14 June 2012

Our Unexpected Vacation

We bought flip flops.  If someone had shown me a photo of Balchik before we went, I would have thought it was a dull, industrial port town.  Somehow, it is and it isn't.  We fell into our seaside days with a sudden rush of excitement and energy that took us by surprise - Balchik is wonderful, it was a pleasure we felt we shouldn't be having, it was a mess of ugly buildings and murky water, cement by the black sea and... fishing boats, bathing suits, grilled seafood, evening breezes and easygoing charm.  We started calling it our accidental vacation, but unexpected is really a better word.  We never plan on spending days like this, so they feel even better when they appear out of the blue.
We bristle when we're asked if we're "on holiday."  Our lives sometimes seem too good to be true - and we try, as much as we can, to have fun.  But traveling for years isn't a vacation, it's not easy.  We long for a break - this isn't something that's easy to say to everyone, but it's true.  Life on the road is lonely and mostly bleak.  Vulnerability is a constant.  We struggle every morning to remember exactly where we are.  The languages shift, the mood shifts, we have to greet strangers at every turn.  Things get stolen.  People stare at us or yell at us.  Finding something interesting every day is exhausting.
This is why we sometimes feel ourselves bracing against "vacation."  If we're enjoying ourselves too much, it somehow seems escapist or unreal.  Sure, we're usually in places where people spend their holidays, but that doesn't mean we aren't working while we're there.
In Balchik, on a narrow stretch of boardwalk along the Black Sea, we succumbed to happiness.  We were ensnared as soon as we caught sight of the water.
Balchik is unlovely, as far as small beach towns go.  But then again, it has its own yellow and blue beauty, a kind of shoreline sweetness that isn't a product of buildings or history.  Its the spirit of the place that felt uplifting, an intermingling of sun and tourism that made us feel we could be happy as long as we cast off our t-shirts and lay down on the sand with everyone else, gorged on grilled blue-fish, drank inexpertly-mixed cocktails and gave ourselves over to the meeting of water and limestone.  It worked.  A few hours after crossing the border we were loving Bulgaria and its people, our fellow tourists, the purity of the light, the lapping water.  We were suddenly on vacation!
Balchik hasn't been blessed with a naturally beautiful coastline.  What is there?  Nowadays, a jumbled line of pressed-cement tetrahedrons protecting the shore from erosion.  A few manmade beaches, some cement piers for swimming.  There's a harbor with three cranes and many uniformed guards.  There are fishing boats and a botanical garden, sunbaked soil and heat-hardened undergrowth, rampant construction, helicopters making their clamorous way down for practice landings on the docks.  There's a pretty backcloth of limestone that glows yellow in the evening light, some planted lavender, many roses.  There's a lively stretch of waterside restaurants and a slow-moving crowd of diners strolling among them in bathing suits and sandals.
In truth, Balchik was to be the beginning point of a long, westerly line drawn across Bulgaria.  It had seemed like a good jumping off point because it was at the eastern end of things and promised less resort-bustle than Varna or Albena.  It was just another town to plan for, the kind of place that looks like a point on the map before it swims into view.
But how easy it is to forget: catching sight of the sea makes any traveler's heart jump!  There it was, after hours of yellow and green, slowly shifting gears, drowsy passengers on an early morning bus.  It wakes you up, that first glimpse of the water, and makes you realize that traveling isn't about re-tracing cartography.  It's about arriving somewhere.
On the land to the west of town - unseen from shore, Balchik squarely faces the water - are endless fields, neatly plowed.  The region has been a bread basket for centuries, and wheat gave Balchik it's first identity.  Before tourism, this was where the Bulgarian and Romanians sent their grain out over the Black Sea.  Hulking remnant remain - huge silos by the beach and a large mill and trading complex, now sun-bleached and vacant looking.  As holiday makers came, the focus turned to swimming pools and hotel beds.  An old, salt-corroded sign by the beach pointed the way to water skiing, a discotheque and "shopping center."  The sign was probably put up with some hope.  There is none of that in town.
There was sun and plenty of barstools, pretty evening light and beach-reddened people.  We swam, though the water wasn't great, and drank, though the cocktails were weak and basic.  After the first day, we took off our shoes and bought sandals.  Not long after, we decided to lie on the sand.  Hours passed, the weekend energy ebbed as people took naps after lunch, then surged as they went out looking for dinner.  There were three nights booked at the hotel.  Balchik's sights don't take much longer than half a day to see.  Why not take a little vacation?  After all, we were already there!

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