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Spin the Globe: Rebecca Walker in Bulgaria

AFAR chose a destination at random—by literally spinning a globe—and sent writer Rebecca Walker on a spontaneous journey to Bulgaria.

In the course of a single impromptu trip, the World Wide Web went from being very virtual to being very real. The shift began instantly after my destination was revealed, 48 hours before departure. I was headed for the unknown; what else could I do but send 140 characters to thousands of people I had never met? “Hey Tweeps! What’s good in Bulgaria?”

Within 20 minutes I received a direct message from Petya Kirilova-Grady, a Bulgarian feminist blogger living in Tennessee who said she’d be thrilled to show me her Bulgaria. Her list, sent a few hours later to my personal email, included places for me to go, things to see, people to meet, and food to eat. My trip had officially begun. I didn’t know it then, but Petya’s generosity—and the miraculous nature of the Internet connection—would color every moment of my journey.

When I hit the tarmac in Sofia at 7 a.m., I felt buoyed by Petya’s spirit. Rather than bleak and unforgiving, the stripped-down airport—white on white, with huge windows looking out on blank runways and endless gray sky—was inspiring in its minimalism.

Once in the city, I noticed not the imminent rainstorm but the warmth of the people. Bulgarians strolled the spacious main street of Sofia’s posh Vitosha district in twos and threes, bundled against the chill. They held hands, linked arms, and talked quietly with heads bowed and pressed together.

Petya wrote that I must visit the 10th-century Rila monastery outside of Sofia, so on my first day I rode the local bus two hours into the mountains. At the remote hermitage, I found the sweetest, freshest air and meditated in the impenetrable stillness. I was alone but felt as if Petya was there, too; this person I had never met, who led me to this place I had never been. Back in Sofia the next morning, I fretted a bit about the connection. For a moment, I was determined to do my own thing, to reclaim my adventure. But then I roamed the streets aimlessly for a few hours and came to realize Petya was my adventure. She created the list, but even though I was following her bread crumbs, her magic trail, I was still tracking the unknown.

Which is how I ended up having coffee on my second day in Sofia with Petya’s friend, former world-class and national champion tennis player Magdalena Maleeva, who is also a founder of the country’s ecology movement and now the owner of the only group of organic grocery stores in Bulgaria. We sat in the café next to her main shop in the center of the labyrinthian city and talked about motherhood—how we loved it, how we wanted more children, how we were not ready for the time of cuddling babies to be over.

I asked about tennis—how could I not? Magdalena told me the story she must have repeated 10,000 times: Her mother worked at a tennis club and put all three of her talented girls in classes. Her mother pushed them. The Communist regime, in power from 1946 to 1990, pushed them. They all became tennis legends. “And now I educate corporations about going green,” she said. We laughed.

Next on Petya’s list was journalist and activist Yana Buhrer Tavanier. After much texting to arrange a time and place to meet, on day three in Sofia, I hopped on a Soviet-era trolley to catch up with Yana at the National Gallery of Art. The center of town was teeming, so I jumped off the trolley a few stops early and walked through Slaveykov Square, a lively people-watching spot bursting with bookstalls. I lingered on a street full of fruit stands overflowing with mounds of apricots, ruby-red pomegranates, and bright orange persimmons. I laughed with women in snack shops stocked to the brim with cashews, sunflower seeds, almonds, and every other kind of nut or seed that could be sold by the gram. I stood in the busy intersections, staring up at the empty wooden towers high above the street, watch posts from a bygone time of life under surveillance.

The National Gallery occupies a yellow, neo-baroque building that was the royal palace before the fall of the monarchy in 1946. It houses an amazing collection of paintings and sculptures by Bulgarian artists. I met Yana behind the museum in what once must have been the palace gardens. Strikingly beautiful, with dark brown hair and deep bluish-green eyes, and sporting Converse sneakers, Yana settled me into a lovely café for an intellectually charged conversation about her investigative report on the treatment of mentally ill adults and children in Bulgaria. I asked about the city’s art scene, its entrepreneurial spirit, and the presence of young people in positions of power.

“Bulgaria did not have a proper revolution,” Yana told me. “The people found out on television that communism was over and continued on as usual. They called the transition only ‘the changes.’ There was never a collective outpouring, no tribunals, no dancing in the streets. As a result, there is not much movement. People are still frightened to speak. Little by little it is changing, but it is hard.”

We brainstormed about creative projects—kiosks all over the city for people to record their stories about the day they heard news of the fall of the Communist government; writing workshops; guerrilla graffiti posses. After meeting Yana, it was hard to leave Sofia. We could have talked for days, but I had to push on.

I am a fan of the Japanese photographer Hiroshi Sugimoto and love his series of photographs of seascapes around the world. I own one of his images, of the Black Sea. I had to make a pilgrimage.

But where to get my own view of the Black Sea? My assistant at home came up with options, researched hastily—on the Internet, of course. Varna, the second-largest city in Bulgaria, a port town, seemed too urban; Bourgas, a smaller resort town on the sea, was a bit more to my taste. But Sozopol—tiny, certain to be empty during the off season, endowed with its own architectural style—sounded perfect. Because it was on the other side of the country, I powwowed via email with Petya and Yana, and we decided I should stop in the old town of Plovdiv for a proper break along the way. I paid my fare at Sofia’s Central Station, boarded the train, and four hours later was settled in Plovdiv, resting in an elaborately carved bed fit for a queen.

Known as Bulgaria’s most beautiful city, Plovdiv stole my heart. My room overlooked a tree-lined cobblestone street and a Moroccan café. The hotelier brought pumpkin soup to my room. The bathroom was heavenly—cedar and birch, like a sauna without heat. I wandered the old city, meandering amid restored homes of Armenian merchants from the 1840s. I gazed at a crumbling but still functional Roman amphitheater from the second century, and smiled outside a kindergarten in the center of the old town as I shot video of children playing and laughing to show my son at home. “You see,” I would say, “there are children your age playing all over the world!”

It was like this almost every moment of the trip; my gadgets gave me additional ways of apprehending the terrain. The photos of the Alexander Nevsky cathedral I took with my iPhone were for me but also for my Facebook “friends” who have become, I realized while in Bulgaria, a real part of my consciousness. When I did not know if it was safe to wait on a train platform with boys wearing White Power T-shirts, Yana got me through it one text at a time: “Be careful! Usually they are just curious, but I did a documentary about racism here and it is real. Do you have a private compartment?” “Yes,” I tapped, “but my phone is running out of power!” “Don’t worry,” she replied. “I have arranged someone to help you when you arrive. Here is his email. But please, fly back. No more train.”

Eight hours later, I arrived at Sozopol, exhausted but unharmed. Ah, Sozopol. The last stop of the journey. If Sofia was autumn in Bulgaria, Plovdiv was spring. And Sozopol, well, Sozopol was summer. My room was spare and comfortable, perched right on the sea. For three days and four nights I snapped photos of the green-blue water, stared at the fisherman out my window, and watched the beacon of the lighthouse make its endless rounds on the tiny island across the bay. The place was still. Silent. Free. I wrote a bit of the book I’m working on. Made more iPhone videos for my son. Napped.

On my last evening in Sozopol, after the very chic but down-to-earth woman who ran the hotel brought me Greek salad and fettuccini with olive oil and butter for my dinner, I thought about how the whole of it, every single season of my trip, was the result of a unique magic: human beings linked miraculously through a virtual web. The world felt smaller, but bigger too. I could not speak the language in Bulgaria, but I did not feel like a stranger. The country was distinct, but my sense, sitting on the terrace overlooking the sea, was that it was but one room in a vast, familiar mansion. I could have been blinded by the rooms of many colors in this gigantic house of humanity, but instead, I trusted my heart and my Twitter feed, and found my way.