Imagine you’re shooting a story about a woman whose job it is to watch porn all day, and you find yourself in the middle of Bulgaria at an antique shop full of Soviet-era tchotchkes. From the corner of your eye, you spot a communist-red, 5-foot tall decommissioned missile with a $53 price tag. And imagine that you, like me, love a good souvenir. So you throw down some Bulgarian Lev, the proprietor writes up a receipt for customs and you wait for your translator to pull the van up to the store because you can’t just walk down the street with a missile.
Part I: The Souvenir
Let’s be clear, just in case anyone from Homeland Security is reading along — this is a story about an antique. A decommissioned missile used for training by the Soviet military. Not unlike a Civil War-era musket, or a set of ancient samurai swords. My big red missile is a souvenir that would look great standing tall beside some fireplace at a rustic home in Northern Italy I’d like to think I’ll live at as an old man.
For now, though, my new missile was stretched out across the backseat of our translator’s minivan — buckled up, for safety. We drove for a while along a highway surrounded by sunflowers. Long enough for that new missile smell to wear off a bit, and for the logistics of getting this thing home to feel less surmountable. Just in case we never saw the missile again after that day, we pulled off the road to get a photo with the it in the sunflower fields.
But for whatever reason, while walking through those big flowers, my pants tore down the entire length of my thigh. On both legs.
Part II: The Hotel
We stayed at the Radisson Blu in the middle of Sofia. It had a nice view of some official-looking buildings, a statue and a big roundabout.
The route back to my room was simple enough. From the entrance I just needed to get through the lobby, past the check-in counter and into one of the elevators. But it was crowded that day, my pants were totally ripped up and did I mention I had a large, bright red missile?
But clearly those weren’t enough awkward hurdles, because while I was unbuckling the missile from the back seat of the van, a Coke bottle slipped out, shattered at my feet and a piece of glass shot into my thumb. Now I’m bleeding heavily from a gash between my thumb’s knuckles that may or may not still have glass in it.
Pants torn, bloody and with a 5-foot missile on my shoulder, I hustled through the lobby of the Radisson Blu without turning my head away from the elevators. I could see people double-take from my periphery, as you or I would’ve done ourselves if we saw whatever the hell I was in this moment enter the hotel.
I stood in the elevator with an older British couple. They stood quiet and polite as we waited for the slow ride up to our rooms. The man spoke finally just before their exit.
“’Mate, I hope I’m not on your flight.”
Once I made it to my room, I laid the missile down on my bed, as you do, and went to the bathroom to figure out the thumb situation. The gash had a big lump in it, like glass wedged under skin, just beyond site. But I wasn’t crazy enough to go in there looking for it.
Part III: The Hospital
Bulgaria, like most developed nations, has a national health-care system. So my entire visit to the hospital cost about $12. Unfortunately, this didn’t include an x-ray and stitches.
Two nurses started in on my thumb. They rubbed coarse, balled up paper towels across the wound like they were trying to get out a stain. The doctor arrived, a Russian guy with an odd sense of humor that felt sadistic in context. He asked what my name was, and according to my translator who waited beside me, the doctor assumed I was German. I guess this Russian still didn’t like Germans very much.
In broken English, the doctor told me that an x-ray was unnecessary. He rested the sides of his thumbs on either side of the gash on my thumb and pressed down. My thumb opened like an opera singer’s mouth in a yawn.
When someone pulls your thumb apart without warning, you don’t really have time to feel it. You just know it’s a weird moment and you look to others for confirmation. I turned to my bright-green translator and realized that this was the first time I actually saw a person turn green. Confirmation.
I turned back and could clearly see there was no glass in my thumb.
I paid my $12, and the nurse handed me a prescription for bandages and disinfectant. As I look down at the jagged scar on my left thumb now as I tap this story into my iPhone’s Notes app, I regret not pushing harder for stitches.
Part IV: Getting the Missile Home
I didn’t. It’s still in Bulgaria.
My translator tried several shipping companies. He even knew a guy that worked at one. That guy said that he couldn’t even mail a photocopy of this missile to the States.
I can still imagine that glorious souvenir, the perpetual conversation starter, standing tall in whatever rustic home I live in when I’m and old man. But for now, I‘ve got to settle for a crooked scar on my thumb and an amazing photo with a missile and some sunflowers.
But that’s enough about missiles. Click below to see a couple films we shot during our otherwise lovely visit to Sofia.