What follows is a travel story, about a trip where I took a great many photos. However, I may not post any photos in the article. Why? Well first of all, I am a profoundly lazy person, and the drudgery of digging through thousands of photos to find the least blurry ones, cropping them, and then resizing them hardly seems worth the nothing I am getting paid to write these posts.
And second, because photos would only get in the way of this self-pitying reflection on the bitter impermanence of all things.
I visited Bulgaria for the first time in 2016. I staggered in by bus from Thessaloniki, Greece with few expectations, and was immediately charmed. It was my first time in the Balkans, and I was fascinated by the characteristic intersection of the Slavic and Turkic worlds. I was intrigued by the combination of post-Communist stodginess and Mediterranean warm-heartedness. Also, it probably didn’t hurt that all the women looked like supermodels.
I spent some time in the capital of Sofia, where I managed to destroy my new phone while struggling to figure out the intricacies of a Southeastern European washing machine. (In case you’re wondering, you have to, like, put your clothes inside some sort of suspended cage while water sprays willy-nilly in every direction. And while you’re panicking, the lid comes crushing down and smashes the screen on your brand new phone.) And finally, with my barely operable phone, I left Sofia to continue on my journey.
I was plotting a northeastward course, to the Romanian border and onward through Romania into Ukraine. With a continuing lack of preconceptions, I unscientifically planned my route through a combination of Wikipedia, Wikitravel, and sheer randomness and guesswork. I pulled up a list of UNESCO World Heritage sites in Bulgaria on Wikipedia, and noticed “The Rock-Hewn Monasteries of Ivanovo”. It must have been the name, but I was immediately consumed by an obsessive need to visit these monasteries. I imagined ancient Orthodox monks living harsh lives of stoic solitude in the caves of rural Bulgaria, and perhaps imagined that by visiting these monasteries (which I, mind you, still knew basically nothing about), I could capture some of that imagined spirit of ascetic ecstasy. Also, they were right by the Romanian border, so that was convenient.
And what was on the way to Ivanovo? Plovdiv, a couple of hours out from Sofia; Ruse, the main city near Ivanovo; and inbetween, Veliko Tarnovo (which, if my fluent Bulgarian doesn’t fail me, means “Big Tarnovo”). And so, after a couple of days in Plovdiv, I found myself lodged in a rather formal bed and breakfast in Veliko Tarnovo, hosted by a matronly Bulgarian woman who spoke very posh-sounding British English.
I arrived in the late afternoon, and after a couple of hours of wandering around town Id ecided to check out the local nightlife. This was a whole 3 1/2 years ago, back when I was at least slightly more willing to be away from home past 9 PM, but still old enough to look vaguely ridiculous at bars full of university students. And sure enough, I soon found myself at a laid-back lounge, with a crowd of mostly university students. I walked up to the bar, trying very hard to look like I belonged there, and ordered what I can only assume must have been some sort of ludicrous non-alcoholic beverage. I decided to start talking to someone before I ended up feeling even more foolish, and started chatting up two local students. They were two female friends, and at some point in our conversation, my soft drink-addled brain was finally hit by the thunderous realization that one of them was totally gorgeous and totally into me. Her name was Nadezha, she spoke perfect English, and although I can’t remember the particulars of our conversation 3 1/2 years later, I do remember that she was lovely to talk to. As she continued to gaze intently at me, as if everything I said was insightful and fascinating and wise, I desperately searched for a way to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. Eventually, I found it.
It was around midnight, and she told me that she wanted to take a break to dance with her best friend – Quite wholesomely, it seemed, as no young man had expressed an interest in grinding on her at this point. At this point my brain was short-circuiting from its inability to process the interest of a gorgeous young woman, so this juncture – which should have been an opportunity to hang back, chill, bide my time, or at least mortify them with my lack of dancing skills – ended up being an ideal opportunity to abort program. I hastily excused myself, saying that I wanted to rest up for my early day of sightseeing tomorrow. They expressed disappointment, but did not protest – perhaps I was hoping for a little more protest. I exchanged Facebook contacts with Nadezha, we expressed some vague intention of hanging out the next day, and then I walked back, alone, to my Very British Bed & Breakfast.
The next day, I woke up early and presented myself to the bed and breakfast host. My room had provided the bed, and now I was ready for her to provide the breakfast! I planted myself in the dining room, and she engaged me in very involved conversation, each syllable sounding unbearably posh, while stuffing me with heavy Bulgarian breakfast. After breakfast I went out and explored the old town, which was quite lovely. I walked uphill to the famous fort which looms over the city, and ended up talking to a sexy Romanian couple, the kind of people who manage to be quite friendly while somehow unconsciously conveying their awareness of how much less sexy you are than them.
Throughout the day, I eagerly awaited hearing back from Nadezha. As the day wore on, I realized she was, best-case scenario, sleeping soundly after a wild night that I had scarcely been part of. And as the day wore on, I began feeling nagging regrets over having excused myself from the presence of sheer radiant beauty so I could go be a lame old person.
I had convinced myself that I had to leave for Ruse later that day, so that I could fit the Rock-Hewn Monasteries of Ivanovo! into my jam-packed travel schedule. And as the day wore on, without any word from Nadezha, it dawned upon me that I probably wouldn’t be seeing her. By the time she finally messaged me on Facebook, presumably in the midst of a killer hangover, I had either left Veliko Tarnovo or was on my way out. As far as I can recall, I was already agitated by the realization that we wouldn’t be meeting. My agitation grew when I realized that she didn’t share the profound depths of my sorrow over us meeting. No matter how googly her eyes may have been at the time, I suppose I was still just some random old foreign dude from a bar. But there was still another, even more frustrating realization that would only dawn upon me later.
I swallowed my disappointment and continued on to Ruse that night. Ruse is known as the Vienna of the East – to whom, I don’t know – and after two days in the actual Vienna and a couple of hours in Ruse, I could tell you that, brother, Ruse is no Vienna. The unremittingly grey weather didn’t help, but all I could see during my brief overnight stay in a depressing hotel was post-Communist bleakness. The next day I took the train to Ivanovo town, which was still a way’s out from the monasteries. The town had nothing to attract my interest, and, realizing that the only way to reach the monasteries was by taxi, I decided to walk the seven kilometres to the monasteries. If only I had been as committed to love as I seemingly was to extreme, pathological cheapness.
It was a beautiful day, and as I walked, I relished the opportunity to enjoy the pastoral beauty of the Bulgarian countryside. I checked Google Maps, and found what appeared to be a cunning shortcut. Unfortunately, this was a case of the lines in a map apparently not corresponding to much of anything, and I was soon pushing my way through thick bramble in a farmer’s field, while also violating property law for good measure. At one point in the adventure, I brushed up against the most vicious thorns I have ever encountered in a lifetime of ill-advised shortcuts. They were essentially razor blades affixed to branches, and I was smeared with patches of blood by the time I emerged, barely, from this ingenious shortcut.
I finally reached the monasteries, and you will not be surprised to learn that they weren’t worth it. Only one of the monasteries was even open to the public, as the rest were undergoing restoration work. And although the “rock-hewn” part was at least more accurate than the “monasteries” part, the one monastery wasn’t much to look at. Basically, it was a few tourists gawking at a few faded cave paintings, and not much else.
(Later in that trip, I ended up in Moldova – a land out of time if there ever was one – and, on a brutally cold and windy day out in the countryside, somehow ended up in a cave with a Moldovan monk. His archaic dress, terrifying intensity, and total lack of speech (because lack of English) made him seem more like an actor than a monk. Needless to say, it was a singular experience.)
After stretching out my visit a bit longer in a failed effort to make it feel like it might have all somehow been worth it, I began trudging back to town. I eventually decided to try my hand at hitchhiking, but failed miserably. I can only assume this was due to some combination of me being a largeish man and me not being able to stick my thumb out without my lips curling into a sarcastic, snide, self-loathing smirk. In the end, I walked the full seven kilometres back to town, and decided to opt out of the shortcut.
I ended back in Ivanovo with hours to kill until the next train back to Ruse. I wandered around the little village, looking for food or entertainment, and found nothing but bleak little corner stores. I finally came across a shop with semi-potable automat coffee, and tried to see how many hours I could entertain myself entirely by drinking automated espresso. The town had a significant Roma population, and although I was happy to have the opportunity to witness their culture firsthand, the friendliness and curiousity of the locals soon turned into harassment. But then, I don’t think we have the right to expect people who have been mistreated for centuries to always abide by our norms of conduct. Regardless, I was happy to go back to Ruse, catch the bus to Bucharest, and begin the whole process all over again in Romania.
At this point, mild pangs of regret had built up into an unbearable stench. When I tried to talk to Nadezha again on Facebook, I vented all my puerile frustrations, as if I had anyone but myself to blame for the fact that I had arbitrarily chosen to piss away any chance to see her again, just so I could see some faded paint on some cave walls. She wasn’t having it – in retrospect, I can hardly blame her – and I soon found myself blocked.
We haven’t had any contact since then, but luckily the experience continues to provide endless fodder for my depressive ruminations on fading youth, and all the opportunities for friendship, love, personal fulfillment, or at least shenanigans that I threw away during years of anxiety, mental rigidity, fear of success, and aggressively self-defeating behaviour. “Don’t be sad that it’s over,” they say. “Be glad that it happened.” Well, can I be sad that it never really happened, and also sad that it’s gone? Sounds like a reason to be twice as sad!
OK, maybe it’s time for me to get a dog again.