A few days ago I flew into Italy back from a week spent in my home country of Bulgaria. In my head I had meticulously planned to pass those precious seven days on home turf writing, photographing, visiting places of interest and seeing old friends.
It didn’t work out quite this way.
Instead, my little daughter fell ill. We took her to a playground and to see a performance by the local puppet theatre and by the end of it she had temperature and a rapidly developing cough. So, we spent the rest of our Bulgarian time holed up at my parents’ only going out to a local pediatrician and the pharmacy.
So, no, it was not a very eventful visit in terms of things seen and done and, certainly, I don’t feel prepared or willing to compose a series of blog posts in the gushing lines of ‘5 Things You Need To See When In…’. Still, as I was looking through the windows of the planes taking us first from Varna to Sofia in Bulgaria and then from Sofia to Bergamo in Italy, several things of the past week jumped out at me and accordingly made me either miss what I was leaving behind, or feel irritated with the situation there as a whole. On account of one of them I actually felt angry, like really angry at that.
As such, here are the things which made me a bit emotional during the otherwise uneventful flying time. I compacted them in a long no holds barred, no emotion left uncovered and at times a bit gossipy blog post split in two. Here is its first part. So…
Even though Italy is closer to Bulgaria than England, it turned out that getting back home from my current country of residence would be a much more difficult task in terms of time and money. Unlike England, there is no direct flight from Italy to my home town of Varna (the third largest city in the country and, allegedly, its Summer capital. What?! You haven’t heard of the Black Sea’s Pearl?! Gosh!!!), so I spent a long time considering how to make the 500 km trek from the capital Sofia to where my parents live. When I was a student at Sofia University I covered this distance regularly either by coach or train. Travelling on my own with a very heavy suitcase and a very active toddler though promised to be an entirely different experience altogether. I wasn’t willing to subject my little daughter to the seven-to-eight-and-a-half-hour long journey during which she would have been confined to a seat on the coach or a small compartment on the train with a single 20-minute toilet stop (coach) or dirty toilets (train). So, I had to opt for flying with the only company which connects Sofia and Varna by plane. Which would have been fine, had it not been for their extortionate prices. For a flight which is 50 minutes long at best, I paid over double the price of the flight from Bergamo to Sofia. I still feel hard done by it. In times when getting from one point to another is the simplest thing in the world and people engage in it willingly and happily, getting from one end of Bulgaria to the other still requires a massive effort and if you need to do it by plane you end up spending quite a lot. I paid just over 180 euros for two tickets from Sofia to Varna and back (toddlers over two years of age don’t get any discounts), which I personally found expensive, especially considering the salaries in Bulgaria (the minimum monthly wage there is 210 euros). To be objective, there was no additional fee for the luggage and there was a small snack included in the ticket price, too. The snack being a bar of branded chocolate (don’t get excited! It was 20 grams!) and a very small drink in a thin plastic cup which burnt my fingers when the crew member passed it to me.
The View of Varna at Night
Varna at night is very beautiful. Especially seen from afar, so that you don’t notice all the grey panel blocks of flats, the potholes, the higgledy-piggledy urban environment and so on. The city lies on the shores of Varna bay – a triangular body of water which cuts into the dry land. A long tall hill serves as a backdrop, so the combination of blue sea and green uplands is very pleasing with Varna in the middle stretching from one end of the bay to the other. Unfortunately, with its many grey and generally a bit run-down blocks housing dozens, if not hundreds of flats, the city landscape nowadays looks quite messy and uninspiring. At least to me, as I remember it as it was before the crazy construction boom of the last twenty years or so. At night all the greyness disappears though and a myriad of lights dances above the waters of the sea and below the plateau of the long hill. The city’s most important buildings like the Naval Academy and the Sports Hall are generously bathed in lights, too (I can’t imagine the bill the city council must be paying for this), so from afar it all looks really, really nice. It is still my most favourite view in the world and I still miss it in my life abroad.
Well, it is not fun driving around Varna. As there are potholes. Small ones and big ones. Shallow ones and deep ones. People seem to know where the biggest potholes are, so they do their best to avoid them by performing some very skillful feats of driving prowess. Objectively speaking, the main streets have been vastly improved, but there are still many potholes left making you jump high up in your car seat when a wheel or two go through one. And, do you know what is worse than a pothole? A pothole which is being repaired. As the repair seems to stretch over several days during which the pothole gets neatly enlarged and rectangularised in order to absorb the necessary quantity of tarmac and then it remains open on the road, actually gaping there waiting for said tarmac to eventually arrive. As a result of filling up the many potholes that there have been over the last couple of dozen of years or so, some of the roads look like the work of a skillful patchwork artist. Like there are more patches than a road.
Getting a Haircut
The last time that I had my hair cut it was on the occasion of my wedding. It was a disaster! The haircut, not the wedding. I had booked the fanciest salon in town and the fanciest (and most expensive) stylist among them all. In retribution, he spent close to two hours cutting and styling my long at the time hair into a short uninspiring bob with a forward-sticking lock of hair above each ear. He also kept disappearing for up to five minutes at a time, allegedly to blow his nose and he would sniff with gusto for the rest of the time. It was a traumatic experience. Not one I was in any hurry to repeat any time soon, so for the past year and a half I have been religiously avoiding hair salons whilst my hair grew spontaneously and abundantly into a messy something around my head. Not a good look. Add to this the fact that I have always found it difficult to decide on a hair style and to explain myself to a hairstylist. I have sometimes trusted implicitly their creativity and let them loose with my hair. But after the wedding hair fiasco (which happened in England) and considering that we now live in Italy and my Italian remains at level ‘broken’, I just didn’t dare approach an Italian hairstylist. I am sure they don’t bite and I am convinced that most of them are simply amazing at their job (looking at the stylish Italian ladies and their perfect coiffures on the street), but just the thought of going into a territory so fraught with past defeats, I just couldn’t take it. It was too much, people! It honestly gave me palpitations. In the meantime, the hair on my head really needed some attention, so I decided to at least avoid the potential linguistic pitfalls and try to have my hair cut whilst in Bulgaria. With my little daughter falling ill though, I didn’t really have a chance to look for a nice salon, so eventually my mum booked me an appointment with a local hairdresser who has a little salon at home. I never knew that having your hair cut can be such a delight. The whole thing lasted fifteen minutes max. We chatted about the wisterias in her garden, about my past troubles with hairdressers and about my inability to explain what I want hair-wise. All the while she quickly snipped and snapped with her scissors at my hair. The result is a longuish bob with a couple of layers at the front softly framing my face. Under the right light, I look even cute. She charged me 7 Bulgarian levs (equivalent to 3.50 euros) and off I went with a light heart and nicely bouncing hair. Honestly, my best hair experience to date.
Destruction and Maintenance
One of the things we are simply not good at in Bulgaria is maintenance. Gosh, I am sure now someone will jump out of nowhere and accuse me that I know nothing of Bulgaria, having chosen to leave it 15 years ago. A few months ago, there was even someone on Facebook who called people such as myself ‘rats’ for having the audacity to not only live abroad but to still feel like we can have any relation to Bulgaria at all. So, taking the risk of being called a ‘rat’ or worse, here is my honest opinion, which, in all honesty, remains unchanged from when I was actually still living in Bulgaria. And the thing is we are simply not good at maintaining things. At making sure that every little glitch is repaired as soon as it develops. This is too boring for us. We would rather the thing broke dramatically and we spent a lot of money trying to bring it back to life. Through the years, I have seen many buildings and city fountains, little parks and gardens, even simple benches and children’s playgrounds slowly falling into disrepair. Mould would remain uncleaned, a tap would be broken off, the grass would overgrow and the playground equipment would get damaged to a point to give any health-and-safety-obsessive parent a heart attack just by looking at it. No-one would seem to really care. By ‘no-one’ I don’t mean just the actual person on the street, but the local council or other such authority, too. And then, one day, a lot of money would be spent to make the damaged, abandoned, malfunctioning thing brand new again. There would be a ribbon-cutting ceremony, some (or a lot of) congratulatory back-slapping, even fawning articles in the local press. A few months or years down the line, it will be back to normal. In other words, the thing would start to bear the tear and wear of time, little glitches would develop here and there and yet no-one would really be that bothered about it, waiting for the big dramatic falling to pieces to happen, before any measures are taken. Just a small example: one of the security gates of the big playground which was opened only last August with much fanfare in Varna’s largest park – the Sea Garden – was broken when we visited it at the start of April. Instead of replacing it or simply reattaching it to its hinges (a job which seemed simple enough), the gate had been left against the fence of the playground.