Exploring the sights of Bulgaria's bustling capital, one is faced with the difficulties of reading Cyrillic.
“Wind of Change” by the Scorpions was on Bulgarian radio again. I listened while staring out the window at Sofia’s graffiti-speckled buildings on the taxi ride back to my downtown apartment. The next song sounded like something by Peter Cetera, the next “Burning Heart” by Survivor.
Sofia's St. Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, one of the largest Eastern Orthodox cathedrals in the world.
If I could speak the language, I would’ve asked the taxi driver what was up with Bulgarian music taste, or at least struck up a dumb conversation just to take my focus away from a playlist that reminded me of the Rocky IV soundtrack.
But I can’t speak Bulgarian and the taxi driver couldn’t speak English, so there was no conversation. Just good ol' fashioned Eastern Bloc silence underneath the music.
Luckily, most Bulgarians speak English pretty well, which is probably why I haven’t learned more than five words of Bulgarian. I haven’t had to. After being here for over two months, my effort to learn the language has been shamefully minimal. Nonexistent, really.
I won’t even try to transcribe what the taxi driver said to me as we neared my street. I hadn’t the slightest clue what he’d said. It could have been three sentences, or one very long, consonant-heavy word. I just assumed he was asking about my address, so I reminded him of the name of my street and the number. The number’s pronounced “sedem naisset,” which means “seventeen.” It’s the only number I know how to say besides “one” – and even that has three mysterious forms: feminine, masculine and neutral. So it’s safe to say that the day when I’ll be able to count from 1 to 17 in Bulgarian without sounding like a severe brain injury victim might be in the very distant future.
With a combination of pointing and making English noises, I asked the chain-smoking, full-Puma-sweatsuited taxi driver to stop one block away from my apartment so I could hit the local mini-market. I said “Merci” to the driver because that’s what Bulgarians have adopted for “Thank you.” I never thought a French word would ever fall into my comfort zone, but it has.
I went to the market not out of necessity, but because sometimes it brings me an odd joy. For one, it is familiar yet foreign and reminds me that I’m completely illiterate here – I can’t even begin to decode Cyrillic – which kind of amuses me (so far). My internal laughter almost makes its way to the surface when I see the cheap prices ("Numbers, yes, the universal language. I can understand numbers!"). And a part of me still enjoys the primitiveness and mystery of relying solely on visual recognition of a product, with the images on the packaging playing a crucial role. If I have no particular groceries to buy, then I usually go straight to the beer section and peruse. And that’s exactly what I did.
Staropramen, Kamenitza, Ariana, Schumensko – they are Czech and Bulgarian beers all well under a dollar for a 20-ounce bottle. I didn't even end up drinking one that night, but I bought all four because it’s the deal of the century and money is still Monopoly-like to me. I'm also slowly stocking up because they tell me winter comes fast and hard in this country and I want to be ready (being from California, I don't know what a true winter is, and it kind of scares me).
As I made it back to the mini-checkout counter, I noticed that the aisles were well stocked and the market was new, stylish and clean – not at all what I had imagined in a former Soviet country. No stark sacks of potatoes. No shortages. No one named Olga offering warm milk, stale bread or rancid government beef from behind a warped linoleum countertop. On the contrary, I could have stumbled into this market in any upscale community in the U.S. It could’ve been a gourmet corner market in Beverly Hills, beside the fact that almost everything was in Cyrillic.
That’s when I got a timely text from my girlfriend. Her message asked if I could buy toilet paper on the way home because we’d run out. I might not speak the language here, but I’ve already discovered that aromatic toilet paper is the rule rather than the exception in Bulgaria.
With only a few choices, I grabbed a cinnamon-scented four-pack. I think it’s a nice idea – flavored toilet paper –except that after wiping your ass it’s more likely to smell like cinnamon cloves that a dog just took a shit in rather than what the packaging promises – or what I imagine it says.
Remember, I can’t read it. I can only deduce from the pictures and by smelling through the plastic packaging.
I went to the counter and was greeted by an indifferent checkout lady – an apparent holdover from the Communist era. She had on a headscarf, a matronly white blouse and a green apron. She asked me something that I guessed, from limited experience, was about whether I wanted to buy a plastic grocery bag or not. I nodded and said "Yes," forgetting that “Yes” is “Da” in these parts and that head-nodding means “No” here. So I tried it again, pretending the first take didn’t happen. I smiled at her and said “Da” and tried my best not to move my head.
I felt retarded. To call me "a bit slow" would be an understatement.
The lady gave me an unmistakable look that said "You’re a damn fool," but it could’ve been for a number of reasons. For one, there was the language thing. And I was still smiling a big dumb smile and nodding my head. Also, I had just unnecessarily spent 10 cents on a bag to carry four beers and a small pack of toilet paper while I had a perfectly functional backpack strapped to my shoulders. Very Americanski, I thought – wasteful, clueless, and showing no effort to learn their language. As she said goodbye I wondered if she envisioned my stay in her country as nothing more than an English-speaking, beer-drinking, cinnamon crap-taking jaunt.
As I walked on the uneven sidewalk back to my apartment, I saw an opportunity to practice the Bulgarian ways. I tried to say “Da” and shake my head for a Bulgarian “yes,” but my brain couldn’t handle doing both simultaneously. I attempted it the opposite way – nodding while saying “Ne” for “no” – but it was just as hard. Then I realized that I might look like a bona fide lunatic – shaking and nodding my head and talking to myself as I walked down this street in the center of Sofia.
I was going up the stairs to my third floor apartment when I realized I was whistling the intro to “Wind of Change.” I guess that’s what happens here in Bulgaria. Songs get stuck in your head that you haven’t heard for twenty years. They sounded cheesy twenty years ago and they sound even worse now. I could blame the radio DJs and the Cold War, but at least they’re playing familiar tunes. They’re in English. I can understand them. So, as much as I want to, I can’t really complain about Survivor or The Scorpions being overplayed.
As a monolingual, illiterate Americanski, I need to take what I can get in the land of Bulgarski – whether it’s off the Rocky IV soundtrack or cinnamon-flavored toilet paper.