Among the Bulgars
The six hour bus ride to Sofia would have been restful if I had not been roused at the Bulgarian border to hand over my passport, and if I had not lost an hour due to time zones.
Walking in the early morning, I found a hostel, dropped off my bag and began to wander the city. Perhaps because of its boring reputation, my own low expectations, or the little time I spent there, I really liked Sofia. It seemed a Western European city, something born between Germany and France which had immigrated to Thrace after the fall of the Soviets and mostly survived that leveling of culture and the ensuing meltdowns, so that Bulgaria is today a prosperous confederate of the European Union.
Bulgarian women are willowy and bird-like, and the men are proud and stolid. When they don't understand you, even if they are a taxi driver and you tell them a street or are a waitress hearing the name of some menu item, they look at you with a dour and stony face and give the most dismissive shrug, as if you roused them early in the morning with foreign yammering. They lack Nutella, but use on toast a sort of cold relish made from tomatoes and red peppers. Their food is very Turkish, very Slavic, and very Greek, and they serve each dish when ready and not all politely together.
A sign of Sofia's modern stature, McDonalds mark every 200 meters like mile posts on Roman highways, with signs pointing to the nearest of the chain at most street corners — although in Cyrillic, the name is Makgoнaлgc. Cyrillic is very close to the Greek alphabet I'd already learned and easy to decrypt. Novo, meaning new, in Cyrillic is rendered Hoвo. I found this endlessly entertaining. Bookstores had Hoвo books, theaters Hoвo movies, restaurants Hoвo items and menus, banks Hoвo branches; some towns were Hoвo towns; some places just had signs which declared Hoвo!
In the center of Sofia are many historic churches, and being boring I engaged in the tedious business of touring them. Under pointed minarets, the Russian Church of St. Nicholas the Miracle-Maker tapers into gloomy depths, as if stained with ash from long-burning fires. The Church of St. Sofia is a brick warehouse, grand in size but modest in architecture.
The Cathedral of Alexander Nevsky, Sofia's emblematic centerpiece, deserves its place on the mantle. It's three tiered sets of domes, culminating in a great gilded Neo-Byzantine cap, contain an atmosphere unaffected by the hottest or coldest days and dimly lit by yellow-tinted windows and six gold chandeliers. White-haired and white-bearded God bursts forth on the highest roof of the cavernous chamber of marble-patterned floors and wall frescoes, uncluttered, compared to other cathedrals, by iconography or seats or votive tablets or noisy harangues from the pulpit. At the back of the nave, the altar rests under another gilt dome on an ivory white structure as large as most Orthodox chapels.
The Art Hostel had a reputation for being a fun and low-key place with happy symposia in the garden or the basement bar, and the old building was everywhere decorated with strange graffiti or sketches. I sat outside with some Brits whom I had met before in Ohrid and then with some Australians and Scots at the bar, who explained to me in the meandering conversation the different legends they tell the ignorant and naive Tourists of America:
In the Australian Outback, the dangerous Drop Bear, a deadly brand of arboreal koala, plummets from eucalyptus branches onto the heads of passing Americans, and with its climbing claws bared, in the words of the Australian, fucks them up. "Watch out for Drop Bears," the Aussies warn any tourists vectored towards the wild. A similarly dangerous creature, the Hoop Snake bites its own tail to form a deadly wheel and rolls down slopes at incredible speeds, only to uncoil its looped contortion that it might spring venomously at its victim.
The Scots tell people that, Yes, Haggis is a wild animal. Being used to walking along highland slopes, the right leg of the male Haggis is shorter than the left, and the poor beast runs in circles, while the female Haggis has the opposite impediment, her left leg being shorter than her right; and sometimes in their swirling movements they meet and clumsily mate — not a bad metaphor for romance, I think.
Some Canadians told me this story: They said to a few New England girls that they came from Vancouver, above Washington. "Washington DC?" asked the Americans, who had never heard of a state sharing that name. The Canadians immediately told them of their arctic city, how they had to rise early in the chill of their igloo to hook up the dogs, and of the polar bears they passed on the sled ride to town to catch a rare flight to Europe. The gullible Yankees accepted this amazing fiction, but refused to believe that Canada had a two dollar coin called the tooney.
Thursday I set out to visit the Rila Monastery, suggested to me by some Dutch bikers at the Monastery of Treskavec, and made it within 15 miles of the millennium-old place before I had to stop for the night in Rila Town. A man on the bus there introduced himself, told me that there were no more buses up to the Monastery, and offered to rent a room to me for about $10, although in a much more slapstick method than here suggested.
Vasko, a venerable music teacher, led me to his house a few blocks from the bus station and told me all the ways it was perfect: cheap, close to the 7:40 morning bus up to the Monastery, and there is breakfast, bread and marmalade. He showed me pictures of himself taken with other guests, with his music students, and for the cover of his handmade album, and a guestbook full of compliments, and a copy of a French guidebook where his name appeared, and all sorts of other endorsements for his establishment, and then he opened up his piano. "You like rap? Like jazz? Eric Clapton!" And then he crooned, howled, and yodeled:
I quickly began to suspect that Vasko was insane. "C'mon!" he exclaimed, leading me through the sparse rooms on his second floor. "Here is the bathroom. The sink. The toilet. Douche."—that's the shower—"Moment. Understand?" He showed me how each of these apparati worked, and then took me downstairs to his own apartments to show me his personal furniture, with the same proud imperative that compels a child to parade all worldly possessions before a guest. "My rooms very nice. When full upstairs, I stay here. Understand? Yes, it is perfect."
Vasko thought that my name was Chan, and kept saying, "Jackie—," and waiting for me to say Chan. This went on until I wrote down my name on a piece of paper, on which he had been scrawling different Bulgarian salutes, when he said, "Oh Jon. John Wayne!"
Finally I stored my bag in my room and went to walk around town, but Vasko stopped me by shouting, "My friend! My best friend. You my new best friend. You my teacher. My English no good." Even though he had no shoes on, Vasko insisted on leading me out to the small town's broadway — "C'mon!" He pointed out a restaurant that served a good shopsko salad and stopped a poor farmer in a horse-drawn cart full of hay, demanding that I get a picture, before leaving me in peace. There was not much to see, so after I got a famed shopsko salad with chicken kavarma, a sort of rice and chicken stew in a clay pot, I went back to Vasko's and found him accosting some French couple, who gave me meaningful looks when our host was looking away.
I followed Vasko's advice and took the 7:40 am bus up to the Monastery, founded by St. John the Rilski Miracle-Maker, and a Bulgarian Jerusalem and Mecca. Within the four stone walls, open on the inside with four stories of rooms and balconies behind a thousand white arches painted with checkers and lines of red and black, gather among the dozens of monks day-trippers and pilgrims and backpackers on treks through the Thracian hinterland; among those wooded peaks and roaring rivers, the Monastery seems only a fearful outpost of men, though even the high walls cannot block out the sight of them, nor can the gilded domes of the church or the Tower of Hrelyu's masonry match the grandeur of nature.
At 5 a monk in the fullest attire — high black hat and cowl, black robe, black cloak — walked around the church while hammering on a wooden kayak paddle, and stopped at each side to pray. He went inside to the altar, recessed in a great gilded templon so cluttered with columns that bore eagle pediments, with sacral crests, with intricate palms, flowers, acanthus, and grape vines carved from wood and painted gold, with painted portraits of saints crowned by silver halos, and with frescoes of evangelical events, that the cumbrous display looked almost baroque. All the room's walls and columns are adorned in this way or colored with frescoes and murals of Christ and the un-canonical stories of saints, less open than the churches of the West, with less light and less abstraction.
The monk began to chant a peripatetic prayer, and then retreated to the pulpit. A priest took his place before the altar, a purple ribbon over his mantled shoulder, which women sometimes put over their heads when they pray to him. He himself was bald under his black-dyed klobuk, removed as he prayed to the closed saloon doors of the altar, accompanied by a choir of monks in the corner. This choir continued as the priest visited each of the chapel's holy steps with a censer jangling on a chain.
The Rilski Monastery was not as pleasant a home as Prilep, for the camera crews, the tourist throngs, the restaurants and ATMs, the bus-filled parking lot, the security guards, and the registration forms made it more of an attraction and detracted from its character. (The monk in reception thought my name was Zor, due to bad handwriting). I left early on Saturday morning, and luck with the busses brought me back to Sofia just after noon.