Sofia and Soccer You can Smell

Posted by in Dispatches

Sofia RecyclesDay three in the crazy city of Sofia and all is well (<em>the picture to the left shows the efforts of the Sofia municipality to get sustainable as well as to get in the EU</em>). We’re in an internet cafĂ© that is big, bright and playing the Canadian singer Feist on the soundsystem, reaffirming this whole globalization thing once again. I’ve had a bit of a culture shock from laid back Utrecht to frenetic Sofia. People drive here like it’s the last trip of their life, and seem intent on taking as many other lives as possible as they go. It’s why, I’m told, there are so few cyclists here in this city of two million – it’s referred to as the “suicide way” to travel. Having retained health and limb to this point hasn’t been that hard though, the Bulgarians are very friendly and helpful, albeit a little grumpy and at times dismissive (like that cantakerous cabbie the other night). Guess I should’ve learned a little more of the language to ease my way into things here…Svetla and momThe first day we walked around with Svetla’s mom (pictured to the right with Svetla, near the National Palace of Culture, downtown Sofia.) and I found a way to send my presentation to the conference in Brazil in time for my prof friend Liz Miller to read it for me (she is a superstar). I had to sit in a little tiny office on the first floor of a very chic hotel called the Sofia Grand Hotel that was built here only a year ago. For eight Leva ($6 CAD) I was able to use the wireless network for two hours. It was pretty strange sitting in the office with the two business guys who work for the hotel at the other two desks. Mission accomplished, we went back to the Turnin flat for a delicious Bulgarian dinner. Later we met with Svetla’s friends downtown and bar-hopped until 2 AM. They are all great people who definitely know how to have a good time. At one point I wandered off and found a great little bar called Genghis Khan, and the Mongolian-Bulgarian owner even indulged me in some of her special Mongolian vodka by the same name as the bar. The vodka wasn’t for sale, and was only for “friends,” so I was very grateful indeed. I am going to try and buy a bottle from her next week to bring back for Sergeo Kirby, the vodka connoisseur.

The next day (yesterday) we got up pretty late once again, and I had my usual exchange with Svetla’s family: “Ezra Hungry!” followed by “Manger, Manger!” and “Eat, Eat!” Svetla’s mom is very dedicated to stuffing us with delicious Bulgarian dishes the entire time we’re here, which is very lovely and very filling too. I even got in trouble for not keeping up with the meals and not eating enough and fast enough.

I’ve learned a little bit about Bulgaria and all the corruption that is carried out by “fat necks” – the Mafia and their henchmen, former wrestlers. They are quite the bunch of criminal pigs, and their dirty greedy system threatens Bulgaria’s hopes for membership in the EU, although many here are confident that it will go through in January next year. Many of the police here are equally corrupt and stand around looking very mean and angry, smoking cigarettes and waiting to extort some money from someone. Wisely, I’ve temporarily given up my habit of provoking authority, as in this country the rules are significantly favoured toward authority. A large part of the corruption system seems to be privatization and the selling off of parts of the country, including Telecom (for 200 million Euros by an offshore company who then turned around and sold it to an Austrian company for 950 million Euros only an year and a half later) gorgeous beaches, and even ancient ruin sites.

Socialist BlocsThe photo on the left is one of the Soviet-era “blocks” that are throughout Sofia.

Bulgaria as a nation is almost 2,000 years old, and so there are some pretty established traditions here, one of which is going to football matches (“soccer” to us Canucks). So, Svetla’s friend Christo invited me out to watch local soccer stars Levsky take on an Italian team. Bulgaria has recently banned drinking at the games due to stadiums being set on fire, fighting and even bombings, so you can imagine my relief when I learned that I was going to a “dry” game! Christo and I met his other friends and began drinking a large bottle of beer like we were in the desert – the method now employed by most male soccer enthusiasts here prior to attending a match – and we headed to the stadium.

Squat shopsPictured on the right is one of many “squat shops” that sell liquor and other goodies 24 hours a day, throughout Sofia. It’s a pretty strange experience to be two meters tall and order a beer from someone who is looking at your socks, let me tell you.

Our seats were good ones and cost a little more (six bucks), and apparently – according to Svetla’s sister – we were in the “cultured” section of the stadium. Christo’s friends had prepared me for this cultural experience by teaching me the chants on the way, drinking 2 Litre plastic bottles of beer in the park, and buying rolls of sunflower seeds for the game. The actual game was my first ever and indeed it was an insane experience. There were 20,000 fans there, 95 percent male, and you could feel the testosterone like a thick mist of maleness. Outside and inside the stadium there were all kinds of police, at first I thought we might have accidentally stumbled on a police conference instead of a soccer match. With armed cops damn near numbering fans, their marching in riot gear and on horses added a certain thrill to the experience. We had good seats, which we barely sat in, and I think I am still a little deaf from the enthusiasm of the fans in our section. One especially talented poet – an older chap in his sixties probably – had mastered the artistry of expletives and performed non-stop for the entire 90 minutes of the game. He only stopped yelling insults during half time to bathe himself in cologne, applying it generously to his crotch, torso, face and hair. As the cheap perfume wafted toward me, he looked at me dripping in the stuff, and offered the bottle to me. “Nee, merci” said I. Christo kindly translated the cologne poets words for me throughout the match, and it’s safe to say most of his comments involved mothers (sometimes “blind mothers”), monkeys, and certain physical acts. In the end Levsky won 2-0 and we continued the night by celebrating until the wee hours.

The night ended with a little drinking, and a little dancing at Sofia’s sweet little bars (including many in the middle of parks – for awesome outdoor drinking pleasure). Tonight is a night off from the great scene here, as we prepare for our trip to the mountains this weekend and to the seaside early next week.