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Sunday, 1 March 2009

By sea, land and air to England

The ferry took us through gentle waves, bubble striped with other wakes, between receding Corfu and the approaching mainland, layers of landscape from shallow myrtle covered shores, scrubby heights leading through foothills to ravined snow capped massifs, whose distant summits, on clear days in February, we've sighted from Ano Korakiana. From Igoumenitsa the bus climbed inland on the new Egnatia freeway (Via Egnatia) - every now and then leaving the tunnels and viaducts cutting the landscape, reverting to the sinuous curves of the older road - a rivalry between pace and place, between concrete and contour. Spectacular panoramas obscured by the close weather of our outward journey were revealed, as we climbed to Ioannina on to the watershed, descended to Kalambaka, speeding past Meteora through the plain of the east flowing Pinieos to the Aegean by mid-afternoon, past Katerini to Thessaloniki, where, just before midnight, after a five hour wait at the station, we boarded a shabby three carriage Bulgarian train for Bucharest via Sofia. Two worn but affable Bulgars, returning home from 'arbeit' in Hellas, shared our compartment whose door kept sliding open. They left somewhere at a darkened stop - Sandansky or Blagoevgrad. In their place came three thin lads in old clothes who got off the train with us at Sofia at dawn. A short walk over cracked pavements dotted with frozen snow, a subway and steps, brought us to the stop for Tram 1, where a small booth opened in time to dispense tickets for the short journey to the city centre, where down a side street we found our internet-booked hostel, up several flights of the chilly atrium of pre-war apartments where, despite the beat of amplified music from a bar below, we slept for a couple of hours before rising for a breakfast made by welcoming Ruminia - coffee, tea, toast - and chats to other young guests passing through - two from Portugal, another from Germany.I said months ago I wanted to become more familiar with Eastern Europe. This route to and from Kerkyra is one of the results. As well as picnics, the kit for lengthy waits at bus stations, airports and railway stations is good reading - thus the superlative Balkan expert Mark Mazower, who covers all of 20th century European history helps my understanding of east-west connections. Alan Furst replaces history with imaginative evocation of lives in Occupied Europe - Blood of Victory, Red Gold, The World at Night - not all about the east. Now I'm deep in his novel The Polish Officer. The past seems more present in Bulgaria than in places successfully made over by 20th century consumerism, the colour range from beige to taupe in soft furnishing and paintwork, the hint of the Fast Show's Chanel 9 Neus, the dim ochreus settlements glimpsed in the night from our brown rail compartment... During the day we strolled, probing for gatherings of people - convivial centres or margins. Our pickings were made up of glimpses. We hazarded crossings against traffic speeding on wide and undistinguished streets lined by uneven sidewalks, uncompassed spaces and signs of unfulfilled intentions - an economy meant for take-off stuck on the apron. A chill wind blew from Mt. Vitosha behind the city. We found occasional sunny spots to sit and gaze at a disheartened place, voluntarily and involuntarily on the wrong side of history, now reliant on desultory advertisements contrasting - as consumerism does - the real and the taunting. Bulgaria's last world stage appearance was a thousand years ago when, caught between Islam and Byzantium, Gibbon wrote that the country under King Simeon 'assumed a rank among the civilized powers of the earth.' Modern Bulgaria, ally of the defeated Nazis with whom they'd invaded Greece, was part of the memorable 1944 percentages agreement between Churchill and Stalin, falling, according to Churchill's pencilled memo - still in the Public Record Office - 75% into the Soviet sphere. In the living memories of those who survived, Bulgarians were the victims of economic experimentation at the hands of statisticians, the murderous hemorrhaging of its intelligentsia and the oppression of its bourgeoisie - vital to the working of a welfare state (as astute regulation is essential to capitalism) - through exile from the cities to forced labour camps, a granary and economic laboratory for its dominant neighbour. The hope that lies with the European fund for reconstruction and development is partly driven by Western European apprehension that Eastern Europe's fate challenges the greater union. We asked the way to "the river" and were told "we have a very nice mountain, but no river." Searching for the park - Borisova Gradina - to enjoy a picnic, we approached the Eagle Bridge over the Perlovska River, and realised what was meant. It was a culverted ditch. Behind a pavement market of used ski kit, we went through a gap in a makeshift fence where a tipped chunk of statuary made a comment I couldn't at first discern. We are drawn to such despondent settings. They evoke Jack's advice about choosing places that have been ruined. "At least, it couldn't get much worse," said Lin. Having seen Birmingham recover from its doldrums and been involved in the restoration of Handsworth Park, we thought that were we Bulgarians, the once magnificent gardens would be a starting place. I hope and pray there are good men and women in Sofia able to brace themselves to the enduring task of making this a better place. There's recent novel called Solo by Rana Dasgupta in which, Ulrich, a sightless Bulgarian centenarian recalls his life, his plans to be a musician and then a chemist blocked by the politics of family and state - a character the author describes as 'not doing very well in history'...
...the Communists banned traditional music because they wanted to make Communist music. The country as it matures into a nation loses more music in an attempt to produce something Bulgarian. It is a poignant metaphor - to create a country, it had to ban everything. Solo is a book about what it is to become a nation and what are the things one has to lose to become a nation.
We came to the National Palace of Culture, where among trade stands selling tourism in Eastern European, we watched a re-enactment of a rural wedding - showing off the products of local weaving amid chanting and oratory. As the ceremony progressed, we were proffered a small bucket. Uncomprehending, I thought I was supposed to dip my hand in the wine and splash it on my face, which produced kind smiles and giggles, but then, after a shared drink, we were drawn shyly into a dancing circle of singing women for the finale of the ceremony.
In the early hours the taxi booked for us by our hostel manager arrived - "The trustworthy taxi company is OK taxi company, but because there are many fake ones, there should be written 973 2121, which is the phone number. Try to pay attention to the number exactly, because they fake one digit number like 9702121 and it's a different taxi company, which has triple prices." Several of these cab drivers tried to pick us up first. We were driven first to the wrong, but new, Terminal, and then taken on to Terminal 1, and our uneventful Whizzair mile-eating flight to Luton, then coach to Birmingham where our daughter met us to go home, where we worked through mostly unneeded mail, communications that mattered having always been available on the web - unconstrained by place. We greeted the bored cat; our son too, though he'd left a pile of washing and a duplicitous note of apology - "I thought you were getting home tomorrow" - and hugged joyous dog Oscar looked after by our neighbours John and Jo.
Child of morning, rosey fingered dawn spreads her saffron mantle over the world...catching up with the Airbus from Sophia to Luton

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Simon Baddeley