Near thing in Sofia

« previous post | next post »

I did the stupidest thing in Bulgaria. I bought a new wallet. Never do that on a foreign trip. See if you can figure out why before you read on. (And yes, of course there's a linguistic angle.)

The old wallet was a bit small, and stuffed with extra credit cards I wasn't planning to use in Sofia, and now it had to take bills of another currency, the Bulgarian lev. And there was a nice leather wallet for sale, quite cheap, at a stall on the street for just 7 lev &mdsh; not much more than five bucks. I made an impulse buy. It'll do fine as my new wallet. I put my Bulgarian currency and my ATM card into it straight away.

Early on the morning of my departure things went well. I figured out how to set a radio-controlled alarm clock (locked onto Edinburgh time) so that it woke me correctly at 5 a.m. Bulgaria time (3 a.m. in Edinburgh). I verified from a checklist that I had everything with me before leaving the room. The taxi arrived promptly, and after getting in I performed the ritual of touching my passport one more time to make sure it was there. It was. I left for the airport just before 5:30, in a downpour. When we got there, the meter showed just under 20 lev (around $15). I had exactly 22 lev left. I gave all of it to the taxi driver, who thanked me, and walked into the airport terminal with no Bulgarian cash left at all, the first time I can remember ever having organized things so perfectly with my foreign cash.

I checked in, handed over my suitcase, and got ready to head for the security and the gate, but stopped first to get organized for my homeward journey: where to put the boarding pass, where to put the passport, where to have my keys and the cash and bus pass that I would need on arrival in Edinburgh… And then it hit me like a rock.

My wallet. A simple definite singular referring noun phrase. I had of course included it in my checklist of things to make sure I had with me: wallet, passport, keys, change, bus pass, travel umbrella… I had paid the taxi driver with cash out of my wallet. But something had changed. That phrase, my wallet, no longer had a unique denotation. (There's the linguistic angle.) So where was the old one, with all my UK cash, the three credit cards, the UK driver's license, and various other crucial determinants of my legal identity?

I knew exactly where it was. It was in the combination-locked safe in my hotel room back in the center of Sofia where a sign in the hotel had warned me to put my valuables when I left the room.

All my checking for individual items to make sure I gathered them up was done on the assumption that the semantics of the phrases still picked out the same objects in the world. But there wasn't just one wallet to be picked out anymore. The checklist should have said both wallets. The new one had taken up the cognitive slot for a formerly unique entity, and the still-loaded old wallet had been forgotten.

From that moment, I realized, a lot of things were going to have to work perfectly and fast if my next few days were not going to be a nightmare of credit card cancelling, driver's license replacing, and other tedious identity-theft avoidance activities. Not a single thing must go wrong. And I had only a few minutes.

First, I needed a phone. I rummaged for my rarely used cell phone, and found that despite having no plans to use it (I live alone now, there is no one to call to say "Hi, just arrived at the airport"), I had not tossed it into the now inaccessible checked suitcase. I still had it with me. Success number one.

Now I needed the phone number of the hotel. I knew it was amazingly hard to track down: the hotel's fancy web site didn't give it anywhere, and when I had tried to track it down before leaving, so I could leave a contact number with someone at the university, I simply couldn't find out what it was after a quarter of an hour of Internet searching. Phone directories in the airport were going to be in Cyrillic if I could find any; that would really slow me down, and I didn't have a second to lose. But I recalled something: that morning I had grabbed something to use as a bookmark for my paperback novel: the card wrapper that my plastic door key had been given to me in. And that was the only thing I had ever seen that did have the hotel phone number on it. So I pulled the bookmark out of my paperback and I had the number. Success number two.

Now I needed a network. My superannuated Nokia phone (a castoff from my brother) is UK-based and on an O2 pay-as-you-go plan. I fired it up, and after a half minute it picked up a Bulgarian network I had never heard of. Success number three.

The next phase would need humans. And if they were not on the ball, everything was lost (leaving word to send a loaded wallet full of photo ID through the international post from Bulgaria to Scotland was a non-starter, I had decided). I called the hotel, and the phone was answered instantly, at 5:50 a.m. on a Sunday morning. Success number four. And the young man who answered had excellent English and was a quick thinker in a crisis. Number five.

He reacted instantly. He had his colleague sprint up to my room with the instructions for master access to the safe. He rapidly confirmed that they now had the wallet. They realized that I did not have time to get back into the city and back out again myself. So the one with the wallet sprinted outside and jumped into a taxi to head for the airport. No arrangement was made about how this would be paid for. But during my anxious twenty-minute wait — it was now only minutes before they needed me the other side of security to begin boarding — I found an ATM and used my card (which I had, in the Bulgarian wallet) to get some money out. I hadn't tried doing this before (I had bought cash with cash on arrival a week earlier), but the ATM did indeed work with my UK bank account; success number six. I drew out 50 lev. About $37.

I went outside and eventually I saw a taxi roaring down the Terminal 2 approach lane in a real hurry, overtaking other taxis. It pulled to a halt in the pouring rain. The young hotel employee jumped out and put my old wallet into my hand. I gave him the 50 leva, and he looked shocked: "This is more than enough," he said (it was, by about 20 percent). I told him to keep the extra, and he shook my hand and left, while I headed inside to go through security (thinking about how I will now always regard Bulgaria as an efficient can-do modern society were stuff works and people are smart and will help you; experiences like this create lasting impressions).

From there things went smoothly. When I got to Edinburgh and KLM told me my checked suitcase had failed to follow me and was thought to be making its way independently from Sofia to London Heathrow, and planned to join me tomorrow, I didn't even care. I was nearly home, and was in too good a mood to grumble about one cart of bags that didn't make the change of planes at Amsterdam.

I'm actually typing this on my MacBook Air during the 25-minute bus journey in from the Edinburgh Airport. Summer has finally arrived. It's hot and sunny. The bus is making its way slowly along a Princes Street thronged with foreign tourists; hundreds of women in halter tops or dramatic sleeveless summer dresses; the grass in the gardens below the castle is jammed with happy sunbathers. I'm going to walk up to St. Andrew Square and down the steep hill of Dublin Street, with its glorious view of Fife across the water, and pick up a spicy vegetable paratha at the Pakistani shop at the bottom because I'm starving. From there it's just a minute round the corner to my apartment. I'm home.

But now, listen to me. Pay attention, look me in the eyes and listen to me: Don't ever purchase on a foreign trip a new instance of some valuable thing that is identified by a definite singular NP on your checklist of things you must not forget when you pack, unless you explicitly alter the wording of the checklist ("wallet old and new wallets"). Remember that. And remember that you heard it here on Language Log.

[Comments aren't switched on. I was going to switch them on, but I forgot to complete my checklist. Sorry.]

Comments are closed.