Pasquale decided to document his trip from Prague to the Tool Fair, firstly in Facebook posts in Italian. Then he realised it might be nice to show the world how it feels to travel very far by bus! And rewrote the whole thing. Alessandro Donati who worked for free doing graphic recording in Varna agreed very kindly to illustrate the story! Hope you enjoy it!
Chapter 1: CZ-SK
Forget about Ryanair, airport transfers, online check-ins. Forget about Flixbus, plugs, wifi on board. You are leaving for the international Tool Fair “Waves of innovation” and the best way to taste it is to arrive in your favourite 60s style: by bus. 34 hours by bus.
Last time I travelled so much I arrived in Australia.
Prague bus station, 8:30 am Sunday, 5th November. At the starting blocks, myself and what looks to me like 15 rude Caucasian men. My wife looks at me, worried, and she worries out loud if I really have to go… In fact, no, but “Europe is calling me!”
The driver smokes next to the “no smoking” sign. He doesn’t speak English and it seems he didn’t get the drawing - too Western in style, maybe.
I get on and, no matter there’s a cloud of smoke wafting down the aisle, the interiors are quite clean and this makes me happy, considering that this will be my new moving house for the next 22 hours (Prague-Sofia), followed by an unknown number of hours to cross the whole of Bulgaria and to get to Varna, at the opposite side of the country.
I’m asked to get off, because I didn’t respond to the roll call. Yes, before leaving for long distances, here it is common to do a roll call. They want to be precise when it comes to publishing the missing list in the newspaper…
Among my travel mates there are two exceptions: one woman, clearly of slave origin and much more accustomed than I to intercontinental crossings, and a Chinese guy. He and I stand out like unionists at a Catalan meeting.
Departure time is only a couple of minutes delayed. We wait for the last passenger: an elderly Bulgarian in very bad shape comes along, with crutches and flashy bandages on both his legs. His last few meters have to be run clung to by youngsters who suddenly pass him to the driver and passengers’ care. What I get from the ensuing debate are the basics: we place him next to the toilet; someone will help if needed. I have no idea how, if one is chosen or volunteers to help the comrade on seats13-14. I am seats 35-36. In front of me the only woman, escorted by her husband; Cheng, on the opposite side, at 37-38, who states immediately that he will isolate himself with earphones and music in a parallel universe. Welcome, thanks, bye.
29-30 is a 60 years old Czech guy with an inflatable pillow - for a moment I am worried it will be necessary to call the ambulance, or worse, help him with inflating the pillow before he suffocates – and he starts sleeping immediately. It’s 9:23. At 9:25 we hear him snoring, noisily. I think about the possibility to wake him up, but he does it all alone and re-emerges, surprised by his own performance. He will continue this way for the whole trip: sleep, snore, super loud, wake me up. Unmatched perfection.
The tv on the bus shows an American B-movie, subtitled in Cyrillic.
I smell smoke and I look around to see if we are on fire, but it’s only Mr. Driver on his cigarette break. At least he opened the window. But it’s fucking cold. It seems he realizes the simple fact or, simply, he is paid according to the number of live corpses he manages to deliver in the end, because he turns the fan on and the temperature rises to decent standards.
In a couple of hours we are in Brno and welcome new travel mates.
Among the new entries, two big guys stood out. Lifelong buddies in some prestigious university (from their shirt collars I’d wager med school), who make a great effort trying to sit close to each other. I mean, in two adjacent rows, as their size would not allow them to sit comfortably side by side. In the end they give up, vowing to try again in Budapest, when there should be a general shuffle, based on a special algorithm that I’m not allowed to know.
The landscape surprises us with beautiful glimpses of Bohemian forest alternating with fields of single-crop farming, mostly wheat and malt. Typical elements in this first phase are the flags of the republic, placed on both sides of the highway every 3-4 kilometres. Clearly the issue of the nation is strongly present, understandable due to the fact that the country is super young (Czechoslovakia split peacefully in 1993) and is now experiencing a wave of nationalism (see the last election results).
Slovakia! Changes are immediately visible: Czech flags disappear and so does the interminable bus soundtrack. Also the movie is different: now it’s an ironic documentary about the king of the Belgians (it’s written this way, believe me), with audio in English and French, tweets in Italian and subtitles in Cyrillic. Apart from these details, the two countries seem perfectly the same.
Chapter 2: HU - RS
Breaks go by without any apparent logic, so that I’m unable to follow exactly who gets on, gets off and sometimes disappears in mysterious service stations where we have the luck to stop. Mr. Driver gives a meeting time and he leaves. Better if you are there when he gets back! I’m too scared to move and stay in my little kennel like a frightened dog.
We arrive in Budapest at dinner time (5pm) and for the occasion Mr. 29-30 wakes up, opens a huge carryall stuffed with groceries and tears into food like Godzilla into Tokyo.
The tv shows a film governed by telekinesis and Bruce Willis.
I lose, quietly, contact with my Chinese comrade. Without a single word he goes dark in the Hungarian alleys. He will never be back.
At his place we now have a strange character with undefined nationality. He is restless. Sits down, gets up, speaks on the phone, changes position, sits back. For the next 30 seconds I’m frightened about the chance he will continue like this for the whole trip. He feels the tension and the risk that I will throw a bulky object at him, because he turns to me and smiles with a happy “Hey, mate!” All in all we have already spoken more words compared with Cheng. He calms down at the beginning of the new movie: some girls are kidnapped by an unbelievable sneaky collector. I can’t recognize any of the actors and I opt for the Terzani book that I brought with me.
Ah, of course, the toilet is out of order. And it all makes sense: we stop in places where only our headlights have been seen for ages, five hours drive more than the average, people bringing food as if they escaped from famine...
The night rolls by easily. The moon leads us through a dark and desolate land, the stars outline the painting and the romantic atmosphere fosters canoodling of husband and wife who go a little overboard. Let’s say: they start to rock...
We arrive at the Magyar-Serbian border and here I realize how much I have to learn about the world, life and love. We are stuck for one hour in the queue, simply waiting our turn. Four kids welcome us in uniform, heavily armed, ready to control our means of transportation and the passports. An excerpt of the agreement with the EU warns us about the right of our guests not to let us pass. Printed in several languages, I can’t pass up the chance to take a picture, a fact that costs me dirty looks by the soldiers and Mr. Driver, who is naturally keen to continue without setbacks.
No fuss, and luckily, no muss. We can overcome the first barrage. Yep, because in one hundred metres the Serbian police welcome us with the same treatment, with Mr. Driver proving to be an expert on procedures and on human beings and eases the task of collecting all the documents and bringing them personally to the check-in.
The funniest episode is with two ladies with bikes who, all dressed up in their fluorescent cloaks, ride their velocipedes up for inspection by the officers. Their check lasts a few moments and they are free to get on their heavy charges. Habitués.
Chapter 3: RS - BG
Here we are, at last on the home straight after many long hours. But every runner knows that the last kilometres are always the hardest ones. Luckily Mr. 29-30 is full of surprises. A Mary Poppins wannabe, it seems that his bag can contain an unlimited number of groceries. Legend says that he could pass a Ryanair control with sixty-three litres of Rakija in his hand baggage. Obviously he never took a flight, they told him Ryanair was a new brand of vodka.
Last time I saw him he was biting into raw peppers in Fibonacci series (I stop counting at level 8). I return into a kind of twilight sleep wishing him a good digestion.
At 5am it’s Bulgaria!
Better, we get out from Serbia through the lovely passport control, we repeat the operation 50 metres further and it’s done. Caught up in the excitement I have the unhappy idea of getting off without a jacket...and I was not bad in geography: “Bulgaria has a continental climate, with very sultry and hot summers and long and cold winters”. Maybe because I’m wearing a t-shirt, or because I’m the first western European to cross the border since the fall of the Berlin wall, the soldier asks me to explain the reason for my travel. For a moment I got stuck with the idea to perform my famous blitz workshop on Erasmus+, but an image of Mr. Driver’s children comes to my mind (he promised to be back for Christmas this year) and I go for the more classic “Business”. The answer is found to be satisfactory. We move on.
The sound of a long applause wakes me up: Sofia!! We celebrate the success of the endeavour with songs, hugs and rivers of alcohol, rediscovering brothers of a complex and varied humanity that not always we managed to interpret in the best way, but still in the twenty-first century it allows us to participate in monumental undertakings like this one where we were both witnesses and participants.
The railway station of the capital city doesn’t make much of an impression. Not intending to offend Bulgarians or Roma, but this area looks like a giant Roma camp in the open air, with a ton of chimneys from toxic waste factories (that is their main product, it’s refined and sold this way). A friend of mine would say “Like Piombino!” (Italy). Unluckily I have no time to get to the centre but I take a note to come back with more time. Maybe after the next industrial revolution.
On the new bus to Varna, thanks to the new day light and the fact of being able to walk upright, everything seems brighter: the company is mixed with many women going to work, wifi (!) working toilet! The auspices for improvements are all there. The movie displayed (on a tape, but still) reinforces this impression being a family comedy, backed up with commercial music from the speakers. My Cyrillic is reaching incredible quality levels, I will claim a virtual badge on arrival.
The region is a huge expanse of sweet green and yellow hills, slightly undulating plains, all dotted here and there with billboards. Picture-perfect valleys open in front of us, showing their beauties, dreamy farms and running horses like in Spirit. In small towns and villages the heavy Communist past hurts like a stone: Soviet architecture left marks and wounds that will stay on this land for at least a decade to come.
At 12 we make a break. My traveling companion makes me understand that it is still a long long way to go to Varna. It’s not about patience anymore, but I’d like to take a shower. Her friend, Mrs. 7 (the bus is overcrowded, gone the comfortable double seat places), received so far about 18 phone calls, everyone at a reasonable volume, but preceded by ringtones with the magic power to catapult us instantly back into 70s. Mrs. 15 tops them all with the famous Despacito ring call: every three minutes it is summer 2017.
Terrible things always happen in threes and this part of the journey makes no exception: the TV is bombing us with ugly shooters, the first one with a cameo by Anthony Hopkins, the second with the bad Russian guy in Rocky, who at least shows that he learnt something from the past, winning his first non-formal boxing match with Bud Spencer technique (if you don’t know who he is, download a movie and stew some beans).
We move upwards as we are getting closer to our final destination and things get worse: woods and forests disappear to leave room for mineral mines and quarries, industries and refineries. Big plains are cultivated in vast estates.
We enter Varna with extreme tiredness and a bit of disappointment: only 7 hours! I was hoping to match Phileas Fogg!
But my travel is not over yet. It’s now time to reach the Golden Sands and get my reward in a 5 stars hotel on the Black Sea.
The instructions I got were to take bus n° 409, but it doesn’t stop there during winter season. Anyway I take it for a few stops, to get closer to the city centre. Get on, pay the ticket on the bus, 1 Lev or 2,1 Lev - guess which one is for the tourist - receive a coloured scrap of paper that the lady controller rips before giving it to me. I get off five minutes later.
There I ask several people the way, but the language barrier is strong (what about all those films I watched in Bulgarian??). A young guy comes to me and starts speaking Bulgarian. “Sorry I don’t understand”, I say and suddenly the British accent comes: “Oh, sorry man, I thought you were from here. Can you give me a few coins for food? I am starving” Crap, you are the best English speaker in the country and you’re begging for money?!
Unexpectedly a 50 year old bricklayer comes to my aid and literally shows off his muscles. I have to get acquainted to this. Then he suggests to me that I should take 9 or 109…it seems anything ending with 9 should be ok.
After 30 minutes the bus comes. I get on and I show my ticket. It doesn’t work. Why not? Money, money! I paid already. It doesn’t work. I show my map and notes and tickets from Sofia to Varna. Money, money! But I was on the previous bus for 4 stops! Money, money! I want the 1 Lev one. It doesn’t work. Uh… Take my money, but I don’t like you.
After another 30 minutes the bus is getting empty and I have no idea where we are. I go to the conductor my favourite enemy and show Her the address. She grunts and snorts, speaks with the driver and sends me back to my seat. I am the only passenger left. Outside it is completely dark, we are running along the coast; no houses, no hotels around. For no reason I will leave this bus now, better to come to an end and go back to Varna where I can take a taxi.
And then I see “Golden Sands - 5km”. I feel like John Belushi in the church. I would glorify the Gods and sing happily in their name if I wouldn’t be afraid that She is going to throw me out from the bus. Last stop. Middle of nowhere. My stop. “Thank you for the help”. “Grunt”. “Have a nice evening you too”.
I walk towards the only light I see from the distance. I hear the waves of the Black Sea on my right. Really black. And walk. And walk. And walk. And finally the shape of a hotel, the big glowing marquee of a casino and the silhouette of an old friend. Arrived. My Tool Fair can begin too.