The two and a half hour flight in a rickety Soviet-made plane from Prague to Bulgaria's Black Sea coast shuttled me to a completely different world--one with thick, moist air and large, unidentifiable bugs.
When Jirka and his girlfriend--my English students in Prague, where I'd been living for the last two years, invited me to Bulgaria, images of ancient seaside villages with onion-domed churches and the scent of flaky burek pastries wafted through my mind. One lesson on the present perfect tense and a call to Jirka's travel agent later, I was set to go.
As I stood in the airport's small parking lot, along with 150 Czechs waiting for the chartered busses to carry us to our selected resort towns, a tour operator announced the busses would be late. The large throng of already-partying Czechs let out a soft moan, followed by a symphony of beer cans being cracked open. About thirty minutes later when the sandal-clad Czechs ran out of beer, they started becoming unglued. The patriarch of the family, Big Jirka, became shifty, like Don Knotts on speed (with a beach ball for a belly). The women began pointing fingers. Jirka, Jr., the 30-year-old son of Big Jirka, silenced all when he let out a procession of profanity on his mom and girlfriend. Everyone, it seemed, was anxious to get to the beach.
In act 3, scene 3 of Shakespeare's A Winter's Tale, Antigonus asks, "Thou art perfect then our ship hath touched upon the deserts of Bohemia?" Scholars have long debated if the English scribe had geographically misplaced the landlocked region (which is now the western part of the Czech Republic) or if he was making a statement about the region as a cultural outpost. Or both. As the busses finally arrived to take us to our seaside homes for the next two weeks--in our case, a town called Primorsko--and impatient, half-toasted Bohemians carrying beach towels and empty beer coolers clamored to hop on a bus, I got the feeling this was going to be a long two weeks.
A Communist Holiday Town
Czechs have been gravitating to the Black Sea coast en masse for decades, particularly after 1948 when Stalin clamped down on his post-WWII occupied territories and imposed a long laundry list of restrictions, including strict travel limitations. One of the few warm-weather watering holes Czechs and others under the Stalinist flag were allowed to travel to was the Black Sea.
Today post-communists are still vacationing on Bulgarian beaches--not because the long strands of wave-less beaches are particularly nice, but because countries like Bulgaria are much more affordable than Italy and France, which is where they'd rather be.
The morning after we arrived I awoke excited to see Primorsko. The Czechs were already at the beach, so I wandered through the town's desolate black-tarred streets. Built on a tiny peninsula, Primorsko was crammed with modern, boxy two-story, stuccoed houses, half of which were unfinished and uninhabited, frozen like the ruins of Pompeii--only they feel like the ruins of the future. Jirka later told me that Bulgarians buy plots of land and then build until they run out of money. They must have run out of cash in Primorsko ages ago. There were no onion-domed churches in sight. Not a whiff of goat-cheese-stuffed burek.
But even more disappointing than the town itself is turning up on the shores of the Black Sea and finding that it's not really black. In fact, as I stood at the end of the street, on a 10-foot cliff above the crowded Czech-filled beach, the water's standard deep-blue appearance was all too reminiscent of the beaches I had frequented as a child in California. Many of the historic coastal towns in Bulgaria were founded a few millennia ago by Greek sailors--guys who had just come from the light-colored Mediterranean Sea. To them, this was black.
Into the Surf in a Birthday Suit
What was not disappointing was that everyone on the beach was naked. It was shocking, especially when I came upon Jirka and his family. There they were, young and old, fat and fatter, sprawled out, comfortable, and getting sun in palest of places.
"C'mon, you American, take your clothes off," Jirka screamed at me. I tried my best to ignore Jirka's dictum, but then he picked up a soccer ball and said, "Let's go for a swim."
I still don't know why, but I peeled off my shirt and then, taking a deep breath, dropped my shorts and ran after Jirka who was dashing for the surf. It was an odd feeling, running next to another naked man, our penises flapping in every direction. Jirka's ball was tucked between his forearm and chest and it was hard not to feel that we were triumphantly running for the goal line in a game of seriously homo-erotic football.
Once we hit the water and started throwing the ball around, we were quickly joined by a bouncy college-aged Czech girl. We stood there in waist-high water throwing a ball to each other, when Jirka screamed.
"I've been bitten by--how do you say--fish of the jelly--in the penis!"
I dismissed his antics with a laugh and tossed the ball. But Jirka kept staring down. I waded over and he rose out of the water to show me the red, nickel-size welt on his penis. He was squinting in pain.
As we stood there watching the welt grow larger, the Czech girl cleared her throat. "I have heard that if you make a piss on this hurt, it makes better." She looked at me. I looked at Jirka and Jirka glared back at me, shaking his head from side to side as if to say, don't you dare piss on me. Which was good because, minutes earlier, I had just covertly relieved myself in the sea, and really didn't want to piss on Jirka's penis anyway. Besides, I wondered, what would this scene have looked like from the beach?
Legacy of a Party Man
As Jirka slowly made his way back to his naked family's beach encampment, his hands cupped over his groin, his father, Big Jirka, appeared in front of me. With the sausage he'd been gnawing on, he pointed across the bay at a sprawling, uninspired building complex of white stucco and glass that screamed socialist-era splendor. In his oddly characteristic way of speaking a mixture of Czech and German to me, he said that the building was a summer palace once used by communist leaders. Now it was being turned into an upscale hotel.
It was fitting that Big Jirka, of all people, would point this out to me. In November 1989, days before the maelstrom gathered in Prague's Wenceslas Square to usher in a new political system, Big Jirka and his son, went on a rampage through their village, tearing down the obligatorily posted Soviet flags.
But Big Jirka was no anti-communist dissident like former-President Vaclav Havel, who served many years in prison for his beliefs. Big Jirka was a party member, and, apparently, a high-ranking one at that.
Two types of people seemed to exist in communist-era Czechoslovakia: those who didn't believe in the system and refused to join the Party, and those who didn't believe in the system, but joined the Party anyway. Big Jirka fell into the latter category. He played along knowing the perks of being a Party member would benefit his family. Self preservation, one of human nature's most intriguing characteristics, pops up frequently in Czech history. After all, the country has been largely dominated by outside powers since time immemorial.
The Lure of the Nothing
Self preservation was also something I consciously embraced halfway through the trip. The surf, sand, and Jirka's twice daily updates on the state of his jelly fish injury had become tiring. Besides, my own not-so-private parts were burnt to a crisp. As soon as urinating became an exercise in anguish, I knew it was time to move on. Except there was nowhere to go. Bus service was non-existent and I'd already covered every square inch of black-tarred street in Primorsko. So I planted myself at the picnic table under the shady grape-vine-covered patio of our villa, consuming cheap, but delicious bottles of Bulgarian wine and reading the only book I'd brought with me: The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying.
One day after finishing off a chapter on post-death karmic retribution, as well as my second bottle of vino, I traipsed into the center of town. Primorsko's main street was lined with outdoor, plastic-table-and-fake-palm-tree-laden bars where throbbing Eurotrash pop music competed against other throbbing Eurotrash pop music. I picked a bar and ordered a beer. Czech was being spoken everywhere, as rowdy guys in shorts and leather sandals taunted one another to drink more.
Then a bear walked by. A scrawny, famished-looking bear wearing a large metal collar around its neck. A family of smiling gypsies held the chain that shackled the sheepish beast. They stopped in the middle of the traffic-less street. As the patriarch of the family began making the bear do tricks, like rolling over and twirling on its feet for the Czech drinking audience, I considered the irony: many Czechs have severe contempt for gypsies. The gypsies living in the Czech Republic--and generally in Europe--are treated like second-class citizens. It was sad and comical that these gypsies were hoping to make a living from Czech tourists.
Then again, it reminded me of my own, far-less-severe plight in Primorsko. Duped by a flashy brochure and (even worse) my own misperceptions of Bulgaria, I looked around at the innocuous town, filled with restaurants that mostly pump out baskets of small fried fish (an excellent advertisement for the benefits of starvation) and not-so-super markets that stocked little on shelves save for staples like rice and potatoes and a few limp, inedible vegetables. But maybe that was just it: having witnessed Prague go from wilted to wonderland in a few short years, I felt a yen for the quickly disappearing world of post-communism. Maybe it was the Buddhist philosophy talking, but, as the gypsy family began walking away with their pet bear and the partying Czechs went back to taunting one another, I became acutely aware of my attachment to this dying inorganic culture: the complete ignorance of this season's fashions, the guards at supermarket entrances who'd block your way unless you were carrying a basket or pushing a shopping cart. The shackled bears.
The culture of emptiness, which communism did a great job at promoting, is a quickly disappearing relic, washed away by fastfood joints, Coke and Pepsi billboards, chain department stores, and recycled American TV shows from the 80s. I'm not necessarily dismissing these hallmarks of Western civilization--after all, where would I be without Gary Coleman?--and I'm not saying that socialism was better. On paper, Marxism looked like a paradigm shift; in practice human nature took over. But, sitting here, on the culturally barren Coast of Bohemia, I was able to realize how much less clutter there was in my mind, how much easier it was to just think. I came thinking I was looking for culture and really what I found was nothing. Absolutely nothing. And I loved it.
Just then I saw Jirka, his arms filled with beer bottles. "Hey Yankee, wanna go for a swim?" he called out.
I jumped up from the chair and said, "Last one there will get stung by the fish of the jelly!"
David Farley (www.dfarley.com)is the editor of Travelers' Tales Prague and the Czech Republic. His work has appeared in The Best Travelers' Tales 2004, New York Magazine, Playboy, Conde Nast Traveler, Travel + Leisure, Arthur Frommer's Budget Travel, Chicago Tribune, and The Washington Post, among other publications. He teaches writing at New York University and Gotham Writers' Workshop.
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