Although I consider myself pretty well-versed in geography, for an American anyway (I managed to stun a group of Finns during a drunken geography quiz the other night by knowing that China is the world’s leading exporter of peaches), I have to admit that there are large portions of the world which press on existing only vaguely in my mind, totally unplottable on my mental map. Eastern Europe is one of them. Don’t ask me which countries Macedonia borders; I cannot tell you.
This, by the way, is becoming a problem, what with working in a hostel and all. I find it very simple to think of myself who has a pretty good grasp of geography, but suddenly I’m surrounded by all kinds of Serbs and Slovenians who seem to derive great pleasure from shaming foreigners with the realization of their own ignorance. Now, I know my country doesn’t have what you’d call a sterling reputation for international awareness, and that’s why this whole thing is sort of a touchy subject. I’ve started engaging said Serbs and Slovenians (and Hungarians and Estonians and Poles and so on) in conversation to learn as much as I can about their respective nations, so that next time I come across one of their countrymen, I can casually remark, for instance, “ah yes, very interesting how Chicago has the world’s second-largest population of Serbs after Belgrade, don’t you think?” and thereby cleverly create the impression that I actually know quite a lot about Serbia. (True fact, by the way).
So, Bulgaria. For those of you whose Eastern European geography is as shaky as mine, Bulgaria is the big one bordering Turkey’s northwestern “arm”, which makes it a very convenient weekend destination for the hordes of foreigners who want to extend their 3-month Turkish tourist visa. That’s exactly why I went- having arrived in Turkey on June 13, my visa was set to expire on the eleventh of this month, and I wasn’t quite ready to leave. I got lucky, actually. Apparently sick of the hundreds or thousands of Western English teachers who decide every year that a quarterly jaunt to Bulgaria is less hassle than actually procuring a legal work visa (they’re pretty much objectively right about this), the Turkish government recently implemented new regulations which close the loophole. As of July 14, a 3-month Turkish tourist visa is only renewable every six months. Luckily, since I got mine beforehand, I was exempt from the rule... this time around.
Knowing nothing about Bulgaria, I decided to buy a ticket to the closest and thus most convenient city, Plovdiv, rather than the slightly farther and more expensive capital of Sofia. The few hours to the border were uneventful, aside from the difficulty of locating the correct bus- or more to the point, the correct bus terminal, as Istanbul has more than a half-dozen and they put no special effort into ensuring that the servis shuttles from the ticket office take you where you’re meant to go. I dozed off on the bus, probably gape-mouthed and looking thoroughly ridiculous to my fellow passengers the way that everyone inevitably does when they fall asleep on public transport, and was woken up by a Turkish man exclaiming into his cell phone that we’d been held up in a long line at the border for three hours. My (his?) timing was impeccable, though, and next thing I knew we were being shuffled off the bus and toward the Turkish exit police kiosk to get our passports checked. No problem; I was up and about for no more than five minutes before settling back into my seat to return to sleep, but soon after we were being ushered outside again for duty free. Everyone was exceedingly excited about this, and upon their return gleefully crammed bag after bag of alcohol and cigarette cartons under their seats.
The fun did not stop there. A further five minutes later, it was off the bus again, this time for border check #2- into Bulgaria. The guy held onto my passport and ushered me on, which worried me until I figured out that he had kept all the non-Bulgarian passports and sent out a peon to hand them arount soon afterward. One nice thing I can thank Bulgaria for: they’re very orderly with their entrance and exit stamps, putting them tidily on the first open page of my passport and not sticking them all stupid-like on page 24, as Australia insists on doing.
From there it was smooth sailing to Plovdiv, where I climbed off the bus at 5 am and spent a while wondering what to do next before going “eh, whatever” and setting off to find an ATM and a bathroom. In that order, as it turned out, since all the public bathrooms in town wanted 40 leva cents for entrance. I realized at the ATM that I had no idea what a leva was worth- should I take out 100 of them? 10? 1,000? Foreign currency is baffling. They may as well have been seashells. I settled on 100- far too much, as it turns out, and now whenever I’m digging around in my bag for cash, I always pull up handfuls of Bulgarian notes- and tackled my second mission.
I was only in Plovdiv for six hours or thereabouts, so I don’t have much in the way of observations to offer. Wikitravel tells me that there are lots of quaint churches, caves, and wide-eyed woodland animals, but Plovdiv has none of these. This is all I have for you:
1. Everyone around town looked like a cross between an... um... scarlet woman and an eighties high school student. I kept expecting them all to start snapping gum.
2. Plovdiv is big on casinos.
3. They make good hot dogs, with hollowed out French bread instead of hot dog rolls. Good call guys.
4. Look, just LOOK at this adorably nerdish man on Bulgarian money! HA! Have you seen Office Space? He looks like Milton. Aw.
I boarded the bus back to Istanbul at 11 am. It was thoroughly uneventful except for a few brief moments of stress at the Turkish border, where I realized that I hadn’t, as per regulations, actually been out of the country overnight, and then was initially refused a new visa since “I had a week left on my old one”. That sounded like nonsense to me, so I asked around and eventually found my way to the very secret location of the visa office, where an old man barely looked up from his newspaper long enough to slap a new sticker in my passport. Success!
And that’s the story of my visa run to Bulgaria. Now I have a brand new Turkish tourist visa and another entry on my “countries I’ve spent less than 24 hours in and really need to return to someday to give them a fair chance”, right below Norway, Denmark, and the Vatican.