What really startled me is that I didn’t hear them coming. And neither did the dog. Before I knew it, I had a Kalashnikov muzzle on my temple. I felt it, hard, before I heard. It was Bulgarian, I guess, but I knew what it meant: “Don’t move!” So I sat still.
It was a nice evening in the Balkans. Cold war wasn’t far but there was spring in the air. I was sitting in a city park and, until then, I was pretty happy with myself in Sofia.
I had arrived that day in Sofia, capital city of Bulgaria, from Skopje, then in Yugoslavia. I had found an easy parking in what looked like downtown, yet I was still nowhere I could think of and I soon found out that nobody there spoke any English or German or French. Not a word. Not ‘bonjour’ or ‘voulez-vous coucher avec moi ce soir’ or ‘Tschüss’. I spoke no Russian and no fucking Bulgarian and signed language seemed foreign to them.
What puzzled me though was that nobody, and I mean NOBODY, would even try to talk to me. From as far as these people would see me catching their eyes, I would see fear and no alternative but. And when I tried to talk to them, they’d wave me off.
Shit, as far as I was concerned, I was just looking for a place to eat something, drink a beer and meet locals. But no, not a hello, not a smile. Nobody to say anything to me so I don’t even remember what time it was.
Lucky it was spring and the air had a quality I had never breathed before. Anyway I had to think because the sun was going its course and I hadn’t yet found a bar or anything even close to a hospitable place. Where in hell was I? Sofia for Christ’s sake!
So, I thought, Bulgaria is a socialist country. We’re talking cold war socialism. Algeria, since its independence from France in 1962, was also socialist. Algerians speak French. I’m in Sofia, Bulgaria, there had to be Algerians.
I was downtown so I looked for the Algerian embassy or Algerian Airlines. I knew the colors of the flag. Found the airline first. I walked in there and, sure enough, everyone was speaking French.
All right then, they gave me a map of the city and told me where I could go get a drink.
Later, at sunset, in the one and only local bar – by the look of the customers, an apparatchiks’ bar for sure – I had a chance to speak for a few minutes with a young woman. Enough minutes to have a quick drink and check her out.
She said she was studying medicine, thus her need to speak different languages. She did speak some French and liked art and had knowing taste. She was pretty too. She had a short maroon skirt, a white blouse and a red scarf and she looked like a perfect party volunteer of sorts, unless it was only disguise. In any case she was sweet. She even suggested a romantic empathy for Paris while having quick little thrills of a life she would likely never know (she thought then).
She was courageous enough to have been seen speaking with me but she was gone quickly enough, not without giving me an address where she said I could spend my first night in Sofia. Back then, you just didn’t show up in Sofia and look for a hotel, neither Hilton nor Super 8 motel. Tourism was not a word.
So I went to that address and knocked on some dimly lit door. Above, in Slavic, some sorry neon lights said something I didn’t understand but I knew it spelled something like ‘Youth Hostel of the Braves’ or ‘The Braves’ relay of the long haul’ or ‘Hail to Stalin’.
A huge blonde, middle age, registered me. The white blouse holding her breasts was screaming for help. She didn’t look nice. Then again, all she saw at her desk were guys coming from Poland, Lithuania or somewhere, and going to Montenegro or Macedonia or somewhere, all knocking at her door. So a French one here or there, even if that’s the first one she ever saw, what did she care? For all she knew I was just one of them assholes and it was not a skinny one like me that was going to impress her any. Much less getting into her pants.
I actually remember wondering later, with respect, who could be the party member getting into those pants. I mean she was a huge woman, not obesebut tall and big, huge. And mean the way she ruled that place. At 10 pm sharp, she’d turn the lights off.
So there I was, in a room of four – two bunks of two – with Yugoslavians and Polacks in between two trains. They didn’t know what to make of me and they didn’t ask questions. I didn’t either. So I was reading a book or taking notes when, at precise 10 pm, BAM, lights OFF! The mean blonde’s lawful strike.
“Good night,” I said always in Yugoslavian. Nobody ever answered.
6 am, lights ON!
With the CLARON! You know, how the braves go to hell singing patriotic communists songs through the speakers to cheer up every one, at 6 am!
I had no train to take, nowhere to go, I was in no hurry. The Yugoslavians and Polacks were already gone. Yet, I too had to get out of there and start my day at six fucking o’clock in the morning, not knowing for sure where and when I’ll be having breakfast. And what kind of breakfast! Much less coffee.
Anyway, I couldn’t anticipate that the huge blonde did indeed take notice of me. Maybe it was out of pity, maybe it was because of the dog. Maybe she just couldn’t believe her luck but I got ‘lucky’ somehow: I got to keep my bunk from one night to the next although that was STRICKLY forbidden. So I stayed there.
She’d set me up with Georgians, Armenians or guys from somewhere in Siberia, people I could have some conversation with, so to speak. I could tell they were from somewhere and I guess they could tell the same thing about me. No one asked questions. They never stayed more than one night.
The blonde – she had to have had a name back then, now that I think of it – was the only woman I ever saw in there and she had this huge breasts and that mean Russian look and I was skinny and NOT thinking about anything, please help me God!
I was the only one giving her a smile in the morning.
The fear in the eyes of others was still there, every day, but my lasting unexplained presence, having breakfast every day at about the same time for example, made it OK for the Bulgarians to eventually begin to talk to me. For a good reason: if I was there every day, it was possible only with some kind of authorization. Therefore, it became fair to talk to me. And that’s how I learned the Bulgarian’s way of going about and later was able to travel in Bulgaria pretty much as I pleased.
Anyway, this was the day I arrived in Sofia. Thanks to the Algerians and this sweet girl and a weird blonde, I knew where I was going to spend the night. By then Yugoslavians and Polacks had their bed made. Everything was cool so I took the dog out for a walk. And there, in the square, that nice spring breeze was still in the air and I was enjoying a smoke, thinking I’d soon be sleeping with the braves.
That’s when I didn’t hear them coming and felt a Kalashnikov on my head.
Some fuck I couldn’t look at was screaming, in Bulgarian, at me. There were two of them. Young kids, scared. Shit, what the fuck was this shit? The muzzle hurt.
I eventually managed to let them know I was staying at the hostel right there and just having a smoke. They must have thought I was Georgian or Armenian or from somewhere and that explained it all. Fact is, they eventually relaxed. They told me it was forbidden to smoke in the square at night, that’s why they were leery of me. It took me a while to understand and realize that NOBODY was in the park because there was hardly ANYBODY outside. You were supposed to be home and sleeping I guess.
So I told them, in Armenian, that I was sorry for the misunderstanding.
I went back to my room. I was on one of the top bunks, where the light was. Getting set for my first night in Bulgaria, it worried me that neither the dog nor I heard those cops coming. They crept on me and I didn’t know squat until I had the nose of that gun on my head. They must have been good.
Still, what the fuck was wrong with these guys in this country that they felt the need to pull out a machine gun on a sucker like me? One wrong move from a nervous Bulgarian rookie and I was toast. To this day, I’m glad the dog stayed cool.
It didn’t matter really. The Yugos were talking among themselves, the Polack keeping to himself.
And, before I knew it, BAM, 10 pm, lights out!
The blonde was cutting all of our dicks off and tomorrow was another train.
New edit of this story first published exactly a year ago.