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.
6/11/2014 08:49:19 am
We ordered your book and it arrived yesterday. I had read the first six pages and put it down and realized that Joel has already snapped it up and is reading it. We've got some adventures in store this summer and your book is serving as reference material. . .how's that for a teaser?
6/13/2014 02:30:54 am
Could those adventures be ... in Seville? Wherever you and Joel are going, Jackie, I hope you have grand adventures. And if it is Seville, be prepared for some seriously hot weather! Be sure to check my website's page How to Enjoy Seville under Travel Tips. I list favorite bars, tips for a successful tapeo, and other essentials of Sevillano life. Enjoy your journeys!
6/12/2014 11:24:41 am
Guess the only ritual we have is that we always hold hands as the plane is taking off. I think it comes from back when Veronica was let's say, a less than happy flier. Started out as a way to calm her down, but now it's more like if we go down, we're going down together.
6/13/2014 02:36:42 am
Sounds like a great ritual, GypsyNesters! Flying is always a little scary for me – just one more reason I prefer train travel! – so I often grab Rich's hand on take-off as we bid a verbal farewell to the city we're leaving. It helps!
6/12/2014 03:10:33 pm
One ought to always carry a talisman in order to navigate through this world. While I am not a world traveler I do have to navigate through the work world and there are times when I have felt anxiety, perhaps about a decision I made or some decision my superiors might have made. I am often left worrying "will have a job", and so I turn to my little shrine of Mary, next to it is my grandmother's glow in dark rosary and a statue of buddha. It helps me through the dark. My brother, who lives and works in the Rome brought me a bottle opener with the image of Pope John Paul one year when he was in the states, he claims it can bring about a conversion :) Recently he brought me a rosary that Pope Francis blessed and so now I carry that with me. A good cup a coffee, a bottle opener and rosaries can really get you through. I only bring the Pope Francis rosary on trips though as someone might confiscate that bottle opener.
6/13/2014 02:41:55 am
Rich just reminded me that you're the one who got us started with the talismans, Noreen. Years ago you gave us the first of the many religious medals we've attached to the photos, and that's when they went from being a couple of snapshots to an instant shrine. So thanks for that! And also thanks for the reminder that we need talismans to navigate through this world wherever we are, perhaps even more so at home and work than when we are away.
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TO I'm an American travel writer based in Seville, Spain.
Wanderlust has taken me to more than 60 countries. Every week I provide travel tips and adventure stories to inspire your journeys and let you have more fun — and better food — on the road
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