ESCAPE FROM BUCHAREST
After making my swift exit from the decrepit delights of Bucharest, I had eight hours of train travel ahead of me. I first had to change trains in Ruse, just over the Bulgarian border. As soon as I stepped off the train, I was surrounded by Gypsies and sly Taxi Drivers (hard to say which is worse), hassling me for money! I had to get back on the train until the Police cleared me a path, although I'm certain they were also angling for a kickback!
It was a 2 hour wait for my connecting train, and when it did arrive, the train was going to BAPHA…which I had to guess was Cyrillic for VARNA. There was no one to ask, so I ran with it. If only I could guess Lotto numbers with the same success rate.
I shared my six seat cabin with an odd Bulgarian man. His eyes would dart between my eyes, and my luggage. At one stage, he got up to speak to the conductor in the corridor (out of ear shot), whilst side glancing at me. A slight concern, to say the least, particularly when he slipped the conductor some money. My grip on my belongings tightened! However he was off at the next station, and the cabin became my very own lair!
WELCOME TO VARNA
It was great to finally make it to the coast of the Black Sea coast! I checked into my hostel, which was a small 16-bed place with a collection of English, Ukrainians and Canadians. It wasn't long before we were out on the town, a great way to finish a long day of commuting.
The next day, the whole hostel spent the day together on the beach, concurrently sweating out vodka and also getting a tan. It was my first time on any beach in two years, and it felt good. Whether this is because the air was fresh, the water warm and the sun shining…or because beers on the beach were 60 cents, I am not sure, I just knew I had to stay. I asked for a job 32 seconds after coming to this realisation. The answer was, “yes, when can you start?”
What was my daily routine in Varna? Wake up in a cold sweat, trying to shake the iron grip of Bulgarian vodka. Work for four hours (which generally involved sleeping on the couch). Hit the beach to refresh and energise myself. Reacquaint ourselves with the Bulgarian vodka.
Of course, there was slightly more to it. I have a myriad of tasks, ranging from observing Randy from the balcony (the male stray cat of the yard). He would generally shag 5-6 felines per shift. The other key task was trying to master the A Major chord on the out of tune communal guitar.
Every now and again someone knocks on the door, and you need to check in a new guest. I generally welcomed them with an out of tune A Major chord. Also known as an A Minor chord.
Varna really is like no other place I have been. In an effort to blend in, I attempted learning the language. I mastered the Cyrillic alphabet. I was rapt, I was able to read all the words, problem was, those words were still unfamiliar. It was like there were two barriers for the language, and I'd scaled the first fence, the alphabet. If it were a fence, it was only a foot high!
Living in Varna was quite a satisfying experience however, and allowed me to achieve a goal of living in a foreign speaking environment.
I managed to join a gym with one of my room-mates in Varna. We never really fit in for a variety of reasons. One: we wore shoes. Two: we wore pants. Three: we wore T-Shirts. Four: we did not wear tight Speedo’s. Five: we did not stop everything and dance and sing to the latest Bulgarian pop tune when it come over the radio. Yes, we were the Gym outcasts! The ring leader, who can only be described as ‘Meatball in Speedos’, was glad to get rid of the clothed intruders, so he could continue to train the next generation of Bulgaria's budding mafiosi coming through the ranks.
UNIQUE TO VARNA
Varna is totally controlled by the Bulgarian mafia, who have their HQ in Varna. They control all the big money spinners, the nightclubs, restaurants, hotels, real estate, drugs, and of course, how can we forget, they also run all the ice cream vendors! This is particularly cut throat, where they demand all vendors sell their ice cream at $1.30 per 100 grams…or else…(I’m guessing their best move is to unplug the freezer)…
The mafia own the building the hostel is in. The hostel owner meets them in a café each month to give them rent, of which they provide a receipt for half that amount! They launder the rest! In essence, they ‘own’ the hostel, and so I can establish that I therefore was ‘working’ for the mafia. How glamourous! I'm the Tony Soprano of the hostel game.
While the mafia are not a problem, it’s the mafia wannabes that can be trouble. You can spot them with their cheap market rings, henchmen struts, Godfather ringtones, and crooked “fashionable” mullets. We have had run-ins with these phonies! One of my friends had a gun pulled on him over an argument about a stool (the kind you sit on that is), and I even had one come up to me and punch me repeatedly in the chest. It was a blessing in disguise however, as I had had chicken wings for dinner, and one was lodged in my left wind pipe, so he was able to dislodge it with his blows…I thanked him and left.
There are thousands of stray dogs and cats in Varna. The dogs are the next in line from the Mafia, in the Varna hierarchy. The dogs are all tagged and super friendly. Our special dog was #563...or Samson, as we called him. He would follow us everywhere at night. He would even wait outside the bars for us, hours on end. He was a good dog until the incident (sigh). He got some gum stuck to his belly, and to his face. We all instantly knew this was the end of a beautiful friendship, and struck up a friendship with a new dog, a better dog, a cleaner dog….Blackie (although he had a slight limp, so we didn't keep him around for long)
MAKING ENDS MEET
Bulgaria is the second cheapest country in Europe. While I was only getting a free bed for my “job”, the cost of everything else was minimal. Beers are $1 a pint (for something decent), or $3 for a big 3L bottle (of something rank and undrinkable). I usually went for the latter option. Of course when beer had lost its lustre, Vodka was always there. At $12 a litre for Flirt Vodka, this powerful stuff would always ensure a swaying night. The day after a night on the vodka would generally involve scrubbing footprints off the ceiling, putting the fourth leg back on the table, erasing video memory cards and repairing the light shade after its function as a Tarzan rope the previous night.
My time in Varna eventually came to an end. It is good to be on the move again, and if I had my time over again, I wouldn’t change a thing…well, maybe my socks and jocks.