England, My England

Tea in England now tastes very strong to me, but I still drink it without milk.

The night before I left, Tania invited me for a meal at her apartment with her boyfriend. A traditional affair, beginning with salad, then steak with potatoes, and finishing off with a wonderfully strange quiche-like concoction. It's made with eggs, yogurt and, erm, lemonade, spread between layers of pastry. Each course served with freeflowing vodka.

Family is important in Bulgaria, each village is a loose bundle of overlapping extended families, and family ties remain when villagers commute or relocate to the nearest town. So it wasn't a surprise when Tania's aunt and uncle dropped in, leading to five of us squashed around a small table, noshing, drinking and jeering at the nation's politicians on the television.

Bulgarians have an easygoing contempt for authority figures - which is reciprocated. There can't be many places in the UK where you entertain your family with the collection of political scratch videos on your computer.

I got a lift back to the apartment to finish packing and grab a little sleep, then in what felt like minutes later woke at 0400, took a shower, said goodbye to Wednesday, and locked the door for the last time.

I'd only met Wednesday two weeks before, when she was a day or two away from death by starvation. Now she was twice the size, full of health and energy, and had got used to my coming and going. She hadn't been whining from behind the door when I left her on her own, or rushing about to greet me with big licks when I got back. But this time, she whimpered.

The coach left for Sofia at 0600, taking two hours. Looking out of the window, there were vast stretches of green land, with hills and the occasional lake in the distance, and further in the distance, snow capped mountains - all interrupted at random intervals by crumbling, rusted villages and isolated shacks with fallen-in roofs.

There was a few surprising sights. Factory chimneys with no factory attached, and a miniature castle with proudly fluttering flag, like something out of Walt Disney - though it's really the other way around.

Sofia is like a compressed version of London. Smaller space, more traffic, smaller cars, more accidents, more and smaller busses with more people crammed inside, and tiny booths with foot-square windows where you buy tickets to ride in them. I spent ninety minutes standing in two busses, annoying half the passengers with my luggage.

As with all centrally planned cities, the planning was done by idiots. In this case, communist idiots - there's a reason Bulgarians sometimes use the adjectives "Communist" and "incompetent" interchangeably. You might think it would be sensible to have a bus route that goes from the national coach station to the airport - but no, the planners evidently thought that anyone jetting into Bulgaria would only want to go to the palatial Hotel Pliska, and then presumably back again.

And then, the same planners - now called "former communists" - decided it would be good for travellers to buy their airline tickets at terminal one, and then take a minibus to the terminal two, which is where all the flights are now.

It may not have been planned that there was some problem with the computers and it took me forty five minutes to buy a ticket - and another ten to confirm that yes, it was possible to buy it in Bulgarian currency.

Security was interesting. I was asked to take off my belt so the metal buckle wouldn't set off the scanner - which didn't seem to notice the ferrous metal in my keychain. Half of us in the queue had to take off our jackets, and a different random half had to take off our shoes. I think my coat looked suspiciously Serbian, but my shoes didn't.

In all, I had to show my passport four times and my ticket twice to get on the plane. Once in flight the attendants (who were of course all gay as pink monkeys on laughing gas) tried to sell the cramped passengers food, drink and, er, toy pink monkeys as souvenirs.

If you wanted to pay the sky high (duh!) prices, they accepted "dollars, euros and all major European currencies" - but not money from the country they fly from. You can also pay by debit card, if you can present your passport. Now, I might be missing something, but if you're already on the plane....

After three hours of flight and one of walking and waiting, the people at Gatwick wanted to see my passport again, at two different desks. After that it was all plain sailing. All I had to do was spend my English money on a day return train ticket to Portsmouth - because a return is one third the price of a single ticket. Maybe the British rail system was designed by Communists.

I then spent the next four hours jumping between various trains, eventually finding one that (a) went to where the animated information board said it was going, (b) didn't go straight back to Gatwick before turning south and (c) didn't mysteriously split into two trains going in opposite directions halfway.

Looking out of the window, green fields but no mountains. And a miniature Walt Disney castle with fluttering union jack.

I'd wondered what emotions I'd feel on returning to my home town. In the event what I felt was:
* It looks exactly the same
* I'd forgotten how annoying the locals were
* My feet hurt
* These bags are rather heavy.

I called my (former) boss, giving him my much rehearsed lines "I resign, I quit, I leave your employ, I'm gone" and "Your dreams are a little mad, but your schemes to make them come true are a lot mad". He was...very understanding. That's not "understanding" as in "He understood everything I was trying to say" - because he didn't. He didn't understand that I'd left because his vacillating fantasism made working for him impossible, and he didn't understand that everyone else who'd worked for him eventually left for the same reason, and he didn't understand that the whole plan to set up the best language school in the world in a poor town that doesn't want one is moderately problematic. He also didn't understand that I wouldn't be coming back - he said he'd wait for me to realise I wanted to work for him.

No. He was understanding as in "I don't think badly of you and I'm not angry".

I was intending to go home to my parents - but instead went to the opening of an art exhibition to drink lots of red wine with some pleasantly surprised friends, then followed them to a slightly pointless but enjoyable local election hustings debate - my friends are political types, remember - and then best of all they bought me drinks in the pub.

And so finally to home, and bed, and instant sleep, for a full twenty four hours. To wake up in a place which is highly familiar, but now slightly strange.

Well, a bit stranger than before, anyway.


  1. Welcome home! I was going to try and translate 'welcome home' into Bulgarian, but then decided I'd better not.

    So ... now what?

  2. Click your heels together and repeat, "There's no place like home, there's no place like home."