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Don’t speak the language, hold some currency…

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So here I am in sunny Sofia (and I don’t mean that lightly – it’s knocking on 35degC and I’m hiding in an air conditioned bar, slightly dazzled by the reflection of said sun on the umbrellas protecting the fools sitting on the patio outside) for Adam Horner’s wedding. That’s not until tomorrow evening (which if I’d actually read the invite would probably have meant I wouldn’t have added an extra day onto the end of my stay, as I have the attention span of a tiny child and expect that I will either be bored or arrested by Sunday afternoon when my plane is due to whisk me back to blighty) so in the meantime I’m going to take advantage of the rather swanky hotel I am in and eat their delicately arranged Pringles (BBQ flavour) and drink this rather nice beer.

Despite some slightly sour twittering (as I have discovered I am actually a very bad traveller, and my attempts to convince myself otherwise were a mere sham) my journey was fairly uneventful. Up at 5am to pack, at Heathrow for 7, checked in and through security by 7:30, eating a rather tasty breakfast by 7:45, laden with whisky and Bulgarian leva. Having not realised that Bulgaria is now part of the EU and rumoured to be fond of euros, I grabbed a stack of currency (with a buyback guarantee due to my guidebook questioning the acceptance of the average common-or-garden exchange kiosk when it comes to the cyrillic laden notes from Bulgaria) and after my first spending of a shiny 20 lev note (about a tenner) it seems that I may well be selling a few back to the happy folks at Travelex, as you do seem to get a lot for your cash (as long as you spend it outside of this scarily pricy [apart from the rooms] hotel).

I flew over here with Swiss (formerly Swiss-air, but now air-less for reasons of German acquisition), who are a rather lovely airline. The planes are spacious and clean, the service efficient and friendly, my raisin roll edible if brick-like and the orange juice medicinal in the strange way that mid-continental orange juice so often seems to be (I did acquire a taste for it during my summers sojourning in Austria, although I did often mix it half and half with beer [Ottakringer out of choice], which I am now mildly ashamed of, despite its rather excellent cooling/endrunkening properties). Being the cheapskate and lazy bastard that I am, I chose Swiss due to them being very slightly cheaper than BA, flying at a very slightly more friendly time of day than BA and departing from Heathrow, the airport that I almost call home. A side effect of this rather sensible choice is that I have now visited another city – Zurich, terminus to the east. I arrived, proved that my german was awful by attempting to buy euros and failing to express the concept of “Bank Card” (helpfully in german said as “Bank Karte”, if I remember correctly, although the lady behind the counter didn’t quite get it until I broke down and sprechen-Sie-English’d), realised that I had left my emergency Swiss Francs (which I refer to as chuffs in my head, due to their ISO code being CHF, a foible that I almost let out to all and sundry when talking to the nice lady behind the Travelex counter) on my desk at home, and as such was at the mercy of whatever Swiss (formerly Swiss-air) decided was food – the raisin roll (announced to me as “RAISIN ROLL!” by the slightly on-edge stewardess, as she rolled her cart very quickly down the aisle, throwing out vittles with deadly accuracy) was not only edible but rather tasty, so I had high hopes.

I then gave up on the shopping area and went over to my gate, which in true mainland europe fashion was guarded by a metal detector and security gate – why have one security check point when you enter the airport, when you can have full-employment and one at every gate, hein? It was at this point the minor hiccoughs in my travel experience reared their less than beautiful heads. Firstly there was much eyeing of my whisky bag – I was assured by the nice chap at Woooooorld of Whiskies in Terminal 2 that as I was ending my trip in the EU there was no limit to what I could buy and take through customs, a dangerous thing when they had tasty things in the “buy 2 bottles from this range and save a tenner” section. I trusted him and felt that I may have been betrayed when the security girl started fondling my heavily sealed industrial grade duty free bag. Eventually she was mollified by claims of having come from London and I proceeded to stage 2 – bitter guy with an x-ray machine and a mild dislike of the US and the UK, especially their “special relationship”. He pointed out to me in efficient english that I could not carry my bottle of water any further. I protested mildly, asking if it made any difference that I hadn’t had the chance to leave the airport and thus had bought the water in a secure area. Unfortunately his english was not quite good enough for my mumbled and incoherent argument (paraphrased in the previous sentence) and he resorted to a simple and winning argument – “It is your fault, you english, you and your special friend the USA [queue cheesy grin]. It is that Mr Blair and Bush”. I stepped down at this time, knowing that there was little point in doing anything but admit defeat in a graceful manner. My water was binned, my bags returned and I continued to my gate.

My bad eyesight was compensated for by my knowledge of german at this point, as the tiny text saying “Delayed” on my gate’s departure board was complimented by a large flashing german banner claiming the same in that differing tongue. There were no further details that my broken eyes could see, so I sat down, surrounded by large, bored businessmen, and proceeded to use my in-phone internets to pass the time. The swiss’s (that’s way to many Ss in a row) love for the measuring of time is well known, and thus I shouldn’t have been quite so surprised when the rest of the passengers for my flight turned up as one, queued and then wandered on to the plane as the gate opened, a mere 25 minutes late. I had experienced a “telling the time” failure, that in the end was not resolved until I arrived in Sofia and twiddled the clocks on my various electronic aids for a third time in the day, and thought that I had a further hour to wait, and thus was unsupectingly whisked along with the crowd and deposited in my plane seat.

This time Swiss decreed that the snack would be bread based and containing cheese and tomato. I was starting to ebb, mainly falling back on sleep to conserve my energy for the dreaded taxi trip from airport to hotel, and the bready snack was needed, although the effort involved in chewing the dwarfbread-like mass is probably as good a recipe for weight loss as any celery stick, no matter how engineered to be nutritionless and fibrous it may be. I soon found myself trying to translate signs from the cyrillic alphabet, a worryingly difficult task considering that they were written in roman text as well, and having obtained my efficiently transferred bag (which I was certain would end up in Azerbaijan or somewhere. Although I doubt that Baku is on the list of 76 airports that Swiss so proudly point out on the constantly looping in-flight video, interspersed with bad Swiss tv prank shows) I proceeded to the arrivals hall, there to take on the task I had most feared – not getting ripped off by a taxi driver. I followed the directions in my guide book, fended off a taxi tout with one hand while dragging myself towards the OK Supertrans stand, billed to be the only honest cab company in town. I was quickly shown outside by the taxi-pimp, informed that the cab shouldn’t cost more than 14 leva and then bundled into the first cab that turned up, causing dismay to the rather large queue at the taxi rank who hadn’t come up with the cunning plan of cutting out the middle man and going to the taxi source.

And then the taxi driver tried to kill me.

I know there are often jokes about cab drivers being mad and cities with interesting traffic and all the rest, but I had always dismissed them as stories and fun reconstructions on the telly (apart from the blog I was reading a while back about a guy doing some volunteering in Freetown, Sierra Leone – he posted a video of his host’s commute to work, which seemed to involve driving down a cliff between shacks. Which is basically what it was). No longer. Whether it was chasing trams down the tracks, trying to get air over cobbled hills or racing other cars by cutting them out on every corner, whilst turning against the oncoming traffic, he was definitely going to give me money’s worth by providing a Grand Theft Auto-like cab ride. Eventually he screeched to a halt outside the aforementioned rather fancy hotel, waved his hand and then only charged me 10 leva. Well, he at least gave me 10 leva change when I gave him a 20 – my command of numbers only currently goes as far as “pet” (five), as it sounds funny.

That’s it for now. I’ve just finished up this post this morning and will save the tales of the bikini pool party and the strange Playboy bunny bar for another time, but in the meantime all you need to know is that I have a mild headache and a strange urge to go walking in the hills before the destruction begins anew for the wedding party this evening.

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