Impeccably Maintained Exteriors

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Plovdiv, Bulgaria – September 2014

A warm, arid breeze. The smell of unfamiliar foliage – spicy conifer. Dust. Curious houses painted in vibrant colors. This is what accompanies me as I climb the narrow cobblestone streets of Plovdiv’s Old City. One of the oldest cities in the whole wide world. Why is it so empty on this glorious late summer day?

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I pause in front of the ethnographic museum. The gates are locked. Closed on Mondays. Is today Monday? It’s so easy to forget which day it is when you’re on the road. I peer through the circular hole in the surrounding wall. A brief flicker of disappointment. The streets themselves are a museum of Bulgarian Revival architecture. At least I have that.

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I continue along the street, making detours down every little alley. In front of the tourist office, which is closed for lunch, other tourists materialize. A small group of French people sit in the shadow of a tall wall, taking refuge from the brilliant sunlight. An elderly woman inches along the cobblestone, placing the tip of each leg brace carefully on the uneven squares. A heavy camera hangs around her neck. I stand back and watch her. She stops, steadies her leg braces, and lifts the camera. She lets it fall back around her neck, moves herself over a couple of stones, and then raises it again. These motions are repeated a few times, until she finds the right angle. Her determination is admirable. I aim my camera at her. Then I notice a couple of art students on the lawn near her. They’ve looked up from their sketch pads to watch her. Their lips turn up at the corners, but it’s more of a smirk than a smile. I lower my camera and walk away, photo untaken.

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At the top of the highest hill, I pause. Layer upon layer of relics lie beneath these immaculate streets and out there, in the new city. Every garden, every flowerbed, is a potential archeological site. Could even pottery shards, statue limbs, and other ancient detritus be a nuisance?

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Down below, again, I seek out the Roman amphitheater. There it is, next to a trendy outdoor bar. Young people fill the faux leather seats. Pop hits and shallow laughter. A man slouches next to the entrance of the amphitheater. He doesn’t seem to see me, so I wonder if he works there or not. He gets up to let some others inside. “Do you want my money or not?” I snap. A languid nod. He takes my money and holds the door open for me. I sit for a moment on the hard stone seat, imagining the performances that still take place here. The acoustics are said to be fantastic. The sun is brutal, however, so I can’t linger. I escape again into the shadowy streets.

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Up ahead, I spot the French tour group. Three local ladies sit along the side of the street, on folding chairs. Their heads turn in unison to watch the group pass by. Lips curled in scorn. They turn their disdain on me when I pass. I duck into a souvenir shop to buy a postcard for my niece. One of the ladies slaps her hand on her thigh in annoyance and stands up. She shuffles across the street to the shop. I lay the postcard on the counter. The lady looks anywhere but at me. Nose wrinkled in disgust. A haughty lift of the chin. A curt tap of the finger on the amount I’m to pay. I grit my teeth and dig through my purse for change. I usually walk out of shops when I encounter such behavior. But this is the nicest postcard I’ve seen and, besides, it’s only coins. She drops them in the register, slams it shut, and waits for me to thank her. Something that was natural before I moved to Eastern Europe. Before I realized that, even if you said it, they would never say it back. The surliness is the result of a lack of education, of social skills. Most of the time they are not aware that they are being rude. But sometimes it is deliberate. A petty victory for a small mind. I pick up the postcard and walk out with a neutral expression. You’re not even worthy of my contempt, dear.

I stroll down the street, which is once again empty. The facades rise above. Lofty, standoffish. Plovdiv is lovely, but it’s not Venice or Prague. It’s not like the locals can afford to have such an attitude. But such is sometimes the way of those who place great importance on impeccably maintained exteriors. I’ll be happy to be back in Sofia later today. I prefer the hard-edged, the grungy, the real.

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*On the flight from Sofia to Vienna, I sat next to a couple of very talkative Bulgarian men, one of whom was from Plovdiv. They both confirmed that it’s not the friendliest of places. It’s funny how you can get the real personality of a place in just a few hours.

52 thoughts on “Impeccably Maintained Exteriors

  1. Impeccable exteriors, un-impeccable manners. These places are great to see but their polished exteriors are somehow unreal. The UK National Trust has a habit of making things too pristine which I guess is why I am so fond of Rome and its rough edges – I would probably like Sofia. Finely captured in words and pictures again Julie.

    • Thanks, Robin. The most difficult thing to get used to for Western expats in Eastern Europe is the lack of manners. It’s very rare to get a ‘hello’, ‘goodbye” or ‘thank you’ in a shop or restaurant. Usually your change and receipt are thrown on the counter. Slovakia is a little friendlier – they say ‘hello’ and ‘goodbye’ at least. Sometimes they’ll even say ‘pekne den’ (Have a nice day), but never ‘thank you’. So, I’ve stopped saying it as well, at least when I’m in this region.

  2. I wonder if events in their history have made them unkind to “outsiders”. That area has a troubled past, but that doesn’t excuse the rudeness. I have long wanted to visit Prague and Budapest, home to my ancestry, hoping they will be more welcoming ? This is a lovely post.

    • Yes, I believe that is the main cause. I’ve learned a lot about the long term effects of totalitarian regimes by living in this region for so many years. However, it’s been more than twenty years since the old regime. It’s not a legitimate excuse anymore.

      I lived in Budapest for four years, and rarely encountered a Hungarian who was deliberately rude. It’s still rare to get a hello/goodbye/thank you, but it’s nothing personal. They are a gentle, melancholy people. I think the worst people are in the shops/restaurants in the touristy areas – Vaci Street and around the castle. But I’d highly recommend avoiding the restaurants and shops in that area anyway. Besides rudeness, the service is bad, the food is terrible, and you’re likely to be shortchanged when paying for something. There are much better areas to visit just a few streets away.

      Prague, however… We spent a weekend there and didn’t meet too many rude people, but we had also heard so many absolute horror stories beforehand that we were prepared for the worst. I think that’s the best thing to do before you go – prepare for the worst. Then if people are kind you’ll be pleasantly surprised.

  3. I live in Vancouver Canada which has a wonderfully diverse population. Walking downtown Vancouver, it is likely that you will have 5 – 6 different languages being spoken, with a smattering of English in the conversations. It makes for a very interesting experience. Language and culture define a city – as does history and age.

    You have a thoughtful way of describing your travels. It was if I was with you…. Thank you! πŸ™‚

  4. Great virtual trip, Julie! Right, people are rude, fake and so on, just different. It took me a while to get in the rhythm of ” Hello, how are you?” like ever they could care a bit… Anyway, I agree with you, we have some specimens of sellers so sour like you just disturb their peace of selling nothing. It’ll take a while till some east European people will understand that customer is always right and without a correct attitude won’t prosper ever. ..

    • You’ve brought up a very good point. I totally agree that the North American way is too much and too fake. I realized this after I married a foreigner and moved overseas. When we’d visit the US, every time he went into a store or restaurant, people would hear his accent and ask him all kinds of questions about his life. As if they were instant best friends. Once we forgot something in a restaurant and had to go back inside a little later, and the same person looked at us with a blank expression and asked if we were two for dinner! That was a real eye-opener for me. Now I can’t stand it when people are too chatty and too friendly right away. As for the customer always being right – I’m not so sure they’re always right, but they shouldn’t be treated like garbage. There should be a middle ground – a respectful exchange.

  5. interesting vignettes on your travel through plovdiv and east european culture . pics show clean places and it is unfortunate that it is not reflecting in behavior meted out to tourists . my travels , thus far , have been confined to countries in africa and asia so there remains a huge territory to cover by way of europe , usa and oceania . prague was in my list for east europe but now I will totally omit east europe with the exception of poland and probably slovakia ):)…more of such posts , julie…raj

    • Hi Raj, sorry to hear that my post made you decide to not visit most of Eastern Europe. However, the people you meet on your travels have a big effect on your experience. I’ll admit that I’ve put off visiting Russia and Ukraine because I’ve heard so many negative stories about rudeness and being ripped off. And I hate to tell you this, but…I lived in Poland for 2 years and, while I met a lot of good people, many of the people who work in customer service and in the tourism business are extremely rude. Every day I dealt with at least one person like the lady in this story. It is the worst I’ve ever experienced, but some of the countries I’ve visited could probably be just as bad if I spent more time there and interacted with more people.

  6. Good evening Julie, I greatly enjoyed your description of Plovdiv and its citizens; it’s so authenic! I hve just come back from London and we had the Impression that the people there are much kinder than here and appreciated it! Of course, fake exaggerations are no solution, are they. Thanks a lot for your post.

    • Hi Martina – It’s funny how certain areas are friendlier than others. I was recently in France (not Paris) and the kindness of regular people working in shops, restaurants, walking down the street, etc, was a big shock. Surreal, really. I’ve gotten so used to walking into a place and getting no acknowledgment, saying nothing to anyone. I had to switch modes and remember to smile and greet people back. Even cashiers who worked in busy supermarkets for hours still had smiles for every customer at the end of the day. But it also wasn’t fake – they’re just content with their lives. I think that’s what it boils down to.

      • Good morning Julie, you express so beautifully what we felt! But if these people are just happy I wonder while they are frequently so obese. I am really not sure whether it is, at least in part, fake.I hope to be wrong!!:)

  7. The Bulgarian Revival architecture (exactly what is that?) doesn’t seem worth the unfriendly locals. Perhaps, they are wary of visitors because they are not used to having many around?

    • Revival architecture is a specific style from the 18th and 19th century, when Bulgarians began to form their own identity under the Ottomans. The unique style (as you see in the photos) can be found all over Bulgaria and into Macedonia. I found it so unique and beautiful, so I really wanted to see some. Plovdiv is a very easy day trip from Sofia, so I decided to go there. I don’t regret it, but I wonder if I should have made the extra effort to go to Koprivshtitsa instead. The Bulgarians I’ve met elsewhere are super friendly.

  8. Maybe she was having an off day and had a preference for being outside that day. It would be interesting to hear how or if urban based tourism service/services differ much to those that are entirely rural based in Eastern Europe. As I’ve been finding when you write of non urban or mixed areas, they seem far more relaxed. Certainly a mix of the old with the relatively new in architecture, 2000 years and a couple of hundred or so, makes for a good contrast for a day well spent, Julie. Pay going in or pay on exiting, perhaps it may of made little difference for him. How brutal does a sun get in Bulgaria?

    • I may come across as harsh, but I’m sticking to it. I’ve got over one hundred posts on my blog and most of them show places in a positive light, even when I encounter a rude person here and there. Some places are simply unfriendly, and my feeling was corroborated by Bulgarians, one of whom was from Plovdiv.

      Everyone has off days, and I cut people slack when they do. However, it’s not an excuse to treat people badly. She was displaying the distinct type of rudeness that needs to be experienced to be understood. And, no, a smile doesn’t work. I know, I’ve tried to “kill them with kindness” and it makes it even worse. They don’t respect you. Hard to describe it, but some people in former communist countries have a way of making you feel like garbage. A remnant of totalitarianism – people took whatever “power” that they could and exploited it. Most people have shaken off this old habit, but some keep hanging on. The door to the amphitheater was locked, so I had to pay beforehand.

      Other things happened that I didn’t write about. because I wanted to at least focus on the loveliness of the city rather than only the negative people. I tried to change part of a 100 euro note in a bank, but the gentleman told me to get out loudly enough so that others stared; the cashier at the bus station refused to acknowledge me and I had to be extremely aggressive to get a ticket back to Sofia. And restaurants….after being glared at for walking through a few doors, my lunch/dinner ended up being a mint creme coffee to go from a coffee place. I’m not sure it’s because it’s a city. Grungy, chaotic Sofia was a much, much friendlier place.

      • You could never come across as harsh, Julie. I believe I commented in poor fashion, perhaps in a way to explore what I can not find, where I’m just in a space looking for excuses in myself, that there is a little good in everything/everyone, sort of in place of reminiscing at the moment while waiting for a extended era to end here, before change swallows me up. Thought maybe there was some connection to totalitarianism, but I’ve never experienced it. Perhaps change will happen as new generations get further away from that particular era in history.Smiles always seem more useful amongst friends than with strangers at times. Locked doors, they’re a problem to going places, thought perhaps he may not of been in a non attentive frame of mind, I missed the whole social landscape, as thoughts were other places.

        The beauty to Plovdiv speaks in your photography, the colours, structures and environment, come to life in imagery and thought, in and about the amphitheater and city. In hearing other parts to your experience, the story feels fuller, not negative. For I can not shake the habit in believing there will always be good hearted people in places, we just missed meeting them this time.

        • I know that’s your personality, Sean – believing there’s good in everyone. Believe it or not, I used to be that way, too. But then I realized that excusing or rewarding bad behavior only gives people permission to continue it. I believe this is why the world is in such a sorry state – we have tolerated too much bad behavior for too long, both on a personal and global level.

    • Hi Chuck – There are things that we take for granted until we don’t have them anymore. My skin has thickened quite a bit since I’ve lived and traveled in these parts.

  9. The title goes so well with what you are talking about, yes they have beautiful houses but their souls (interiors) not so much. So sad you did not have a good time there, I think I would not visit this place. I am glad that you are telling us the truth about your travels, often bloggers make it all beautiful and nice, and traveling is not like that.

    • Thank you, Doris. You know, we can’t have a good time all the time, and with the amount of travel that I’ve done, it’s normal to have a bad day here and there. I wasn’t so upset about it, really. I’ve had so much good traveling luck lately.

      I also think it’s important to tell the truth about experiences rather than gloss them over. That’s why there are book/film/restaurant/travel/etc review websites – to help each other make choices and to help the people providing the service to improve themselves. If they choose to do so. If they don’t, then it’s their own fault if they don’t have customers.

      • Exactly, I think if I travel to Europe or any of those places you been I will ask you right away. The books, magazines are not telling us the real story.

        I had forgot to tell you, my brother went to Israel and it turns out they did not see anything bad, just like your resent trip, all this worrying for nothing.

        • That’s good to hear that all was well for your brother’s trip. Before I decide to go someplace, I try to read a few different blogs or travel forums to get an idea of what a place is like. People can have different experiences, but there’s usually a general feeling about a place. I couldn’t find much about Plovdiv, though. Just superficial things about the architecture.

  10. This made me laugh! It’s so true that, unfortunately, some of Europe’s most beautiful cities contain the rudest people. When I was in Prague, I lost count of the number of times a shop assistant just glared at me! Very confusing.

    • No kidding. You’ll never hear the words “friendly” and “Prague” in the same sentence. In a way, I can understand the locals- their city has been absolutely overrun by tourists so losing a few would give them some of their space back. They know that, no matter what, there will always be enough. Same attitude in Paris, Venice, etc. However, it tarnishes the city’s incredible beauty. So many people I know who’ve been there have negative memories of their visit. And now I know people who refuse to visit, because of the stories they’ve heard. Maybe the locals will get their wish eventually.

      • Yes, that’s true, maybe some of the locals feel resentful. It’s such a shame though, I’m sure they expect to be welcomed when they travel! I went to Manchester recently and experienced such warmth and friendliness from the people. What a difference that makes πŸ™‚

        • No doubt they expect to be welcomed. But I have a strong suspicion that this type of person rarely, if ever, travels, and when she/he does, it’s only in her/his own country.

          Being treated well does make a huge difference on our experience. Nice to hear that about Manchester.

  11. Hi Julie, I appreciate the authenticity of your reporting. Beautiful facades, dour faces: the photographs drew me in but as I continued reading your post, became less and less attractive. I’m at an age where I don’t need to suffer beauty. I prefer imperfections dimmed by graciousness. Wonderful work as always, Julie, thanks for taking us along.

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