Miscellaneous observations from the Balkans, the Baltic

I guess it’s time to wrap up my account of my travels to Bulgaria and Latvia. I’ve been home for almost a week now and have already written almost 15,000 words about my trip, which is probably plenty. But my brain is still whirling with images and memories, and I think I will sleep better and finally declare a victory over jet lag if I give vent to one last batch of miscellaneous impressions.

In regard to languages, I am already unable to hear in my mind what Bulgarian sounds like. I seem to recall that it sounded vaguely Russian, or vaguely Slavic, with lots of grumbling undertones and –zsches and –szszes, but the sad truth is that I have always been slower than the average bear at picking up foreign languages, or in being able to tell them apart.

Many years ago, when I was washing dishes at Hotel Central in Davos, Switzerland, an elegant guest who had somehow taken a wrong turning and found herself in the bowels of the hotel stopped to speak with me in English for a short while, and as we spoke my two Serbian workmates, a couple named Giorgio and Giorgina, looked on in wonder.

After the woman left, Giorgo said to me, in the crude Swiss-German that we both spoke so poorly, “Eddie! Were you talking to that woman in French?” I laughed at his innocence, amazed that anyone could mistake English for French. And now here I am, telling you that Bulgarian sounded vaguely Russian, and I can just hear Bulgarians and Russians tut-tutting at my ignorance. Growing old is a continual exercise in humility.

I can tell you this about Latvian, though I risk exposing my ignorance again: It, too, has a vaguely Slavic cast to it, though it also has a distinctly Nordic, sing-songy lilt to it, especially when spoken by women.

I also wanted to say something in general about how I perceived both countries before my impressions slip away. Did I say countries? I should have said cities, because I spent most of my time in the two capitals: Sofia, Bulgaria, and Riga, Latvia.

St. Alexander Nevski Cathedral, Sofia.

I still feel a little guilty about not liking Sofia more than I did. There are some fine parts of it, and some beautiful old buildings and places of worship, but much of the city is represented by two extremes: gleaming, brand-new palaces of commerce, completely untethered to a particular time and place, and endless rows of high-rise Soviet-era apartment buildings, which must have been hideous enough when new and have acquired no charm in the aging process, as buildings constructed with some taste naturally do.

But part of the problem is that Sofia, so I learned, was heavily damaged during World War II, and there are few worse fates, architecturally speaking, than enduring a terrible war and then decades of Soviet occupation. Just as the Communists thought nothing of killing millions of people in pursuit of a brighter future, so they thought that housing millions of people in decrepit, soul-crushing concrete honeycombs was a minor inconvenience on the road to the Millennium.

Also, I was so taken with the Bulgarians I met that I didn’t want to dislike their capital. But the ugly buildings, the ubiquitous spray-paint tagging (as opposed to semi-artistic graffiti) and the profusion of Soviet-realism statuary, which celebrates collective achievement through the medium of grandiose shlock, were hard to ignore.

It didn’t help that some kind of public works project was underway in the heart of downtown Sofia. The project seemed to run straight through the downtown, demarcated not with cyclone fencing but with panels of solid steel, so that one was constantly being detoured without really understanding where one was being directed.  Google Maps was completely discombobulated.

Still, there were parts of Sofia, and whole sections of the old part of Plovdiv, the second-largest city in Bulgaria, that informed me that Bulgaria in its prime was as beautiful as Rome or pre-sprawl Athens. And as I said, I mostly saw just the capital, and a bit of Plovdiv. My one excursion to the Bulgarian countryside filled me with intoxicating visions of what it must be like to tour Bulgaria on its blue highways, its winding two-lane roads. I hope I get a chance to see that Bulgaria in the future.

There is also this: in Sofia, I witnessed one of the most touching things I saw on my trip. Not far from my hotel, and not far from the massive, stately Alexandre Nevski Cathedral, there was a much smaller Orthodox church that I went into, and where I was the only actual tourist. Everyone else was there as a worshipper, most of them elderly women who shuffled reverently from icon to icon, stopping in front of each one to mumble a prayer or to kiss the icon with great feeling.

The little church with the Madonna and Child.

Just inside the entrance to the church was a beautiful painting of the Madonna and Child, in a frame of filigreed silver. A young mother dressed in jeans and tennis shoes, holding her daughter in her arms, stopped in front of the painting. She and her daughter might have been the same age as Mary and Jesus in the painting. The woman gazed intently at it, trembling with emotion, her eyes shut and her lips moving in prayer. As I watched, she reached out and clutched the heavy frame with one hand, as if in need of support, her eyes filling with tears as she directed her pleas or her adoration at the icon. Her daughter was quiet and still, studying the painting with nearly as much intensity as her mother. I hope the mother’s prayers were answered.

Then there was Riga. It was easy to appreciate, in a touristy way. Its Old Town, and much of its downtown outside the oldest district, was the sort of place that people who have never been to Europe picture when they think of Europe: narrow, cobblestoned streets, grand squares (see photo at top), magnificent steeples, subterranean restaurants and bars and quaint little shops. I was told that the charm didn’t extend much beyond the relatively small Old Town, but I ranged pretty widely, penetrating large parts of the city on foot, and most of it was quite beautiful or at least highly interesting. I really loved the alteration of elaborate brick-and-stone structures with old-fashioned wooden buildings that looked like nothing I’d ever seen before. It seemed even more remarkable that these wooden buildings survived even on some of the busiest parts of the downtown, right next to much newer, glitzier buildings.

But I also was told that Latvia has the lowest standard of living in all of the European Union. I saw nothing remotely resembling a slum, though, and I wonder if the poverty is confined to the countryside and the smaller towns. I don’t know, and as with Bulgaria I would love the chance to explore some back roads there.

One of the many wooden buildings seen around downtown Riga.

The only thing I saw outside of Riga was a bit of countryside on our way to Jelgava, 30 or 40 minutes outside of the capital, and it was so foggy that day that I couldn’t see much of anything on either side of the highway. Even on the outskirts of Riga, though, the buildings looked a bit more ragged, certainly no demerit in my eyes.

But then, I am one of those people who fell in love with Butte the first time I laid eyes on its hodgepodge of old buildings in varying stages of decay. Adding to the effect was that, with all the recent moisture, most of the clay-tile roofs were sprouting lichen, and soggy rust-colored leaves were piled up in the troughs of the roofs. On the road to Jelgava, I also saw a ramshackle singlewide trailer surrounded by junk cars, piles of lumber, miscellaneous debris and heaps of God knows what covered with plastic sheeting. It made me a little nostalgic for Montana.

OK, let me wrap up with a few more observations:

♦ One of my few regrets was that I didn’t get a chance to meet anyone in the Roma populations of either Bulgaria or Latvia. I spent much of the past summer obsessed with the writings of George Borrow, an Englishman who traveled and lived among the Roma in several European countries in the early 1800s. I had also read a modern book about the Gypsies, “Bury Me Standing,” which mentioned that the Roma in Sofia lived in some of the most squalid slums of Europe and are still terribly mistreated. Matt Hagengruber took me into a Roma neighborhood of Sofia, but we had time only to drive through. We stared out at junk cars, horse-drawn carts and cows and chickens at loose in some yards. We were likewise stared at by young Roma, not quite malevolently, but with great pride. So much to see and do, so little time…

“Up the Baltick,” by Robert Collier. I bought the English copy; at right is the same book in Latvian.

♦ I mentioned having gone into an English-language bookstore in Riga. The first one I went to was Robert’s Books, not far from my Airbnb. It, too, was quite small but with a good selection of books in English, and I managed to find one gem: “Up the Baltick,” by Mike Collier. It is subtitled “The rediscovered journey of James Boswell & Samuel Johnson to Esthonia, Livonia & Kurland in the year 1778.” It is pure fiction, but delivered as if almost true. I have been reading Boswell for all of my adult life and I had never heard of this book, and no wonder. I later learned that Collier has lived in Latvia for many years, and this book was published in Riga. I could not find a copy of it on eBay or ABE. For all I know, Robert’s is the only place in the world you can buy it. I feel very lucky.

Candles in front of the Presidential Palace, Riga.

♦ My last full day in Riga was Nov. 11, the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I. It is a tradition for people to place lit candles on wire-mesh shelving attached to the walls around the Presidential Palace in Riga every Nov. 11, by way of remembrance, and of course the ceremony was to be much bigger this year because of the anniversary. I went down to the palace early in the afternoon and it was already quite cold and windy, so I didn’t stay long. I had thoughts of going back at night, when it must have been spectacular, but it was really cold by then, so I opted for a warm restaurant. At least I had gone down earlier. I would find out later that a certain world leader ducked out of a similar ceremony in France at the prospect of a spot of rain.

♦ I wish I could have been in Riga a week later—today, in fact. Latvia declared its independence on Nov. 18, 1918, and though it later fell under the sway of the Soviet Union, Nazi Germany and then the Soviet Union again, that day is still sacred. On the river that runs through Riga, there were 25 or 30 rafts or moored platforms covered with plastic tarps. I was given to understand that these were all full of fireworks, to be launched during the centennial observations today.

♦ I promised to update people on the affair of the missing magazine. It appears as though the matter has been resolved, or soon will be. After I got an email from an official with the Latvian National Library, asking me to return a copy of the New York Review of Books, I wrote back to explain how the misunderstanding came to be. I also said, edging close to impertinence, that the magazine, which I had donated to a bookstore-coffee shop named Bolderaja, was just a magazine. That same official responded a couple of days ago, saying:

“Thank you for the answer! As the ancient Romans said: Books (magazines?) have their destiny… This is a good reason finally go to the Bolderaja!

“I do not have much to add and blame you — so it goes!”

Also, my contact at the U.S. Embassy in Riga, Shannon Ritchie, asked me to forward the email to her, since her colleagues at the embassy run the JFK Reading room at the library, from which I had taken the magazine. “We’ll sort it out,” she said. I had rather looked forward to spell in a Latvian prison, thinking that if I couldn’t get a book out of that, what good was I? But freedom also has its charms.

I said this would be my last post on my travels, but I think I should probably end it with a photo gallery. I’ll get around to that in the next few days.

1 thought on “Miscellaneous observations from the Balkans, the Baltic

  1. Carol Henckel

    I have so enjoyed the descriptions of your journey especially because I knew you would give a wonderful fresh view of what you saw. In reading this I suspected that the icon of Mary or Mother of God was one I recognized. I carried a small thumbnail picture in my purse that I got from someone in Chicago. I was particular of that images because it was the image for fishermen and of course I was married to one of them but also my grandfather as a tugboat captain of a fishing boat in Sheboygan, Wisconsin on Lake Michigan. with that being said I found this information on the internet that reaffirms why I liked the image so much albeit I am Catholic. So enjoy the remarkable story. Mark would have loved this beautiful irony. Carol



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