Sofia 2

The driver was an elderly man, probably in his seventies. He opened the boot and I hauled the suitcase into it. Sit wherever you like, he said. I chose the passenger seat in front.

He used to be a travel agent, he said. Now it was a part-time job. Recently he had designed a one-month tour to Greece for retirees. The itinerary was ready, the negotiations with hotels almost complete — the tour would begin in November, when winter-weary Germans traveled south.

I told him about my visit to Greece some years ago. When asked where I’m from, my usual response is: from India, but I live in Germany. On that trip to Athens, I omitted the Germany bit. Except once, in an antique shop, where a middle-aged Greek did not hide his contempt. Why do you work in Germany of all places, he asked. Can’t you find work someplace else?

The German austerity measures were infamous there. In Athens I had spotted graffiti ridiculing the Germans, Merkel in particular.

Hearing all this the driver reacted as though I’d touched a nerve. The rest of the drive was a rant I didn’t follow entirely. What I caught were bits and pieces about the ungrateful Greeks.

He drove faster as he vented. Frankfurt airport arrived sooner.

* * *

The driver at the Sofia airport was also an elderly man, but he didn’t say a word. Perhaps English was the problem. He wore a vacant look. No interest left in the world, just going through the motions. And no effort made to mask this.

I saw more of this type in the city. The waiter at the hotel’s main restaurant had the same detached air and a distant look. His lined face and white hair reminded me of J.Krishnamurti, the philosopher. In the breakfast room another middle-aged man in ill-fitting livery moved about like a zombie.

* * *

Next morning the young man behind the wheel had a heavy build and closely cropped hair. English was a problem again, but this didn’t prevent him from telling me about a street in Sofia named Indira Gandhi and a boulevard named Jawaharlal Nehru.

Later I looked them up on Google Maps and found ulitsa Indira Gandi and bulevard Jawaharlal Neru. Indira Gandhi visited Bulgaria in 1967, the first Indian PM to do so. Bulgaria was a communist country then, and India was close to the Soviets. These days the Bulgarians pull down statues and monuments from that era. Street names appear to have been spared, for now.

I knew nothing about his country’s politicians, so I tried sports. Stoichkov, I said, football. I remembered him from the 1994 world cup, when Bulgaria had a good team. But this mention got him agitated. He raised his voice and gave me a lecture, mostly in Bulgarian. What remained with me was a phrase: Bulgaria football no good.

* * *

One evening the driver was a woman. In her thirties, perhaps. She wore ripped jeans and listened to Bulgarian hip-hop on the stereo, rapping along at times.

* * *

The driver on the way to Sofia airport was grumpy and rude in the beginning. His head was shaven and clothes shabby. There was no problem with his English. Taxi driving was a new profession for him, only a year old. Previously he’d been driving trucks for a decade, and before that he had worked on cargo ships for fifteen years.

Driving a taxi was the best – you got home for dinner.

Sailing was an adventure. He’d been to many countries, India too. Bombay, Mangalore, Madras – even traveled inland sometimes, visiting Bangalore and Delhi. Bangladesh was the worst country in the world. He’d spent a week in a Dhaka jail. For what? For nothing, really nothing.

I asked him about Africa. South Africa he had visited several times as they sailed around the cape. What about Namibia? I’d been there the previous year, I told him, seen the port at Walvis Bay. Oh, Namibia was good! The ship had docked at Walvis Bay, and before it sailed he’d fucked many Namibian girls. They were really good.

* * *

At Frankfurt airport the driver was late. She apologized, before blaming a stau on the autobahn. When we got to the car, she opened the rear door for me. Her large frame obscured the door almost entirely.

Traffic was slim on the autobahn, in both directions. It’s cleared up now, she said. Friday afternoons can be like that.

She had one more pick up later that evening, a drive to the airport again. Then the weekend. On Sunday she planned to put up a stall at the Mannheim flea market. She had to wake up at three in the morning, get there by five – the early ones got good spots, not too far from the rest rooms.

Her stall would carry knick-knacks that had found their way into her home over the years. This was a good way to get rid of them and earn some money. You also met interesting people.

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