|I’d never really heard much about Bulgaria before I went there. It wasn’t exactly hot on my list of places to go, it sat more with Moldova and Latvia – places to go when you’ve run out of destinations to visit, or, killed your wife with an axe. We checked in to a quaint little backpackers with wooden bunks and a communal living and dining room. The owners were a married couple and for eight bucks a night we got a bed, dinner and a beer.
This was by far the most colourful hostel we’d been to in terms of the guests. Given the size and structure of the place you were forced to talk to everyone either in the dining room, at the showers or possibly because they were in the same room as you. At the centre of the circus was a guy that couldn’t be missed. Tanned, tattooed and chain smoking in the corner while watching repeats of Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous. He looked like Tommy Lee without snake skin jeans. We sat with him after spending most of the day asleep and he stared at us before deciding to tell us about his life. We weren’t overly interested but considering he looked like he was planning on beating someone later on we decided to get on his good side. He had been at the hostel for 18 months which explained why he was part of the furniture. His name was Kole, with a ‘K’, only it wasn’t his real name. His real name was the same as a pilot from the 30’s. That was all he’d give us apart from the fact that Kole was just the pseudo name he used as he was an actor, or as I believed, one of the axe murderers I’d referred to earlier. Had we seen him any films? No, not unless we’d seen any hard core porn lately.
Nope, don’t believe I had.
Kole was just chilling out in Bulgaria while waiting for his big break back into Hollywood. In the dining room were two English women in their forties playing cards. They were on a girls week together and planning on running wild, English style it would seem. We realised later that they really just hated their husbands and were looking for an escape. One of the more normal guests was Lee, a solid Asian with long thick hair. He was just in Bulgaria to check it out, making him the safest option to stick along side. The rest of the bunch was fairly run of the mill. Given that it was a small place and we’d all been forced to get to know one another we decided that we were all going to go out on the town that evening. After spending our first night walking the streets and getting yelled at by street guards for trying to cross the road to get to McDonalds, not realising we had to walk the block and double back (could Eastern Europe be any weirder) we were up for some fun. We decided that we’d start with drinking games at the hostel and then Kole would take us to some of his local haunts, including the Playboy Bar. I wondered if Heff would be there in his silk robe, or maybe just a fat Bulgarian man in terry-cloth.
We set out to winder the streets for some lunch and then some alcohol. A few blocks from our place we found a Chinese restaurant. It was empty. Did we dare break the international rules of dining? Rule one: eat where there are lots of people. Rule two: eat where it looks like the place would be required to purchase meat on at least a monthly basis; and Rule three: only eat at a Chinese restaurant if there are Chinese people eating there. My best friend taught me this and she’s Chinese, in case you were thinking I was some kind of racist. I’m not, so there. The restaurant we’d entered looked more like an abandoned RSL and the chef, owner and waiter was a Bulgarian man. Screw it, we sat down anyway. The menu was run of the mill – Sweet and Sour, Black Bean, Spring Rolls, Fried Rice – it was Chinese food alight. We decided to order a bunch of dishes and share and a round of Cokes. What was the worst that could happen? Diarrhoea, maybe chronic vomiting or eating deep fried rat. The food looked familiar when it arrived, like most of the Chinese meals in the world. We agreed to all take the plunge at once and bit in. Oh. My.God. I don’t know where this man learnt to cook but it was the best Chinese food we’d ever tasted. Unbelievable! We’d ordered way too much food but we ploughed through it, ordering more Cokes as we went. When we went to pay the bill it came to six dollars a head. And thus begins the story of how I got fat. More on that later.
After rolling out of the restaurant we went in search of alcohol. Eastern Europe is scarily cheap for booze. A litre of beer is two dollars, Vodka is a few dollars, and it turns out that in Bulgaria you can get a bottle of Cognac for two dollars. For some stupid reason Em decided that this was a good thing. Linx and I stuck to beer. The English women took control of the drinking games even though they weren’t drinking. We started with round of asshole which was OK but then they decided that we should play a game where everyone was dealt a card, and the person who pulls the highest card has to drink. Quick and no skill required. Poor Em. It was as if the night was stacked against her. After five rounds of her pulling a royal and working her way through the nasty Cognac I decided to shower. From the bathroom, with the water running I could still hear Em letting out a distressed moan every time she pulled yet again the highest card. By the time we were ready to go she’d almost gone through the bottle. We went straight to the Playboy bar given it was getting late. It was situated inside a hotel and required us to walk through a metal detector in order to enter. Classy. We walked through with ease, no weapons to speak of. Remember how I said Kole looked like he was out to beat someone? I was right. H=When he walked through the arch it set off like an dog at the airport that’s found a banana in a hand bag. I imagined he’d probably have a pocket knife, which he did. Maybe some knuckle dusters; he did. They weren’t done though, as if that wasn’t enough. Next he proceeded to pull a chain out of his pocket. Now I don’t mean the kind of chain you use to link your keys to your pants. Not the kind you’d use to hang planters from a balcony either. In fact you wouldn’t use this sort of chain for much other than tugging a semi trailer behind a freight train. It was massive. I don’t even know how he had it tucked into his pants. While this alone was disturbing, we were all somewhat alarmed when he got the nod and was handed back all of his metal gear. It seemed that so long as you were carrying a gun you were clear. Excellent, we were officially out with a psycho. We entered the club and started to look around for Kendra, Holly and Brigit. They unfortunately weren’t there. They were most likely out eating Chinese, or maybe in LA at the real mansion. It was anyones guess really. The bar was in fact empty. We stayed for one drink before pressing on. Our next stop was a little bar with a few patrons, again, nothing exciting. It looked like everyone had decided to stay in and we hadn’t got the memo.
By two a.m. we were over it and called it a night.
The next day bore a pretty good reflection on the night that had been. I don’t think I’ve ever seen someone with a hangover as dire as Ems. I could literally see the pain throbbing from her head. We were all really surprised – usually two dollar booze was high quality. Being a trooper though Em decided to come out with us for some site seeing. We were running low on cash so the first port was foreign exchange. We headed down the main street until we came along a little booth offering currency. Linx and I crammed into the small shop with Em choosing to stay out on the street for fear of throwing up. Inside was a counter protected by a security screen leaving about a metre for us to occupy in front of the closed door. Behind the counter stood a woman who said nothing when we arrived. We handed over our cash and the lady dealt back the equivalent in Bulgarian Lev. Set to leave Linx noticed that we were short a fair amount. Being the ignorant waywards we protested politely.
“Excuse me, this isn’t enough...not enough...do you speak English?”
The girl just shook her head and turned away. Given that she had nowhere to go, she just faced the wall.
“No, look. You haven’t given us enough. Do-you-understand-me?”
While Linx tried to haggle I heard a little tap on the glass. I turned to see Em, face to the glass with a large burley Bulgarian man in a leather cap standing up against her, staring me and Linx down. Em pointed up at the man and shook her head. I then realised we were stuck inside the booth between the woman and the goon. The cashier hadn’t made a mistake she knew exactly what she was doing. With the options appearing to be leaving defeated or being buried under a car park, we left defeated with half the money we’d gone in with. Travel tip – only get your money exchanged at internationally recognised agents, banks or hotels. Try to avoid the booth guarded by Tony Soprano.
The next few days revolved around Chinese food and Beer until one sunny day it was time to leave. We were ready to go to Turkey. We approached the owner of our hostel, a gentle but giant man and asked him which bus we needed to get to the bus station for our voyage, which left in around forty minutes. He looked at us like we were insane and went into the panic mode when we handed him our tickets.
“Quick, we go now!”
We all piled into the Worlds smallest car, a red box on wheels and set out on a terror ride through the streets of Bulgaria. We weren’t really sure what was going on, how far the train was and whether the urgency suggested we were racing against time. When he started driving the wrong side of the road up a tram track we decided that this was the case. We clung to the chairs, digging out nails into the upholstery. Granted I wanted to get to Turkey, but preferably with all of my limbs intact. When we finally came to halt at the train station he turned with a smile.
“Here you go.”
We fell out of the little clown car and made our way to the bus. Turkey, here we come! Gobble-gobble.