I was sitting at a computer 16 hours a day. I was gaining weight, losing my charm, my sense of humor, who I am. I had developed an ulcer, and fierce pessimism. At the office, I was spending a lot of time away from my co-workers. My side projects waned and sputtered. I worked on them, but they seemed to go nowhere. When my friends invited me out to deflate, I seldom went. The idea of programming made me sick. I typed, but my work of emotionless, and the bugs came in greater numbers than usual.
Then I went to the airport.
When you get on a plane to Sofia, Bulgaria, they herd you into a small shuttle bus from the airport gate to the actual plane. While you’re standing in line, you’ll notice that Bulgarians have no understanding of what a line is. They push each other, step around those who are occupied, wave heavy backpacks perilously above strollers with toddlers, and all for what? To get on a plane first. A plane, where we all have to take the same 3 hour flight, where we all sit in the same metal tube, breathing the same recycled air.
While one woman cut me in line, she swung her huge purse filled with rocks and iron into my side. She looked back to see what she had hit and when she noticed it was me, she looked me right in the eyes, and turned back around. No “excuse me.” Nothing.
When the plane landed, and the mass exodus of the plan was underway, the same woman with the iron purse was struggling to pull it down from the overhead compartments and after a few passengers shuffled their way passed her, she looked around for help. I made sure I looked right into her eyes as I pulled down the heavy purse and handed it to her, then gave her a smile as I waited for her to go ahead.
A cab driver refused to give me change when the bill was 4 Leva and I only had a 20 Leva note. He told me that he doesn’t have the change, and in my best Bulgarian, I responded that I don’t mind at all, I can wait in his cab until he gets the change. After that, he suddenly found the change.
The government owned Bulgarian TV syndicate only paid the Bulgarian national soccer league a fraction of what they owed, and now is being sued, and this is the third year in a row. Several teams have had to close their doors.
A teacher friend of mine was laid off, and now she babysits.
An elevator repairman friend of mine tells me that he stopped receiving regular paychecks and he’s working double the hours.
Another friend of mine argued for 20 minutes over a few Leva about the price of cheese.
It occurred to me that I am very fortunate to be in technology. It occurred to me that Bulgarians screw each other today without looking ahead to tomorrow. It occurred to me that not everyone is as entrepreneurial as the good residents of Silicon Valley.
And then I went to Istanbul. I took a bus from Sofia, which took 8 hours. I was the only American on the bus and I was questioned as to why I was entering Turkey. ”To spend my money and eat kufte,” I replied. Then he charged me 40 Lyra for a tourist visa.
There are restaurant menus in Istanbul that aren’t written in Turkish. They have English, German, French, Bulgarian, Arabic. It’s quite helpful. Except the words ‘cover charge: 20 Lyra’ and ‘tax not included’ are written in Turkish, and you don’t find out until the bill comes. In that light, I ordered more beer and watched the soccer game on TV for another hour.
Five Lyra for a cup of freshly squeezed orange juice, the street vendor told me. I told him I’d give him 2. He said to get out of his sight and not to waste his time. Fun fact: there are 2 million tourists in Istanbul. I polished my negotiation skills a bit and we settled for 3 Lyra.
I asked the bathroom attendant to let me use the piss hole (there was no real toilet) for free. He told me it was 1 Lyra, or else I need to go somewhere else. So I went around to the side of the building and pissed on his wall.
Most vendors in the Grand Bizarre are skilled professional con artists. They will sell you Turkish lokum at five times the price you can get it in the Asian part of Istanbul. At a moment’s sight, they spoke to me in English, and they spoke to my Bulgarian friend in Bulgarian, simply by how we looked. It was fun traveling to Asia just for lokum.
I like adventure to a certain extent, so I went for Airbnb in Istanbul, despite that I don’t speak a word of Turkish. When I arrived, I found that my room was not where the the map said it was. It was at the bottom of a San Francisco style hill, and the nearest public transportation was at the top. And at the bottom of that hill were people laying about in the streets either passed out or dressed in rags. We must’ve looked like we fit right in with our Rayban sunglasses, big rollable luggages, cameras, and cell phones. The men in the neighborhood eye-raped my two slender, big-breasted female companions, who I’m sure felt very safe in their sun dresses.
After Turkey, I gave our Airbnb host a good review, but highlighted that the address was incorrect. Looking at the trip positively, no one was raped, nothing stolen. I lost weight walking up the hill. I saw Istanbul the way a local would, watching people playing street soccer, backgammon, smoking hookah. The Hodja was loud and clear in the neighborhood and workers sewed well into the night, trying to prepare their wares for the next day.
And I was reminded of my growing up in Oklahoma. No opportunities, endless nights with friends, religion religion religion.
And then there was Spain, where the lady on Airbnb split a bottle of wine with us, talked about the state of Spain’s economy and all the good local spots in Barcelona.
In Barcelona, they speak Spanish, but you won’t find any Spanish written anywhere in the city. It’s all in Cataluyan.
The paella filled my stomach more meals than one. And flamenco made my heart race as I sipped a glass of rioja. Along Barcelona’s beaches, a hundred bare breasted women lounged, and huge men lifted weights and jogged. Beer and ice cream everywhere. I talked about my idea for a language learning game as I walked along the beach.
The siestas are a brilliant notion. Businesses closed down at 2PM and market places boomed with life and laughter. Work began again at 5PM and worked until 8 or 9, when the hottest parts of the day already passed.
Four in the morning, Raval square has beer cans scattered on the ground. Some of the more artistic partiers arranged the cans in huge mosaics that resemble a peace sign or a giant heart. They offer you marijuana as they grin at you. As you pass deeper into the old city, the drugs they offer are more serious, E, heroine, cocaine. The music gets louder, the people get happier.
At 6 AM, we passed a couple having sex in an alley way. Two minutes later, a topless woman giving a blowjob in a hallway.
What a wonderful life it must be to spend your time drugged up, sexed out, and dancing. The people of Spain are in an economic depression, but they are the happiest I’ve ever met.
The next morning I sat on the walls of castle Montjuic for hours, peering out over the city. I want my own castle one day.
Then we took the Renfe to Madrid. We stayed in a hostel for 18 Euro a night. In between the parks and the museums and the breath of the city, I never felt so at home.
Now I’m back in Bulgaria, amongst some of the most ambitious people a country can offer, who happen to be terrible as conducting business, catching up on what I missed on the Internet, watching WWDC, reading tech blogs. I’ve been in front of the computer now for a few hours, blazing through content and loving every moment of it.
And I realized, with a quirky smile on my face as I opened up github to read the source of a new vim plugin, that I missed San Francisco, but most of all I missed programming.