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Sofia and her taxi maffia

View Old man goes around on Old Man At's travel map.

A funhouse is a linear sequence of scares. Take it or leave it is the only choice given. Makes you think about free will: have our choices been made for us because of who we are? - Max Payne, the fall of Max Payne

My first experience with the Bulgarians is at the airport. Having a hotel checkout time of 12:00 and a flight at 16:30, means I have been waiting at the airport for what feels like an eternity. The airport is small, with two bars and the obligatory souvenir stall, it is fully explored in half a minute. There are only a few chairs in the waiting lounge, not nearly enough for all the people. A grandmother and mother take the two seats that recently became available next to me. The youngest, the daughter, is left standing. A new desk number is posted on the electronic board of departure, opening up a few more seats in the lounge. The daughter preys on the seat next to her mother freeing up, but a middle aged Dutchmen aggressively outmaneuvers her. Restless from the hours of sitting and waiting I offer her my seat. For a moment I linger around to see if she appreciates my gesture, I get nothing more than a gracious smile however. Well, to be fair to her, I should have offered her my seat from the start, my attempts to charm being only halfcocked and tepid from the beginning.

At the boarding of the plane we have to walk so far from gate to plane, that it feels like we are already halfway there before liftoff. Waiting in line I observe the Bulgarians. In general they are short and wide. Not fat or muscular, just wide. As if someone had put a great weight on their heads, causing them to shrink and have the excess volume expand to the sides.They remind me of those workhorses. Short legs, not too pretty, but strong enough to pull a plough. The young are bad skinned. No doubt in part at least due to the drinking and smoking. They smoke incessantly. The amount of secondhand smoke is enough to shorten my lifespan by 10 years.

After baggage reclaim in Sofia I am immediately beset by taxi drivers. Firmly dismissing them, I head for the official airport taxi service. The expression of the lady at the taxi office turns into a cross between puzzled and dismayed as I show her the address. And sure as to be expected, the taxi driver has no idea where to go to. My annoyance grows by the minute, as I watch the meter tick while the driver is repeatedly speaking the address into the google maps app on his smartphone. But then, as if by thunderstruck, the driver shows me his phone and says:”only 500 meters". Half a minute later we pull up to a green garden door numbered 3.

Five euro richer, the taxi drives off into the night as I stand on the curb ringing the bell. There is no answer. I ring again and make note of the fact that I hear the bell ring. Still no answer. Giving it my best Fred Flintstone imitation I start banging on the garden door with my fist. Peeping through the cracks I search for signs of life while I walk around looking for another entrance. The telephone number listed in the contacts is disconnected. Disillusioned, I consider my options. It is night, I am in the suburbs of a strange town, and I might have been ripped off with regards to my booking. Remembering seeing a gas station on the way over not far from my location I decide to walk there, believing the light might give some shelter from the darkness of night.

As I turn around I see six dogs of various breeds standing around me at some distance in a semicircle. No collars and no leashes. These are strays. With the steadfast tread of a man without other options I move on. The dogs, realizing I am just an odd thing without value, retreat to their nooks and corners to sleep. At the gas station I switch on google maps to look for an alternative. A hostel shows up on maps, only 1,600 meters away. Getting my bearings I decide to head that way. In a final attempt to remedy the situation I also message the place I was supposed to stay in. As I walk I see busses passing me by and I find comfort in this, as I know they only stop at places of relevance. Even better, a supermarket open late at night. Using the light of its neon signs I check against hope for a reply to my earlier text message. Miraculously there is a reply, they had stepped out but are there now. Luck changed, I ask for a pick up at the local supermarket. Five minutes later a car stops near me, swinging open the passenger side door and a voice booms:”Portugal?!” in a semi questioning manner.

As we draw up to the same green garden door once more, the man looks at me, points his finger to the ground as a universal symbol for here and asks:”taxi?”. I nod and tell him yes, this is where the taxi dropped me off. “Taxi maffia” he tells me, his upper lip curling in distaste, while waving his right hand with outstretched index finger furiously left and right before his face. As if the thought of taxi drivers was a black fly zooming in front of him that he needed to swat away. “Taxi maffia, taxi maffia", he keeps repeating it as if it was some mantra. I realize that my attempts to explain to him, that the taxi was ok, are all lost on him. He doesn’t speak a word of English. “Taxi maffia" he continuous repeating as we climb the stairs. Stairs without railings and without decks. Requiring me to ‘hop' from one staircase to another as we rise.
"hopping stairs"

"hopping stairs"

After a night of rest I head out to meet Sofia in daylight for the first time. Sofia or Sophia in Greek, companion to Yahweh, as archetype known by names as Isis or Venus, Goddess of wisdom, especially the wisdom gathered throughout life. As such she should appeal to travellers, whose ethos is to gather experiences in life, always drawn to ‘fresh woods and pastures new’.

My tour takes me to its churches, its ruins, its shopping boulevards. The main attraction being the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, a bit of a let down really, after the French cathedrals. A man dressed in the traditional robes of an orthodox monk, but supplemented with hiking boots, a rucksack not unlike my own and a plastic bag with a duty free logo, walks through the cathedral chanting a prayer. The acoustics of the cathedral are amazing as his voice carries everywhere without effort. He crosses the cathedral diagonally, from entrance to a portrait on the far right corner. As I sit on the bench at the church’s right wall, I watch the monk make his cross section of the cathedral multiple times, with an almost ocd-like precision, never letting up his chanting. When his prayer is up, he leaves immediately, no doubt in pursuit of his next pilgrimage.

Minutes after his departure my attention is drawn to a slender woman entering by the side entrance opposite from my place of idleness. She is perhaps half or late 30’s, but her face is so full of worries she looks much older at first glance. Her dress is simple, but something in the pristine plicated press and the care with which she wears it tells me it is her Sunday best. As she crosses the cathedral to near my position, she keeps her head straight, chin up, but her eyes shift from left to right as if worried to disturb its other guests. She takes care of her steps, giving her an unevenness in her walk, as if she is trying very hard not to make a clickety-clack sound with the low block heels of her loafers or oxfords, on the cold, unforgiving stone floor. My eyes follow her around as she visits several shrines. At the same portrait that was the center of attention of the chanting backpacker monk, she pauses. She makes the sign of the cross, but not the basic one you see Catholics make in movies. This version is more elaborate, requiring her to also touch her right shoe or the floor near it with her right hand as she kneels. She repeats this ritual several times. I discern her lips moving as she mumbles a prayer at the shrine. A prayer only interrupted for more of those elaborate signs of the cross. Afterwards, she quickly makes her way back outside through the side door. As if she is not supposed to be there, not allowed to be there, as if she is not to be seen by anyone in fear of consequences. Her eyes glazed by repressed tears. It is only conventionality that halts me from running after her, wrapping my arms around her and telling her it will be alright. Perhaps true piety lies in its humanity.

The next days I spent exploring more of Sofia, its musea and its statues. At one point intrigued by a marble slate depicting lions fighting crocodiles fighting bears fighting humans. At the bottom, what appears to me as, monkeys or aliens creating tools. Confound, I turn to the information panel for clues of its meaning. It turns out to be an advertising panel, used at around 300 AD to alert the city’s inhabitants of the incoming circus. The animals depicting gladiator shows, while the would-be aliens probably depict what passes for ancient clowns.

Sightseeing or not, the bad food, lack of exercise, climate changes and time distortions inherent to travel, have ruined my health resistance. I’m feeling a bit under the weather and decide to stay a day inside. Turning on the television I realize most programs are redubbed into Bulgarian. This is done so badly however, it becomes a matter of campy humor. The entire sound of the show is turned down, so as that you can just hear the original voices in English in the background. Bulgarian voices then repeat the phrases in a higher volume, but without any effort to lip sync or give any intonation to the performance. This causes a woman in panic during a firefight to speak with the same uncolorful, monotone voice as when she is making peanut butter sandwiches in another scene. Because they turn down the entire original volume, the gunshots sound like soft champagne bottle pops, while door slams or background music are inaudible. In the scenes where the Bulgarians aren’t speaking, the silence lends an unintentional eeriness to the footage I find oddly discomforting.

Annoyed, I flick through the channels until I come to a music channel. Settling for some background music I leave it on. It turns out to be mostly Eastern European musicians. No Dua Lipa or Maroon 5 but an assortment of young pop stars, 98% female. Not being able to understand the lyrics, I focus on the beats and the visuals. The beats are a standard, unpretentious, electronic beats assortment of the boom clap boom-boom clap variety. The clips however are something else; this is not pop music but softporn set to rythm. As I am writing this down, a girl in laced underwear, complete with matching jarretels is dancing in a prison, spreading her legs through the bars of the cell. Another girl is wearing a too skimpy bathing suit, arching her hollow back as she rolls around in the surf of some tropical beach while looking into the camera with a look that is both shy and needing and probably took years to perfect. All clips are like this, young girls in outfits that Cardi B would be ashamed to wear. And she was “not too long ago … dancing for dolla’s". Everything in Bulgaria seems to be cheap and instant. The 24/7 booze shops (somewhat confusingly advertised as open from 00:00 till 24:00), selling vodka for the equivalent of 3 EUR per liter, cigarettes that every 12 year old starts smoking and casinos and sex clubs at every street corner. Every vice is well accommodated in this Eastern Europe’s Bangkok.

Perhaps the only thing outshining sex shops in numerosity are car shops. Most of them no more than a hole in the wall, they are great in number, at some places five to ten per street. Yet they never run out of customers. There seems always a car in need of battery check up, tire replacements, exhaust repairs or new carburetors. The cars are old, this is where cars go when they are undesired in Western Europe, but too proud to retire permanently. Every car squeaks and coughs and rattles, like the old men they resemble. It is a wonder they make it through these unlayered roads, filled with potholes deep enough to drown a small toddler.

For a city of 1.2 million inhabitants, it feels small. All sights are within a 5km diameter, when taken with principle street as its epicenter, making it an easy feat to see them all in a day. As such the sightseeing comes quickly to an end. Plans for a ballet show are cancelled as the show is sold out. Snow has fallen throughout the night and all is covered in its white blanket. Taking my camera I decide to just go for a walk. I stumble upon a square where fountains spout warm water from dozens of faucets. Below each tap, a plastic canister or bottle being refilled. Curious, I pause and watch to let the picture sink in. A car pulls up to the curb, an old woman swiftly gets out at the passenger side and hurries to a tap of which the bottle is almost full. The driver gets out and leans over his open car door. A man in his late 50’s, wearing a thick brown suit. He is young enough to be her son. He looks at me accusingly as I quizzically look at the men and women filling their bottles. Puzzled at this situation where people need to go to a public fountain for their water supply, yet wealthy enough to own a car. A contradiction not found in my country and I realize my fortune. I am too embarrassed to take a picture.

Aimlessly I wander on, passing parks and cemeteries. Where statues brave both time and weather in silent resolve. The statues all falling in line to the same set of aesthetic rules. Men, chest forward, casually leaning on a cane or holding a rifle to attention, faces less than a quarter turned, looking slightly upward to give a haughty expression. This is what I imagined communist statues to be like, resembling the epitaph of early 1900’s male superiority.

Still my appetite is not satisfied, I wish to see more of Sofia, outside of its cleaned and paved commercial centers, I want to see where the water-bottle people live. Searching the edges of my downloaded map of Sofia, I visit its industry and suburbs. Its construction markets and bus depots. A homeless lady, using a piece of cardboard for a plate is begging for money. She sits in a muslim prayer position, on her knees, face touching the ground, her arms outstretched above her head holding the ripped piece of cardboard up as a platform for offerings. Her ankles are showing below her skirt. The thick fat ankles are blackened with dying flesh, a spot the size of my fist visible where an infection has eaten away the dead flesh, leaving a greenish pus filled gape.

Poverty is seeping out of every pore of the city. A child, aged four, trained to enter restaurants and beg for money at every dinner table. Shops showing “out of business" signs. TV advertising telling me that I can get every Christmas presents I want with just one signature to Easycredit. I pass concrete flats so profane and lacklustre in execution, the mere sight of them becomes depressing. Opposite I see the remains of a low-rise. Inside I spot the evidence of recent habitation, newspaper stacks and empty bottles the indicators of a typical hobo shelter.

Like so many buildings in Sofia it is more than derelict. Beyond bladdered paint and broken windows, it is obliterated. Caved in ceilings and walls, it is nothing more than a steel and concrete skeleton. Looking as if it has been in an intense fire, but without the usual black sooth traces as an indicator, I try to determine what happened to these buildings by observation. To me they mostly resemble the remains of an air bombing raid. Buildings half collapsed, yet withstanding crumbling, as if the collapse was sudden, with an outside cause like an explosion rather than the slow sag of decay.

A multitude of these buildings I find. Realizing decay is the only sensible explanation, I wonder how many decades of deterioration we are looking at and then I realize it; at some point you just become accustomed to it. The failing paint, the rust, the dirt, this broken piece, that shattered object. The dissoluteness of the environment is omnipresent. It becomes the new normal. It even reflects in the chagrin on the faces of its inhabitants. Not one of them cares enough to paint, to clean the trash or to fix that which is broken. It has seeped into a dull state of accepting that, which is inevitable by appearance.

At the supermarkets I am served with disinterest. At its restaurants I am scoffed. In a pizza place on main street I sit and look at the menu, which is bilingual, indicating their accumstomedness to foreigners. A girl at another table sits with a young man I presume to be her boyfriend. She has a very cute bobline hair cut which I admire. She notices me staring absentmindedly and covertly smiles. ‘No girl, I wasn’t flirting’ I think to myself, as I reposition my seating to the left so as to put her boyfriends back in between her and mine line of sight. Uneased and dumbfounded by her apparent openness to a change of affairs.

A man approaches my table and starts of in Bulgarian. When I reply that I don’t understand Bulgarian, he continous:”No problem, so you ready to order now? You have to order now.” I tell him I already ordered with the lady waitress, having half a mind to add:”so you ready to serve me now? You have to serve me now", but realizing I have nothing to gain I subside the impulse. It is this unspoken hostility that I am greeted with almost everywhere. The lady waitress is picking up the money from a table to my side, left there by a group of eight schoolgirls, all of whom just left the premisses. With a face of worry she starts counting the cash bills. The frown on her forehead deepening as she starts counting the bills again. This is when I realize the hostillity is not directed at me personally. It is not my shabby clothes or the fact I haven’t shaved in a few days. It is not because I am a foreigner, unaccustomed to local ways, or associated with a cultural minority. It is an hostility stemming from a distrust so deeply embedded in the culture, it appears almost discernable as innate. “Taxi maffia, taxi maffia", the mantra replays in my head.

Ordering my flights and rooms sometimes literally on the fly, I realize I made a mistake with the dates of my accomodation in Sofia. I text the owner with a query to extend my visit with one night, he is unwilling to reply by text however, fearful of repercussions from the intermediate agent whose text app I use, and invites me downstairs for some tea. Following him into his private chambers I am astounded. Seven or eight large screens line the walls. Each showing a different picture. Four showing a live feed from security cameras around the house, one showing what appears to be news headlines or local incidents in an old teletext style layout. Others showing tables with statistics in some spreadsheet program. He switches one of the screens to show me an amount in euros. Doing the math quickly in my head, I realize this is a bit much. I offer him the same bills in local currency instead and without falter, he supplies me with change. Leaving the room I contemplate the screens. Is this a hobby gone wild, the paranoid delusions of a lonely old man, or, more worriedly, a necessity for survival in the local environment.

The next day I head to Vitosha, the coveted neighbourhood of Sofia. At the foot of the mountain this is where the government houses, the luxurious apartments sit, the high end shops are located. The change is noticeable, the buildings are newer, more modern and better maintained. The streetwear is visibly better, gone are the quilted jackets and hoods, here it is formal wear and overcoats of higher quality. It is a separate world, separated by highway 18. And the two worlds don’t mix.

I roam seeking out its landmarks: the botanical garden, Boyana church, the parliament. The National Museum of History is a sight in itself. It is a beautiful work of architectural design both inside and out. The museum itself can be skipped, but the building, interior and landscaping is phenomenal. Former home to a dictator, the last of the communist era. The interior is like a time capsule, the green velour couches, the thick brown curtains, the 1970’s modernist wall clock, the fake crystal lightning fixtures, it is all a throwback to those groovy days.
"breathtaking architecture"

"breathtaking architecture"

On the way back to my room I stop at a shopping mall for a bite. The top floor is where the restaurants are located, I circle around looking for a place that seems appealing. The sushi seems risky, the pizza place requires you to name the topping ingredients in Bulgarian and KFC just doesn’t seem appealing. The first place I had visited, has sample menus hanging over the bar and I reason, that if English fails, I can point at a menu and get them to serve me that. As I approach, the two girls behind the bar burst out in boulderous laughter. My best guess being they saw me circling around the floor looking at all the food courts like a confused little idiot and have been making jokes about me the entire time.

The meal however comes swiftly and is satisfactory. As I sit and eat, I ponder Bulgaria. The museum had a lot of exhibits of famous Bulgarians, war heroes mostly. Generals from every war, freedom fighters liberating the country and leaders being made into heroes for refusing to kill Yews even though declaring allegiance to the Germans. Revered with shrines full of menial personal artifacts as cigarette boxes and school reports, in an attempt to gain some cultural identity, some cultural self respect. It is therefor ironic that they list the old communist leaders as dictators in their history books, but there was never a battle fought to gain their freedom, their victory, their survival. It was handed to them from within, Russia’s Gorbachev with his Perestroika and Glasnost. And everything that followed after. Perhaps this is why the Bulgarians put so little value on it. Without plan or ambition they look to others to tell them what to do. Ever since they first settled here, have they been conquered. By the Macedonians, Celtic, Romans, the Byzantines and obviously the Ottomans, who ruled them for 500 years. So the fact that communist leaders in Russia determined Bulgaria’s fate after World War II, was perhaps something taking with a shrug of indifferent acceptance. Others telling them what to do is in their DNA.

They look at the European Union for the same leadership they had from the communists. With the European Union failing to step up, it is no wonder that others look to take their place. Using the same corrupted infrastructure left by the communists when they departed. Leaving the Bulgarians where they always were, expecting to be cheated on by everyone.

“Taxi maffia, taxi maffia”, its more than a mantra, it is a way of life.

Posted by Old Man At 01:01 Archived in Bulgaria

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