I live in the east of Macedonia, only a short distance from the Bulgarian border, so it probably shouldn’t have taken me two years to visit. Oh well. Toa e toa.
I spent a long weekend in Sofia in August, hoping to track down a visa to visit Vietnam after service and also to cross off one more neighbor country from my bucket list. It all started with Pero.
Pero is a guy who lives in my area and drives a van to Sofia almost every day. It’s about 10 euros round-trip, with pick up and drop off in my village, but the trick is that you can’t plan in advance. If you try to call him two days early, he says call back tomorrow. You can’t reserve your seat any earlier than the night before, which luckily after two years here was no problem. Ima vreme (there is time) always.
My friend Susan joined me for the weekend, since she and I are planning some Southeast Asia adventures and needed visas. We managed to find the embassy on foot, which was quite impressive. But then we stood outside waiting for it to open because we didn’t realize there was a time change, which was less impressive.
Spoiler: We didn’t get the visas, but we had a beautiful cultural moment.
I started speaking to the man working there in tentative, slow English, after handing over my American passport. Periodically he turned to a colleague and asked in Vietnamese if she could help bridge the language divide. Slowly, we realized that what I read online was wrong and there was no way to get a visa in 2-3 days. It would take a minimum of two weeks. After a lot of pointing, gesturing, and many hopeful smiles, we decided our quest had failed and I said ‘thank you,’ in Macedonian.
That was the game changer.
The man paused and said wait, you speak Bulgarian? I switched to Macedonian and said not Bulgarian, but the languages are so similar that we had no problem conversing. He then explained what we had been struggling through in English and we laughed over how easy it was to sum up a 20-minute struggle in five with a common language.
So no visa, but no worries. I’ve said it before, but this experience has definitely made me a more patient person. Plus, after leaving the embassy I had a cool, new city to explore!
Sofia is a gem.
We wandered for a while through the city center until rain showers prompted a stop for a long coffee. (Although the stormy skies made for some beautiful photos.) We found the city easy to navigate, and as we discovered, our Macedonian skills translated enough to solve any questions we had.
This language overlap is definitely one of the neat things about traveling in the Balkans. (Assuming you have some general grasp of one of the languages used here.)
Maybe the coolest part of the trip came on our second day when we participated in a free food tour. Let me repeat: Free. Food. Tour. I don’t know who came up with this idea, but genius.
We did a free walking tour in the morning, grabbed coffee, and met in front of a statue of a giant head split by an ax (Art confuses me.) and took off on the greatest tour of all time.
Free food, guys. Did I mention that?
We stopped at several restaurants and had samplings of traditional fare, like Bulgaria’s version of ajvar, and whatever the restaurant was known for. It was a great way to get some ideas of where to return for full meals, and a delicious way to experience Sofia.
After a bit more wandering, we met up with our (awesome) couchsurfer and had dinner at a hole in the wall near his apartment, with even more tasty food.
On our third morning, we wandered a little more, coffeed a little more, and set out to find our ride home. After a few hours of what seemed like the long way home, we ended up getting dropped off right in front of my house because of course, the driver knew my host family.