He Disappeared before I Could Explain, “Sir, I Didn’t Mean a Girl”
Had the gentleman told me his English is as good as my Bulgarian I would have definitely looked elsewhere
“Anything that can go wrong will go wrong.”
There is nothing more relevant in everyday life than Murphy’s law. All of us must have experienced days when nothing goes right, no matter what we do. It was one of those days.
It’s my first morning in Sofia. Following breakfast, I headed to the nearby currency exchange counter to procure some Bulgarian lev (BGN), to take care of the local expenses at places where cards do not work. (Cash transactions are common in Bulgaria.)
“What’s the rate?” I blurted out to the man at the counter.
“Rate of what?” he asked, palpably a bit surprised at my abrupt question. I could have asked it in a more elaborate manner, but on the spur of the moment mine had been a seemingly ambiguous query. That being said, this faux pas was only a teaser. There was a blockbuster awaiting release.
A verified vernacular
Ever since I began travelling, it has been a habit to learn a few words and phrases in the local language of every new destination beforehand. It not only gives a good first impression but also helps break the ice when it comes to the initial interaction with the locals, who are strangers, of course.
As regards the countries that I have visited on multiple occasions, suffice to say my vocabulary is not merely restricted to a few words and phrases. On the contrary, it is quite formidable. In some cases, I have even managed to perfect the accent further with every subsequent visit.
The approach when it came to Bulgaria was no different. It was my maiden visit to the Balkan nation, and I had begun practising Bulgarian words and phrases days in advance.
From the usual Zdraveite [(pronounced: Zdrah-VEY-teh)/meaning: Hello], Dobro utro (Doh-BROH Uh-troh/Good Morning), Molia (MO-lya/Please) and Blagodaria (Bla-go-da-RYAH/Thank You), to the not so usual Izvinete (Eez-vee-NEH-teh/Excuse Me), Kolko struva? (Kol-koh stroo-vah?/How much is it?), Málko (Mal-coe/A little bit) and Govorish li angliiski? (Goh-VOH-rish le ahn-GLIY-ski?/Do you speak English?), I was busy perfecting basic Bulgarian.
Besides, I was aware when they say Da (Yes) in Bulgaria, a shake of their head will indicate a negative response to an English-speaking person. Likewise, the head movement while saying Neh (No) would feel like the person is in agreement.
It’s now time to put the learning into use. I tried greeting the hotel staff first. They were impressed. It was my first morning in Sofia, and Bulgarian is a very difficult language. I instantly received compliments from a couple of staff members. I had trained myself well… Or so I thought.
You may be honest but…
On the first day, I decided to explore the capital city a bit. The ruins of Serdica — The Roman name for Sofia was Serdika — were palpably the starting point. The historic women’s market was going to be the next stop.
I’m pretty old school when it comes to asking for directions in a new city. Google maps confuse me more often than not, and though city maps provided by the hotel give a rough idea, they never seem enough. As such, I prefer asking locals. That being said, I was aware that not much English is spoken in Bulgaria besides the major business establishments, of course.
When you are travelling in a country where you don’t speak their native language and they do not understand English, the least you can do is to be honest about your side. As such, following the pleasantries (in Bulgarian) I would quickly switch back to English to get my point across. In fact, my greeting was always followed by Govorish li angliiski?
Any possible conversation could be curtailed with immediate effect if a person responded in the negative. It is helpful on most occasions. The first person I tried asking the response was a nod of the head — the one that indicates Neh (No), and…
…I did not understand what she said thereafter but could make out that she was saying she doesn’t speak/understand English. A couple of others responded in a similar manner.
I believe such responses are better than unnecessary dilly-dallying and confusing an already confused person. But there are people who take it to their ego, and responding in the language you understand becomes a matter of pride for them. You may be honest in your approach but that doesn’t guarantee that the other person will reciprocate with honesty.
From women it became ladies… then girls
This gentleman nodded in the affirmative when asked if he spoke English. So I asked him how do I get to the historic women’s market. The expression on his face said it all. He had not understood a word. I tried slowing down the pace. It didn’t work. Next, I attempted to use an alternative word.
“Where’s the ladies’ market?” I asked. It remained a deadpan expression. Things were going wrong. I could neither make the gentleman understand what I meant nor was he willing to let go. It is at this juncture, in trying a bit too hard to explain it to him, that I got a little carried away.
“Where’s the girl’s market?” I asked, at the same time trying to indicate (with my hands) how a girl looks. It is difficult to express it in words, but it was certainly awkward. My antics weren’t lost on my better half.
“That’s a horrible way to ask a question,” she managed to say in the midst of uncontrollable laughter. I knew I had stretched it a bit too far, and was also being made aware of the same.
I turned back to explain, “Sir, that’s not what I meant.” But before I could explain, the gentleman had started turning around, and in a moment he was gone. Disappeared in the crowd. I do not have an iota of doubt as regards what impression the man must have had of me.
While I may have gotten carried away, it wasn’t entirely my fault. Had he told me his English was as good as my Bulgarian, I would have looked elsewhere. What happened instead was while looking for directions I had made him seem like something and also myself like… Get the drift.
It was a girl who helped
Fortunately, my next attempt was a successful one. I posed the recurring question to a couple. Thankfully, the girl spoke English. I was told that I’d come a bit too far from the main entrance, but could still enter from the rear gate.
She pointed out the directions, reassured me Google Maps confuse her on occasions and walked along with her boyfriend. It was indeed a girl that had helped me locate the girl’s market. Or should I say Ladies’ Bazaar?
The historic Zhenski Pazar (Ladies’ Bazaar), an open-air market founded in the 19th century, is the oldest in Sofia. It is located between Stefan Stambolov Boulevard and Pirotska Street in the center of the capital city, and showcases a gamut of options. From fresh fruits and vegetables sold by the Bulgarian farmers to various kinds of meat and dairy products, there is a lot to choose from.
For those keen on a quick bite, there are lots of snacking options to choose from. Besides, there are a plethora of stores selling exotic spices, local handicrafts and traditional souvenirs.
I picked up handicrafts and spices and also clicked a lot of photographs. However, my better half kept laughing throughout. How innocently I was describing a ‘girl’ to that gentleman had left her amused, and she couldn’t control her laughter.
Even as we came towards the other end of the market, we noticed something written on a wall. My better half got an even better opportunity to laugh her heart out.
“This is a perfect reaction to your action,” she quipped. I could neither disagree with her nor contest the context in which she said it. So I went ahead and laughed alongside. It was a funny encounter with the Bulgarian gentleman, even though a bit weird. Before leaving Zhenski Pazar, I went back and took a photograph of the wall. On it, among other things, it was scribbled… Well, look at it for yourself (top left).