Posted by: Mark Wollemann: On the move | January 10, 2012

Home, sweet (?), home

Our return to Bulgaria was eventful and it brought into sharp focus the differences of where we had been to where we are now.

The three weeks away, to Paris and Amsterdam, were magical. The weather was mostly perfect. Our spirits soared as we took in the beauty of Paris and the charms of Amsterdam while we decompressed after a great and eventful five months abroad. We rekindled friendships, made new friends and shared (some) great food and wine (and OK beer). We got sticker shock from the prices, but we eventually just stopped paying attention to how much more expensive it was in Paris and Amsterdam and just enjoyed. Bills will come due later, I guess.

Anyway, as we landed in Bulgaria (strange phenomenon here, where the Bulgarians cheer when the plane touches down. If anyone knows anything about this, please enlighten.), we started thinking: let’s save a few bucks.

So instead of hiring a car to drive us from the airport to our home in Blagoevgrad, 90 minutes away, we decided to jump a shuttle to the bus station and take the bus home. No big deal and instead of spending, oh, 100 leva (50 euros), we’d spend 30. Penny wise and pound foolish, as it turned out.

See, the shuttle was cheap and we figured it would just whisk us right to the bus station, an easier trip than trundling with our bags onto the city bus and enduring a slow roll to the station. First mistake.

The van, it turns out, was pretty broken down. And they waited until they packed nine of us into an eight-passenger van (with all of our luggage!) before departing. That was bad. Then the van driver took the “short cut” through the back alleys around the airport, driving through slums and broken down houses that seemed to stun the two Asian students who we could only imagine must have been reconsidering their choice of “semester abroad” destinations.

The van had about 250,000 kilometers on it and it belched and creaked all the way to the bus station. Once we mercifully arrived, we wandered into the station to get our tickets. The place is a maze of windows and Cyrillic words. We can’t read Cyrillic, so we wandered to the first window, muttered “Blagoevgrad?” and, voila! … two tickets for 10 levas each. We had to wait for a bit, so we settled in, had a bite to eat and waited for our “ride.”

Being the planner/worrier of the family, I scoped out the “platform” and waited for the bus to get there. About 15 minutes before the scheduled departure, we saw our bus. I checked the window placard to make sure it was going to Blagoevgrad (Благоевград) … and we were in luck.

We dropped our bags under the bus and climbed aboard, giving the “receipt/tickets” to the driver. That’s when the trouble began. He immediately became agitated and grabbed a sign that said the ride is “15 bgn” not the 10 we had paid. While he was demanding more money, Melody sprung into action, expressing indignation at the rising cost of traveling back home and vowing to head back inside to set things right. The bus driver said, “bus is leaving” and angrily sat down and waved us into a seat behind him.

I started to wonder if maybe I had misread the sign. Melody asked the driver, now urgently, “is this really going to Blagoevgrad?” Annoyed, he waved yes and basically indicated it would now be best to just shut up. So we did. We shut up, we didn’t move. We whispered amongst ourselves and wondered what the rest of the people on the bus thought, since none of them spoke English — or maybe they just figured it was our problem to work out.

The driver drove angry all the way back and didn’t even brighten much when I tipped him a little for his trouble. We slinked away, jumped in a cab and headed for home, a refuge from the “big city” of Sofia, our memories of warm sun, soft rain and the embrace of dear, dear friends already distant.



  1. And the stray dogs! Forgot about them until the “shuttle van” almost smacked into one on the way to the bus station. Surely these animals would be hit by a bus or light rail in any other country that has efficient public transportation. And the air! Still smells like a coal furnace here. Just washed my hair this morning and tonight it smells like a campfire. Must learn to embrace chaos again.

  2. OY! Is there anything more annoying than the trip back to reality? But, I applaud Melody’s stepping up to the request for five additional, how you say, levas?

    Change of topic: I saw Jenna’s fb posting of the picture of you and Melody back in the day. It’s kind of freaky how much Mel & Jen look alike. But, at least Jenna can know she has a great chance of aging well!


  3. hey, it was an adventure! isn’t that why you’re there? it made a great story for me, anyway, to read in the comfort of my American office.

  4. […] like family and friends, but still it feels like we actually live here now.   Even with the bad experience at the airport upon our arrival. Even with the stray dogs.  And even with the polluted (4 x above minimum acceptable standards) […]

    • Thanks to this I have a clear view on what to expect when coming to Bulgaria later this year. Your tale has been detailed and helpful, I would follow you for more updates and news about the place.

      • I think I wrote wrote about 70 blog posts during our four years there. Fascinating place filled with wonderful people. Enjoy the journey.

      • I sure will. Thanks again

  5. Loved travelling with Melody! When we were in Prague, so many years ago, she told that cab driver exactly how much we would pay for the fare to our hotel. Despite his muttering about rich Americans we were delivered to our hotel. And at the airport in Amsterdam, facing an overnight delay, she landed a suite at a hotel close to the airport instead of 45 minutes away to be picked up at 5 A.M. I’m taking her along to negotiate for a car when you come back to the states! mom

    • She’s great with car salesmen. They hate her. I only go when it’s time to pay because I’m always willing to buy the first thing I am shown.

  6. Explanation of cheering: It must have been either a very smooth landing or the trip might have been off to a bad start, depends on the experience. There isn’t any particular “phenomenon” of Bulgarians cheering upon touchdown. In my experience, almost all of my landings were tough/shaky and when we got a very smooth landing, without any headaches and turbulence, we really cheered.

    Explanation of shuttle: Many drivers in Sofia are just crooks or need to carry more passengers to break even their business. It’s tough in Bulgaria.

    Explanation of bus driver: Two possible explanations. 1, he saw you were foreign and tried to suck you dry, or 2, you didn’t get on the right bus for your tickets.

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