ESSAYS, ARTICLES, & REVIEWS
June 30, 2006
I'm actually not sure what the date is. It could be June 29. Anyway, I'm in Sofia, Bulgaria, about to make my second Sci Fi Network movie. My first, Alien Apocalypse, was the highest-rated original movie ever for Sci Fi. Given this, I'm now working for 25% less money than the last time. Why? Because I need the job, that's why. I haven't made any films in the two years since the last film. I'm not just broke; I'm so far in the hole that my fee on this film won't even come close to bailing me out. So, I absolutely need the money. And since I do, I'm sort of willing to put up with more shit than I usually would. Or I think I would.
So, here I am in an apartment in the heart of downtown Sofia, slightly cooking in the heat—it's pretty darn hot and humid here in the summer and this apartment has no AC, as most places here don't. I'm only slightly cooking because the sun is finally starting to go down at 7:30, although it won't be all the way down until nearly 10:00. Anyway, this apartment is located right across the street from a small park, or "garden," as they say, and it's so different than America that I feel I need to write about it.
Every sort of Bulgarian is represented there: old folks, young people, couples with little kids, loners, film directors from Detroit (although I'll bet money I was the only one of those). Many people were sitting at the center of the garden drinking beer, sold from a small stand that also sold French fries and plates piled with some sort of stinky little gray fried fish, sort of like herring or smelts, I suppose, although I haven't yet tried them. Many people were drinking beer: either Kaminitza, Zagorska, or Apuaha. I personally prefer the Kaminitza, which I'm drinking right now. Next I'd take the Apuaha. The Zagorska has a metallic aftertaste, sort of like St. Pauli Girl.
It seems to me that most Bulgarians over a certain age, say 35 or 40, frown all the time. Life just seems like a bitch to them, or at least that's how I read their expressions. It's like they've seen communism, and now they've seen capitalism, and they're not impressed with either one. Both systems have failed them, left them impoverished and unfulfilled, and are worthy of nothing but bitter disdain and disappointment. But I could be wrong. Maybe they're all constipated.
The younger folks laugh and scream and party, and are probably no different than young Americans, or most young Europeans, anyway. The young folks seem to pay absolutely no attention the grimacing older folks, and why should they? The old people don't understand the modern world and have nothing to say that's worth listening to anyway.
I went out last night with two of the make-up gals who worked on Alien Apocalypse, Janna and Petya. I met them at J.J. Murphy's Irish Pub, my old hangout located directly across the street from the apartment where I previously stayed. Anyway, this was my first time venturing out of the neighborhood where I'm staying now, and not only did I have no idea where I was going, I had even less idea how to get back. So I took a small pad and a pen and copied down the name on the street sign on the corner, as well as the street sign on the main street nearby. Writing these street names out in Cyrillic was like trying to write in Chinese or Klingon.
J.J. Murphy's turned out to be exactly the wrong place to go at this moment because it's soccer headquarters in Sofia (or "football," as they say), and the World Cup matches were on—Germany versus Argentina—and the folks in the pub were hollering at the very top of their lungs at everything, goals, blocks, cool moves, commercials, you name it.
Getting there wasn't easy, either. No Bulgarian cab drivers speak any English at all. The name "J.J. Murphy's" probably sounds like "Goo-goo-gajoob" to their ears, and the second they realize they’re dealing with someone who is too stupid to speak Bulgarian they just drive off. After this occurred three times, and it also happened to be about 90 degrees and 90% humidity out, I was starting to panic and was schvitzing like I was in a sauna. I finally remembered the name of the main street near Murphy's, and also that there was one of Sofia's few Dunkin Donuts on that corner. I said to the next cab driver, "Dunkin' Donuts on Vitoshka." He thought about that for a long moment, put it slowly through his translation program, repeated back, "Dunkin' Donuts Vitoshka," I nodded and said, "Yes," he nodded and off we went. And indeed that's where he took me, then it was easy finding Murphy's.
Even though I didn't stop sweating like a pig for the next hour, Janna and Petya
thought I was an absolute scream, laughing until their faces hurt. We couldn't see the big-screen TV from where we were sitting, but every time the crowd cheered for anything, so did I, yelling shit like, "Yay, we're winning!"
Janna and I took the same cab back. With her onboard it seemed like a ten times shorter cab ride, as though the driver on the way there had taken me on the scenic route. I must admit that back when I was a cab driver I did the same thing to foreigners a few times.
There's all this banging and smashing going on directly outside my door in the second floor landing. I stepped outside barefoot to see what's up and a guy is breaking a sheet of glass into small pieces. He must be a glazier fixing a window, but being barefoot seemed like exactly the wrong way to approach the situation, so I retreated.
Also last night, after I got home, first it started to rain, then it began to hail. Soon hail was coming down the size of acorns, battering the windows so hard I thought it would surely break them, but it didn't. It was actually sort of frightening for a minute. I found out later this was not a normal occurrence for Sofia.
Bulgarian for thank you is blogadoria (or something near to that), although when I say it Bulgarians have no idea what I'm saying. Last time I was here, Bruce and I turned it into "Glob-a-dog-poo," which amused us then, and still amuses me now.
I've also come up with my own Bulgarian song—“dah” is yes and “ney” is no, based on the Police song, "Doo Doo Doo, Dah, Dah, Dah, That's All I want to Say to You," that goes, "Dah, Dah, Dah, Ney, Ney, Ney, That's all I want to say, say, say." It's infantile, but still amuses me.
What I really need is a map of Sofia with my street corner circled, which I could then show to anyone, including knuckleheaded cab drivers. In lieu of that, though, I just used the Davy Crockett method of not getting lost in a big city—the method he used when he first went to Baltimore, having never been in any kind of city before—which is to only walk in a straight line, then follow that same line home. I was looking for a change place to get some Bulgarian currency, the leva, for my dollars, but none of them were open, it being Sunday. So instead I bought another big plastic 2 liter bottle of Kaminitza beer, plus I still have half a big bottle of Apuaha ("Maha," "Ah-ha!"), so I can certainly get smashed. Not to mention that there's a beer garden located right across the street where they sell beer, French fries, and those stinky little fish in piles on styrofoam plates. The stray cats seem to love them. The fish are called “Za-za.”
In the garden, or park, as we'd say, they rent little plastic electric cars for small kids to drive around the park. Each time I see a four or five-year-old kid go driving by with a serious expression on their face, I think, "They must warn them not to leave the park and go into the street when they set off," but I just bet they don't. Everywhere but America they simply trust that you probably have a minute amount of common sense.
They have stores here all over the place here in Sofia that are basement windows in buildings at ground level. To do business with them you must get down on your knees.
There are stray dogs and cats all over the city. They must not have any sort of animal control or humane society. I saw a little kitten in the garden with the same markings as my cat Anna—all black with a white spot on her neck. Today I saw the same kitten six blocks away on a main street. Animals can clearly learn to function in a big city and cross with the lights.
The serious expressions on most Bulgarian's faces I personally find somewhat disconcerting. I passed a middle-aged woman just now who seemed like she was right on the verge of tears. And nobody looks at anyone else. Since I always look at everybody, that makes me seem strange. I must seem strange anyway because I find people looking at me. In the past week I've checked my fly ten times to make sure it wasn't open, and thankfully it hasn't been, so far.
With almost no hope of striking up a conversation with anyone, since no one speaks any English at all, I'm highly unmotivated to hang out in the beer garden, which really seems like my kind of place. Everything new has its own brand new aspect of ironic torture.
I've called nearly everybody I know, and spoken to almost no one. The time difference is particularly difficult. Bulgaria is seven hours ahead of the Eastern Time Zone, where I live; and it's ten hours ahead of the Pacific Time Zone, where the people with whom I'm working live. And I can make as many international calls as I want just so long as I use this service called Digitel. Big deal. And there's the free international phone service, Skype, which I've used exactly once. It is cool, though.
Let's just shoot this goddamn movie already!
Kes, the production designer, has ridiculed my fantasy of moving to Amsterdam, like if I wasn't a pothead obviously Bulgaria would be a better place to live (although when I offered as a second choice Barcelona, she smiled and nodded in agreement). Anyway, she's wrong about Amsterdam. Yes, it's kinda sorta like Sofia in that it's an old European city with a café culture, but Amsterdam is way livelier; far more exciting; and 99% more upbeat. No, the Dutch aren't the funniest or the friendliest people in the world, but they're the fucking life of the party compared to the Bulgarians. And it's the only place I've ever been where I don't feel paranoid at all. But in a place like this beer garden across from me, were it in Amsterdam, there would definitely be street performers, buskers, and that's a huge difference right there; as opposed to a bunch of people drinking, smoking and frowning, and serious-looking toddlers driving around in circles in little plastic cars.
In an apartment across the street a bunch of guys are blasting Bulgarian music and are loudly and passionately singing along. Could it be because it’s the Fourth of July? I doubt it.
I enjoy the fact that there is so little awareness of the USA here. They know what’s going on, but it’s nowhere near their top priority. Mention of America seemingly brings on a level of incredulousness to most Bulgarians. Americans have become inscrutable, the way the Japanese used to be viewed by Americans during World War II.
And so far I have not found one Bulgarian who believes that Ronald Reagan had the slightest little thing to do with the fall of communism, a belief my dear old dad holds firmly. I enjoy tormenting him with the ongoing results my poll.
I also like the fact that the image of Che Guevara is truly ubiquitous. My driver, Ivo, said that the most iconoclastic images he could think of were Che and James Dean: one a rebel with a cause, the other without.
So, today was the day when UFO, the film facility, became aware of the film Stan Lee’s The Harpies, which begins shooting in just under two weeks (thirteen days, actually). And they’re still shooting Lake Placid 2 until next Monday. But at least I had activity in and around my office today. And finally other people took up the inquiry into, “What do these harpies look like?” Excellent question. The really cool big museum, Boyana, won’t let us shoot there. C’est la vie, although it was a terrific location. Yet I somehow knew as we looked at it that they wouldn’t let us shoot there, it was just too nice. Actually, they would let us shoot there, but for a lot more money. [They finally did let us shoot there].
I went into a little store and asked for some Victory cigarettes, the most popular brand of Bulgarian cigarettes. The man behind the counter, who obviously didn’t speak any English at all, immediately got angry and shooed me out of the store like I was a panhandling bum. Man oh man, not even Korean, Pakistani or Arab store owners in America would do that. There’s a real pissed-off, angry streak in these Bulgarians.
I’ve been getting take-out Chinese food at a little place nearby, run by a middle-aged Bulgarian woman who speaks no English, but is actually sort of friendly. My purchase came to just over five leva and I gave her a ten, which completely freaked her out. She had to go next door to the flower shop to get change. This was at 8:30 PM. Was that her first sale of the day? I doubt it. These people would rather take less than the item costs than have to make change. And cab drivers simply won’t make change at all. What a place!
But I just bet that all the Bulgarian kids will be able to speak English. The cartoon channel here, Jetix, is all in English, even though it’s all Japanese anime´.
Every other TV channel has people dressed up in local native garb singing and dancing to Bulgarian folk songs. Then there’s another channel that’s entirely programmed with cheap documentaries about what a great place Bulgaria is. From it’s mountains to it’s seas . . .
So Pirates of the Caribbean 2 beat Spiderman’s opening day record. Nothing lasts forever, it was bound to happen sooner or later. Sorry, Sam. Still, holding the record for five years is pretty fucking amazing.
Oh, yeah, and POC 2 also has almost the exact same poster as Thou Shalt Not Kill . . . Except, with a skull wearing a red bandana.
I went to J.J. Murphy’s again last night and saw the same stray Doberman that was there two years ago. My driver, Ivo, who’s also the location manager (by default), says that the same stray dog has been in front of his apartment for thirteen years, and it’s mother was there for eight years before that.
It just occurred to me last night that Sam is making a film based on a Stan Lee character, Spiderman, and I’m making Stan Lee’s The Harpies. The only difference is that Sam’s film is 100 times more expensive than mine. Undoubtedly, though, both films will be equally as stupid.
After three weeks here in Bulgaria I’m growing very weary of the whole damn thing. It’s a drag never understanding what anyone is saying, and I find it a bit disturbing that they are constantly lapsing in Bulgarian around me, which may very well be because they’re more comfortable speaking their own language, but I can’t help but suspect that they’re at least occasionally talking derogatorily about me, or about Americans in general.
Meanwhile, I can’t smoke anymore of these fucking horrible Bulgarian cigarettes. I might very well be having the same reaction to smoking American “tailor-mades” (as they call them in New Zealand) like Marlboros or Camels. I feel like I can smoke as many American Spirit cigarettes as I want since they have no chemicals in them, and not spend my first half hour every morning coughing like 90-year-old cancer patient.
I completed my first week of shooting. I just walked across “the garden” or park, as we’d call it, to go to the nearest big market. “Big” meaning it’s not a corner cigarette and liquor store, many of which can’t hold three people at the same time. But this store is about the size of an American liquor store, yet has a bit of everything, including vegetables and fruit and freshly baked bread (which gives it a delicious aroma), but is so small that they only have kiddy-sized shopping carts for everybody. Most things you can just tell what they are by looking at them—a loaf of bread, cheese, beer, bottled water—but some things like salt and sugar, unless there’s a graphic illustration, like a spoonful of whatever it is over a steaming cup of coffee, I’m fucked. I finally found a Turkish brown sugar that had the aforementioned graphic and sighed in relief. I like brown sugar better anyway since it’s not bleached.
The fact that I generally spend between 20-30 leva apparently makes me one of the very big shoppers they ever see. Most people seemed to be buying two things, like a tomato and a bar of soap, or a small container of yogurt and an apple. Undoubtedly this is because they’re poor. As I walked back across the garden heading home, carrying four overstuffed plastic bags, containing, among other things: a half gallon of orange juice, three bottles of Kaminitza beer, as well as a two-gallon plastic bottle of water, and my shoulders and arms were straining with the somewhat heavy load, I could see people on the park benches eyeing me suspiciously, and it seemed to me they were thinking, “Why would he need so much stuff? What’s wrong with him?” Also, you know you need to buy bottled water and not drink tap water when the poorest people you see are buying bottled water.
When I go to the grocery store back in the USA, I generally spend about $50 US dollars, which would be about 75 leva. If I spent that much here everybody in the store would have dropped dead from heart attacks.
But what’s really cool here in Bulgaria is that, just like all the rest of the places I’ve been to in Europe, women walk arm in arm, young and old, and I just like seeing it. Also, here in Bulgaria you can still pet and mess up the hair of any cute little kid that passes by and not be thought of as a pervert, and people are constantly doing it. I haven’t had the guts yet myself, but I kind of always want to when I see a particularly cute little kid. In America I’d never even consider it.
I completed the shoot and I’m back home, but I haven’t yet cleared my head of Bulgaria. Here is the Bulgarian character in a nutshell: the first time you ask for anything their response is, “It’s impossible.” When you ask again, the response is an impatient, “Of course,” which is then promptly ignored. The third time you must yell it at them and then they’ll begrudgingly do it.
Oh, and the odor in the apartment building’s lobby just smelled like eastern Europe to me. It was a combination of boiled cabbage, cooking pork, and garbage. To me it smelled like Communism.
The lock on the door of my apartment was a complicated system. It took three full turns of the key to send two bolts into the floor, two bolts into the ceiling, and two more into the lock itself. It seemed like the sort of lock Charlton Heston would have in The Omega Man to keep out the zombie vampires.