounded by big, strong mountains.
 My strongest visual memories of this most recent trip to Bulgaria are in direct contrast to one another: religious icons and nude women. I loved all of the religious icons and road side shrines/churches. Truly beautiful. But I wasn't such a big fan of the numerous nearly-naked women that seemed to be on billboards advertising everything from dish liquid to car parts. The naked women on magazine covers. The grating music videos with naked, gyrating women that seemed to be playing non-stop in stores, restaurants, and even in the quaint ski lodge where we tried to sip hot chocolate with our kids. Another example of modern and old worlds colliding.
The biggest difference between this trip and my previous trip to Bulgaria, is that I now feel a desire to return. I want to venture back in the spring or summer time to hike around those stunning mountain areas. I want to visit more of the smaller towns where the locals really do smile more. And I want to get some more of those roadside pickles.
Dawn said...

How wonderful to experience a place like that at such a young age then again with a little more perspective...
Love your descriptions! :)

Emily said...

great post--very interesting. have to admit bulgaria has never even made it onto my radar before now!

and rick steves--have such a love/hate relationship with him! or rather, his travel guides and advice! :)

p.s. i've been loving the titles of your recent posts

Karen said...

Funny, I thought you were describing Naples ;) I never could understand the rampant prostitution-- esp with the Vatican right up the road!

I love the rubix cube in your shot, brings home your point of traditional and modern-- without showing us the naked girls!!!

Dim Sum, Bagels, and Crawfish said...

Dawn, thanks! It is fun to re-visit places. Kind of like re-reading those classics from high school...Catcher in the Rye, Anne Frank...they sound/look/feel different when read with older eyes :)

Emily, I am right there with in regards to the complicated feelings about Rick Steves!

Karen, Naples! That last pic was taken at the flea market area outside of the Nevsky Cathedral. The vendors had quite an assortment of items including some WWII (Nazi stuff), Russian stuff, jewelry, lace, ninja stars, icons and yes, rubix cubes.

likeschocolate said...

I went to Russia 20 years ago and have not been back since. I am itching to go back and see the changes. Glad you had such a wonderful visit.

Sonja said...

I'm fascinated by your posts about Bulgaria. Always wondered what it was really like. Albania, too. Been there?

shelly said...

Love reading about your excursions! Makes me wish we were still active and stationed near exotic locales!

katy said...

Interesting. I've never given a thought to Bulgaria, in fact I had to peek at our map of Europe to place it. Doesn't it often seem like the worse parts of modern culture are the first parts to mix with "old world" cultures?

T.L. Holmes Williams said...

I love this post!! I am looking forward to the travel aspect of being a military wife and feel myself living a bit vicariously through your lovely adventures (blushes). You paint vivid pictures through words which leave me looking forward to the next tale!

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