Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Joe Linstroth's Big Bulgarian Adventure

Last year our writer in absentia, Mr. Joe Linstroth, informed us he would be gone for part of the summer as he was going to his house in Bulgaria. After a moment of shock at the fact that Joe not only owned a home but that it was in a foreign country, we peppered him with questions about the place. There were no answers as Joe had purchased the place with a buddy SIGHT UNSEEN. At this point, we knew we were dealing with a maniac.

When Joe eventually went to the house in Bulgaria, we didn’t really hear much from him until we got this random email. I thought it was not only one of the funniest emails I ever received, it was also poignant and beautifully written. The guy ought to be a travel writer. So far what you read below is the only info we have received about Joe’s trip, but one of these days I will buy him many beers and he can tell me more. Maybe he will feel compelled to share more about this life experience in a future blog posting.

So, without further ado, and as an introduction to Joe since he is away at grad school, I give you the story of the house in Bulgaria. Take it away, Joe Linstroth:

(Email written on July 5, 2008.)

Family, friends, fellow countrymen,

Greetings from Bulgaria. First off, I apologize for the mass email. My internet access is rather limited and I will try to tailor more personalized emails at a later date, but for the time being, I thought I’d send along a little update as well as more photos than you’re probably interested in seeing (most likely in multiple emails following this one). [Note--Joe still owes us the pictures.]

After four days in Istanbul (fabulous, but another email for another time), I arrived in Rousse, Bulgaria (for those who don’t know or remember, it’s the city where I taught English and came of age ten years ago) and then, finally, in Pisanets -- the Bulgarian village 20 km south of Rousse where my buddy and I cemented our insanity by purchasing a house last year. I can’t afford a proper bed, car or computer in the States, but somehow I thought it was a good idea to go in on half of a house, halfway across the world, that I had never seen before. To those I’ve told, thank you for waiting to laugh at me until after I left the room or hung up the phone. After a trying, arduous week of work, however, I sincerely believe it is I who will have the last laugh...

Upon entering our front gate (one of my favorite features of the house-see picture) for the first time, I was finally confronted with the reality of my decision. Until then, it was a romantic image in my head made real only by my monthly payments. Weeds, wild flowers and rye grass usurped the property. The walkway to the front door was hidden in brush. After forging a path through the thistles and insects, we entered our house. The downstairs -- where the shower, kitchen and two bedrooms are -- was frosted in mildew and there were more spiders and other unidentifiable insects than even Indiana Jones could handle. And I hate insects. Upstairs was the opposite (except for the spiders), arid and coated in dirt, and just to make sure we knew we were in Bulgaria, a small rodent chose the middle of our best bed as her final resting place –the juices seeped clear through the mattress. It had died so long ago that the crispy, buck-toothed thing didn’t even smell anymore. After a 16-hour train ride from Istanbul in a baking, iron commie donkey, I was exhausted and starving. I swiped the thick layer of dust off a chair, sat down and nearly cried. What the hell did I just do? All I wanted was air-conditioning, a clean bed and a steak. Within minutes, scoring the winning basket for the other team in fourth grade, choosing writing over med school, not caring about money, my career as a dining consultant -- they all seemed like fantastic and logical parts of my narrative compared to this white house with the terra cotta roof poking out of the godforsaken weeds in this godforsaken country. This house, in the middle of a Bulgarian village, where time stands still, was the biggest mistake of my life. But after three days of hacking, clipping, swatting, and scrubbing – during which my friend and I almost had it out in the grass on more than one occasion – the brilliance of my decision began to reveal itself.

On the fourth day, after scratching rashes and bites became second nature, I could finally see the beauty of our property: grape vines of an unknown varietal lined the walkway; two massive walnut trees provide the shade, along with four apple trees, two plum trees, two apricot trees, which are ready to pick, and one pear tree -- though no partridge, however a massive stork’s nest a few chimneys away can be seen from our deck. I took in the view of the valley below our village, where a river winds from the center of town into a massive national park filled with wild boar, wolves, hawks and more rare birds than anywhere in the Balkans (a 25 km hike with my brother and my English friend, Andy, who arrived when we did ten years ago and never left, is planned for next week).

Each morning I wake up (the first time, usually) to roosters and a flock of sheep bleating down our road (if you can call it that) followed by a shepherd, his bells softly jingling, staff in hand and his lunch in a sack over his shoulder. He leads them past the overgrown cemetery to the pastures above the village. At the first crack of light, the neighbor’s rooster starts his day, along with the many others in town. Until dusk, with only a break during the midday heat, their dueling machismo echoes through the valley. I alternate from finding it quaint and pleasant to wanting to swing the braying cock over my head by its neck.

The morning breeze smells of wheat (or of Wheat Chex, for this American city boy’s nose) from the farms miles away. Most of the farmland surrounding the village, however, is filled with sunflowers in full bloom, as their oil is a staple food in Bulgaria. Gold faces by the thousands follow the sun over the hills and into the horizon. I can’t help but hum the Sting song every time our bus drives past.

While Rousse has changed dramatically, the village life in Bulgaria has largely remained as it has been for the last forty or fifty years. It seems as if there are more goats and chickens than cars, and some villagers still use donkeys and small horses to haul buggies filled with hay through town. The people in the villages are remarkably self-sufficient, most living off no more than $150 a month. It is going to take some time to win many of them over. There is a Scottish couple who have been drinking themselves to death here for the last three years. They’re loud and obnoxious and I don’t think we’ll be hanging out with them often, lest the rest of the villagers think we’re just as bad. And one South African guy who, rumor has it (and rumors in the villages are their social lifeblood) is one arrogant, racist pig. We’re the only Americans with a house in all of northern Bulgaria, according to the property company. And that is just fine with me.

Our neighbors, Yordan and Stoyanka, are wonderful, however. In the village, it is customary to pass things over the stone fence to your neighbors -- a means of not only expressing friendship, but also of survival. Last night we plucked a bouquet of wild flowers for them and within an hour, we had fresh onions and cucumbers from their garden and boiled eggs straight from the hen and into the pot. I’ve never tasted eggs like that. They melted in my mouth. It’ll take a lot of smiling and “good day’s” to win the rest over, but at least our neighbors like us and will watch over our place while we’re gone.

One more point of interest and then I’ll let you go...it has come to my attention that there’s a dossier with my name on it, with photographs, etc., at the police headquarters and most likely, with the Ministry of Interior. When I was here ten years ago, my buddy and I were some of the first Americans to ever live in Rousse. Our friend, Andy, had just arrived as the head of a UN project and our other English friend, Robert, was starting out as a professor at the local university. Months later, America started bombing Serbia and Kosovo. Andy told me last week that he only recently found out from his former Bulgarian assistant that the guy was meeting with the Interior Ministry and the police monthly to inform them of his every move. Andy’s phone was bugged, his garbage searched, and they wanted to know who he hung out with and where. What a laugh that must’ve been for them, trying to figure out our code words and phrases like “bloody hangover,” “no more pork meatballs” and “what the hell, another round.” To Balkan authorities trained during the Cold War, “UN envoy” and “English teacher” were covers for spies. So I have a dossier in a Balkan country. That’s pretty badass, if I do say so myself. I’m going to see about how I can request the documents, once they’re released to public.

What began as a romantic idea of an escape hatch and a writing hut turned into a living nightmare and then back again. I may still be crazy, but at least now I know I have an asylum.

Thanks for listening,



Nat Topping said...

I miss Joe Linstroth. And Don Carpellian too.

Chris Othic said...

I believe Don Carpellian passed away. There was some sort of confusion at the reading of his will. He was a mighty handsome corpse though.