I stepped off the train in Sofia and was promptly hustled by a tout.
Two other backpackers and I were searching for international ticketing. Over my half-hearted objections, we accepted the “help” of a man dressed in what passed as a maintenance staff uniform. He guided us and politely demanded a tip.
From using touts as an instrument of abuse upon my travel-mate, to coughing up currency to—frankly — a second-class act. I was so embarrassed. But, I smiled and looked thankful.
Regardless, reservation in hand, I strode out of the dark station and in to the day-lit city of Sofia.
My time limit was nine hours, 50 Bulgarian lev was split between two pockets, and I had no travel guide, But, there was a solid plan fixed in my mind. Two words: ride buses.
I beelined for the transit kiosk and used sign language to purchase a day-pass. (Show the brochure for bus passes. Point at your watch, then use your hands in the air to indicate 24-hours. Realize the kind lady sold you the wrong ticket. Try again while smiling and look thankful!) Then, after photographing a map of the transit system, hopped on the first bus that goes out of the city.
The city center is stylish and modern. It takes a few miles before you’re in communist-era concrete highrises. Another mile, the end the line, and it’s green fields. I lounged in the sun until I was hungry. Rode back to the city and went to the grocery store to make a sandwich.
It was in Sofia that I first encountered the European style tagging of produce. You put your fresh foods in a bag, weigh it, enter an item code on adjacent terminal, and an adhesive ticket is printed. I watched other people do this, and as I was about to tag my green peppers the security guard ran up and did it for me.
His facial expression and body language indicated that he expected me to be confused. I smiled and looked thankful.
The checkout girl flirted with me. She liked my hair. I smiled and looked thankful.
Rode to the city center on the presumption there would be a park. There was. Lounged around and finished both “For Whom The Bell Tolls” and “A Hundred Years of Solitude.” Out of books, again.
Chatted with a nice young man from city who was incredulous that I wanted to vacation here. Then we took turns playing WWE SmackDown vs. Raw on his mobile and watching beautiful young women pushing children in strollers.
Finally, with an hour remaining, and I excused myself to catch my train. He said it was nice to talk with an American, I said it was nice to talk with a Bulgarian. We both smiled and looked thankful.
Met back up with my backpacker friends. They had a rushed day seeing the cathedral, visiting a museum, and eating at local restaurants. I had no worries and a half-eaten sandwich.
You know what I did.