I’ve had two rest breaks so far, one in a hostel in Rachiv, on the border of Ukraine and Romania, and a Christmas spent in Bucharest with visiting family. I thought my luck had run out, that I’d have no more friendly contacts ahead and would find a random hostel to spend a week in. Not so, my lovely friends Joel and Beth invited me to crash their housesit. They were in a beautiful house for the entire month, not 50 miles from where I was planning to stop walking. Even more amazingly, the house owners were amenable to this situation – their internet-arranged housesitters inviting an unknown friend to stay. Oh the power of having your own website that shows impressive things about you. It’s this woman, they said. Oh yes, of course! And so I was lucky enough to stay for a week in a beautiful house with three dogs of varying temperament, from manic to catatonic, and have lovely relaxing times while the weather warmed outside and the snow disappeared.
I drank a few bottles of wine at the start of the week, my holiday treat, but stopped by the middle of my week off, thinking I’d have all the alcohol out of my system. I didn’t count on the farewell dinners. First came the night when S and D returned, we had a great meal together and shared travel tales. Then I went back to Tim in Mindya, he freshly returned from a trip to Kiev where he’d spent time with the people who’d welcomed me there at the start of my walk and had made our connection possible. There was wine there too, broaching the bottles I’d bought him as a thank you and beginning the meal with rakia, as is tradition in Bulgaria. We ate chicken and rice and apricots, fussed his patient dog and talked about photography, amongst many subjects.
Then I was off! Leaving Mindya to head over the hills north of Veliko Turnovo and towards another village where a host awaited, the final contact made possible by a helpful man with lots of knowledge of Bulgaria. It rained overnight and I was tired, out on my first night camping in a fortnight. The problem with trying to follow paths in Bulgaria is that sometimes they end unexpectedly, even when you really feel like it would make sense for them to carry on, being that there’s another path to link up with not much further on. They don’t care though, they just end, so you find yourself pushing through forest. The problem with Bulgarian forest is that it’s very spiky. Extremely spiky. Impassably so.
It took care and patience to extricate myself, pulling holes in the brand new clothes, freshly worn, posted to me in my supply package the previous week. The flag on the back of my rucksack, the same one that accompanied me around Wales, was torn almost in half.
The problem is that I’m not in the tourist areas, the mountains have long paths but here, on the maps, there are roads or nothing. I see packed earth trails leading into the fields but I daren’t take them. They may lead me a mile or two in the right direction but if they run out I will be in spiky hell, with no way further and only a backwards trudge to the road to solve the route puzzle.
I spent one final night with British speaking people, an evening get together in the local bar, and I was finally on my way out to solo walking again. No further stops planned until I reached the next big city of Lovech, where I sit now, compiling this blog.
I didn’t walk very far that day, a detour to see a waterfall and small gorge trail took almost all day; climbing up and down the gorge sides, with the aid of some extremely ancient and shaky ladders, was a great effort as my huge rucksack dragged me downwards. I felt all the healing progress of my week off reduced back to zero again in two short miles, knees creaking.
That night I was exhausted, realising that I’d been tipsy three nights out of the previous five. No good, if I want to push my body to athletic feats. This is the part of my story that strongly diverges from the style of Dervla Murphy. No more booze, well, only occasional doses, until my next long rest break. I slept long and deep that night, in my tent on the edge of a freshly seeded field, the grass finally growing thickly enough so that my tent wasn’t covered in earth as I packed away. I’ve watched these fields grow as I’ve been walking, at first they’ve been bare earth, then fuzzy green which seems like I might camp there but when I come close I realise it’s mostly soil, then more recently, the grass has grown enough to support a tent for the night, and I am no longer worried about clinging dirt.
And then, there I was, walking west, and I’m back to what is my normal. Heading out between small villages, avoiding the bigger roads, trying to walk 15 miles a day but settling for anything above 12, finding good food to eat and searching for small conversations.
The problem here is that there just isn’t anyone to talk to. Villages are empty, houses crumbling.
There’s a quietness about Bulgarian people. Resignation. Organised crime has a stronghold in government, corruption is rife. The minimum wage and pension rates are the lowest in Europe (250 and 190 euros a month respectively, 82% and 70% less than the UK); food prices are not proportionately low, I pay less for food here than I would in Britain but not 75% less. When I see people in the villages, when they don’t smile, or call out to me, I have to remember, everyone is struggling here. N, the friendly man who gave me Bulgarian lessons during my rest week, said Bulgaria is crime. When people steal from each other, small crime, petty theft like wallet swiping, as I’ve been warned about here, it’s because they are desperate. Simply by being British I automatically have so much more than them.
There’s no hostility here, as I sometimes felt in Romania, no sideways glances or cold silences; people have felt curiously disinterested in me. Perhaps they’re tired. Tired of people leaving, of buildings crumbling around them, of the genuine lament that things aren’t like they used to be. Barely any children in the villages, just pensioners. No work here, just migration, to cities and abroad.
I pass empty water troughs, where water used to trickle down through a series of stone levels, providing access for multiple animals and also the place for washing clothes. There are machines for that now, and the springs are stopped up. The stone backs of the springs proclaim their dates, 1975, 1962, as the grass chokes them and the stone crumbles, like proud Roman ruins.
I was surprised the first time I saw a set of funeral notices, an entire bus shelter papered with announcements, carefully next to one another, no overlap. They all have the dates on them, curling ornamental edges, pictures of flowers or birds, and a photograph of the deceased. I think people do the same as I learnt in southern Romania, hold regular remembrance gatherings for a number of years after the death. I see entire walls covered in pictures of dead people, their faces set in impersonal portrait posings. Is it strange, I wonder, to keep your dead neighbours with you, to see their faces every day.
I stop for breakfast in a small town one morning, sitting on a handy concrete corner and laying out the food and drink I’ve just purchased. An older woman passes me, smiling gently. I look over later and see her paused in front of the wall of pasted paper, it’s big here, must be 20 metres long. I stare covertly, wondering if she’s fulfilling my expectations, caught in a sudden remembrance for those lost. She isn’t, her head is down, focused on tearing apart a small pastry and holding pieces of it out to one of the dogs that are peacefully roaming the village square. Another comes and stares at me hopefully for a while, as I spear pieces of cooked meat on my knife, eating carefully around the blade. He is a barrel chested collie with incredibly short legs, I see a few like that, the corgi strain runs strong.
Every night the jackals howl with the onset of darkness. They are the happiest things about Bulgaria to me. I imagine the cameraderie of calling out together regularly throughout your day, of shouting to your neighbour who is also your cousin, and both reaching your noses to the sky to yodel with all your strength. I don’t know if they hunt together, looking for deer or boar, or if they’re solitary hunters, nipping at mice. There are groups of them calling, I hear the closest ones clearly, then others echoing more distantly. There haven’t been any very close to me, I’d probably stop enjoying it so much if I was actually discovered by jackals in the night, even if I don’t think they’d attack me.
I see butterflies and hare as I walk the roads during the daytime. I pass through clouds of scent, hawthorn is the first bloom of the year and every tree sounds a low hum of attending bees. The sky has been clear blue this week, with squiffs of cloud, marker pen scribbles.
I am surrounded by high ridges of hills at times, the geology here forms gorges, rubbles of rock and exposed stone cliffs running above me. Stone bursts from the hillside, blooms of rock where I am used to trees and scrubland. The colours are yellow, with the grey of winter grassland and the occasional shocking green of ploughed and planted fields. Soon it will all change, the leaves are budding and I have seen violets flowering, crocuses too.
Further south of me there are mountain tops, ghostly in their snow covered whiteness, pale, in mists and barely seen. I will walk parallel to them for two weeks, in bright sunshine, and then turn and cross the Stara Planina, heading for a more southerly border crossing into Serbia.
Bulgaria is beautiful, even in its crumbling, unattended glory. Empty houses are missing glass from window panes, roofs are sagging, the red stone tiles undulating in an uneasy pattern. I see dreams in empty houses, the desired futures of those who once were there, their clothing still rotting on the floor, blown leaves and rubble on bare floorboards.
The population is shrinking here, down by more than a million, from its communist peak, by 2005, and has shrunk further since. Just under 7 million people live in the whole country, in terms of population density, Bulgaria is number 144 in the world.
I think of these desperate people going abroad to work when they don’t want to, when they’d rather be in their own culture, rather be raising children in their own country, the country of their hearts. “Everyone has a relative abroad” said N, my Bulgarian teacher. “The country would fall into chaos within one month if they stopped sending money home. We run on tick. All those small shops, they have a book where people say they’ll pay in two weeks. I have a book in my taxi. People must get places but they can’t afford to pay. My book is full.”
He has worked in the UK in the past but came home because he wanted to raise his children here. But he wants to go back.” In the UK I didn’t have to worry about money, I had a good job as a lorry driver and didn’t have to look at food prices. Here I am always worried about whether we have enough, every month.” He shows me his letter containing a National Insurance number. “Is this enough? Can I go back and work?” I have to tell him that I have no idea. Britain’s future relationship with this Bulgarian man is a complete unknown to me.
I feel sad and ashamed.
So many versions of statistics exist, so many distortions of truth on all sides that it’s impossible to know what the real situation is. Even if Britain is a net contributor to the EU, even if I only focus on the ways that the EU costs Britain and not what we get in return, we have voted to stop giving. It is an ungenerous act. Tricked into thinking we do not have enough, when really our living standards are amongst the highest in the world. Nobody pulls water from wells in the UK. A two car household is completely normal. Austerity is a manufactured concept that has brought us to resent what others seek, to guard our pile fiercely, the rats squabbling in the garbage heaps at the foot of the castle walls. Capitalism tells us that what we have isn’t enough, that there is always a higher standard to aspire to, so we’re deluded into the false poverty of bemoaning our comfortable, warm, well kept houses that don’t have a pool or a wine cellar or a third toilet. In Britain, nobody, no matter how rural, unless they have chosen to, walks to the end of their gardens to shit in a small shed that covers a hole in the ground.
It’s a strange feeling, to be walking through the EU, heading towards a country that has chosen to give this up. Bring back visas, customs taxes, keep people out. I’d rather choose a world that heads towards integration, not separation. But separation is what keeps rich people rich isn’t it. We plundered the world in the time of empire and now we can’t allow those subjects equality because they’ll take what we have gathered. We want to reach out from our island and stir our finger in world politics, sell arms, drop bombs, create tax havens, but then shut the gates, turn away from the consequences of any of those dirty decisions, the human flotsam, turning up on our actual doorsteps. Our quality of life is harming the planet but let’s not give a single thing up.
Many subjects mixed into one rant there and perhaps an insight into why I’m walking across Europe at the age of almost 40, rather than paying my mortgage and working an office job, shopping on the weekends like a good obedient subject.
British politics is mired in toxic treacle and from over here it looks like nobody is going to end up on the winning side, a thoroughly unsatisfactory result for all involved. What do I do? Nothing, avoid it, pretend it’s not happening. Same action for many, I feel.
I continue walking, my own way of sticking my head in the sand.