This story starts dark and it leads up to a beautiful experience. The first part is an impressionist rendition of the early 1990’s in Eastern Europe. Read this first part trying to get the feel. The details are poignant, but they are mostly memories by now. Be thankful you didn’t lived there in those years.
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It was the spring of 1991. I was in my second to last year of studies at the Sofia University.
The day was gorgeous – sunny and cool. I walked out of the damp, mold ridden house which the mother of two of my friends owned. Four people lived in this house, or rather we shared utter poverty together. My friends’ mother occupied her own small part of the house. She led an almost completely silent existence – you didn’t even know when she was leaving or returning from work. She paid the bills. We existed.
Me and my two friends – three strapping lads, all of us about the age of 23 – lived only on the tiny student stipend I got. The money was enough to buy one loaf of bread a day. Nothing else. That is what we ate. One loaf of bread – three young men.
If you think that we were lazy and didn’t want to work you are wrong. Those times were the beginning of the 90’s in Eastern Europe. The region was in a transitional period. The so-called Communist times had just stepped into history. But the new life had not begun yet. At that time nobody knew what to make out of this newly acquired freedom. We were free to travel, find good work, and to start our own businesses. But nobody really knew how. There were no jobs, that goes without saying. Most people’s idea of a business was to travel for a day to Turkey, buy 20 pairs of cheap leatherette sports shoes, and sell them on the street as soon as you step off the bus back in Bulgaria. Pathetic. That is how it was at that time. But those times were still better than what came later – the so-called “fast 90’s” – in which organized crime, scams, and poverty and desperation spread like wildfire bringing everything down for years to come. The majority of the population was left with permanent, invisible, but very real scars from those “fast” years.
My friends were lucky to have many friends. They were the coolest guys anybody ever knew. Today, 27 years later, one of them is a successful real estate businessman, and the other one is a very well known artist and theater director. But back in those early days they had to exploit their popularity; They’d venture on hunger trips – under the pretext of visiting a friend they’d manage to be offered some food. Often it was just coffee or a plate of green beans cooked in tomato sauce. Food that you’d eat but it didn’t make you feel too happy about anything. Often the food gave you stomach aches – maybe because the body didn’t expect what was served.
The older brother stayed busy working o intricate ink drawings. Here’s one of them from those distant years that I’m describing here. And the sculpture of the boy-angel that you see above is his creation too. An interesting man, to say the least. There is more about him and his brother that I will recount later. Note the endless wiggly ink lines in this drawing. It’s beautiful, just beautiful.
The house was surrounded by tall trees and had thick brick walls. It was always cold inside, the winters converting the place into a full fledged freezer. The role of meat inside the freezer-house was played by us. It was so cold that you could never be without clothes even for a few seconds – you jumped out of your clothes into the bed and covered yourself with sheets and blankets. Then you forced yourself to not feel and think, and also kept your eyes closed. That self inflicted out-of-body experience lasted about 4 minutes – the time needed for the extremely cold sheets to start to warm up from your body heat. Then you could fall asleep. But the mattresses were not soft and also had lumps. You slept in a kind of stupor – escaping the cold, escaping the uncomfortable bed, escaping the sight of big drops of water condensing on the ceiling, and avoiding to look at the black mold in the corners. Talk about an environment that facilitates unhealthy escapism practices – we were hit hard with that.
But we were young. We lived through that. I think.
When at home during the day one compulsive thing that all three of us did was to open the fridge every 20 minutes. As if someone could put something in it when we were not looking. The fridge was completely empty with the exception of a lonely glass jar. The jar contained a thick food products colored very dark amber, almost black. It was the result of boiling plums and reducing the puree into a very viscous, almost hard fluid. It was something made in the villages, an old product. Considering the 4,000+ years of Bulgarian history the stuff in the jar was probably an ancient way of preserving carbohydrates. Even the name of that product is mostly forgotten by now – doubt that the young generation knows it. It resembled honey except that it was way thicker. You could not really eat it by itself – supposedly it was meant to be smeared on bread. But we never wasted our bread on that. We just could not eat the plum glue like content of the jar. I guess we had no patience to extract the thick material out of the jar. The bread tasted sweet as it was anyway. Especially sweet if you kept it in your mouth as long as you could.
One day someone left a small bottle of home made wine in the fridge. Nobody drank so the bottle stayed there for weeks. The jar of plum goo had left the building so now we had an fridge fully stocked with a single small bottle of red wine.
At that time I started to read “Cannery Row”. One of the characters in it had two occupations – collecting sea creatures in the shallow sea waters to supply pet shops and to drink wine. So as I read the book, being hungry, and with a head full of imagery of the sea, the urchins, and the wine I’d venture to the empty fridge and take a sip of wine from the small bottle. I guess the whole experience was immersive – I blurred the lines between miserable existence, endless cool and sunny Bulgarian spring days, imagery from the book, and tasting the wine both imagining it and in real life. That was the time when I saw how one can actually start drinking and turn it into a habit – by letting reality and emotions overlap. But I did not have a chance – the bottle of wine was empty by the time I finished the book.
So that beautiful day I walked out of the dark cold house and went to the nearby promenade. There I sat on a bench and started to read a book. Maybe it was a scientific paper, I do not remember. There was nobody around. It was the early afternoon.
The promenade led up a hill. At the top of the hill there was a hotel – the “Japanese Hotel” which was one of the few fancy hotels where only foreigners could go. A Bulgarian was followed by the watchful eye of bystanders that nonchalantly sat or stood in the hotel lobby. They were policemen in casual clothes. They made you feel uncomfortable. You had no place in that hotel.
A man walked slowly by the bench I was sitting on. I looked up and judging by his way of walking and the clothes he wore I could tell he was not Bulgarian. He wore something like a black turban on his head, but very small and somehow inconspicuous. As if sensing my eyes he turned around and looked at me. Then he walked back to me, leaned a little and asked me if that was the way to the Japanese hotel. I said, in English, “Yes”. The man looked deeply into my eyes for a second or two as if not exactly understanding the answer. But I saw that he was trying to see me, who I am, a young man from a different world – a creature so different from him as he was different from me. What struck me was the feeling of peace and lack of hurry. During those depressive years of recent Bulgarian history people had become very rushed, very short fused, always on the run. The hectic existence of lost souls. This man was unlike that. That feeling just oozed out of him.
He slowly turned away and started walking. He walked slowly but not because of the uphill sidewalk. He seemed to make a point with every step.
That experience made me feel that there are indeed other places. Places different from this country in the grasp of social despair and lack of direction. Having traveled before I knew that but when you live in a place that is falling apart, both above you and under your feet, you forget. You think that nothing will ever change. Even your youth can not counteract that feeling. It is all around you. But I had just seen a glimpse of something different.
If I could give you any advice here it would go like this: For you to see something different you need to get out and sit on a bench. Who knows what will happen next.