Some countries have been predictable. That's not necessarily an insult. Italy gave me predictably tasty pizza eight times a day. Turkey gave me predictably amiable blokes offering me glasses of tea every fifteen seconds. On the other hand, British drivers predictably wanted to drive within millimetres of me and my panniers, the inconsiderate bell ends. Other countries though are not predictable at all. In fact the only predictable thing is that something weird is about to happen.
I'd like to do a little survey. Have you ever gone through the front doors of a single hotel to find yourself in the reception of three different hotels and then had the women in charge of their respective desks start a banshee-style slanging match with each other to win your custom? Have you ever met a boxer-sized bloke with the voice of a Monty Python woman and then, ten minutes later, an old woman with the voice of Frank Bruno, clearly the outcome of some voodooistic vocal swapover? Have you ever met a man who lives under a table by a lake for half of his life, has a penchant for plastic crowns, has an underground fridge and an electronic till - though no actual electricity - and a small, plastic dinosaur as household security? I bet you said no to each of those questions. I hope you did. Well, I experienced them all in one long weekend. Welcome to Bulgaria!
You know all you need to about the pugnacious receptionists and about Mr Helium/Mrs Barry White and so I won't bore you with the details. The real star of this story in Mario.
I stopped at a tiny café near a lake fifty kilometres from Sofia. Two blokes were sat outside together, one of whom, a bearded man of about sixty, was enjoying a beer in the sun. He turned to me and asked me if I spoke English. That was odd. That's usually my question, especially in Bulgaria for which I'm lacking an MP3 language course. When I told him that not only do I speak English but I *am* English it was as though I'd given him a sudden shot of amphetamine. He stood up and danced around. He loved England, he gushed. By this point, about twenty seconds into our conversation, I'd already worked out that this beer he was slurping probably wasn't his first of the day. It might not even have been his eighth.
He continued. "I love everything about England!" Really? The weather? Nick Clegg? TOWIE? I let it slide. Y'see, Mario is a private English teacher, among other things, and wanted to practise on me. So I sat down. He bought me a coffee. And later, after our chat, when I asked if I could take a photo of him and his mate, he told me that he had better things for me to snap. And he wasn't lying.
So we went for a walk, me with camera in hand and Mario with a hole in the back of his shorts so large that I could clearly see his royal blue, bikini-style underpants. During the warmer months, he told me, he lives in Sofia for three days and then cycles the fifty kilometres to this 'house' by the lake for the rest of the week. Later I hope it will become clear why I've crowned that word with scare quotes. But we haven't got to his 'house' yet.
First we went to the hotel and bar around the corner from the café. He showed me a painting of his that he'd presented as a gift to the owner of the hotel. It was a boat on a sea and the cunning part was that the sun was a mirror. He particularly liked that bit. He danced around a bit more. He liked dancing around.
"Look, the sun is a mirror. Look!" Yes, I've seen it.
Then he showed me his collection of windsurfing boards stored nearby. Windsurfing is his thing, y'see, and the reason why he comes to the lake. But probably also for the beer in the café.
"That's the first letter of my name, that is."
At long last we set off to his 'house'. On the way, as we walked along a country road, he told me that he would like to sing and that he was quite a good singer. But he wasn't. He launched into Rod Stewart's "We Are Sailing". If I'm honest, it's unlikely that we are going to see him in the Over 25s category of X Factor. Unless 25 is the number of bum notes you must hit per verse.
We took a turn from the road into dense woods, then down a steep banking towards the lake. "All these houses are illegal," he pointed out. We walked along a narrow path. "And here it is!" Guarding the entrance was a miniature pirate flag and a small, plastic brontasaurus.
As good as a guard dog.
OK, I thought, that's completely normal. And then we entered what I guess might be called his living room. Except that we didn't really because his house had no doors or walls or a roof or any of the things that a house usually has. What it did have was a washing line pegged with various tattered garments, a collection of tables containing the stuff that charity shops would sift and discard from their donations and a big mat, all sitting on a bit of flattened earth about ten metres up from lake shore. The assorted junk included a plastic telephone, a pretend musket and, obviously, a full-size till. "There's no electricity or running water here," he said, as though this was some sort of explanation.
"Don't forget your receipt. Oh, I'll have to plug it in. Have you got an extension lead?"
Descartes is the father of modern philosophy because he questioned the limits of what we can know. How do I know that what is happening is really happening? I could be asleep, for example. It could all be a dream. This thought occurred to me too that afternoon. If this was a dream, it was definitely a cheese dream. This was utter stilton!
Mario ran through the highlights of his abode like an estate agent hoping for a sale. He ordered me to take a photo as each feature was unveiled. I obliged, only too happy to document these events, if only to prove to myself tomorrow that they really happened.
Next to the aforementioned mat on the floor was a table. "I sleep on the mat when the weather is nice. When it's bad I sleep here." He crawled under the table exposing even more of his arse and switched on a little radio to show the entertainment system contained within. "Lovely," I said. Music was clearly important to him. He tows a small inflatable containing his radio behind him while windsurfing so that his toons aren't submerged even if he is. That's quite a good idea for a madman. I can imagine him breezing along in the summer gusts engulfed by the mellifluous tones of Patsy Cline's "Crazy".
Mario gives a tour of the master bedroom.
Then he showed me his fridge. Remember, there's no electricity. This was another mat, under which was a lid, under which was a polystyrene box containing bottles of water, bits of fruit and vodka. He threw me an apple. It was pretty cold. His fridge was an environmentalist's dream. Even if it was Aggie MacKenzie's nightmare.
"I also have a freezer but it's on the top of that mountain over there."
Next up was a small cupboard where he kept his valuables. It contained, he said, his ID. He opened it up. It also contained a soft porn calender. I'm assuming that the porn calendar wasn't his ID otherwise he looks pretty hot with his shirt off.
"What do you mean I look nothing like my passport photo?"
Finally, he reached into the pocket of a suit jacket - for, yes, one such jacket hung from the washing line, obviously for when he was entertaining - and removed two novelty hats, one a pirate's (he clearly liked the pirate thing) and the other a small plastic crown. He modelled them both for me. As I focussed my lens on an old man with a drunkenly crooked smile and a golden, plastic crown lopsided on his head, I wondered if I might have chosen a sachet of something other than honey for my toast from the hotel buffet that morning. A sachet of LSD perhaps.
King Lear or 'King Mental?
It was all over. The demonstration was complete. In truth, Mario came across as a complete nutjob. But I've got to admire a man of advancing years who cycles a hundred kilometres each week and spends his nights under the stars, or under a table - whether that's the table in his 'house' or the hotel bar - just so that he can pursue his passion for windsurfing. As with other people I've met recently, he's living a - erm, let's call it - different life but he's clearly enjoying himself. Mario is utterly, glue-sniffingly bonkers and yet, in reality, he isn't bonkers at all. The really bonkers person is the bloke sat in his office, staring out of the window, wishing he was somewhere on a lake rather than preparing this bloody spreadsheet.
I like it that the world has Marios and I like Bulgaria by extension. I'll be very sad to leave this country tomorrow. These six days have been a lot of fun. So, guard your house with freebies from Jurassic Park Happy Meals if you like, maintain a collection of novelty plastic headwear if you must, sleep under a table if you have to but please indulge your passion, whatever it is. Good luck to you, Mario, you utter fucking fruitcake!