Published in the Livingston Enterprise the week of September 22nd, 2008.
Bulgaria Spans Spectrum of Benevolence
With Netzy in tow, my bike group raced across Bulgaria. Our style is
usually more relaxed. We like to take our time to absorb the sights
and sounds of places through which we bike. However, our visa
situation permitted no lolly-gagging.
Americans don’t need a visa for Bulgaria. Nakia, our lead vocalist
and only female when Netzy isn’t there, is from the Bahamas. As we
quickly learned, carrying a passport from a small country isn’t
helpful while traveling through Europe. Nakia’s disturbing odyssey
began at the Bulgarian consulate in Istanbul, Turkey. She spent days
in front of the consulate with other frustrated Bulgarian visa
seekers, but couldn’t even gain entrance to apply for a visa.
Finally, she got in line at 1:00 AM, nine hours before it opened and
spent the night on the pavement. Even then, she only entered after
threatening to request a refund of money she’d already submitted to
All the time in Istanbul proved in vain, however; her visa application
was rejected. In Edirne, a Turkish town on the Bulgarian border,
Netzy and I tried to do some groundwork at the Bulgarian consulate
there to assist Nakia in her second effort at getting a visa. With
her gift for nagging pursuasiveness, Netzy talked her way past the
surly guard and all the way in to the consul himself. She grilled him
on Nakia’s situation in between friendly inquiries about his family.
She left with a guarantee of Nakia’s speedy visa delivery.
However, when Nakia arrived later that week, the consul proved much
worse than his word. Only after repeated visits, phone calls, and
paying another exhorbitant fee, did he agree to process her visa. She
got it back to find he had given her a ten day transit visa.
We had never crossed a country in less than two weeks. When we biked
into Bulgaria, we were resolved to travel as far as possible together
and then send Nakia ahead on a bus. Given our experience with the
Bulgarian consular system and our impending deadline, you must fogive
us if our attitude towards Bulgaria were less than positive.
At first, Bulgarians did seem stand-offish. They gave directions
helpfuly enough, but I thought I detected a dirth of happy faces.
Just as we began to suspect Bulgarian consular officials represented
the whole of Bulgaria, we met Dmitri in the small mountain town of
Gabrovica. Dmitri works on he railroad. When we paused near the
station to buy groceries, he offered to let us sleep in the break
house for railroad employees. Delighted to have shelter, we readily
We unpacked and started to prepare a vegetable soup for dinner, when
Dmitri communicated that he would bring some beer. Even better, we
thought. Soon a young man lugged in an entire case of Bulgarian beer.
Dmitri pointed to his junior collegue. “Room service,” he explained.
We sat down at the table and offered our soup, the simple fare of
travelers on a budget, to Dmitri. He turned up his nose, yelled out
the door, and smiled, saying “Room service,” again. Soon the young
man was back, with a prodigious amount of sausage, cheese, and a raw
leg of lamb. Dmitri gestured to himself, “meat, cheese, beer, no
vegetables,” he explained.
Before we had begun to drink the beer, another bulky Bulgarian man
showed up with a plastic bottle full of a clear substance. Dmitri
took it and held it up with a proudly. “Grappa!” he announced. The
grappa was, as I had feared, homemade distilled liquor. It’s as
strong as rubbing alcohol but doesn’t taste as good. We all did a
shot in between soup and sausage. Dmitri even convinced Netzy,
usually a staunch prohibitionist, to have a sip.
A woman arrived with a bowl of honey. A man who looked seventy, but
claimed to be forty, joined us. He had apparently enjoyed a bit of
grappa before his arrival, and demonstrated a much greater fondness
for Nakia than had the Bulgarian consular officials. I delicately
placed myself between them.
Another woman carried a puppy into the dining room. My mother cooed
over it. Dmitri rolled his eyes. “Puppy, soupa,” he said, suggesting
we spice up the soup by the addition of puppy meat. Netzy and the
puppy owner joined forces to chide Dmitri.
We stayed up late, feasting on honey, mutton, sausage, soup and beer
and suffering through shot after shot of grappa. Occassionally,
Dmitri would stumble outside, signals in hand, at the sound of an
approaching train. We finally escaped to an unoccupied room of the
break house. Long after we retired, we could hear our hosts carousing
into the night.
We woke up the next morning, a bit groggier than usual, perhaps, but
with our opinion of Bulgarians changed irreversibly for the better.
I’ve met many people a long the way who were angry at the U.S. for one
reason or another. However, none of them ever held my nationality
against me. Thanks to Dmitri, I won’t make the mistake of judging the
people of an entire country based on the actions of their goverment or
their consular officials.