An American in Sofia 

-published in Egoist (Bulgarian Lifestyle Magazine), July 2001.

The day starts to become a blur around 10:00 am. At this time the sun burns off the morning, melting things together. And I'd been waking up late, losing my mornings to my evenings. In the market, I ordered my double espresso and waited for the plastic cup to reform before risking a sip. I brought a paper and tried to understand the world. The stories of war and conflict, theft and murder rubbed off on me, like ink from the page, leaving my fingers stained like a criminal.

Everyone I meet asks me, "sus kakvo se zaminavesh?"(what do you do?) I don't have an answer, but I've started making them up just to make it easier. I lie that I'm studying this or that fact; "I'm studying the history of pravets". If I explain too much of my academic interests, that I'm an anthropologist interested in Bulgarian culture, someone inevitability offers to drive me out of town into the mountains where the real culture is to be found. But I am interested in Sofia, in how she moves and how she has grown.

After lunch, I went to the center to give film to be developed. On the tram there was a man who dropped his ticket, a child with a toy AK-47, and two grandmothers seated ever so perfectly in the light. At one stop, a man entered who looked like he had just taken a shower. He sat across from me and I couldn't help but not look at him. I am always suspect of those who look too fresh and clean in the middle of a summer day.

Waiting for the film to develop, I sat in the park behind the library. This was an invitation for a Roma woman and her daughter to talk to me. She asked for a cigarette and I gave her one. She asked to sit and I said yes. I didn't have a light and she told me I always should and then she proceeded to tell me my future, of women, of my marriage. All I understood was that I'll have to wait. I didn't want to hear my future, and I told her so. So I listened like an American lost in Sofia. And in the end I gave the stotinki and left. I had to go and pick up the film.

I lost the rest of the day to meetings. In between the coffee and the beer, I strolled the streets wondering where everyone is heading. Its just like models on the runway. Everyone is striding to the future. They are walking with a purpose learned from fashion TV. But such confidence is just a make-up that wears away with time.

Meanwhile, Lolitas fresh from the boredom of morning classes stroll in packs hunting entertainment. Tight skirts and mini shirts hang a little looser than intended on flesh just beginning to take shape. And their delicate limbs flutter with the hum of sexuality, of gestures tried and failed. And I'm stuck in my seat at the cafe using my periphery vision to linger in the folds of flesh. You can only drink coffee so often before the taste becomes simply bitter.

My bag on my shoulder has grown heavy. It is weighed down with my camera and all my bad intentions. I want to shoot strangers. I want to know what they are thinking, where they are going. But all I can risk is fleeting glances, risking this or that look, thinking of this of that possibility. And everyone else is also carrying their secrets in their bags. In purses and over-the-shoulder bags, in plastic bags and cloth shopping bags, people carry the weight of their possessions. 

I waited all afternoon for dusk. This is when the radiance of the blue sky takes over the responsibility of the sun, when white laundry emits an odd luminescence, something of the oddity of a discotheque turned on before the nightly crowd. It is during this time that the eyes recover from the glare of the day. The only thing that keeps Sofia's millions out in the mid-day sun are the lines at the Mobi-Tel offices. The old lines for bread have turned into lines to pay GSM bills. And people still squeeze together, looking for a gap to slip ahead of the others. 

Alexander Nevsky has been under going reconstruction. Workers are working to reapply the gold coating that caps the orthodox crowns. This has nothing to do with authenticity and everything to do with building a metaphor. This is part of an elaborate return to opulence. Sofia is looking for her former beauty. She is having an operation to restore her figure, the curves of her cupolas. She is also having a little internal work done. A new metro and Mercedes-Bienz buses help circuit the lifeblood of the city. Nonetheless, these are superficial successes, simply urban cosmetic surgery. And politically, the same face-lift is taking place. The Tsar's royal features replace Kostov and a Union of Democratic Forces fatigued by corruption and the responsibility for success3. Bulgaria must become a part of the European Union. Bulgaria is the Switerzland of the Balkans. The Tsar has lent his face, his lineage to the new. The success of his coalition is the promise of the new not the old. This is a return to the modern, to a Bulgarian modern formed before the World Wars and the failures of the 20th Century. This is the turn of the century. This is the promise of modern living wrapped up in every new issue of Nash Dom

On the way home I got stuck in the rain. I waited in a pedestrian underpass with a group of people weighing the odds of getting wet and getting home. The resident police officer reveled in the opportunity to talk to folks who otherwise would never stop to chat. He talked to a young boy with the sort of interest and respect that is only bestowed on young children with beautiful mothers. Meanwhile, I passed the time flipping through the photos I had just developed. I was happy and dissatisfied again. Happy with the newness of the past and dissatisfied with the flatness of the photos. Eventually, I decided to risk it and tucked the photos under my shirt and walked ahead. 

In the sheltered path of the neighborhood cultural center an odd collection of teenagers and adults mingled waiting for a break in the rain. The teenagers held their beer bottles like they know how, like weapons to which they have grown accustomed. I didn't look them in the eye and continued on towards home. Back at the table, back to my writing, I returned to the same view. The rain increased and decreased. With every upswing, heads popped out of the windows to watch the rain fall. After the rain, I walked around the market to piece together a meal. The shopkeepers have started to recognize me. After they learn that I'm a foreigner, they wonder why I'm not at the beach. I share their wonder. 

At this time of year, the streets are hollowed out with the first wave of vacationers. Everything is directed to the sea, The Black Sea. 

-Where were you? 

-I was at the Black Sea. 

-How are you? 

-I was at the Black Sea. 

 The night fell and the tungsten lighting kicked in. Everything was a lovely shade of yellow. The night light, the nightlife. The kids are at Popa. Coffee and Beer turn into Vodka and Beer, Whiskey and peanuts as the cellular phone signals rain down on the city. I have learned that radios and TVs are interrupted just before the phone rings with the hum of radioactivity. And people run outside to catch the words before they fall and splatter on the ground. 

Around 10:00pm, I decided to save my legs for Vitosha and not go out to a club. But then a call came and I was gone. At Mojito, the Latin bar in the former military club, the DJ was spinning a cornucopia of worldbeat. We took over a table and watched as a couple tried to squeeze their dance routine into the tight space. A group of Germans showed up and greeted us with a "hello", throwing their English around like cash. After awhile, a guy came over to greet the Germans. Their words mingled with the music such that all I could understand was that he too was a foreigner. There is a nod of the head between strangers in a strange land that implies immediate understanding, if not just sympathy. And I looked to where he came from and saw his wife, girlfriend, or something of the kind sitting in the corner alone and perfect in her pouty indifference. I debated whether or not to introduce myself. I saw Irina, my girlfriend, and I in them, a Bulgarian and a foreigner, an American. But I've lost the drive for such confirmation. 

An American in Sofia on the forth of July, America's Independence Day, forgets to look at the sky. 

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