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.