Bulgaria, bananas, and borders

Coming to understand how land borders work is an interesting process, given most Kiwis’ experiences of immigration follow flights. The train from Baku, Azerbaijan, to Tbilisi, Georgia, provided one interesting experience. Prickly guards with their mobile emigration and immigration devices boarded the train, snapped a photo and left without much of a word in Azerbaijan, while Georgian guards collected everyone’s passports from the train, went into their office, and returned with a stack of bulk-stamped IDs.

Prickly guards with their mobile emigration and immigration devices boarded the train, snapped a photo and left without much of a word in Azerbaijan, while Georgian guards collected everyone’s passports from the train, went into their office, and returned with a stack of bulk-stamped IDs.

The next border that followed was familiar, given I flew from Tbilisi to Istanbul, but from Istanbul I took the bus to Sofia, Bulgaria. On the bus, it was closer to an airline process. Off the bus, into a line for immigration, and back on to the bus. Repeat that, and you find yourself in the next country.

Turkey seemed happy to be rid of me, while Bulgaria seemed happy to see me. The lady didn’t say so much of a word when I was leaving Turkey, but the jolly bald man greeted me with jovial inquisition. “New Zealand,” he says, looking up with a smile.

“What brings you to Bulgaria?”

His English woke me from my nightbus stupor, and I only answered with “ah, holiday”.

“How long are you staying, and where?”

Sofia, I tell him, and just a couple of days. I tell him I’m heading to Serbia not long after, which he didn’t seem to care for too much.

Back on the bus, I was buoyed by the man’s cheery nature, especially given it was about 2am. It boded well for the rest of my Bulgarian experience.

Sofia, or Sofiya, or however you want to spell it, is a wonderfully relaxed place. When it comes to the sites, sans the museum visits, it’s perhaps a place you can visit in a day. The people are warmer than the weather, the food is spicy and spiked with peppers and vinegar, and the booze of choice (other than beer) is a wonderful thing called rakia. Rakia? What is that, you ask? It’s a wonderfully alcoholic moonshine made from fruit, typically plums or apples. It’s one of the things I must try, locals say, but my own proclivities tell me to stay away.

I’m glad I did, given three beers sent me flat on my face on the icey Bulgarian sidewalk late one night.

But Bulgaria offers an ancient story. It’s a country of tribes, dating back to the Romans and even further. The city underneath modern day Sofia is still not fully discovered. Recently, when excavating for the metro, they discovered Roman ruins. They even had a Amphitheatre not much smaller than the famous Coliseum.

It’s, more recently, seen communism. An interesting country without, the story I was told y a free tour guide on my first day was most interesting to me. Unsurprisingly for you, however, the story involves food.

While it’s a tropical fruit, associated with summer and various warm-weather cocktails or tinctures, in Bulgaria it means Christmas. Walking around not long before St Nick’s day, I could see random people chowing down on the long yellow fruit. The tour guide told me that it was in fact because in communist times, bananas were in season at Christmas time. They were affordable, and always made it onto the orthodox table. Since then, it’s a tradition. A weird one at that, for me.

For a Kiwi, one of the many that consider it a staple, it seems funny to have such a fruit on the Christmas table. Especially when we all long for tastes of citrus, animal fat and warming spices.

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