Tuesday, 30 September 2014

My Impressions of Sofia

A few weeks ago, Boryana asked us to write about our impressions of Sofia over the past few months, to be published in some compilation of how foreigners see and live the Bulgarian capital. I realised that this short text's natural home was, apart from anywhere else, this very blog, and so decided to copy and paste it here.

As out time is ticking - there's only a week left now - you can expect more such retrospective posts, even in this melancholy spirit that has engulfed our little international party, this awkward mood of wanting to fit as much as possible in the little time left but not doing so at all because the current situation of terminal comfortable inertia feels so natural. This single week ahead of us all of a sudden feels like it could fit the entire past nine months in it and with room to spare.

My impressions of Sofia

Sofia is similar in a way to Athens in that you can feel that its status of capital was only recently, in the grander scale of things, given to it. Not so long ago, it was a relatively unimportant provincial town of a large multicultural empire – just like Athens. The same empire, incidentally, And then, history happened.

The malls that are sprouting up like mushrooms nowadays have old communist building to serve as their backdrop meadow. Spreading like mushrooms, popping up almost instantaneously like mushrooms. These and other kinds of buildings or shops go to show what it is that people grew to desire after decades of austerity, lack of economic and political freedom and loyalty to the Party: sex shops, 24 chasa alkohol i tsigari, supermarkets and other shops open every day till late, McDonalds aplenty, multinationals that have set shop and offices due to the low minimum wages… All these things that seem so quaint to a person who grew up in a country where capitalism has been long taken for granted and is being, small step by small step, left behind.

But all the above was the stereotypical image of Sofia, the things I imagined I would find before ever setting foot in Bulgaria 8 months ago, similar to the common preconceptions we often have for cities that used to be communist. All the above I did find, but there was so much more. Sofia: candidate for European capital of the Unexpected  2015!

I found huge parks full of life, kateritsi, old trees, young as well as old people, with dogs or without, but mostly with; Sofians love their kuchetata. I thought Sofia would be a gray city; it is, but it’s much greener than it is gray. Grayn? Sorry, that was a bad joke. It was a big surprise and for me a big reason Sofia is as pleasant to live in as it is.

The city’s mass transit system was also a highlight of the unexpected. The two metro lines connect at Serdika, but they’re really one line split in two, like a single rope half painted blue, half red, forming a huge loop. That’s cool. The old trolley buses with their weird noises and the turbulence at Ruski Pametnik also have a special place in my heart. But my favourite by far is the Sofian tram. It’s almost iconic. Everybody knows I’m a fan of anything on rails, especially if you can muse looking outside the window while on them (which sadly excludes the metro). Sofia’s tram network is huge and plain fun. Who doesn’t like lines changing routes because of surprise repair works on main roads, or permanently angry tram drivers who randomly stop to get lunch or cigarettes and loudly quarrel with passengers? The best by far are lines 20 and 22: they have more seats and less standing room in this way making you feel like you’re on an actual train. Bonus points for line 10, which goes through a forest. By the way, if you don’t think the orange ticket stamp thingies aren’t amusing in their backwards-ness, but in a very adorable way, I’m not talking to you! And yes, I know that tickets are very expensive, especially since you have to use another every time you switch lines. But hey, those are the perks of being an EVSer; free transport cards! Not surprisingly, though, I went ahead and managed to lose mine in these final days of the project.

Then there’s the city proper, the things you can do in the centre. Here’s a brief list of options: eating amazing gelato at Confetti – definitely some of my favourite ice-cream in the world; Art Hostel with its garden: the perfect place to chill with a Stolichno Weiss, my Bulgarian beer of choice; Veda House with its unbelievably rich hummus; Mimas and that place owned by Turks on Ulitsa Pirotska that make the best falafel in town, and of course Sofia City Library and Ploshtad Slaveikov that saw so many of our activities, busy as well as lazy afternoons…  This list of favourite places accumulated over a period of eight months could go on but I’m running out of space on this small page. Not being able to mention every little special thing brings out some kind of familiar guilt in me.

Last but not least, Shar Planina 55 in Opalchenska: the building which was constructed in the Interwar period, with no elevator, the entire staircase of which we had to climb every time we wanted to reach our apartment on the fourth floor. If there ever is a hostel named after this otherwise inconspicuous place, know that it will be because our apartment saw many travellers from around Europe and other volunteers and provided shelter without complaint to more people than what would be considered normal for a living space of this size. It will forever stay in our hearts.