Hungary and then Home

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Train to Budapest

My first sleeper train and I’m quite excited.  I don’t care that it’s old rolling stock and pokey or that the bed is really just a long seat with a sheet, duvet and pillow on it.  I have a cabin to myself and it has a sink in it.

The tinier the things that make you happy in life, the happier you’ll be… or so I keep telling myself.

Staring out of the darkening windows as the blackening landscape rushes past, the glare of a pair of headlights shines out as a car noses around a corner near the train tracks.  A single star hangs in the indigo sky.  We’re still very much in Romania, but I am thrust back to the very start of my trip, to El Saltador and Claudia as we move the table that Melanie had been using to write at outside her room.  As we carried it back inside, around the side of the cortijo, a single pair of car headlights had nosed their way down the sharp mountain hairpins.  “That will be them,” said Claudia.  “They will be lost and paicking.”

I am looking at Romania, but my heart sees Spain, Andalusían desert, German kindess and dry sense of humour.

Suddenly, inexplicably, I am in tears.  Here, at the end of trip, this is probably the first chance I have had to think back over everything I’ve done since September.  Images flash unbidden through my head.  Picking olives, laughing with Roberto, Amy, Jana, Laura.  Sitting in the hot springs with Krystyna, Amy and Eva – Hey, Manchester, says the man.  The comfortable companions I found at the Berlin hostel, my dizzy delight at finding my flat there.  A laughing group of Bulgarian teenagers in a classroom.  Elly telling me about mole crickets – You’d know if you’d seen one.  Passing encounters with strangers, shared glances, shared smiles, my hand affectionately clasped in that of a gypsy woman.

Who is the person who experienced all that?  Who did all that?  Surely not me.  The me that was packing up my flat in  Manchester all those nine months ago but just yesterday surely would never do any of that.  She’d hide, watching and wishing she could join in.  That me back then was having anxiety attacks about buying a ladder in a hardware shop.

Everything that has happened since then has just now sunk in, all at once, all in one glorious go, and it’s as much as I can do to hang onto the mast and not drown.

Life is absolutely, without doubt, uncategorically fantastic.  It’s also just what you make it, more or less.  Don’t waste it in fear.

My eyelids start to droop.  The blind won’t stay down.  I try everything I can think of – pulling it down slowly, pulling it down sharply, fiddling with the knobs on the bar that is threaded through the bottom of it.  Whatever I try, the blind springs sharply back up with annoying regularity.

I sit back on the seat and think.

String!  String is wonderful stuff.  I fish my small ball of it out of my bag, do a bit of knitting around the knobs and tie it to my backpack, which is heavy enough (and then some) to stop the tight springs in the blind doing their thing.

What would a normal first class passenger have done in these circumstances?  Complain loudly and get moved I guess.  String.  Always travel with string.

I am woken at 4.30 (Hungarian time) or 5.30 (Romanian time) by Romanian border police knocking loudly at cabin doors.  I stumble blearily out of bed, open the door and get blinded by the sun, which is rising and blazing through the window.  I vaguely register the silhouette of a border guard as I duck back into the dim cabin, shielding my eyes with a “woah…”

He laughs, eyes twinkling.  “Good morning,” he grins.  He seems to enjoy his job.

I pull my passport out of my bag and sit on the bed.  He tries to undo my string on the blind but, thankfully, fails.  I’m good at knots, me.  He looks at my photograph and then at me.  “Victoria…” he says.  I nod.  He looks at me again.  “Beautiful…” he says, shaking his head earnestly.

Oh god.

He’s clearly deranged.  I know how I look first thing in the morning and it’s anything but beautiful.

I’m only wearing pyjama bottoms and a vest top.  I’m in a tiny cabin on my own.  I smile a thin smile, waiting for him to hand my passport back.  He stares at me some more with slightly shining eyes.  I start to feel uncomfortable and reach for my cardigan.  He gets the hint, hands over my passport and leaves.

After that, sleep seems pointless – I have to stay awake for the Hungarian border guards in any case.  I get dressed.

The flat Hungarian plains are out there, covered in poppies.  I stay nose to the window for the next couple of hours.

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Budapest

I’m meeting two friends in Budapest for a long weekend.  We’ve rented an apartment in central Pest; an apartment in a grand, crumbly, four-storey building with a narrow balcony overlooking a busy road.  It has a wide, sweeping central staircase and wrought iron gates, with tumbling plants spilling out of window boxes and planters.

I am the first to arrive.  All this space, these high ceilings and large, airy rooms are something of a revelation after months of hostels and tiny hotel rooms.  I have almost a whole day to myself before my friends arrive in the evening.

Do I go and explore?  Well, a little.  I look at the Danube, anyway, on my way to finding a supermarket, which I raid with happiness, carrying back my loot to the apartment, where I spend the rest of the day reading in the sunny living room, light pouring through the high windows, and preparing risotto for when my friends arrive.

I’ve been exploring for the past nine months.  Staying at home and cooking a meal for friends is contentment incarnate.

Holidaying with friends is vastly different to travelling alone.  Both are wonderful.  Travelling alone is total freedom to explore, to learn, to think, to relax.  Holidaying with friends is laughter and light.  After so much time spent without friends, the weekend is magical… and leaves absolutely no time for pondering over the things I would normally ponder on, or writing the things I would usually write.

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Sorry.

I’m too busy talking, laughing and sharing a bottle of wine or three.

Budapest is a beautiful city with so much to see and do that you need more than three days.  There are cathedrals, castles, churches, synagogues, museums, thermal baths, shops, ruined bars, parks… not to mention the Danube.

Go there.

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Home.

It’s a cliché to say it, but I cannot believe how quickly these past nine months have passed.  It’s all a little blurred and when I stop to think of where I’ve been, what I’ve done and what I’ve seen, I am ever-so-slightly awestruck.  It doesn’t really seem real.

For these past nine months I have been – probably for the first time in my life – almost completely living in the present, with only a toe in the immediate future as I plan the next part of my trip and no time to look back.  I’ve been living day by day, not thinking much about where I’m going next other than to make sure I’ll be able to get there and have somewhere to sleep when I do.  There has been so much to see and do and so many different people to meet and talk to in the present that I haven’t had much chance to look back.  For someone used to analysing and thinking over the things I have done on a fairly regular basis, this is somewhat of a revelation.

Let the remembering come when the unpacking is done.  Then I can re-live and enjoy the trip all over again from the comfort of an armchair in England.

Travelling is probably not everyone’s cup of tea.  There have been times over the past nine months when I’ve not been entirely sure that it is mine.  Very brief and short-lived times, I grant you, but there have been moments when a night in watching television would have been the most wonderful thing in the world.  Times when all I wanted to do was to cook in my own kitchen, listening to Radio 4.  Moments where I ached for the familiarity of my own country when taking that last wrong turn was one wrong turn too many.

Then I would step outside the hostel or turn a corner in the street and realise that I was seeing something I had never seen before, that I was standing somewhere I would never stand again, that there was something totally unexpected down that road, and all thoughts of I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue and From Our Own Correspondent would fade out of my mind.  I was my own correspondent, wherever I wanted to be.

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It was one hell of a challenge; deep down I always knew it would be, but I couldn’t let myself think of that before I left the UK.  Instead I planned and meticulously prepared for every eventuality I could think of, from scanning documents I’d never need, to carrying around a hard drive with my whole life on it; from making a backup drive in case the one I had with me broke (which it did) to learning basic German and qualifying to teach English.

I had a rough plan of the countries I wanted to see.  Half a plan, shall we say.  Half a plan that disintegrated half way through, resulting in me visiting places I never ever planned on coming to.  All that planning and preparing wasn’t wasted, though.  If I hadn’t done it, I’d never have found the courage to leave the UK.

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Only when I got deep in the thick of it did I realise how many little worries and niggles I had.  Too shy to go into a shop and ask for something when I couldn’t speak the language; that was the first hurdle – and one soon overcome by necessity.  If all else fails, point and smile.  Learn to say please and thank you in the local language, if you can say nothing else.  A thank you and a smile goes a long way.  Mime if need be.  I’ve mimed blisters on my feet in order to obtain plasters.  I’ve mimed sunburn to get suncream.  I’ve pointed at delicious looking things to get lunch, only to discover they are apple strudel and not some savoury-mince filled pastry.  I’ve mimed forks in order to be able to eat a kebab without getting it all round my face and been mimed back to by kebab sellers telling me I have to use my hands because they have no forks.

I was too scared of what people might think to eat alone in restaurants.  It may never be my favourite thing to do, but sitting in a nice restaurant eating nice food and drinking nice wine whilst reading a book isn’t a bad way to spend a couple of hours.

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Not confident enough in my own ability to negotiate local transport systems.  If in doubt, ask someone for clarification. Failing that, sit on a bus and hope.  If it goes the right way and you get off at the right stop, it’s a triumph.  If not, you get to see somewhere you never expected to… and you can always catch a bus back to where you started.

Too scared to trust strangers or ask for help, even directions, when I can’t speak their language.  If anyone else out there has the same fear, it’s the most delightful one to get rid of.  People, once they realise you need help, will generally go out of their way to assist.  They will offer to walk with you to where you are trying to get to.  They will interpret for you at bus stations and train stations.  They will make sure you are okay.  The more you talk to more people, the more you trust people.  The more you trust people, the more you realise that people are, in fact, quite wonderful.  If nothing else will make you happy in life, that thought should.

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I have been helped by so many kind people in every country I have visited.  All have done their best to understand me and make themselves understood in return.  It has been humbling.  I think that, in general, we are not at all welcoming in the UK or helpful to people we don’t understand.  “How dare you not speak my language,” we think. When someone comes up to us and needs help but doesn’t have the words to ask politely, we think they are being rude or stupid.

I have learned from experience that if all people can say is “Bus?  Lancaster?” or “Toilet?” they aren’t being rude, they just don’t know the word for please, or how, or where.  They just need help and don’t know how to ask for it in any other way.  They’re not stupid, they just don’t speak English.  I’m not stupid, but I’ve no idea how to say “Where do I catch the bus to Brasov?” in Romanian.   Or indeed, “Where is the toilet?”  On many an occasion over the past nine months, I have gone up to people and I have really just said, “Toilet?” to them.  The vast majority have smiled and pointed, without batting an eyelid.

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I don’t think I am a different person to the one that landed in Spain all those months ago.  Perhaps I am more confident.  Perhaps I trust people more readily.  Perhaps I am more able and willing to chat to people I don’t know.  I also hope that I will be much more helpful to people that need it, regardless of how they ask for help.  I hope I will be much less grudging when I give that help.

I know I’m a lot less stressed, but I suspect that will change when I get a job and once more join the rat race.  That said, I don’t plan on racing.  Money enough to pay my bills and my mortgage, have a few beers at the weekend and save a little each month will do me fine.  I don’t need much.

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Less money, less stress, more happy.

I don’t care about a career path.  I just want to be good at what I do and happy doing it.  It could be admin work, it could be shop work, it could be bar work, it could be library work, it could be information work… I don’t know.

Just don’t keep shoving personal development plans at me and don’t force me to make up pretend goals so I feel fulfilled at work – they’ll just stress me out and make me feel like you think I’m not doing my job.  If I like what I do and the people I do it with, I’ll do it to the best of my ability and will be fulfilled enough, thank you.

Where was I?  That was a mammoth tangent…

Ah yes.  Travelling.  It may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but I really do believe that absolutely everyone would benefit from doing it.  Not only from a confidence-boosting point of view, or from an understanding-of-your-fellow-man point of view, but also to increase your understanding of the world you live in.

You live in the world; be a part of it.  Know it.

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Banish a few stereotypes, rectify a little ignorance, change a few perceptions for the better.  Reinforce the positives you already suspect.

I already suspected that people the world over are pretty much the same.  I think I said as much in my first blog entry.  We all laugh, we all cry, we all love, we all hate.  We all crave things we cannot have.  We all get stuck in ruts, we all get frustrated, we all play, we all sulk.  We all do what we feel we have to do to get by.  We are all beautiful, we are all boring, we are all capable of evil, we are all capable of good.

Why make differences between us?  We’re the same.  All of us.  If you want a stereotype, then we are all stereotypically human.  The only way to stop atrocities happening around the world is to focus on the common ground, not the differences.

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We all hold stereotypes.  We all have inaccurate perceptions of certain things and certain peoples.  We all are spoon fed by the press, no matter what our political bias, me included.

The Balkans was a part of the world I never actually intended on visiting – it was a massive detour to escape a Berlin winter and restlessness caused by unemployment (my own fault for not looking for work hard enough).  After exploring Germany, I’d intended on cutting a path through the Czech Republic and Slovakia and into Ukraine, possibly nipping into Croatia and Bulgaria if I could swing it.  The Balkan peninsular as a whole never came into it.

As such, all I knew about the Balkans was what I’d picked up from the media over the years.

  • Croatia – War.  Destruction.  Blue berets.
  • Bosnia – War.  Siege.  Destruction.  Blue berets.
  • Montenegro – I admit it… I’m not sure I even knew it was in Europe.  I think I thought, if I thought about it at all, that it was either in Africa or South America.  Or perhaps the Caribbean.  Yes, probably the Caribbean.
  • Macedonia – I was aware that an ancient region existed with this name, you know, back when they wore togas.  I’m not entirely sure I knew it was now a small country.  I certainly never knew it had been part of Yugoslavia.
  • Albania – Sex traffickers, Sex slaves, Sex workers.  Dodgy, sleazy blokes that you need to keep an eye on.  Very poor people, most of whom are miserable and desperate to leave.
  • Bulgaria – Womble of an avuncular type.  Okay, I knew it was a country and I knew roughly where it is; I have a friend from Bulgaria now living in England.  I didn’t know much else about it, though, other than it being Eastern European.
  • Romania – Appalling orphanages, Ceauşescu, harsh communist regime, poverty, bent old women with swollen hands wearing head scarves.

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…and the places I’ve not visited:

  • Slovenia – I always thought it neighboured Slovakia.  It doesn’t.
  • Serbia – War.  Destruction.  Blue berets.  War crimes.  Atrocities.  Apparently, Belgrade is a wonderfully vibrant city, full of culture.
  • Kosovo (I went through it on a bus, but I didn’t get off) – War.  Destruction.  Blue berets.  I hear Pristina is a fascinating city packed with wonderful people.

I now know that I was mostly wrong about everywhere.

  • Croatia – beautiful cities, beautiful seas, sophisticated, friendly, fun loving.
  • Bosnia – heartbroken, beautiful, hopeful, open, giving, kind, funky, spirited.
  • Montenegro – it’s in Europe.  In the European Union.  It even has the euro for its currency.  It loves concrete, has darn good coffee shops and a stunning coastline.
  • Macedonia – It’s a small country trying to carve out a place for itself.  It’s young, it’s free-spirited, it’s optimistic.  Mother Teresa was from here.  Yes, it has tried to claim Alexander the Great for itself, along with Philip the Great too, which the Greeks aren’t happy about, but never mind.
  • Albania – wild and beautiful and relatively untouched.  Generous and welcoming and helpful and kind.  Open and giving.  Intensely curious about everyone and everything.  Happy.
  • Bulgaria – kind and generous and hard working.  Beautiful from mountain to pasture to sea.  Simple life in the countryside, sophisticated in the cities.  Helpful and open beyond belief.
  • Romania – The Danube is more brown than blue, but oh, so wide and beautiful.  Flat, wide pastures bursting with wheat gently waving in the wind.  Wide, gigantic skies.  Spirited and sophisticated cities with a mildly rebellious streak; quaint cities and towns with turrets and twisty streets.

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The UK press has recently been caught up in a furore about Romanians and Bulgarians descending on the country to steal its jobs, wealth and benefits, which is fuelling mostly unfounded fears and causing prejudices among people who had never bothered to think much about these two countries before.

A lot of people would struggle even to point to Romania and Bulgaria on a map.

God forbid we have more people in our country willing to do actual work.  God forbid we have more taxpayers.

The figures that Farage has touted about in his scare campaigns equate to the entire population of both Romania and Bulgaria upping sticks and landing on our shores.

Unlikely, I think, Nige.

Some will come, sure.  Some – a lot actually – love their own countries and are quite happy there, thank you very much.  I know, because they told me.

Some (whisper it) are even sceptical about joining the EU.  They think it will steal from them, they think it will make them less independent, too reliant on other countries.  They think the money they gain from grants will be swallowed up by corrupt governments.  They think they will see little benefit.

Not so different from fears expressed by a lot of people in the UK, eh?  See?  I told you people were the same the world over.

The UK likes to think that the only reason people want to come to us is to steal our benefits and malinger on the NHS.

No.

Most want to come to work – our wages are higher than anything they can hope for in their own countries.

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The reason a lot choose the UK over other countries in the EU is that we speak English, a language they have learnt since childhood for the most part.  Many other countries in the EU have generous benefit systems (perhaps even more generous than our own in some respects), but far fewer people speak German or French than those who speak English.  Not knowing the language makes the extremely hard task of relocating to a strange country to find work almost impossible.

In fact, given a choice, many would prefer to go to the States or Canada than the UK.

We have such a high opinion of ourselves, we who come from such a tiny rock.  We think that just because people can come here, they’d be mad not to.

We think that just because we have so many benefit cheats, everyone else out there must want to do the same. Okay, some will try it on, just like some British people cheat the system (people are the same everywhere – have I said that before?) but don’t punish everyone else or tar everyone with the same brush.

We still think we are that ‘great’ country that conquered half the world half a world ago… and if we don’t, there are many who think we should be.

I call it small man syndrome.

Live with who we are now, today.  It’s the only way we’ll stop judging every other bugger out there.  It’s the only way we’ll ever be content.

I love my country.  Fiercely, believe it or not.

I love its fields and it cities and its coastline.  I love its hills.  I love its bricks.  I love the freedoms I have.  I love the rights I have.  There are things I take for granted in my country that elsewhere would be considered luxuries.  Rights I take for granted that some can only dream of.  I love my country’s diversity, its wonderfully grumpy, dour and sarcastic people.  Their sharp wit, their creativity.

I love the fact that I can call several cities home.  I love that in a lot of UK cities you can experience cultures from every corner of the world.  The best curries are in Bradford, East London, Manchester, Glasgow, Birmingham.  There’s a reason for that.  You can buy wonderful jerk chicken in Leeds, London, Manchester… there are Caribbean restaurants near where I used to work in Leeds that make your mouth water just walking past them.  There’s a reason for that too.  You can buy saris in the same street as bikinis.  There are mosques sitting next to churches.  The music that comes from our small island is influenced by Jamaica, Romania, Russia, Spain, France, Africa, South America, you name it.  There’s a reason for that as well.  You can hear English, Urdu, Hindi, Polish, Jamaican patois, all in the same town, which to me is wonderful.  Our language is the way it is because we have had so many different nationalities come to our shores, either to trade with us or to conquer us It is ever-evolving because it has had to be due to all those incomers and that’s what makes it so versatile, so frustrating, so idiosyncratic, so wonderful.

We are a mongrel nation, when you boil it down.  If we weren’t, we’d probably all still be painted blue and worshipping trees … although worshiping trees makes more sense than worshipping a lot of other things, I suppose.

There is a hell of a lot right with the United Kingdom and a lot of that comes from the people who traded with us, conquered us or came on ships when we called for help during labour shortages… and we have a hell of a lot we can share.  We also have a hell of a lot we can learn, if we’d only accept the people who can teach us.

As for what I’ve achieved on this trip, what I set out to do…

Well, I’ve met people from all countries and all walks of life, many doing marvellous things such as walking the length of Europe, or exploring the entire Danube piece by piece, or cycling from South Africa back to England, or tracing their ancestral roots.  Many others have been doing what I’ve been doing.  Touring.  Being a tourist.  Exploring.

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I’ve visited most of the places I wanted to visit, although some got cut short and one or two got missed out as plans changed, or as political situations developed.

I think the only thing I haven’t done that I’d really loved to have done is visit Ukraine.  Ukraine was pretty pivotal for the whole trip, actually.  I had planned on staying in Kiev for at least a month and on spending my 40th birthday hiding from the date on a beach in the Crimea.

I’ve been watching the political situation unfold over there with a worried (and increasingly frustrated) eye since December.  It is so sad, what is happening over there.  Propaganda from both sides is tearing the country to pieces.  It reminds me of what Hassan said in Sarajevo, that the war in Bosnia had been the politicians’ war, not the peoples’.  For whatever reason, (gas, business opportunities and paranoia, probably), politicians both east and west are sticking their oar in something they have no business being involved in and, to my eyes, making a volatile situation worse than ever.

Do you know what?  I think I can almost sort of say I’ve been there.  Almost.  Whilst on the river trip in the Danube Delta, my mobile beeped as a text message dropped in.  “Welcome to Ukraine,” it said.  “Calls cost…”  I may not have crossed the border but I got close enough to switch mobile networks.  The smile that spread over my face was far disproportionate to the words in the text.  That last, seemingly unachievable thing (well, achievable but unwise), almost achieved.

I have lived in the only true desert in Europe.  I have worked on an olive farm in Tuscany.  I have lived in Berlin.  I have taught English.  I have seen the Danube.  I have been to Ukraine… nearly.  I think that might be pretty much all of the Trip Wish List achieved… and that’s not even to mention meeting all the wonderful people I’ve met along the way.

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I can go home smiling.

For Budapest photographs, click here.

Tulcea to Transylvania

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Tulcea

Tulcea is a tiny inland port town on the Danube, the place to come in order to hang out in the Danube Delta.  My guide book, which I might ditch such is the good it’s doing me, says if you’re in the Delta for three days or less, stay in Tulcea as a base and do day trips to places such as Sulina, where there are gorgeous beaches.

It does give a ferry schedule too, and if I’d been paying attention I would have noticed that it is impossible to do a day trip to Sulina on public transport because (a) it is only accessible by ferry and (b) the earliest ferry leaves Tulcea at 10.00.  The latest ferry leaves Sulina back to Tulcea at 12.00.  In other words, I’d have to leave Sulina on the same ferry I came in on, with no time to disembark.  There are private taxi boats, but they cost more than €100 each way it seems.

I didn’t come here to hang about in a hotel in Tulcea, so I’ve booked overnight accommodation in Sulina, even though I’ve already paid for three nights in Tulcea.  No point in saving money to get bored in a small port town with nothing to look at apart from the Danube… although the Danube is pretty darn mighty.

Later

I’m in the hotel restaurant.  It is vast.  There are no tables set for less than ten people.  This makes me feel even more of a billy no mates than usual, so I lean my kindle against the napkin holder and get lost in my book.

Instead of the usual easy-to-ignore musak, this restaurant is quietly playing really decent thumping trance-techno tracks of the sort I used to lose myself in back in the days when I frequented Megatripolis under the arches at Charing Cross as a student in London.  I hide a smile of memory, but sitting still is proving tricky.  I manage to stop myself from doing my old hand-in-the-air-techno-dance, but I can’t help bobbing about slightly as I eat my dinner.

I watch the sun glide lower in the sky through the floor-to ceiling windows that overlook the Danube.  That’s the wide, wide Danube out there.  Full and fast flowing, the occasional miniature rip-curl manifesting in the middle.  The lower the sun slides, the more it takes on the appearance of mercury.

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A big grin plants itself on my face.

I’m in Romania!  How the bloody hell did that happen?

Oh yes, I still love this travelling thing – there’s life in the old dog yet, thank god.

Day Two

After breakfast, I head for the Delta reserve authority office to see if I need a Delta entry permit just for travelling by boat from Tulcea to Sulina. “Yes, you do need one permit for each day you’ll be travelling through the Delta,” the girl at the counter says.  “You need a permit like this.”  She holds it up.  “However, you cannot buy them here.”  She now grins sheepishly.  “You must go around the building to another entrance, find the cash office, pay there and then come back to get the permit.”

Right.

I’m glad I decided to allow plenty of time for the permit buying to happen.  I go around to the other door and am greeted by a very happy, laughing man in a suit.  “I believe I need to buy a visitor’s entry permit?”  He rubs his hands, grinning.  “Yes, you do, but not here,” he laughs.  “Come, I will explain.”  He shows me to a dingy corridor and points at a cashier window.  “You must buy here, and then take the piece of paper you are given to a different office around there.”  He points in the direction from which I have just come.  He laughs, shaking his head in acknowledgement of the daftness of the situation.  “Happy paying!” he says cheerfully as he takes his leave.  On my way out and back around to the first office, he calls over to me.  “Success?”  I give him a thumbs up.  He laughs.  He may be the most amused man I’ve ever met.  More so considering that it’s not much past nine in the morning.

I now need to find out what time the ferries depart.  The website I found seemed to be saying there was one at 10am and another at 13.00, but I want to double check.  I make my way to the pontoon of the company I found online.  “Hello, do you speak English?” I ask the man leaning on the gate.  He shakes his head but points to his friend.  “Do I buy tickets to Sulina here?  I think there’s a boat at 10.00?”  “No boats from this pontoon today,” he says.  “Wait one minute, I will take you on a different boat.”  “How much?”  “500 lei.”  This equates to about €110.  “That’s far too much,” I say, walking away.  He shrugs.  “How else you get there today?”  “I thought there was another public ferry company apart from this one?”  He shrugs again.  “Their office is down there.  Maybe it’s 100 lei, I don’t know.  The boat is very slow.  My boat is very fast.”  The website said it was nearer 40 lei, but I keep quiet about that and simply thank him pleasantly as I walk away.

I spot the tourist information office on my way.  I go in to see if they know about ferry times.  They do.  They run to Sulina when I thought they would, from a different pontoon to what was stated on the internet.  However, they don’t run on Saturdays in either direction, which is something the internet page neglected to mention.  Tomorrow is Saturday.  Worst case scenario, if I go to Sulina today, I’ll be stranded.  Best case is that I’d have to pay 500 lei to a private boat owner in order to get back.

I swear under my breath as I emerge back into the sunlight.  On the way back to the hotel, I spot a lot of people boarding a ferry boat marked with the hotel name.

Hmmm.

I enquire about day trips on the river at the hotel.  There is one departing in an hour.  I have to decide on the spot because she needs numbers for lunch.  It’s €40.  It’s either that or spend all day doing nothing in Tulcea, which is tiny and concretey.  I came here for the river, not the concrete.

So it is that I find myself on a six-hour bird-watching cruise on the Danube, on a German language tour (which the hotel receptionist failed to mention).  A Hungarian woman and I are the only non-Germans on board.  I understand about two words in ten that the tour guide says on the introduction.  She talks about the birds we are likely to see.  I hear the phrases ‘fish farm’, ‘fish eggs’, ‘more black’ and ‘big, wide eyes.”  Useful.  Then I hear “Eat at 13.00” and “ladies to the left”.  I grin to myself.  At least I understood the two most important things.

It’s a pleasant way to pass a day in the sunshine; motoring down the wide, wide, full Danube, peeping through dense trees that march right down into the flow, gazing at wide, flat wetlands and smiling at that huge, gaping, yawning blue sky, chatting to the Hungarian lady and playing with my zoom lens, trying to take pictures of birds as they fly away in fright.

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After several hours chasing timid birds with my camera, I spot what I suspect is a cormorant standing on a rock, hanging out its wings to dry in the breeze.  It stays there, stock-still as the boat motors by, only moving its head ever-so-slightly to let us know it’s real.  The sound of camera clicks is all around me.  After we pass, the Hungarian lady looks at me and says, with a deadly serious face, “I suspect that one has a contract with the hotel.  I think five minutes ago, it was on a mobile with the captain, who was saying “We’ll be there in five minutes! Get ready!”

I grin.

I love people.  They make me laugh.

Transylvania

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Romania has woken me up again.  The joy is back, the excitement is back.  While I’m still pleased to be going home, there is now a pang there too; a pang that it is very nearly all over.

Transylvania is just how you would imagine it.  Mountains, pine forests, castles with pretty turrets.  It’s beautiful.  Castle Bran, which was possibly the inspiration for Dracula’s castle in Bram Stoker’s novel, is a tourist trap but a delightful one.  Vlad the Impaler probably stayed here for a couple of nights while he was fleeing the Turks – they play on this to the fullest extent, but I don’t care.  Rasnov Fortress is far less touristy and has more of an unspoiled feel, perched in full view of the Carpathians and overlooking the flatlands.

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Sighisoara is a bit of a trek away but still doable on a day trip.  As I sit on the train, watching farmers tend the land by hand, Shantel’s Bucovina comes onto my iPod, which is on shuffle mode.  I can’t help smiling – it is the perfect soundtrack to the scenery, giving the images sailing past the window an extra depth, brighter colour.  The pony and cart being driven through the lanes, a family huddled on the back.  A woman bent double, weeding her potato crop.  The flat valley bottom and the sloping, tree-greened mountains behind.  The family scything a field of hay and using pitchforks to build hayricks.

Sighisoara is picture perfect.  The book says it’s ‘so pretty it should be arrested’.  It is, with extra added gingerbread house appeal. The buildings look good enough to eat.

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As delightful as all that is, however, it is not the castles or the scenery that will stick with me from here, or even the wonderful people I’ve met in the hostel I’ve stayed in, but something else entirely.

One thing about them Gypsies, they never bored nobody (Gogol Bordello, ‘Break the Spell’ – American Recordings, 2010)

I have been slightly surprised about the apparent lack of Gypsies in both Bulgaria and Romania.  I saw them through the window whilst passing through villages on trains, but only a small number in the cities.

I will admit to being a little disconcerted when a whole bunch of Gypsies board the train to Brasov at Sighisoara and sit in my carriage, which is a small, open-plan end-section and previously contained only me and a cute, bent old woman in a headscarf.  They are loud and laughing, brash and proud.  They fill the carriage.  I move my day bag from the seat next to me to make room for someone to sit down.

A family consisting of two very young children of about one and three, a mother and a father sit in the group of seats ahead of me.   Three teenagers – one girl and two boys – a good looking man probably in his twenties or thirties and a couple of young boys probably aged about seven and nine sit across the aisle from me, squashed in.  A young woman who is probably a fair bit younger than me (although it’s hard to tell) walks down the aisle and looks at me as she sits next to me, perching on the edge of the seat.

“Is problem?” she asks, politely.  “No problem,” I say, shaking my head.  “No problem?” she asks, to make sure.  I shake my head and smile at her so she knows I mean it.  She sits down then and relaxes, stretching her feet out and smiling.  She talks to her friends and they laugh together for a few moments.  I sit quietly, reading my Kindle.

She touches my arm, gently.  She strokes my bracelets.  “They are beautiful,” she says.  “Thank you,” I say, half wondering if I can bear to part with one to give to her.  They are all reminders of countries I have visited.  “Beautiful,” she says again, and then says something in Romanian and points to herself. “No,” I smile, amused, shaking my head and suddenly making up my mind.  “They’re mine.”  I point to myself to make the point.  She nods and lets it go.

She has translucent, hazel eyes, which are by turns shy, amused, delighted and fiery-fierce.  She has high cheekbones and a strong jawline.  She has a wide smile.  Half of one of her front teeth has rotted away, which I find mildly fascinating for some reason, and she has lost most of her teeth on the upper left side.  I stop noticing that after a while, though, once we start talking.  Her hair was obviously once shaved or cut very short underneath to half way up her head and it’s now starting to grow out.  The long hair on top is pulled back into a very rough bun.  She wears loose black tracksuit bottoms and a blue top.

“English?” she asks.  I nod.  “English,” I reply.  She grins.  “I learn little English at school,” she says.  “Very good,” I smile.  “American?”  she asks.  “No, English,” I say.  She looks slightly bemused.  “What is your name?” she asks.  “Vicci.”  I say.  She repeats it.  I nod.  “And you?  What is your name?”  “Diana,” she says (she pronounces it Dee-anna), pointing at her chest.  I repeat it.  She nods, smiling happily, holding her hand out for me to shake.  I do.  “Friend?” she asks.  “Friend,” I say.

Meanwhile, the younger teenage boy has moved opposite her.  He watches avidly as I read my Kindle.  Out of the corner of my eye, I can see him leaning forward in his seat to try to see what it is that I’m staring at.  A small smile twitches the corners of my mouth as I look up at him.  He looks back, all big, brown eyes.  I turn the Kindle to face him.  He looks at it with interest and then suddenly nods as if I’ve answered all his unasked questions.  I turn it back.  Diana watches and then looks at my kindle, leaning on my arm.  I show it to her.  “English?”  she asks, pointing at the words.  “Yes,” I say.  “Pictures?”  “No pictures, only words.”  She frowns.  “Music?”  “No music…  book” I say.  She looks unsure.  I mime reading a real book.  The man across the aisle says what sounds like “buch” to her.  She nods, understanding.

The possibly three year old girl is climbing over the seat in front of me, peeping between the two headrests.  I can’t help grinning at her.  She is possibly the most beautiful child I’ve seen.  She has dark skin and dark, very short hair, which holds a hint of the curl near the ear where it is just long enough to poke out of a pink, crotched cap that is pulled down to her forehead.  She has the biggest, most expressive blue eyes and a very happy, butter-wouldn’t-melt face.  Her eyes are almost luminous.  She wears a blue jumper under a red summer dress with white polka dots on it.  She smiles back at me shyly, although her eyes beam widely.

“Allo, allo?”  The teenage girl across the aisle keeps saying.  I look up at her, curiously.  She makes a pained face and says something in Romanian.  I’m fairly sure she’s begging.  Diana rolls her eyes.  “She ask if you smoke.”  “No, I don’t smoke,” I reply, shaking my head at the teenager.  “No smoke.”  She then indicates her wrists, points to mine and then to herself.  I’m fairly certain she’s asking for a bracelet.  “She say they are beautiful,” Diana says, swiftly.  I grin, wryly, appreciating the rather transparent lie.  “Lei?” the teenager asks.  “No lei,” I say.  It’s not far from the truth.  I only have four lei left, which is less than a euro.  I’ll need that for buses.  “No lei,” says Diana, looking at the teenager firmly.  I get the distinct impression she’s trying to protect me, or at least fend off the worst advances of her friends.

The possibly three year old has now climbed up on the arm of a seat and has stepped up onto the window ledge, perched on her toes.  The window is slightly taller than she is, and the top half is pulled right down, so that more than half of her stands next to an open window.  She leans out happily, the wind in her face.  She grins.  My heart is in my mouth.  One slip and she could fall right out.  Her father gives her a warning, saying her name in that way parents do when they want you to stop doing something.  She ignores him.  He lets her be.

The older teenage boy climbs over the younger one to sit opposite me.  He, too, is staring at my Kindle in fascination.  I turn it round to show him.  The younger boy leans back in to look again.  I touch the screen for them, to turn the page.

The kick I get out of their reaction is huge.  Their eyes widen in wonder and they both lean in closer.  Diana peeps over my arm.  I show her the same thing.  A slow smile covers her face.  The younger boy touches the screen, tentatively.  He grins when the page changes.  Suddenly, there are fingers everywhere and laughter bubbles from each pair of lips as they watch the screen.  I laugh.  They hear me laugh and they laugh again.

I change the book, loading up my Lonely Planet guide to Eastern Europe, and skip to the section on Romania.  I touch the link to Sighisoara.  I show Diana.  She peers closely at the heading, running her finger under it.  “Sighisoara?” she reads, slowly, syllable by syllable.  “Yes,” I grin, nodding.  She beams, looking back at the book in wonder.  “My town,” she says.

I look up at the Window Baby again.  The pink cap has gone, I assume blown off her head by the slipstream and lying by the track behind us.  She is perfectly happy, clinging to the window, her head in the wind.  Every now and again, she looks at me and beams with her eyes, a small, mischievous smile playing over her mouth.  Her mother peeps at me through the headrests of the seats in front, a shy smile on her face.

Diana is leaning across me to stare intently at my Kindle.  I go back to the Romania menu.  “Bucharest!” she reads.  “Cluj-Napoca!”  “Brasov!”  I nod, grinning, and move  through to those passages for her.  She taps the screen carefully a couple of times and then pauses, running her finger under a sentence, slowly.  She looks at me, questioningly.  “English?”  she asks.  I nod.  She starts to read aloud, slowly, sounding out each word phonetically.  It’s unfortunate that English doesn’t generally work that way.  She is pleased when I gently correct her pronunciation and grins at me as she repeats the word correctly.  She is pleased by my encouragement and delighted when she gets a word right.

The train guard enters the carriage.  I tuck my Kindle away in my bag and get my wallet out to retrieve my ticket.  He works through the carriage, having several discussions with the Gypsies – they have a little money and I assume they are paying to which ever stop they have the money for.  He checks my ticket and asks in Romanian if I’d like him to take my bag somewhere else.  I shake my head.  I know why he’s asking and, for a kick off, I don’t think it’s necessary and, as a follow up,  I’d rather keep it where I can see it in any case.  It’s fine on my lap.  It’s secure.  He repeats the question, miming to make his meaning clear, pointing at himself.  I shake my head firmly, smiling, patting my bag on my knees.  He shrugs, but says something that is clearly along the lines of “keep a watch out.”

“Trick, trick,” say the two boys opposite me.  “Trick?”  I ask.  “Trick,” Diana nods.  I’m not sure if they’re saying he was trying to trick me, or if they’re saying he was saying that they are going to trick me.  It doesn’t matter either way, because neither is going to happen.  I shrug.

The boys get braver.  They start chattering at me and laughing.  I strongly suspect they are being a little suggestive, but since I can’t understand, it doesn’t seem to matter.  The teenage girl laughs at them as they talk to me.  I shrug.  “I can’t understand,” I tell them.  They laugh and carry on.  Diana rolls her eyes, and slaps them lightly on the legs.  “They say you are very beautiful,” she says.  I suspect she is being a little economical with the truth.  The teenage girl across the aisle shakes her head vehemently, affirming my suspicions, and blows two very loud air kisses, pointing to them and to me.  I laugh, shake my head.  “They say you are very beautiful,” Diana insists.  I laugh again.  The girl blows two more kisses; louder.  The seven year old opposite the teenage girl starts up.  “Allo?” he says.  I look at him enquiringly.  He points to his groin, going off into peals of laughter.

I’m too shocked to do much more than shake my head at him in a reproving manner.  Also, I come from a culture where we don’t tend to chastise other peoples’ children and we certainly don’t hit them.  Diana has no such qualms and cuffs him smartly around the ear, rebuking him sharply.  I hide a chuckle.

I am not too upset when the teenagers and the seven year old leave the train, the teenage boys both solemnly shaking my hand in farewell before they disembark.  Diana shakes her head, solemnly.  “They are not my family,” she says, as if she wants to distance herself from them a little.  “Friends?”  I ask.  “Friends,” she nods, with a small shrug.  She gestures to the good looking man, who is still sitting across the aisle.  “My brother,” she says.  I nod hello.  He nods back.

The Window Baby is still firmly in the window, still smiling at me now and again.  I wave at her.  Thankfully, she doesn’t wave back, but keeps clinging to the window with both hands.  Her young sibling is wailing on the floor.  I’m not sure if it’s a boy or a girl – I’ll call him a boy because he wears dark blue.  His mother stands, scoops him up and cuddles him.  He peers at me shyly.  Big blue eyes, just like his sister, his hair a little longer, starting to curl, sticking up in wisps in all directions.  His mother is beautiful – her face kind and serene with sparkling brown eyes, her hair long, black and shiny, hanging down her back in a sleek sheet.  She has several teeth missing when she smiles at me smiling at him, but it doesn’t affect her beauty in the slightest.  Her husband ties a red papoose around the baby and his wife, firmly tying it at her back.  She plants a huge kiss on her baby’s forehead, cuddling him close.

The nine year old boy appears from nowhere and sits opposite Diana, watching me.  “American?” she asks me again.  I shake my head.  “English – England.”  She doesn’t understand.  She says something in Romanian.  Her brother looks up.  “She asks where you are from.”  I wonder if she means city, rather than country.  “Manchester,” I say.  She still looks confused, but her brother nods in understanding.  He says something to his sister.  “Anglia?” she asks me  “Yes!  Anglia!” I grin.  She beams back.

I watch the scenery roll by, half keeping an eye on the Window Baby, who is still in the window.  Diana taps me on the arm.  I turn to her and she points at her own arm.  It is covered in ancient scars that wrap around her forearm, one and then another and another, right to her wrist.  I look at her in concern.  Has she done that to herself?  I notice she has matching scars on the other arm.  “School,” she says, grimly.  “School?”  I’m aghast.  She mimes someone whipping, or hitting with a ruler or stick.  I wish we had more language in common.  “That’s really bad,” I say, meaning it, wishing I could say something else that she’d understand.  She nods.  “Bad.”

It’s no wonder these kids don’t go to school if they get abuse like that.  I’m appalled.  I’m also impressed she seems to have managed to stick out her education long enough to pick up the limited amount of English that she has.

There’s a silence in the carriage, which is not uncomfortable.  The mother edges closer to us, leaning on the side of the seats opposite Diana and me, her baby snug in his papoose, still peeping at me.  I smile and wave.  He smiles back from under his mother’s chin.  Diana takes her very battered mobile phone out, which is mostly held together with selotape, and shows me pictures of a small boy.  They are blurred – perhaps there is sticky tape obscuring the camera.  “My baby,” she says.  “He’s beautiful,” I say.  She beams.  “What is his name?”  “Alex,” she replies.  She shows me many photographs.  “Four,” she says, proudly, holding up four fingers.  “You have four babies?” I ask.  While I really can’t tell how old she is, she doesn’t look old enough to have had four, or worn enough.  “No!”  she shakes her head, horrified.  “Four years,” she says, firmly.  “Oh!”  I laugh.  She grins.

The nine year old boy is in the aisle eating a slice of dry, white bread hungrily.  He rips it in half and gives it to the mother, who gives some to the boy in the papoose.  I remember I have half a ham and tomato sandwich in my bag, left over from lunch.  Luckily, it was a fairly big sandwich, made from wide, wide bread.  I pull it out and pass it to him.  He takes it eagerly.  “For everyone,” I tell him, pointing at the Window Baby and the baby in the papoose.  Diana nods.  “Everyone,” she repeats, and tells him in Romanian.  He rips it into three and devours his fairly speedily.  The mother hands the other parts to the two youngsters.

Diana takes a picture of the mother and baby and shows me.  I laugh, because the mother is laughing.  The Window Baby watches us, her eyes shining.  Diana then gestures to me with the phone.  I nod.  She takes my picture and shows me.  “Me too?” she asks.  “Yes,” I say.  She smiles widely, putting her arm around my shoulders and her head against mine, holding her arm out to take our picture.  She shows me the result.  I laugh and nod.

The Window Baby grins at me from the window, a glob of tomato seeds on her cheek, her eyes bright.

Diana then plays some music through the phone, quietly at first, holding it to my ear.  I listen, watching her.  “Gypsy music,” she says.  It’s really good.  I give her a thumbs up to let her know I like it.  I’ve been listening to gypsy inspired music for a couple of years now, and this is the real thing.  “Name?” I ask.  Both she and the mother beam at me.  She says something too fast for me to catch.  I look at her, confused.  “Again?”  Slower this time – syllable by syllable.  It sounds like Sandor Choba.  I repeat it slowly.  She nods.  The mother looks at me and says one word.  I think it might be the title of the song.  I repeat it.  She nods, smiling, blinking firmly just once at the same time to reinforce the fact that I got it right.  Diana turns the music up.  The boy starts dancing in the aisle with a grin on his face.  It makes me laugh.  Diana laughs too and joins in dancing as she sits beside me.

Before I can even begin to worry that they’re about to make me join in, they suddenly all stand up.  The train has stopped.  The small boy shakes my hand.  The mother waves.  “Bye bye,” she says.  “You’re leaving?” I ask.  Diana nods, taking my hand in farewell.  She squeezes it.  I squeeze hers back before she heads down the carriage to the door.  “Bye bye,” I say to the mother.  I wave at the father and the baby.  The baby smiles back.  Diana quickly strides back up the carriage and takes my hand again.  “Friend,” she says.  “Friend,” I smile.

The last to leave is the Window Baby, who is now standing in the aisle looking at me and smiling, tomato still on her cheek.  I wave.  She waves back and disappears.

The carriage is now unearthly silent.  I am surprised to discover a lump in my throat.

For Tulcea pictures, click here

For Transylvania pictures, click here

Across the Danube to Romania and into Bucharest

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The Home Stretch

I’m not as joyful about travel as I was to begin with.  A lot of the mini triumphs have become commonplace and a lot of the fun to be had when things don’t quite go according to plan has ceased to be so entertaining. The excitement at seeing new things has waned.  A church.  Another church.   A different church in a new country.  A ruined fort in Bulgaria looks much the same as one in Wales these days.

The end is in sight.  The end to living out of a rucksack, which, for the most part, I have quite enjoyed.  It’s oddly liberating, not having a wardrobe full of clothes and shelves of possessions.

The end to waking up in a new town every three or four days, which will be more than a little strange.

The end to not having any responsibilities other than to myself.  The end of “Oh, I don’t much like it here, let’s go somewhere else,” or “Wow, this is cool, maybe I’ll stay an extra night.”

I can’t get into my flat until September, when my tenants’ contract runs out.  I’m going to have to find a job.

It sounds awful.

Yet home is still calling.  I’ve decided to answer.  I’ll be on a plane in about a week.

Irritants of Bureaucracy, Inefficiency and Things that Don’t Work

I’m in Varna, on the Black Sea coast of Bulgaria.  I haven’t written about Varna, mainly because there hasn’t been an awful lot to write about.  It’s a slightly run-down port city with a pretty park overlooking the sea.  There’s a nice cathedral.  The beach is quite nice.  There are some nice bars.

I haven’t really taken any pictures of Varna either, because there is nothing new grabbing my eye.  In the manner of many communist era cities and towns, it resembles Stevenage.  It’s Stevenage on Sea.

I have spent far more time working out how to get out of Varna than enjoying being in it.  Not because I hate Varna so much, but because the information I found online about buses to my next destination does not seem to add up with reality.

I pretty much always make sure of my next journey before settling down to enjoy the place I’m in because I like to know I’m not about to get stuck with any nasty surprises, transport-wise, when it’s too late to fix it.

I walk to the bus station to enquire about a bus that, according to a Romanian bus website, runs several times daily from here to Vama Veche, a tiny coastal town in southern Romania, a town just across the border from Bulgaria.

I get directed to the information kiosk by the slightly confused lady in the ticket office.  The information kiosk lady directs me to a bus company office across the way.  The bus company office is shut.  I go back to the lady in the kiosk.  I think she’s saying it will be shut all day.  She writes something down on a scrap of paper for me with a hopeless but helpful air.  It’s in Bulgarian.  I run it through Google Translate back at the hostel – seems the bus to Vama Veche only goes twice a week and not on the day I need it to run.

Arse.

Then I realise that the closed bus company office is a different company to the one mentioned on the Romanian website.  I check the internet.  Yep.  I dig a little more.  Aha.  This bus departs from the cathedral, not the bus station.  I walk to the cathedral.  There are about a million bus stops, each unsigned.  There is no office – ticket, information or otherwise.  The nearby tourist office is shut.

I have spent an entire morning and part of an afternoon trying to solve this.  I give up for the day and sit on the beach.

The next day, the tourist office is open but they haven’t a clue about the bus I’m talking about.  They say, “If it says so on the internet, I’m sure it will be here.”  They say, “Probably that stop at the front of the cathedral.”  They shrug a bit and try to look encouraging.

I am unconvinced.  I decide to check the time of the train to Bucharest as a plan B.  It departs before my bus.

Arse.

I decide that if the bus doesn’t materialise, I will stay an extra night in Varna and depart for Bucharest the next day.

So as not to bore you by telling you about me sitting on a bench for two hours with all my luggage, a sandwich and a book, keeping an eye out for a non-existent bus, I will just say that plan B is what occurred.

With very numb buttocks, after checking in to a hotel as a treat, I wend my way to the nearby train station.  “Can I have a ticket to Bucharest tomorrow morning, please?”  She eyes me over her glasses.  Her colleague nudges closer.  “Bucharest?  Tomorrow?”  “Da, molya.”  She turns to her colleague, who is better at English.  “Do you know the timetable?”  The English speaker asks me.

Eh?

Are you the one who works here, sat with the computer behind a glass window, or am I getting mixed up here?

Of course I have the timetable.  I don’t go near a train station or a bus station without having first looked things up on the internet.  That’s hardly the point, though.

I fight hard to stop myself from giving her the Barrett Stare with Raised Eyebrow.  Actually, I think that might be the Wilson Stare, from my mother’s side of the family.  My aunt is awesome at it.  Then again, my dad can do a killer glance that can very nearly stun a person.

Perhaps both sides do it, in which case there was never really much hope of me not possessing the Death Stare.  It’s a useful talent at times, but it don’t half put people off approaching you when you do it by accident.

A common comment I still receive and have been receiving since I was a student is, “Well, I wouldn’t fuck with you…” (someone said that to me in Nice, actually, when we were having a laugh and playing cards and sharing a bottle of wine).  Another one is, “When I first met you, you scared the crap out of me.”  Even my best friend said that.  Still does, when she thinks I won’t hit her.

Anyway.  Back to the point.

I slide my notebook through the window for The English Speaker to look at.  She manages to read my rough writing.  “Varna 9.20, change at Ruse for 14.30?” she asks.

How funny you should guess.

I have travel apathy, there’s no doubt about it.  The first leg of this journey is the first trip that I’ve not been excited about.  I’m not bothered by what’s passing by the window.  The apathy continues on the second leg , after I change trains at the border.  Then, suddenly, I register what it is I’m looking at.  It’s a big river.  A very big river.  I sit up a little.  That’s the Danube, surely.  The Blue Danube.

Can I be bothered to dig my camera out, that’s the issue.  Not really.  I sit and stare at the river, feeling a little itchy and not because of flea bites.  I’m itchy for my camera.  Now we are half way across.  If I get the camera now, I’ll be too busy pulling it out of my bag to be looking at the river that I really want to look at.  Can I really be bothered?  By the time I’ve found it, the river will have gone.  Can I really be really bothered?

YES.

Obviously.

Suddenly I’ve ripped my small backpack open and am excavating for my camera, standing up and sticking my head out of the open window, the camera strapped around my neck, the wind whipping my hair around my ears and cheeks.

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After that, it’s like I’ve turned into a happy dog in a car with the window wound down.  I wouldn’t pull my head back in if you paid me.

Romania is huge.  If the part of Bulgaria I’ve just come from resembles the countryside in Devon, Yorkshire, Cumbria… this part of Romania is the Fens.  It is the savannah.  It is the wide open prairie.  It just goes and goes, on and on, as far as the eye can see.  Wide and flat and wide and flat and forever.

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Bucharest

As soon as I exit Gara de Nord, I kinda love Bucharest.  For no reason.  It’s just brilliant.  Maybe it’s because it feels more familiar than the other places I’ve been of late; it feels a bit more like home than Bulgaria or Albania, maybe.  I don’t know.  I’ve heard it described as the Paris of Eastern Europe.  I don’t know if I’d go that far, although you have to admit that the train station has a very Parisian name.  Maybe that’s why?  Or maybe the bloke who told me that was insane.  It’s possible – he was a random I met on a train.

There already exists a Paris in the world; we don’t need another.  Bucharest will do me fine just being Bucharest.

On the tram to the centre of town, we pass a sex shop (which are de rigueur in Eastern Europe.  They are on high streets, side streets and, in the case of Vratsa in Bulgaria, under the apartment I stayed in and next to a kid’s play centre.  They’re just normal.  Everywhere.  A bit like H&M with a few noticeable differences – S instead of H for a kick off).  Sex Play, the shop is called.  It says on it, in big letters, “ACUM in stock”.

Just the one?

Okay, okay, I’ll get myself out of the gutter.  Sorry.

*snigger*

After I check into the hotel, it starts to rain.  Really rain.  I discovered this morning that I left my waterproof coat on the train yesterday.  I put my battered brolly up, deciding to find a  new coat before I do anything else.

I look around.  Gucci shop.  Souvenir shop.  Big elegant buildings.  The national bank.  Something selling very sparkly jewellery.  A posh shoe shop.  I keep walking.  I consult my guide book.  It doesn’t mention normal shops.  Perhaps there are none.

I walk some more, my umbrella spending as much time inside out as the right way round, vulnerable to every light gust of wind.  I pull my map out.  The wind almost whips it out of my hand.  Every time I get control of it, it snaps in the gusts that fly up the boulevard, at one point ripping where it had gained a soaking.  My umbrella nearly takes off.

“Now look, you bastard contraption,” I tell the umbrella sternly, “keep that up and you’re going in the bin.  I can’t get much wetter anyway.”

I’m shouting at my umbrella.

Bad.

I head towards an awning to try to control the map, to try to see where might be all the shops.  My umbrella turns inside out and then snaps the right way again, smattering me in the face with all the rain it had collected.

“Right, you bloody bastard…” I dump it in the bin, fully aware that I sound like Basil Fawlty hitting his car with a tree branch.  It doesn’t cheer me up in the slightest.

I’m only wearing jeans, a t-shirt and a cardigan.  I’m drenched in seconds.

I cut through a small alley and find a souvenir shop.  I can’t see anything vaguely water repelling.  “Do you have any umbrellas?” I ask, dripping on the floor.  “Yes,” she says, “but only like this… although they come in different colours.”  I would have bought most things at this point… but not a pink Hannah Montana brolly with white polka dots.

No.

“I’m not that desperate,” I say, with a wry grin.  She laughs.

I round a corner and spot a DM – these are a bit like Superdrug; they’re all over Germany and Eastern Europe; probably other places as well.  They sell umbrellas.  I almost run for the door.

Where are they?  Where?

I ask a sales assistant.  “We only have children’s ones,” she says.  “Never mind,” I say through tight teeth.  “Thank you.”  I stalk off, unamused, my hair in rat’s tails, my cardigan sticking to me.  In a city where it apparently rains this much, surely there should be umbrella stalls on every corner, like there is in London?  Surely.  What’s wrong with you people?

There, in the distance, looms a mall.  I hate malls.  I love this one, though.  In the back of my mind, I am quite impressed that Bucharest seems to keep all its chain shops in one place so its streets keep some semblance of identity.  I promise myself that I will think back to that thought when I’m dry and I will smile.

One brolly and coat later, I emerge outside to discover the rain has stopped.

I am in a massive square, filled with what would be massive pools and fountains if they had water in them (well, other than rain puddles).  The grandeur is almost audacious.  The square is sided by monstrous, austere but somehow wondrous buildings – apartment blocks above shops for the most part, topped with adverts.  They were apparently designed to hide the city’s churches, but they don’t wholly succeed.  I stand and stare, almost turning circles on the spot.

My guide book advises tourists to walk round town in search of parts of Bucharest that escaped Ceauşescu’s redesign of the city.

Perhaps I would if I could scrape my jaw off the pavement.  Say what you like about the man – despotic dictator, megalomaniac, corrupt, evil and far, far, far worse.  Whoever he found to design his architecture, though, was a total genius.  It’s grand, gigantic, audacious, sweeping, all-consuming, majestic, powerful, humbling.  I feel tiny walking down the boulevards.  The Palace of Parliament, Ceauşescu’s most infamous creation apparently, is… is…

This:

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The guide book says it’s the second-largest building in the world, after the Pentagon.  I can’t find the words for what it is (monstrous?  Stupendous?  Awe inspiring?  Indecent?  All of the above?) so that rather bland sentence from the guide book will have to do.  It’s big.

My tip for Bucharest if you’re only here a short time – don’t bother with the museums.  Walk around it, get lost in it, trip over your jaw as you stare up at the colossal buildings.  There are pockets that escaped Ceauşescu, pockets that look a bit Austro-Hungarian.  Bits of French Baroque.  You can see that in Austria.  In Hungary.  In France.  In Germany.  In Bosnia.  In Britain.

Walk the wide boulevards, stare upwards and across the street and let your head get a little dizzy.

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For photos of the train journey and Bucharest, Click here.

Village Life – Volunteering in Voditsa

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Rural Bulgaria is about as peaceful as it gets.  All I can hear right now is birds, birds, birds – including a very chatty cuckoo – chickens murmuring to themselves as they scratch at the ground, Elly, one of my hosts, sweeping the kitchen… and Tina Turner playing loudly on the stereo as the sun pours through fruit trees near the front step and lazes over the rambling garden.

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I am volunteering on a smallholding in Voditsa.  The work is mainly weeding, planting, sowing, building, painting, plastering… most things, really, which is good.  I have helped to fix a hen house with rubble and mud for a new batch of hens, pulled couch grass out of the soil in a field, weeded flowerbeds, tickled piglets and cuddled chickens.

The facilities are simple – a compost toilet made from a bucket with a bench over it for serious things, bushes for less serious things (the phrase watering the garden can mean two things here).  The buildings are cosy and homely – a warm kitchen with a wood burning stove, comfortable bedrooms, a cosy living room with another stove and cats on the sofas.  There are outhouses for summer living – an unenclosed barn that has a kitchen, a sofa and a bed in it, a bar.  There are big vegetable plots, flowerbeds, a pigsty, a trampoline.

Voditsa seems to be a mini-haven for Brits who buy falling-down houses on large plots of land and fix them up to live in. The life here is idyllic; it’s not hard to see the draw.

Cheap house prices, cheap land prices.  If you’re not as hands on as Elly and Dancho, there are skilled local tradesmen on hand to help you re-build your property.  You can end up with a gorgeous three bedroom house with a plot of land for about £7k, once the work has been done.  It’s hard work, though, and there’s a lot of it.

Jo from Manchester, who is staying with Elly this week, has a place down the road.  It has two buildings in an L shape, plus a barn, a sizeable garden and an orchard.  Stephen, a retired man originally from Birmingham and now resident in Merthyr Tydfil, has a place a ten minute walk away.  He got a three bedroom house with land for about £3,000.  It needs a hell of a lot of work, but after another £4,000, he should have a gorgeous country cottage with a large but manageable garden.  Kiwi Olivia, a tall, willowy woman in her fifties who has just arrived from England, has a bigger place with a larger plot of land, for which she paid £4,000.  It too needs a lot of work, but that’s half the fun.

A Morning in Popovo

It’s market day in Popovo.  Elly and Dancho want some chicks.  “How many shall we get?” asks Elly.  “Can I have that one?  Chicken, do you want to come and live with me?”  “Let’s get five.  Or maybe ten,” replies Dancho.  They get twelve young chickens, about two weeks old.  “Shall we get some more?” Dancho asks.  “What about these?”  We walk over to some older ones, which are ready to lay.  “Let’s get five of these, too.”  They do.  Dancho looks at Elly.  “Shall we get some more?”  “How many have we got?”  “I dunno.  Maybe 15?”  “15?”  She does some counting.  “We’ve got 17.”  “Shall we get some more?”  “You want more?”  “I don’t know.  Maybe.”  “How many more?”  “Maybe we’ve got enough…”

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We meet Olivia and Stephen and go for a coffee.  Stephen goes to the nearby chemist while we take time over our drinks.  Olivia and Elly discuss Olivia’s cashflow problem – her UK cash card won’t work in Bulgaria.  She had tried to transfer her money into Elly’s account so Elly could withdraw it for her, except the transaction didn’t work.

Olivia looks a little abashed, biting her lip.  “Gosh, I swore so much.  I think Stephen was shocked.  I don’t think Stephen likes swearing much.”  She pauses, pondering.  “Also, he doesn’t know about the trans thing… when I get angry my voice gets lower, so that might have been a little bit of a surprise for him too…”  Elly goes off into peals of laughter.  I chuckle into my espresso.

A Day in the Forest

Elly and Dancho need wood for next winter’s fuel.  Dancho takes us volunteers to the nearby forest in the van with Stefan, the forest manager; three of us in the dark in the back, jolting over the bumps in the road.  The other volunteers are all friends from Britain – Maks, Ieuan and Ewan.

“Do you think this is what it’s like to be kidnapped?” muses Ieuan.  “Probably,” says Maks, unconcerned.  “Or smuggled out of the country.”  “Hmmm,” says Ieuan.  “When they open the doors in a minute, we should probably grab those axes and run.  Just in case.”

The forest is only 30 years old.  The leaves are new and green.  The trees are tall and straight; a mix of young oak and beech.  There are stacks of timber piled up neatly here and there.  We walk to Dancho’s area.  His father came a few days ago to cut down some trees with his chainsaw.  We are mainly chopping and stacking the felled trees, sorting them into thick trunks, medium sized branches and small thin bits that aren’t much use other than kindling.

I discover I’m a crap aim with an axe.  Don’t panic – every one still has all their toes, but it takes me at least ten swings to get through a branch only about three inches in diameter.  Shameful.

The boys start to get itchy to chop down actual trees.  “Dancho, can we chop down a tree?” they ask, having chopped down all the saplings that could be vaguely described as being in the way of the tractor when it comes to collect the wood.  Dancho grins.  “Maybe.  If it is a marked one in this area and not over there.  That bit is not our area.”  Ewan takes first go.  His aim is not much better than mine.  We stand back and laugh quietly.  Stefan shakes his head, grinning.  I don’t know why I’m smiling, I couldn’t do any better.  “What do you say in Bulgaria when a tree is about to fall down?” asks Maks.  “Falling tree,” says Dancho.  “Falling tree?  What’s that in Bulgarian?”  Dancho says something in Bulgarian.  “Blimey.  That’s a bit of a long word,” says Maks.

Stefan has taken the axe from Ewan now and is chopping away expertly.  He gestures for us to move and then puts some weight on the trunk.  It moves about an inch and is caught in a neighbouring tree.  Ewan and Stefan strain to pick it up and pull it.  It comes down.  “Falling tree,” I say.

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“Well, I chopped a tree down,” says Ewan, coming over to us.  Maks shakes his head.  “I’m not letting you have that.”  Ewan sighs.  “No.  I suppose not.  I don’t know what went wrong.”  “A slight hand-eye co-ordination problem perhaps?” Maks replies, drily.

A little later, Ieuan attacks a tall, slim tree near the track.  His aim is better and after a while it starts to fall.  We move, quickly.  “Timber,” he says, belatedly, with no sense of urgency.  “That would have hit my head if I hadn’t moved,” Maks says, with an unconcerned, slow smile.  “Yeah,” agrees Ieuan with a shrug.

Some Days Later

I’ve suddenly realised that where I want to be is where I’ve always wanted to be, pretty much since I was about 17.  On the water, under trees, next to a tow path.  I’d almost given up on the idea.

It got lost among the everyday Manchester; buried in the notion that owning property will provide security in later life.  I bought my lovely little flat.  The canal got hidden in the decorating, the earning a living and the sensible, grown-up thoughts that inevitably followed.  The bulk of my savings went on the deposit for the flat.  Half of what was left went on fixing it up.

My savings pot shrank to the size of a rubber dinghy.  After that, it seemed almost pointless trying to save the amount of money it would take to buy a boat.  I wasn’t even sure I wanted it anyway.

Seems I was wrong.

Since I’ve been travelling, I’ve seen many, many different ways of life and they all seem to work.  The only thing that remains is to pick the one that’s right for me, regardless of everything else.  I’ve had thoughts on location, sure; wildly geographically different locations, although all on the same rock.  Northumberland.  Cumbria.  Cornwall.  Devon.  Cambridge.  Hertford.  London.  Manchester… Manchester… Manchester.  Or somewhere totally else.  Bath is lovely.  Oxford is beautiful.

All of them have canals.  Well… the one in Devon and Cornwall isn’t joined on to the rest of the system, but there still is one.

I’m not sure why it’s suddenly struck me, hammerlike.  Why now?  Perhaps because the people I’m surrounded by at the moment are a lot like the people you find on the canals.  The life is rural.  Birds sing everywhere.  There is a DIY, make-do-and-mend and grow-your-own ethic.  The earth smells damp and wet.  The air is as fresh as the breeze over water.  Here at Elly and Dancho’s there is such a positive attitude that suddenly I believe I can actually do it.  Here they say, “I’ve no idea how to do that, but let’s give it a go anyway.”  Suddenly there is a new set of shelves in an awkward corner, a plastered room, a chicken coop, a potato patch in the couch grass, a fixed-enough washing machine.

Between working on my flat and doing the Workaways I’ve done on this trip, I know I can do basic DIY and maintenance.  I can probably paint a boat.  I can strip and stain wood; I can probably tart up a boat interior.  I know how plumbing and electrics work; probably not enough to tackle that myself, but enough to talk knowledgably with tradespeople about it.  I could probably learn enough about carpentry to put in the easier-to-build bits of made-to-measure furniture that I’d like.  I can buy a bit of a fixer-up boat, fix it up and live on it, or use it as an escape from city life and keep my flat.  Once I have the money, that is.

The rubber dinghy is being spent on this trip.  Irony, I think they call that.  I’m spending my boat money to remember what I wanted to spend it on.  Life is not without a sense of humour (and, luckily, neither am I).

Weekend Jaunt to Veliko Tarnovo

I’m now one of those local villagers who get to stand in the road to flag down a bus at not a bus stop.  Get me and my Balkan ways.

There is a part of me that is slightly concerned that drivers will think I’m one of those ladies that hang around in laybys wearing very short skirts and high heels, mysteriously bereft of transport.  I hope I look too dishevelled for that and I’m not sure you’d catch any of those ladies wearing sensible walking shoes.  As an aside, one of those layby ladies near Vratsa is actually a man.  On a trip to a monastery with Keti, Orlin and their friend Kalina, Kalina pointed out of the car window and said “I know that one, she’s a man.”  Careful all you drivers out there after something a little extra on your journey.  You never know what you’ll get.

We bump our way over the winding roads.  Rural Bulgaria is a lot like rural England, but on a gigantic, massive scale.  The fields lie over hills that roll gently, lined by trees.  The mix of brown ploughed, yellow mustard seed and green new wheat makes for a pretty patchwork.  Here and there are crumbling barns and cottages.  The villages we pass through still have a definite trace of communism in the architecture.  Dilapidated houses sit hunched next to concrete municipal buildings, large, empty squares with big, strong, masculine statues standing in them; statues with large, bushy moustaches and big feet.  The cars on the streets have an average age of about 20 years; a mix of ancient BMWs, Ladas and the occasional Trabant along with cars I don’t recognise, such as the Moskovitch.  Hunched old ladies wearing head scarves are bent double in their front gardens, weeding between irises and tulips, onions and potatoes.  Men drive ponies pulling carts laden with logs through the streets.

Veliko Tarnovo was once the capital of Bulgaria.  It is ancient and picturesque, with a huge, partly restored fortress on a hill, a wide, lazy river meandering through it in a deep valley.  I disembark the bus, looking around for a street name so I can follow the directions to the hostel.

I really am utterly sick of crap hostel directions.  I copied my own directions out from a map yesterday, but I’ve no idea which street I’m on.  This doesn’t look like a bus station to me.  I head up hill.  I find my bearings, but the hostel directions of “aim for the fortress and we’re two minutes below it” aren’t helpful, and the tiny roads in the old town have different names to the ones that I got from Google Maps, which doesn’t always give the names of the smallest streets anyway.

Fuck it.

I walk down the main high street, see a hotel, go in and enquire as to availability and price of rooms.  60 Lev (roughly €30) for bed and breakfast in a single room with en suite and view (although if you’re in Veliko Tarnovo in a room without a view you’re very, very unlucky – this place has views in all directions).  That’ll do nicely.  This is a four star hotel with two bars and restaurants.  There’s also a spa and gym.  Shame my bikini is back in Voditsa.

I explore the small, but clean and comfortable room.  I have a mini bar.  I have a balcony overlooking the widely meandering river below and the gigantic monument opposite and the trees, trees, trees beyond that.  To each side, I can see ancient houses clinging to the steep hillside, looking like they could slide into the river at any moment.  I investigate the bathroom.  Oh, my.  A flush toilet.  I’d almost forgotten about those.  Wait, is that a bath?  That’s a bath.

Hostel Mostel?  Hostel Schmostel.  Even if it is supposed to be one of the best in the Balkans.

Now.  Where’s a café?  Where’s this fortress?  How do you get to that amazing monument across the river?

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Later

I’ve explored Tsarevets Fortress, which is a rubbly pile of ruins on the hill with a couple of respectfully restored parts and one of my favourite churches on the whole trip right at the very top.

From the outside, the Patriarchal Cathedral of the Holy Ascension of God  looks much like any other eastern European Orthodox church.  Inside, however…

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I’m so glad I wasn’t expecting it.

Instead of the usual frescoes and artwork and dark, brooding gothic atmosphere, there are murals that were finished in 1985, all in a striking, modern style.  There’s a lot of Jesus being upside down for some reason; perhaps they’re taking him from the cross, but it’s all a bit abstract, so who knows… but despite all the upside down Jesus, I love it.  The altar piece is painted on what looks like a floating door.  It is of Mary and the Christ Child.  It is lit up from two angles, giving it two shadows to either side that look just like angel wings.

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I’m now sitting in the hotel restaurant with a view of the Monument of the Assens and a rainbow arching down the steep hillside over all the higgledy-piggledy old houses.

I have to admit to being a little scared of Bulgarian restaurants.  Bulgarian food is delicious – the things that Keti cooked for me where so good I ate until I was almost in pain.  Pork that falls apart at the touch of a fork.  Cheesy banitsa, stuffed peppers.  However, so far the food in restaurants has all been just a little strange.  Carrots salad is just that.  An entire plate full of grated carrot, sometimes with an olive perched on top.  I had something in Vratsa that was a salad made of carrots, egg, tomatoes and cheese; possibly some other things.  It came unexpectedly liquidised all together in a kind of strange, gloopy paté and looked a lot like vomit.  It tasted nice, but the consistency was … otherwise.

There is a singing duo near me, with a keyboard and a bass guitar.  They both wear black.  He is balding with long, tied-back hair.  She is approaching middle age and wearing something very sequined.  They manage to ruin several of my favourite songs – he sings Wonderful Life by Black in a manner that suggests life is painfully dull.  She sings Upside Down by Diana Ross as if she is very upright and stiff as a board.  They even manage to make Ob-la-di Ob-la-da sound far worse than it usually does… and it usually sounds horrific.

I rush dinner so I can go back up to my room where there is a bottle of red waiting for me, along with my book and lots of quiet.

Voditsa Village Festival

Elly and Dancho usher us into the village library.  At the back of it, up some stairs, is a 500-person capacity theatre.  There is an orange man on stage with dark brown hair that looks a bit like that of a Playmobil man.  Apparently he is Aleks.  He wears a black shirt and black trousers, with very shiny shoes.  His belt buckle is a large, shiny A.  While he sings cheesy pop music, villagers in traditional dress perform traditional dances behind him.  His finale is ‘Viva La Diva’, that best forgotten Eurovision win by Israel’s Dana International.

Next on is a very smiley blonde woman who, it transpires, was a famous 80s pop star over here.  The theatre is full to overflowing, with people sitting on the steps and standing at the edges.  She gets a massive cheer.  The crowd sits and claps along appreciatively… apart from the Brit-led contingent at the back.  “Shall we get up and dance?  Come on, let’s dance,” grins Elly.  There are seven of us.  We dance and cheer noisily in our corner, causing several grins from the audience along with several other slightly odd looks.

Afterwards, there is music playing loudly over a sound system outside.  A huge circle has formed, consisting of people of all ages performing a traditional dance.  It’s something like three steps to the right, small kick, five to the left, mingled among which is a small hop.  Elly drags me over to join in.  It’s the hop that gets me each time.  It looks so easy.  It isn’t.  I’m holding hands with a 12 year old boy on one side and a 15 year old girl on the other.  They manage it effortlessly.  The 90 year old woman opposite me is a wonder, no step out of time.

It’s getting late.  A bunch of Bulgarian men are dancing in the floodlight.  They are preening and strutting their way through it, stuffing wine bottles in the front of their trousers as if to show the impressiveness of their manhoods.  Elly instigates a more fun, less cocky dancing session by our table.  A few women join in.  It’s funny how it seems to be the men here who get up and do so-called sexy dancing, trying to impress each other as well as the girls, while back home it’s a total role reversal.

Viva la Diva.

Midnight comes and goes.  I’m getting cold.  It’s time to wobble my way back.  Miraculously, I avoid all the cowpats in the street.

Work Exchange Day in Osikovo

Elly and Dancho do work-swap days with a few ex-pats in the area.  Today we go to the house of Lisa and Ewan and Lisa’s teenage daughter Zoe.  It’s raining.  The original plan had been to go to the forest and collect wood, using the family’s two horses and carts to transport it, but due to the wet conditions we end up laying stone paving on the terrace that runs along the front of the house, under the eaves.  My job is chiselling out old cement from under the loose paving stones on the step and then re-laying them using fresh concrete.

Playing with concrete!  Brilliant!  Just call me Bricklayer Barrett.

Under Ewan’s tutelage, I even manage to get it level.  After that, I help Lisa in the bathroom.  Or is it the kitchen?  It’s technically the bathroom, but as the kitchen hasn’t been built properly yet, they are currently using what will be a wetroom to cook and eat in.  There is a massive wood burning stove in there temporarily, along with a large table and all manner of dried herbs, teas and other produce.

As I strip sage stalks and rub the dried leaves into a jar to use in cooking, a herby scent fills the room and gets us all sneezing.  Zoe sits next to me, turning the bottoms of a ripped pair of combat trousers into a top.  She shows me photos of the house before they started working on it.  It was a falling down shell.  Lisa tells me about the work they’ve done, the work there is still to do and how they manage to either grow most things they need or barter for them.

They refer to the outdoor compost toilet as the electric loo.  It contains the household’s only plug socket, which is wired to solar panels on the toilet roof.  Outside, by the kitchen/bathroom, is a bathtub that collects rainwater.  Under it is a stove, which will heat the water for the family to enjoy an outside bath after a hard day’s work in the fields.  Ingenious.

I finish the sage and move onto cracking walnuts.

There is a sack of walnuts under a cushion upon which sits the tiniest cat I’ve ever seen.  Sugar, her name is.  She’s one year old and unlikely to get any bigger.  I’ve seen larger kittens.  She was found in a hedge as a baby and suckled by Lisa’s dog, Foxy, who produced milk for the kitten as soon as she saw it, which is possibly why she’s so little; perhaps dog milk that is produced without a pregnancy doesn’t have all the nutrients cats need.

Elly shows me how to crack walnuts with my bare hands.

Laying paving stones and cracking walnuts barehanded.

Ugg.  I am woman.

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Dusty

Dusty is a barky dog.  She is big and white and tail-waggy.  When I first arrived, she was a very growly dog.  She doesn’t like too many people about at one time, which she had had to put up with all day.  She had bitten Ewan quite badly on the finger when he held his hand out to her.  As such, she was chained and being shunned.  I was told to give her some space and that I should be introduced properly before I went near her.  As she was in trouble and as she was stressed, this wasn’t going to happen until the next day.  Then, while sitting with her, Elly suggested I come closer.  Dusty bared her teeth, growled and then barked loudly.  A lot.  I retreated quickly, unsure how long the chain was.

The next day, we were weeding the field across the road, preparing veg patches for planting.  “I might go and get Dusty,” said Elly.  She looked at Ewan, who was weeding the same patch as me.  “Is that okay?  Do say if it’s not… I know she got you quite badly… but she’s been chained up ever since and that is only going to put her in a worse mood.  It makes her go into guard dog mode.  She’ll cheer up if she can run around.”  Ewan looked up from the couch grass at his feet.  “Errr… okay then…” Elly grinned and went to get the dog.  Ewan shot me a look of gloom.

Dusty bounded over, tongue lolling, ears perky and happy, face smiley.  She nearly licked me to death before Elly could finish saying, “Dusty!  This is Vicci.  You’ll like her, be nice.”  Dusty then turned her attention to Ewan, sniffed him a bit and then tried to snog him.  “See?  She’s sorry,” said Elly, pleased.

A bit later, I walked to the shop for beers with the boys.  “So what do you think of Dusty?” Ieuan asked me.  “She seemed okay today,” I said, cautiously.  “I suspect she might be a bit schizophrenic, though,” I added.  He smiled grimly.  “You got that right.  She went for the back of my leg the other day while I was walking away from her.”  “Ah.” I said, taking heed and making a mental note not to approach her unless she approached me first (smiling, rather than growling).

Dusty was a rescue dog in a very real sense of the word.  She was found in the street in the village, her fur more red than white from scabs and blood and scratches.  She was skin and bone.  No-one is quite sure how old she is; Elly guesses she was about seven when they found her.  She doesn’t like lots of men and can snap when you hold your hand out to her for her to sniff, which suggests she got hit a lot in the past.

After about a week and a half of keeping a respectful distance from her unless she came up to me with a waggy tail, we are used to each other.  She often sits and sleeps outside my door, smiling up at me as I come and go.  I can’t remember the last time she barked at me when I passed her or when I came in through the garden gate.

I head into the overgrown part of the garden for my morning garden watering (yes, euphemism).  I’m squatting behind a bushy lilac tree.  I’m in full flow (so to speak) when I feel a tap on my shoulder.  I jump out of my skin and nearly pee on my trainer.

Dusty is behind me, grinning, her tail wagging furiously.  She paws me again.  “Okay, okay,” I say.  “I’ll stroke you when I’ve pulled my pants up, you daft dog.”

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Insects and beasties

I don’t mind an ant or two.  I can cope with the odd wasp.  Bees are wonderful little things.  Earwigs freak me out a little, but I can handle them.  I don’t run away screaming at the sight of spiders.  I quite like spiders, once I know they’re there.  It’s just when they jump out at me that I get a little nervous.

Gardening here is a slightly different kettle of beast, though.  I’m weeding a border in Elly’s garden.  ‘Garden reclaim’ or ‘garden rescue,’ Elly calls it – with good reason.  There is so much couch grass in this bed, tall grass, along with massive dandelions, a ferny thing, a couple of rogue plum trees and the odd stinging nettle, that I can’t immediately see what is supposed to be in it.  There’s some sage in here somewhere, I think.  I can smell lemon balm.  That there could be calendula.  I grab a handful of grass near the roots and pull.  Hard.  When it eventually comes loose, I fall backwards and end up sitting down hard.  I grin to myself, wipe the sweat from my brow, tuck my hair behind my ears and stand up, stretching.  The hum of flies and bees is ever-present, as is the song of birds.  One of the cats stalks something in the undergrowth near the trampoline.  Next, I tackle the giant dandelion.  All I achieve is a ripping of the leaves.  I grab my hand fork and attack it at the roots, one hand pulling the plant as the fork levers it out.  Something dark brown and nippy darts away and huddles in the edge of the next clump of wayward grass.  I lean into the bed to inspect it.

Oh my good god.

Yes, I’m too shocked even to swear.  I stand back a little, dropping the fork on the grass at my feet, reaching for the gardening gloves that are dangled over the handles of the wheelbarrow, never taking my eyes off the scorpion that crouches in the couch grass.

Fuck.

The shock’s abating somewhat; my vocabulary has returned to its usual bad state.

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Fascinated, I get closer again, keeping a watchful eye on it.  It is about two inches long, with a stinger curved up over its back.  I part the grass carefully, keeping well out of range.  It darts off into the long grass next to the bed.  I sit back on my haunches, wondering what to do.  I’m sure someone would have told me if there were venomous scorpions that could do serious damage.  Maybe they’re territorial and that was the only one?

I keep going, although I keep the gloves on, too.  I’m about half a metre further along the bed, the wheelbarrow is filling up fast with grass and weeds.  I’m tackling another stubborn dandelion.  I lever it out with the hand fork and am just about to sling it in the wheelbarrow, when I see another scorpion clinging to the small amount of mud that cakes the root.  This one’s not quite as dark as the first one – milk chocolate as opposed to 70% cocoa.  It jumps off, or falls off, before it hits the wheelbarrow and is hidden in the grass before I can track it.

I search out Elly, who is cooking lunch in the house.  “Elly, what do you know about scorpions here?”  She wipes her hands on a tea towel.  “Why, have you been stung?”  I shake my head.  “No, I just found a couple in that far bed.  I wanted to make sure they weren’t too poisonous is all.”  “Hmmm.  No-one’s done much with that bed for about a year; it’s pretty undisturbed…  I don’t know to be honest… as far as I know, there’s nothing in Bulgaria that will kill you but… move to a different bed, just in case.  It’s probably fine, but I don’t want you getting hurt.”

I google it later.  Apparently the sting of that particular scorpion is no worse than a mosquito bite.

A couple of days later, Elly, Dancho and I are heading to a nearby village where there’s a factory that processes sunflowers.  There’s a huge pile of rotting seed husks to the side of a big shed.  Elly wants to raid it and use it as a nutritious mulch on her crops.  Dancho goes over to one of the workers to ask permission.  We are directed to the house of the owner, a woman in her fifties.  We find her chatting to a friend in the road.  She looks highly amused when she discovers what we’re after.  It’s a waste product.  It’s rubbish.  She gives permission and Dancho backs the van up to the pile.  The three of us pick our way over to where the pile is oldest and wettest, carrying about 20 sacks with us, along with shovels and a pitchfork.  I’m thankful Elly found me some wellies to wear.  We get to work.  “Wow, there are a lot of crickets here!” I say, holding a sack open while Elly shovels the fertile mulch into it.  The mulch is dark, full of worms and all sorts.  You can tell how good it is, just by looking at it.  It’s almost peat-like.  The factory could probably sell it as an ingredient to one of the major fertilizer and compost companies.  Don’t tell them that, though…

Several small, black crickets bound away from us as Elly scoops up some more.  “Yes,” she says.  “There are loads, aren’t there?  Have you seen those monster ones that live in the ground?  They look like dinosaurs or something.  They’re massive.”  I shake my head.  I’ve never heard of a cricket living in the ground.

We fill all the sacks and head back to the van.  Elly looks longingly at the piles and piles left.  “Dancho, can we just shovel some straight into the van?  We can take it out with the wheelbarrow when we get back.”  He considers it and nods, reaching for the shovel.  I see something make a hasty dive into the rich depths.  “What’s that?” I say.  “Where?”  Elly asks.  “There – where that bit’s moving.”  It had been big.  Fat.  Whatever it was, it was massive.  “It’ll be one of those dinosaur things… hang on…”  She finds a stick and prods around with it, moving mulch as she goes.

Suddenly, there it is.  I’ve never seen anything like it.  It looks part beetle, part bee, part lobster, part cricket.  It looks prehistoric.  It’s about three inches long and an inch fat.  “Jesus.”  That’s all I can find to say as it buries itself again.

The next day, I’m using the mulch to cover the bases of tomato and courgette plants.  Four times, I nearly jump out of my skin as one of the prehistoric cricket things emerges from the mulch.  I collect them in a pot and take them up the lane, putting them in the tall grass by the side of the road, away from the fields and gardens.  Apparently they’ll eat through roots, which isn’t so good for your crops.

Another google later, I discover they are mole crickets and harmless.  They’re still mental, though.  Google them and look at a picture.  They look made up.

There is a flea problem in the house.  When I arrived, all the cats were full of them, although I never got bitten once.  The cats seemed happy enough.  Sheerer, the white cat that came with Elly from the UK, had many of them – you could see them moving about in her fur.  Just before I went to Veliko Turnovo, Elly got the Front Line out and gave each of the eight cats a dose.  She said that the cats would have to live outside for a while.  That seemed counter-productive to me, but not being a cat owner, I wasn’t about to argue.  What did I know?  When I arrived in Veliko Tarnovo, I noticed a series of bites on my right ankle and a couple up my calf.  Itchy.

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The fleas have lost their cats.  The fleas are still in the rugs.  As the days progress, it becomes very clear that I am their new favourite food.  I have bites over both feet and up both ankles.  I sit at the kitchen table one afternoon and spot one wandering over my trousers at the thigh.  That night, one seems to have come with me from the main house into my room.  It seems to have taken up residence in my pyjamas, but can I find the fucker?

There’s not much sleep to be had.  Each itch, each tingle, I reach for the torch to try and find it.  Each time I fail.  I wake up in the morning with bites on my stomach, waist and arms.

I resort to pulling my socks up over my trouser legs when I go into the main house.  I shake out my clothes and search my pyjamas and bedding each night.  I find two on the duvet and kill them.  I go to sleep with socks pulled up over my pyjama bottoms and my top firmly tucked in to minimise the chances of a flea finding its way to my skin.  I can’t sleep.  Each twitch feels like flea.  At least twice, it is.  I find a flea behind my ear.  It gets squashed between my fingernails.  I wake up with more bites.

Elly gives me fresh bedding and I move to the other bed in the room.  I wash my clothes and go to sleep in clean pyjamas.  The next night is better.

I’m sitting on the terrace, reading a book.  I had spent the morning in the garden with Elly, planting out chillies and courgettes.  Ants were everywhere when we turned the earth ready for the new seedlings.  From time to time, Elly would flinch.  “Get out of my shoe, you bloody ant.  Stop biting.”

As I sit and read, I shift on the ground, my arse getting  numb on the concrete.  Suddenly there is a sharp pain where there shouldn’t be.  It gets sharper and more painful.  No-one is about.  I reach my hand down the front of my trousers and into my knickers.  I pull out an ant.

An actual ant in my actual pants.  Biting where no ant has a right to bite a woman.

Jesus.

My tolerance for biting, stinging, jumping, burrowing things is running low.  There is a small part of me that is not sorry to be leaving the next day.

When I’m waiting for the train to Varna on my last morning in Voditsa, I feel a tingle at the back of my knee.  Rolling my eyes, telling myself I’m imagining it, I turn up my jeans.  A flea falls out.  Before I can kill it, it’s hopped onto my other foot and is lost in the brown cotton of my sock.  Shit.  I’m a walking flea bag.  The whole journey, I sit chatting to a Bulgarian guy and another Brit, paranoid they’ll see things jumping on me, worried things will jump from me onto them.

The first thing I do on arrival at the hostel is have a very thorough shower and put all the clothes that will fit into the washing machine on a long wash.

Itch, itch, itch.

It may have ended on a creepy-crawly note, but I have had a wonderful time in Voditsa, seeing a rural life that has remained largely unchanged for centuries.

Thank you to Elly and Dancho for being such generous and kind hosts.  The food was great, the discussions mind-bending and the Scrabble matches epic.

Click here for Voditsa photos.

Click here for Veliko Tarnovo photos.

Plovdiv and Sofia – Rediscovering the love of travel (and a few things I’ve not missed at all)

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Bus from Sofia to Plovdiv

It’s been raining for several days.  The air is damp, the ground is wet, the clouds are almost to the road.  I stare out of the window.  Over the valley, a mountainside rises.  It is covered by dripping, green trees, bright new leaves full of damp and life.  For a moment, due to distance, it looks like moss on a rocky wall.  Damp, drippy moss on a dry stone wall deep in Cumbria.  Then it strikes me that if you put a bit of damp, drippy moss under a microscope; the sort that grows on dry stone walls in Cumbria, it would probably look like a tree in miniature.

The strangest things make me smile.

Plovdiv

After three weeks off travel; three weeks during which I had been mostly convinced I would be going home within a month or two, getting back into the swing of travelling did not come easy.  The bus from Vratsa was too hot and stuffy; it was rainy and damp outside and the bus driver over-compensated with the heating.  The man in front of me wore too much aftershave.  Every time he moved, he smelled so sweet that I felt sick and came close to having an asthma attack due to the perfume fumes.

(Tip to everyone out there:  Smell natural.  It’s nicer, and it doesn’t kill me.  All you need to do is wash.)

I arrive in the rain, hot and humid.  When I depart the bus, the first thing I do is take a gulp of fresh, damp air and smile.  Then I begin the 20 minute hike to the hostel, under the weight of all my bags.  I’ve written about this many times, so you don’t need to hear it again.  It didn’t improve my mood, however.  It went a bit like this:

Take wrong turning due to ambiguous directions.  Grump.  Retrace steps.  Grump.  Locate hostel, ring doorbell, realise hostel lives on the very top floor.  Grump.  Backpack gets heavier each step I take.  Grump.  Discover the only free locker in the dorm does not lock.  Grump.  Notice that the only bed left is a top bunk and there’s no ladder.  Grump.  Hostel Bloke nicks me a ladder from another set of bunks.  Grudging smile.  Discover someone in the dorm has nicked the pillow from my bunk.  Grump.

I go for a walk.  Drink a beer in a quiet café whilst reading my book.  My mood improves.  I return to a noisy hostel.  GRUMP.

I am exhausted and sleep incredibly well, despite sharing a dorm with five noisy and fairly inconsiderate blokes.  I’m awake before an alarm goes off in the bunk below me.  He eventually shuts it up.  It goes off every five minutes for the next half hour and I’m lazily toying with the idea of making a comment along the lines of either turn it off and get up or turn it off and go back to sleep.  I really don’t care which.  Just turn the fucking thing off.  Instead, I get up.  It’s 9.00.  The birds sing, the sun shines.

Things have changed such a lot since the start of my trip.  Back then, in the dim and distant other countries, I rushed around cities, trying to see all the main sights, feeling like sitting down equated to missing something out.  Since… I don’t know when, actually, I have been calming down; slowing down.  My days are relaxing, chilled, content.  A slow breakfast followed by a slow coffee, followed by a slow walk, followed by a slow coffee, followed by a slow walk, followed by a slow lunch.  A slow explore followed by a slow beer followed by a slow mooch before heading back to the hostel.

That’s better.  It might mean I have less to write about, but I’m good at waffling, so probably not…

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I wander around the old town, look at the Roman Amphitheatre and get lost in the cobbled streets, which are overhung by huge, decorative houses, the shutters of which almost touch with the house opposite when they are open.  In the afternoon, I join a free city tour, which retraces my steps of the morning, but with extra added tales and anecdotes.  The late afternoon sun pours over Plovdiv as a busker sings gentle rock ballads on the high street.  I sit at a pavement café, sipping beer in the shade, reading.

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Life is much nicer in the slow lane.

Later

Is everyone in this hostel a weird combination of really sweet and downright nosey?  Or are they just bored and lonely?  Or am I just used to living alone once more?

A talkative older American in my dorm asked me yesterday what job I would do if I could do anything I wanted to.  I answered that I’d be a writer.  Ever since, whenever he sees me with my laptop, he asks, “Are you writing a story now?”  As annoying as that is becoming, even more irritating is the air of disappointment he exudes when I reply, “No, just sorting through some photos,” or “No, just checking Facebook.”

I found a supermarket the other day that sells Heinz Baked Beans.  Obviously, I bought a tin.  Today’s tea was cheese-on-beans-on-salami-on-toast.  Not my most spectacular creation, but it was very tasty.  Not that I could barely manage a mouthful without a barrage of comments and questions.

“Ooh, is that a Bulgarian dish?”  “No… kinda British, with added salami…”  I have to resist a strong compunction to roll my eyes in shock.  Beans on toast?  Bulgarian?  I suspect Bulgarian people of a culinary bent would also roll their eyes, but for totally different reasons.  “Ooh… what’s that?  That looks interesting.”  “Err… beans on toast?”  What the hell does it look like?  Roast lamb with all the trimmings?  “Is that Mexican?”  “No.  British.”  “What’s the British part?”  “The beans on toast part.”  “The beans?  You always eat them in that sauce?”  “That’s how they come – that’s how they’re supposed to be.”  “Are you Bulgarian?”  “No.  British.”  “Wait, you didn’t melt the cheese?  Don’t you like melted cheese?”  “Yes… but not on beans on toast.”  “What food is that?  Where’s that from?”

IT’S BEANS ON BLOODY TOAST.  IT’S NOT BULGARIAN, IT’S NOT MEXICAN.  IT’S BRITISH.  SHUT UP SO I CAN EAT IT.

Sofia

This is my second time in Sofia, having come here on a day trip from Vratsa a few weeks ago.  As such, it’s a relaxing day; Sofia is peaceful, once I slip my backpack off and wind down.

Before that, however, the grouch is back upon me.  Friendly hostel staff are wonderful.  Not so wonderful when you’ve walked for half an hour from the bus station under the weight of all your possessions, though.  “Where have you come from?”  he asks.  “Plovdiv,” I reply, sweat running down between my shoulder blades and pooling in the small of my back.  “Have you been to Sofia before?”  “Yes, but if you have a map, that would be wonderful,” I smile tiredly, my neck muscles complaining from the weight of my backpack dragging at my shoulders.  “Did you stay here before?”  “No.  I came on a daytrip from Vratsa.”  Both he and his colleague look up, startled.  “Vratsa?!”  “Yes, Vratsa.”  “You stayed in Vratsa?!”  “Yes, I was teaching there for a few weeks.”  “Were you volunteering?”  “No.  I was a paid teacher.”  They look slightly stumped.  “Put your bags down while I explain a bit about the hostel,” he says.  I do so, gladly.  “Where are you going next?”  “Popovo,” I reply.  “Popovo?!”  “Yes… Popovo.”  I’m tired of this, and irritable.  “Why are you going to Popovo?”  He seems astounded.  “Shall I write down my life story for you?” I ask pointedly, smiling grimly.  “I’m going to work on a small farm near there.”  “Will you be volunteering?”  “Yes.  I’ll be volunteering.  In Voditsa.  Near Popovo.  On a farm.  Probably helping to sow things.”

Now tell me what you need to tell me about the hostel, so I can go and have a shower.  I cheer up greatly when he asks if I mind if he carries my big backpack up to the dorm for me.

No, no, not at all, carry it all you want and a little bit more.  I hate the bloody thing.

Never, ever expect people to be friendly and sunshine and light when they are wearing 20kg in luggage, all you people working in hospitality.  They won’t be.  Ever.

Less than an hour later, I’m contentedly sipping coffee at a pavement café, reading my book.  I wander the streets, looking at places I missed last time.  It’s sunny and warm and outside it’s pleasant.  There’s an antiques market near Alexander Nevski Cathedral.  There are statues shining in the sun.  There are three layers of civilisation to look at at Serdika.

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I go into Saint Sofia church, the church that gave the city its name.  As I pass through the door, the sound of choral harmonies, deep, slow and resonant fills the church, interspersed with chanting from the priest.  There is a small Easter Monday service taking place.  The sound of the choir fills me and I smile, leaning against a brick pillar out of the way.

Now, you know I’m not religious, but that singing… I have a Choir of Westminster recording of Miserere Mei Deus at home and although this music is unknown to me, it’s at least as good.  It sends shivers up my spine as I move to sit on a chair at the back of the church to listen.

Click here for Plovdiv photos

Click here for Sofia photos

Teaching, Vratsa, Bulgaria

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My wonderful friends Hannah and Boyan have worked some magic and landed me with an English teaching job at a language school in Vratsa, Bulgaria.  I am staying in their lovely apartment in the town centre, which has a view of craggy mountains from all windows, along with a balcony where I can sip wine and look at those mountains for as long as I like.  It’s at times like this when I feel like the luckiest person alive.

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Boyan was born in Vratsa and his mother, Keti, knows the manager of the school.  When Hannah asked me if I would like to use their apartment and help at the school, I seem to remember that I said ‘yes’ very quickly.  If we had both been in the same country, city and house at the time, I may well have had to stop myself from biting her hand off.  That was back in Berlin, back in January.  I can’t believe how fast time is flying.

Day One

It’s a head-whirling day.  Sofia train station is really not user friendly – well, not if you don’t understand Cyrillic or Bulgarian.

My main problem is the annoying man with the official-looking lanyard who keeps trying to help me.  I have said ‘no’ more times than I can count, but with my rucksack on my back I am a definite target for people who want to take money from tourists.  “You need train information?” he keeps asking.  “No, thank you,” I keep saying.  I walk with purpose through the main hall, looking at the departure board, trying to see where the ticket office is.  “Information?” His voice taps me on the shoulder.  “NO,” I say, annoyed.  I look around some more.  Where the hell is the ticket office?

I know I’d have found it eventually.  I’m good at things like that.

“Where are you going?”  It’s the change of tack that throws me.  You can’t say ‘no’ to a question like that.  “Vratsa.”  “Come, come!”  After that, I am helpless.  He bowls me along and there is no way I’m getting away.  “Where are we going?” I ask as we descend a dim staircase.  “Ticket down here,” he replies.  The ticket hall is rammed.

I am thankful that I’m the anal type and always arrive at train stations with ages to spare, just in case.  You never know.  Anything could happen.

The (un)helpful man goes to the end window, which even I can tell is just an information window and not a ticket selling one.  I join the shortest queue for a ticket, ignoring him.

Then someone taps my arm.  “Over there,” he points.  The (un)helpful man is beckoning me with some urgency.  Knowing that I should probably ignore him, but also realising that he’s probably talked the information lady into selling me a ticket, therefore allowing me to avoid the horrendous queue, I go to him.

He orders my ticket for me.  I want to ask what time we’ll arrive, what the name of the preceding station is so I know when to start gathering my ridiculous amount of luggage, so I’m ready in time and don’t miss my stop.  (I’ve heard of that happening in Bulgaria; apparently you don’t get an awful lot of time to alight – I’m not just being ultra-anal, I promise.)  I try to tip him, thinking that will get rid of him.

No chance.  He shakes his head dismissively.  “Come, come!”  He rushes me through the station towards the platforms, his friend from the ticket hall in tow.  He rushes me on the train.  He hefts my luggage into the luggage rack in the compartment.  He gestures me to a seat by the window.  “Thank you,” I say, holding out a couple of Lev.  “Little, little,” he says, shaking his head.

Stupidly, for a split second, I think he’s saying he only wants a little.  Then I realise he wants more and I’m giving too little.  I watch him shrewdly.  “20 Lev,” he says.  You are having a bloody laugh.  “Five.”  I say it firmly and hand him the note.  “20.”  “You must think I’m stupid.  Five.”  His friend laughs.  “She is right.  20 is too much.  15.”  “FIVE,” I eye him darkly.  He hands me the note back.  “Ten,” he says, folding his arms.  “No.  You don’t want the five?  Fine, I’ll keep it.  Goodbye.”  I get a malicious stare.  He holds his hand out.  I give him the five.  He leaves.

Then the train fills up.  Having not had the chance to ask for my own ticket and speak to an official myself, I am unaware that I do not have a seat reservation with my ticket.  On this train, which is full to bursting, there is no spare seat for me.  I stand in the corridor, although the lovely and helpful people in the carriage I had been in make room for my luggage in the racks so I don’t have to keep lifting it out of everyone’s way when they want to pass.  “Here, everything is possible,” smiles a young woman with piercing blue eyes as she squishes her bags up to make room.

I’m sharing the corridor with many, many people.  There is hardly room to move.  The train moves off.  The young man next to me pulls the window down and leans on it to keep it open.  I smile.  Finally.  A train journey where I can hang my head out of the window and stare as the beautiful scenery rolls past.

This is the reason I wanted to travel by train around eastern Europe.  If I’d had a seat reservation, I wouldn’t be able to do this.

The young woman with the blue eyes comes out after an hour and offers me her seat for a while.  I shake my head with thanks.  She offers it to the woman next to me instead and remains standing.  “Do you know what time we are due in Vratsa?” I ask, figuring it’s worth a shot.  She smiles.  “I am going there myself.  About 2.00, I think.”  We chat occasionally during the final hour.  Then she points at a cross atop a high hill.  “Next time you make this journey, when you see that cross, you know you are nearly at Vratsa.”  “We’re nearly there?”  She nods.  “The next stop.”  Ten minutes later she touches my arm.  “I should advise you to start gathering your luggage,” she says.

I could hug her.

Waiting for me on the platform are Keti, Boyan’s father Orlin, and the assistant manager from the school, Momchil, who is interpreting for us.  I am swept into a huge hug by Keti, kissed welcomingly on the cheek by Orlin, and shaken firmly by the hand by Momchil.

With that hug, suddenly the stress of the (un)helpful man is completely forgotten.  They show me to Hannah and Boyan’s apartment, make sure I know how everything works and then take me for a brief tour of the town followed by lunch.  A kinder, warmer welcome I could not have hoped for.

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TEACHING

Well, I’ve done four short classes.  My head hurts.

My TEFL course taught me that preparation is everything.  If you are prepared for as many eventualities as possible, it doesn’t leave a lot of room for things to go wrong, other than those things you have no control over (such as the architrave around the door falling off the wall, like it did today, narrowly missing a pupil).

My first day went really well – my classes were with lower level groups, with whom I’d been asked to play games that would help with their English conversation.  The second day was slightly more stressful, however.  My second lesson of the morning was with another group for which it had been suggested I prepare some educational games.    However, two minutes before class, their usual teacher gave me a textbook that I had never seen before and said that I should work on one of the chapters.

When I told her I’d not seen the book before and that I’d planned some games to get the kids talking, she did say I could do that if I liked, but there was something about the way she said it that made me think she would prefer me to stick to the textbook.

There was no time to prepare.  At all.  I didn’t even know how to use the interactive board that she’d cued up and there was no time to find out.

Even though I had the book to follow, the teacher had folded it back when she put it on the desk for me so I didn’t notice that the accompanying teacher guidance was there on the opposite page.  Consequently, I skipped some parts and was in danger of running out of things to teach until I realised what had happened and slowed it down in my own way.

I came out of that second class this morning close to tears.  I came out of that second class this morning thinking that I could never be a teacher.  I came out of that class hating it.  I came out of that class thinking I’d been an idiot and that I was crap.

After calming down quietly over a peaceful lunch at home, I found myself quite happy to be going back in the afternoon.  Almost looking forward to it.

ODD.

Moments of Teacher Genius (Cough) – Part One

I’m playing a game with some younger kids (the Post-It Note game; good for teaching kids how to ask questions and to describe things).  Two slightly older boys arrive half an hour late.  They seem slightly bemused when I tell them to write the names of famous people on Post-It Notes and stick them on each other’s heads.  One of them has given his friend Lady Gaga, which causes much amusement.  He flings a swearword at one of his younger peers, who laughs.  The whole class watches me to see what I will do.  I shrug.  “Hey, at least it was English,” I say.

A Few Days Later

Maybe I am ready to come home.  I’ve missed this.  I’ve missed waking up slowly on a Saturday or Sunday, padding through to the kitchen to make coffee, sitting on the sofa in the living room, having a slow breakfast and reading my book as the fresh morning air pours through an open window, the sound of birds riding through on it.  The sound of the washing machine humming softly in another room.  I’ve missed this peace.  I’ve missed this comfort.  I’ve missed this sense of security.

There are still a few things I want to do first.  I want to help at the school here in Vratsa.  I want to enjoy my own space in the apartment here.  I want to explore those mountains.

I want to do my next Workaway, which will be on a smallholding in Voditsa, east Bulgaria.  I want to visit Romania and look at the Carpathian mountains.  I want to see the Danube delta and also see it flow through Hungary.

Maybe… maybe… maybe… perhaps after Budapest, I will come home.

Although… there are still some towns and cities in Germany I want to explore… but then… I can come back and do that on a separate, shorter trip next year if I want to.  After all, the UK and Germany aren’t exactly distant neighbours.

I don’t know.

What was it I said back before I left the UK?  There’s a freedom in not knowing.

Yes, there is.

The Day After That

What was that about wanting to go home?  Amazing what having your own space (with a bath) in an amazingly friendly town can do for your stamina.

Bring it on, world!

Moments of Teacher Genius (Cough) – Part Two

I’m trying to teach the names of body parts to 12 year olds, sticking to a text book.  “Who knows what a tongue is?”  I point to the word on the interactive board.  Silence.  “No-one?”  Silence.  “Come on, someone show me their tongue.”  Silence.  I poke my tongue out and point at it.  Expressions of comprehension all round.  “Oh!” they say.  “Yes.  Come on then, show me your tongues.”  Slightly shocked silence.  “Come on, where are your tongues?”  I stick my tongue out again.  Two girls near the front shyly poke their tongues out a tiny way, giggling.  The three at the back refuse.  “Is it bad to stick your tongue out in Bulgaria?” I ask.  Pause.  “No” replies one of the girls at the front, in a way that make me think it might be.  “Yes it IS!” gasps a girl at the back.  Oops.

After a Few Days More

I think perhaps Vratsa beats Albania for helpful, friendly and genuine people.  Keti has made sure I’m not short of people to go for coffee with; Villi, the manager at the school, has offered to help me with any shopping I might need if the language proves to be a problem.  Ilyana, a friend of Keti’s, came with me to a pharmacist to help me buy hayfever pills and a nasal spray.

Orlin popped round yesterday morning with breakfast for me.  He bought me enough banitsa to last three days (a delicious, cheesy omelette type thing with added pastry).  After he knocked on the door, he grinned at me and said “Pim-pam, pim-pam,” in a very sing-song voice.  I gave him what was probably a very blank stare.  He came in, put the bag of banitsa down on the worktop and fished the doorbell ringer out of a cupboard and plugged it in.  “Pim-pam!” he sang.  “OH!” I said, comprehension dawning.  “Doorbell!”  He nodded with a large smile.  “Pim-pam!”

The balance has been perfect.  I have as much of my own space as I need and enough company and things to do to keep me happy.

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Moments of Teacher Genius (Cough) – Part Three

(Trying to encourage a class to have a discussion from admittedly lame picture prompts in a text book)  “No-one likes classical music or traditional folk music?  No?  If you had to go to see one or the other, which would you choose?” Silence; blank stares. “Anyone?”  fearing a Bueller… Bueller… Bueller… moment.  “Okay.  If someone put a gun to your head [holds up class of teenagers with an imaginary gun] and said you absolutely had to pick one, which would you pick?”  …pause…  Student looks up at me with a mischievous smile:  “I’d get killed.”    “Okay!”  I grin, shaking my head in defeat.  “Who agrees with that?  Would anyone else choose to get killed?”

After Some More Days

I couldn’t sleep last night.  It was too hot.  My head wouldn’t turn off.  It does that sometimes.  It tells me tales deep into the night.  Strange and ridiculous stories that are too intriguing to allow sleep to enter.  It was also thinking about teaching, planning lessons for me.

Eventually, I gave in.  I went to the window and opened it wide.  At first I thought there were two huge clouds hovering low over Vratsa.  Then, as my eyes adjusted to the dark, I saw that they weren’t clouds, but the two mountains opposite, faintly visible in the moonlight.  Orion’s belt hung over one.  I craned my neck.  I could see his dagger, his shoulders.  Smiling to myself, I opened the balcony door and stood there in my pyjamas, leaning out over the rail.  Orion was striding over the mountaintops – visible from feet to bright, bright head, his bow arched above.

Moments of Teacher Genius (Cough) – Part Four

(Practising speaking exercises for an advanced exam, in pairs)  Student A:  What is your happiest memory?  Student B:  My happiest memory.  I don’t think I have any happy memories.  I remember meeting you for the first time at junior school and we threw toys at each other.  Maybe I was happy then, but I’m not sure.  I don’t know if I have any happy memories.  I think maybe my happiest memories are from when I was on my own, with no-one annoying me.  I think this is because I hate everyone.”  Pauses.  Looks up at me, aware that I’ve been listening.  Treats me to a cheeky grin. “I guess I probably shouldn’t say things like that in the exam?”  I shrug.  “I don’t see why not.  It was in English, you gave a reason for your answer and it was grammatically correct.  As long as you don’t swear or say anything offensive to the examiner, I think you’re winning.”

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Moments When You Are Possessed by Your Old French Teacher

The class is supposed to be doing a gap-fill exercise.  One of them is talking.  A lot.  “Tommy,” I find myself saying, “If you don’t stop talking and start working, you’re going to have to sit in that seat there, away from everyone else.”  He looks up at me with a pained expression.  “No, no, do not do that.  I will work.”  He does.  Silence.  Another boy’s hand goes up.  I go over.  “Miss, Valentin keeps talking.  It is disturbing me.  I cannot work.  Please will you make him move?”  I squat down in front of him.  “Ivailo.  If Valentin is disturbing you that much, you can move to that seat over there, away from everyone else.”  He smiles an angelic smile.  “No, it is okay.  I will stay.”  How the hell did that happen?  Mrs Rogers, when did you body-snatch me?

Moments of Teacher Genius (Cough) – Parts five, six and seven

(In a class discussion with older teenagers, we stray onto interesting differences in non-verbal language between different countries)  Student, looking at me for clarification: “So in some countries you can upset people by making gestures that you don’t know are wrong – I think in Japan it is rude to give a thumbs up sign?”  “Exactly,” I say.  “Like in England, you can really offend someone by putting two fingers up to indicate two things, if you put them up like this.”  Student:  “Really?  Like this?”  Me:  “Yes.”  Student:  “What does that mean?”   I am momentarily stumped.  What does that mean?  In actual words?  “Erm… same as this, really…” (putting middle finger up).  Laughter all round.  BAD teacher…

(Talking about travel and places the students want to visit with a younger class – most mention the US or UK)  “Ireland – that’s interesting.  Why do you want to visit Ireland?”  “Because I like Oscar Wilde and I want to see where he was born.”  “You like Oscar Wilde?”  I’m impressed; she’s only about 12 or 13.  “Yes.  He was born in Ireland, but he didn’t die there; he died in England.  He was gay, but he still had a family.”  Another student looks up, a younger one.  “He was what?  What was he?”  She looks at me for clarification.  “He was gay,” I say, clearly.  Please know what it means, please know what it means, please know what it means.  “OH!”  She nods, looking slightly surprised.  “Okay.” She turns back to the student who was speaking.  “Carry on,” I say to the first student, fervently hoping she won’t mention Wilde’s imprisonment.  Explaining the meaning of the word ‘soddomy’ and discussing the intricacies of Victorian law with 12 year olds is not something I had anticipated.

(Discussing advantages and disadvantages of technology with older teenagers)  “Who can give me another disadvantage of shopping online?”  “When you shop at online sex shops you get cookies left on your computer and people can see where you’ve been shopping.”

I admit it.  I laughed.  A lot.

Kids.  You just can’t predict ‘em.

Last Day

I am sad to be leaving.  It’s raining and cold, but inside the apartment its cosy-warm.  I have met so many lovely and genuine people.  The doorbell sounds.  Orlin is at the door to help me get my luggage in the car.  He hands me a bag.  “Breakfast,” he smiles.  He then hands me a plastic wallet.  “Keti, Orlin – Vicci,” he says.  From Keti and Orlin, for me.  Inside is a card and a small painted icon of the Holy Mother and the Christ Child.

Keti and Orlin drive me to the bus station and wait with me for the bus.  I thank them again for the card and icon.  Keti points at the card, which has flowers all over it.  “English flower,” she says.  She and Orlin both point at me, grinning.  “Vicci Big English flower,” Keti smiles.  “Vicci sunshine.”  She turns the icon over.  On the back is a little sticker, upon which is written the words “Guardian, Vicci”.

A mother to look after me on the rest of my travels.

I’ve realised these past three weeks that I really don’t let my own mother look after me anywhere near enough, even though she tries so hard to.  I’ve realised that I really should let her.  When I get home, I will try my best to.

Click here for Vratsa photos

A Greek Holiday

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Corfu

As ridiculous as it may sound, I feel in dire need of a holiday.  Travelling, as opposed to holidaying, can be quite exhausting.  Moving towns every two or three days, long bus journeys, sleeping in dormitories with as many as eight people in them (in some cases up to 14, but I try to avoid those); sleep isn’t as deep as it should be and every day you are up and out and on the go, seeing the sights to be seen, many of which are down very long paths and up very steep hills.  Many nights there are new people to talk to, to drink with, to eat with.

I’m not complaining.  I’d never complain about doing what I’m doing.  After all, when the day comes that I don’t enjoy it any more, I’ll go home and find a job.  Then I’ll have something real to complain about, alright.

I do need a re-charge though.  Although I’ve not stayed in a dorm since Tirana, Albania was such a different world that although I loved it, it could not really be described as relaxing. Nothing worked as I expected it to work, every hour (or so it felt) a new surprise, so many friendly people.  Talking to strangers is not something that comes naturally to me – even though I’m getting better at it, I find it sometimes tiring.

As a treat, I’m staying in a tiny self-catering apartment in Corfu for two nights.  I have a private balcony with a sea view, two comfy chairs and a table.  I’m sitting at it now, typing.  The road winds down the hill below me, another hill rises to the left, lush with trees, jutting out into the sapphire sea; the rock that according to legend is Odysseus’s ship clearly visible beyond the headland.  Last night, I cooked my own dinner in my own kitchen, listening to my music through a speaker, singing along.  It was like being at home.  This morning I ate Crunchy Nut Cornflakes on the balcony in the soft sunlight.  Crunchy Nut Cornflakes have never made me smile quite so much before.

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Here endeth the burek diet (temporarily at least).  No more filled filo pastry for a few days.  Thank all the gods.

This morning I went on a short walk through the olive groves, accompanied by Rudy, the dog belonging to the owner of the apartment.

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Rudy trotted back home when we hit the main road, but I walked around the cliff tops and down to a beach, where the Ionian sea lapped at my ankles as I stood gazing out to the horizon, jeans rolled up around my knees, the sea breeze tangling my hair.

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I have come back to the balcony for lunch and a beer in the sunshine, listening to the whisper of waves on the beach 500 metres away.  Later I might head out again and dip my toes in the water.  Or I might stay here in the sun and read.  Paleokastritsa is tiny.  There’s nothing pressing to do here, other than stare at the blue, blue sea.

Thessaloniki – with thanks to Jaya The Cat

Ever since I decided to include Thessaloniki on this trip, I keep getting Jaya the Cat songs stuck in my head; particularly, not surprisingly, Thessaloniki.

…and as the sun comes up I wander to the sea, and I wash away my sins away in Thessaloniki.

That said, you wouldn’t want to wash anything away in the sea by the city centre.  There are things in there that don’t bear thinking about, let alone writing about.  You might manage to wash your sins off, but you’d probably catch something far nastier.

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Anyway.  Thessaloniki.  That’s where I am… and I love it already.  I loved it after only 15 minutes of walking around it.  It shot straight up there to my top three cities, jostling for second position behind Berlin with Granada.  Like both Berlin and Granada, it is scruffy and down-to-earth but steeped in history.  There is a labyrinthine old town on the hill overlooking the city below and the sea beyond.  There are Grecian ruins dotted around the city; a palace here, an arch there.  It is a very liveable city – apartment blocks fill the centre, plants spilling over balconies.  I don’t know where the office blocks are, but they’re not in this part of town, that’s for sure.

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Thessaloniki has a laid-back attitude; a lot of people hanging around in sun-filled parks and on the sea front, just relaxing while drinking beers and frappes.  There are a multitude of cool and quirky cafes, dingy bars, alternative clothing boutiques, second hand book stores, street art… it’s full of all the kinds of things I like, basically.

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Funny – for a while now all I’ve wanted was somewhere I could relax.  That’s why I built Corfu into things.  I did relax there.  It was lovely.

Even though I’m now back in a hostel dorm (in one of the best hostels I’ve stayed in thus far, which helps), I feel more relaxed here than in Corfu, simply because Thessaloniki already feels like home.

Day Three

In Thessaloniki, I have made a conscious decision not to go into churches or museums unless I really, really want to.  I’ve seen so many churches that they all blur together.  I’ve been to ethnographical museums all over the Balkans.  Missing out one here won’t matter.  All I have done since I’ve been here is relax on the hostel roof terrace in the sunshine, drinking copious amounts of free filter coffee and reading.  I’ve done some clothes shopping.  I’ve posted some winter clothes home.  I’ve sat on the promenade with the sea slopping at the wall below me, my legs dangling over the edge of the boardwalk, my feet bare in the warm sun, reading my book and listening to buskers.  I went to a photography exhibition at the port; the only gallery or museum I’ve visited here.  I’ve chatted to my dorm mates, sitting in the hostel café, drinking herbal teas and local wine in the evenings.  I’ve caught a few early nights.  I’m currently half-watching the most dramatic thunder storm I’ve seen in a long time.  There is a river running down the cobbled street, the occasional orange rushing along with it, carried down the hill after being knocked off a tree by the torrential rain.

I must remember this.  Travel does not have to be about rushing here and there, seeing everything a city has to offer.  Travel should also be about taking time to soak things up, rain and sun alike.

Paradoxically, travel should be about sitting still once in a while.

Click here for photos of Corfu and Thessaloniki

Albania – The Warmest Welcome

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Tirana

Tirana, the capital of Albania, has no central bus station.  There are several different places scattered around the city that buses come to and go from.  If you’ve read my Montenegro entry, you’ll know that this has struck the fear of the God of Bus Chaos into my heart.  There is no way of knowing where the bus will drop me when I get there and I can’t plan my route to the hostel in advance.  Argh.  The hostel has given directions from the main square, presumably because they have no idea where I’ll end up either.

As I pick up my luggage, I ask the bus driver to point me in the direction of Skanderbeg Square.  He points, grins, mimes lots of people shouting.  I think he means I’ll know when I get there.

I do.  It’s a very big square.  There are millions of people milling about.  It’s hazy with traffic fumes, loud with the honk of car horns.  I’m tired from a long, hot bus trip and tetchy to boot.  I decide that I hate Tirana.  It makes no sense to me, it’s smoggy and noisy and people keep getting in my way.

One shower and one meal later, not to mention a glass of wine, and I’m sat in the hostel’s outdoor lounge area chatting to Luca from Peterborough, who is volunteering here through Workaway.  He signed up for two weeks.  He’s still here a month later and has no idea when he’ll leave.  I guess Tirana can’t be that bad after all.  “It’s a land of opportunity,” he grins, inhaling on a cigarette.  “It’s only just opening up.  Pretty much anything goes.”  He’s here painting murals for the hostel.  “You’ve got a good art gallery and the museum’s okay, but it’s just a brilliant place to walk around.  You always see something worth seeing.”

I start to adjust my ideas.

As an aside, Luca is a lesson in why not to have a tattoo gun in your home.  He used to work as a tattooist and has at least one piece of skin ink that is the result of a party game.  A whole load of tattoo designs went into a hat.  Whatever people picked out, they had to get tattooed.  He ended up with a small pair of testicles tattooed on his upper arm in a cartoon style.  His eyes laugh as he rolls up his sleeve to show me.  You probably wouldn’t notice it if you weren’t looking for it – it’s nestled amongst that many others of a more sensible design.

Morning dawns bright and sunny.  I’m up and out, doing as advised – just walking around.  The sun is already warm enough not to need a cardigan, the sun hazy through the pollution fumes so that the distant mountains are almost the same hue as the sky.  The buildings are brightly patterned, the cars constantly sound their horns, the traffic is chaotic at best.  Vehicles mostly ignore the traffic signals, edging their way forward and honking anyone in their way.  Pedestrians mostly ignore the pedestrian crossings, stepping out into the roads heedless of the cars that beep at them.  The streets are full of bustle, with impromptu stalls set up on the pavement.  Boxes of bananas and strawberries.  Piles of fresh eggs.  Buckets of olives.  Socks laid out on a rug.  Car parts, kitchen utensils, toy dinosaurs.  A pet shop spills out into the street, small children pointing at caged guinea pigs and parrots, tugging at the sleeves of their mothers.  People wander their way through it all in both directions.  Rushing is an impossibility.

I love it.

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The further towards the centre I walk, the more crowded it gets.  Suddenly, I’m in the middle of a massive street festival.  Music blares out of rival sound systems, mashing in the middle.  All around me are laughing people pushing through the crowd.  I remember that the hostel owner mentioned it would be the holiday for the first day of summer today.  The spring equinox.  It’s apparently party day.

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I weave through the throng – there are people as far as the eye can see, all down the main road in both directions and filling Youth Park to the side.  As I wander in front of a small stage, the band’s bouncing music drowns out all the other sound systems nearby.  I’ve stumbled across a ska band.

I SERIOUSLY love it here.

In the UK, I am fairly certain that anything on this scale (and free to boot) would be overrun with drunken people and idiots, mostly aged between 14 and 35.  The streets would be covered in beer cans and plastics.  Here the streets are full of anyone and everyone.  The entirety of Tirana seems to have turned out.  Young kids run through, giggling, arms around each other’s shoulders.  Families wander around licking ice creams, pushing buggies.  Couples walk arm in arm.  Old ladies sit on walls in the sun.  Old men make their slow and careful way through the crowd with their walking sticks.

It’s brilliant.

I take a break from the baking sun and dart into the art gallery.  I catch the eye of the girl at the counter as I go in, but she ignores me.  It must be free.  I walk around the poster exhibition downstairs before making my way back past the girl and upstairs to the permanent gallery.  It’s full of wonderful Albanian socialist art – the worker man hammering over an anvil, all angular and strong.  The war hero, naked of torso, powerful of chest, hurling a grenade into the top of a tank.  The farming girls, hoes over their shoulders, scarves on their heads, laughing together as they walk, a healthy glow about them.

I can hear a lot of loud chatter behind me, but it’s Albanian chatter so I ignore it.  It can’t be anything I’m meant to hear.  I carry on walking round.  Eventually, the girl from the counter catches up with me, looking slightly harassed and a little nervous.  She says something in Albanian.  “Sorry?”  I say, looking at her apologetically with a smile.   She suddenly looks relieved and highly amused all in one go.  She rolls her eyes and grins.  “Oh!  I’m sorry!  I thought you were Albanian!” she laughs.  “You have to pay for this part of the gallery.  You can look around, don’t worry.  Just pay me on the way out.”

She and several over people have been calling to me for about five minutes because I haven’t paid.  Oops.

When I leave, I stop at the counter and wait for her to return from helping another visitor.  “Are you a student?” she asks.  “No,” I reply with a shake of the head.  “Yes, I think you are,” she grins.  “100 Leke, please.”

Tirana is truly wonderful.

Click here for Tirana photos

Next Morning

I am at what is supposed to be the bus station from where my bus to Berat should depart.  It is, in effect, a bunch of buses parked in a derelict flour factory.  Hm.  Maybe not derelict.  Ruined would probably cover it better.

I look for a ticket office.  Everywhere there are men yelling the names of destinations – “Berat!  Berat!” “Sarande, Sarande!”  I assume they are furgon drivers.  Furgons are private minibuses that take you where you want to go, but they don’t depart anywhere until they are full.  I am sure I am looking for a proper bus because my hostel told me it departs every hour.

There is no ticket office anywhere, as far as I can tell.  “Sarande?” a man asks me.  I shake my head, giving in.  Perhaps these are bus drivers after all.  “Berat,” I reply.  “Berat?  Berat!”  He points to a big bus near the entrance.  I walk that way.  “Gjirokaster?” a man asks.  The man I just spoke to calls over to him.  “Berat!”  “Ah,” the new man says, pointing at the bus for me.  I find the driver, who kindly takes my backpack from my back and stows it carefully in the bus.  I try to pay him.  “Later,” he says, pointing me up the bus steps.

It is utter chaos, but delightful chaos and it actually works.

We stop at a seaside town to let more people on.  Suddenly, from both doors, men clamber up the steps carrying boxes on their shoulders.  They call out their wares – crisps, water, Bake Rolls.  A man squeezes past them with an armful of newspapers.

I love this chaos.  I love this country.

I’m even beginning to like the God of Bus Chaos.  I’ve only half an idea where we are and no idea what time we’re due in Berat, or if Berat is the last stop.  I really don’t care.  All will become clear.  It always has done so far.

A little later, an older lady boards the bus, which is nearly full.  She asks in Albanian if I can move my bags so she can sit.  I do.  She has a walking stick and asks in Albanian whether I can stow it for her near the window, propped up in the corner.  I do.  “Push it down,” she laughs.  I have no idea how I know that’s what she’s saying, but she definitely is. She pats my hand in thanks and then tries to strike up a conversation.  I think she’s asking if I’ve come from Tirana, but I’m not sure.  “Sorry; English,” I say, smiling apologetically.  She laughs in delight and pats my arm with a beaming smile on her face.  The man in the seat in front turns around and also beams at me, his eyes twinkling.  Luca told me the other evening that a lot of people in Albania have never seen a tourist.  I believe him.

Further into the trip, the lady taps my arm and points at her leg, wincing.  It’s in full sunlight through the window and probably incredibly hot.  “Shall I shut the curtain?”  I ask, going to pull it closed.  “No, no,” she says in Albanian, patting my hand and holding it.  I find myself covering her hand with my own in return.  She points at her leg, her hip, her stick.  She touches my leg, my hip and grimaces.  “Ah,” I say, understanding.  She needs a hip replacement.  I wince at her sympathetically.  She pats my hand, then pats my leg, smiling.

Later still, she starts talking to the girl across the aisle.  “Hello?” the girl says to me, smiling.  “I speak English too.”  “Hello!” I say.  “The lady wants to know where you are from,” she says.  I tell her.  “She wants to know why you go to Berat.”  I tell her.  “You travel alone?”  I nod.  The lady is looking at me all the while, a happy and fascinated expression on her face.  I feel a little humbled.  “She wants to know what you write,” the girl says.  I have been jotting notes in a little notebook now and again throughout the journey.  “It’s for my diary,” I say.  We chat between the three of us for the rest of the trip.  Before she gets off the bus, the girl gives me her Facebook name and tells me to contact her if I need any help in Berat.  I thank her, surprised and touched.

Berat 

Times when knowing the language would help, part four

I look around.  There is no way of knowing which direction to head in, because I cannot spot any of the landmarks the guesthouse owner gave me.  I try asking a passer-by, but she speaks no English.  I pull out my phone and call the guesthouse.  I can’t understand him and he only partially understands me.  I tell him the name of the square I’m on and the name of the road I’m near.  After much “Oh, la-la,” he eventually says “Two minutes,” and hangs up.  Less than a minute later, there is a red people carrier and a man waving at me.  “Nasho Vruho?”  I ask.  He nods, grinning, ushering me inside.  “Francais?  Deutsch?” he asks.  “Ein bisschen Deutsch,” I reply.  “Ah,” he nods.  “Ein bisschen Deutsch.”

We park less than a minute from where I was.  He shows me inside a door in an old, stone wall that opens onto a small courtyard sided by guest rooms.  “Hier,” he says, putting my backpack down in one of the rooms, miming me to do likewise with everything else.  “Sehr schön,” I say.  It is; it’s lovely.  “Komm mit.  Komm,” he says, gesturing me to follow him.  We go into the courtyard.  “Garten,” he says.  “Sitzen.”  He points at some chairs but keeps telling me to follow him.  I nod.  “Schön!” I say.  I have a garden!  We go up some stairs.  He opens a door to a different room.  “Schlafen hier?  Oder Schlafen-” he points downstairs.  Do I want to sleep here or in the room downstairs?

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This room is lovelier and has a balcony overlooking the courtyard, the mountain opposite and the river below that.  “Hier, bitte.  Hier ist gut!”  “Hier?  Okay, alles gut.”  He fetches my luggage.  “Komm mit; komm,” he says again.  I follow him again, this time to reception.

“Sitzen,” he says, pointing to a chair in the small restaurant.  “Tee?  Kaffee?  Wein?”  “Wein, bitte,” I smile.  He goes into a small room that is stacked full of wine bottles.  He dusts one off as he introduces me to his wife.  “Ein Jahr in da,” he grins.  Wow.  He’s giving me what looks like homemade wine that he’s aged a year.  He pours me a cup and holds out the bottle.  “Dein,” he says.  I think he’s giving me the wine bottle, but I’m not sure.  “Danke!” I say, going to take it.  He puts it on the table.  “Acht Uhr, neun Uhr, saucisson, fromage…” he slips into French and mimes cooking things over the fire.  I think he’s telling me I can eat sausages and cheese later.  I look at him quizzically.  “Komm, acht, neun,” he says.  He finds a sausage, spits it on a metal stick and holds it over the ashes in the fire place.  “Komm mit Wein.”  Aha.  He’s telling me to come down at eight or nine with my bottle of wine and we’ll cook sausages over the fire.  I think.  “Komm,” he says again, gesturing me to follow him once more.  I pick up the bottle.  He takes it from me and puts it on the table.  I think he’s saying I can leave it there until we cook sausages.  Maybe.  So I leave it.  He shakes his head.  “Verstehen?” (Understand?)  He holds the wine out to me.  “Nicht mein.  Dein.”  I nod.  It’s not his, it’s mine.  He puts it on the table.  Now I’m lost again, not sure whether to leave it or take it, but I nod, deciding to leave the wine where he has put it.  “Komm.”  He leads me out of the door.  His wife calls to him, bringing the bottle of wine.  She gives it to him and he gives it to me, laughing.

I have no idea what’s going on.

He takes me back up to my room, places the bottle on the balcony ledge and folds up one of the two chairs.  “Du bist nur eine,” he says – there’s only one of me.  I nod, laughing.  “Komm,” he says.  He takes me into a different room.  “Schlafen hier oder da?” he asks.  Do I want to sleep here or in the other room with the balcony?  “Da ist sehr gut,” I say, pointing at my room.  “Da?” he looks at me to make sure.  “Ja,” I say.  “Alles gut,” he grins.  “Alles gut,” I agree.  He grins some more and takes his leave.

My head is spinning.  I’m thankful I have wine.

Later I head back downstairs to see if my interpretation about the sausage cooking was correct.  It was.  I am welcomed in with beaming smiles from Nasho and his wife, ushered to a table next to the fire.  The table has a cloth spread upon it, along with plates and cutlery.  Nasho spits the sausages and puts them near the embers.  We share some wine and chat in a stunted mix of German and French as we eat fresh tomatoes, cheese and the hot sausages fresh from the fire.  “What time is breakfast?”  I ask, as I prepare to leave for my bed.  He shrugs.  “Eight, nine, ten… sleep as long as you want.  But if ten, after a leisurely breakfast it will be eleven before you get to the castle, and then…”  He trails off, as if disaster will happen.  I smile, suddenly reminded of my mum.  (Hello, Mum!)

Day Two

Breakfast is as welcoming as supper.  Whilst eating my omelette, I discover that, of the two, I prefer Bulgarian folk music to Serbian.  Nasho is channel hopping and finds several folk music channels.  “Bulgish,” he says with a grin.  I only have enough time to work out that I quite like it before he flicks again.  “Serbish!” he says.  This is more trite and more contrived.  I’m sure all Serbian music can’t be this bad.  He flicks again.  It’s the corniest of the lot.  “What’s this?” I ask in German, swallowing coffee.  He shrugs, laughing, shaking his head.  “Griechenland, buzuki,” he says, miming.  “Chicago…” he plays air sax for me and goes off into peals of laughter.  I grin, amused.

The walk up to the castle is steep.  The road is made of cobbles that are as slippery as walking on wet marble.  In fact, there are rivulets of water running over them and they could well be made out of marble.  Cars struggle to get up it, wheels spinning on the steep, smooth surface, unable to find purchase.  They wobble worryingly all over the road as they skid and swerve, even at a pace slower than I’m walking.

The castle is a living monument with Ottoman houses dating from the 16th century crammed inside the walls, still inhabited.  Poverty is evident, the houses run-down.  There are small shops, museums, ruined mosques and a lot of churches in various states of disrepair.  It is peaceful in the morning sunshine and few people are about.  It’s warm enough not to need a cardigan but the air is still fresh.  The birds sing.

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There is litter strewn about, but not as much as I’ve seen elsewhere.  I think I might be finally starting to tune it out.  Church bells drift up from the town below on the subtle breeze.  If I strain my ears I can hear the soft hum of distant traffic.  Cocks crow in the distance.  The snow-capped mountain a little way away is blue in the hazy sun, blending with the sky.  I smile as I walk.

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Down below, a new road is being built next to the river in front of a row of shops and cafes.  I hope it will be pedestrianized.  It won’t take much to spoil the delicate beauty of this place.  I have heard there are no planning laws in Albania.  If the people rush too fast to develop for the burgeoning tourist trade, they will destroy the lure of their country.  With any luck, the UNESCO status of the town will prevent that from happening here, but I am fearful all the same.

Possibly the Friendliest Country in the World

If I was to write about all the people I’m meeting here I could probably manage a novella.  I think this is the friendliest country I have ever visited.  People here just cannot do enough to help you and they are so interested in you and what you think of their country.

Ordering a pizza involved Albanian lessons from a pair of cheeky and charming lads behind the counter, one of which refused to give me my pizza until I agreed to have my photo taken with him.  My hosts at the guest house cannot do enough for me.  Even the Jehovah’s witnesses up at the castle did their best to find a bit in their book that was in English for me to read and accepted my ‘no thank you’ with good grace.  Upon exiting the castle, a man offered to take me back and open up all the churches for me to see inside.  Albania has the warmest welcome to give; a very warm welcome indeed.

Bus to Gjirokaster

The bus pauses here and there in town to let more people on before we head out into the countryside.  One man hands a cage of two pigeons to the driver along with some cash, but doesn’t get on himself.  Buses here seem to provide a courier service as well as public transportation.  The pigeons sit on the floor next to the driver just in front of my feet, cooing, fighting and occasionally getting amorous.

We’re not far out of town before the father of a young boy darts to the front and says something urgently to the driver’s assistant, who hurriedly pulls a plastic bag from a pile on the dashboard.  Great, I think.  Travel-sick child on a mini-bus.  Judging by the amount of carrier bags on the dash, this is a common occurrence.

The roads are bad, full of craterous pot holes.  The drivers seem more intent on saving their suspension than on not crashing into each other.  They career all over the road to avoid the holes, heedless of what’s coming at them.  Cars and vans and construction vehicles and buses (including this one) are all over the road, weaving in and out.  I have to look out of the side window rather than the front in order to stop myself wincing.

Everyone drives too fast, too close and on the wrong side of the road as often as on the right one.  Everyone overtakes on sharp bends, nipping out and swerving sharply back in if something comes in the opposite direction.  There are numerous police roadblocks where everyone behaves themselves – the driver’s mate scrabbles madly to get the driver’s seatbelt round his ample stomach.  The driver speaks quickly at him and I can’t tell if he’s telling him to stop it or to hurry up and get on with it.  The mate gives up in the end and they drive past the policemen cool as cucumbers, smiling and giving a little wave hello.  Safely past, I can see the driver looking smugly in the rear view mirror as he puts his foot down once more and picks up his mobile phone to make a call whilst at the same time sifting through his CD collection.  He’s steering with his elbows.

I have most definitely fallen out with the God of Bus Chaos.  I wonder if I’ll make it to Gjirokaster with life and limbs intact.  Everyone else on the bus seems calm about it, though, as so do the pigeons.  I pretend likewise and stare intently out of the window next to me, trying not to feel too pale.

Gjirokaster

I am booked into a B&B for this town, partly because I couldn’t find a hostel and partly because I have a yearning for a bit of time to myself.  Upon arrival, all I want to do is sit in the sun, drink coffee and read.

I head out into the old town under the castle on the mountain, all winding cobbled streets and falling-down houses, artisan shops, cafes and bakeries.  Almost before I’ve put my bag on a table outside the café, a man coming out of the door smiles at me.  “Hello,” he says.  I wonder if he’s a waiter.  “Hello,” I smile, sitting down.  “American?” he asks.  “English,” I reply.  “Ah!  London?”  “Manchester.”  He nods appreciatively, although thankfully doesn’t make the usual enquiry about whether I’m red or blue.  He sits down opposite me.  He’s the café owner.  He orders a coffee and drinks with me, chatting.  He’s perfectly friendly and interesting to talk to, generous with his time and very interested in where I’m from and where I’m going and what I think of his country.  He tells me I can come back and drink coffee in his café every day.

Albania really does have the hugest heart out of all the Balkans I’ve so far visited; the B&B owner told me that I might get invited in for coffee by the locals and that it was perfectly okay to say yes.  They are so pleased that you are visiting their country.

Since I arrived in the Balkans, I’ve heard a few people discuss whether or not to come here; many have been warned away with tales of muggings, attacks and fears that they’ll be sex trafficked…

…slightly ridiculous fears of being sex trafficked, I might add – hold on to your passport; don’t give it to anyone who promises that they can get you a job waiting tables or modelling in New York or London.  Oh hang on, you have more money than most people here, including the traffickers probably.  Wait a sec, you already have a job in London or New York and if you don’t you can find one yourself perfectly legally.  You don’t need to rely on a dodgy bloke to sneak you out of the country so you can find a menial job in the western world and send money home to your family.  You are lucky.  You are not desperate for money, you don’t live in a poverty-stricken country, you either know you’re not model material or you actually are a model, you’re a traveller so you’re clearly not naïve (or you wouldn’t have made it this far) and therefore no-one is going to target you.  Idiot.

I have no idea where these stories of muggings have come from, either.  Just as you would anywhere else, don’t flash the cash and keep all valuables hidden.  It’s not rocket science.  Apparently Albania has one of the lowest petty crime rates in Europe.  I have never met a more helpful and kind people.

However.  All this friendliness and openness is really unconducive to time alone.  Even sitting on a bench reading, you get inquisitive looks and people saying hello and asking where you’re from.  Although I love this country and its warm-hearted people, being an antisocial git I find myself quite looking forward to the anonymity I hope to find in northern Greece.

Bah humbug.

Day Two

Today all I wanted was to walk by myself in the warm sunshine, through this startlingly atmospheric town, looking out at the snow-capped mountain opposite.  I wanted a chance to sit, read and write in the sun, to get away from the curious stares.  I decided to visit the castle, which I hoped would be as peaceful as the one in Berat.

I have never seen so many school children, all aged between 11 and 16.  They ran and played and fought and screamed and laughed and chatted.  Everywhere.

One look at me and suddenly, from all angles it felt like, there were shouts of “Hello!  Hi!” followed by giggles.  When I replied, there were peals of laughter.  I know it was just friendly curiosity with no ill intent whatsoever, but all at once, constantly, it was more than a little overwhelming.  A lovely girl of about 11 asked to have her photo taken with me.  I agreed, obviously, but then quickly Ieft.  I could see her running over to her friends to show them and the thought of being swamped by kids with mobile phones was a bit too much.

I could never be famous.  I’d be rubbish at it.

Instead, I wandered through the narrow, cobbled lanes that run up the side of the mountain, past buildings both intact and falling down.  It is an astoundingly atmospheric place in an astoundingly beautiful setting.  Pack ponies are led through the streets, bells hung around their necks so you can hear them coming.  Women hose down their terraces and the cobbles in front of their houses daily.

For a country where littering and fly tipping is so endemic, people are incongruously obsessed with washing the paths and streets.  Apparently until 1990 there was no litter because everything had to be reused and recycled due to the poverty caused by the harsh communist regime here.  24 years later, this has to be the worst place for litter I’ve visited so far, along with possibly Montenegro.

While it is of course a good thing that the people of this country now have more and are far better off, it’s a shame the infrastructure and laws to deal with the fallout don’t seem to be there.

I have now found a low wall to sit on next to a cobbled road that winds around the hill below castle, running over a gully cut by a now dry river and around the opposite hill.  The gully is full of rubbish, but it is shielded from view where I currently sit.  I can gaze out at the curtain wall of the castle opposite and the snow-capped mountain behind, as well as the part of town that is visible up the valley, nestled in a cleft in the mountainside.  People occasionally walk past, some look at me curiously, but I am mercifully left to myself.  Peace at last.

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Click here for Berat and Gjirokaster photos

Sarande

Times when knowing the non-verbal language cues would help.  A lot.

I need sun cream.  I’ve been sat on the beach for a couple of hours and I feel like I’m frying.  None of the mini-marts seem to stock it, so I ask at a pharmacy.  “Do you have sun cream?”  The pharmacist shakes her head.  I assume she doesn’t understand English, so I mime sun beams on my skin and rub some imaginary cream onto my arm.  She looks amused and shakes her head again and goes into the back, mumbling “Sun cream… sun cream…” to herself.

I suddenly remember that Albanians shake their head when they mean yes and nod when they mean no.  To add to the confusion, some have worked out that most foreigners do the exact opposite and so they now nod for yes and shake for no.  It is therefore impossible to know what an Albanian means when they shake their head.

Beach holiday time!

No pontificating on paper for a day or two.  All you need to know is that I have a cheap hotel on the sea front with a balcony and sea view.  It’s about 22 degrees out there.  The sea is a clear blue.  The beach is pebbly, but that’s fine; stops sand getting where it shouldn’t.  The ancient ruins of Butrint, which date from pre-Roman times, are definitely worth the short bus trip.  The air is fresh, the views are fantastic and I have a great, big, contented smile on my face.

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Click here for Sarande photos

Macedonia – Statues, Lakes and Many, Many Churches

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Skopje – city of statues

It’s the cities that surprise me that I love.  The bus dropped me off at about 6.30 this morning after a 12 hour trip from Budva.  It was drizzly and I was tired and all I saw was yet more concrete and a huge dual carriageway which was already hazy with traffic fumes.  The path was patched, pitted, cracked.  The first thing to make me smile (a rare phenomenon at 6.30am) were the modern, red Routemaster-style buses roaring down the road.

Yes, there’s a lot of concrete and busy roads out there.  They’re also still building this city – the centre was devastated by an earthquake in the 60s and they are still remaking it, thanks to the Skopje 2014 programme, which is designed to give the city back its classical feel.  There are new neo-classical buildings housing theatres, government offices, museums. There are shiny glass office towers.  There are concrete behemoths from the 1960s and 70s, including a large swath that reminds me a lot of the Gordon Craig theatre in Stevenage before they tarted it up.  Sort of.  What is it about English new towns and communist architecture?

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Walk around only a little more and you start to notice the statues.  I’d read that Skopje had a lot of them.  At the time my thoughts were “Statues?  I’ve been to Florence.  Don’t talk to me about statues.”

These are something else, something modern, even if some are in the classical style.  They’re everywhere you look.  There’s what looks like a Henry Moore down by the river.  There are giant men on giant plinths and giant men on giant horseback on giant plinths.  The theatre is surrounded by theatrical statues.  There is a pair of female statues in modern dress gossiping near the shopping centre.  A statue of Mother Teresa just down the street from a statue of a beggar.  Statues of groups of politicians politicising.  Statues of revolutionaries, scientists, philosophers, workers, mothers, teenagers.  There is a statue in a red bikini and swimming cap preparing to dive into the river, hot on the heels of another, only the feet of which show.  I thought I spotted a statue fishing further down, but it turned out to be an actual person.

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My guidebook says the biggest danger to travellers in Skopje are the old ladies on bicycles.  It also mentions that stray dogs can be a bit of a pest.  I haven’t seen any old ladies on bicycles, more’s the pity, and the only stray dogs I’ve seen have been tagged on the ear, friendly and placid.  One crossed the dual carriageway with me, having obviously learned that if a human crosses it’s safe for a dog to do so too.  He was like the best trained dog in the world.  He sat next to me quietly while I waited for a gap, trotted at my feet while I crossed, sat down again when we got to the central reservation (I looked down at him and he looked up at me, all kind eyes and smiling, his tongue out), walked to heel when I walked and then trotted off happily when we reached the other side.

Another thing that had me grinning was the supermarket.  Really.  I hadn’t realised how much I missed actual supermarkets where everything is brightly lit and nicely packaged and all the fruit and veg is piled up in appetising  mounds of produce.  Where they sell everything you want. I haven’t seen one since Zagreb.  Since then, it’s been small, dingy mini-marts a bit like Londis in the UK that don’t sell much.  Consequently, I spent far too long looking at everything on the shelves in semi-wonder, a daft smile on my face.

Day Two

One of the main things I love about Skopje is the fact that it’s still under construction.

I love the mash of architectural styles, I love the old-looking new buildings, I love the old-looking new statues as well as the new-looking ones.  I love the old Ottoman quarter, thankfully largely undamaged by the earthquake, where there is an atmospheric market selling anything you want.  There are tiny shops there where artisans work, visible through the windows, bent over sewing machines, working leather for shoes, silversmithing.  Cheeky salesmen try to get you into their establishments – “Hello!  I think it is my shop you are looking for.  Just here.  Best price leather jackets, just for you.”  Shoe shiners sitting on the pavements watching the passers-by, patiently smoking cigarettes.

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In the new part of town, there are piles of rubble everywhere, hoardings, cranes, people drilling and hammering, stonemasons chipping away, but all this does is create an atmosphere of amazing potential.

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Anything and everything is possible.  They are planting large trees in the pavement all along one of the main pedestrianized streets.  Newly dug flowerbeds are stuffed full of pansies.  The Macedonian flag flies everywhere.  It may be the cheeriest flag of any country – bright yellow sun on a red background.

The people here are incredibly friendly and helpful and they have an enthusiasm for their city that almost bubbles over.  A young couple stopped earlier me to ask if I could take a photograph of them together.  They were local and asked me where I was from and what I thought of their city.  When I told them, they nodded, smiling.  “Yes,” they said, “This past year Skopje is much more interesting.  It is very interesting place…”  They smiled at me.  “…although not like England.  England is the best place,” the man added, shyly.  They gave me tips on the best restaurant to go to before saying goodbye.

There is an air or excitement out there, an air of possibilities.  I can’t wait to come back when it’s finished to see those possibilities realised.

Day Three

Skopje on a Sunday is a peaceful place.  Birds chirp all around.  There are second hand book stalls along many roads.  All the other shops are closed.  Fishermen stand quietly in the shallow river, people sit on benches in the sunshine of the main square chatting quietly or reading newspapers.  People stroll, they drink coffee in the cafes.  There is a huge advertising screen burbling to itself in Macedonian, but that’s easy to tune out.

The quiet, peaceful, restful feeling reminds me of something.  It takes a while to work out what.  It’s that sunny weekend morning feeling I have when I mooch around my small garden at home while I’m waiting for the click of the boiling kettle.  It’s the feeling I have when I sit on my back doorstep in my pyjamas, sipping coffee and reading my book, listening to the birds sing.

Then the Call to Prayer drifts across the river from the old Ottoman quarter.

I like Skopje.

Ohrid

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Olli, one of the two blokes running the hostel in Skopje, told me that there are 365 churches in Ohrid; one for each day of the year.  Other than that, all I know about this place is that there is a massive lake – one of the deepest and oldest in Europe.

My dorm-mate Marguerita and I set off through tumble-down, narrow streets past tumble-down ancient houses to find some churches, the lake twinkling through the buildings down the steep hill.  The first one we find is The Holy Mother of God Perivleptos, an 11th century Orthodox church with very, very old and incredibly intact frescoes.

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The lady at the entrance charges us half price, for reasons I don’t quite understand.  Possibly something to do with cats, but that doesn’t seem to make sense.  She is unremarkable looking – short, with long, curly black hair, black sparkly eyes, pink socks poking through open toed high heels of a different pinky hue.  Plush, pink tracksuit bottoms and a fluffy jumper.  Her wrists jangle with bracelets.

She comes into the church with us and explains each fresco in detail; the story it tells and the symbolism it holds.  She has a theatrical voice as well as a tangible interest in the paintings and is keen to tell their story.  The frescoes are among the oldest in Europe.  She explains that the paintings were not only made for the glory of God, but so that the common man might comprehend the biblical messages.  She explains how to ‘read’ churches – like a cross, she says.  East, west, north, south.  If you can read one church, she says, you can read all churches.  She shows us each fresco in turn, explaining the stories they tell – Jacob’s ladder, the crucifixion, the last supper.  This church is dedicated to Mary, so there is also a series of frescoes telling her story.  The pink fluffy lady has a doctorate in theology and speaks often of her professors and the things they discuss.  She has a kind and calm intensity to her and she draws you in with her eyes, which hold all her love for her fellow man.

I am struck by the same thought I had when I was visiting the Memorial House of Mother Teresa in Skopje – or rather, a memory of a thought.

I am not religious.  I am not totally sure what I believe.  I’m not atheist, but I’m not a believer as such.  I don’t believe Mary was a virgin (I mean, come on… really… but what a genius cover story to escape being stoned to death for being an unmarried mother – ‘It was God, honest…’)

I do believe that a man did exist who may well have been called Jesus and may well have been born out of wedlock and that perhaps he did have a good message to spread.  Whether he was the son of God, I’ve no idea – if you call the spark of life God, then we are all sons and daughters of God, surely.

I don’t believe the bible is anything other than tales told by old men with beards round a fire, which may have had a basis in truth but got augmented down the years.  Hundreds of years later, priests who wanted to tell us how to live picked the stories that best served their purpose and put them in a book, leaving out the rest (there is evidence of that – old scripts outdating some of those included in the bible do exist – the gospel of Judas and the gospel of Mary Magdalene among them).  Men who had strict ideas on how we should live picked the gospels that supported their ideas and left the others out.  Nothing more, nothing less.

Does this make me agnostic?  I’m never sure.

ANYWAY.  The thought of the memory of the thought was something like this:  We are all one people – rich, poor, gypsy, Jew, Muslim, Christian, black, brown, white, pink.  We all came into being from the same spark of life and we all share DNA.  We all descend from one of just five matriarchs from Africa.  That’s scientific fact.  Therefore we are all related, somewhere down the line.  So yes, we should love our fellow man, rich or poor, gypsy or Jew because they are our brothers and sisters.  We should help our fellow man, because part of our DNA is in them – to help them is to help ourselves.

Is that the basis of the Christian message?  I’ve no idea.  During Sunday School, I was too busy running round the church causing havoc with my sister and my next-door-neighbour to pay attention to what the teacher was saying.  I just know the world would be a much better place if we all remembered that we are all the same, all related.  Maybe that’s what they call heaven – a world where we all get along and help each other instead of blowing each other up.

Both Marguerita and I are silent and contemplative when the lady leaves us to look around the church on our own.  We come out into the sunshine with the same thought.  What an incredible lady.  ‘One of a kind’, Marguerita says.

We wander up the hill to the Basilica, then further up to the fortress.  After walking the walls, we wind down the cliff to the church of St Jovan, shut because it’s a Monday.  We stumble across the giant-sized, crumbly and ancient Church of St Sofia and then find a café with a terrace overlooking the lake.  It has steps down to the water so you can swim.  Come here in summer, it would be fantastic.

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There are a lot of churches, but for there to be 365 there would have to be one every other building.

Marguerita asks the waiter about the churches.  It turns out to be a legend, but there are still a sizeable 22 here, which is a lot for a tiny town.  Some of them are smaller than a garden shed.  Maybe I’ll put a cross on my garden shed when I get home.  Perhaps it will remind me to remember that the scrotes on the estate who vandalise my car are my brothers and that I should help them.

Perhaps…

…but then, I’m no saint.

Skopje photographs:  http://www.flickr.com/photos/13535953@N03/sets/72157642109636793/

Ohrid Photographs:  http://www.flickr.com/photos/13535953@N03/sets/72157642207795983/

Montenegro – Craggy Coast and Concrete

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Prologue

“Where are you going next?” asks Raymond, lounging in the cosy hostel common room in Sarajevo as we wait for our tour guide to arrive.  “Montenegro,”  I reply.  He nods.  “The coast?  It’s beautiful.”  I tilt my head to one side.  “Yes, in a couple of days I go to Budva on the coast.  I have voluntary work there, helping with a photography project.  I’m going to stop off in the capital first.”

He grins.  “Podgorica?  There’s not much there…”  “Is that how you say it?,” I ask, “I did wonder…” he pronounces it podgoreetza.  “I think so,” he says, “but I’m not so sure.  I was there a day.  You only need a couple of hours to see the place…”

Early the next morning, I’m being driven to Sarajevo’s east bus station by Hassan, the friend of the lovely man who runs the hostel and the tour guide from the previous day.  The east bus station is tricky to reach by public transport and turns out to be in the middle of nowhere.  “Where are you going now?” Hassan asks, lighting a cigarette as he drives.  “Podgorica.”  I say.  “Podgorica?”  he chuckles.  “There’s not much there, you know…”

Bus from Sarajevo to Podgorica

The bus is in actual fact a mini-bus.  Although the views will be better sitting on the right, there are only single seats there; I need a double to accommodate my bags.  Today’s surprise bus snack success is a packet of Pardon štapići.  I didn’t even see the name when I bought it, I just saw what looked like pretzel sticks and thought – ooh, that’s good.  I bite into one of the skinny twigs.  It’s filled with peanut butter.  Can someone please start exporting these to Britain?  While we’re at it, get some Clipsy and Chipsy crisps in too.  They beat Walkers hands down.  True.

It’s a seven and a half hour trip.  I choose seats opposite the middle door, which is entirely glass from floor to roof, so I get the good views through it without them being obscured by someone in a seat.  It’s a mountainous route, with mostly narrow roads, sometimes uncovered, often very tightly bending.  A normal sized bus would struggle driving them.  Once more, the views are vast, rural, the bus much of the time running along the side of valleys with a blue river coursing below.

I stare out of the window at a steep, vertiginous mountainside that towers above me – we are close by the side of it on the narrow road.  I can’t even see the top.  I turn my head to look through the bus door.  The uncovered road falls away right next to the bus, no barrier, and my stomach tumbles down with it to join the far-off rush of river at the bottom.  OH HOLY FUCK.  So that’s why we were driving so slowly…

We stop at the Montenegrin border.  The official boards the bus and hands the identity cards and passports back.  She reads out the Slavic names without a hitch.  People raise their hands like they are in school having the register taken.  She gets to my passport.  She pauses, unsure what to say.  “I think that’s mine,” I say, amused.  Funny how your tongue can pronounce the strangest, most complicated syllables in your own language, but struggle with what seem to be the most simple in someone else’s speech.  Barrett.  Is that hard?  She looks at me and shows me the passport.  I nod.  She hands it back, still looking slightly doubtful.

We drive on through the mountainous valleys.  Looking down the narrow gorge carved out by the blue, blue river, I am startled to feel the prick of tears.  Not through sadness, but simply due to the astounding beauty that I’m faced with.  The mountains plunge to the rushing river below, which is huge although it looks tiny from here.  The craggy outcrops of rock up the sides of the mountains are topped with what look like dwarf trees, such is the huge scale of the vista.  It’s like a cross between Lord of the Rings and the floating mountains in Avatar.  My words can’t do it justice and neither can any picture, so you’ll just have to trust me.

Podgorica

Podgorica is the most concretey place I have ever, ever visited.  Concrete high rise after concrete high rise interspersed with concrete shopping centres.  It’s a little like walking through a larger version of Harlow in Essex with more high rises.  It feels like a grey British ‘new town’, not a capital city.  The main square is surrounded by concrete on all sides.  Here and there you see extremely dilapidated stone houses, crumbling and ramshackle.  My very cute hostel is a crumble-down house in a small, rickety courtyard off one of the main concrete streets.

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If I had known Podgorica was such a concrete jungle full of not a great deal to see, I probably would not have come… so I am glad I didn’t know.  Dig a little deeper and it’s not that bad at all.

I only have one full day here.  As has become a loved habit, I first of all hunt down a nice café for a cup of coffee while I read my book and plan my day.  I find somewhere down a side street comprised of older, smaller buildings, buildings with more character.  Cafés and bars line it on both sides.  I pick one that has soft music playing the background – gentle, smoky takes on slightly alternative songs.  The chairs and sofas are soft and comfy.  The bar is slick and tastefully lit.  The décor is new, with large, artful black and white pictures of famous actors, actresses and singers adorning the ceiling.  This could be a trendy café somewhere in London or Manchester.  I settle back with my Kindle, glad to be out of the rain.

One leisurely coffee later, I’m standing by a busy road in the still-pouring rain.  Crossing the road here is ever so slightly terrifying.  There are zebra crossings over dual carriageways, with no traffic lights at them.  The cars don’t brake until last minute.  More than once, I have stopped dead in fear, convinced I’m about to get squashed as a car hurtles right at me.  They do always stop.  Eventually.  With a few inches to spare.  Usually.

I head for the park to the north east of the city centre, a green oasis of pine woods on a hill.  Nestled amongst the trees, there is a tiny 10th century church.  I peep in.  It feels every bit as old as it is.  There is something almost physical in the atmosphere inside, something I feel like I’m excluded from.

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After a soaking gained wandering around the woods, which smell pine fresh in the rain, I head back to dry off in another café.  This one is designer with subtle lighting.  In England, I am fairly certain I would be paying through the nose to drink here.  It has waiters on the door in suits.  I feel distinctly underdressed.  I feel like I should be wearing pearls or diamonds, not wet jeans, a snagged jumper and a canvas shoulder bag with Che Guevara on it.  No-one seems to mind.   I am curious how much my coffee will be.  Surely, surely, somewhere like this, we’re talking way over the norm.  Nope.  €1.50.  Same as everywhere else.

My next stop is the Orthodox Cathedral, which is still not quite finished, construction wise.  It is an ornate building in a field of concrete high rises.  Walking inside is like walking into a building that has been covered with gold leaf on every wall… because it has been.  I can’t help stopping to stare.  Religious frescoes shine out from the gold walls, the gold alcoves, the gold ceiling.

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I’ve walked inside a gold ingot.

There is one fresco, slightly hidden away in a corner above the main door that, if you look closely enough, depicts Tito, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels among the fires of hell.  (Hint:  Above the monster, in the middle.  Tito’s the one with the glasses, wearing a white cap.)

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There have been calls to remove the fresco, people asserting that the Church should be a-political.  In a country that is by no means rich, people are also angry at the huge expense of constructing the lavish building.

Harlow is probably more attractive than Podgorica, believe it or not.  Podgorica has higher high rises and hardly any low rises at all in the centre, although it does have a number large green spaces and the advantage of being surrounded by beautiful mountains.  In my day, Harlow did have a dry ski slope; I’m not sure it’s still there and, anyway, I’m not convinced that counts.

Budva

First Impressions

A girl I met in Split came here a week or so ago.  My dorm mate in Podgorica met her here a few days ago and apparently she’s still around somewhere.  Must get in touch and arrange to meet for coffee…  Why she’s still here is currently a mystery to me.  Everything is shut up and deserted.

A couple of people, upon hearing I was headed here for a week of voluntary photography work at a hostel, said “Yeah, Budva’s okay.  You should visit Kotor.”  Kotor is a 30 to 45 minute bus ride north.  I’ve only been in Budva a couple of hours and already I can see why they might direct me elsewhere.

I have the use of a small, private apartment while I’m working here.  It’s clean, it’s comfy, it has a balcony; it’s fine.  I get to use the hostel’s shared kitchen for cooking.  The kitchen looks like it should have cockroaches living in the crevices.  The food cupboard smells of used cat litter.  In the fridge, there is a dish full of something cooked so long ago that it has turned to concrete, now resembling a cracked pavement.  Thankfully, I have a clean fridge in my apartment.

It’s a grey Saturday.  I walk down the streets, trying to find my way to the beach and/or the old town, which I’ve read is like a mini Dubrovnik.  From a distance, as the bus wove its way down the mountain hairpins to Budva, it did look like Dubrovnik’s baby sister.  In the new town, however, the streets are tired, grey.  Rubbish blows along the pavements.  There are building sites at every turn and patches of waste ground between.

Honestly?  I preferred Podgorica.  At least the cafés there were open and lively.  Budva is an empty, dirty, building site.  Not ten minutes into my walk, a large rat runs across the pavement in front of me, from a patch of waste ground to a stream clogged with rubbish.

My guide book says that Budva is the poster child of Montenegro tourism, highly popular with holiday makers from Russia and Ukraine. It does mention that it has been marred somewhat by recent over-development.  It is low season.  The deadest month of the tourist year has just passed.  Perhaps they clean it up for summer?

From what I understand, I am supposed to be capturing a side to Budva that most tourists don’t see, photographing nature and coastal scenes out of season.  Dirty, rubbish-strewn beaches, anyone?  An abandoned old town?  Where is everyone?

Kotor, probably.

Most of the cafes and restaurants in the walled old town are deserted.  Many shops are closed.  The marble streets look like they need a good sweep.  The buildings are tired.  I walk around to the far side of the small beach just outside the town walls.  Now, that I can photograph.  A tiny, ancient walled town, waves crashing to shore in front, brooding mountains behind.  Perhaps all is not lost.  Nothing a year of litter picking couldn’t sort.

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Day Three

What a difference the sunshine makes!  First day of actual work today – I have to visit a different group of beaches each day and photograph them.  It’s a hard life.

The project basically involves lying by omission.  There are some beautiful scenes, if you frame the litter out… frame the construction sites out, frame the nasty apartment blocks out, frame the graffiti out…

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On the other hand, the mini-project I set myself yesterday (capturing the crap of Budva) is also lying by omission, just from another angle.  You cut the beauty out to get the bad stuff.

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Those two pictures were taken a couple of hundred metres apart.  They say the camera never lies (I guess that was before they invented Photoshop) but it is certainly capable of distorting reality.

Times when not knowing the language doesn’t matter in the slightest

Here I sit, taking a break from the 5km return walk from my first photography challenge, at a beachside café bar on one of the nicer beaches in Budva.  It’s a long wait for a waiter to appear.  I watch the sea, I watch patrons in the beachside restaurant next door.  I watch a remote controlled beach buggy bounce along the pavement, I watch waiters from the restaurant grin and dodge it with a natty dance.  A waitress appears, with bottle-blonde hair and heavy makeup.  She smiles at me.  I smile back.  “Pivo, molim,” I say.  This warm sunshine definitely calls for beer.  I’ve been walking and taking photos for about four hours now.  She says something in Serbian. Without knowing how, I know she’s asking me which beer I want.  I point to the menu, attempting to pronounce the name of the draft beer.  She replies in Serbian, I think, but I recognise the word Flasche, which is German for bottle.  “You only have bottles?”  She nods, looking apologetic.  “Okay – that one, please.”  “Big or small?” she asks in English.  She mimes the big and the small, making the big one look giant size.  I opt for small, just in case.  After all, it’s only three o’clock.

The salt smell of the sea mixed with the dry scent of the sun on warm sand.  The slightly metallic but highly refreshing taste of cold lager on my tongue.  The heat of the warm sun on my skin.

*sigh*

Perhaps Budva isn’t all that bad after all.

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Day Four

There are several stupid, tiny, inconsequential things that make me… I admit it… nervous.  I am irrationally fearful of more small, stupid things than I would like.  I would never admit this to your face, of course.  You’d have to know me extremely well to know even a minority of them.  Usually, I steel myself and just get on with it; you’d probably just think I was a bit more moody than usual, or a bit more quiet, or a bit more snappish with my replies.

Unfamiliar bus journeys whilst travelling alone in unfamiliar places is one of these stupid, small things.  As you can imagine, I’ve had to face that one quite a lot of late, there being a dearth of trains in this part of the Balkans.  The following two issues are what worry me about unfamiliar bus journeys:

a)      I will get on the wrong bus and end up somewhere I don’t know how to get back from.

b)      I will miss my stop and end up somewhere I don’t know how to get back from.

Since I landed in Croatia almost a month ago, every trip I’ve made has been by bus.  To help me feel more at ease, I have been looking the route up online before the journey.  Where my destination is not the final stop for the bus, I check what time we are due to arrive.  Ten minutes before then, my eyes are glued to the roadsides, trying to spot road signs that give me a hint of where I am.  In some cases, I’ve even looked the bus station up on Google Images so I know what I’m aiming at.  Sad, but unfortunately true.  I imagine I will be doing this a lot more when I hit the Cyrillic countries.  In fact, Montenegro is a Cyrillic country, sort of.  A little.  It uses both Cyrillic and Latin.  I wrote down Podgorica using Cyrillic letters in my note book for that trip, just in case, although it turned I didn’t need to.

This morning, in order to reach the beaches I’m to photograph for today’s photography challenge, I have to take a local bus to Sveti Stevan, which, from research, I know should take about 20 minutes.  I am in a state of mild, tightly controlled panic.

Let’s call it a heightened sense of what could go wrong, shall we?  That sounds less dramatic.

There are several issues here…

a)      The busses in Montenegro (and everywhere else I’ve been in the Balkans so far) are not numbered.

b)      There is a card in the front window with the final destination, but it only lists a few major stops en route.  Sveti Stevan is not likely to be one of these.  It’s tiny.

c)       Although my bus ticket tells me which bus company will be driving me, from experience I know that the name of the company written on the bus and the name of the company on the ticket can differ dramatically.

d)      Although I always ask which platform the bus will depart from, I know from experience that the driver seems to just choose whichever one he fancies.  The ticket man’s response of “One or two (shrug)” doesn’t put my mind at rest, either.

e)      I am well aware that in Montenegro bus stops don’t always have bus stop signs.  People seem to get on and get off wherever they please.  This is quite lovely, but it won’t help me know when I’ve got to Sveti Stevan if there’s no bus stop sign there.

ARGH.

Four busses turn up at the time mine is due.  I ask each driver if they are going to Sveti Stevan.  None are.  A fifth bus lurches in.  It’s mine.  I pass my ticket to the driver and I have to hide a smile.  His bus is old, dirty, rumbly-rickety.  A bone shaker.  He has a cigarette hanging from his fingers.  Next to him is what looks like a giant pouffe, which only allows a narrow path to enter the bus.  Balanced on the pouffe is a pile of change, his mobile phone, a packet of cigarettes, a lighter and an ashtray.  We are travelling in his living room.

I know that I need to look out for an islet that is attached to the mainland by a causeway.  That is the old part of Sveti Stevan, although you can’t actually visit it unless you are a guest in the exclusive resort that the islet has become.  You can see it from a long way away.  As we near, I notice a sign proclaiming that we have arrived.  Thankful, yet unsure how to halt the bus, I lurch my way to the driver.  “Can you stop at Sveti Stevan, please?”  He nods, gesturing around the corner.  He pulls to a juddery halt at a bus stop.  “Hvala,” I tell him, relieved.

I’m here.  I’m not in Herceg Novi.  I’m not in Belgrade.  I’m not in Tirana.  I’m not in Timbuktu.  I’m here.

The relief at such a small thing is, quite frankly, ridiculous.  I’m grinning like a giddy idiot as I make my way downhill to where I assume the beach is.  Funny how I’m fine with the idea of getting lost on foot, really, isn’t it?

There has been much on this adventure that has forced me to face several really dumb fears.  I didn’t think there could be many left by now, but I’m sure there probably are and I just don’t know it yet.  Comfort zone?  What’s that?

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Day Five

I went to Kotor today.

I had been planning to cycle to several beaches to photograph them, but the bike needs adjusting and no-one can find a spanner.  The back-up plan was to photograph the local beaches, all within a seven minute stroll of here.  You need to follow a path that runs right round the headland, right on the edge of the rocks, to get to two of them.  The gate to the path is currently padlocked.  There have been deaths on that path when the sea gets high.  I’ve seen the waves hitting it when the sea is only moderately choppy, so I can well imagine the danger.  I photograph the one beach I can access and then have a coffee, reading about Kotor in my guide book.

Kotor is … if you ever find yourself in Montenegro and someone tells you to visit Budva, just skip it and go to Kotor.  It’s less developed, it’s more rugged, it has more character; the walled old town is prettier and has more spacious squares.  It has an ancient, ruined fort on the top of a very high hill accessed by 1,350 crumbly stone steps that zig zag their way up, punctuated by ruined towers and a tiny chapel.  Go to Kotor.

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I head back to Budva and make straight for a beach bar.  Those steps raised a thirst.  The waiter comes to my table.  “Pivo, molim,” I say.  “Which beer?” he asks.  There’s no menu, so I’ve no idea.  “Draft, probably,” he answers for me, before I can speak.  “Yes, please.”  “Small or large?”  “Small, please.”  I fish my Kindle out of my bag and sit back, reading.  The waiter reappears with my beer.  “Hvala,” I say.  “You speak Serbian very well!”  He smiles, looking a little surprised and impressed.  No more than I am.  “I do?  That’s about the only thing I can say.”  He grins, laughing.  “But you pronounce it well.”  Yay me.

I hope they also speak Serbian in Macedonia.  They did in Croatia and Bosnia (although they called it Croatian and Bosnian).  If they do, at least that’s three words I can say right.

The Bad of Budva – photos:

http://www.flickr.com/photos/13535953@N03/sets/72157641951525645/

The Beauty of Budva and Kotor – photos:

http://www.flickr.com/photos/13535953@N03/sets/72157641955565013/

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