Thursday, March 12, 2009

Portrait #75: The guy who spoke 5 more words of English than anyone else

I'm trying to get to Bulgaria. On a map, it looks like it can't be more than a 2 hour drive, so I figured it'd be a piece of cake. As a further chapter in my experience living in a baby post-conflict nation, I have recently learned that Bulgaria was one of the first countries to recognise Kosovo as a state. In other words, the two countries are geographically close to each other, and they like each other.

But there is absolutely no way to get to Sofia, the capital of Bulgaria, from Prishtina, the capital of Kosovo. Unless I drive my own car, then it's about five hours because of border crossings and the need to take a laughably circuitous route. (After one week's worth of knowledge about the local situation and further perusal of the map, this fact actually did make perfect sense to me.)

Anyway, in my naive state, I thought that the best place to inquire about buses to Sofia, either from Prishtina or from some other nearby city, would be the bus station. So I walked fifteen minutes to the highway, crossed the highway in the company of about a dozen young commuters, and entered the enormous bus station which has more than thirty spaces for buses.

As soon as I entered the ticketing hall, I was reminded that this is a post-communist country. The ticket sales offices were sorted by destination city, not bus company, even though there were a dozen different companies working out of that station. There was a consolidated schedule with all the departure and arrival times posted on one big poster. The lights were dim and the enormous space was filled with a light haze of cigarette smoke. Being early evening, only a few of the ticket booths were open: those for cities whose last bus had not yet left.

There was only one ticket booth for all international destinations, and that was closed. So I wandered to the Information booth, and asked if anyone spoke Anglisht. "Jo" was their answer as they shook their heads in dismay. I stared at them curiously, seeking to shame them into helpin a girl out!

It worked. One of them eventually stood up and walked to one of the still-open ticket booths and introduced me to one of the men sitting in it warming himself next to a space heater. There were also another man and a woman sitting in the small space. They left when I arrived, and the tall white-haired man with bad teeth and whose English was about twice as good as my Albanian (pak keq - a bit lousy) motioned for me to enter.

I refused and said I really just needed information about buses to Bulgaria. He shook his head. "No. No Bulgari." I know, I told him. I need to go to Skopje (capital of Macedonia) first. But I want to know when the bus leaves Skopje. "No. Go to Skopje." Exasperated sigh. I know. But then what?

He just shook his head and once again gestured for me to enter. I obeyed this time, hoping this meant he would research buses from Skopje to Sofia for me. Instead, I was treated to a series of personal questions: Where am I from? What am I doing in Kosovo? Would I please sit down? Drink tea? Coffee? What company, where is my office?

So I got up to leave and when I got to the door I desperately repeated my question: Can't anyone tell me how to contact the bus station in Skopje to find out about buses there? In Albanian, he exchanged words with a guy loitering in the centre of the large hall then pointed to the director's office and suggested I try him.

I eagerly went off to the director but my English consultant wasn't ready to let me go yet. He shook my hand and said, as I was walking away, that he hoped I'd come visit the bus station again soon.

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