As you may have guessed, Rich and I are not timid travelers. But entering Bulgaria for the first time last fall, I admit I felt a little trepidation. Cheap action movies had imprinted vivid, if largely inaccurate, images on my brain, and I half expected everyone I met there – male or female – to turn out to be a ruthless assassin, the bodyguard of a criminal mastermind, or a shifty-eyed, tattooed informant with a life expectancy of under twenty minutes. Stepping off a train in Ruse, our first Bulgarian city, I walked warily into the station, eyeing everyone with suspicion, until a voice at my elbow shrieked, “Take my taxi.”
I jumped and turned to see a grizzled little man wearing an expression that attempted, without conspicuous success, to look engaging and trustworthy. Nearly everywhere in the world, legitimate taxi drivers are obliged to wait outside of train stations and airports, and guidebooks urge you to avoid scam artists who accost foreign tourists inside transportation hubs. Even without such warnings, we had only to look at this fellow to know we wanted no part of whatever he was offering. He definitely fit the shifty-eyed, tattooed profile, and I certainly wasn’t going to spend twenty minutes with him to see if he exceeded the average life expectancy of his kind.
We tried to shake him off, but he followed us outside to the cab stand, yelling, “My taxi! You go my taxi! Not that taxi! He is no even Bulgarian! That man is Romanian! You no want him!” That was a good enough recommendation for us. Rich and I jumped into the Romanian’s taxi, told him the name of our hotel, and sped away.
It was the only time in the entire trip that we skipped the ritual coffee that we have upon arrival in any new town, and halfway to the hotel, we suddenly realized what we’d done. Our ritual coffee is, of course, less about coffee than about catching our breath, making sure we know where we’re going and how to get there, and – let me underscore this point – figuring out where there’s a cash machine so we can get enough local currency for our immediate needs. We had not obtained any Bulgarian lev and were now in the awkward position of hurtling toward our destination without the ability to pay our fare.
Later, after we’d overpaid and heavily tipped our cab driver in Romanian currency, which he was kind enough to accept, I thought about the small rituals that Rich and I have developed in our travels, and how they help us stay on an even keel in tumultuous circumstances. For instance, we always carry with us a small cloth frame containing the silliest photos taken of each of us at our wedding. Over the years, it has become festooned with various talismans, such as a string given us by a Buddhist monk in Bhutan and various crosses and medals from sacred shrines. We don’t really believe it brings us luck – but we don’t leave home without it.
We took another ritual from Silver Streak, an old train film with Gene Wilder and Richard Pryor. At the start, the conductor leans out, waves, and says, “Goodbye, LA.” Two hours later, after murder, romance, crackling one-liners, and (spoiler alert!) the train crashing into the wall of the station, the conductor leans out of the train again, saying calmly, “Hello, Chicago.” We loved his insouciance and now salute each city upon arrival and departure. Just saying “Goodbye, Bucharest!” and “Hello, Sofia!” puts our travel issues – crying babies, appalling bathrooms, glowering customs officials – into context. Hey, at least no one was murdered and/or thrown off the train.
These small rituals have become very comforting to us on the road. By the time we’ve greeted a new place, sipped our coffee at the station, and set our silly photos in a place of honor in our new digs, we know that wherever we are is home.
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I'm an American travel writer based in Spain, to which I've just returned after a 16-month absence due to the pandemic.
As I resettle in Seville, my favorite city on the planet, I'll keep you posted on how the pandemic has reshaped the landscape and where to go to find fun, adventure, and great food in this quirky, engaging city.
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