David Clark: A Traveller’s tale

I listen to people’s travel stories with some reservations. “Yes I’ve been to that country’’. “I went to Rome, I saw the Colosseum! I went to Athens, I saw the Parthenon! I went to India and saw the Taj Mahal!’’

Very interesting, I’m sure, but did you meet any of the real people, did you break bread with a local, did you travel on a normal train or bus (not the Orient Express). Did you speak to people working in the fields. No? Well you are a tourist, but definitely not a traveller. You can only speak of your “travels” as thousands – millions can.

When once I missed my internal flight in Romania and had to go by train, I wasn’t upset or sorry, I looked forward to the adventure. I was going to see how the local people travelled, see how they coped and hear their stories.

As it happened, I got into a carriage with a bunch of Roma boys, who were off to Bucharest to sell their home-produced wine. The long journey turned into somewhat of a party and a conversation, somewhat limited by language, about football. Well, they provided me with bread, cheese and drink, but sad to say, quite a bit of their wine didn’t survive, but what a way to pass a journey!

I’ve stopped off in villages while driving through Bulgaria on the byways, gone to the local shop, sat in the shade, while watching donkeys and carts, the rough-and-tumble of country life, and on one memorable occasion, helped a lady to write a letter to her wealthy cousin, asking for help to re-build their jointly owned house, which had suffered a catastrophe in a recent violent storm.

There were onion sellers, rakiya sellers, fruit sellers, little cafés, with tables outside in the shade. You could buy a rug, a piece of pottery or just eat at a takeaway, or at the kebapcheta stall. Journeys were interesting, passing through small towns and villages, carts on the roads, sheep with shepherds. I could go on and on, but as John Steinbeck in Travels with Charley said about motorways, and I agree: “You can now drive across the country in a few short hours, without seeing a damn thing,’’

Here’s one story, mentioned above, written about “side road travels’’:

It’s a long and winding road from Sofia to Varna, especially for children, and with a two-and-a-half-year-old daughter who travels badly and wants to run and play, it can seem as though the car is a never-ending prison.

Among other strategic stops, we had taken to stopping at a small traditional village just off the main highway, as they have a nice little children’s playground in the main square and a little shop selling basic needs, complete with shady benches outside, for those wishing to take light, or heavy, refreshment.

Slipping off the highway along the pot-holed and bumpy road, we entered another world of bygone times. We parked in the shade of some large old trees. All was tranquility, with only the singing of the birds and the rattle and clip-clop of a horse-drawn cart to disturb the peace.

Galya went into the garden, so that our daughter could play on the swings, while I strolled round the semi-deserted square to stretch my legs. I love this old square, with its quaint old shops, mostly boarded up and deserted now. My imagination conjured up more prosperous times, when the village was thriving and people regularly criss-crossed the square for their everyday needs and to exchange news and gossip with their fellow villagers and neighbours.

This square has probably witnessed the fight for release from the Ottoman Empire, the rise and fall of communism, the festivals, happiness and sadness, births, deaths and marriages of a close-knit community and sadly of late, the demise of village life.

Now the young people escape the hard village life and migrate to the cities to search for employment and the fast life, as soon as they are able. Only the old people sit on the benches, chat and dream of the good times past and still tend to the animals and land, as they always have done.

They are slowly but surely fading away, leaving once thriving villages, deserted and silent.

The square now sleeps in the summer sun, perhaps awaiting its next big event. As I stroll, I dream of seeing this square re-populated with little antique shops, gift shops, village foods and wines. Umbrellas fluttering outside street cafés, the hub-bub of tourists. Small hotels and guest houses. New employment for the villagers, life again for the square.

I was quickly awoken from my reverie, when to my horror I came to one of my favourite buildings and one end of it had completely collapsed. I was just puzzling what had caused this, seeing that the building was still occupied and that the broken half was only supported by building props, when out of a door came a plump middle-aged woman, accompanied by an old baba (grandma) dressed in her traditional village dress and headscarf.

The woman greeted me, “Dobur den, az sum Syarka“, then started chattering away to me, gesticulating wildly in the direction of the building. With my limited Bulgarian, I gathered that she was talking about the collapse and the fact that she didn’t have any money to repair it: ‘Oh moyat Bulgarski ne e dobur, moment moment, jena mi Bulgarka’ (‘My Bulgarian’s pathetic, hang on a mo’, my wife’s Bulgarian‘ – and I went to fetch Galya).

Syarka crossed her hands over her ample bosom and cried “God has sent you to me” and began to regale Galya with the full details of the collapse, telling a harrowing story of how the end of the house had been carried away by a deluge of water, caused by the huge rainstorms which had lashed the country recently. That particular half of the house had been occupied by some people who had recently returned to Bulgaria after living abroad and whose daughter was living in America. The daughter had made a visit earlier this year, but only spoke English.

‘So now God has sent you to me, will you write her a letter in English, asking for help?” sobbed Syarka. Galya, somewhat surprised by all this, readily agreed. She turned to me: “‘I will go to their house to write the letter. Meanwhile the Baba will take you and Alice for a walk down the village street to see the animals and flowers”.

After a while, laden with fruit and vegetables given to us in greeting by other villagers, we came back to the house and were promptly invited inside to drink a coffee. Brushing aside the hanging fly screen, we stumbled into the the darkened interior and entered a typical old village house.

A place clean and orderly, of course; we had to take off our shoes at the door, but it was full of character, old fashioned and basic, with beds and dining table in the same room, but with that warm homely countryside feel.

The chocolates came out, and the pot was soon steaming on the stove. The coffee, in best Sunday cups, was served by the “boy’’, aged about 40, who had appeared from his work in the fields.

Galya had written the letter on a piece of faded paper, hastily torn from an old notebook. To Patty, pleading for financial help. The letter had been written as Syarka dictated, but Galya advised her not to be too vague and to ask for a specific sum, also giving Patty an idea of what was involved.

Maybe $1000 would do the job, mused Syarka, but after muttered discussions between the boy and Baba, they all eventually agreed.

A coy smile crossed Syarka’s homely, weather-lined face and she said. “No let’s ask for $2000, just to be sure, you know”.

Well – I couldn’t have got this story from the Magistrala!

(Photo: Irina Ignatova)

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David Clark

David Clark is a retired businessman and sometime writer. Lived in Bulgaria for 15 happy years, married to a Bulgarian journalist. Currently in the UK.