ReDux & ReBound, The Travel Writing Game – Rules and Call for Stories!

ReDux & ReBound is a travel writing competition in creative stage development by Holland & Berlin Associates with the aim of franchising with a global media provider.

There are two elements of the competition, either or both of which entries are welcome.  

The written piece should be between 2000 and 3000 words of prose,.  If you prefer poetry, there is no word limit.

We recommend that at the end of your piece that you assert your copyright.

Please send submissions to jamie.jacob.berlin@gmail.com

 

The Redux

 o   The Redux is an article/piece about a previous trip or journey or foreign placement

 o   It can be a gap year, a holiday that made a strong impression

 o   The Redux MUST look at places that were ‘newly discovered’ or undiscovered at the time of the trip

 o   It is LIKELY that the Redux will be further back in time the more travelled the place is today

 o   The Greek Islands would likely be the early 1980s

 o   Central and Eastern Europe would likely be prior to the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989

 o   Russia would likely be prior to the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991

 o   While not sickly sentimental, the article should reflect upon its times

 o   The article could include a fact box – who was PM, President, what was on the TV, what was new.  For example in 1991 the year of the collapse of the Soviet Union there was no Google or Skype and an international phone call needed to be booked 24 hours in advance

 

The ReBound

 ‘get planning your ReBound now’

 o   The ReBound is an article about recent trip or journey or foreign placement, and must be within the last 12  to 18 months

 o   The ReBound must be based on a place that featured in the ReDux section

 o   It must reflect the new

 o   It must keep it present

 o   It must innovate and explain why the place is as valid today as before it was ‘discovered’

 o   It might chide, or poke fun at the Redux team of authors

ReDux (Odessa, 1993). To Odessa with Arh-dah, Part Two

To Odessa with Arh-dah, Part Two

Odessa, 1993

 

We went to the beach with John.  There is a tram-link through a wooded park to beaches organized along the lines of the Italian stabilimento system, and just as crowded, at least in summer.  The climate in Odessa is very mild in comparison to where many of the happy holidaymakers spend the rest of their year.  In the summer months the temperature gets well up into the twenties in Celsius and peaks in August when it can get up to thirty Celsius, or the late eighties in Fahrenheit.

Many would have been sent as part of their overall deal with their factories, as many of the larger Soviet enterprises owned their own holiday facilities at the beach or in spas. This system isn’t limited to totalitarian vacationing.  Italy is another example of large employers that own holiday facilities as well as setting up its beaches along the lines of an assembly line – mile after mile after mile of organized beaches, to which families tend to return to the same spot on year after year after year.  That was the deal then, and at least it was a secure one.  For most of your year your job is guaranteed in state-owned bureaucratically driven enterprise manufacturing the component parts of the latest five year plan, or pretending to, just as they often pretended to pay the workers in the dying days of the Soviet economy.  Most likely you lived in a micro-rayon, where everything is laid on too, neatly numbered in a rational concrete-grid pattern – schools, medical facilities, shops.  Regulated fun, but then everyone did look like they were having fun, the men, many with stomachs over hanging tiny speedo-style trunks, the women more modestly attired in one-piece bathing suits, and kids screaming and having fun like kids anywhere else on the beach in high summer.  The soon to be next generation, and soon to be the first post-communist generation. 

There were no teenagers in sight.  Perhaps they were all still in bed like teenagers on holiday all over Europe, after spending all their energies off the beach, at least during the day.

Further up the coast the crowds thinned out and we wandered up a sandy path to higher ground.  Private enterprise supplied good grilled sashlik, to Yan’s delight, and weak beer, and down below on undeveloped, almost empty, beaches a couple of small groups sunbathed and swam naked.  It must be blissful to feel the sun on skin that in Novosibirsk (four thousand kilometers east), if they were from there, or in Omsk (just three thousand eight hundred kilometers east), is more used to being covered from head to toe from late September to April during winters when the temperature can and frequently does drop to minus twenty five Celsius, and can go as low as minus thirty five in Novosibirsk and minus forty five in Omsk.

We parted company from John later in the day, as he was in town in some sort of official capacity, perhaps playing tennis with his Soviet grandee, or perhaps he just wanted to get shot of us.  That evening we found a small, dangerous bar that was very dark, at the top of the Richelieu or Potemkin steps.  We drank too much, left when the atmosphere started to become menacing and walked back for another night with our little old landlady.  Sunshine, vodka, and Sovietskoye Shampansko deafened me to her nighttime serenade, as well as inducing a truly sickening hangover for the trip back to Moscow.

As with our tickets for the train down to Odessa, we went to the station and tried our luck on the black market.  We had no choice as we were in Odessa illegally and would have been refused and likely arrested at the official ticket office. 

The train left Odessa in the afternoon and immediately on boarding we realized that something was amiss.  We had no couchette on this train, we noted.  Instead we had almost free run of an entire carriage and chose a compartment fitted out with six hard plastic seats, no beds for this journey, and we settled down as best we could for the overnight and what should have been most of the next day’s journey to Moscow.  We had little money left and no hard currency.  We were also feeling very sick, all self-induced, and after a couple of nights sleeping in the same clothes on the rotten bed I was feeling fairly grubby.

We were hungry, but more importantly we were thirsty and at the next station, a country affair at which all the local babushkas had turned out to sell their wares – a bunch of onions here, an apple or two there – Yan leapt from the train to see what he could do with the last of our money.  I would have gone, I am sure that I could have managed the bargaining just as well, but I was beyond caring.  The bed experience had got to me and I just wanted to get back to Moscow.

Just before the train pulled out, Yan returned triumphantly, displaying the fruits of his mission – a couple of sticks with what looked like dried raspberries attached to them with cotton, like some weird looking edible baby rattle, and a few glass bottles of juice, which being thirsty he cracked open and took a slug.  Inevitably it was the kind of juice that needed to be diluted, some sort of thick cordial, full of sugar or more likely some sort of artificial flavouring. 

This was a problem as we had no water and there was none on the train. 

We then found out that we were on the slow train to Moscow, which would take all night, all the next day and the next night to get back to Moscow, arriving just about the right time to get the first metro back to the Komsomol.  We settled in, trying to get comfortable in the awful seats and later slept in the overhead luggage racks. 

I read Yan’s copy of David Copperfield from cover to cover and opted out of the dried raspberries. 

His need was greater than mine.

ReDux, Odessa, Ukraine, 1991 (Excerpt from ‘Evening in Moscow’) – Part 1

Odessa, Ukraine, 1991

To the Black Sea with ‘Arh-dad’ (Part One)

Excerpt from ‘Evening in Moscow’

One of our group was a mature student, who I will call John, his real name.  A squat, handsome and intelligent man with bright eyes but who on account of him being from Liverpool and being fifteen or so years older than us, we all called ‘our Dad’ in a phony Liverpool accent, pronounced, ‘Arh-daa’, as in, ‘eh, alright, Arh-dad, calm down, eh!’, every time that we saw him, in appalling mock Mersey accents.

John didn’t often hang about with the wide group. No surprise there perhaps. We can’t have been too much fun to be around and must have seemed to him just like a bunch of annoying teenagers, which some of us actually were age-wise and some of us had regressed to mentally, constantly cracking jokes about being in stalag-luft, moping about the empty mail boxes and complaining about the food, the buses, the roaches, the rats and the concrete.  Siege mentality had set in.  John was studying Russian with us for just one year, a career sabbatical and involving time out of paid work and a full fee for the course.  There was one other taking the year long post-graduate course, a clever type, a young professional who was much more earnest than John, though much less interesting.

John had a penetrating air of enquiry and amusement about him whereas the other chap sort of quietly knew it all.

The know it all was sponsored by a household name British corporation that was presumably gearing up to corner the Soviet market as it opened up.  Glasnost after all was still all the rage.  The only time that Yan and I saw him with his guard down was after a riotous night attended by all in Slavyanski Bazar, an old-style, genuine Russian restaurant with a mocked-up Cossack feel to it that at the time catered to pre-arranged tour groups.

All evening we encouraged the know it all to quaff Sovietskoye Shampansko which we were virtually immune to by now and then to make a series of very un-corporate Britain speeches over several shots of vodka.

Later in the taxi home he opened his neat little rucksack that he carried everywhere and was profoundly and noisily sick into it.

Another mature student, a lady that was with us for the full four year haul dropped out after the Moscow trip – in fact tried to leave Moscow early on due to some drama in the girl’s quarters which we hadn’t been party to as we avoided it like the plague, and because the girls uniformly thought Yan and I were a pair of idiots.

The lady was a divorcee of a certain age that had clearly bitten off more than she could chew (hadn’t we all though? I certainly had) and who the girls called Gummy Bear, a nickname thought up by two senior year girls that Yan and I took to hanging out with for a while.   I think she got the nickname because she wore pink ‘fluffy’ tracksuits about the place and was slightly overweight.

And they say that children can be cruel.

Being mature students and having paid their fair whack of fees, ‘Arh-dad’ and the know it all chap took the whole course a lot more seriously than anyone else.  They had just the one year to master Russian; we had a full four years and the luxury (for the time being) of laziness without too many consequences.

John kept disappearing to meet with serious Soviet types who he was writing a dissertation about.  One of his subjects was a Soviet General or someone else high up in the Party and who was fanatical about tennis.  John played him regularly and always lost as the general always changes the rules at least bent them at his whim, always saying, ‘Rule is rule, Johnny’.

~

John planned to travel to Odessa in south Ukraine on the Black Sea coast and being a practical sort with plenty of common sense had applied for and received an internal Soviet visa for Ukraine, a flight ticket to Odessa, about two hours flight time from Moscow and a room at the local Intourist hotel in the centre of town.  Although he hadn’t invited us to do so, Yan and I planned to join John in Odessa and set off once more to Kievsky Voksal to buy tickets on the black market.

Without our old friend Vika (see Evening in Moscow) to guide us we were on our own in the black market for Odessa couchettes, but we agreed that the same ground rules that had applied to our Kiev jaunt had better apply to the Odessa express.  So we blew the dust off our Estonian personas and again took our vows as good Trappist monks from iz prebaltika and hoped for the best (Ethnic Estonians from the former Estonian Soviet Socialist Republic did not generally speak very good Russian – see Evening in Moscow).

We did not book ourselves into an exclusive four berth couchette all to ourselves for the journey to Odessa.  Instead Yan (he was in charge, he had the better Russian when it came to dealings in Kievsky station) had got us tickets in Third or ‘hard’ class as it is known – open carriages stacked with bunk beds three stories high in cozy groups of six and with no privacy.

We set off, travelling very light, especially so in my case, in just the clothes that I was standing in with a toothbrush and extra underwear stuffed into a plastic bag and secreted in Yan’s luggage.  I for one don’t remember the journey down to Odessa at all.  I slept all the way through the night time part of the journey, one of the deepest and most peaceful sleeps I can remember, the rocking of the wide berth carriage and its slow progress acting on me like a perfect lullaby.  The Moscow-Odessa Express takes about twenty four hours and so we must have amused ourselves somehow on the way.

On arrival in Odessa as we had heard, there was a gaggle of little old babushkas – grannies – a grey haired vanguard of private enterprise that offered rooms on the cheap.  The gang of them was all dressed in black and touting openly for illicit business in the station ticket hall.  For us this was essential, without a visa for Odessa let alone for Ukraine there was no way of booking into the one official hotel at any price and so we quickly struck a deal.

Our chosen babushka pitched it really low – in the low singles of dollars for the night and we all set off to make ourselves at home in a single ground floor room with four beds in it that had French windows looking out into the courtyard of a once handsome, now dilapidated nineteenth century building of which Odessa is so richly endowed with, its stucco cracked and falling off in places, showing the red brick underneath.  We then set off to wander about town and later to meet up with John who was comfortably holed up in the Black Sea Intourist hotel and who managed to get us past the doorman as his guests for dinner and for a night of light cabaret entertainment, Soviet style.

Odessa is today largely an early nineteenth century city in look and feel.  Founded by official decree in 1794 by Catherine the Great it is as much her city as Leningrad is Peter the Great’s city.    There was a lot less of the concrete Soviet feel about the place, instead a more European feel, almost Mediterranean, though it is quite a long haul across the Black Sea and into the Bosporus before getting anywhere near there.

At street level Odessa had some good places to eat.  Yan and I found a great place on one of the grand boulevards where we were able to order a delicious Ukrainian, ‘got-pot’.  A ‘got-pot’ as there is no Russian or Ukrainian sensible equivalent to the letter ‘h’, which instead becomes a ‘g’, as in Gitler for Hitler, which seems wholly appropriate.  My surname becomes Golland, which led rapidly to Golly and then on to various diminutives on the theme as well as some fairly insulting derivatives as these things go and which has stuck on and off in certain circles that I try and keep up with.

It was in this restaurant, which was very basic, and which might as well have been in the nineteenth century that an old lady with a face like a walnut and a mouth lacking teeth winked saucily at me before downing in one a beaker containing at least four good fingers of what must have been a very good local vodka, as when she had swallowed the lot she gave me a beautiful, wide-grinned smile as a way of sharing the fact that she had really appreciated it.

The food in this restaurant was good.  More Ukrainian ‘got-pot’, stewed beef and potatoes in thick gravy that came in small earthenware pots.  Yan had two.

The food at the Intourist where that evening we were John’s illicit guests, with him playing the westerner and us continuing with our absurd charade of being Old Estonians, was truly appalling.  Back to the USSR – limp and greasy cold potato wedges, covered in some sort of lukewarm gravy and a gobbet of meat that just didn’t look or taste quite right.  It really wasn’t very nice at all.  The dining room was very formal, in a way that is unique to the whole Soviet experience, an experience that didn’t die with the demise of the Soviet Union, I have seen similar much more recently.  All is not lost forever.

Eating out for the Soviets was always an occasion taken seriously.  The clientele, all apart from us being Soviet citizens were decked out in their most uncomfortable looking Sunday best.  Some of them must have been down in Odessa for the holidays and it seems strange to want to get decked out in a suit, mostly brown and all synthetic for a ‘gala’ night at an Intourist hotel.  But despite its European feel, Pushkin said that in Odessa, ‘the air is filled with Europe’, and the thriving black market, Odessa was like all other Soviet cities labouring on with a system that failed to produce the goods.  There were very limited options for a night out in this city on the sea of approximately one million people. It was the same story of Moscow after dark all over again, and yet seemed more repressive as Odessa really is a European city in its layout and building styles and lacks any of the sinister Asiatic mystery that is sometimes palpable in Moscow and which somehow makes one expect and accept its dark empty streets.

On stage there was an almost comical singer with a lot of bleached ‘blond’ hair who jiggled around with the aid of a very long bright green sort of feather boa and whose most accomplished song routine was the 1998 hit Stop! By Sam Brown which she sang more than once and whose version I can still hear in my head, just as I can still picture her quite clearly and her feather boa gyrating about on stage to the taped background music.  Our fellow diners didn’t much react to the gala performance throughout most of it.  They really were on their best behaviour, bolt upright in their polyester suits and shiny ties – silver on black diagonal stripes was a popular number – their pastry faced women going through the motions of a romantic meal out with hubby in groups made up of pairs around large round tables.  It was probably the presence of the women that kept the lid on the men and their instinct to start a round or two of vodka toasting.  Russian men can be well behaved to the point of total reticence around their women, like chastised little boys trussed up in suit and tie off to church, or the scouts.

Yan and I headed back to our room, a miracle that we could find it really after our thrilling night of entertainment courtesy of John’s hard currency at the Intourist, where they did not accept roubles.  We only had roubles as we had exchanged our dollars on the black market with a stunning looking (real) blond wearing a flimsy t-shirt emblazoned CCCP, who took us back to her apartment to complete the operation at a very favourable rate to us.

~

Whereas in hard class all the way down to Odessa I had slept the dreamless sleep of the innocent, this particular night is one of the worst night’s sleep that I have ever had and I have a total, lucid recall of all of it.

There were four beds in the room, mine next to an internal door to the old lady’s kitchen, Yan’s on the other, far side of the room, with the other two occupied by permanently somnolent Georgians.

The first indication that something was amiss was the shape of the bed itself.  Immediately on lying down on it I gravitated toward the middle.  This was because the mattress had a shape like a shallow half-pipe, all support in the middle, springs, slats, must have long ago rusted and rotted away.  I also became away as I tried to get comfortable that the mattress smelled a bit off.  Not just old, but really old, damp too, with a middle tone somewhere between sweat, urine and death.  The thought came to me that the bed had at one point, perhaps quite recently, served as someone’s death bed.

At about this point as either one or both of my arms was going numb as I flailed up one or the other sides of the half pipe shape, which became more and more pronounced in my imagination as sleep eluded me, I became aware that the little old babushka, our entrepreneurial landlady for the duration of our stay in Odessa was a lot closer at hand that I had previously been aware.  While not quite as physically close as to be matrimonial she was just on the other side of the flimsy door from our bedroom to the kitchen, which in itself was adding to the overall medley of smells assaulting me.  Old soupy smells and a deadened vegetable hum joined the overall unwholesome bouquet.

Two things alerted me to her presence.  Firstly at some point just as I was finally about to drop off to sleep, at the bliss-point between being fully asleep and fully mentally alert, she called out in the night to me, so to speak, with an extraordinarily loud snore, almost cartoon character version of a snore, which was right in my ear, and that had me instantly wide awake.  This deep, happy snoring sound was set to continue all night.  I wish I had a decimeter or whatever instrument measures sound.  I am sure that I would have been able to put in a valid complaint for noise pollution to the local Soviet.

I then began to attribute the ‘seat tone’ of the overall ensemble of smells in that awful semicircular shaped chariot of the night as belonging to none other than our little old landlady.  It was far too fresh a smell to have been produced by the dead.

At some point during the night I started to lose my temper with my almost-bedmate.  Her deep caterwauling was deafening. It was like having someone impersonating a snuffling piglet as an affectionate joke right in my ear.  Had this been say, the girl in the flimsy CCCP t-shirt I would have relished the attention, but now I started to protest, quite politely at first, for her to be quiet, and then I got more heated as the night went on and she continued to deafen me. She could have woken the dead on a passing ship on the River Styx, my little sleeping beauty.

Yan and the others didn’t stir for a minute, either at the startling snoring nor at my more and more aggravated pleas for her to give it a rest, and which due to almost tearful vexation had progressed from a subdued, ‘sshh! Babushka, sshhh!’, through, ‘SSHHHUUUUUSSH! BABUSHKA! POZHALSTA! SHUUUUUSH!’, to ‘OH PLEASE SHUT THE FUCK UP WOMAN, PLEASE JUST SHUT THE FUCK UP!’

Not very polite of me.

The next day Yan enquired, somewhat huffily, what all the racket had been about.  I believe that to Yan’s mind my experience naturally balanced out his earlier crisis in Kiev and was a sort of karmic payback balancing out from his point of view the carefree time that I had been enjoying with Vika while he was in his dark place in among the concrete tower blocks.

In the morning, bleary-eyed, I was beginning to regret that I had travelled so lightly, as after a night in that bed my one t-shirt had absorbed some of the more homely scents that seeped from deep within the rank mattress and I had started to smell like something out of a crypt, or worse.  Certainly I had gone a bit stale and Yan ‘tut-tutted’ me for having insisted on travelling so lightly.

This as he changed into fresh clothes.

We were off to the beach, with John.

PART TWO FOLLOWS SHORTLY

ReDux – UnderSea

The Good Ship

I signed for a full term.

Submarine.  In the hatch one day, out of the hatch three months later.

Fun times.  Nothing to drink.  No drugs.   Both would mean Court Martial.

Nonetheless, we brewed juice, and the captain was probably aware of it.  Fairly dull juice, but a bit of a buzz, when you have three months to think about patrolling the ocean, without coming up, or coming into port.

No Port wine by the way on this ship, either to the left or the right.

This was a nuclear powered, highly militarised machine.  The correct procedure in the wrong hands would have launched nuclear missiles to virtually any town on the planet.

Which is why we sometimes wondered where the hell we were.  Navigation was basic.  Computers had less power than the very first commercially available tape-recording machines that ran BASIC.  Think of a computer in 1980.  Ours ran a fully powered, fully laden nuclear submarine, with global reach.

There was some fun.

Some.

Deep in the China Sea, way into Soviet territory, we accidentally launched a missile that was a test fire.  It had no warhead, but it was aimed at one of the main carriers of the Soviet navy, who were not happy about it.  It missed, but only after a frantic series of messages, that revealed our position, and annoyed the Soviets.

A lot.

This was ultimately the Captain’s responsibility.  However, two missiles remained in the bay, after abort and he personally inspected them.   The language scribbled over these expensive toys was imaginative.  The Captain was not amused.

Three weeks of high alert.  That is low light.  No speaking.

That and a very fast get away back to Japan, pinged by very real aggressors flying anti-sub aircraft, that just might have taken a hit at us.

Coming up was dangerous.   Three months undersea, and you arrive in Hawaii or another exotic port translates to fun.  Terrible fun, and a lot of discipline.   And clap.

And in one case a sailor waking up to find that he had been robbed.   In more ways than one.

He was a sore ass.

Call for Redux and Rebound

As part of getting R&R off the ground we are looking to publish 2 ReDux stories that will later be followed by 2 Rebounds.   Please feel free to send in your ideas here.  All copyright is fully respected.

The prize is a good percent in the overall global competition, when it launches.  A stake in the actual global return of the production company.

While 1500 word pieces are preferred, haiku is understood.

ReDux. Sofia, Bulgaria [Massages with Lucy the Lesbian]

ReDux, Sofia, Bulgaria

Massages with Lucy the Lesbian

Bulgaria is not well known outside of Bulgaria for the many things that go on in it.

It is an insular country and its people are proud.  The country is built on a corner, surrounded by Serbia and Romania to the north and Greece and Turkey to the south.  The less said about the five hundred or so years that the Turks called it home, the better, and despite or perhaps because of the ‘Yoke’ as it is referred to, the Bulgarians have a very strong, very distinct national character.  They are proud people and they are proud of their lands, especially the natural habitat, which has abundant mountains, mostly very accessible from almost anywhere within the borders.

It is not a country that is top of the list for a lot of snobbish and serious travelers perhaps, although for years there have been bucket type holidays, especially to the Black Sea coast and especially for the British and Russians that enjoy a brief summer holiday in a good summer season that is hot and on good sandy beaches.  In the main they arrive on cheap flights and stay in fairly ugly multi built concrete blocks which are rapidly spreading along the long coast.

For the average Briton or Russian, the offer is good.  Very cheap alcohol, a lot of sunshine and OK food.

Bulgaria has many other layers though.   The interior as said is blessed with accessible high mountains, good skiing in the winter and a lot of spiritual places that every Bulgarian will happily talk about, including one or two that are very strange indeed, such as an alleged invisible city that many swear exists somewhere, hidden (inevitably) in one of the many mountain ranges.

One truly eye opening festival that combines both the mountains and this sense of spirituality is the Paneurhythmy which takes places place at summer solstice in the Rila Mountains.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paneurhythmy

I have never taken part, but it does look fun, in an eat your muesli kind of way.

 

There are several famed monasteries in the mountains too, oases of a spiritual fastness that dates back hundreds of years.  The Rila Mountains are exceptional and there are others.

On a day to day basis if you prompt them a bit, especially after a glass of rakia the local form of deadly spirit, most Bulgarians will tell you even more tales of their spiritual past and their relationship with the natural world.  In fact, away from the sunny beaches, the country is virtually one big nature reserve. There are to be fair some exceptions, the odd brutal factory that you expect in a former communist industrialized country, but generally these can be easily avoided.  Best avoided is a town called, ‘Metal’, it is truly brutal and now very poor.

~

The best escape from the cheap beach holiday are the spas, some whole towns, some smaller villages, that are known for the therapeutic water that bubbles up and has been exploited for years.  Sofia, the capital is on top of a lot of naturally hot water.  There are some bad examples, but these are generally modern and pseudo-built for Party people, or nowadays the mafia.   The most established though are world class, and there are many.

My favourite is a collection of villages generally known collectively as Vellingrad which has about eighty springs that go from hot to very hot indeed.  Getting there is nice too, at least from Sofia.  Take the road to Plovdiv, an ancient Greek town with a fabulous amphitheater and a lazy coffee bar culture, and hang a right into the mountains.  The road is not much, but is a pleasure to drive along, with steep cliffs either side, lots of bends, rivers, nature all around and a train line, though I never saw a train and I guess this is the leisurely way to arrive.

The spa hotels are comfortable and there are many treatments on offer.

I liked the sauna and then dipping into the variously hot pools, which steam in winter.  My first wife went in for a chocolate inspired treatment and was thrilled for many days after about having her spiteful breasts coated in chocolate by a large woman in pseudo-medical garb.

She still dines out on the story today.

~

Outside of the spa towns there are closer to home opportunities for relaxing the body, mind and perhaps soul.

When I first met Lucy in Sofia she did not want to treat me.

Lucy is a masseuse, and a very good one.  She has treated national football teams and the national Olympic team.   She did not want to treat me though and her reason was that I have what she called. ‘The Gift’, in very heavily accented English, ‘geeeft’.  And here I became introduced to one element of Bulgarian spirituality that I don’t think most locals would consider strange.

For a start, as Lucy taught me, Bulgaria is vampire country.  Energy vampires.  Not the lot that pop into your bedroom at night and sink their teeth into your neck and leave you pale, wan and probably a vampire yourself.  No.  Energy vampires are all around us.  Your dog might be one, your boss (likely), a co-worker, even your child and quite possibly your wife.

Lucy suspected that I am one.

~

Eventually I passed the test and Lucy agreed to massage me.

I saw Lucy every weekend for about two years.  In that time she told me many interesting things and was quite open about her sexuality.  Her massage room is in a gym that also trains professional dancers and we often used to admire them together over cokes after my massage.  Lucy was a lucky girl with some of her clients, many of whom were perfectly formed females of the blossoming type, but also included a judge, several politicians, and many somewhat dangerous business men and women.

~

Winter in Sofia can be a bit trying.  The weather can be awful for those not used to really hard winters, complete with abundant snow, ice, and harsh wind from the mountains.  Sofia is also a high up capital city at 558 metres above sea level and with a big ever present mountain, Vitosha, right on the doorstep and rising to 2,292 metres.

Lucy’s room was always a sanctuary from anything that the weather was up to outside.  You arrive, you get changed – early on we established that boxer shorts stay on – and take your place on her professional table, where you lie face down with you face fit snug into a comfortable hole, in a room warmed by a fan heater and smelling of many different types of massage oils.

~

Lucy frowned a little on beer drinking prior to massage.  I can see why.  If you are foolish enough to have a Saturday beer or two before the privilege of a good massage in the hands of a spiritually inclined and physically strong professional as Lucy, you may as well be a corpse on the table.  For this is an action that is very physical, very intimate, and one that must be enjoyed, appreciated and savoured every moment.

In the hands of a professional like Lucy you are transformed.  There is no high quite like it.

~

First, you are naked but warm, because the heating is good after the cold outside.  You have about five minutes to relax, with your face in the hole.  Then Lucy comes in and asks what massage you would like.  There are several, including a painful hot stone massage that burned my tummy, but I generally went for the ‘classic’, with one of Lucy’s fabulous oil mixtures.

Then the magic starts.  Every part of the body over the course of an hour – generous by most standards – is slowly taken on a journey that leaves the mind in such free fall that gentle spiritual thoughts flower and the base hassle of dealing with everyday functions recede and recede and a real spiritual calm envelops body and mind.

I used to dribble through the hole in the table, thoroughly enjoying myself.

~

It is a two way process, and in my view one in which a great deal of respect must be shown to the master that is in control, mastering your body.  You are aware of your physical state, your meat and your bones like nothing else.  It is very intimate.  And your mind is faraway, somewhere tranquil, and believing.

When not dribbling, or snoozing on my part, we spoke.

Massage is a healing – a deep healthy thing – and in such a state of being physically there, but mentally so far, the mind begins to open.  I do therefore believe that there is a mountain in the Himalayas where there might not be dragons, but according to Lucy, an authority on the subject, there is a proto-type human race that are our forefathers genetically and that want us to evolve.  It is quite clear also that vampires exist, everywhere, and that they do not necessarily want to suck us dry, they just can’t help themselves.  A bit like small boys contemplating a pot of good looking strawberry jam.

After two years of this I also know how to spot your average vampire, and some very practical ways of keeping them at bay, not involving stakes and silver bullets.

Most Bulgarians do to, but to find all that out, you will have to visit, and if you can find her and persuade her to treat you, pay Lucy to tell you how.