After fifteen years, not much seems to have changed on the Sofia – Plovdiv railway line. Still, things look strange to me in an unsettling way. I cannot help but feel as though at the Iskarsko Shosse stop, a short subway ride away from Sofia airport, I have caught a train well-known to me from my childhood. The cars are reassuringly grimy and grungy.
I am thirsty. My eyes are drawn to the trash receptacle in my compartment, which swells with crushed, empty Bulgarian mineral water bottles. The names of springs flash through my head: Hisarya, Bansko, Devnya, Sandanski, Sapareva Banya, Varshets. In the early days of Bulgaria’s market economy, firms sprang up that introduced plastic bottles, previously known to locals mostly from pictures of the West, filled with Bulgarian mineral water from these springs. In their advertisements, the firms claimed that Vanga, a blind Bulgarian mystic and seer, had blessed their product.
Vanga’s abilities to foretell people’s destinies had been in much demand during communist times. While religion had been officially forbidden, belief in the supernatural was tolerated. Folks waited for months on end for a turn to visit the vrachka in Petrich, a small town in Southern Bulgaria. Their repertoire of questions was of a personal nature, for no one dared to inquire about the future of Bulgarian communist politics: Would a relative find relief from a prolonged, mysterious illness? Who would have a boy after years of trying? Who would marry at long last, and who would return from an extended, distant journey? Sitting on the Sofia — Plovdiv train now, I am craving for a bottle of Bulgarian mineral water. I very much need a reading of my past rather than the future: Did I never belong here?
To distract myself from being thirsty, I imagine there is a layer of smut on the glass of the compartment window for every year that I have been gone. It is a typical Bulgarian September afternoon, and the window is open to relieve passengers of the muggy heat. The train passes by villages of dilapidated houses, homes that seem to have been abandoned half-way through construction, and ruins that look like dump sites. There are hardly any visible human figures, but in front of some houses cars are parked, which appear to be well-kept and in rather good shape. I am not sure what to make of this observation: while the homes tell a story of want, the cars speak of relative material well-being.
When the engine pulls into a station, I read in Cyrillic a familiar name, framed in the window. The structure to which it belongs presents an eerie sight. Oftentimes, the steel frame is the most stable part of it, and there are missing planes of glass and slabs of concrete where I expect to see a window or a wall. At first, I assume the building to be deserted. However, as soon as the engine comes to a halt, people appear out of thin air and rush to the cars to get on. I have an uneasy feeling, as if some uncanny force has possessed the countryside that the train is traversing. However, my fellow passengers act as if all were normal, and I go along with the ride.
In my compartment, all travelers but one are women. The only man, about sixty years old, with scant grey hair, is slightly built. His lean frame disappears in the tobacco-brown curtain, which flutters in the stream of fresh air. The young woman next to him is taking a journey through virtual space: she is browsing on a cell phone, while listening to music in her headphones. The woman closest to the door, also in her sixties, has scrawny knees underneath a well-worn, faded skirt. Her hair is short and dyed in a shade of poppy-red. I am aware that my suitcase poses a real threat to her.
Back home in the States, I packed the smallest suitcase I could find for my Bulgarian journey. Now, on the train to Plovdiv, I realize that, compared to the luggage of my fellow female travelers, my suitcase is of extravagant proportions. Disheartened by the discovery, I am unwilling to take any chances with hoisting it onto the luggage rack above head, and I leave it in the narrow space between the two facing rows of seats. I watch with trepidation how, as the train rattles along the rail tracks, my grand suitcase shifts from side to side and threatens to topple over onto the delicate feet in canvass shoes of the frail, poppy-haired passenger. I snatch at it twice to prevent disaster, but my fellow traveler seems oblivious. Her attention is absorbed in reading a paper, whose headlines spell out dangers of greater significance: In 2050, one out of five Bulgarians will be a gypsy; Female attorney attacked and beaten in her office in the center of Sofia; Blind man cheats on his wife with five different women; Cop tortured to death by his wife and her lover. What about Death by Lack of Bulgarian Mineral Water on the Sofia — Plovdiv train?
All of my fellow travelers are savvy owners of at least one bottle of Bulgarian mineral water. They know the rules, while I am out of luck. The Iskarsko Shosse stop, where I got on the train, didn’t even have a tiny beverage or food stand, where I could buy something to drink. The sea of communist-era concrete apartment buildings close-by held no promise of fulfilling any basic human needs, and I didn’t even bother to look for a bottle of Bulgarian mineral water there. Now, I regret my recklessness. My throat and mouth feel dry, and I can hardly swallow. I am so thirsty that I am afraid I’d faint.
The neat woman sitting on my left has precariously left her Bulgarian mineral water bottle on the seat to my right. I gaze at it with longing and consider taking a deep pull from it. I don’t care about the germs my fellow traveler might have. She probably has never had a dental cleaning, for I am fairly certain that in Bulgaria, this is still an uncommon luxury, but at this moment, it doesn’t really matter to me. I need Bulgarian mineral water badly, regardless whether it’s blessed or cursed. When the woman asks me to pass her her purse, which is on same seat with the water bottle, she looks directly at my face and smiles at me compassionately. She trusts me that I wouldn’t steal from her, even though something makes me think that she suspects, I am the odd ball in this compartment.
Upon their arrival at the airport, most expats don’t board a train. They drive in air conditioned cars, with plenty of chilled Bulgarian mineral water, to their final destination, where they check into four-star hotels at bargain prices. When I left Bulgaria, however, I didn’t know how to drive. Now it doesn’t seem genuine to me to return to Plovdiv, my home town, by car. I’ve planned my trip in detail. Before I left, I bought clothes from Goodwill with the hope that they would help me blend in. Sitting next to my neat-looking, perceptive, empathetic neighbor, I realize that my outfit is pretty much unfitting. By the second, I feel more and more like a fish out of Bulgarian mineral water. And of course, I am still thirsty.
I feel slight relief when a familiar sight appears in the window. As a child, whenever I saw the Roman aqueduct on the outskirts of Plovdiv, I knew that I would soon be home. But this time I am not going home. Because of complicated family dynamics, I have rented a small house at a bargain price in an unfamiliar part of town.
When I finally manage to drag my suitcase to the door, I realize that getting off the Sofia — Plovdiv train is no simple affair. There is a huge gap between the tread of the car and the platform, and one has to actually jump in order to disembark the train. For me, this is like bungee jumping. I am horrified. I am sure that my monstrously large suitcase will drag me downwards and I will end up on the railroad tracks. Fear paralyzes me, and it doesn’t really help that I can feel people on the platform staring at me. I am a pitiful sight, standing at the open door, clutching my suitcase, and gaping at the void underneath my feet. If I were not dehydrated, I would burst into tears. Finally, a helping hand comes to my rescue: a young man escorts me, and my suitcase, onto the platform. When I turn around to thank him profusely, he shrugs his shoulders: don’t worry about it … it’s all my pleasure … have a wonderful visit …
I have hardly had a chance to take a couple of steps when I walk into my mother. She has brought me the biggest bottle of Bulgarian mineral water that I could possibly imagine, along with a folder of documents, which affirm that I am indeed a Bulgarian. While I sit with her in the waiting room of Plovdiv’s train station, the conductor of the train from which I have just so ungracefully departed crosses the lobby. I want to smile at him and wish him a pleasant evening, but this is not what people here do. I have already broken too many cultural rules, so I pretend I don’t recognize him and look away.