“Where do you think we are supposed to try them on?” Kathy held up a red, lacy bra, curious about the location of a changing room. We stood in the middle of the Eagle Bridge crowded with pedestrians rushing between downtown, the train, and the bus stations. After six weeks in Bulgaria, Kathy and I escaped from Peace Corps language training for a weekend to explore Sofia. We just passed our “travel language” test and wanted to test out our skills in the big city. We navigated the purchase of train tickets and checked into the hotel with ease. As city girls, Kathy from New York, me from Chicago, and we wanted to wander the streets of the capital to see what Sofia had to offer — especially in the way of window shopping.
We quickly learned the answer to Kathy’s question when we saw a middle-aged woman with red hair trying on a black push-up over her clothes. “I am not sure that is going to be an accurate fit,” I blurted out, and we both break into teenage giggles. We enjoyed being away from the other fifty volunteers and having a little anonymity in a big city.
We found out the grocery stores and restaurants didn’t offer any more variety than where we lived, and the Central Department Store (TsUM) mostly sold large appliances. The sheer number of street vendors astounded us — but not as much as the variety of their stock. We adored the babas (grandmas) selling communist propaganda and paraphernalia near the church. Although we didn’t pay to stand on a scale in the town square, we loved that woman tried to diversify her business, so we bought geranium leaves to secure a little extra “good health.” But the man hocking bras on the bridge stood out as our favorite. Throughout our meanderings, our best find was the book bazaar near the McDonalds which sold exactly that — Bulgarian books, German books, English books, school books, computer books, English classics translated into Bulgarian, Bulgarian classics being rediscovered by the next generation, trashy novels, coloring books, dictionaries, and on and on. Over the next two years, this square block of books would bring us hours of joy.
On that first trip, we tested our language skills, sounding out the names of authors in Cyrillic to identify those we knew. “Tell me if you find Stephen King!” Kathy shouted across two tables of books stacked chest high. “It’s my host-brother’s favorite.”
“Ok, and you need to keep an eye out for The Little Prince.” The children’s book by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry is my “go-to” book when I study a new language. The writing is simple and I know the story by heart, so I can focus on learning the new vocabulary.
More importantly, my favorite line, “What is essential is invisible to the eye,” also epitomizes what I look for in every country I visit. When traveling, it’s easy to see the noticeable differences, for example, selling bras on street corners. The obvious distinction is not what defines a culture, it’s what lies beneath the surface that matters most.
By early evening, we began to panic because we had not found a place to buy cigarettes all day. “No, we could have stopped at that first place,” Kathy reminded me.
“At those prices! You know we had to look around more. That was twice what we usually pay. And who knew it would be the only place to buy them all day?”
“Or that we wouldn’t be able to find our way back there, I mean, it’s not that difficult a city to naviga — ” I turned to see what interrupted Kathy’s sentence to find her on the ground.
Sidewalks in Sofia presented a challenge to tourists. Constructed out of octagonal cement bricks about 10 inches long, they fitted together in an attractive pattern. But after the fall of communism, nothing had been fixed, and by the time we arrived in the late 1990s, the sidewalks were very uneven. This forced tourists to choose between looking down to avoid tripping or looking up to see the sites.
Kathy and I mainly chose “up,” which meant we tripped a lot. So, when Kathy took another tumble, we looked back to see the size of the offending brick. We discovered a person instead, squatting and talking into a hole in the base of the building, utterly unphased by having been tripped over.
“Viktori byalo I botilka Kamenitsa,” we heard the well-dressed man order cigarettes and a bottle of beer.
“What the…” exclaimed Kathy as she couldn’t figure out why he was talking to an opening in the wall and seemed oblivious to the fact that he had so rudely tripped her. A bodiless hand emerged from the “window,” and the man offered a pile of faded bills to pay. The hand retracted into the hole and shortly returned with what the man had ordered.
Kathy had stumbled onto, quite literally, the cigarette store which we had been looking for all day. Still crouching, as she had not quite stood fully up from the fall, Kathy squat-walked closer to the hole and peered inside. A tall, long-legged woman, her knees were almost at her ears in her squat, as she gingerly began speaking into the void, inquiring about cigarettes. After a couple of seconds, Kathy stood up triumphantly with a pack in hand.
“Success!” She packed the cigarettes into the palm of her hand before opening the box and handing me one.
I lit her cigarette. “What else is there?”
“It’s a convenience store. Cigarettes, water, candy bars, chips, it’s like 7–11, but you need to squat!”
We eventually learned these stores sprang up in the basements that the babas cleared out to sell their wares near the cathedral. “Squatter stores” continued to be one of my favorite personality traits of Sofia. Unfortunately, over the years, as the rule of law became the norm, the number of squatter stores dwindles with every visit I make. I know they will eventually disappear, but it is hard to imagine a Sofia that doesn’t afford the opportunity to squat and scream through a tiny window in order to buy impulse items.
Now nicotined-up, Kathy and I continued to wander downtown Sofia, and take in the eclectic architecture made up of a mix of Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian influences. We, literally, followed the yellow-brick road around the most important sites. A gift to the people of Bulgaria in the early 1900s from the Hapsburgs, yellow ceramic bricks mark the path from Alexander Nevski (the national cathedral), around several famous Russian and Bulgarian Orthodox churches, and even the Bulgarian Parliament. Although dangerously slippery during the rain, the yellow brick road is one of the most unique and endearing traits of the capital city. The men, young and old, who lined the yellow brick road selling art, candy, old cameras, and ceramic dishes gave us the hard sell as we passed, thinking we were gullible tourists. We enjoyed surprising them as we practiced saying, “No, thank you, just looking,” in Bulgarian over and over.
Around the corner from the book bazaar, on a quiet side street, we found a vendor who would become a must-see on most of our future trips to Sofia. “Check this out!” I exclaimed, showing Kathy a copy of Pink Floyd’s The Wall.
“I don’t get it.”
“Look, it’s got the wrong songs! ‘Money’ is on Dark Side of the Moon.” Although I am incredibly humored, Kathy blew me off and continued to rifle through the binders with covers of CD after CD. After China, Bulgaria in the 1990s was the biggest producer of pirated software and music in the world. “CD-guy” as we came to call him kept a simple space, not flashy, just a table with binders full of CD covers. Classical, pop, hard rock, techno… pages and pages and binders and binders. I identified ten CDs I wanted, even though I didn’t have a CD player. I knew at two dollars each I needed to stock up while I had the chance. I told “CD-guy” which albums I wanted, but instead of handing them to me, I was told, “Follow me.”
So we did. Kathy and I followed him down the street, past the other vendors of CDs, music, handicraft doilies, and basement junk. We followed him through an unlit passage into an alley. I saw the stairs at the end of the dark lane, and I looked at Kathy. Our eyes start having a conversation that went something like, Should we be doing this?
I don’t know, what do you think?
Not sure but I really want those CDs, don’t you?
Before we knew it, our eyes had continued to talk while our feet took us down the dark, dank stairs, around another corner, through a door into a boiler room. Every hair on my body stood up because I knew I was going to die unpleasantly, right then and there. And my mother would KILL me for dying in such a stupid fashion.
While I silently berated myself for what was about to be my untimely and completely avoidable early death, a single light switched on to illuminate the room. And it also lit up three Germans who had gotten there before us and were quickly snatching up all the good CDs. We forgot our fear because the delight of consumerism set in as Kathy and I rummaged through the piles of CDs.
I walked away with ten CDs that day. More importantly, I established a rapport with the first Bulgarian salesperson who would always smile a little when he saw me turn the corner onto his street. He knew I would be good for some ridiculous Bulgarian and about twenty bucks. I knew that he and his “invisible” CD collection, stored in a boiler room, as well as the “squatter stores” were essential parts of my Peace Corps experience. And proved The Little Prince’s point that sometimes what you cannot see about a new place, is the most important.
Originally posted on Medium
Includes professional topics, as well as thoughts about politics. I also keep a blog on Medium that includes these, as well as more personal posts.