18 October 2012
Last night I was at the book launch for Artemis Cooper's amazing biography of Patrick Leigh Fermor, An Adventure. I was honoured to be interviewed, alongside Colin Thubron and Robert MacFarlane, for the Today programme on BBC Radio 4 -- you can hear it here.
It was wonderful to gather with people who knew and loved him well. Artemis told me she keeps the postcard I sent her from Heidelberg's Roten Ochsen Inn inside her first-edition copy of A Time of Gifts. That means a lot.
The evening made me think a lot about what I'm setting out to do with my own writing. As reviews like this make clear, Paddy was a towering figure both in literature and in life, and his presence over my work could perhaps be seen as daunting. But last night really helped bring home what my book is about, and what it's not.
For a start, it's not biographical. I'm not writing about Paddy, or even writing about his writing, but about his journey and all the wonder, mystery, wildness and adventure that it opened up for me.
It's not about history, as such. Obviously history underlay every step I took on the road -- history was in every hill I climbed, and every face I saw. Of course I'm writing with awareness of immense historical change, and much of my journey involved searching through history's rubble, both in reality and in imagination. But a book can be saturated in history without being a 'book about history.' I'm less concerned with 'history' than with 'stories,' and especially with the border -- far more porous than we know -- between history and myth.
Colin Thubron spoke last night of how Paddy is 'a marvellous example of somebody who can't be followed.' This is in my mind as I write -- following the unfollowable. I did follow Paddy's path, but where it leads me will be somewhere else entirely. I followed his route, but the journey is my own. I have to let my story tell itself -- and afterwards, when it's told, I can let Paddy's presence back in to illuminate what it needs to.
Now I'm six rough chapters into my book, and have retraced my own journey as far as Budapest. I'm loving every minute of it.
Expect updates soon on publishing news. Until then, I strongly recommend you buy a copy of Artemis' book. It's a journey in itself.Read and comment
15 August 2012
On arrival in Istanbul I was interviewed on Turkey's NTV. Here's the video.Read and comment
6 August 2012
Although I have no religious beliefs, this walk has been a pilgrimage of sorts - or, at least, has taken on many attributes of one. Atheists can have pilgrimages too, and mine has involved physical hardship, and occasionally mental hardship, the retracing of a once-trodden route, and the process of arriving at a destination of deep importance. On the way I've experienced wonder, and genuine moments of transcendence, to which the hardship has obviously been essential. On several occasions I have felt the presence of Patrick Leigh Fermor - not in a looming, ghostly sense, but in the absolute certain knowledge that he had been in the exact same place, or looking at the exact same thing, as I was eight decades later. These were not places mentioned in his books, and the certainty I felt bordered, at times, on the uncanny. In this, and many other senses, the journey has been a spiritual one too.
Last summer, before I started walking, I met someone else who had walked to Istanbul, though by a different route. He talked a lot about pilgrimage, and pointed out that 'before planes and trains, pilgrims had to return from their destination by walking. Constantinople or Rome was the journey’s centre point - your real destination was your front door.' In the original sense of pilgrimage, the journey home was as important as the journey to the place of worship, because this was a process of integrating the knowledge the pilgrim had gained on the road into his or her everyday life - and of making that knowledge useful.
Since arriving in Istanbul - the centre-point of my journey from home - I've had suggestions from many people that I carry on walking, or at least return home slowly, overland. I'm deeply grateful for all these suggestions, and for the offers of further hospitality - originally I had intended to hitch-hike, take buses and maybe ferries and trains, and spend a few weeks on the return, becoming acclimatised. However, this won't happen this time. England is important to me too, there are people there I need to see and things there I need to do, and I have reasons for going back now - reasons that really matter. So tomorrow morning I'll do the thing I always said I wouldn't do, and board a plane that will take me home in around four hours - 224 days of walking reduced to less than half a day. In many ways the idea terrifies me, and I'll spend the duration of the journey staring out of the window and wondering what's down there, what mountains and forests I'm not walking through, what landscapes I'm not understanding, what people I'm not meeting. I experienced something similar the time I caught a train in Germany, when I'd crippled my left foot, and the few times people drove me around on day trips here and there - travelling at even these speeds was shocking enough, after walking pace, so God knows what flying will be like.
But it's ok. It really is. It's part of the journey too. I'll just have to try to compress my homecoming integration-of-knowledge into four profoundly disorientating hours - or, more excitingly, into the book. Every experience is interesting, and everything is important. That's one thing that walking has taught me, and I'm not forgetting it now.
Still, though, it makes me realise something seldom understood about flying - something you only come to understand if you value travelling slow. If the meaning of life - or one of them - is the accumulation of memories, stories, experiences and adventures, and truly living in the world, then flying is not an efficient way to travel. Travelling quickly is a waste of time.Read and comment
30 July 2012
The process of catching up goes on. My feet are healed, my clothes are laundered, and I'm starting to resemble a half-way respectable citizen once more. Soon the real hard work will begin, the gathering of notes and thoughts and starting work on the actual book - which, I realise, basically means beginning the journey all over again, retracing my own steps in my mind as I retraced Patrick Leigh Fermor's -- but for now I'm just delighted to be in this marvellous city.Read and comment
23 July 2012
At walking speed, arrival is a process that happens very slowly. It is not a single moment, a switch from 'there' to 'here.' Over the course of these seven months (two hundred and twenty-four days, to be precise), I'd arrived in Istanbul many times, my imagination outpacing my body, flowing ahead through mysterious landscapes that only existed in my mind, though villages with meaningless names I hadn't yet learned to pronounce, and stopping abruptly at a postcard image of minarets, domes, and water. But my arrival in the city I'd thought of for so many months as 'the end' was a more subtle and complex thing. There was no signpost that said 'You are now entering Istanbul,' or 'Welcome to your destination' or 'Well done! You can stop now!' I arrived as many times in reality as I did in my imagination. I am still arriving.
Part of me arrived when I saw the skyscrapers – an image I hadn't expected, somehow – a cluster of abstract rectangles shimmering on the horizon. But they were still almost two days' walk away, following the hard shoulder of a surprisingly empty autobahn. I stopped to rest in a truckers' cafe, a tarpaulin stretched from an old VW van propped up on bricks by the road, and was offered lifts by everyone – 'You can be there in forty minutes!' They were perplexed when I turned them down, but accepted it as a foreigner's strangeness, and whenever they passed me on the road – shuttling to and from the stone quarries scarring this stretch of the Black Sea coast – they blasted their horns and waved from their cabs. It felt like a victory parade.
I arrived more convincingly the next day, after a last night sleeping out beside a Roman aqueduct, when I realised that at some undefined point the fields and patches of forest had ended and the shapeless sprawl of industrial parks, cement factories and auto repair shops had bled into the outer suburbs of Istanbul itself. I followed a smaller but busier road, past mountains of gravel and razor-wire fences where chained dogs gnashed their teeth outside kennels that looked like tiny slums, breathing in exhaust fumes, covered in yellow dust. I rested in the air-conditioned cool of a petrol station cafe, where businessmen with tucked-in shirts sipped coffee and checked their Blackberries, trying to work out what I was feeling. I wasn't feeling anything, besides vague bodily pain. A man pulled up a chair at my table. 'Hello! I saw you walking by the road. What are you doing?'
'I've walked here from Holland.'
'Oh. Great,' he said.
From there I inched my way into the city, running on the momentum of exhaustion, fuelling myself on fizzy drinks wherever I could find them. Gradually it started to feel more like a place where people lived and worked, with tree-lined streets and takeaway shops, kiosks, food stands, mini-markets, jostling traffic through which people weaved with a kind of unconscious grace, tea-sippers on plastic chairs, functional modern minarets that looked like telecommunications infrastructure. I asked directions from a man who led me up a hill so steep it felt like the kind of hill that only exists in anxiety dreams, getting steeper and steeper until it's so steep it's impossible to get back down – I'd had this experience trying to scramble up a cliff a few weeks before, which added a weird déjà vu to this phase of arrival. From the top, I made a long descent through a cityscape that felt unreal, its horizons always hidden by buildings, people relentlessly moving about from one place to another.
I arrived in Istanbul again at my first sight of the Golden Horn – the impossibly-romantically-named inlet that curves off the Bosphorus, around which cluster the ancient streets and stairways of the Old Town – and knew I couldn't stop walking then until I had reached the water. I arrived when I saw the Bosphorus itself, its clear light and its wheeling gulls, the white ferryboats churning their way between Europe and Asia. I arrived when I stepped off one of those boats and felt the silent, secret pleasure of knowing I had walked across one continent and was now standing on the edge of another – a pleasure I didn't quite know what to do with, so kept it to myself. And I also arrived when I saw the skyline that had existed for months in my mind, the postcard image that marked 'the end' – the fantastical domes of the Blue Mosque, even vaster and stranger than I'd imagined, great bubbles of stone rising between minarets that looked like insects' legs, a bizarrely arachnid, crustacean architecture that told me, more than anything else, that I was in a wholly different place from where I'd started.
But that arrival wasn't the end. As the city takes shape around me, becoming at the same time more familiar and more complicated, I keep arriving in different ways, and each arrival brings another moment of wonder. There are many wonders here – some great, like the mosques and palaces, and the endless beauty of the bright water, and some so small they reveal themselves only slowly, and with walking. The steep alleyways and crumbling buildings, the Arabic inscriptions in stone, the washing on the balconies, the skinny cats on doorsteps. The tool-sellers' streets, where old men with Islamic beards squat by glittering displays of drill bits, padlocks, screws, bolts and coils of razor-wire. The roadside stands selling mussels with lemon juice, the fried fish sandwiches by Galata Bridge, and the fishermen on the bridge's upper level reeling silver fish to their deaths, flapping like tiny flags. The dolphins in the Bosphorus, following ferries and sometimes, I've been told, submerged submarines from the Black Sea to the Sea of Marmara. The ornate golden stands of shoeshine men that look like Ottoman treasure caskets. The hubbub of bars in the alleys of Taksim, the click-click-click of backgammon games, the innumerable buskers of Istiklal Avenue, down which two million people walk every day. The children tobogganing on broken slats of wood down hills of polished cobblestones in tumbledown Balat. The mosques lit up like glow-worms at night, and the rooftop bars from which you can see the spreading lights of the city against the impenetrable blackness of the water. The shoes of dead people, placed outside windows by the families of the deceased to be taken by whoever might need them.
On my first night – another landmark of arrival – I went through exhaustion, then blankness, then great sadness at realising my walk was done. But no walk is ever done. I haven't stopped walking since I got here, because Istanbul is a journey in itself. Happiness began to build inside me when I realised something very simple, so simple it perhaps sounds corny, but only because it's true. The end is not the end. No journey is ever finished. When you arrive, you discover that what you'd considered the destination is just another bend in the same road.
Read and comment
17 July 2012
I arrived at Istanbul's outer fringes at about eleven o'clock this morning, negotiating gnashing dogs, sweating and hobbling. The soles of my boots, which walked me this whole way, are almost completely worn through, and my feet are now being brought into intimate contact with the road.
Finding the water, walking the bridges over the Golden Horn and the Bosphorus, made my arrival feel slightly more real. But still not entirely. The city feels like the centre of everything. The mosques are like vast and extraordinary scarabs crawling on the horizon. I'll write more on this arrival later – I'm still waiting for my mind to catch up with my body. For now, I just want to thank everyone who has helped me on my way, from Patrick Leigh Fermor, who wrote the map, to the last old man who brought me a glass of tea in a Turkish village.
More soon.Read and comment
15 July 2012
The call to prayer woke me before dawn in a small whitewashed Turkish town on a cliff above the Black Sea. It was still night-dark outside, the faintest pale light of morning washing the sky to the east. Over the amplified song of the mosque I heard the sound of falling water and stepped outside, anxious of rain, thinking of the next day's walk and my broken boots. The water was only a fountain, somewhere. But the sound brought back memories of all the times I'd walked through rain, and with this came unexpected sadness, a sudden awareness of how close I am and of all that has gone. Sadness for the rain in Transylvania, for Romania's green hills, for the plains of Hungary and the rivers I followed there, for Slovakia so quickly gone, for the snow of the Wachau valley, for the Danube, the rain on the Rhine, for the starting out. The fear of not completing my journey, of not getting to Istanbul, has been a bar against this sadness, and I realise now that when I arrive there this fear will be no more, and the sadness, perhaps, will be left.Read and comment
12 July 2012
Flags carry a strange power. Apart from a wider, better-kept road, nothing in the landscape changed as I crossed the border into Turkey, through the same rolling oak and beech forests I'd seen since leaving the coast. The trees and the mountains, the insects and birds, looked and sounded just the same. But the appearance of the Turkish flag, the white crescent moon and star on a field of fluttering red -- along with the frequent portraits of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, his eyebrows flared like a B-movie vampire prince -- somehow shifted everything into a different reality.
I saw no other person for an hour or more, until I turned off the main road towards the village of Dereköy. At first, it looked much the same as the Bulgarian villages I'd passed through -- tiled roofs and sun-bleached wooden walls, chickens and dusty roadside grapevine -- apart from a white minaret instead of a church's dome. Then suddenly, another world. I found myself following a group of women in long, patterned skirts, billowing trousers and brightly-ormanented headscarves to a small square lined with tobacco-exhaling men -- only men, I noticed -- sitting in the shade of corrugated roofs, tinkling tiny spoons in tiny glasses of copper-coloured tea, and yelling at each other amiably. I stood, bewildered, for a moment. There was nothing for it but to join them. Tea swiftly appeared before me and old men swivelled to take me in -- dark, creased faces grizzled with white, pale blue eyes peering from under cloth caps, with expressions that were somehow a scowl and a smile at the same tıme.
I shook hands with everyone within range, noticing the graceful new gesture that accompanies shaking hands here -- the palm of the hand pressed to the chest, as if taking the greeting to heart. One of them, a man called Nihat, spoke a little English. When I explained my journey, he said: 'The Prophet Mohammed, peace be upon hım, says that a journey is good for the health -- physical and mental.' He told me he had done the haj to Mecca several years before. 'What was it like?' I asked. He thought for a long tıme, then said very sweetly: 'Oh, it was super.'
I stayed for three cups of tea, and when time came to leave, no-one let me pay. 'You are our guest,' said Nihat. 'This is our culture.' On my way out of the village, another man stopped me, shook my hand, then gave me a bar of halva.
The road led east as I made my way slowly back towards the Black Sea. I walked through low green hills, planted here and there with unknown crops, my boots tacky from the tar melting underfoot. Every car and motorbike hooted at me as it passed, and I caught glimpses of curious faces and hands raised in greeting.
Another minaret announced Karadere, the next village on my route. Almost at once, I was back among tea-sippers, tinkling the spoon in my glass under the shade of grapevine. Old men seem to look older ın Turkey, and young boys sit and drink tea in the same way, watching and listening to the adults as if quietly studying how to be men. Apart from the halva, I'd eaten nothing since breakfast in Bulgaria, so used my few words of Turkish to ask where I could buy food. Immediately, one of the men went off and came back with a round loaf of bread, and another produced a lump of salty, rubbery white cheese, along with a photograph of a cow to illustrate its origin. 'Thankyou,' I said. 'How much?' Solemnly, they all shook their heads, spreading their hands out -- nothing.
So far I'd only talked to men, and it was a relief, a few miles on, when two headscarved women called me over and asked where I was going. I explained as best I could, and they showed me the road with strident gestures -- the right-hand road, the right-hand road -- the left, they made clear with what sounded like warning, led back to 'Bulgaristan.'
Two days later, I'd regained the Black Sea. The coastline is much wilder here, with dense forest hugging jagged white cliffs interspersed with long, sandy beaches stretching as far as the eye can see without a single parasol. Not that people don't like the sea -- my sense of altered reality struck again when I saw my first Turkish campsite. Turks doing camping is a phenomenon -- they seem to pack the entire contents of their houses into cars and caravans and reassemble it on the beach, spilling out of giant tents extended with strung tarpaulins, hammocks, dining tables, chairs, real carpets laid out on the grass, ornate silver teapots bubbling on stoves, with washing fluttering on lines hung between the trees. Then they cement their claim on the territory with crescent-moon flags and Atatürk portraits flying from driftwood flagpoles, which makes it look like the coastal encampment of some nomadic army.
I found a spot to camp under a tree. Once more, I was overwhelmed by the amazing hospitality that has made my arrival in Turkey such a joy -- my new neighbours delivered a table, a chair, and a watermelon. They stood around smiling as I ate, though from time to time I caught them regarding my lonely one-man tent rather sadly. I got the feeling they might have felt a bit sorry for me.Read and comment
29 June 2012
'Thank God for the crisis,' said Big Ivan. We were eating tiny fried fish and drinking beer on the beach at Varna, the biggest city on Bulgaria's Black Sea coast. 'If the crisis hadn't happened, there would be nothing left of our coastline.'
'You will see it further south,' said Vassil, the archaeologist who was letting me sleep on his sofa. 'All these places used to be fishing villages – now they have merged together into a kind of summer metropolis. I think they are trying to create an entirely concrete coastline.'
For months in my imagination, the Black Sea had taken on a kind of talismanic status. Through the long white winter, crunching through snow, and then in the sweltering heat of summer down endless roads of yellow dust, I had pictured the moment of arrival – cresting one last green hill to gaze down on an empty beach, the sea gleaming out to the horizon, the almost unimaginable pleasure of cool, rolling water. Of course, it hadn't been like that. Not many moments are. The night before I reached the coast I had camped in the woods above a small village, staying up late and feeding oak branches to a hungry fire. That place wasn't quite what I'd imagined, either. The 'lake' that I'd seen on the map, and spent all day confidently walking to, turned out to be an artificial reservoir containing the poison-blue effluence of a PVC factory – I'd had to walk another couple of hours, through a confused landscape of industry and agriculture, as if, the closer it got to the sea, the less the land knew what to do with itself. But despite the disappointment of the lake and the monstrous attacks of mosquitoes, I felt thrilled to have got where I was. It was a good fire, and those were good woods. It was the night of the summer solstice, and the next day I would reach the Black Sea.
In the end, my first sight of the sea was strangely flat. I glimpsed it from a four-lane motorway on a towering concrete-legged bridge, a hazy band of blue beyond the cranes of Varna's industrial port. Then it disappeared again behind streets of tall buildings, and I paced sweatily through the city determined not to let it get away, hurrying without much interest past a golden-domed cathedral, dwarf palm trees in municipal pots, a maze of pedestrianised shopping streets, mobile phone shops and ice-cream stands, pausing briefly to allow a woman to spray me with free perfume samples – I'd been camping for seven days, and thought this might mask my stench until I got in the water – past a row of stone columns, Greek or Roman, I didn't care which, until at last I came to the sand, threw off my rucksack and my clothes, and stumbled into the water. I felt as if no-one else on that beach had more right to do so.
The water felt very, very good. That moment, at least, was everything I'd imagined it to be.
Three days later, I was off Vassil's sofa and following the coastline south. I camped on beaches, my tent door open to feel the cool night breeze and hear the gentle shump of the waves. The cliffs and low hills I followed had a very ancient feeling – eroded slopes of broken rock and spiky, scrubby plantlife. I swam at every beach I came to, replacing the sweat on my body with salt, and often saw no-one but cormorants and gulls, cows huddled in the shade of trees, and occasional little clusters of nudists nodding hello politely.
And then, I reached the 'development.' I'd been expecting it. On the far side of one last, wild cape sat a white hotel as big as a cruise ship, marking the beginning of what I knew would be tourist hell. 'Sunny Beach' seems an unlikely name to dread, but this is what lay ahead of me – Bulgaria's original, ur-resort, from which everything else had spread after the Transition.
The Transition is what Bulgarians call the change from communism to capitalism in 1989. Several weeks before, in the mountains, I'd been told stories about these times by a young film producer. He explained how the communists saw the change coming, and started moving money out of the country before the Iron Curtain fell. The wealth was hidden in foreign banks, and after four or five years it started trickling back into the country in the form of private investment. Much was placed in the hands of the mutri – swaggering, nouveau riche wheeler-dealers of the big-necked, shiny-suited type, who had the advantage of being new faces, unassociated with the old regime. In the cowboy years of the 90s, with the country suddenly up for grabs, their power was unassailable – he told me a popular anecdote of how they parked in the middle of the road, causing chaotic traffic jams, and then sat back sipping cappuccinos, just to show they could. This attitude, he suggested, had filtered down through society – people saw them getting away with murder, and tried to emulate it. The result, coming after fifty years of the government telling everyone not to think, was a lack of civil society – and, when the construction boom came around in the 2000s, an unregulated free-for-all on the Black Sea coast.
I walked with the consequence of this for much of the next two days. Hotel after hotel after hotel after hotel, a seemingly never-ending repetition of balconies and balconies, looming over jam-packed beaches where the oiled and the glistening sprawled under corporate-branded parasols whose shade you had to pay for. Inland it was even worse. Casinos, sports bars, fitness centres, bingo halls, discos, all-day English breakfasts, souvenir stalls, beachwear shops, arcades, restaurants, swimming pools as luridly blue as the chemical lake I didn't sleep by – interrupted, occasionally, by small plots of beach grass and weeds surrounded by fences and For Sale signs, condemned land waiting sadly for its turn.
This was the 'summer metropolis' Vassil had spoken of. The conjoined resorts of Elenite, Robinson, Sveti Vlas, Sunny Beach, Nesebar – actually an ancient peninsula city reached by a narrow causeway, which, due to its unfortunate location, has been turned into a cute little toy town – stretching as far as I could see, a self-replicating architectural virus. 'Thank God for the crisis,' Big Ivan had said. 'If the crisis hadn't happened, there would be nothing left...' The Bulgarian government is currently proposing a change in the law to open up the rest of the country – not only its remaining beaches, but the mountains and forests as well – to further tourist 'development,' which will destroy even more of wildness and beauty. As far as I was concerned, this was crisis – and if economic collapse is what it takes to stop it spreading even further, then I hope it continues. Perhaps one crisis can cancel out the other.
I wandered inadvertently into an all-inclusive resort. Everyone apart from me was wearing coloured plastic wristbands to demonstrate their allegiance to a particular package deal, like some form of indentured servitude. The broiled bodies on the beach didn't look particularly happy – in fact most of them had the frowns and down-turned mouths of deep dissatisfaction, as if they didn't quite know why they'd come here or what they were meant to be doing. I stood in horrified fascination watching fifty people performing a synchronised high-energy dance routine led by a grinning, whooping girl in lycra, until a security guard arrived to escort me off the premises. I guess he noticed my bare wrists, and he was actually quite reasonable – we both knew that I didn't belong there.
Read and comment
28 June 2012
I've just found out that Florence Arié, who helped fund this project before I started walking, has been translating this blog into French. So if you want a break from English, you can read a far prettier-sounding version of my writing here.
Many thanks, Florence. I feel most honoured.Read and comment
14 June 2012
The rains have stopped, the storms have died, and the heat is rising. The almost luminous greenness I saw in my first two weeks in Bulgaria is becoming ever so slightly duller and dustier. The leaves are slowly losing their shine, the mud in the fields is starting to crack, and the cherries and mulberries along country roads have just begun, in the last few days, to lose their deliciousness.
Give or take coming twists and turns, my journey is simple now. Only east and south remain. East will take me to the Black Sea, and I can almost feel its pull -- in these climbing temperatures, when it's too hot to walk at midday, the thought of water feels like a salvation. South will take me to the Turkish border, and to Istanbul.
Intimations of that city's power -- the lodestone of the east and south -- are already becoming apparent. From Istanbul, the Ottoman Turks ruled these lands for five centuries, after defeating the Second Bulgarian Empire in 1396. And from Constantinople, its previous name, the Byzantines launched an invasion that brought down the First Bulgarian Empire in 1018. Bulgaria struggled against that city, in its various incarnations, for over a thousand years.
The more I look, the more I see clues of this ancient intermingling -- and the more it reminds me how far I've travelled from Germanic lands. In the green Rodopi Mountains (the legendary birthplace of Orpheus), isolated villages are still inhabited by Bulgarian Muslims whose ancestors converted to Islam during Ottoman rule. In the city of Plovdiv, the remains of a Roman stadium lie underneath a fourteenth-century mosque, still used by the city's Muslims. (In Sofia many of these mosques no longer function -- the story goes that the communists hid dynamite in the minarets, and blew them up one night during a 'thunderstorm.') Turkish words have slipped into the language, the wheedling reel of Bulgarian bagpipes sounds like something from a bazaar, and people shake their heads to mean 'yes' -- a sure sign that I've passed a significant cultural fault-line.Read and comment
5 June 2012
My arrival in Bulgaria was marked by an earthquake and seven days of thunderstorms. Apparently such weather is rare this time of year, but I had no way of knowing that – of all the countries I’ve walked through, Bulgaria is the one I knew the least about. The only things I knew about the country were five centuries of Ottoman rule and the Cyrillic alphabet – Romanians had cheerfully joked about how the Bulgarians would drug me and sell my organs on the black market, but none of them seemed to have any clue about what the place was like either. I’m glad I had so few preconceptions before I took the little ferry across the Danube to the town of Vidin, because exploring a country without expectations, either good or bad, is far more wonderful. Everything is new and unexpected. The process of discovering it is a process of letting the unknown reveal itself, until, by a slow-working magic, it becomes familiar.
The first thing I noticed was the plants. Romania was a green country, but here the greenness was somehow lusher, brighter, more vivid. I followed a small road eastwards through dense foliage, poppies scattering the verge. There were lime trees, acacia trees, banks of wild flowers in yellow, purple, pink and blue, unknown stalks densely clustered with buds, and thickets of wild cannabis. With the humidity and the rain, the atmosphere was almost tropical – a sense of the south, the other side of Europe.
On my second day out of Vidin, hoping the rain had stopped at last, I looked behind me and saw clouds gathering like a child’s picture of an approaching storm. A brilliant band of light lit the sky, but the storm soon broke. I took cover beneath a dripping tree under my inadequate umbrella and waited for the rain to end. The rain didn’t end. The light was dying and I was far from any village, so began vainly casting about for a sheltered spot to camp. There were no sheltered spots. I resigned myself to heading for the fields and pitching my tent in the pouring rain, then decided to walk on, for just another fifteen minutes. After ten, I rounded a corner and came upon the only guesthouse I’d seen all day, with windows lit and smoke rising from the chimney. The owner greeted me delightedly: ‘Come in – you can take a hot shower, dry your clothes and then come down and drink a glass of rakiya with me.’ These were the finest words I could imagine.
The next afternoon, in the town of Lom, I was resting in a café by the Danube and wondering whether or not to walk on. The table next to me was occupied by a group of Bulgarian men, and when they saw me switch from coffee to beer, a look passed between them. One of them, a lean man with the permanent squint of eyes adapted to a never-ending stream of cigarette smoke, introduced himself as Vesco. ‘Tomorrow is a holiday – we’re having a big party in my village. You should join us. There’s a spare room. You can stay a few days.’
We drove to the village the next afternoon, having spent the morning picking up supplies – meat, vegetables, fresh goat’s cheese, beer, rakiya, homemade wine, bread, more meat, potatoes, more beer – and then coming back to the same café for ‘a drink to relax from all this shopping.’ At last we arrived at Vesco’s village, a ramshackle house built by his grandfather, adjoined by various sheds and outhouses all in a state of glorious decline – buildings of crumbling wattle and daub, surrounded by vegetable patches and trailing grapevine. Vesco worked to fix the pump so we could drink water from the well, while me and his friend Itso, a great bristly hog of a man, heaped the table high with chopped vegetables. I glanced outside to see Vesco wringing water out of something that looked like a long white dishcloth.
‘What’s that?’ I asked.
‘Guts,’ he replied, flinging a flailing wet lump of it to the waiting dog. ‘We will fry them later.’
More friends arrived, Petar and Georgi, bearing an enormous jar of red wine. They swept out the little tin pagoda – unused since last year’s party – and the eating and drinking began. Vesco seemed to be cooking about seven things at the same time. First he served chicken soup, then came salad and rakiya – in Bulgaria, these always go together. ‘Drink slowly,’ Petar said. ‘We have a long time, and this ends tomorrow morning.’
I settled in for a long night. A sheesha pipe went round the table, sweet apple and pear tobacco. Wine was poured. Meat was grilled. Potatoes were fried. The rakiya got stronger, and it was explained: ‘The first bottle was for kids and ladies. This one is for normal people. There’s another bottle later, and that’s for professionals only.’ Darkness fell, dogs yelped in the lanes, and the wheedling rhythm of Balkan music drifted from the village.
‘There’s a big gathering in the square,’ said Petar when I asked what this was, ‘but you don’t want to go there. It’s full of Gypsies. We have a big problem with Gypsies, like with you and niggers.’
When I objected to this, he shrugged like he was expecting it. ‘You are tolerant people. We are more racist than you. They are not human beings. They’re animals, they’re not people.’
Instantly I felt my good mood spoil, and a sense of exhaustion come over me. I’d encountered the same attitude towards Gypsies all over Eastern Europe – Slovakia, Hungary, Romania, here – and had long-since ceased to be surprised by it, but the casual hatefulness of this language, the ancient and endless tribalism, suddenly got me down. Drunkenly I tried arguing with him, but there wasn’t much point. ‘You believe that people are good, that different races can live together happily,’ he said with a kind of wistfulness, as if he never could. It was an abrupt reminder of how different our cultures were, how conflicting our beliefs, no matter how well we might be getting on. I was a total stranger here, and yet they had taken me into their home, fed me, given me a bed, entertained me, translated for me, offered me everything. How could I reconcile this warmth, kindness and generosity with such unpleasant views?
I couldn’t. Some things just don’t fit. I continued drinking.
In some strange act of reconciliation, sensing how my mood had changed, Petar approached me later with two long nets. ‘Here, take one of these, I’ll show you something. I’ve been waiting for weeks for these little bastards, and now, after the rain, they’ve come out. We’re going to catch them and eat them.’ The little bastards turned out to be snails, working their way through the vegetable garden. Georgi already had a whole sack of them. ‘You call black people animals,’ I was tempted to say, ‘and you’re crawling round the garden eating snails?’ But already my bitterness was dulled. I just had to let it go.
Much later, sometime after the professional bottle of rakiya appeared, Vesco was dancing in shuffling steps around the little tin pagoda, howling with laughter which descended into a hacking smoker’s cough. They were telling jokes about the Bulgarian folk hero Krali Marko, with most of the punchlines centring on the size of the great man’s penis (large). Vesco was still howling and choking when I finally collapsed in a bed. My last vision of the night was Itso wolfing down fried guts from the sizzling plate before him.
I walked on, severely hungover, the next afternoon. I had the sense they were slightly offended that I was leaving after one night – they were only just getting warmed up – but I was itchy to move. I headed away from the Danube, out of the flatlands, south.
Days of rain followed, and days of green mountains. The night before I reached Sofia, I turned down a dirt road towards a monastery, hoping to find shelter. The church was locked up, the monastery deserted, but a glimpse of lined-up slippers in the corridor convinced me that someone lived there. I sat down to wait, and after a while a guy puttered up on a motorbike – a tough, friendly man with a humorous face, who didn’t seem at all surprised to see me. His name was Ivo – from what I could gather, he worked as a kind of caretaker there. He located the keys under the doormat and ushered me into a neat, cosy room where I could stay the night. But first – in what I am quickly learning is true Bulgarian style – he insisted on driving me down to the village to eat and drink at his home.
His family and neighbours gathered round, piling the table with beer, bread, meat, stuffed peppers, strawberry compote, salad fresh from the garden, and, of course, rakiya. Ivo said something, and everyone laughed. His neighbour’s daughter translated for me: ‘When he saw you outside the monastery, with that beard, he thought you were one of the monks!’ My glass was filled for the third or fourth time. The rain continued falling.Read and comment