On Thursday, I walked for miles through hillside neighborhoods, using the only truly tall structure in Sofia – the television tower – as my North star. The conversations of strangers and the pronouncements of storefront signs were impenetrable to me. I had studied Cyrillic characters and common Bulgarian words and phrases prior to our departure but confronted with the reality of navigating the language and having to act quickly, in real time, I could make neither heads nor tails of the language.
I felt my situation was analogous to surfing an Internet populated by encrypted Web sites which I had no means to decipher or decrypt. Zeros and Ones flowing over, around and through me and no means to interpret them. In a way, it created a splendid isolation in the middle of a crowded city. And perhaps a bit of anxiety. Did that attractive sign point towards a destination I was put on Earth to see? Or would it lead me to certain doom?
Onward I marched.
Conversations with natives were, to say the least, unproductive. I recently read a book by David Sedaris in which he told of moving to France and failing utterly in his attempts to learn the language. So, he learned the phrase for “I agree” – d’accord – and used it on every occasion. He said it worked out about half the time.
On my trek I eventually took a similar tack, replying to every utterance that seemed to end in a question mark by nodding and saying – enthusiastically – “Da!”
God only knows what I might have affirmed.
“Are you now or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party?”
“Are you familiar with the proper method of dispatching a vampire or other creature of the night?”
My syntax also changed. In my effort to be understood I adopted the speaking style of a walk-on in an old Frankenstein movie. Instead of asking the Bulgarian T-mobile rep, “How much does it cost to place an international call?” I said, “How much is telephone call to United States.”
When all else failed, I opted for pathos, pointing to my chest and confessing sheepishly: “Americano.” I don’t know why I added the ‘O.’
My interlocutor would then shake his head knowingly and give me a grim, pitying grin.