Ever since I began a life that involved large amounts of travelling and living in foreign countries, I have been fascinated not by the big things that a country has to offer, but by the minutiae of everyday life. This is not to say that I am not interested in grand sights like the Pyramids or The Great Wall, I most certainly am, but I also found the 'mundane' details of everyday life in other countries tremendously fascinating. To employ a tortuously clichéd analogy, I love the detailed strokes of the travellers brush as well as the sweeping colours of a country's canvas. This was the explanation I gave to my girlfriend when she asked me why I was so excited to be taking a bus in Bulgaria. In itself, it was nothing exciting. However, I felt that I was getting in touch with real-life in Eastern Europe.
To perhaps give a little back ground to my love of the everyday moments of other countries, we should perhaps hark back to 2001 when I spent a year studying in the US. Whilst Albany NY was not the most exciting of locales, I found myself obsessed with tiny little details that I felt were quintessentially American: movie stubs, baseball cards, tickets for Greyhound buses. This fascination continued to grow in other countries. I fastidiously saved tickets to football games in Korea. I found myself peeling off interesting looking labels in Mongolia and I saved pretty much every train ticket I ever got in China. Doing everyday stuff in England bored me. That probably explains why I have lived in several different countries. But, doing''normal'. and banal stuff in other countries grips me.
Because of all this, when I got my first chance to ride a bus in Bulgaria I could barely contain my excitement. My girlfriend, her cousin and I would catch one from Varna to the resort of Golden Sands. I am not typically a great bus enthusiast, but I was suddenly so keen to investigate. I was full of questions. Would the bus be new or old? Would it be a single-decker or double-decker? Would it be crowded? Would I get a ticket I could keep as a souvenir (the most important question)? What colour would it be? My head was almost swimming with the possibilities.
As it was, my Bulgarian bus experience was delightfully sedate and proved to be something of a throw-back to the days before digital timetables, automated vending machines and apps that allow you to track your progress along the route. The bus stop at which we waited was a small steel shed with no timetables or maps, not even a sign. The bus, when it arrived, was antiquated but very clean and well-maintained. It was painted a rich green and had a hand-painted sign in the front window. The inside was rather basic. There were no maps and not a single advertisement to be seen. There was also no air-conditioning, which made the journey a little warm. This was countered though by the driver leaving the windows and, at times, even the doors open.
If the bus itself reminded me of a by-gone era the crew did even more so. I use the term 'crew' because there was not just a driver, there was also a conductress. This fostered two types of memories for me. The first was of Britain in the mid-1980s when I used to travel on the bus with my mother and the conductor would give us large yellow tickets. The second was less distant. Both China and Mongolia, many buses were staffed by drivers and conductors (although in China these were beginning to disappear). It appeared the conductor was something of a Communist hangover. Whether the conductors were an echo of a previous ideology or not, I enjoyed seeing them. They tended to be extremely friendly older ladies who seemed to take pride in their jobs and were keen to offer help on destinations and fares (this impression was gleaned from 3 or 4 journeys).
Bus rides in Bulgaria were no great thrill or adventure, but I did enjoy the taste of Bulgarian routine. I still have the ticket in my wallet.