The moon landing
I am travelling by train from Plovdiv to Veliko Ternovo in Bulgaria. The train is circa 1940s or 50’s, a rusty, creaking old thing with big, wide seats. Possibly made especially to accommodate the very wide bottoms that seem to be a typical physical feature of those of Slavic descent [and many others of course, myself included]. At least, typical for anyone over 30, or those who have had children. Young women in Plovdiv [and everywhere in Eastern Europe that I travel, I later discover] are whippet thin and completely Euro chic. And young men look fit and strong, it appears to me as if they spend a lot of time lifting weights. But maybe I only notice these things because I am totally not Euro chic, in fact I am most certainly Darwin dag… but anyway I’m getting distracted.
The train journey is going to be about eight hours. Not because we are travelling any great distance, it’s just a slow trip and at times I feel like if I got out and walked I would arrive at my destination long before the train rolled into town. For the first several hours the carriage I am travelling in is virtually empty, and this means I can be my messy, spread out self, with laptop on one seat, food on another, and me reclining across another two seats. The scenery as we chug along is, to my not-used-to European landscape eyes, incredibly beautiful. Sweeping, jaggardy and fierce looking mountain ranges, lush green valley’s half wild and half agricultural. There are acres and acres of sunflowers, not yet in bloom, and wheat, and tobacco and corn. And mostly things I don’t recognise.
We also pass many abandoned factories and buildings and houses. And astonishingly, even a few completely abandoned villages. Later I learn that these ghost towns were once bustling centres of communist manufacture and production – cement, steel, bricks, building products – with the goods primarily destined for the Soviet Union. But, like so many other broken things, with the collapse of communism came the collapse of industry – and the demise of whole communities. No money for schools or health care or road maintenance. It rings depressingly familiar bells in my head.
The train drags itself like a tired old wheezing man into a major town – Stara Zagora. And suddenly every seat is required for the oncoming passengers. I hurriedly throw everything back into my bags and sit primly waiting for somebody to sit next to me. A youngish man, accompanied by a berating woman who could only be his mother are the last to enter the carriage. There are two seats left – the one next to me and one across the aisle. The man, in Bulgarian, takes great pains to politely ask if he can sit next to me. He appears delighted when I answer in English “of course, please sit, but I do not speak Bulgarian”. I can tell immediately that for him I represent a great opportunity for practising his English speaking skills.
We start with “where are you from”. He is staggered that I am from Australia, and excitedly tells his mother, and all other passengers within earshot. They are mostly elderly, and nod in that mild, accommodating way that old folks do. I am the first Australian that my new companion has had a chance to actually converse with, and the first Australian his mother has ever met in real life. She exclaims repeatedly, for the remainder of the journey, “Australi! The CONTINENT! Not Europe!!” Much later in my travels in Bulgaria I learn that it is very unusual for people to NOT have encountered Australians before – apparently, thousands visit every year.
I learn that Andreas is a police officer/border guard, based in Burgas on the Turkish border. His main task is checking private vehicles for drugs, which he says is mostly fairly routine and boring, but occasionally very exciting when they discover a cache that somebody is trying to smuggle over the border from Turkey. I don’t ask what happens to the drug runners. In any case, he is on holidays at the moment, and on his way to some town to buy a car. It is a car from England [I never did establish what variety], so it has the steering wheel on the right hand side – unlike most cars in Eastern Europe. He is very worried about being able to drive it, and quizzes me on “the difficulties”, especially using your left hand to change gears. But he is also very excited, because his friend is a mechanic and has checked the vehicle and has told him it will be an excellent purchase, and much cheaper than buying a car with steering on the “proper side”. This leads to a long discussion about what is cheap and what is expensive, and Andreas is overwhelmed to learn that the minimum wage in Australia is about 10 times what he earns. I feel embarrassed, and try to steer the conversation in other directions.
Throughout the journey, Momma asks lots of questions about Australia – are kangaroos really as cute as they look, do they bite, do I have one as a pet, is there really such a thing as a devil animal [Tasmanian devil], is it hot all the time, are there cities, what do people eat… eventually, Andreas translates a question for his mother that really throws me. “Was Neil Armstrong really the first man to walk on the moon?” I am taken aback for a minute and wonder where the conversation is going. I tell Andreas that I think, actually, it was Buzz Aldrin who was the first.
Andreas translates back to his mother, who looks at me sadly and shakes her head. Andreas laughs, and tells me that few Bulgarians really believe that Americans went to the moon at all. The Russians told them it was a conspiracy, and anyway since then nobody has been back again – why would they go, just that once? This is a very public discussion, and the entire train carriage is nodding and agreeing with Andreas. I am not sure what to say, so I laugh and say “well, I am not American, so I cannot tell you for sure”. People throughout the carriage look at me with knowing, kindly smiles. The conversation with Momma after this is much less animated, and I know she’s disappointed in her first encounter with an Australian.
A singing angel
I am waiting on the train platform at Bucharest, Romania, to catch a train to Tulcea at the mouth of the Danube Delta. The delta runs out to sea on the Black Sea coast. I am very excited to be heading this way, as I have read and heard a lot about the amazing beauty and birdlife in the Delta, and I haven’t seen the ocean for what feels like months. There is an old dog at my feet [a common feature of Bucharest], lazing about in the sun. A middle aged woman strolls over to the dog, and tries to feed him some McDonald’s chips. The dog sniffs lazily and turns up his nose. She looks at me and laughs, so I suggest he has better taste than that. She agrees, and as always, asks where I am from. “Australia!” she exclaims and flings her arms around wildly. “I am sure in a past life I am Australian” she tells me. “Such a beautiful country, and so friendly people. You see, I am so friendly too, this is why I think I must have been Australian”.
We sit and chat, waiting for the train. Her name is Victorie, and she is a school psychologist in Tulcea. She has been to Bucharest for some medical treatment, all of which has given her the “all clear” she tells me, and now she is very happy to be heading home. While we are waiting she occasionally bursts into renditions of Louis Armstrong’s “What a wonderful world”. Her singing voice is beautiful.
This is another long haul train journey, about six hours, but the train is modern and air-conditioned and very comfortable. Victorie and I sit together and chat occasionally, but mostly I admire the scenery. We are travelling close to the coast, and the country side is, in the main, flat and agricultural, but occasionally there are rivers and fields of wild flowers purple and red and yellow. And there are hills in the distance too that rise up suddenly like spectres on the horizon.
We also occasionally pass a Roma camp on the outskirts of a town or city, and invariably there are young men and boys waiting at the side of the track. As the train passes by they hurl rocks and stones, and shout what can only be abuse and obscenities. I am amazed by this, but nobody else seems to even notice. It explains the massive chips and cracks that some of the windows have. I can only imagine the discrimination and abuse that causes such behaviour – throughout Bulgaria and Romania people almost spit if you ask about Roma, and will only refer to them as gypsies. Repeatedly, I am told “they are not from here, they are from India”, ie they do not belong. I wonder how many centuries need to pass before you can claim any right to be in these countries.
A few hours from Tulcea the landscape becomes more sloping and hilly, and for miles and miles there are wind farms. This is only the second time I have actually seen these monstrous power making creations, and for me the landscape becomes surreal and completely “other”. I try to count, but there appears to be hundreds, mile after mile. We pass through a small village that is dwarfed and surrounded by the windmills, and suddenly Victorie is nudging me, pointing to a huge rainbow that stretches from one horizon to the other. “You see” she says “God is happy, and I am happy too”. And she sings a few verses.
I have been told about a small pension that is a nice place to stay in Tulcea, and when we are close I ask Victorie if she knows where it is. No, she’s never heard of it, but she will help me when we get there. She is very concerned that I do not have a booking, as she has never really met or talked to anybody before who is travelling in the way that I am. And certainly not a solo woman traveller who is not young! When we arrive she asks a few people if they know where the pension is. Nobody has heard of it. It is starting to get dark, it’s after 9pm, and I am cursing myself for not being more organised.
We wander around near the station, looking for an internet café that I have also been told is close by, so that I can get the proper address and phone number. I can tell Victorie is nervous, and finally she tells me she never comes to this part of town because it is a known hang out for gypsies. I try to be reassuring, but what would I know. Finally, I have the address in hand; the place is near her home she tells me, so we jump into a taxi together. She tells me it must be my lucky day, she is my angel, because I most assuredly would be robbed by the taxi driver if I did not speak Romanian.
We arrive at the pension, and the gate is locked. Victorie looks at me and asks if I am certain this is the address. Yes, it definitely is. We mill about and peer inside, and eventually an old woman cautiously comes out to the gate. Yes, it is the pension, but sorry no room available. The old woman is quite irate, and tells me crankily that I should have called ahead. By now it’s really late, and I just want to find somewhere to stay. And I feel really bad about dragging Victorie all over town and putting her to such inconvenience. She, however, insists that it is no problem and that she wouldn’t dream of leaving me till I am safe inside a hotel. No problem she says, I know where you can stay, there is a hotel just down the hill near my home. So we wander off, and true to her word we arrive at a huge, chain style, blank hotel that has plenty of rooms. On the way she points to two blocks of big ugly communist style apartments. “That is my home” she says “a small place between those two apartment blocks”. As we pass a church, she stops and blesses herself. “You must always thank God” she tells me gravely. Safe in my new digs we exchange addresses, and I promise myself that I will find some way of thanking her before I leave Tulcea.
After several days exploring the delta, it is my last day in Tulcea. I find a florist and buy a big bunch of flowers. I write a small thank you note to Victorie, and with her address in hand, head off to find her home. I wander up and down the street, and ask several people if they know the address, but nobody can tell me where her place is. Disappointed, I give up. Ok, I think, I’ll give the flowers to the hotel receptionist instead. I find a café and sit down for lunch. Extraordinarily, five minutes later, Victorie comes strolling around the corner, singing her heart out. I hear her before I see her. She sees me and a huge smile lights up her face. Sit down sit down I insist… ok ok she says, but I can only stay for a minute as I am on a quick break from work. I order her a coffee, and she eats the remains of my lunch. “You must think I am strange, eating your lunch” she comments to me “but I cannot bear to see waste. We were so hungry for so many years”. I reflect on her amazing generosity towards me and feel quite humbled. I hand her the flowers and give her a big hug as we say goodbye. She smiles and says “remember that in Tulcea I was your angel. You must do the same for somebody someday”.