Travels

Expedition to Plovdiv

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At the end of July 2004 Roberto and I rendezvoused in Budapest – him with Bob Sheckley, and Max from Genoa – so that we could proceed onward with Peter Michaleczky to the first ever Bulgarian Eurocon, held in Plovdiv. Even though by now I’ve been there, Plovdiv still sounds to me like a fictional name for an imaginary East European city.
But first, a few days in Hungary. (One less for me, thanks to Air Berlin, nota bene, which delivered me exactly 24 hours late!) More gorgeous food, courtesy of Peter’s mother and Kevin’s mother – maybe all Hungarian mothers are wonderful — and a TV and radio interview in a very hip place full of noisy, boozy, dancy ambience; and a visit to the offices of Tihor Miklos of Beholder which published God’s World and will publish Hard Questions next, a rented house in a rather idyllic garden suburb.


Peter’s Mother’s Goulash Soup

By now Roberto and I had established the Vergil Award for worst native guide (like an Oscar for Best Misdirector), Vergil having guided Dante into Hell, and Zsuzsa made a heroic bid for this by guiding us late at night “completely reliably” in English and fluent Italian to a fine drinking place on the long island in the middle of the Danube, choosing the wrong bridge, and marching us along the dark island for an hour, taking us to the edge of insanity, exhaustion, and hypothermia. Luckily when we did arrive at the pub – which, as I predicted, promptly stopped serving beer but did allow Sandor to buy some bottles of wine – the establishment lent us survival blankets. What sort of pub routinely keeps survival blankets for its customers? Probably people often pop in there for a drink after leaping into the Danube to commit suicide but then changing their minds.
Not to be outdone, Peter started exhibiting False Direction Syndrome (in competetion now with Kevin and Laszlo too), but the sad truth is that Peter was to drive impeccably all the way from Budapest to Plovdiv and back again (merely being robbed of chocolates by corrupt Serbian border guards), only to be fined by police in his own home town at his own front door for the first time in his life for exceeding the speed limit by 5 kph. He might not win the Vergil.
Entering Romania from Hungary was like going back 60 years. Houses seemed home-made of mud, their plaster painted with simple symbols like lucky charms. Or longer than 60 years — hoping to take a short cut, we found ourselves on what looked like an original, unrepaired Roman road made by Trajan. We saw only one other vehicle on it. As the full moon rose ominously over Transylvania, alongside this wretched route were little straw huts and a few people with stalls of watermelons, waiting hopefully (or ominously) in darkness. Seasonal farm workers? They couldn’t live here all the year. The winter would kill them. We stayed in a home-made hotel with beds out of Goldilocks.
Next day, cotton and maize and sunflowers, stooped old peasant women in black, a man taking a cow for a walk like a pet. Crumbling buildings, industrial stuff rusting, a huge power station, many of its hundreds of windows smashed. Up into the long wild vistas of the Upper Carpathians we went. Storks flew past. At the city of Sibiu suddenly things got a big more modern. In the merry courtyard of McDonald’s a trendy dyed blonde with ringlets and designer trousers was a bit different from the aged peasant crones and the gypsies in wide black hats three kilometres earlier. Many Romanians imagine Pepsi-Cola is a communist drink because it was allowed previously.
Now we entered the Lower Carpathians, which are higher than the Upper ones, simply further south. Steep forested mountains, valleys of maize. A river picking up force as it rushed downhill alongside the road, periodically dammed for power. Probably here was where Ceausescu flooded five villages, giving villagers two days notice to clear out. Many old folk stayed to drown so as not to lose their familiar life. A hundred years ago this would have been a totally isolated society, certainly cut off all winter long. Lots of Turkish lorries, difficult to pass. Turks ruled here for 300 years, so they aren’t popular. Peter’s walkie-talkies proved very useful for overtaking on blind bends. “No vehicles for 500 metres. Go now!” Romanian driving is mad. “Romanians are unaware of consequences, and I’m not kidding. They’ll run you over.. They won’t stop. They don’t think of jail.” By now I was no longer speaking normal English but Euro-English: “We stop where the camions tank.”
Bucharest at long last. Central Bucharest was bulldozed and rebuilt by Ceausescu in megalomaniac majestic style, although relics of village remain in weird counterpoint. He copied the Champs Elysées to lead to his enormous palace. Tens of thousands of stray dogs doze and roam everywhere, but here is the only private educational TV station in Europe, and you can google anywhere from a mobile phone – the poorest shall be the most advanced in info-tech. The Mayor of Bucharest tried to deal with a million stray dogs by catching and killing them. When Brigitte Bardot protested, the Mayor invited her to visit with advice and funds for canine welfare. A big payment let her adopt 200 dogs to live luxuriously in Bucharest. The culling continued, obviously ineffectively.
We visited Ceausescu’s palace, honey-white and so enormous that only five per cent is on show to the public, and that’s quite enough. Hardly anyone visits the place, which it isn’t popular with Romanians, but it employs 300 cleaners. Our guide asks us not to touch the curtains, which weigh tons and are therefore almost impossible to clean. Since Ceausescu was a short chap, he had trouble ascending a grand marble stairway, so he ordered it demolished and rebuilt seven times until he felt he would look dignified enough. From the balcony where Michael Jackson famously greeted the citizenry of Bucharest by crying out, “Hullo Budapest!” we can see all the way along the local Champs Elysées to the lofty flat of Roberto’s friend where Sheckley and Max are staying. Allegedly each of the myriad majestic roadlamps along the boulevard is a millimeter (or whatever) shorter than its predecessor so that the boulevard will look longer. Costa Bravas wanted to hire the Vatican to make a movie, but the Vatican refused, so he hired parts of Ceausescu’s palace instead – and he wallpapered into a few huge empty niches reproductions of Caravaggio, Uccello etc to give a Vatican feel. Since the wallpaper seemed preferable to blank space, there they remain, surreally. “Meta-kitsch on top of mega-kitsch,” said Roberto. Glacial moraine under Bucharest means that during earthquakes some land moves vertically, some horizontally, and some mixedly, which made the palace even more expensive to erect.
Back at the building housing that lofty flat, I found in one of the two elevators a hidden compartment at the rear, from which you could spy on users of the lift. In fact the building was intended for the secret police, though only completed after Communism. Oh what a prank to burst out between floors through the disguised rear doors, costumed as Alien, as if smashing through the wall of a lift in motion, to the stunned amazement of passengers.
Sheckley was barred from a restaurant because of knobbly knees – or rather, for wearing shorts in the heat. In England you kill two birds with one stone, in Romania it’s two rabbits with one bullet, in Italy two pigeons with one bean, in Hungary seven flies with one slap. We were to meet a mad genius, but he phoned, depressed. Everything took ages to sort out. Only hunger can awake a Hungarian. We did laugh a lot, as time melted. 200,000 Lei (a tiny amount) will make a car park guard like you, and eager to see you again, and your car still in one piece.
Asphalt burned and bubbled blackly in the middle of a back street. Some builder must have needed hot tar for a job, so he set fire to it. Obviously the middle of the street was safer than the sides. A woman collecting scrap was steering her horse and cart, her repeated cry like a muezzin’s calling worshippers. Dogs yapped everywhere.
And so off to Bulgaria. Peter immediately drove quickly down a narrow street in the wrong direction. Vigilant Roberto radioed, “Where the fuck is Peter going?” In fact Peter planned to turn his car around, not having such a tight lock as on Roberto’s Merc. “Don’t worry,” I radioed, “I have suppressed the Klingon and he is turning back.” Roberto answered, “It is a good thing you are here to suppress the Klingon or he would by now be in a harem for entertainment purposes.” Roberto could be stern; half of him is German.
As we drove, Peter explained to me street thieves’ techniques to steal from pockets. “For the man, the push.” An accomplice bumping into him. “For the woman, the spectacle.” The accomplice diverting her attention, perhaps by falling down.
Police and border guards can be a bit of a problem, not least in Bulgaria where the nationwide speed-limit is kept very low so that police can fine you if you actually wish to arrive anywhere; but they’ll only do it once in any one day as a matter of honour. The fact that – as we discovered — the Romanians neglected to stamp my passport, and Peter’s, on the way in made us inexplicable unpersons when we tried to exit, but fortunately by then we had with us Dragosh (phonetic) from Brailla, an expert expediter, and undoubtedly a graduate of the Bene Gesserit Voice Academy, who explained, “It is not what you say, but how. First I announce my name with a strong manly middle tongue, don’t give him time to think or be important. Then I name my function, such as EU Development Officer for Romania. Then I say I am the guide of these companions who are very important international delegates to a conference in Bulgaria, etc.” Very effective. Being a specialist in frontier laws, Dragosh also foiled a Bulgarian attempt to extort $40 in spurious taxes by analysing the law in question, a law which was very questionable.
I’d thought that Bulgaria would also be a poor country, but it seemed much more hip and prosperous than Romania. At last we could understand money again because 2 Leva equal 1 Euro instead of millions of Romanian Lei. Very few villages, because of collective agriculture. I lit cigarettes to keep Peter awake. Boiling Red Bull concentrates and strengthens it. Whisky and boiled Red Bull is the strongest combo in Eastern Europe. Limestone crags loomed. “The mountains are very old because they don’t have hair on the top.” A short cut meant snaking very slowly up a mountain behind huge Turkish camions – one truck’s rear tyre smoked on every hairpin bend but didn’t actually burst into flames – then snaking slowly down again. Darkness descended, denying us any view of the Valley of Roses; Bulgaria is big on rose-petal oil.


Bob Sheckley muses while Roberto and Peter ponder, “Where
is Plovdiv?”

Peter tried to recall Cyrillic from six months of Russian in school. Even so, and with approximately one sign for the Centrum in Roman, Plovdiv’s layout eluded us until we spied a Cyrillic McDonald’s and phoned the organisers for an escort. The hatch server at McDonald’s identified our location as St. Petersburg Avenue, however he himself had politically corrected the name from what everyone else knew as Leningrad Avenue, so our whereabouts remained a mystery and Rositsa drove to the wrong McDonald’s on the other side of town – curse the proliferation of McDonald’s!
Yet at long last we were in a big landscaped outdoor restaurant in Old Plovdiv and the waiter was bringing a sword of meat (well, a very long skewer held upright) to deposit on a plate flooded with alcohol and set on fire. At last Roberto could relax and get drunk, having shepherded his multinational little flock safely across lots of Eastern Europe.
The Eurocon was taking place in a huge Stalinist building (but with jolly cafés just outside), the Syndicalendom na Kultura. We thought we had come a long way, but Imants Belogrivs, Latvian publisher with wild white hair, had driven non-stop with a friend for 48 hours from Riga to Plovdiv; check that out on the map. A true enthusiast, he carried photos of every con he had been to in every land. This Eurocon combined with Bulgacon, the annual Bulgarian SF con, and with Gamecon featuring the Balkan tournaments of Magic: The Gathering and Warcraft 3: The Frozen Throne. I, Robot had its European premier. Many side events happened, and talks about science, mythology, fantasy, by cosmonauts, scholars, philologists, writers. Bob Sheckley was particularly popular because his blend of satirical humour was allowable during the Communist era, so he was massively translated behind the Iron Curtain, and now was mobbed for signatures. Bob had a very neat reply when asked what he thought of Bulgaria, especially when we’d only just arrived in pitch darkness. Intently: “I like what I see…”
A thin tall hairy hyper fellow ran around madly collecting signatures in a huge scrappy book, but he wasn’t an SF fan at all – he wanted to get into the Guinness Book of Records.
An obsessional professor, whose fluency in English was regretable, consistently butted in to talks or conversations with racist and sexist and every-ist (that could possibly annoy anybody) comments. Fortunately two masochists finally asked him for an interview.
“I want to die because I want to meet Terry Pratchett’s Death,” a certain Kristina told me.
In fact everyone was very excited all the time. People from 18 nations were present, a record for a Eurocon. Such a feeling of international family. Among the Spanish sextet it was great to meet once again Léon Arsenal, whom I last saw at the 2003 Madrid Book Fair — now he was the first winner of a fiction prize worth a whopping 15,000 Euros newly established by Ediciones Minotauro of Barcelona. And to meet again German writer Eric Simon, whom I first got to know by letters when he was editor at the former East German publisher, Neue Berlin Verlag. Eric was already familiar with Bulgaria, and Bulgarians with him, because it was a country he was allowed to visit during the Communist era. And to see again Pascal Ducommon and meet Patrick Gyger, Pascal’s successor as Director of the Maison d’Ailleurs, the museum of SF, utopia, and extraordinary voyages in Switzerland, the Francophone world’s equivalent to our Science Fiction Foundation. Patrick, and Gilles Francescano, President of the SF festival in Nantes, birthplace of Jules Verne, invited me to Nantes for next November, finale of the year of Verne’s anniversary (of dying). In fact I was half way through writing a story – about Verne taking part in a journey to the centre of the Earth – for The Mammoth Book of New Jules Verne stories edited by Eric Brown and Mike Ashley to appear in Spring 2005.
More of my friends from Hungary turned up, including Jun the Japanese-Hungarian who looks completely Japanese but can’t speak any.
The Conan of Bulgaria kidnapped me for lunch in a park, to meet Bulgaria’s leading SF publisher, Emanuel Ikonomov, who had just produced a handsome 190-page bibliography of Bulgarian SF, so much SF unknown to me.
I scarcely had a chance to speak to the Russians, although two of them invited me to Moscow in February for vodka and snow. It would have helped quite a bit if there had been any badges showing name and country – apparently this would have cost too much, although in hindsight the plastic sleeves could easily have been brought in from another country as a gift costing little. One other wee thing that went slightly wrong was scheduling a certain huge restaurant as an evening venue for dinner without telling the restaurant that 150 people would turn up – to share the services of one waitress and one menu. Our meal arrived exactly 3 hours late, by which time we’d gone through all the stages of hope, anxiety, disbelief, panic, rage, despair, and sheer ironic resignation to fate.
And beware the taxi drivers of Plovdiv! Many drive out of town at suicidal speed then back in again, just to add a few extra Leva to the fare. Our taxi driver, on the way to the restaurant with one waitress, was certainly psychotic, a raving gesticulating bantam, a loop video in the middle of his dashboard showing cars crashing as he raced maniacally in the wrong direction. Only the two Serbs with us could control him somewhat by shouting threats in Serbo-Croatian which he could semi-understand if he chose to.
The two Eurocon business meetings, chaired with great good humour and necessary briskness by Dave Lally, dealt with nominations and voting for Best Author, Best Publisher, Best SF Magazine etc etc. Books, magazines, and fanzines were laid out for inspection. “What is the point,” someone said to me, “in voting for a Hungarian magazine when nobody else in Europe can ever possible read it?” A bit of a shame for the Hungarians! Because I was the only citizen of England present apart from Jim Walker, that made me a national delegate. (Scotland is a separate nation as regards Eurocons, presumably Wales and Northern Ireland too.) Eurocon in 2005 is part of the Worldcon in Glasgow, but for 2006 the vigorous vivacious Ukrainian bid by Boris Sidyuk easily beat a Moscow bid uttered in hushed tones. “Speak up!” Dave Lally exhorted the Russian, to no avail. So it’s onward to Kiev the Golden (www.interporal.info). I vow never to miss another Eurocon. They’re an adventure, and an international family gathering, in interesting places. Insane taxi drivers and other perils and perplexities add savour to the memories.

Related links:
Robert’s photo gallery of the event

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