Veliko Tarnovo (Days 51, 52)


"Do not search now for the answers, which cannot be given you, because you could not live with them. That is the point, to live everything. Now you must live your problems. And perhaps gradually, without noticing it, you will live your way into the answer some distant day ... Take what comes in complete trust, and, as long as it comes from your own will, from some need or other of your inner self, then take it for itself and hate nothing." — Rainer Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet

I returned to Provadia's jerkwater station about an hour later, a walking descent safer but slower than a falling one. Dripping of sweat and blood and smelling like it too, I used the last of my water sparingly to wash away the filth from my legs. I sat picking tiny prickly balls from my socks as the westbound train arrived, and rested well as we worked slowly toward Veliko Tarnovo, Bulgaria's old medieval capital.

The journey required a transfer. I stepped out onto the platform at Gorna Oryahovitsa and quickly bought a bag of chips, all I could find in short time and famished after my grueling morning. Rounding the corner, my eyes once again fell on the familiar faces of Claire and Ed. "I promise I'm not following you guys," I joked as they looked up and smiled.

They were, expectantly, looking to transfer to Veliko as well, so I led them to platform four and got to know them a little better on the way into town. When we arrived, I discovered with a small shock that we were not staying at the same hostel—our eastern Europe plans apparently diverging for a change—and said farewell to them with trust that I'd be seeing them again in time.

Meanwhile, I had a long, sweaty walk to my place for the night. The hostel hadn't recommended walking (calling the route "boring"), and it certainly started out that way, but before long the wooded road opened up onto a great panorama of the old city, a murky river far below and a spectacular fortress—much grander than Provadia's—just across the way. And everywhere in between, everywhere else the land would have it, small houses littered the steep landscape, tilted shelters all bundled together and spaced seemingly at random, as though someone had haphazardly thrown a great handful of little Monopoly houses onto a muddy mound and just let them settle where gravity would allow. The roads were all cobbled. Not cobbled in the way European city centers are often cobbled, with carefully cut stones laid all neatly next to one another, but truly cobbled, rounded rocks just piled all over to provide some traction down the dramatic descents and strenuous inclines. With the fortress in the background, the place felt more medieval than I thought possible, and I fell in love with the charm of the town before I even reached the hostel.

I'd had a long day, so after checking in and grabbing dinner in the kitchen with a woofer (I think this is the way to describe someone who apprentices on a farm, and not someone who is ugly; either way, I'm trying only for the former) from San Francisco—this hostel was near empty, so we were urged to help ourselves to the remaining six bowls and eight pints of lentil soup and Bulgarian beer—I called it an early night.


I woke late, well-rested, and could feel the heat of the day before even stepping outside. I'd hoped to be well clear of the south before the summer sun made it unbearable, but I was running behind schedule. With high noon still a few hours away, I headed quickly toward the Tsarevets Fortress, the veritable bread and butter of Veliko Tarnovo's tourism industry. As out-of-the-way as Bulgaria is for most European vacationers, even that great fortress was fairly calm, leaving the ruins of some four hundred houses and dozen churches, along with a medieval wall and its tall towers stretching along the whole thing, to myself and a few others. I wandered about for hours, slowly spiraling up the mound to its peak, atop which sat a humble cathedral with an unassuming facade.

I'd seen a great number of churches and cathedrals and basilicas and mosques and synagogues during my first two months in Europe, and hardly had the patience for one more. Beautiful as they were individually, one's collection of palaces of worship comes with diminishing returns, each additional sighting inherently less likely than the last to offer something new, unseen. And yet, stepping into that Patriarchal Cathedral of the Holy Ascension of God in Veliko Tarnovo, I was uniquely amazed.

Imagine a church. Nothing grand, just a pretty church. Now imagine a great street artist-turned-monk taking a can of spray paint to that church and covering its walls and its ceilings and its dome and its altar with an interrupted fresco, styled like a modern urban mural yet depicting sacred scenes from Bulgaria's pious past. Imagine the altar is not backed by Jesus dying on a cross, but by a monolith of Mary holding her baby boy, done up in that very same street-sense style. Imagine all that, and some subdued lighting, and you have the Patriarchal Cathedral of the Holy Ascension of God.

It's a mash-up of medieval and modern, but the capital-c Church doesn't like modern. Street art, like gays and condoms (and helocentricity), is too nontraditional for the holy hierarchy, so the frescoed cathedral, like gays and condoms (and, once upon a time, helocentricity), isn't tolerated by the church. As such, it runs like a museum, its only purpose to house one terrific work of art. I hardly minded.

Feeling great about the find atop the hill and the fortress at large, I headed back into the charming town and passed most of the day eating and drinking in the shade. I'd hoped to explore Veliko a little more before leaving, but it was still so very hot at sunset, so instead I walked to the train station a little earlier than planned and caught an earlier route back toward Romania. Though the route I'd chosen that morning left three hours later and asked one transfer less and arrived at Brasov at about the same time the next day, I didn't really mind the earlier, clunkier departure from the medieval capital: the extra three hours on the rails would give me time to write. I could always use time to write.

I left Veliko Tarnovo around eight and arrived at the Romanian border in the town of Ruse a little before eleven. My transfer didn't depart for another two hours, so I walked a bit into the dead city and sipped coffee at the first open cafe I could find, then headed back to the station earlier than needed to purchase a reservation for an overnight seat. The station was quiet, and I rapped tenderly on the ticket window to get the teller's attention. I had grown adept at charades while in Bulgaria—English so rarely spoken there—and pointed to my pass, then the word Brasov, and asked "reservation?" with an apologetic wince. She understood, and gave a half-nod-half-shrug-wave-of-the-hand that suggested what I'd learned elsewhere in Romania: reservations for the seats could be purchased, but weren't really needed.

Ah, terrific. I smiled and thanked her and looked up at the arrivals and departures board.

There's one thing I've forgotten to mention about Bulgaria: the language is written in Cyrillic. Cyrillic characters look a bit Greek, and don't really correspond neatly to Latin characters, so figuring out what was what during my time in Bulgaria had been fun, like cracking a code, trying to discover what characters stood in for what letters and sometimes getting it right, sometimes getting it wrong, but never with dire consequences. It was a little disorienting when navigating the rails—hence Ed and Claire's confusion back at our transfer to Veliko—because a place like Varna isn't written like Varna, but instead five foreign symbols with the second and the fifth glyph repeated, and therein lies the trick: looking for the congruities of words, which usually line up okay.

This game proved a little less fun near midnight, when my train to Brasov wasn't terminating in Brasov, and thus sat somewhere on the board with a whole different glyphed word, a word I didn't even know to look for. Puzzled, I instead searched for times that lined up, and with only one train setting sail at 12:40AM, felt confident I had found the one. Platform four, and it looked like it had already arrived for early boarding! It didn't leave for a while, so I was in no rush, but I liked the idea of settling in for bed on the train before it even left the station. I headed to platform four to do just that. I walked alongside the train looking for a car with seats—all I saw were couchettes, and I knew those required a reservation—and sensing my confusion, one of the conductors offered some help in Bulgarian.

More charades, less success. We mimed and muttered back and forth for a few minutes, and at a loss, the operator shepherded me over to a traincar with two of his colleagues smoking by the door. One of them spoke very limited English—I felt ridiculous for not learning more than three words in Bulgarian—and over the course of ten long, pained minutes, everything went from a little confusing to downright shit. The three Bulgarians—nay, I figured out later they were actually from Belarus—seemed very amused by my plight. They asked how much money I had, and I said none. This wasn't true (I had some cash on hand), but I didn't see much value in offering that information for a seat on a supposedly free train, and they shook their heads and said it would cost money and I shook my head and said—

Oh, actually, a word on that, this head-shaking business. Alyssa had informed me back in Varna that Bulgarians shake their head the other way around: up-down for no and left-right for yes. I'd read once that Albanians did it this way, and I found it fascinating, and though I believed Alyssa, I just physically couldn't manage it, so ingrained the up-down assent was to my western instincts. I'd been working on it (although I'd also learned that as globalization oozed into Bulgaria, natives had begun to abandon their custom in the presence of stark outsiders—in other words, if you shook your head up and down and looked like you hailed from outside the Balkans, they assumed you meant yes, even if you were trying to fit in with the locals), so during my conversation with the three conductors from Bulgaria-actually-Belarus, I was probably shaking my head as Bulgarians do, making our already difficult conversation all the more pained.

My head nodded, or shook, or whatever, and I chuckled at what I'd hoped was a joke, the most-English-speaking of the trio asking for twenty dollars for admittance to the train. "Trevo only stop in Brasov if you pay us," he said. It didn't seem like a joke. Angry, I thrust my phone at him, timetable for that very train open on the screen and my stop well-situated on that timetable. It didn't seem to matter. He wanted cash, and maybe he wanted it because there really were only beds inside, but when I asked if I should go buy a ticket from the woman behind the ticket desk, he said no, that they could handle the cash themselves.

I wanted to ask if they were looking for a bribe, if our barrier was linguistic or ethical, because I really wasn't sure. But as they continued to giggle amongst themselves, as I eventually learned that the train was headed to Belarus and was from Belarus and thus maybe wasn't subject to the benefits my interrail pass (which excluded Belarus), I retreated with a huff and wandered back inside.

The woman behind the ticket desk had pulled her blind low. She was finishing up some paperwork, by the looks of things, so I again rapped gently on the window—take your time. She wasn't particularly friendly the first time around, even less so this second time. She continued with her paperwork, hoping I'd go away, and when I didn't she slowly—oh so slowly—opened her window and waited for me to speak.

"Uh ... ticket ... to Brasov," I begged, at this point willing to pay a fee but not a bribe. She shook her head and crossed her palms against each other, signaling what I read to mean that there were no trains headed to Brasov that night. My timetable said otherwise, and so had she a few hours earlier. "Brasov," I repeated, and pointed at the naked spot on my wrist where a watch might sit. Again, she shook her head.

I began to panic. Once more I retreated to the flipboard. Okay, I figured, that jumble of characters departing at 12:40 means Minsk—it's headed to Belarus. I scanned my mental map and then scanned a real map and confirmed what I knew to be true: Bucharest, Brasov, these places were directly on the way to Minsk. Minsk couldn't be reached without passing through them, and surely, if not Brasov, that long train must have a scheduled stop in Bucharest. With a renewed sense of confidence, I returned to the platform. No luck. The doors had all shut and the operators were nowhere to be found, and the last thing I needed was to find myself in cuffs for jumping aboard an Eastern European train without a ticket. I spun in circles, searching for a miracle that would get me out of that miserable little border town.

She appeared across the tracks. Stepping toward the edge of the platform, she called out in Bulgarian, and I shook my head—up, down, left, right, who knows—and uttered meekly, "English?"

"Ah, English, yes," she responded with the voice of an angel, pitch soothing my ears as honey does the throat. "Where to?"

She hopped off the platform and onto the tracks, and I said "oh no, please, I'll come over there," and we met somewhere in the middle. "Bucharest," I said, settling for the next city north, anything to get me over the border. "The train behind you, maybe," she said, "but another comes at two ... probably better."

"Two AM?" I confirmed. She nodded at me, up-down, like a Westerner. She admitted she didn't know a ton—she worked border control so her knowledge was all based on routine—but I thanked her profusely for the little she shared and headed back into the station to wait hopefully. The Minsk train departed some time later and I held onto my faith—in her, in that 2AM train—and sure enough, it sung like a lark in the night as it screeched to a halt outside.

It was 12:45. I was tired and stressed. The train wouldn't move again for an hour and fifteen minutes, but I could get a good deal of sleep in during the interim, so I hastily made for the train and settled in snugly by, oh, 12:47. I tied my scarf around my head like a blindfold to block out the light, and within minutes I was asleep.


I woke to grinding gears. We were moving. But surely I hadn't been asleep that long! I lifted my blindfold and peeked outside—yes, we were definitely in motion—and then at the time: it was only 1AM! Something was wrong.

Everything told me that this train was going to Moscow: the Cyrillic I had deciphered on the flipboard, the lettering taped to the traincar's window, and I knew that while the 2AM train terminated in Moscow, it stopped at Bucharest along the way. I knew nothing about this 1AM train, though—was it an express?—and as it pulled away from the station, I pawed at the window in panic. I didn't want to go to Moscow!

Thankfully, about a kilometer out, it stopped. I remained in purgatory for an infinite moment, unsure if I was heading up or down, and maybe Moscow stood in for hell in this metaphor, and yelped gleefully as the wheels began turning in reverse, bringing the railcars back the way they'd come. Something was just being shifted around, it seemed. We returned to the station a few minutes later and I remained wide awake until we left once more at two, and then awake still until we hit our first stop, confirming that the train was indeed stopping, and finally, having assured myself by 3AM that I would not wake up in Moscow if I closed my eyes, I slept.


"Welcome to Moscow," a voice woke me with a start some hours later—

No, no, just a dream. I settled back into my seat.


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