Early in the year I received a letter from a Bulgarian mathematician who invited me to a conference in applied mathematics and computer science. At the time I was flattered but confused. Why me? But I agreed in principle to deliver a lecture on a subject of my choice and thought no more about it. Then as the time approached I tried to find out more. It wasn't even clear to me that the conference would continue, in light of the NATO bombing of Kosovo, just a few miles from Sofia, the capital. But, on minimal information it seemed that there would be a conference, after all and that I should arrive with a registration fee in cash in US dollars. (Sounds like a money laundering operation, not a conference. As it turns out it was both.) I managed to get a friend and colleague from the College to join me, and off we went into the unknown.
Getting off the plane in Sofia we were assaulted by thirty-something degrees and high humidity. A bus collected us from the plane and drove us thirty metres to the airport terminal, which was shabby with the kind of exquisite dullness which befits a former communist regime. Then, after a nervous passage through passport control (no one could quite agree on whether we needed a visa or not) we proceeded through the exit into a sea of people in the exit hall. It was as though half of Bulgaria had crowded into the cramped little exit hall. It hardly seemed likely that we would find anyone to meet us in such a confusion, but luck prevailed and I caught sight of a think pink strip with the letters "Applied mathematics and CS". There was already quite a group waiting, so the welcome face directed us to change money, maybe fifty dollars, he said as casually as he could manage. As it turns out, it would prove impossible to spend that much money. And the Bulgarians don't change money back...
I think we waited in the hot sun for an hour before being herded into taxi cabs, two-by-two, bound for the train station. It was a half-hour journey through town, through over trafficked streets and past ancient rattling trams. The train station was a huge rectangular concrete block, full of communist symbolism. A new reception party guided us to the ticket office and pushed us blindly onto a train bound for Plovdiv, Bulgaria's second largest town. From there it was a gruelling two and a half hour journey in the humid heat of early evening, and a fight to keep the train windows open for air. Since all signs in Bulgaria use the Cryllic alphabet, we had no idea where we were. In fact it took most of the journey to decipher the symbols to rewrite Plovdiv in Cryllic, before perhaps the only English-speaking person on the train told us that it was the next stop. From there, it was off again to a new reception committee. This time is was a couple of blokes with a van, presumably employees or friends/family of employees of the university. It was dark now, and we were piled in groups of eight into the little eight-seater van. Then it would screech off into the night, dodging cars and obstacles at high speed to deposit a group at the Technical University of Plovdiv, before returning to transport another group. Thus were were brought to our next destination, where registration would begin.
If you're thinking that this sounds like an ordeal, think again. That was about to begin. It certainly set the standard for our visit, but nothing could parallel the procedure of registration itself. The conference was administered by four Bulgarian women, one rather shy, helpful girl and three older women with limited English skills, and a propensity for hysteria. Checking in was a bit like a trip to Faulty Towers. "First you should go to the fifth floor to register. No wait! Eat dinner first. Many people. Eat dinner first. Yes! Dinner! Now register! How you filled in form? No? Sit down! No there! There! Must fill out form! Wait! This form! Sit down!" We filled out the details which they already had and received a copy of the proceedings. Then it was "Why you standing? Why you making trouble? Sit down! Have you pay? You must pay! Wait! Hotel voucher! Pay now!" Well, we did finally arrive at our hotel, after another rally through dark streets. One of the visitors had his hotel voucher snatched away right after he got it and it was replaced with another one. "Something wrong with water in this hotel!" he was told. Downstairs he was told: "Nothing wrong with water, just those women upstairs!"
At the hotel, we were drilled in front of a reception desk and our passport details were recorded. Then it was up a highly suspect elevator to the sixth floor of what appeared to be some kind of student dorm. The room was inhabited by a variety of wildlife, including beetles and a multi-legged thing with long tentacles which patrolled the toilet basin. The water was cold (fine since it was about 30 degrees outside). Only the bathroom light worked. The beds firm but possible to sleep on. In spite of everything, I slept quite solidly.
The morning greeted us with a hazy blue sky, cloudless and threatening. We managed to intuit our way back to the University, although there were no directions provided. Good thing I was paying attention when we were driven there. There we ate a breakfast of ham and goat's cheese (both very good) with bread and tea. The food at the conference was very tasty and nicely prepared, but something, whether it was the water or something else, would later turn my bowels into a pressurized water reactor. After breakfast we saw the program committee for the first time, all lined up along a podium like the Polit Bureau. The conference was opened with great if amateurish ceremony, with a speech by the man in charge of the Technical University. He stared up at the ceiling, as if guided by heaven itself and delivered an aggressive, powerful speech about how the university consisted of four buildings and that we were welcome, translated by an underling. Later the committee confused everyone by demanding speeches and a round of ritual humiliation for each participating country, one representative of which was expected to take the podium and say some words about their country to all the participants. Then finally the talks were underway.
The program for the conference was a closely kept secret until the last possible minute. On speaking to the other attendees, it seemed clear that nobody really knew why they were invited, or what was really going on. Presumably the ministry of information was censoring on a need to know basis. So we wandered from talk to talk with a general air of confusion. Unfortunately, the Technical University was located in probably the ugliest part of Plovdiv, an ugly concrete jungle, surrounded by dilapidated flats. The only thing which was not an eyesore was the scores of Bulgarian girls, virtually all of whom looked like well-dressed, long legged super-models and acted accordingly. Probably only the general heat-apathy prevented us from loping after them like the multitudes of stray dogs which roam the streets.
English is not widely spoken in Bulgaria, and even the body language is foreign. Shaking your head means yes, and nodding means no. This can be very confusing, especially in a crucial moment. Fortunately I was lucky enough to become acquainted with three Polish, Russian speakers who were able to understand enough and make themselves understood. And, apart from anything else, they were also extremely nice people who made the conference worthwhile. One was a researcher in artificial intelligence at Toronto, with an interest in the history of the PC, having inherited a palaentology gene from his mother. Number two was the daughter of number three, who was visiting the conference and taken an extended holiday in Bulgaria. We spent a lot of time in cafes talking rather than attending the talks at the conference.
It would have all turned out very nicely if I hadn't then fallen ill with an explosive food poisoning. This was timed, naturally, to coincide with my talk. Though I have to admit that, by this time, I had basically given up on my talk. It seemed like a waste of time, since there would be no-one interested in it. As it turns out, this was also wrong. There were a few people interested in the talk, which meant that I was both badly prepared, with the wrong talk for the wrong audience, and clutching on to my explosive bowels to boot. I used some old slides from my Boston talk about computer immunology. As it turns out, my slide about (coincidentally using stomach aches as an example) did merit a few laughs. By now, several others had also succumbed to the pressurized water syndrome. At least then it was over.
On the day before leaving there was a conference dinner. This turned out to be the highlight of the conference in fact, a very pleasant evening. I only wish that I could have stayed longer, but it was difficult not being able to eat any food, running to the bathroom every five minutes and but wanting to get to know people and pretending to be jolly. For some perilous reason, toilet paper is not standard issue in Bulgarian toilets, but you can buy a few squares on the way in to the washrooms, for a modest fee. This did not go down well with my often urgent excursions to the bathroom! There was live music, something Turkish or Arabic, or maybe even Bulgarian, I'm not sure. It was a very nice atmosphere.
Later that night I felt the hotel moving from side to side. At first I thought it was my head, still full of red wine, or maybe my stomach full of pressurized fluid, but then I realized that it was the hotel itself swaying unevenly from side to side for about a minute in the early hours of the morning. Later we heard that there had been a major earthquake in the neighbouring land of Turkey and we were getting the tail-end of it. Strange sensation. But judging from the look of our hotel, I'm glad that the epicentre wasn't closer. I don't think it would have been one of the buildings to survive.
The next morning we took the bus back to Sofia and the plane home to Norway. It's quite a shock to the system to retire from a small bubble of reality which is so different to normality. It's a shock to the system to go in, but far more of a shock to withdraw again. It becomes like a drug, an addiction. The boredom of everyday life is suddenly thrust open you once again. It takes a little while to recover. Hence my therapeutic letter. So much for Bulgaria and all of its incredibly beautiful women. If I remember one thing about it, it would have to be that. And now, it's back to the grind.