I arrive alone in the middle of the night. I’ve never been to this country before and I don’t know anything about how it works. I’ve barely even had a chance to do a search about it on the internet. What I thought I knew was wrong. I thought I would be able to use the currency in my pocket, from the country I just left. But I can’t. I must have read some outdated information.
I take a cab from the airport because I don’t understand the language that is written all over the signs. Even if I found my way onto a bus, I wouldn’t know where it was taking me. So, I get into a cab with a driver who hardly understands me and he drives me into the city and leaves me at the wrong address. He drives away. I meander the street, checking the paper in my hand against the street numbers, but they are few and far between. I carry my heavy pack from one end of the long street to the other, hoping something will make sense. I even ask a shop owner or two as they try to close up their stores for the evening. They don’t speak my language, they don’t understand what I want from them.
I wander for an hour and a half. I’m not used to the temperature so I begin to feel cold. It’s March and there’s snow on the ground. I haven’t seen snow in ages. I’ve grown incredibly thirsty, but the shop I walk into to purchase water doesn’t accept the kind of money I have. I keep walking until eventually I pick up a wifi signal that allows me to check the address of the place I’m headed for the night. I realize I’m in the wrong neighborhood. It takes time, but I find my way to another cab. The driver acts as though he’s doing me a favor by driving me around. He takes me far away from the neighborhood I’ve just been getting used to for the last two hours. He doesn’t know much of my language, but what he does say doesn’t offer any amount of encouragement for where I’m headed. “This town oogly. So OOGly.”
And then I arrive to the street I’m supposedly staying on, but the building I’m looking for doesn’t seem to exist. The cabbie is mad that I don’t have exact change, but I refuse to let him take more than his fair share. He drives away, leaving me on yet another strange street corner, unaware of where I am or if I’ll eventually find my way into a safe place for the night. It’s midnight now and the March air is biting at my improperly dressed body. All of my possessions are hanging off of my back, almost as if they’re trying to pull me down to the earth.
I’m lost. It’s cold. The charge on my phone is running out–not that I have signal in this country. My thoughts are running wild from the 48 hours that are now behind me. I moved abruptly, traveled far and through crowded cities, all while thinking of the people I love so much that I was leaving behind me. I feel a bit hopeless, but pressing forward is all I can do. The street is dark and the trees are as lifeless as the city appears to be. I wander to one end, and then turn right, finding two police officers standing outside of a kiosk, sipping coffee. My understanding is that they speak one specific language, but that was again incorrect information that I read.
I’m not used to this culture, so as I approach them, they seem bothered by me. One of them ignores me, the other understands a few of my words. He looks at my paper that I’ve gestured to. He laughs at me, but then pulls out his cellphone and dials the number of my host. His partner speaks to him quickly in their language (although I think it’s a different language the time). I know what he’s saying though, despite not knowing a lick of the language. He’s telling him not to call the number, saying that it’s an out of country number and it’ll cost him money to make the call. But the man doesn’t listen to his partner–my first stroke of luck.
The police officer speaks to the person on the other end of the phone, my host, but then he hangs up and walks away without saying anything to me. He and his partner get into their car and drive away. I’m confused, but for some reason I feel better. I’m alone again in the dark in the middle of the night in the strangest country I’ve ever been to. I approach the kiosk and ask the worker if they take my money. They say “no.” I walk a few meters down the street and stand on the corner of the street I think I’m suppose to be sleeping at for the evening. A little time goes by. I think about where I’ve come from and what on earth I’m doing in the place where I stand. How did I go from so much love and so much connection to…this?
Five minutes pass by. Another police car rolls up to the kiosk and two officers get out. They approach the window and make some purchases, eyeing me slyly as they do so. I try to act casual, my giant backpack a complete giveaway that I don’t belong. When they’ve got their items in their hands, they head back to their car, but then abruptly begin to approach me. Just as they’re narrowing in on me, a car pulls up in front of me and two people gesture for me to get in. I do so, having nothing but blind faith that this is what I’m suppose to be doing. Two more seconds on the street corner and I would have been having to explain myself to two local cops who didn’t look like they were just going to be checking in with me. (I would come to find out upon reading more about the country, that police often do sporadic identification checks. Getting caught without an i.d. apparently doesn’t bode well).
The drive takes ten seconds, the driver and his passenger literally take me down the street that I’ve been standing on. They guide me to a dark building across the street from where I thought I was going to be staying. They let me in, show me a plain, somewhat depressing room, say a couple of things incorrectly in the language I understand, and then vanish again. And there I am, standing in a room, alone, in the most foreign place I’ve ever been to.
This was my experience arriving in Bulgaria at 9:00 one evening. It felt, perhaps, like it was an experience that ran parallel with the refugee experience. But, only by about a one thousandth.