I don't remember how I first felt when I came to live in this street, but it must have been a strange, depressing feeling. People would beg on the corner of Vitoshka Street and then go into the entrance opposite my apartment building. One of the women made my heart sink. I had never seen a more beautiful woman beg. It seemed to me that she sat there, on the corner, wearing a headscarf and looking down, only to be alone within herself. I never dared put any coins in her begging bowl - I felt that their tinkle would somehow hurt or embarrass her. Sometimes an old man with a grey beard would squat in her place. A couple of people sold flowers on the opposite pavement and occasionally towed a cart loaded with paper to the nearby scrap yard making an unbelievable noise. In the evening, they disappeared into the same entrance to the magnificent old three-storey house with architecture typical of 1930s Sofia and a metal gate with a padlock, a yard with a parasol, a table, some rubbish and a stone littered path, behind which nothing else could be seen. There was never any light there.
The house was inhabited by homeless people. It was the first time I had lived close to street people and beggars and I did not know how I should feel about it.
I tried to establish what their begging schedule was. Several times I even caught myself making wishes before going out - if the elderly woman was there, they would come true.
It took over two years for me to venture to talk to them. A friend even advised me to give it up, "you'll only get into trouble". It turned out I was the only neighbour who didn't talk to them. Everybody in the neighbourhood already knew them and would often give them food, clothes, cigarettes, household goods or furniture. I had not even suspected I lived in a place seething with social solidarity. There are things you never learn unless you make a gesture of good will.
As it happens it is very easy to meet them: you simply cross the street and say "good afternoon, may I introduce myself, we are neighbours."
The beautiful elderly woman is ill and we don't see her, but Pepa, a 50-year-old slim and smiling woman, invites us into the big house. It was she who found it empty in the autumn of 2000. At that time, she had already been evicted from her state flat in Druzhba 2, a district on the outskirts of Sofia, because she could not pay for the electricity and water and she had to live in the street. She saw the house, something made her walk in, and then she moved in, followed by five more people: her present husband, her daughter with her boyfriend, the beautiful elderly woman and an old man. Plus four dogs and four cats. Nobody has ever asked them why they are here and nobody has wanted his house back either. The neighbours have told them that the owner is probably in London, but it is not clear if this is a fact. They live without water or electricity - without owing the state anything. Heat: a stove burning wood or coal; light: candles in the evening; water: rainwater and from the Central Market; bathing: once a week in the Gorna Banya baths.
Pepa is joyful and when learning that I come from northwestern Bulgaria, became more so, because she was also born there, in Miziya. I sometimes feel you can never leave the place where you were born. I know everything in Pepa and her partners' house from other houses in the northwest that I have lived in: the wood-burning stove, the slightly askew icon, the needlework depicting deer, the framed cutting from a women's magazine, the heavy wardrobe and the multitude of objects, cushions and makeshift flower pots. All these houses in the northwest are now empty and padlocked by their owners, who have "shelved" them for some other time. With Pepa it is the opposite: she has brought the spirit of the northwest into an empty, "shelved" house in Sofia. Poor, warm, like a hut, but cosy in its own way. Pepa hardly has any teeth left in her mouth and reminds me of a cousin, from the northwest, who in 1998, at the age of 37, decided he would never go to the dentist again, because otherwise he would never manage in life financially.
I don't tell this to her; instead, I ask her when she decided she could not manage in life, when she first felt helpless. "In 1998, when they took my flat away." Has she always been poor? Always, "I was poor and I am poor now." Her dreams when she was a child? "To sing, but they cut out my tonsils and that was it." When was she happy? "When I got married the first time, at 16 and a half, in Miziya." She has been married twice and has six children. Her eldest son is in London and the youngest is in Miziya, in a home for children with disabilities. Two others are married and live in different parts of Bulgaria and two live with her. For a long time she has been without a job, without social security, without a pension, without anything.
Pepa has hit the bottom, but there is no tragedy about her. This is probably the reason why the whole neighbourhood secretly loves the homeless people's house - what we are all afraid of is much more human than we actually imagine. Or possibly for another reason too: their inner feeling of helplessness which many of us have also known.
I ask her whether she has imagined that her life could change for the better. She doesn't know how this could happen. She doesn't expect anything. I tell her about my father, who was born with some white hair on his head, and a woman present at his birth told my grandmother that "this boy would have good luck, but late in life" and this was indeed the case. Maybe she has a similar fate. She brightens up and says that a woman has told her something of the sort. Then she remembers a dream. "I dream I am in a courtyard, in something like a house but without a roof, and I see a friend's boy, a junkie who is now dead, asking me what I am doing there. Then I see a house which they have decided to give to us and I enter it and see a lot of people who have moved in and I ask them: 'What are you doing here? This house is for us.' But they look through me as if I am a ghost. Only I can see them. Then I go to a woman who has made a kind of bar, but she doesn't see me either, as if I don't exist."
She tells me her dream and asks if it means something good. I ask her if there are other such houses and people in Sofia. "A lot, but a lot of them die too." Has she ever thought of going back to the country? "No, the people there sometimes ask me for a cigarette, can you imagine? Sofia is like a paradise, I've been here for 25 years and everything is completely different."
She says she doesn't enjoy begging, this is what she hates most. "I can't look people in the eyes; I wish I were no more. So, when I see a beggar, I don't give him a dime but two 50 stotinki pieces so that he can go and buy some food. I feel sad."
We are separated by a cobbled street and two gates, a minute to walk across, and the two years it took to talk to them. I still can't tell if there is a difference between now and then apart from knowing their names: six people, four dogs and four cats. My melancholic neighbours in the very centre of Sofia.