After rolling around in Bulgaria’s capital, Sofia, it was on to our next stop; a more obscure hilly town called, Veliko Tarnovo. Reason number one for stopping in a smaller unheard of town in Bulgaria was to not have to deal with the long, boring, and inaccessible train ride straight from Sofia to Bucharest – I mean, how many episodes of Lost can you really watch in a row? But reason number two was: we felt like we hadn’t seen much of Bulgaria and its hilarious natives and felt like we would really miss something if we would leave Bulgaria after only two days. So we ventured on in the land of cobble stones, hills, and $1 beers
The next morning it was “7 AM the usual morning line-up” and we had a short but empowering breakfast on our favorite Bulgarian smother’s terrace, showered – Roxy that is, Madeline does not seem to have the shower gene – and rocked our usual 20 minutes fashionable-lateness. On to the train station we went! You know the type of people who just can’t manage to get anywhere on time? No matter how many alarms are set, before-bed preparations are made, and specific time-management planning is done? Hopefully those people are accompanied by someone who has their shit together and is capable of dragging that unorganized person out of the door, come rain or come shine. Unfortunately that is not the case in this situation. Both Madeline and Roxy are complete messes when it comes to getting out of the door on time. There is always an extra egg to scramble, Jessie J workout to twerk to, or instant Bulgarian coffee to drink. So, of course, we arrived at the Sofia train station looking like two headless chickens running around, trying to find any sign resembling words close to the English, Dutch or German language. Just anything that doesn’t include numbers or Pi-resembling symbols at the beginning of words. But nothing. Of course we were immediately approached by Bulgarian men working at the station, who smothered us by grabbing Roxy’s handle bars as if her wheelchair is a suitcase and tell us that our train to Veliko Tarnovo “leaves 10 minutes ago” – which, after the men started counting down from “10”, we realized means “leaving in 10 minutes”. They also told us that we had to get the tickets downstairs, and of course there were no elevators and the escalators were not moving. Roxy would normally let the men lift her down the stairs, but hey, they weren’t that cute…
Girl’s gotta have standards. Anyway, we decided that Madeline would go down to get the tickets and Roxy would stay with the luggage and try not to bitch slap the men who seem to be extremely consumed with “helping” us. Madeline returned and the men frantically notified us we had to go down anyway to catch our train, which, by then, “leaves 5 minutes ago”. “We go now!” The men picked Roxy up as Madeline rushed the suitcases down ASAP in order to get down to catch Roxy in case shit goes down. Shit luckily did not “go down”, but Roxy did utter the words, “Madeline, I might die today” many a time.
The men finally took us to the right platform, asked for money, and when we said we had no time to give anything, dropped all our stuff and disappeared into the Bulgarian sunrise. We were finally helped into a first class car by the Bulgarian PoPo and chilled with them in a language that was neither English nor Bulgarian. Surreal, but nice.
After approximately 4 hours and two trains later, we arrived in Veliko Tarnovo. Seemingly residing in the middle of nowhere, we had no clue what kind of people or events we were about to encounter, but freakin psyched to no longer be trapped in the urine-soaked train. It’s always a good thing to touch wheel on soil. After a 5 minute cab ride we arrived at our Hotel complete with a Jesus shrine. What else could we have possibly desired? We entered our psychedelic orange themed room and knew one and only one thing for sure; there was no way we could resume to Bucharest tomorrow. No way in hell (Jesus pun intended). So we decided to finally see Bulgaria a bit more and take an extra day in Veliko Tarnovo.
We slept in the next morning, had breakfast, and started our journey through the small town. First, to find a ukulele for Madeline. But when that quest failed, to eat Italian gelato. God, we love this place (Jesus pun still intended). We then found the most beautiful view of the town’s mountains and private estates and finally relaxed for the first time in for what it seemed like, a very long time.
We continued our journey and arrived at a crossroads: continuing down the hill of a nicely smooth asphalt road, or decline down the very steep cobble-stoned road of doom and terror. So we did what any other irrational person would do and headed down the wobbly path from hell.
Madeline started sloping down the hill and Roxy had no choice but to follow her fellow roller (first rule of rollclub: never leave a fellow roller behind). We rolled down the side of the road where the path was still smooth and we had a railing to hold onto if and when times got rough. We thought we could handle the challenge until this beautiful path stopped and the only choice of stone was cobble. Large, unleveled, steep cobble stone. So we made our way down, while holding onto cars, bushes and for dear life. Madeline looked like she was Nordic Walking without the sticks, stumbling along the way, while Roxy was attempting the skiing method in which she was zig-zagging in order to lower her speed and be able to hold onto either side of the walls as she was thrown by the tyrant that is…the cobble stone.
The reactions of the people of Bulgaria watching us at the side lines were diverse: some were cheering us on, some were holding their breath, some were trying to run toward us but too afraid to risk their own lives. Others were simply shaking their heads; aware of the fact that our downhill journey might end sooner than we hoped it would. In short, we were a sight for sore eyes.
We then arrived at another crossroads: we could either continue down the steep cobble-stoned road, created by Judas, or we could go beyond every boundary we had already trespassed in the last few minutes: go down cobble-stoned steps, AKA, the double-whammy. A fisherman sitting near by, who had grabbed Roxy before in fear as she hit the side of a car, shook his head as if we could not master this challenge. He pointed at the cobble stoned steps, then at Roxy’s chair and said “danger!” Roxy mumbled that he only made her want to do it more. The both of us looked at each other and said, “Fuck yes, we’re doing this!”
At one extremely difficult moment when both of us were stuck somewhere along the cobble, Madeline had an extremely dumb thought. See, Madeline has detachable rollerblade wheels. They were stranded, so she thought maybe they should both just take off their wheels and go the rest of the way by foot. Again, extremely dumb. Incase you did not notice this small detail, Roxy is in a wheelchair. So she doesn’t roll 24/7 by choice. Straight up forgot her bestie is in a wheelchair. So awkward…
A few near death experiences later, we were offered help from an awesome bulgarian tour guide and an older, but humorously youthful Brazilian couple. The tour guide and the Brazilian man carried Roxy down the many stairs, joking and laughing along the way, as if this was part of their tour. We felt blessed and honored to have met them in this time of obvious need and they seemed to enjoy helping and making light of life.
Once down, we met a beatiful blonde woman, who is married to a famous blind Bulgarian singer. She told us she loves people who are blind and/or in wheelchairs. Sounds like a case for Dr. Phil. Then we carried on to a restaurant with a view of the entire town. We sat there for 4 hours, drinking selzer, Bulgarian beer. Eating traditional cuisine and facetiming our loved ones to show them what magnificence we had found in this unknown village in Bulgaria. This is where we found the kindest people and the most captivating landscape and architecture on our journey so far.
It got cold and we decided we should get going before darkness blinded our eyes to uneven cobble stones and helpful strangers. The path went on for another few minutes until we finally reached the beautiful, flat, smoothely paved commodity we had forgotten existed in the last few hours.
We climbed the paved road until madness struck inside Roxy’s head. We all recognize the typical “handicapped” symbol on accessible bathrooms and parking spaces, right? It is of a weird stick-like person sitting in a 20th century asylum-looking wheelchair. Well, on a parking space it kind of looks like somebody in a wheelchair had fallen sideways and somebody made an outline of it with white spray paint. How funny would it be to align one’s body and wheelchair on top of to this symbol?! This is what we had to do. It was the only way to get this image out of Roxy’s system.
So Roxy instructed Madeline to tip her sideways and take a hysterical photo of this avant-garde event. Well, what we thought would be a live art show, turned into a live freak show of laughter and insanity. Madeline had the idea of sitting beside Roxy and pulling Roxy – wheelchair and all – toward her so she would finally lye sideways on top of the white image. Instead, Roxy landed on Madeline and we wailed tears of laughter for a few minutes. People running toward us, aiming to help us as we had obviously had encountered an accident in which Roxy had fallen. Little did they know that M&R were voluntarily roadkill.
We kindly declined everyone’s help and, while two normal people would count their chips and fold, these two crazy girls on a mission resumed to create this unforgettable image. When Roxy had finally properly aligned herself with the white spray paint, Madeline filmed and took pictures, tears of laughter streaming down her face. An old man came toward us to check if we were OK. We said we were and tried to sign-language what we were trying to do. He finally got it and bursted out in laughter and grabbed his phone to capture this incredible once-in-a-lifetime moment. We enjoyed his company a lot, especially since most Bulgarians were bewildered by he fact that we didn’t want help and actually wanted Roxy to lay on that parking space.
This was by far the funniest moment of our trip so far and all we could do was wonder why no one else had recreated the famous wheelchair symbol. Roxy was lucky enough to be that first person, and Madeline had a blast witnessing it. If only there was a rollerblader symbol…We left Veliko Tărnovo the following morning to head East to the beachy area of Bulgaria. Are you tired of hearing train station fiascos yet? We’ll make this one short. We pulled into the station 20 minutes early, and girl, were we proud. We went up to the ticket office to be greeted by a hostile Bulgarian woman. She refused our credit cards and made the universal “money” sign, rubbing her thumb against her pointer and middle fingers. Then she pointed us in the direction of an ATM. We figured it had to be close because, why wouldn’t it be? We are at a train station that only accepts cash. So Roxy ventured out to get the dough as Madeline stayed put and guarded our bags.
While Madeline stood guard, the woman from the booth started yelling Bulgarian at her. It was clear from her hand gestures that A) there was a train transfer we’d have to make. B) there were some serious steps involved. And C) she had no faith in the two of us being able to make it onto the second train successfully. Madeline brushed the woman and her doubt off, but the woman took this as Madeline just not understanding her. The woman got a man who spoke Bulgrish to translate for her. The man mimed him walking down the stairs, pointed at his wrist to indicate that this was a time sensitive matter, and said, “wheelchair. no possible”. At this point Madeline stood up and said, “we’re fine and we’re going. Is there anything else?” The man and woman backed off and avoided eye contact with Madeline from there on out.
10 minutes later, Roxy came back huffing and puffing. She said she had climbed a giant hill only to find an even bigger one that supposedly led to an ATM. Madeline rolled out and up as fast as she could with Roxy yelling behind her, “you’re not gonna make it! That hill is a bitch!” 9 minutes later Madeline came racing into the station with money in hand. That hill really was a bitch, but never underestimate the power of adrenaline.
The woman begrudgingly sold Madeline two tickets as Roxy held the train. We made the transfer to the second train easily. Piece of cake! We only wished the angry ticket lady was there to see it.
The Wheels Deal:
So we sort of got off track in this one as far as Accessible My Ass and Wheelchair Card goes. But you get the gist, right? Trains and cobble stones are far from accessible, Bulgarian tour guides and sweaty train station workers are wheelchair card funded. As for the wheels deal, let us lay it out for you. We get a lot of looks as we roll by. Looks of approval, looks of disapproval, looks of confusion, looks of amazement, looks of pity. The meaning of these looks isn’t always clear, but we know they are looking. The most frustrating looks are the ones from the train conductors. They look at this rolling duo and seem to think, “aw fuck”. And aw fuck is right because they’ve got to put some muscle into it. They look at us as if it is our fault that their trains are inaccessible. The ticket woman looked at us as if we did not have the right to ride the train as others do.
Where did this idea of wheels not belonging come from? Is it a liability matter? Maybe in the U.S. but here, we don’t think we’d get very far with a law suit. Here it seems to just be that most people on wheels do not attempt to ride the trains and wobble down cobble stoned paths. And for good reasons!
Here it seems to be that we are more than they signed up for on that particular day. We are unknown, we are foreign, and they do not quite know how to approach us. We are not sure what the solution to this problem of alienation is. But we are happy to have opened this up in conversation via this blog, and hopefully the more it is talked about, the less foreign and unknown rollers all around the world can become.