In a Bulgarian hostel

Just as I was plodding up the gloomy staircase carrying my luggage, Violeta was coming down to take out the garbage. Guessing I was looking for accommodation at the hostel she turned about and welcomed me into the flat. A youthful woman with a smiling face, she comes across as kind and motherly.

She communicates in clear-cut English where rolling r’s trill unexpectedly here and there to remind you the spelling of words. But in spite of her fluency she feels insecure of the language and on the kitchen table lies the English-teaching booklet that she’s studying.

After I’ve completed the check-in formalities I enter the dorm. There are interesting characters, the first of whom is an Israeli gambler. He’s sleeping with earplugs at the moment after a whole night spent in a casino. He moans from time to time, but the undefined sickness that he complains of is the probable result of the free alcohol they offer in such establishments.

When I finally get to meet him in the evening, he’s as lively as a cricket and is planning to spend another night out because the traffic noise that he judges unbearable wouldn’t let him work on his computer here. His job? He gives a technical explanation with references to bank accounts and off-shore companies as if it were my daily bread, but it all sounds rather murky. To cut a long story short, he is a sort of gambling consultant who advises on the reliability of online joints.

His utterance is jittery and his speech is eccentric. Overhearing our conversation, the Japanese traveller bursts out into an uncontrollable giggle that I have a hard time to ignore while I keep speaking with the gambler. But this reaction does not upset him in the least: this must be the effect he was seeking.

The Japanese is the quintessence of the ethereal Oriental. He has just emerged from a meditation practice, but earlier I’d seen him dancing madly in the dark room nearby to the sound of music in his earphones. He says he is collecting the positive energy and letting it invade his mind. He is all for a healthy lifestyle as is evident from his supple body, evenly tanned by the tropical sun of former travel destinations.

What is odd is that he came here because of an imaginary love story. While in Israel he met a beautiful woman who he declared his love to, but was jilted. Unperturbed, as the lady happened to have Bulgarian background, he decided this was the country that was destined to him.

Today his dogged search for love has flashed a shimmer of hope in his face. He has managed to approach a girl and have her telephone number. Tomorrow they are agreed to meet. It’s a real pity I will never know the outcome of this romance, but he’s already talking of renting a flat in Sofia and move in with this unsuspecting girl.

The third occupant is from Hong Kong, an accountant who quitted his job and is travelling until he gets a new post and decides on a radical change of life, probably involving studying for a higher qualification and eventually getting a job in teaching.

Back in the kitchen Violeta’s working hours trundle very slowly along on a glorious spring day like today. She will knock off at 9 pm, after a tiring 13 hours of duty. Officially retired from her 38-year-long service as a paediatric nurse in government hospitals, she’s nevertheless obliged to keep working to eke out a meagre pension of just € 75 a month. The shade of sadness and resignation in her gaze is hardly set off by all the enthusiasm she puts in her work.

While we travel and spend money on something as unnecessary as tourism, Bulgarian workers are paid the lowest in the EU and even with a reduced cost of living, it’s hard for them to make both ends meet.