The cafe where I sit is a tiny room by the side of a busy road that passes through the mountains from north to south towards where the capital city sits. There are the usual derelict buildings nearby, of unknown industrial nature, and the coldness of high pine trees, icy air.
A woman at the counter wants some water and offers a 20 lev note for a small bottle that will cost 1 at most. The note is given back to her, a gift because there is no change. She shuffles outside in the way of an overweight pensioner with hip trouble, and comes back moments later with a few coins. There is laughter, a surprise gift back to the cafe.
The owner here is a small neat woman with glasses and bobbed hair that blondes at the tips. The room is a homely place, with checked fabric tablecloths and a profusion of plants, both real and plastic.
The foreigner in the corner, me, has stored the pot of garlic infused vinegar that sits on the table so now the air is full of delicious garlic smell as she sips her coffee and waits for food. She has ordered blind from the menu, knowing only that pork and potatoes will arrive.
There are four pensioners in the room, all come off the same minibus. They drink coffee with shaking hands, eat banitsa and joke with each other in wheezing, croaky laughter. There are others outside, doing the same over their cigarettes.
One buys a scratchcard and it sets off a wave of purchases. ‘Kismet’ says the neat woman, as she walks from table to table, fans out the cards for each one to make a selection; because we are all hoping for the mighty hand of fate to reach down and change our abject lives, like magic.
Other men come in, regulars. There is hand clasping and patting of arms and they get served without having to order. One asks what food there is today and the neat woman lists a few things, beans, mousaka, spinaka. How big are the beans, he says, teasing. Football beans, she teases back, and there is gentle smirking.
I am served pork steak and chips, onto which I spoon the garlic sauce, plus salt to replace my sweating. The warmth of it makes me shiver, it is the first hot food in my body after three days spent outdoors, crossing a mountain.
I sit in the corner and watch the room, underneath a TV that nobody is watching as it mutters cookery programmes. There are rows of jamjars lining the windowsills, figs, raspberries, honey and tiny wild strawberries collected from high on the mountain. There is homemade yoghurt for sale in earthen pots.
The pensioners board the bus and it drives away to the north. I pack away my electronics where they’ve been gulping precious charge from the wall and prepare to leave.
The clock ticks and the cafe lives. There is faint clattering from the kitchen and the smell of hot meat on the grill. I thought this cafe was a transitory place in my life but now I see that it is me that is the transitory thing.
As I leave I see a sign on the door that shows this tiny warm room is available 24 hours. The neat woman doesn’t say goodbye to me, she is busy with new customers.