The Metamorphosis

I'm serious
Everybody so serious
That boy so serious
Came meet me, get, I wanna blood,
You don't really wanna get serious
My whole crew is serious
That man is serious,
Serious, serious, serious.
—Dubblededge, "Lips 2 Da Floor"


I took up Dave's offer of a complimentary night on my sandy mattress in the hostel, and intended to stay Thursday as well. Dave, who in that sardonic way of the British describes himself as a fat bastard, advised me to forget about it and to go out to the beach for a day. Yet rather than this sensualism, I went to bed early, slept fitfully, woke early, and dressed myself in my only possessions and a severe mood. Warily I set out, the day after I lost my backpack, to investigate its theft.

First I looked around the hostel, in the bushes and the alleys, for any sign of my bag or its contents, and in the dumpsters, but they were all emptied that morning. At the Flag Hostel's main branch I ate some toast and drank some tea, and considered my leads.

Imagine the following suspects in a confused line: Dave (unlikely, considering his general gregariousness and consternation), the Danish (too hungover and generally good-natured for anything malicious, though the selective snatching raised suspicion), the residents of the apartment building (but how would they enter the hostel?), the old Gypsy who cursed me (only if you are superstitious, as she was not ambulatory enough to scale those stairs), and the three French.

Of the last group, there were two men, one half Romanian and short with brown eyes, short brown hair, and good English; one tall and broad with long curly brown hair and brown eyes; and a girl with a ring in her nose, a journalist who spoke English well. They checked out, you will remember, at the time when my bag went missing, and being unknown and French were the prime suspects . The train station security guard promised to keep an eye out for them and for my bag the night of the incident, and the next day, after learning from a hostel staffer that they intended to take the 10 pm train to Bucharest on Wednesday, I returned to learn that the security cameras had not been working at that time.

Cruel fate! But I would not give up. I called hostels in Bucharest, but heard of no French party of three or of a girl with a nose-ring; but since one of them came from that country, they probably stayed with a friend. My hope endured this barrage of failure, and I went to the police station in an alleyway behind a construction site, even though Dave warned me those officers had so many reports of stolen items made by beach-bound tourists that they treated each with little regard.

First the policija told me I needed a translator, but eventually two officers came out with suitable English to hear my tale of woe. The older one brought me back into an office and sat behind a metal slab of a desk. He folded up a piece of scratch paper already used on one side and wrote down the details of my case in a cursory fashion — there is a green backpack, and it belongs to this American Jon McDonald, whose email address is as follows — while reminding me that there would be no investigation; but there was that private crusade waged by a tall and hairy fellow in swimming trunks, whom no one could understand, and he was undeterred.

I asked the younger cop where the town's garbage went, and he shook his head and told me, "To a field, way out of town. There's a gypsy town there. You shouldn't go." He told the older cop and this one shook his head and with wide-eyes said, No no no no. "You will be pick-pocketed. It is very dangerous for someone like you, not from here." I insisted until the man wrote down a name in Cyrillic and in Roman characters, and he insisted back, "I advise you not to go out there. It is a gypsy town."

What was the name of this graveyard, this tomb of a town? It was Vuglen, which is Charcoal.


I went to the Domition of the Theotokos Cathedral, where under the sanctified domes a long string of taxis assail tourists. "Where you go?" they ask as if you were headed somewhere forbidden. "Hey, c'mon, where you go?"

I told one of them I wanted him to drive me to Vuglen, wait for 30 minutes, and drive me back for 20 lev. There was a great debate. Other drivers brought out maps and showed that it was 20 kilometers to the town.

"It is too far," said the driver. "It will take twenty minutes to get there, and then to wait a half-an-hour — it must be forty lev." "No, I'll only pay twenty." "Thirty-five." "Thirty-five is too much. The most I'll pay is thirty." "I cannot do it for so little." "I'll find someone else then." "No, wait." He considered this carefully, in the way that hagglers do, to show that it physically pained him to give me something for so little, but that he was doing it out of an altruistic conceit inseparable from his character. "Only fifteen or twenty minutes," he proposed. "Alright, twenty minutes."

And we got in the car and drove off through an empty plain with grid-lines of trees like Normandy but less ancient, until we came over a hill and saw a great mound of trash beetled by tractors and rollers and other machines, clouded over with seagulls, and beyond that a little red and white town which had to be Charcoal.

The driver was perplexed but did not ask questions when I told him to take me not to the town, but to the gates of that reeking mound. As boldly as I could in swimming shorts and sandals, I walked up to the lingering workers in the shade of a great office building, and one of them who spoke English came up to me.

I kept moving towards the trash as I talked to him, asking where the most recent rubbish of Varna would have been dumped in an official way, and he pointed out a great uncrushed pile of black bags and rotting food. The trash-master thought I was missing my passport, and I let him think that as we circled the pile of garbage and poked into it, along with a dark worker in gloves who threw around bags for us. We saw nothing. I had vaguely expected my bag or items from it to be sticking out above the trash like tombstones, like flotsam in the sea, like hands in a graveyard — a phenomenal salvation.

The Lord of Charcoal still promised his aid. "I have twenty to fifty workers here," he said as we walked towards the entrance. "Tell me what it is and we will search for it." I described my bag and my lost notebooks — blue libra and biblia — and got his phone number, so I could call the next day.

I got back in the taxi and left Charcoal, left my foolish hopes and my possessions to rot. That is all they ever were, and all any of us are: a lode of charcoal playing at life, in a fire of work or in dark streaks across some blank canvas, to be consumed inconsiderately and dashed deftly, unremembered and unremarkable, into death's great pit. Everything we do today is tomorrow forgot, says the Man of Sorrow, for sadness is older than joy and will outlast it.

And yet I cannot help but look to you, Thief of a Wednesday morning, who with fine fingers extracted my gear from the Danes' and transported it to some airy place from whence it can never return; I cannot help but look to you, be you hosteler or local or gypsy, and ask you, who could not know the value of what you stole, Why?

We have no reason to mistrust our world, for it is not against us. Has it terrors, they are our terrors; has it abysses, those abysses belong to us; are dangers at hand, we must try to love them.
– Rainer Maria Rilke, "Letters to a Young Poet"


The irreplaceable losses were these: a half-full journal that looked like Dr. Jones', a few notebooks, a pair of Lowa shoes my dad bought me, a hat my mom knitted me, and a 40-year-old book of Greek phrases my great aunt mailed me. My current supplies were two shirts, a pair of boxers, a hotel towel, swimming trunks, and those essential items I had kept with me during the theft: camera without a charger, iPod without a chord. I had a pair of Reef sandals, but those both broke on Thursday night. I was barefoot, with everything I owned on my back or hung in a little bag around my neck.

"What do you do?" they asked me.

"Buy clothes and a bag and move on," I said.

I had proceeded through those emotions of grief: the initial denial, the anger and bargaining of the investigation, the depression of despair when all my efforts gained me nothing, and this quiet acceptance of my fate, lubricated by cheap fish and beer at a restaurant called Nord, which I persuaded a dozen hostelers to visit with me after we finished the drinks of Thursday's Free Beer Night on the beach. The restaurant was on the sand next to a Happy's grill, which is the Thracian Sizzler, and I got a Black Sea Scad and a shopsko salad and a beers, and split a $3 bottle of house wine, all costing less than $10. This feast renewed my low spirits in a wave of euphoria as only food and bargains can direct.

On Friday, I left the hostel barefoot — a low point for sure — and bought some €2 sandals and a new pair of €4 swim trunks, to replace the ragged Albanian pair. At a second-hand store, I bought a plaid shirt and a pair of jeans, which were good but did not fit well and had a hole in them, so I cut them below the knees and used that denim for a patch. I proceeded to the gypsy market, where I bought three pairs of underwear, and then down a shopping street for a notebook, journal, and a school-sized backpack made of green canvas, no larger than the daypack of most travelers. The whole rearming cost less than €20, or $30, although I had some obvious gaps in my kit to fill with supplies from the Internet.

Yet what need we these small things, these remembered clothes, these fashions? Give me a white robe and a turban like some Indian Swami or Bhagat; make me like Kane in Kung-Fu, and let me wander the ages. I had accrued too much and made myself unwieldy by my refusal to sell any of it, so that in the end it was extracted from my miserly clutches unwillingly, just as Frodo who refused to cast off the ring lost the finger.

I am free now, though the flames I leapt through were hot. I am light on my feet, my shoes soft on the long Oriental road ahead. The diary and the four lost journals, and the most important words I wrote in them: I remember them all.

"If I lost my bag, I'd want to go home," said a Virginian when we went to Nord the next day, as I ate a grilled Salmon. But failure is not an option; I go to Japan. After I finished eating, I shouldered my new bag, nodded proudly when they asked, "Is that all you have?" and walked quickly to the train station, where a sleeper train steamed and groaned in anxiety for the trip to Bucharest, into a new August month.


  1. Bravo! Nobody can ever steal from you the only thing that matters.


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