Sofia - A Typical Saturday Night

We have touched down on Bulgarian soil at 1:20 in the morning, the train to Yambol due to depart the station at 6:30. We’ll spend 5 hours drinking coffee in a café in the station said Galia as we made out way there.

Still before 2:00 on Sunday morning after a Saturday night in Sofia and the taxi dropped us off to a very still and clam train station. There were lights on in the distance as we rolled our noisy cases across the common broken concrete pavements to disturb the silence that lay before us.

We struggled to one station café and found five police officers sitting around drinking coffee only to find that this café was only open to the police and that no cafes were open until 6:00 that morning. We found ourselves out on the street for over 4 hours laden with luggage with a mixture of cab drivers touting fro business, roaming Gypsies and beggars and young male drunks still full of vodka and rakia from the previous Saturday night out.

We parked ourselves by the main glass entrance, within sight and earshot of the coffee-drinking police as insurance. It was a thought that these policemen and one policewoman were getting paid for drinking coffee all night as the minutes ticked away very slowly. Later I was to realise this was not the case.

Facing the taxi rank, every 10 or fifteen minutes a taxi would pull up get out of the vehicle and walk towards us and every time we knew what for. The question like a series of parrots came out, ‘Where are you going?’

The answer always was, ‘Yambol’ of course.

A figure was always given for the ride to Yambol, which varied from 300 BGL to 450 BGL depending on the cheekiness of the cab driver. The argument always being that we could be home by the time the train arrives. We would put to the driver the cost fo the train fare at 16 lv and ask them whether they would pay and extra 300 lv for a couple of hours wait? They usually walked away at that point in deep thought.

After the first few we were getting a bit fed up so we moved away from the cab rank and turned our backs on oncoming cab drivers. That seemed to do the trick.

When we first got there we were only a couple of metres from a gypsy sat on a small brick wall, he only had one leg and a crutch. He was watching us for hours and the thought was he was waiting for an opportunity to steal something. It was only later that we realised he was waiting to go to work and had no home to go to so that were he lives, sitting on the wall. We ended up talking to home and he was a nice as pie as we gave him some cigarettes to keep him going. First impressions eh?

Another figure turned up, we recognised him from before, he was on the same plane as us from Luton and had was due on the same train as us but going further on to Bourgas. Being Bulgarian we talked, how many times we talked to strangers was quite un believable unlike where we had just come from.

This chap had gone to the UK because he was told the streets are paved with gold. He didn’t have profession and went without any work permits or visa. His idea was that he would find work by word of mouth and have cash in hand. After three month and being based in Peterborough he had found a ‘cash in hand’ job where the manager was Egyptian. He was paid £100 a week for 50 hours six day a week in a factory. His digs were a 3m x 4m room with no facilities and shared kitchen and bathroom downstairs paying rent of £30 a week plus bills. Food was extra of course.

He was here now because all he had saved up for was his airfare back before the three months visa period had expired. His experience had been a reality check at the end of the day. The only money he had on him was a £10 note and we exchanged this for him at the exchange bureaus didn’t open until after 7:00, the train leaves 30 minutes before this.

An elderly but quite slim and fit man walked past us and I saw he had a baseball bat tucked away in his belt. He stopped and of course talked to us he had a story to tell and told it. A couple of hours ago there was a gunfight only 100 metres away in an underpass. A young armed drunk was eventually shot dead by the police after the shoot out. He went on to say that this was normal in the early hours of the morning. With the lack of work and money many young people try the armed hold up give us your money trick which sometimes works and sometimes doesn’t. This time it didn’t and he is dead. That for me is a good enough deterrent if not for others. Shoot and first ask questions later when it comes to finding someone with a gun was the Sofia was the police’s answer to crime. In any case for what other reason would someone want to be holding a gun in the early hours of the morning, there are no wolves here in Sofia city centre – He has a point!

I asked what he was doing with a baseball bat and whether he played Bulgarian Baseball, where the response was a chuckle saying that it was to defend himself against others with baseball bats. Funnily enough moments later I saw another young man walk past with another baseball bat in one hand and a woman in the other looking a bit nervous as firstly walked by the coffee-drinking policemen and then us. But they didn’t do anything, perhaps that is normal here then.

Next visitor was a drunk, he was around mid twenties, shaven head and looked more like a Russian than a Bulgarian due to his very pale complexion. Although not intimidating Galia and our friend who had been ripped of in England didn’t make any eye contact with him. I found this hard to do as I thought it might cause offence but this led to conversation. Galia’s suggestion that I didn’t know any Bulgarian was a good one as I pleaded ignorance as questions put to me. He got fed up with my ‘I don’t understand!’ replies to everything and gave up trying to talk to me in the end. He slumped down to the ground and sat the quietly for a few hours right next to us.

5:00 arrived and the café opened early as they saw some decent folk waiting outside, besides you don’t look a gift horse in the mouth with business hanging around. The drunk followed us in slumped down on a bench next to us along with our Bourgas bound and newly acquainted friend. We bough him a coffee and talked fot he next half hour. The drunk woke up and asked it I could move to let him go, I had blocked him in on the tight sitting position of the bench. He was quite shocked that I understood as I stood up to let him go. Luckily he was too pissed to realise I was taking the piss by not understanding earlier.

Toilet were non existent either on the station site or in the train station once we got in, it was too early for many as the yawning crowds began their work and journeys. Tickets, bought and a cold banitsa eaten It was old and cold but still better than anything I have eaten in the UK for six months!

We boarded the train that left dead on time and stress levels fell even further as we left the city. I hate cites generally and Sofia was no exception but I had notice there may be gang warfare, gunfight and drink and drug related crimes all due to material gain but its individualism stands out. It is not a carbon copy of the other Cities I have visited and is still distinctly Bulgarian in its manner and ways.

The train slowly gathered up a little speed then slowed down again the next station was only a few kilometres away picking up mainly gypsies form the outskirts of the city. It was noticeable that the train was spotlessly clean without any vandalism or graffiti in any part of the carriage and we were travelling the third class carriage! No advertisement posters to be seen anywhere that was a major realisation for me and again the stress levels from within resumed its downward spiral with these significant observations of Bulgaria.

So we had some gypsies on board and I know the toilet was clean, as it hadn’t been used since our journey started, 6 hours of waiting we had to go and on the visit all the toilet consisted of was a hole in the carriage floor, you could see the ground whizzing past as you look down. Well if is simple and it works well it has to be Bulgarian!! Quite a lot of fun as well as you see things happen before you very eyes.

We had our tickets inspected twice on the 4½ hours journey. The ticket inspectors are very serious and never smile, they also come in pairs, man and a woman, presumably for security reasons. Everyone has to have a ticket whether first, second or third class with a seat number on and you have to sit in that seat.

Now the ticket inspectors may well be the reason for no graffiti or damage to the train from travellers as they scare the hell out of them by their no nonsense attitude. There was a young quite hard looking Bulgarian who placed himself on a seat had his ticket checked and punched then after the inspector had travelled further up the train, decided to move to the next empty seat. The inspectors had finished their rounds and walked back some 20 minutes later and instructed the poor chap to move back to his original allocated seat. You may call this a jobs worth situation but this I feel justified to gain the discipline, respect and unmovable rules that are set in place. No too dissimilar to the police who have respect mixed with fear. It made us feel so much safer on the train in Bulgaria than ever we felt in the UK.

Yambol arrived and the city of Sofia well behind us and the train journey so much more cheaper and pleasant than a taxi run!