To Sofia

From Vienna, I share my compartment with three Romanians. One of them is a bouncer in a Romanian disco in Vienna. False statements by two policemen, accusing him of attempted robbery, had landed him with a three-month prison sentence. But as he earns 60 euros a night, four nights a week, he has no need for crooked little sidekicks. They say my sitting in their compartment will be useful for them because of my German passport and my speaking German. On other occasions, they have to keep giving the guard and the border police tips as they invariably find fault with their papers and tickets. During the journey we share their Fanta and they advise me to have children soon. When I get out at Budapest, they all shake my hand and wish me a good trip.

Night has fallen and Budapest station is quiet and beautiful. Some people are settling down to sleep on pieces of cardboard. I have been told that the train to Belgrade has a bad reputation. I take a sleeping compartment. How splendidly the taps have been polished!
The sleeping compartment attendant is a very refined young man, who looks like a character out of a Robert Walser story and certainly seems to belong to a different era. He asks me if I'm afraid of flying. Apparently most West Europeans travelling this route explain that their wives are afraid of flying. Early in the morning, the men from the Belgrade left-luggage office offer me coffee and pornographic pictures.



Unpacking my suitcase

Staying with the family of Kamen Stoyanov in Russe on the Danube

Relatives have been invited for the presentation of my suitcase at eight o'clock on Friday evening. The coal briquets are a success. No one has ever seen a briquet. They test its weight. They say they could tell exactly the same story about the decline of industry and the loss of jobs after the collapse of Communism. They remember from school that a lot of brown coal was extracted in the GDR.

They also know all about the annual Stadtputztag (city cleaning day) described by Barbara Steiner as an astonishing phenomenon she witnessed when she started working in Germany. When Stoyan Stoyanov watches the film showing the city being collectively cleaned he expresses his approval of the careful and thorough work. They make me translate the Tucholsky poem line by line.

I hand out the Pfefferkuchen (gingerbread) and show them the Christmas pyramid. Kamen's grandmother nods appreciatively at the idea of wanting to show people abroad something nice about one's own country. I end my presentation on a sentimental note by playing the lullaby "Weißt du wieviel Sternlein stehen" (Do you know how many stars…) on the mouth organ. This was a commission from my father, who is well aware of the modesty of my skills on the mouth organ. My performance is met with rapturous applause.

Kamen's grandmother suggests singing a song in return. It is a folk song about a lamb and a farmer who promises not to separate it from its mother, but then sells it to the first person who comes along. She gets into position and sings very beautifully. Then comes a song about Goscho the Beautiful, who is loved by all women, the most beautiful man of the Balkans.

After the performance we go to the grandmother's flat across the hallway. The table has been laid. We have banitza and yoghurt with cucumbers, Russian salad and rakia. Serbian turbofolk is playing on TV. In the past, only lorry and taxi drivers used to have and listen to this kind of music and it went without saying that it was music for the uneducated.

It is shortly before Easter. They ask me whether we have Easter eggs in Germany too. And what about Hefezopf (braided yeast bread) at Easter? We're all the same really, says Cousin Sornitza with an air of resignation. And those who aren't the same yet want to be.





Unpacking my suitcase Staying with the family of Kamen Stoyanov in Russe on the Danube (more)

The excursion with Kristio

The fact that someone without a mobile phone is a person hardly worth talking to is the first thing I learnt in Bulgaria.(more)

During the war in Serbia there was a blockade on all Danube river traffic ... (more)

More articles ...
... can be found in the german version of this page (to the german version)

Map (large file!)


The excursion with Kristio

The fact that someone without a mobile phone is a person hardly worth talking to is the first thing I learnt in Bulgaria. I caught myself saying that my mobile phone doesn't work in Bulgaria, as if I had one at home. The main post office in Sofia where I make my phone calls is a magnificent building with marble floors, a post office dating from a time when the post was still a venerable institution.

I get talking to some youngsters. We drink coffee in the Eurobulgarian Cultural Institute and then go for more coffee in the cafeteria of the Academy. We already had coffee in the Artist's House. "We work at ourselves and drink coffee," as the saying goes in Bulgaria.

Borovez, April 2004


On Sunday, my hostess, her brother, the taxi driver and I go on an excursion to the Rilski Monastir (Rila Monastery). Kristio gives me a handful of Aleppo pine resin. It smells like incense. We eat bean soup and share two trout. We argue all day about who is allowed to pay for food or coffee.

Kristio takes us to Borowets, a winter sports resort. I notice one particularly ornate hotel which I am told was built by a famous drug baron called Kosio. He was shot a few months ago in Amsterdam. The hired assassin was Dutch. My friends speculate that he must have cost a lot more than a Bulgarian killer. This Kosio used to claim that he made his fortune with potatoes. The area around his hometown of Samokov is renowned throughout Bulgaria for its potatoes. We saw the traders of this promising industry with their potatoes displayed on the car hoods by the edge of the road on Sunday afternoon.

I speak Russian with Kristio, and for my benefit he speaks Bulgarian with a Russian accent. He asks me every ten minutes if I enjoy the excursion. When he isn't driving his taxi, he works in his big garden. He has bees and potatoes, tomatoes and cucumbers, and makes wine and brandy. My friends say that people who work in agriculture in Bulgaria these days do it to provide for themselves. Bulgaria has had to import food lately. And nobody can explain why most Bulgarians buy Danone yoghurt, although yoghurt is the most typical national product of all, so typical in fact that no one can give me to include in my exhibition.





During the war in Serbia there was a blockade on all Danube river traffic. This was Serbia's reaction to the boycott that was imposed on the country. It was actually during this boycott that the Serbian mafia became really powerful. There was no traffic on the Danube for seven years, which was a catastrophe for cities like Russe. Kamen reads aloud from the paper that a new inland ship built in the dockyards of Russe has travelled from Passau to Rotterdam. Romania lies on the other side of the river. Kamen has never been there.