My wife Liuba is from Omsk, and many hard, frozen, poverty-stricken years there did nothing to damage her health.But all it took was four winters amid the belching smokestacks and poisoned atmosphere of Moscow for her to contract a chronic bronchial infection. During her last two years in the megapolis, often amid endless bleak rains that more and more prevail there because of climate change, our apartment was starting to sound more like a tuberculosis ward than a homey domicile. As Liuba hacked and spluttered, coughing up some kind of grimy black substance, I knew I had to do something.
But what to do? I was a foreigner with less years still in front of me than behind, and I didn't have any idea about how to get an ипотека (which in the US or UK would be called a mortgage). I am sure we could have found a way by putting everything in my wife's name, but, or so I reasoned, who in the hell wants a 20 or 30 year commitment to either a tiny shit-hole in the center (vastly overpriced) or a bigger shit-hole in the regions, far from the center were my work was? A charming situation it would be if I died and left years of obligation to my wife. I am old-school enough not to engage in a courtship with terminal debt. No thank you.
So a genie holding a candle lit a fire in my head, and I decided that we should buy property in Bulgaria. A multitude of Russians were doing this, and I had spent time there before. Liuba and I qualified for permanent residence in Bulgaria because we were both technically pensioners. It's a long story, so just trust me. At the time Russia was riding the Gazprom pony and all was well. Of course, there was no Plan B and the party has long since ended, but just a few years ago the ruble amounted to more than monopoly play money. 1,000,000 rubles was 33,000 dollars. Now it is less than half that.
Besides, Liuba hated our rented Khrushchevka which to her mind was run-down and ugly. To me, it sparkled of old-world Russia, but I guess I am just a hopeless romantic. We flew to Bulgaria. I had actually had an earlier Bulgarian experience in the ancient city of Plovdiv, (I highly recommend it if you go traveling in Bulgaria). But it is in a valley, and living there would have been counterproductive to Liuba's health. Therefore, I looked on the map and chose -- sight unseen-- the seaport of Varna.
Turned out to be a great choice. We found a nice Bulgarian real estate man in Moscow, and he arranged for a colleague to meet us and show us around. The sea was everywhere; the streets were full of holes, and the restaurants gave large portions. (Two out of three: not bad.) After two days of intensive inspection, Liuba chose a small but beautiful apartment in a modern complex standing two-thirds of the way up a steep slope and overlooking the sea at a distance. The apartment had a huge balcony, and from this balcony, the view of the Black Sea on the one side and the City-scape on the other was spectacular, especially at night.
The Black Sea sold us the apartment. Back in America I had heard of the ‘Black Sea’ and always been intrigued. I am a sucker for these strange names and sounds; my dick gets hard every time I try to say Sevastopol or Novosibirsk. That the Black Sea turned out to be as blue as the Lake of Galilee was no problem.
The path beside the building led down to a vast open space where cars, trucks, and many taxis hurtled back and forth, and --if instead you headed uphill from the apartment complex -- to a series of winding, intimate, mostly unpaved alleys among which were many houses of all descriptions, a constant symphony of barking dogs, and the bright cries of roosters to greet the morning. I knew our dogs would be OK up there.
Back in Moscow, we then had to decide whether to sell the car or not, with the option of buying a new one in Bulgaria. No way, said Liuba. She loved the car I had bought her. Nor was I willing to risk putting our precious dogs on an airplane, stowing them in the baggage area. Huh-uh, no, no, no.. I had read about disasters with animals on account of freezing, bad air supply, etc. Moreover, I had good reason to believe that airport staff do not really concern themselves too much with the welfare of animals. and that if something bad DID happen, there would be nothing I could do. So Fuck them and fuck that. We decided to drive the car from Moscow to Varna. The plan was that I would then return to Moscow and work to earn the Big Rubles (haha).
Of course (and here is the underlying nightmare without which this article would never have been written ) we had to deal with the matter of visas. By this time, the situation in Ukraine was at its worst, and so it required very little deliberation to decide to go via Belarus and Poland. An American guy, a Russian woman, two dogs, and a car with a Russian license plate did not seem like the best combination in war torn Ukraine. The trip would be longer but not as potentially deadly.
I was at work all the time in the run-up to our journey, so Liuba got her Bulgarian visa (giving her the right to enter the country) and she did all the labor in obtaining for me a one-day, one-way transit visa through Belarus. Alas, neither of us considered the fact that Liuba would need a Schengen visa to enter Poland from Belarus. Liuba thought, if she thought about it at all, that the visa for Bulgaria would be enough. Nor did it occur to any of our friends to ask; they probably just assumed that we had more sense than in fact we had.
Ho-ho-ho, how could any of us have imagined that life could be that simple? It happens that Bulgaria is European ZONE while Poland is the European UNION, whatever the son-of-a-bitching fuck difference THAT ought to make. But it was catastrophic in terms of almost ruining our trip.
I had carefully booked dog-friendly hotels at what appeared to be logical stopping points along our projected three-day journey. The first day, once we finally got out of Moscow, was exceptionally fine. The road to and through Belarus is Excellent, and we came steaming into the clean city of Brest at a very sociable evening hour and soon found our hotel where all of us, Poppy and Cass included, were welcomed with open arms. And aside from the eyebrow-raising fact that one glass of beer cost about 100,000 Belarus rubles (the value of a wheelbarrow full of gravel), everything was splendid.
Meanwhile, I had heard many tales about how long we would have to wait at the border -- or rather two borders: one getting us out of Belarus, and the other, about 200 meters beyond, the checkpoint for admittance into Poland. So we rose early, drove to the border, hoped for the best and expected (as it is alway wise to do) the worst. I say this because we had NO IDEA what THE WORST could actually turn out to be. All we knew was that it would probably take about three hours to get through each checkpoint.
In the morning we sailed into the double check point and counted off the hours. The dogs were behaving marvelously, the weather, as I recall, was good, and by about 15.00, we pulled up to the last border control window at the edge of the Polish frontier: the doorway to Europe ! The land of Chopin’s birthplace stretched out before us, visible and waiting like a young tart on the docks waving a bright hanky at a couple of sailors. Confidently, we handed our passports to the last man between us and the rest of our new lives. Our personal welcoming agent.
"Where is your Schengen visa?" he politely asked my wife?
"I have a visa for Bulgaria," she replied.
"But that is not sufficient to get you into Poland."
Silence. Like a Siberian wasteland when the wind has died.
"What???” Then, “Well, wh-wh-wh-what can we do?" we both asked, incredulous.
"Your husband can go to Poland and wait for you. He is American. But you are Russian. So you must return to Brest and get a Schengen visa."
We were stupefied. Speechless. I can imagine it feels like this just before you are hanged or beheaded. Can this be happening, you wonder, gaping at the hooded executioner? The fact that he is sharpening his axe while offering you a blindfold suggests that it is.
Mechanically, dejectedly --deflated like two punctured balloons --we turned around and went back to get in line for another three-hour wait for the inspection to allow us to return to Belarus, to Brest. Somehow, despite my "one-way" visa, we were allowed back in because, well, after all, this visa did not expire until midnight, though I was assured that it would become invalid upon the very stroke. Then there might be trouble, a strategically raised eyebrow informed me.
Maybe just go on to Poland and wait? -- I was urged.
And leave my wife and dogs to fend for themselves? And do what in Poland for two days? Wait by the side of the road? No, thank you. And, you know, sometimes it helps to be of a rebellious nature. Because at that stage I didn't care what the Belarus authorities might think. My place was with Liuba, Cass, and Pop. And in my mind, we had done nothing wrong except commit the cardinal sin of an oversight which it should have been possible -- in a sane world -- to rectify at the border (as I had once needed to buy an impromptu visa at the Istanbul airport just to enter Turkey.) But of course, a permit to drive a few hours through Poland was NOT possible. Liuba would have to go back and get a Schengen Visa. And I would go with her.
Back to Brest we headed as darkness began to fall. Shell-shocked.
We drove aimlessly among the suddenly barren, raw, almost hostile (in our jaded minds) streets -- streets which had seemed so friendly in the morning -- not knowing what embassy would be the best one to head for. Russian? Polish? Bulgarian? American? We pulled over here and there and asked people at random where such-and-such might be, and in fact we had no memory at all of how to even get back to our hotel. My wife spoke to them in Russian which they would have understood. But we might as well have been asking them if Tiffanies in Manhattan was still serving breakfast. Embassies?
But it wouldn't matter at this hour. Embassies stop receiving guests pretty early in the day.
I can honestly report that we were lost -- lost in the way that only modern people can be lost when civilization betrays them and even momentarily collapses and they find that their gadgets don’t work any more. Like when the computers in the packed commercial aircraft freeze up and refuse to tell the pilots what to do; like when the elevator stops between the 85th and 86th floor on Friday evening at 11.00 pm after you have worked late and now the great building is empty; like when the riptide pulls you far from the shore and other people look at you waving and assume you are having fun; like when you have Alzheimers and wonder frantically who you are.
Yet life is not all bad. Sometimes there are angels. And we found one. This meeting with an absolute stranger remains among the most cherished encounters of my entire life.
TELL IT TO THE MOUNTAIN
By the time we got back into Brest, it was late afternoon, and the cracks in the pavement were beginning to show. There is a special starkness or rawness to life along the streets in small Eastern European cities, something suggestive of frail or nonexistent infrastructure, something threadbare and only partially patched, and, frankly, most of the people you see at bus stops and wandering along the streets -- once you are passed them -- seem beyond what even the most astute and attentive elephant could remember.
In American backwaters, One Starbuck towns, and gas-and-convenience store burghs in the boondocks-- or in British and West European whistles tops-- there is usually some kind of superficial warmth, a coffee shop mentality that prevails along the high street. These familiar points of reference seem inviting rather than forbidding.
In the broken asphalt and deserted office complex communities of Eastern Europe, however, including those in countries still in the Russian constellation (though thankfully no longer under its direct control), there is no such indication of hospitality. Due to the architecture, the weather, and the totalitarian grayness bestowed by generation after generation of stern, blanched, grim, pinched-faced, iron-fisted tyrants and their skull-bludgeoning flunkies, these dim cities are nowhere you would want to find yourself homeless in after dark. Not that you would die from violence anymore (go to America if you want that); more likely, you would just evaporate into the terminal dreariness around you, that is if sheer boredom didn’t vaporize you first. The only thing that would come to your rescue would be if you had a fetish for squalid, going-out-of-business strip malls and the lazy sleaze in the eyes of indifferent women doing time behind the windows and counters.
Still bamboozled and bummed out, we paused here and there and from rolled down windows in our car, requested information: Does anyone know where the Polish Embassy is?
You might as well have asked them how to get to the Grand Canyon or the moon. Even though they could understand my wife perfectly, they drew a blank. “Hmmm. Polish Embassy. Polish Embassy. Polish Embassy. Isn’t it in Poland?” -- It wasn’t that they were hostile. They seemed simply oblivious.
“Maybe the Belarus Embassy?”
“We are in Belarus, am I right?” I asked a bit sarcastically in my choppy Russian.
There appeared to be no further point in continuing the conversation. We drove on.
I sound like I am mocking the citizens of Belarus, when in fact nothing could be further from the truth, and which is why I prefer Eastern Europe to the West. There are gritty realities in this part of the world and very few tears shed over them, at least not in public, but once you break down a barrier or two -- and you can do this by buying beer, cigarettes, potatoes, and onions from the same shop on a regular basis-- you begin to receive half- smiles and nods. In the Soviet past, you would have done well to imagine that secretive accomplices were signaling from the bushes, while sinister spies lurked among the spider webs behind the walls. But nowadays it would be almost all in your imagination.
Maybe it’s because I grew up in America and simply became bored with predictable encounters, or maybe it’s just a quirk in my personality, but at this point I would walk away from the aggressive and militant identity politics which make American and British women both dangerous and repulsive (in my opinion). I have long found Russian and East European girls more desirable. In my case it has nothing whatsoever to do with male chauvinism or being able to impose my masculine will on anybody. In truth, the slavic-type ladies are actually tougher and more survival oriented than their Western ‘sisters’. But even in the direst circumstances, they seem able to preserve, enjoy, and enhance a cosmic femininity as opposed to creating an adversarial and increasingly bitter stand-off between the sexes.
Furthermore, with women, it’s often a case of pragmatic sexuality (East) versus an aerobic fuck followed by three trips to see the therapist (West). The Western woman wants a ride in a yacht and for you to insist that you don’t see her as a sex object. The average Eastern woman, with her tall body and pale good looks, wants the rent paid and a life free of alcoholic convulsions.
I don’t know why, but I have always preferred genuine bleakness to artificial brightness. Not out of pity, but rather because of my own debauched kind of sensuality. So if, sight unseen, if you asked me: “Do you want a woman from England or from Romania?” I would choose the latter. Not many would, but I would. Different from in the past.
We were left just driving aimlessly, unable even to remember exactly where our hotel was located. So finally, we just turned down one of the many destination-free sidestreets. Then suddenly I saw a guy -- 30-something, stout, intelligent-looking and approachable in appearance. He looked a little like the Marboro Man without the cigarettes. I told Liuba to pull over. The dogs stood up and peered out the window.
Soon, I recognised that he was willing to help, and so I summoned Liuba. Explanation and Understanding immediately followed. He called me over, and together (I had been walking the dogs as they talked), a covenant was reached. Rarely have I seen a man up close who seemed so self-assured, so casually equipped to make things happen, and without the usual pomposity and air of self-importance adopted by those who only imagine they can. And then he did an amazing thing.
He pulled out his phone and punched in numbers, and in a golden breeze, doors began to open, all problems were solved. He said ‘Do not worry’ and our miseries were wiped away. He told me to play with the dogs some more while he escorted Liuba to the Polish Embassy, which as it happened was just up the street. By now it was late, but (according to Liuba) Sergei made another phone call and suddenly there was an available appointment in the morning.
Then he told us to follow him and led us back to our hotel, calling in advance to make sure it was still OK to stay there. It was (the hotel needed the money). And he made arrangements to come and pick up Liuba in the morning and drive her to the Embassy or Consulate, or whatever it was. Which he faithfully did, his own dogs happily chomping in the back of his rough-and-ready just- for-work ride. I would wager that he had a sports car parked in his driveway.
His final act of kindness was this: he called the border patrol and told them to forget about the expired visa. “Do not worry,” he said. I stopped worrying.
I do not know who he was. Criminal or Saint. To us he was a saint. He pressed digits and things fell instantly into place. He would accept nothing from us but a smile and a byebye. Good Luck. Then, our lives handed back to us, we gazed at him and shook our heads.
I am straight not gay, but I confess that for a moment I knew that if I had been a woman I would have wanted him. This amazing guy, so easy-going, confident, powerful, handsome, and kind: he was the coolest guy I have ever seen. At the moment he said goodbye, I wanted to be him. Not have him, be him. (There is a difference !!)
That was Sergei.
So now the future was ours!! Except that we had to wait three days in the hotel for Liuba’s one-day Schengen visa through Poland to materialize. The prize we took away was some photos of the dogs and me, and the dogs and Liuba. We still have those photos. The dogs were younger then, and so were we. During this elongated trip, however, we grew gray hairs and the dogs didn’t. In fact, the dogs behaved better than we did.
Anyone who thinks that driving from Belarus into Poland is a cultural step up (Wow ! The E-u-r-o-p-e-a-n- U-n-i-o-n !!) cannot be thinking of the roads, and this holds all over Eastern Europe. Belarus may not be like Vatican City in terms of opulence, but it is certainly clean and at least the highway coming straight in from Moscow is exemplary -- smooth and silky (well, more or less) and misadventure free.
But then again, dictatorships sometimes present spotless roads to the public. Barbaric governments serve feasts to diplomats. Autocratic cruelty and stupidity preside behind the hedges of pretty gardens. The gnashing of teeth is drowned out by the fountains strategically positioned among botanical marvels.
Back to the border and another day of going through the same bullshit we had done previously. By the time we had run the gamut again and got through the last checkpoint barricade, it was almost dark, Liuba’s visit to the Embassy having eaten up most of the morning. So the night was falling and the Poles had closed down all windows but one. Single file we went, like a line of people waiting to receive a crucial vaccination of limited supply. Finally, presenting the cherished Shenghen visa, we were waved through to the terra firma of Poland, darkness sprawling about us, we indulged in about 20 seconds of euphoria -- and then realized what lay ahead.
The plans to stop at dog-friendly hotels were long-gone, and we would now have to wing it all the way to Varna. This would mean looking for inns which seemed so desperately in need of guests that even pythons and scorpions would be welcome. Fortunately for us, the dogs behaved (and continued to all the way) with remarkable aplomb and good cheer considering that these ‘big peoples’, as Liuba likes to call them, were confined to their backseat posts for long stretches.
During the interminable wait at the checkpoints I had been forced to hustle them in and out of the car (on leashes of course) to quickly relieve themselves. Not 10 seconds had passed before one of the piss-dongs in uniform started screaming at me to get them back inside in the car. I assume that this was because, as we were hovering at the border and technically in some kind of limbo or suspended animation with no claims to actually being ANYWHERE, neither we nor the dogs had any rights at all beyond the dungeons of our vehicles.
I would have told this poxy Nazi wannabe dick-sucker to go eat a pile of his Jewish Momma’s diarrhea , except that I wouldn't have put it past the cretin to simply shoot the dogs. And if he had done that, he would have had to shoot me too. I have a question for the world: Which is it? Do uniforms turn people into assholes, or is it that assholes go looking for uniforms?
The other two problems were that, first -- aside from a precursory study of a real map -- we could only rely on our navigator to guide us, and, for some reason, these gadgets don't always seem trustworthy -- especially if a local work crew is finally in the process of mending the road, and travelers passing through are forced to take an obscure detour. In such cases, the navigator is about as useful as a Google translation of a Bangladesh comedy spoken in dialect or the confessional poetry of an acid-head. The final tally is that you can end up on a dead-end street or in the middle of a cow pasture while the navigator swears up and down that you are powering point blank to your destination right in front of the White House.
As a result of our shaky navigation system, plus the confusing darkness and our own ignorance (I am sure), we wound up driving on treacherous, bumpy, Third World roads that maybe could have been avoided if we had really known the way. But then again, perhaps these were actually the main routes through Poland, Slovenia, Hungary, etc. And when I say that "we" were driving, I really mean that Liuba was at the helm because in fact I no longer possess a valid driver's license. (This, as we shall see, did not stop me from eventually taking the wheel.)
Since these strips of the road were predominantly two-lane pock-marked blacktop twisting around perilous mountain ribbons where most of the traffic seemed to consist of very large 18-wheeler trucks transporting massive cargo, the whole experience was more than nerve-wracking. Liuba did a yeoman's job but her inexperience of driving amid the circles of East of Eden's Hell threatened more than once to have us go sailing off the mountain into the crevice below.
It has to do with centrifugal force -- one should, as much as possible, bend into the curves instead of swaying way out to the last vestige of the perimeter. Poor Liuba didn't know this (she got her license when she was 54). Poor me, the cowering passenger, knew it all too well. The doggies knew nothing and were quite happy. Those hungry caverns yawned, inhaled sharply, and swallowed -- but somehow Liuba cheated them of their meal. Evidently, she wanted to live as much as I did. But after hours of this, she began to flag, and her eyes started playing tricks.
I bravely seized control. I am a great driver, but I lost my license back in the USA for DWI (driving while intoxicated) and never bothered to reapply when the suspension was up. So, to make up time and give Liuba a break, I took over. And was doing fine until I failed to slow down as we entered some small ville, whereupon I was stopped by the cops. O Fuck, I thought, no license and in the middle of a strange country. Luckily, the cops were young, jovial guys who spoke English and accepted 200 euros. Then we were on our way, but my wife was screaming at me over the lost money. We were getting tired, there did not appear to be any hotels available, and the night was looming darker and starker, the roads more and more treacherous, the grinding, whizzing, hammering, slashing roar of the passing trucks more and more ominous. Then, after stopping at a 7-11 for petrol, I spotted a hotel. Nothing fancy. But a hotel. The time was about 4.00 a.m.
We pulled in. I got out and marched to the door, slipped inside to the lobby and rang the bell. I was worn-out, smelly from cigarettes and the road, and when finally a bleary-eyed, nondescript woman in a sleep-deep nightgown appeared at the top of the stairs, I was at the point of supplication. In my best Russian I pleaded my case. "We are exhausted, we have two dogs with us, and all four of us need a place to sleep for a few hours. We will pay whatever you ask." To my astonishment, she agreed. What a great lady to accept our dogs !! I was ecstatic and -- anticipating full redemption in the eyes of my disgruntled wife -- I strode back to our car and beamed, "We're in. She said yes.".
Unfortunately, some people have different ideas as to what constitutes a dog.
Releasing Poppy and Casper from their car captivity and hooking them to their leads, we headed for the entrance again. Like a Roman chariot, it must have been, because when the massive, slavering hounds burst in ahead of me, dragging me in their wake, the woman let out a gasp as if she was afraid of being devoured. Or gang-banged.
"Noooo!" she squealed. "You can't bring them in here!" --
"But you said..!" --
"Noooooooooo ! Go away !!!!”
“All right then. Munch my marbles, you fucking Grunt Hog!”
And that was the end of the interview and our sojourn at the Bates Motel.
If Cass and Pop had been chihuahuas (or hamsters), we'd have been in the door. But not with big dogs. "No coloreds allowed" came to my mind, that old sign of racial discrimination from the Deep American South. I gave Liuba the bad news, let the dogs take a shit on the 5-star lawn, and got back in.
There was a fence nearby, opposite a closed dough-nut shop of sorts, and to me that fence looked a lot like a place to park for the night. I announced to Liuba that we would stop there, and I remembered the 7-11 back up the road. "I'm walking back to the shop," I told everyone. And I wandered up the hill. The malignant commentary of a peeved wife followed my footsteps.
Thank God for small mercies, they say -- because beer was available. In America, and now even in Russia, they cut you off in the shops at a certain time. Not in this part of Europe. I bought four tall cans of Heineken and went back to the car. Liuba was already muttering in her sleep, and the dogs, after wagging their tails and moaning and sighing a bit, settled down. I rolled down the window and lit a cigarette and opened the first of my stash. I sat back in defiance, knowing that tomorrow was going to be a marathon endured by two utterly spent people and a pair of gentle, compliant dogs that must have been wondering where they were going. By the end of the second can, I was happy enough. Two more cans, three pisses in the bushes, and about six cigarettes later, I felt rejuvenated and sweetly ready for rest.
I lay my head finally back on the seat, wishing now to stave off the daylight for as long as possible, and closed my eyes. I imagined I was riding on a greyhound bus back in America in the middle of the night between two distant northern cities. Or on a train in the South in whose drowsy, vaguely decadent cars there are only the silhouettes of the night-riders and the endless honey and grease of the gloom. A train of Negroes and poor whites and old strippers from juke joints and clubs.
Sometimes, I confess, I find this euphoria, driven usually by fatigue and alcohol, to be heaven -- if not the 'real' Heaven of the Christians, where golden roads are treated to the melodies of silvery harps -- nevertheless the place where my soul belongs, a halfway house of prostituted pleasures, a place where the blues are answered in sensuous undertones. A place where morning never comes to rip you open.
But sure enough, before long, the lights in the dough-nut shop came on and some early sugar-rush types went be-bopping in for their coffee and pudding-filled cakes. The offices would be blinking soon. It was time for Bonnie and Clyde and their two hostages to move on. So we did.
COUNT DRACULA’S DRIVEWAY
Having been roused by early patrons from our brief snooze opposite the do-nut shop, Liuba -- grumpy -- the dogs -- cheerful and questioning -- and I-- mottle-eyed and grizzled from not shaving -- remembered the job at hand, so Liuba cranked up the engine again and we resumed our travels, pretty much as vague and stunned in our sensibilities as we had been during the early phase of our disaster in Brest.
We stopped for coffee, then Liuba again fiddled with the navigator, and after a few hours of typically excruciating roads, we at last set foot (or wheels) in Romania. For me, this represented a small triumph because, somehow, I felt that the worst of the journey was over. (A thoroughly misguided perception.)
Romania seemed appealing for a number of reasons. For one thing, this country remains pure in that it is not overrun by boisterous, moneyed morons from the USA and UK, nor does it sport a “Welcome Newcomer!” billboard for no-hopers from the Lands of the Big Sand. In Romania, you meet Romanians. And there is another element, whom I will discuss shortly. Secondly, it is the last chunk of geography to cross before reaching Bulgaria (very important to us at the time), and thirdly, because I confess to a long fascination with the mysterious intrigues of Romanian culture and history. Of course, all the Dracula stuff and the multitude of strange and beautiful old castles sprinkled amid the Romanian mountains and forests are alluring, but I know also that it is the land of the gypsies.
Everybody hates the gypsies. Except me. Yeah, I have heard a slew of terrible stories about how gypsies are all drug dealers and hypnotists and thieves. And yeah I have been approached many times by gypsy women carrying somnolent babies either doped or dead. (You have noticed how they NEVER cry?).
As I have since found out, there are also many gypsies in Bulgaria and it is true that when they are not wandering around as perpetual nomads, they live in squalor. (I am getting ahead of myself, but there is such a 'community' even in Varna.) Gypsy kids have glowing eyes, like the Children of the Corn in the Stephen King story that became a famous film. They are sensuous and duplicitous from an early age -- charming in a way that some people find absolutely hideous, and as quick off the mark as flies in the hot kitchen of a roadside diner in Florida. And yet...when. along the streets I have encountered the liquid jewels in their eyes, eyes that smiled back at me, I have been seduced.. As if they sense something. As if they sense that I am not the enemy. And then I see a softness appear. Maybe this is just part of the game; but maybe it's nice not to be hated on sight.
If you think I am crazy, go ahead, but long ago, in Firenze, I used to sit in the piazza, and there was one gyspy woman -- late twenties or early thirties -- who used to come to me. After a time, I started going there deliberately, hoping she would be there and look for me. I could see that in the sweet catacombs of her mouth one tooth (maybe two) was missing, but those that remained were mostly gold. Her clothes were appropriately flamboyant, and clearly she was not a woman that 'respectable' people would ever consort with. Yet -- and this is just me, I have no explanation nor need to offer one -- there was something I found wildly erotic about her. She was, I think, the kind of woman who would lie down with you. She would fuck you and rob you. And you would go looking for her, not to hurt or kill her, but to forgive her, lie down with her and fuck her some more. And call her Honey. I guess that's why I still remember her after all these years. As I said, laugh if you must.
Anyway, we entered the seemingly endless ebb and flow of hills, mountains and valleys that sprawl across Romania, and found many villages. They twinkled. At one point in the afternoon, we pulled off the road into a field, walked the dogs, and -- at last putting paid to hours of frustrated bickering brought on by fatigue -- reclined the car-seats and more or less passed out for an hour or two. As we woke, we felt oddly refreshed.
Functioning while being extremely tired is a thing of the spirit, like an old-time blues band riding buses in the American Jim Crow South, or those pre-Elizabethan theater-troupers of long, long ago barnstorming among the English towns, stopping to put up their makeshift stages, performing their thespian comedies and blood-curdling dramas, passing the hat, swilling down the ale, and pressing on. For many people in this world getting tired isn't an option. In fact, you get so tired you don't feel tired any more. It is like a dream. And when you speak, you see the words literally float out of your mouth, hover in the air like drunken birds, and then abruptly dart into the cavities and nests of your listener's ears.
By nightfall, a soulless dark again made the whooshing trucks seem more frightening, and our stupor-like jolly mood was disintegrating. It had begun to look like there would again be no hotels, no decent stopping points, only a long night's journey into the day.
But then, post Sergei, came the second miracle. In America, the highways are punctuated periodically by what are called "truck stops', Long distance truckers, in a way rather similar to dedicated bikers, seem to form a gravelly-voiced, frivolity-free community of hard-asses. Even if they don't know each other, they know each other. They ramble and thunder across great distances, often from coast to coast, and here and there appear very basic, no-frills roadside bunkhouses where they can eat and sleep. No Chateaubriand or Steak Florentine but rather the hearty grub of lumberjacks. Sated, most of them just crash in their trucks, usually in some back-area space behind the seat. There are of course 'road-whores' who lurk around these truck-stops to accommodate the men. The cops usually don't bother them; they are just part of the landscape.
So, as we combed along the wrinkles of the road, all hope having been lost, I spotted a Big Truck 'complex' with a restaurant attached which seemed reminiscent of one of those American dine-and-recline, blow-your-nose-and-repose, shit-and-spit spots along the endless highways of the Red, White, and Blue. A voice inside me said, "Pull over."
I did, overriding my wife's cynical objections, and went in.
"We have dogs. Big dogs. We are tired and hungry. Do you have a room we can crash in?"
"No problem," the young Romanian guy said. And this time it worked; this time there was no dish-water hag in a snot-stiffened night-gown on the stairs to refuse us. The boy showed me to a perfectly clean little room with a TV and said in his broken but proud English, "Make yourselves at home."
"Can I get a meal in the restaurant? It's still serving?"
"And a beer," he answered. He must have been a psychic in his spare time.
We parked around the other side, and I guided poor Liuba and the now grateful dogs to our quarters.
Then I went to the restaurant, scarfed down the brightest, coldest beer in the land, and ate delicious food like a pig in a pantry.
"Tender is the Night" wrote F. Scott Fitzgerald. You bet. Sometimes it is.
The people in this restaurant all had some kind of special nocturnal energy that sang in their faces, and their eyes were big and without falsehood. It seemed they all knew each other and this was their hangout. In some places, when the patrons spot a stranger they immediately want to beat his ass, but these people were different. And it proved once again that, amid all calamity and discouragement, angels are flitting everywhere, like sparrows in the green trees of springtime. You just have to wait and look, with your heart wide open.
The only thing missing now was a wild gypsy woman with golden teeth to come and read my fortune and then undress like a pagan dervish. But what I had instead was my wife and my dogs, and they were more than enough to send me to sleep among the gods.
THE ROAD TO THE CANDLE
As night, sleep, and further dark palaces await us all, so do the piercing bugles and the pointy-toed boots of morning turf us out of our sanctuaries and strap us to hurdles that drive through the day. Sometimes it is different, of course: breakfast smells and time to kiss and the crowing roosters of the Dream Farm’s milky delights. Often it depends on how you have lived your life; other times it comes down to how lucky you are.
So it was with us, waking up at that truck-stop somewhere in Romania in an unsponsored, unadvertised Horn of Plenty. I rose first, squired the dogs around and about the large parking area and border of woods, gave Liuba a peck on the cheek, and went to breakfast. There I met a woman, something of a receptionist and tutto fare in the restaurant who proved to be, in her way, the second coming of Sergei from Brest.
Her name was Simone and she was an average-looking young lady but that morning she seemed as beautiful as a swan on a shimmering lake. It's good, I guess, that nowadays most people -- young people, I should emphasize -- can speak at least a smattering of English -- and Simone could. Better yet, she proved to be one of those kindred souls you occasionally meet who is never a stranger.
Simone took me under her wing and carefully explained how to find the main highway to Bucharest from which we could easily and smoothly glide straight down to Varna. She drew me a careful, lucid map, and later, after I convinced Liuba to eat a big breakfast also, Simone repeated her many acts of hospitality. Before we knew it, we were on our way, well-fed and rested. Jetting down an 'autobahn' as wide as an airport runway, heading towards the beckoning shadows of the Romanian capital.
Passing through a massive, unknown megapolis can be treacherous, and in Romanian towns and cities one comes repeatedly to what I call 'round-abouts' -- big circular obstructions that you must navigate around and then, keeping your wits about you at all times, instantly make the right choice and dive off down the correct route-- sandwiched among three or four other options-- which will put you on your way. Failure to do this can spell, if not disaster, for sure no less than a hell of a lot of trouble, confusion, and maddening inconvenience. The modern world, unlike the old one, is a lightning fast and ramrod straight proposition which doesn't offer much provision to merely turn back and retrace your steps. One bite of the apple and off you go to the Hell you have plucked from the tree. So you might as well tell yourself: "Ah shit, I didn't want to go to Bulgaria anyway. Switzerland will be fine." Because that's where you are fucking-well headed if you dart down the wrong bowling alley after the round-about...
I am a quick thinker on the road, Liuba much more methodical (which means I can think my way into an instantaneous Trick of Shit faster than she can, but I am usually a bit more snappy at squirming out of it (just ask the police in St. Augustine FL) -- and our slight language barrier (Liubov being Russian and no more masterful in English than I am in her native lingo), while presenting no problem in the general knock-about of life, sometimes leads to impromptu and decidedly rude shouting back and forth when barreling down the highway and suddenly faced with an enigma.. When in doubt, Liuba has this maniacal tendency simply to stop the car in the middle of the road, oblivious to the disbelieving cacophony of horns blaring "^%)*^#()*^)%$#I*))", which in English translates into Fifty Shades of Gray of the words " What the F-U-C-K are you doing, Woman ?!?!?!???" Liuba just ignores them while I sink down in my seat and turn green. The dogs bark with gusto: Happy Campers.
Needless to say, we made it to the Bulgarian border and beyond, or I wouldn't be writing this today.
Again euphoria. Afterwards, not unexpectedly, the slow disintegration of such glittering spunk. Gradually, the enervating hours endured on the Road and the sapping mountain semi-circles up-and-down, the disappearance of the day, and, too soon, the night. Surprise, surprise, thanks to our clever navigator, we ended up on some back road into Varna, visibility always impeded by the onrushing headlights of cars and trucks zipping towards and past us. And now and then some impatient bastard behind us eating our back bumper, wanting to squeeze us and make us go faster.
My discovery in life is that no matter where you are, there is always someone worth hating. Or am I just being too negative?
Ah but then, at long last -- the sign "Welcome to Varna."
For me it was pure, plain relief -- the kind I always feel when the aircraft I am on finally safely lands. Then I understand that my whole body has been clenched like a fist unconsciously holding a plastic fork from the box-lunch throughout all the pitch above the ditch of the airborne hours. Except for us, it had been six days of turbulence-upon-asphalt
“You Won!”-- an elated voice inside me spoke, but as if coming from the mountains we had just descended. Even better, You survived, the same voice said, pulling away from me and withdrawing amid the air-ghosts : the skeletal roads, the roar of engines, all: the jumbled bric-a-brac and debris and flotsam of a suddenly old odyssey, a vague aftermath and denouement, and now a vision arose like the fresh auguries of immortality that are renewed when a long illness departs at last, or a migraine finally leaves the brain stem.
The city was vaguely familiar. Innocently, I asked, "Liuba dear, do you remember how to get to our apartment?"
Wife: "Well, not exactly."
Husband: "Darling, do you have the address?"
Answer: "Not exactly."
What Liuba DID remember was the general direction. The fact is, I had only been to Varna a single time, when we had searched for, found, and negotiated the purchase of the apartment we wanted. Liuba had returned a second time to finish off business (with the Russian cottage industry agency) which the inexperienced realty lady had neglected to conclude on our first visit. We had chosen Varna sight unseen because it was on the edge of the Black Sea, and the whole point of moving to Bulgaria was to protect Liuba's health (as I have previously stated.)
Varna is a city of about 400,000 souls (depending on the season). The roads and streets have more ruptures than the face of someone who has survived a bad case of smallpox, and in the narrow, gnarled, and twisted center, finding a place to park is a real hoot. Bulgarians are a much much darker race than the Slavic-skinned Russians whose beauty I admire. They look more like Sicilians. The mostly skin-headed guys, pumping iron in fitness centers (a religion) and chain-smoking afterwards, are either macho-malevolent or amiable, or both -- the former when driving a car, the latter everywhere else. There is no money in the city, but no sense of want either. The people are ambidextrous in every walk of life, often turning their hands to driving a cab, selling winter firewood, and doing a bit of carpentry - all in a day.
Our new apartment was perched on a hill and, though relatively small, nonetheless sported a magnificent wide balcony (which served almost as an extra room) that rendered a matchless view of the sea on the left and the city skyline on the right. The architecture of most of Varna could generously be described as "Old Soviet style" -- if that conjures up any special imagery to my readers. If not, may I say that in daylight hours the urban aspect in general is dour and gray, like so much of Eastern Europe. I personally would call the decor of this panorama "Bolshevik Phlegm". But at night the city lights do to the atmosphere what bright cosmetics under lamplight can do for a sallow old strumpet: Look how she comes to life !! Pass the bottle!! The comparison between Varna by day and at night is like alka seltzer turning into champagne. Many nights I would spend admiring the Varna night from this balcony.
The problem was that our tawny-colored, compact, handsome apartment did not, in fact, have a particular address because it was bunched in amid other apartment houses along the rise of the hill. What there WAS was a very wide asphalt thoroughfare at the bottom (a race track for taxis) and a maze of intricate little alleyways at the top of the hill -- which it was possible to reach if you knew which turn to make at the bottom to get up the hill. You could go up on the right or on the left, but you had to know where you were going. Then you could simply edge onto whichever lean little path you needed to reach the back entrance to the apartment complex.. This is what Liuba didn't remember.
So, using my best (ingenious, actually) lateral thinking, I decided that we should hail a taxi, describe our location as best we could, and follow him there if he could figure out where we meant. Bear in mind, the fact of night-darkness was not working in our favor.
My stroke of inspiration worked and, astonishingly, in no time at all we were sitting at the bottom of our hill, the apartment perfectly visible among the shadows. We tipped the taxi guy and were again left to our own devices. I suggested parking and making our way up the ancient-looking sequence of stony, irregular steps to get us to the top.
Liuba had other ideas because she could see no reason why, physically and mentally wasted by weariness as we were, we should lug our many suitcases up those formidable steps.
"Let's go the back way," she confidently advised. The dogs were panting, eyes darting as if they knew that they were near the journey's end.
"Do you know how to get there?"
The next thing you know -- and one wrong turn later -- we were heading out of Varna and back towards Moscow.. &%#&&%)*^!!!
I ordered her to stop somewhere to get a cache of Zagorka pivo and summoned another taxi. Back to the great wide boulevard at the bottom of the hill. And so, dogs in tow, up we went -- no more illusions about finding the special alley at the top -- toting as much as we could burden our arms with. Looking up, a burning cigarette fastened to my mouth, heavy load under each arm, the sight of that dark building looked like the true House of God.
Of course what was left in the apartment when we arrived at our destination, gasping from six days and nights of rancid exhaustion, were only the bare essentials: kitchen table and chairs and bed. The previous owner had emptied the ashtray, so to speak.
And there was no electricity. There had to be a fuse box, but where? Nevertheless, I had the beer. What was that song about “Losing my Religion?” I was burning with faith.
Collecting our breath, eyes adjusting to the gloom, we used our telephones to see what we were doing. Woozy, I grabbed a chair and went to the balcony, Zagorka beer in hand, followed by the always frisky dogs. This beer was going down even better than the Heineken in front of the do-nut shop two nights ago.
Before me, in living color, spread and stretched and sprawled the mysterious nocturnal playground of Varna. Maybe not quite the same expanse as Moscow, but I could see that it was still a place of dreams. Exhaustion is very generous in its way of feeding hallucinations. Just ask any of the bygone saints.
Who would I meet here? What would life be like? (In describing my life-status now, I often use metaphors like this: I am in the early evening of my days. I am in the mid November of my song -- or maybe the late December of my race, depending on my mood -- I have entered the season of out-of-date graffiti and discarded beer cans... and so forth. The sincere and sophomoric poetry of frothing romantic misery. Who is to say it’s bad or wrong? I am wearing the final faded T-shirt of my life’s wardrobe...I am but a sour bead of dried sweat in the wrinkled flesh of my ebbing existence...
You know, all kidding aside, I knew as I sat on that gloomth of a balcony that I would never get old. Probably never die.
I felt as idealistic and finally on the correct path to absolute truth and happiness as any guy would feel on the morning of his 10th marriage.
For a split second, like a man jumping from a high place, all roads came back to me, but instead of being squashed on the asphalt, I felt myself go splashing into a great, wide, wonderful river where the fish were jumping and giving off sparks like the lightning bugs used to do when I was little and kept them in a jar before turning them loose.
And just then, amid much joyous dog-breath, my raven-haired wife found the correct circuit and the lights came on.
===BY Eric Le Roy===