It is Music Monday—Monday Night football features the Packers, and I have the theme music somewhere. It is also an evening for a white russian, some rice, and artistic endeavors.
In the winter of 1996 I found myself in Sofia, Bulgaria, which possesses its own yellow brick road. I took a bus from Tirana (Albania) across the border into Macedonia. I had kept the “receipt” of my entry into the country, and got out without paying a fee, but the Japanese tourist on, who joined me on the bus, had failed to keep his. Due primarily to mechanical difficulties the bus arrived many hours late in Skopje, and the driver let the two of us off at some random truck stop / gas station on the way out of town. Neither I nor the Japanese guy spoke Macedonian, but with the help of a Lonely Planet guide and cautious but determined gesturing we managed to get a mechanic to call us a taxi, and the driver took us downtown to the train station.
The Japanese guy was determined to catch a night train to Budapest via Belgrade; I decided not to join him because I had heard that without a visa to Yugoslavia one’s transit would be denied (and at best one would pay a rather high fee for a “transit visa” [aka visa + bribe]), but my fellow traveller would hear nothing of it. I hope that he made it through okay, but since this was over 8 1/2 years ago, it is, truly, a moot point. I paid the driver and went to the hostel. Correction, I paid and tried to tip the driver, but he would have nothing of it, and returned exact change (in the local currency [I paid in dollars], which helped me to obtain lodging for the night). The hostel itself was sparten but clean, and hardly fully-booked. I had a double room to myself—two single beds, a couple tables, and a lamp or two. The communal bathroom down the hall, however, had a few nasty surprises in store for me.
The hostel bathroom in Skopje was my first encounter with a “Turkish toilet”—this itself did not disturb me very much. The “problem” was that it they (the toilets) had not been cleaned in a while, and in one of them someone had “missed” their target. I was not amused.
The next morning I enjoyed a tasty, continental breakfast; I then checked out and made my way to the bus station, where I purchased a ticket to Sofia.
Half a day later, and $22 poorer, I stepped foot in the capital of Bulgaria. The $22 can be explained as follows: at the border pass in the mountains between the two countries I (and no other passengers) was taken aside and told that I had to pay a visa fee to enter the country. Of course, I knew this was bogus—there were no visa fees for U.S. citizens to enter Bulgaria, but if one is on a mountain pass, and it is snowing, one does not argue. Ian and John had warned me about this a few weeks earlier, and I had “exact change” ready for the scam.
Sofia itself was a nice, quiet city that afternoon. I walked from the bus stop to the downtown area, where I observed and enjoyed the previously mentioned yellow brick road. The Aleksandar Nevski Memorial Church, in particular, was a prime destination. In the area there were some ruins, and while wandering through them I heard bursts of American English; evidently some sort of church tour group was in town as well, and I only regret that I did not take the time to track them down and chat for a while—the same character flaw afflicted me while I was in Albania.
As it was, I walked to the train station, purchased (with only moderate difficulty) my ticket to the border, and had fun wandering around as black market scammers tried to get me to exchange currency at obscene rates. This was still before the market crash. The station itself was a bizarre place. Armed guards and/or police officers stood at key locations. Like many eastern European stations it seemed more like an airport than a train station at points. If one followed the right passage, one entered into a rather good-sized bazaar where all manner of food (processed and fresh) as well as entertainment (music, pornography, etc.) were to be found. There was a movie theater showing a film (in English) that seemed interesting to me, so I decided to watch it; I was tired, and had a number of hours before my train (around midnight), but before it was too late I became aware of a fact that had, until that point, escaped me—I had entered into another time zone and had “lost” an hour (it was an hour later than my watch told me). Instead of watching the movie, I hurried to my train, and in time found an empty compartment.
The compartment was not to remain mine alone, however. In short order a burly Bulgarian man joined me, and we shared no common language. I once again employed the Lonely Planet method and we got across a few (limited) concepts ... at least enough to let him know that I 1) was American, 2) spoke English, German, and other languages he did not know, and 3) I was going to the Romanian border. For the rest of our trip he was my personal watchdog.
His own business became obvious; he was a truck driver—more specifically, a smuggler of not-quite-legit goods. Yugoslavia (Serbia) was under certain embargoes at this point, and there must have been decent money involved in bringing even common goods in and out of the country.
When we arrived in Vidin in the morning he showed me around. We had to stop and get greasy burek and stop at a cafe. At the latter he had coffee and I watched the David Bowie videos on the French MTV-esque station picked up by satellite. Despite our inability to communicate in words my compantion assured me that we had time ... time for something. Eventually, after he took care of his coffee and chatted with some folks we hopped on a bus to the ferry. It was foggy. We approached the border checkpoint and my companion of chance had to hold back. We expressed our good-byes. There were no $22 “visa” fees when leaving and I was treated with courtesy, though my entrance to Romanica (Calafat) less than thirty minutes later would prove considerably more ceremonial.
Goodbye yellow brick road, indeed.
For some reason I could not sleep well at first last night. I went to be shortly after midnight and lay in bed for nearly an hour before I could finally doze off.
It’s a shame that we can’t remember most of our dreams. What I’ve read is that we basically recall those dreams that are nearest to our waking state, and if that is true, based upon the quality of those that I do remember, I would really enjoy knowing what the others are about.
One of my favorites has been going on for years and includes a wonderfully massive, dark, and convoluted cathedral structure accessible only by way of a hidden, narrow stairway. For years it was accessed through a Centennial High School staircase, though in some dreams it could be found in Lake Hazel Middle School in the south side of the west wing, near Ms. Murgoitio’s old classroom (which became a storage room and greenhouse that hid a doggy-door-sized crawl-space in my dreams). The other night I followed someone else up a mundane staircase and around or corner or two until the hallway narrowed, and finally emptied into an upstair gallery overlooking the main hall below—I was there for a funeral, that much I recall. Of course, as dreams often go, it did not remain that way, for soon it was about the upper chamber, not the funeral. Suddenly it was a room of distant, born-again relatives setting up a post-service meal, complete with long tables, paper tableclothes, and jello salad. Curiously enough, within a scene or two the focus had shifted not only to this new room, but this room was now located at ground level or below. The best part of this dream, the part that I love so much after-the-fact, was how a new architecture and design was introduced to me, with a house-hallway of rooms (primarily bedrooms and the like) featuring sliding doors that did not reach to the floor. From medieval to science fiction in seconds.
Alas, it is almost winter, and cold temperatures have arrived, meaning that in the morning I do not want to crawl out of bed. Instead I wish to stay under the covers, hoping for the dreams to return.
The quality of a meal is not necessarily tied to the quality or quantity of the food.
Tonight I settled for some tea, a white russian or two, and a tasty bowl of rice, lentils, and potatoes. That is how my 20s end. Simple.
What makes the following the best was its simplicity and sincerity. It was the end of November, 1995. Heidi knew that it was my birthday and furthermore that I had no plans, so she invited me over for dinner. We had to shop along the way. It was the first time I ever took the 60 tram the “back way” to that part of Buda. Her apartment overlooked Moskva tér. It was tiny and rundown. A water heater was bolted to the wall near the kitchen sink. We boiled water, tossed in the plum dumplings, and then rolled them in some bits that almost instantly hardened into a caramel crust of sorts. Eszter showed up for a while. Really, though, it was about the plum dumplings, and the thought behind it.
Since then I have been looking for similar plum dumplings in the U.S., but I have not found them. Almost every time that I visit Woodman’s I take a stroll down the frozen food aisles and look at the dumplings. I might have to make my own.
—November 29 2004