The Black Sea

Most of my treasured memories of travel are recollections of sitting.
—Robert Thomas Allen


For me the Black Sea has always been the most remote, forbidding, and enchanted of seas, a fabled and unconquerable territory of Amazons, Argonauts, Scythian savages, sea monsters, and Tatar pirates, all around a moorland of pitch waves, black with sediments. After Hellenes colonized the barbaric shore the Greeks called her the Hospitable Sea, and Varna surely is: an easy and uneventful place, where the only culture is topless tanning, beach volleyball, and drinking to various electronic music.

I received a long lecture on this subject from a dedicated English raver, and it is from that dreary island that 90% of dance music originates. From what I can remember, Trance is the most elemental electronic music, without a solid bass-line; House adds the bass, Techno adds more Pop-style composition, Electro adds strange sounds, and Drum and Bass reduces the genre to the most simple beats. Then there are complications: Deep House, Trance-Step, and the most recently popular subgenre among the ravers of London: Dub-Step, which takes Drum and Bass and slows it down. Some new variant adds Electro's strange sounds to the lethargic beats, and might be called Electro-Dub-Step — I can't remember. (This same learned man of the 808 the next day, listening to some British Alternative band, commented that all that rock music sounds the same to him.)

I arrived Sunday at eight from Sofia on a sleepless overnight train, as every two hours the ticketers insisted on repeating their duties. A sudden storm had rolled in off the sea in a wave of static and drenched the streets as soon as I debarked, but I ran down to the hostel anyway, which was locked, since the reception had moved to a different building without changing their address. There at the door I met two young Americans, Gavin and Nellie, from Reno and Seattle, who were on a vacation from their jobs in Istanbul teaching English, and went out with them to a restaurant for an early morning beer, which felt like a late night beer.

Varna is a resort town which makes its way by the mostly Bulgarian tourists, who flock in during the hot summer months. Despite the bustle of the city center the sandy beach remains pleasant, rimmed by bars and cafés and a wooded park instead of the condominiums that blight the Spanish and Western Balkan coastlines. Most hostels are along chaster beaches outside the port, but I stayed at the Flag Hostel in the city, when we finally found its entrance.

The hostel was founded by an Australian who traded his yacht for the apartments, and is run by an unsettled Englishman named Dave, who invests his attention wildly in each of the business' many problems while struggling to involve everyone in his orchestrated fun, so that in the end he seems consistently puzzled and nearly deranged with imprecise effort. "Ice cream, anyone?" he cries at breakfast, and, "Beer, anyone?" after dinner. The ice cream is what made Flag stand out, in addition to the morning funnel shot of vodka, although this practice was recently abolished when a hostel staffer downed half a bottle with his toast and had to go to the hospital.

According to Dave, the Mafia runs Varna, and allowed him to open the original hostel in an apartment building in expectation of new Western blood and wallets filtering into their bars and clubs. They demanded that the other residents of the building ignore the noisy revelry, and everyone compliantly became deaf. When the bosses made a tour of the hostel, however, and found out how much money Dave must be making, they doubled the rent. Dave refused; so they said he must halve the number of beds there, and Dave relocated to a building across town, with one shower for eighteen beds, from which he is being evicted for noise complaints, and left only a few sandy mattresses on the floors of the original rooms. For €10 I received one of these.

A ship full of Americans on their Semester At Sea was moored in the port for the first few days I was there, and its debarked students evinced that same ignorance I mentioned from Sofia. One girl, seeing an Englander's Oxford student card, asked him, "Oxford, isn't that the school from Harry Potter?" Otherwise they chattered obnoxiously on the beach, which is really Varna's only attraction.

On Monday afternoon I met Gavin and Nellie on the beach, and after a few hours we went to a bar under a great canvas tent on the strand, where we met an Australian named Pete who we quickly named Uncle Pete, for he was 38 and 21 at the same time. We went to a fish restaurant and shared appetizers and rakia, and I got a Danube Herring with a beer, the whole bill not amounting to more than $10 a person. Then the two Istanbullu Americans led the way to a strip club. It is a strange trip where two days after staying in the most holy Thracian monastery I can find myself among Bulgarian strippers.

The next day we met Pete and his three Lithuanian friends on the beach for relaxed swimming and drinking. The shallow sea was warm and fine, and dirty until you crossed over a thick strand of seaweed. "Once in a while you get a good cigarette," said Gavin. "Most of the time it's the dirtiest habit ever, but this is a good fucking cigarette." We Americans went up a few blocks into the city to a Chinese restaurant that Gavin and Nellie had found — not some fake restaurant, but a real Chinese place, run by some of the Chinese who have made their way to the Black Sea coast. There, we got glorious helpings of Sechuan chicken, pork ribs, chicken and noodle stir fry, and MSG.

Back on the beach, Uncle Pete became savage. He constantly added nicknames to everyone, and called me Scribe, St. John the Baptist, Man of Letters and Numbers, and Moby Dick. He invented words, including acumenical and venement, and also employed many slogans — strange ones like, "Slap a mullet uphill!" and obscene ones like, "Suck a fart out of a low-flying seagull!"

We relocated to one of the beach bars with beanbags and roofless pavilions, one of which Pete climbed up to do Olympic backflips. Some other Australians heard his accent and introduced themselves, and soon Pete inspired one of them to try tricks off the ten-foot wooden frame. The Aussie jogged back and forth on the sand to warm up, then climbed to the top and paced back and forth on the beams with his hands pressed together Zen-like in front of him, breathing deeply, and finally jumped off and did a sort of roll after he hit the ground in the most anticlimactic display of acrobatics; yet the effort, and the Australian custom of meeting and doing schoolyard stunts, was entertaining enough.

The following morning, as I ate a slice of pizza in the piazza, a gypsy woman came up to me with a cane, a plastic cup, and a pleading look and lingered there a long time while I ignored her. I felt bad, though, and when I finished my snack looked around for her, but as slow as she walked she was already gone — though the look she gave me I still felt. I changed in the hostel and went down to the beach, leaving my bag packed against the wall, and on the way back stopped at the train station to get a ticket for Sofia and at an Internet café to prepare to visit Bucharest.

Arriving back at the hostel around 6, some Danes there told me that Dave had moved my bag to the reception building. I went there, and after some effort, derived this story from the lethargic staff: At around noon, Dave and some of the hostel workers had gone to move mattresses from the new building into the old apartment where I was staying, and Dave had moved my bag into the common room, a small area with a kitchen sink, a fridge, and two benches around a television.

One of the three Danes slept drunkenly on one of the benches through all this commotion, and Dave put my bag, my shoes, and my pants in the corner among his tumbled gear, thinking it belonged to another of that party. The Dane woke soon after, when the only other people to stay in that part of the hostel, three from France, were about to leave, and reported no one snooping around in the room, and no sight of the bag — though the Danes had left the hostel for ten minutes to eat, and during that time the French suspects were alone with the baggage!

I rapidly searched all three divisions of the hostelry, interrogated the staff, visited police station and train station, peered into dumpsters where a thief might have dumped the ravaged bag once divested of its rewards and dirty clothes, and I looked steadily around the crowded streets of Varna, as if my sheer awareness would pick out the missing pack; but it was barren. The lot was gone.

(To kill any suspense, friend, I had with me all along my passport, ID, debit card, camera, iPod, and Moby Dick, so it's not the end of the world, or even its eleventh hour.)

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