Vidin, Bulgaria. Jerry and I were sick; our colds had gone into bronchitis, with bone-shaking coughs, especially Jerry’s, which kept waking him up at night. In Belgrade, I had suggested we not go on the bus tour but he would go. At certain points along the way I suggested we stay on the bus while others got off to see various sights but he said he was fine, even though he was hacking and sneezing and soaked with a cold sweat. And then I was set on getting one of those 500 billion dinar notes and Jerry insisted on sprinting down with me to buy it and we ended up missing our Viking bus back to the ship and having to spend an extra 30 minutes seeing the same sights over again on the next one.
He’s like a dog. He’ll never admit he’s sick. Admitting you’re sick makes you prey. If he’s suffering you can tell by his eyes and for days, Jerry’s eyes have been tired and watery, sunken.
But today when I broached the possibility of our not going on the tour, missing Bulgaria completely (I had to fight for the name of the country as I started to write this–Transylvania? Bratislava?), he was a little lamb about it.
“We can go up on the sundeck and sit in the shade and read our books,” he said, after a fit of coughing. “And later, if we want to, we can go ashore and walk around by ourselves.”
“Why, yes we could.” I hadn’t thought of that. Unlike some of our stops, there was a town right at the end of the gangplank. “It’s supposed to be over 90 today,” I said, as if he hadn’t already agreed and I still needed to convince him. “You’d be miserable after four hours of that kind of heat.”
We watched wistfully as our fellow passengers filed off the boat for their tour of the Rocks of Belogradshick, “resembling silhouettes of people, towers, ships, mushrooms, palaces and animals” and the “many terraced courtyards” of the Belogradshick Fortress.
We went instead up to the vacant sundeck and sat in the shade. Behind us, across the river, were misty islands and inlets. Before us, to the left, was a row of rundown buildings. To the right, a row of trees.
The groups who had gone on the four-hour tour came back happy but tired. They reported that the rocks of Belogradshick didn’t look that much like anything and some of them said they hadn’t made it up all the 148 steps to the fortress.
Jerry and I took naps, Jerry sitting up so he wouldn’t cough. When we woke, even though the day was at its hottest, I felt a sudden urgency to walk the plank and be able to say we’d been on Bulgarian soil. Jerry came too, weary and congested but loyal to a fault.
At the end of the gangplank was a portable metal sidewalk stretching as far as we could see in both directions. We stepped over it and entered a neat, empty public square around an 8-pillared gazebo.
(This is the square. We entered it from the left, where the ship was docked.)
There was a souvenir store on one corner with all kinds of interesting jewelry, including some with lumps of what the shopkeeper confirmed was turquoise though her knowledge of English did not extend to answering whether the country mines it or imports it. There were unique wood carvings, including a cane with a wiggly stick nailed across the top which she confirmed with a smile was a shepherd’s crook. There were jolly, colorful paintings of peasants dancing in circles in village squares.
We didn’t linger. I didn’t want to get the shop lady’s hopes up. I would have liked to buy several things but we had no space in our luggage and no local currency–levs, in this case. Not even Euros. Our last 30 Euros had been lost or stolen the last time Jerry took his money out of his pocket. He hadn’t noticed until later because he was punk.
I felt so isolated from the people whose countries we are visiting. We couldn’t communicate with them. Coming out of the store on Vidin’s main street I tried to make eye contact with an approaching woman but she averted her eyes and ignored my smile with what seemed like sullenness and resentment. Rich tourists taking advantage of our poor country, I read in her expression.
We turned right, into the park. We passed a statue of parent and child and beyond the statue real parents with real children running, laughing and climbing on playground equipment. I didn’t have the courage to invade their space and privacy with my camera. What was the point? How could we communicate?
There was a small restaurant in the park. From its open door came the recorded English lyrics of some discordant heavy metal music. Out front, a big man in a suit leaned, bored, against a white limo decorated with white streamers and bows.
“Wedding?” I asked. I pointed at the open door of the cafe and then at Jerry and myself, wearing our color-coordinated shirts and holding hands.
He shrugged. “No English.”
He brightened a little but I already knew more than he could tell us. Glancing away, I noticed a crowd milling about the park. I caught sight of a bride and groom, both in white. There was no sign of a church or even a magistrate’s office; from the looks of it, the wedding was over and the bridal party–no, bridal parties, there were two couples in white–were posing for photographs. Kids were chasing each other and carrying snow cones and large Mickey Mouse balloons from nearby kiosks.
I told Jerry, “People don’t mind strangers taking pictures at a happy family event like a wedding!” I headed for two little girls festive in billowing white dresses with ruffles around their necks. When I held up my cell phone and asked, “May I take a picture?”several people hastily summoned a woman who spoke some English.
She was their mother. She introduced the girls to us as Anka and Elena, then patted her stomach to introduce us to their third daughter-to-come, Petya. She beckoned her husband over to be in the picture, too.
She indicated it would be all right to photograph the wedding party. When I brought my cell phone back to her and showed her the picture I had taken, she pointed to the grooms and said they were her cousins.
The woman below, who gathered four girls together for a group shot, was Anka and Elena’s grandmother!
So we didn’t miss out on Bulgaria after all. Just a stone’s throw from our ship, we celebrated a family wedding with real Bulgarians!