I don’t know what Bulgaria has against signs. My friend Joseph, the Bulgarian from Texas, says it is a deeply-rooted historical vendetta. “They just don’t care,” he told me last week. “People in Blagoevgrad don’t use street names, they just say near that store or church or whatever. But where exactly? People here just don’t think like that.”
During my first few weeks here I made a big deal about finding a map of Blagoevgrad (see post #5), but honestly it was an almost pointless quest. While the map does list street names and such (in Bulgarian, naturally), there are no actual signs telling me which street is which. I have to count the blocks and then use the map to tell me how many blocks I need to go before turning west (or what have you), and that usually gets me in the general vicinity of where I need to go. But even then, if I find the place I think I need, there will not be a sign on the building telling me what building it is.
So, yeah, I got as lost as I’ve ever been the other day trying to find a particular travel agency. My university had reserved a block of tickets for a three-day trip to Istanbul and I managed to snag the very last reservation. All I had to do was go to the travel agency and pay for the trip (using what turned out to be a complicated mixture of Bulgarian Leva and European Euros, all of which I tried to negotiate with people who didn’t understand anything I said, but that’s another story).
Even though the university liaison officer gave me a well-marked map, it listed the street names I was supposed to follow.Street names? What street names? Getting directions to turn east on a street called “Tsar Ivan Shishman” is a fine idea, but if there are no signs identifying any street anywhere, and if many of the streets look more like alleyways, then where exactly is Tsar Ivan’s road?
Here’s what I mean. As I’m learning is pretty typical in Europe, most of the major intersections here are roundabouts with no street lights. But in Bulgaria there are also no street signs. Five or six streets might intersect at the roundabout, and even though there will be signs telling a motorist which way they cannot go, there is no sign telling which way to go for anything else. I guess you are just supposed to know?
And when you do get to where you think you are going, how do you know you are there? I don’t really miss all those giant billboards that dot nearly every major road in and around Chicago, and so Bulgaria’s indifference toward showy advertising is kind of nice. But what if you were looking for one placer in particular?
It’s like this: See the little red sign behind the trees in a gravel parking lot?
Would you believe that sign is the only advertisement for the best restaurant in town?
Now look at the big imposing building in the photo below. Do you see that little sign in blue?
You would have no idea that it is the police station until you get underneath and can see the tiny Blagoevgrad City Police Headquarters sign (but only if you read Bulgarian).
Chicagoans would find it hard to imagine Yorktown Mall or Oakbrook Center not advertising itself, but in Blagoevgrad, you see a door like this one and you can only guess what’s inside,
Only when the door slide opens does it look like what it is, the largest mall in town.
Sometimes you can find little-bity signs pointing you toward a particular place. This sign for example leads people to Billa, the second largest grocery store in Blagoevgrad.
But when you go in the indicated direction, the street looks like this.
And if you keep going, if you look very, very carefully, you might see a yellow “B” hiding behind some trees.
That’s Billa, inside that red door.
And near Billa is a little strip of shops and cafes. It looks like this.
Can you see the office for Alfatours? Look again. Can you see it?
I didn’t, and I was looking really hard. I walked past these shops 10 times and never saw it. I asked Google maps to find it, but it started sending me somewhere near the train station (trust me, I walked almost the whole way, really, really far before logic told me that my university would not have given me such a bad map). So I jumped into a taxi, showed the driver my school-issued map, and he immediately began taking me back toward the Alfatours near the train station. “Ne, ne,” I protested. Looking at my map again, he pulled over and asked another taxi driver where it was. Remember, my map had all the street names, clearly identifying the intersections nearest the agency, and this grizzly veteran taxi driver had no idea where it was.
But he then drives me toward the little shops near Billa, exactly where I started, and he points that way. “Go,” he said. “Merci,” I said.
So I walked past the little shops again, looking closely this time for anything that looked like the travel agency logo on my map.
And then I saw a rusty metal sign, which I could not read, but I saw the logo.
And then I saw the logo again at the bottom of a door almost totally hidden beneath a nearby small porch awning.
Still, I was only guessing when I pushed the door open and found a very small travel agency staffed by three women who did not speak English. But, like I said, that’s another story.