How an Australian came to love the blue, blue Black Sea
I don't go out of my way to hang out with other expats in my free time. Of course, there are a couple of bars in Sofia you can go to if you really need a conversation about football, or to reminisce about good ol' stuff from the old country, like meat pies, or Eastenders.
But chances are you're going to end up copping an ear-bashing from some tedious old property developer, or casino manager, who is much more interested in your girlfriend than your views on TV soaps, British pastry dishes, or Liverpool FC.
One tactic you can try if you're accosted by an expat in the street, and you really can't be bothered: pretend to be Bulgarian. Simply shrug your shoulders with a smile, and say a few incomprehensible words in the hope that the other guy won't understand. Your opponent, thwarted, will drift off and bug someone else. Just don't shrug or smile too effusively, however, because that would be visibly unBulgarian, and even the thickest foreigner will twig that you're not the real deal.
Sometimes, of course, you can't help getting roped into a chat with one of your countrymen. On the bright side, it may even help to remind you why you left the old country in the first place.
It happened to me the other week. I had a conversation with another Australian bloke that turned out about as stimulating as watching a small pile of kangaroo droppings drying out in the sun. The guy pegged me as a fellow Aussie before I had a chance to pull my “Nospeaka- da-English” routine.
“Waddaya doin' here?” the guy asked me, insinuating that anyone who'd deliberately move to Eastern Europe from God's own southern land must be a few snags short of the full barbecue. It turned out this bloke had been backpacking around Europe for a few months.
“Europe's okay,” the guy said. “But it sure makes you realise that you come from the best country on Earth.” I'm thinking: Just keep smiling and nodding. Try not to roll your eyes or groan audibly.
Trapped as I was, this bloke went on to tell me that he'd just got back from the Black Sea coast, or the “Black Lake” as he disparagingly called it, making it clear that it was a big comedown for him after the vaster and infinitely superior Pacific Ocean to which he was accustomed.
“Europeans just can't do beaches, mate,” he said, and I had to admit that I knew what he meant. Australians prefer their beaches “au naturel”. No kiosks, shops, bars, restaurants or ready-planted umbrellas to sit under. With 40,000 kilometres of coastline in Australia, it's not difficult to find endless expanses of beach all to yourself, untouched by man.
Beaches in Bulgaria tend to be more of a cheek-by-jowl affair. Now don't get me wrong. It's not Bulgaria's fault that, by accident of geography, there's simply less coastline to go round. But I remember my first sight of the Black Sea coast, a couple of summers back, thinking: It's crowded.
A lot of people. A lot of furniture. You know those plastic banana loungers and stuff? And Bulgarian beaches are strewn with so many cocktail bars, slot machines, and huge sub-woofers that you end up feeling like you're in a big daytime disco with sand.
So you set up camp on a couple of square metres of shady sand beneath your rented umbrella, close enough to your neighbours to share the scent of their coconut tanning oil and enveloping cloud of cigarette smoke.
Your neighbours are just as likely to be British, German, or Russian as Bulgarian. You'll spot the British – they're all lobster red as a result of their unawareness of the dangers of sunburn.
The British love it here, of course. Apart from being cheap as chips for them, these are the best beaches they've ever seen. You have to remember that British beaches are usually made out of rocks, or at least grey sand, where you can get a donkey ride, being led through the freezing mist by a wheezing carnival hand wearing long trousers and leather shoes, with a handkerchief (with the corners tied up) on his head.
Back to Bulgaria, though: Yeah, I found the beaches here kind of odd at first, but it wasn't long before I shed my Pacific Ocean snobbery and began to appreciate the conveniences on offer.
So here we are on the beach. Hungry? Relax! Within minutes someone's going to come to you and sell you a nice hot corn cob or chocolate croissant for a paltry one lev. At that price, you can't afford not to buy one!
Thirsty? Chill out on the sand with a pint of cold beer! No killjoy is going to tell you that drinking alcohol and then going swimming is unsafe. Besides, in Bulgaria they say that beer isn't really alcohol anyway! Go for it!
The sun's hot, the sand is golden, and the sea is nice and blue, all as they should be (where does the name “Black Sea” come from, anyway?). To be fair, if you brought your triple-fin surfboard hoping to catch some radical three-metre waves, you may be a little disappointed. There's a reason why Bulgaria hasn't spawned many world champion surfers. But let's face it. After all those beers and corn cobs, you're going to appreciate a gentler swell anyway.
Don't forget to pack your inflatable plastic beach ball, which you and your mates can toss around one to another with an innocent enthusiasm that is reminiscent of a 1950s “strength through joy” propaganda film.
After a relaxing day of sun, sand, corn, beer, and beach balls, retire to your hotel room. Where else in Europe can you get a beachside hotel room for 20 euros? Personally, I'd go for a nice room in a guest house in the old towns like Sozopol or Nesebar, anytime. Those glitzy new resort developments strike me as a bit plastic-fantastic. Besides, some of those hotel developments have been thrown up with such speed (to cash in on Bulgaria's property and tourism explosion) that you hear stories about them having dodgy plumbing, and so on.
There's a story about a hotel that was recently built on the Black Sea coast. In order to save money on construction materials, the developers went down to the seaside and dug up loads of beach sand to mix into the concrete (you need sand to make concrete, right?). Someone forgot to tell these guys that you can't use beach sand, though, because it's full of salt. They're now waiting for the next big rain for the entire hotel to dissolve back into the beach from which it came.
Are you going to worry about things like that? Nah! You're going to do what I, and millions of others do, and join the annual exodus to the blue, blue Black Sea. Just remember to drive carefully, because noone else will.
And even if you should miss your chance, don't worry. In a few months winter will be upon us, and this is Bulgaria; and there's a lovely sky slope just down the road.