Saturday, March 12, 2011

Still Reeling From Rila

Three days in a Bulgarian monastery taught me something that should have been totally obvious beforehand:  I don’t do well in isolation.  I can’t say that my sequestration in the Rila Monastery was a total nightmare.  It’s a divine place of beauty, and I felt privileged to be among such devout men of God.  But there were some quiet, lonely moments in there that brought me to the brink of something I can’t fully describe.  Were I pressed to assign it a word, I suppose it would be:  nuttiness.  (Is that a word?)[i]


I don’t know why, but it seems like every time I prepare to get down to some serious writing, distractions find their way in and stick to me like plastic wrap.  I spent Day One completely consumed by one such distraction:  a book called The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao which earned the author, Junot Díaz, a Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2008.  I picked it up in a hostel book exchange back in Poland, and then mailed it to myself in Bulgaria, figuring it’d be worth the postage to find out what it takes to win a Pulitzer nowadays.  I cracked it open on the bus ride up and by nightfall had reached the epilogue.  I read straight through the day, pausing only once to eat dinner.  Then I went to bed in tears, knowing I could never write like Junot Díaz.

But still I awoke the next day ready to continue my quest to produce something of merit.[ii]  I sat at the desk in my room, plugged in my laptop, and got down to work.  First, I made a “definitive” outline, as opposed to all the other “just-regular” outlines I’d created in the past.  Next I laid down a plan that will have me completing a good, first draft of the book within the next sixty days.  Because God knows I can’t make a move in this life without first writing out a detailed plan.

The best rainbow trout in the world.
Meanwhile, the only source of food during my visit to the monastery lay just outside its gates in a restaurant somehow loosely connected to it.  I ate all my meals there, which I welcomed, since it was also my only source of contact with people in and around the monastery.  The people in the restaurant didn’t speak English, so I spent mealtimes writing in my journal.

I never let anyone read what I write in my journal.  But I’ve decided to make an exception here.  I think these excerpts will give you a pretty good glimpse into what happened up in Rila:

March 9

I don’t know what to do about washing my hair.  This is the first time on this entire trip that I don’t have a hair dryer.  I suppose I could wait until tonight to wash it, but I hate going to bed with a wet head.  Maybe if I wash it just after curfew it will dry by bedtime.  At least there’s heat in the room—thank God!  But that bed is a backbreaker.  I’ve never seen a metal-spring cot like that.

* * *
I don’t understand about the Rila Monk.[iii]  If he slept in a cave in the mountains out here, how did he get food?[iv]  And speaking of which, why aren’t the monks selling their homemade Bulgarian donuts?  Not that I need them, but they had them when my Spanish friends were here last week.

March 10

I’m in a real pickle out here.  I can’t wash my hair because the water’s too cold.  My hair is totally greasy and the baby powder I put in this morning didn’t seem to help.  I suppose I could just bite the bullet tonight and then towel dry it.  The waiter just served me sheep’s yogurt with honey.  Now that’s what I’m talking about.



* * *

Last night I got summoned to the monk’s office finally.  I heard a loud knock on the door at 7:00 p.m.  It was dark by then and it really startled me.  It was my Bulgarian neighbor.  I’m not sure what he’s doing here.  He rode the bus from Sofia with me with a duffle bag and a 3-gallon jug of what looked to be chocolate milk.  I’ve never seen him in the restaurant, so he must have had the foresight to pack in supplies.  I just thank God everyday for this restaurant; otherwise, I’d be three days without coffee and then I’d really go more nuts than I already have.  Weird dreams both nights.  Maybe a little too much introspection.
* * *

I saw pickle-sized jars of something at the little souvenir shop up front and thought it was the Bulgarian yogurt that I heard the monks are supposed to be selling up here.  I picked one up and suppose I should have known it wasn’t yogurt from how much it weighed.  I paid 10 leva—or about $7—and brought it back to my room only to discover that it’s a jar full of honey.  It’s kind of frozen solid too.


* * *
I’ve run out of toilet paper in my room and am afraid to ask the monk for more.  I saw that there’s a public WC downstairs so I’m going to go over and steal a bit.  I mean, it’s not stealing because I’m sure a sufficient supply of toilet paper is included in the price.  It’s just that no one speaks English and the last thing I want to do is charade “toilet paper” to a monk.
* * *

Last day, thank God—no pun intended.  Last night was miserable.  I’m not one for isolation.  I have never felt so much panic about the future.  Meanwhile I went to the public WC on the ground floor and, of course, no toilet paper.  I’ve been having to use the rest of my REI stash plus napkins from the restaurant. 

March 11

I feel bad about the other kitty—the black-and-white one.  I was petting her and then had the idea to lure her into my room where she’d be a little warmer.  She followed me all the way to the door but I chickened out at the last minute because I was afraid some monk might be watching out a window somewhere.  I had to shut the door on kitty’s face, and it just about broke my heart.[v]

* * *

I found a mountain trail and started up yesterday.  I got kind of high up but thought, better turn around.  What if I got lost?  No one in the world would know where I was, and by the time anyone would figure it out, I’d be frozen stiff.  Speaking of which, I finally figured out about the hot water.  I was supposed to flip the switch on the metal barrel on the wall—I guess it’s a water heater.  Finally washed my hair but forgot to put gel in it and now it’s wild.  But at least it’s clean.  Sometime last night the heat went off in the room and now all my neck and arm muscles hurt from shivering and tensing up with the blankets. 
* * *

Thank God for another thing.  I almost forgot that I had hidden my money belt with my passport and bankcard inside my pillowcase.  Can you imagine?  The good news is, I think I’ve made serious progress.  Chapter One has always been the hardest and I think I will be able to finish today.  And it might even be good.[vi]

* * *
I still need to make time for reflection, though I think I’ve done quite a bit.  I wonder how well that monk understands English.  When he handed me the form to fill out, there was an entry for “purpose of visit;” I wrote “reflection” and then “tourism.”  What must he think of me?  All I do is walk around petting the animals, when I’m not sitting in my room, or sleeping, or eating in the restaurant.  To think I wanted to stay here a month.[vii]  I’d completely break.  What if some calamity’s struck and I don’t even know about it?  I think I now know what it’s like for people who live in remote places with no internet or television, or any news of the outside world.  It’s horrible.[viii]

End of journal excerpts.  


Now can you see why I never let anyone read my journal?


I did have other, more solemn conversations during my time in the monastery.  But those I will keep private.  Just between me and The Man Upstairs.


[i] According to Merriam-Webster, it is.
[ii] Or even just something “of note.”
[iii] St. John of Rila (or St. Ivan, if you’re Bulgarian), the patron saint of the Bulgarian people.
[iv] I just looked on Wikipedia and it looks like St. John sometimes had visitors who brought him food.
[v] I call her the “other kitty” because there were two kitties (as well as three dogs) living at the monastery.  The first kitty sat outside the restaurant waiting for scraps, which I gave freely throughout my visit.  (Hope that was okay.)  The other was the black-and-white one mentioned.   This one hung around inside the monastery walls.  And truth be told, I also had a less-altruistic reason for trying to lure kitty in:  frankly, I was desperate for the company.

[vi] I finished a draft of Chapter One of my travel memoir.  I think it is good.  Not Junot Díaz good, but still, good.  By the way, Junot Díaz makes liberal use of footnotes in his book.  Hence.

[vii] I didn’t learn until I reached Bulgaria that the Rila Monastery has a three-night maximum stay.  This has freed up some time for me to tackle Greece, possibly.  In my spare time, that is.


[viii] When I arrived back in Sofia Friday night, I immediately checked the internet to find out what was happening in the world.  I did learn, sadly, that calamity had indeed struck Japan.   And though I’m embarrassed to admit it, I looked up the latest on Charlie Sheen.  I then rounded out the evening by watching four back-episodes of The Daily Show online before falling asleep amid other people.  All strangers, but still.