Sofia 2021: Part 3



31st August:

Alright, quickfire round. I was taken out for lunch by Ellie to a tiny place out and away from the centre called Ashurbanipal. Its sign was posted in the window next to the door, but otherwise it was fairly nondescript. They served small [plates of Iraqi food. The kebab looked like someone had already chewed it up, but the hummus was amazing. “Women’s Bazaar” was an interesting visit due to the variety of things on sale, including an obscene amount of honey, for some reason. It earned its nomenclature thanks to a history dominated by, as is self-evident, women patrons, who shopped. In the Ottoman period, women were only allowed to shop at this single bazaar in the city – and only on Fridays. Now it’s the largest open-air market in Sofia. Wait, hold on, sorry I’m off to climb a mountain now. I’ll try to finish this up in a few hours afterwards. Ta-ta!


 

Well, I don’t know if I’m going to get much done today, but I have a four-hour layover in Istanbul tomorrow, so if not today I can certainly catch up tomorrow. For now, let’s continue.


On the way back from lunch I was shown around the wall art ‘district’, which, in fairness, had more than its fair share of graffiti over several streets. My favourite one had to be the imposing image of St. George standing against the dragon. I would have a print of that in my room in an instant. I’d probably go to church if the saints were depicted like that more.


In the evening, despite my best intentions, I did end up going out again. I met up with Ellie and Mina, along with a few others from the hostel at the same bar as where we first met, KEBA. Unfortunately, I got rained on along the way, and am now worried that I’m developing a cold instead of just a runny nose. Might get tackled at the airport by security at this rate. The evening was nice; we were huddled together under the only cover to spare, and as more and more people came to join us some were unfortunately pushed out into the rain as the table became more and more crowded.


I don’t remember when it happened, but somebody brought grapes with them to our table. I don’t know what compelled me to start, but I began flicking them into the air and catching them in my mouth. In short order several of the others at the table began to do the same, which evolved into us throwing grapes into each other’s mouths, which eventually resulted in management asking us to politely stop because so many grapes were littering the floor. In hindsight, it was not a well-considered form of entertainment, but at the time it was as entertaining as you could ever get. Before we were finally reminded to leave, I managed to coax a dance out of a few of the group. Despite their repeated apologies about how poor their skills were. It’s funny to think that only two years ago I was in the same boat, and now I have half an idea of how to swing dance, suddenly I’m considered a Master of Dance. I didn’t want to correct them.


We set off home after our escapades and stopped by a late-night wrap stand that did fantastic falafels. Lying just outside was a stray German Shepherd, conspicuously placed so you would have to pass around or over so you could continue on. Naturally, my natural instincts compelled me to pet them. This small act was enough for them to follow us (then me specifically) all the way back to the hostel. They followed me when I walked someone home up the road, and he ran and played with me on the pavement. They were a big, beautiful boy, and along with the cat I met in Athens, I wished I could have adopted them as my own. Alas, t’was not meant to be, and I left them standing outside the entrance to my building, never to see each other again. Dogs are great.

Now, I’m back to my regular writing schedule of “the day after” for a precious few hours. Except, I need to go to bed as I have an early start tomorrow. I was so close to competence!


 



1st September:

I left my pen behind in Sofia and now I have to use this fat monstrosity from Istanbul airport I picked up for €5. I won’t lie, I’m getting a little overfamiliar with this airport recently. Hopefully this will be the last time (unless I plan otherwise). This pen is so fat and top-heavy, this will be a pain to continue with. First-world problems indeed.


So, where was I? Oh yes, I’m two days behind again. Need to wrap this up before Denmark. The day after the thrilling encounter with a stray dog, and a morning that I don’t remember the specifics of as it was a couple of days ago at this point, I went out to explore the city for a little while. “Nowhere in particular” ended up meaning being the mall, of all places, but after a brief check I re-emerged to look for prettier places. I found a street with private art galleries, leafy backstreets, a fruit and nut shop (with ludicrously cheap cranberry, coconut, and cinnamon-dusted ginger) and a smoothie shop whose staff briefly panicked when they realised I only spoke English.


I’d made plans to meet up with Elena, so around 5pm she escorted me on a slightly more guided tour of the city for a change. After a good bowl of ramen and a surprisingly long conversation about Third-Wave Feminism, we were off. We meandered up and down in a loose, yet focused route between key areas of interest, starting with the “absolute centre” of the city that’s between the university, the national library, and some more places I’d love to specify right now except Vodafone is awful and won’t allow me to top up so I can check using data.



We settled down in the grass square to chat about nothing in particular as the afternoon sun slipped further and further away. At this point, Elena chose to tell me about her first impressions of me, when we’d met at the start of the week. In short, she’d thought I was, to paraphrase, not sincere in my words or actions. Fortunately, she clarified that it was my confidence at the bar, having just danced with the girl behind her and then talked to her too as I bought a drink. Luckily for me, after she’d got to know me more this week, she’d changed her opinion drastically, and now liked me quite a lot better. She said she hoped we would stay in touch and meet again some other time, which sounded perfectly good to me.


But it was getting dark by this point, so we left the square and turned towards new streets, where I saw an amazing abandoned townhouse. It was slowly being reclaimed by nature, and also had a cat which was a brilliant feature.


We paused again some time after at a different park, where we witnessed the greatest football match of all time. A dad and his son were having a kick-around, and the dad had to go fetch the ball after an over-zealous punt from his young son. The first time he tried to kick it back, it hit the bin, and rolled back to his feet. He looked around to see if anyone had witnessed it, and gave a small chuckle and headshake, as if to reassure himself that everyone has had the same experience, it’s not just him. His second attempt hit the tree next to the bin, and the uncaring ball returned once again. He small smile dropped, and he hastily tried a third time, which was successful, so he moved on. He’ll never forget that moment of public embarrassment. I know I won’t.


“Do you think he said to himself: ‘I used to be so good at this?’ “


“It’ll happen to you one day, too.”


“Oh god.”


Hold on, I need to find my gate.


We walked as far as the bridge that connects to the communist-style residential district, before rightly deciding there was nothing more to see and turn back.



 

The Turkish Airlines safety announcement man is definitely angling for that young widow with the child in front of him, no question.


 

Well, so much for finishing up on the plane. I had a whole row to myself, I couldn’t resist napping for an hour. TO return to that evening, Ellie and I would work our way back into the town proper. Whilst standing outside one of the myriad Roman churches, a pigeon decided to fall out of the sky and die right in front of us! It thrashed about pathetically on one wing, before finally succumbing. What are the chances of that? Poor thing.


We walked all the way back through the main streets to find a place for long overdue dessert, and what we ended up ordering probably shortened my lifespan by a good few years. We shared one big waffle with fruit, ice-cream and chocolate; one chunky slice of pear cake with cream and hazelnut; and one massive banana chocolate sundae that we couldn’t even manage to finish half of, as we were about to pass out from a sugar rush. Absolutely fantastic decision, no sarcasm at all. Have to make the most of my youthful metabolism before it’s gone forever, no? Another damn god day. Ellie is excellent company.


I’m going to leave this airport now.



 

I forgot to mention the worst version of Toto’s Africa I have ever heard! I was emerging from a snooze in the common room, when I hear what starts to sound like Africa playing on the speakers. My mind was still waking up, but I registered that yes, it was in fact Africa being played – exclusively – by the brass section. It sounded competent enough, but that only made it worse since I couldn’t ignore how jarring it was compared to the original. I couldn’t muster the willpower to move from my spot, and the song kept going and going, encore after encore. I was in purgatory until it finally, mercifully, concluded. I felt physically sick. Screw that trumpet cover!


Anyway, on to yesterday and then I’m finished with Sofia. Yesterday, Fabienne took me out to climb Vitosha, the mountain that dominates Sofia’s skyline. Pine forests, intermittent fields, and the sound of underground water were all a welcome reprieve from the buildings of the last week, with nary an alcohol in sight. The ride to the start of the trail took us about an hour. You could see our progress as the streets shifted from cobbles to tarmac, or dirt roads halfway through being tarmacked. When we did arrive at Base Camp 1 (which is about halfway up the mountain already) there was a chateau-looking restaurant serving simple foodstuffs. It leaned heavily on a traditional Bulgarian aesthetic; the interior was decorated with dresses and garlands and plants. Small portraits of local saints were hung on opposite sides of a particularly pleasing piece of root. On the old TV, a station (I assume) played low budget, yet more sincere, music videos of folk musicians dancing and singing in the same field and garden for every single one. It was very cute, and this was probably the most appropriate place to find it playing.


As we continued our climb and the hours rolled on, the lush deciduous forest became an evergreen haze. Bears, boars, and wolves all stalked this mountain according to Fabienne, and I could readily believe it. Between the boulders, the dense forest, half-missing path, and absence of anyone else, (for the most part), I could easily picture the kind of monsters they might have in Bulgarian folklore. It took us maybe two or three hours to walk to the top. In that time, we replenished our water supplies, and Fabienne took several fag breaks. How do you know people in Sofia smoke a lot? There were cigarettes in the First-Aid box on the pathway.


The view from the top was incredible. For the last hundred metres we were bouldering up to the summit, but it was worth going the extra distance. Sofia ends relatively quickly, and the rest of the view is of long, large hills and mountains of Bulgaria, with every green on the spectrum present. From up there, Sofia was an isolated pocket of civilisation; a white blot in the wilderness. Now I understand why so many people come here to hike. It was obvious from the top of Vitosha. All in all, it took us about five and a half hours to get there and back again. I was home by 8pm.


The final thing worth mentioning is a little exchange between Mina and I. Mina said I’d inspired her to write again after reading some of this diary. She gave me an excerpt from her own writing for me to read, torn out of a journal she had to leave behind to meet the weight requirements for her flight. In it, I read a rather flattering description that I won’t go into the specifics of. She considered me an all-round nice guy, and that’s enough for me. It was a lovely read, and hopefully we’ll run into each other again someday. Or maybe she’ll read this first, in which case: hey! Look! You can read the rest of it now, woo!


And now, here I am in another hostel, sitting at another table, writing another entry. Denmark will be a different change of pace again. I’m already envious of their metro, but I think it’s about time I found some food. Don’t disappoint me Copenhagen!




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