Sofia - A Balkan Oasis
Trip Start Apr 17, 2001
279Trip End Ongoing
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Ellen and I looked at one another, both wanting to say "Let's get the hell out of here." But there was no point in saying it. Leaving wasn't an option. The northbound train headed towards Budapest that we had gotten off left ten minutes earlier and was long gone. We looked at the schedules posted on the wall - they were in Cyrillic - and we didn't understand a word of the language or this new alphabet.
"Where are you from?" came a mouse-like utterance from someone nearby. I turned and saw a shivering young woman standing by a column, smoking hard on a cigarette.
"Toronto, Canada," I said.
"Wow, so am I...I mean we. My boyfriend is trying to find food. We got off the southbound train from Belgrade a couple of hours ago, took one look around and decided to hunker down 'til the next train for Thessalonica comes through in about five hours." She spoke the words fast and nervously between pulls on the cigarette.
When you're really afraid there's nothing that will buoy you up faster than finding someone who is even more frightened than you are, I thought.
A cab driver found us. Ellen told him that we wanted to go to the Hotel Maya in downtown Sofia. The driver gave us a "you don't want to go there" look I thought, but then I quickly realized he was just making it sound like a difficult fare to try to squeeze a few extra Bulgarian Yentils from us. I didn't care about the money. I just wanted to be on the move, away from the train station. We climbed the corroded steel steps, took a deep breath and looked out onto Sofia. We weren't one hundred metres from the train station when the sun started to shine, the birds started to sing and the rail station disappeared. In its place, beautiful Sofia appeared. A vibrant, sophisticated, albeit compact city with a most unfriendly people. Ellen walked into a shoe store and approached a salesclerk who waved her hands, saying "No English." then turned her head the other way. The clerk annoyed Ellen, but frankly after Turkey, I found her and most of the people of Sofia to be a welcome relief.
We walked and walked and walked. We visited three onion domed Russian and or Byzantine churches, then ate the food and drank the wine. I was so exhilarated; I bought a new pair of sandals...and a switchblade knife. I have no idea why I bought the switchblade knife, but I did it anyway. Perhaps because I could.
When trains pass through the rugged border crossing between Bulgaria and Serbia and Montenegro, the Bulgarian border guards meet the train, collect everyone's passport and then walk one kilometre through the forest back to their station. After checking to ensure that they are not allowing any bad guys to leave the country, they walk the one kilometre back. This process takes 1 1/2 - 4 hours, explained the English speaking man who sat in the compartment behind us. Seven kilometres later, at the Serbia and Montenegro border, we were met by three types of military inspectors. One group was dressed in blue, one in brown and the other in brownish desert-like camouflage. Since there is no desert in Serbia and Montenegro, I can only guess that these uniforms are in preparation for autumn, when they can blend in with the falling leaves. They had at least three types of machine gun that I had never seen before. One of the most exciting aspects of travel is the people you encounter and I mean as a whole society or country. The diversity on this trip has been enormous.