After ten months of whining that I wasn’t exercising after years of regular gym attendance, I finally walked into the Sportna Palata, the pool and fitness center attached to the Ministry of Physical Education and Sports building, and turned myself over to personal trainer Plamen. Other than a few weeks here and there, for the rest of our stay I went five days weekly to the basement gym. It was just a ten-minute walk away and I felt I was in the best shape of my life—largely due to the fact that I wasn’t left to my own devices and Plamen deftly contrived an ever-changing fitness program.
The fitness center at the Sportna Palata does not have the most luxurious surroundings or the latest equipment, but the staff is made up of knowledgeable and warm professionals and the atmosphere couldn’t have been friendlier. That is, in the fitness center itself.
The expansive locker room above the fitness center has banks of showers, a wonderful sauna, one squat toilet, one quiet cleaning woman/attendant who is fond of needlepoint, and one not so quiet cleaning woman/attendant who did not like the fact that I used the locker room to change into my fitness gear. Perhaps a week or two after I started, she came to me and asked if I was using the pool. I said no. She then questioned why I was changing in the “pool” changing room. I assured her that I had paid for the fitness center. “Oh no,” she asserted, “they have nothing to do with us. There is a changing room there.”
Well, that’s true in a manner of speaking, but the basement changing room is simply a closet with a curtain, less than ten lockers, and not even one squat toilet. So I explained that I preferred changing in the larger room, using the one toilet in the entire building and then taking all of my belongings downstairs. She retreated. After somewhat nervously confirming with Plamen my right to use the upstairs locker room, I felt better. For sometime after, I was happy to see that the attendant ignored me when she saw me there during her shift.
Weeks passed and then, as if all was new, she approached me in the locker room and asked if I was using the pool. This time, I felt assertive and, looking deliberately around at the nearly empty room, asked if I was bothering anyone. “Oh no, of course not,” she was quick to answer. And didn’t I have the right to use the toilet?, I asked. “Of course, there’s only the one,” she reassured. I take all my belongings downstairs, I pointed out, and I change back into my street clothes there as well. Was I causing a problem?, I challenged. “No, no, of course not,” and she backed away.
At that point, she started a sweetness campaign that baffled me, greeting me the next time with “Hello little dear, how are you?” and using the familiar form of “you” that is used only between relatives, friends and colleagues. Over the coming days, the sweetness campaign progressed to greetings of “My little one, little golden one.” Upon Sportna Palata’s re-opening after a two-week summer closing, I entered to find her waiting with open arms as if to hug me and I instinctively stepped aside, though normally I strive to be as polite as possible.
My husband contends this approach is a form of manipulation, used particularly by those guardians of the gates (e.g., porters, security personnel, attendants) who feel they justify their presence in their positions by zealously exerting control. His cousin suggests that this is the way a person of relatively low status “feeds the soul.” The control and/or soul-feeding continued. The saccharine applied intensified as the week progressed. By the end of the first week back, she was positively a fan, “I’m filled with admiration for you, you come so regularly.” This continued, addressing me as “daughter” even as she assiduously searched for opportunities to admonish me—for washing my hands with the bar of soap left on the sink by the toilet, for letting my bare feet touch the floor while I changed, (Q: “How can I take off my pants otherwise? A: You put your ass on the bench.) and other sins.
There is no smoking allowed in the building, which is used particularly for the large pool and the swimming classes for all ages. And so what seemed like the entire Sportna Palata cleaning/attendant staff, men and women alike, smoked like fiends just outside the door of this building dedicated to healthful activity while children scrambled in and out. My son began going to swimming lessons shortly before he turned five and my daughter joined a class for older children some months later; the quality of the teaching staff was excellent and both children made great progress. To get to the fitness center in the basement, I had to walk along the length of the Olympic-size pool. It was always a treat to see a group of young girls training for their synchronized swimming team while their coach beat out a rhythm with a rod or eager pre-schoolers in the small rear pool dedicated to beginning swimming lessons.
Having finished swimming—be it laps or lessons or synchronized training—it was apparently a requirement to blow dry one’s hair. There is something indescribably sweet seeing grandfathers and fathers assiduously blow drying their young children’s hair in the unshakable belief held by all Bulgarians I have ever met that no matter the season or temperature cold and flu viruses immediately target, in the manner of heat-seeking missiles, anyone with wet hair, and thereupon immediately strike without mercy.
Of course, not everyone has the time, resources or inclination to go swimming or to a fitness center. But Bulgarians believe strongly in the constitutional, the physical and mental benefits of a walk. Let’s take a walk, let’s walk there, no matter that we’re early or s/he is late—we’ll walk around. It’s an airing out, it’s getting the kinks out of your legs, it’s clearing your head, it’s time for food to digest, and it’s an opportunity to talk to friends. Everyone loves to walk. I have to go pick up my daughter at school—no problem, I’ll walk with you. You don’t know where that is?—we’ll take a walk and I’ll show you. National Geographic’s July 1980 article observed that “everywhere in the country—it is practically a national pastime—Bulgarians walk.”
Nicely paired with the value of the walk is the cult of “clean air.” Many locations rise and fall in Bulgarian estimation depending on the assessment of the air’s cleanliness. In the late 19th century, beloved Bulgarian writer Aleko Konstantinov founded the Bulgarian tourist movement with calls to “Sofia lovers of nature” to re-energize themselves physically and mentally by climbing Mount Vitosha. Mountain air is lauded for its clean air, critically important for physical and mental health. Mountain hiking is a strong part of the national ethos. But even in Sofia, even on the coldest winter days, windows in homes and offices will be repeatedly opened for “clean air.” Different neighborhoods will be valued according to their reputation for having more or less clean air. With no apparent irony, even passionate cigarette smokers (Konstantinov was among them) often use weekends to flee the cities for the mountains’ health-giving clean air and then light cigarettes as they sit peacefully at the summit.
Considering his plea to get out of the city for one’s health, Konstantinov might have been surprised to find that Sofia has been proclaimed the European Capital of Sport 2018. I hope the cleaning woman at Sportna Palata is prepared for the influx into her domain.