What I Have Gone Through In Spain

George Ivanov Vasilev

© Copyright 2021 by George Ivanov Vasilev

Photo of a Madrid road sign.

         Soon after the totalitarian system collapsed in Bulgaria at the end of 1989, I enrolled myself in History and Bulgarian Philology at university but I quit within a year. I was bored there. I did not like the manner in which some professors and their associates were delivering the lectures. Some of them were still lecturing the same way they used to do in the past. I disliked it. I could not force myself to study against my will. Yes, I had worked hard and I had attended evening high school classes for four years just to be able to get into university. I was interested in writing, in literature so getting into university was my greatest dream. But I gave up so easily. What I did puzzle all of my friends. They were not able to understand. I wasn’t interested only in graduating, moreover my passion for literature, for poetry, for writing, for all this would have faded away and finally died if I were to remain in university and study according to their style. I felt it within me at that time. However, I’ve always followed my heart. So I returned to my job as a mailman and meanwhile I continued to contribute to some local newspapers. I was mainly interested in writing fictional short stories and essays.

        But how long could I have lived this way? I’ve always been an adventurer in spirit, so when the opportunity arose through the political change due to the fall of communism I was determined to lose myself in the big world. For a while, I went in Greece but I felt it wasn’t the country for me. I was eager to immigrate not only in Western Europe but also across the Atlantic Ocean. My closest friends, a married couple I was so much attached to won the green card through the lottery of visas and established themselves in California, USA. We used to meet every day and spent a lot of time together. I was missing them very much. Without my friends, my life in Bulgaria became lonely, dull, and insipid. So my dream, my goal was to get there in California by all costs, legally or illegally.  I thought Spain would be a good country to make some money under the table and get to my friends in California since I didn’t know English at that time. I did not know Spanish either, but I thought by working and by being in contact with people there, I would learn some Spanish that would only benefit me. I knew Spanish was as frequently used as English in Southern states of the USA.         

So I packed my typewriter and found myself in Madrid but unfortunately, on the first day of my arrival there, just a few hours later I was robbed very delicately and intelligently by some Moroccans. Two of them were acting like buskers and I was watching them while leaning myself against the rail outside the subway station. Less than five minutes passed when I discovered that my handbag had disappeared. I had put it on top of the suitcase in from of me. I was shocked, panicked. The busker also vanished into the thin air. Drenched in sweat, I was looking around hopelessly. All around there were people, it was crowded.

        All this happened at one of the busiest, bustling places, Puerta del Sol, around 4 pm. It was in 1997, on Sunday, 30th  November.

         Oh, I could never forget this fateful day as this incident determined somehow even my future life. Some hours earlier (before this happened) I had met a young Bulgarian, a married woman, willing to help me find cheaper accommodation. She declined my request to leave my suitcase at her home for a few days with the excuse that at that moment she was renovating her apartment. She even took me to a catholic church in order to help me but nothing materialized. We separated, she got home and I was supposed to call her after five o’clock so we could meet again and try to find a place. But after I was robbed, I could not call her, I could not remember her telephone number. The notebook I put it down, as well as all my valuable belongings, disappeared along with my handbag.

In the handbag, there was also a letter I was supposed to deliver to our Bulgarian king who lived in Madrid at that time. One of my closest friends, a writer, and a journalist asked me to hand over the letter to the king along with his typed novel copy about the ex-totalitarian regime in Bulgaria. Of course, without the letter, I could not go and knock at the royal gate yet.
 I cannot remember exactly what I did next. I remained in the street without money. My passport was also gone. I probably wasn’t capable of thinking straight at that time at all. Completely in a state of tremendous distress, I was looking around, I was eavesdropping for some Bulgarians, Russians, and Romanians (I knew Romanian) in the crowd but I could not hear any of these words. I have no idea how many times I circled Puerta del Sol square as a lunatic. There are some moments about that time that are lost completely in my memory. I don’t remember anything. What I remember is that I found myself in a bar talking to a Romanian guy, explaining to him how I had been robbed.

Thanks to this Romanian guy who called some of his Romanian friends I got in touch with a young Bulgarian guy. The Bulgarian guy also proved to be nice, understandable. He came and took me from Puerta del Sol and sheltered me for the night in the only room he used to share with another Bulgarian. In the same house, some Romanians also used to reside.

        This Bulgarian guy helped me a lot. Because of his illegal status in Spain his girlfriend, a young Bulgarian student came with us to the police station as an interpreter so I got a piece of formal paper that my passport was stolen. That was all police could do for me. Afterward, the Bulgarian guy took me to the Red  Cross organization where I passed a medical examination and got an ID card and some other papers, and by the evening I was at the gate of a building – a night shelter for aliens only. I did not know what was going to happen to me, how long I was allowed to take refuge there. I could not even suspect then that with my entry in that building my odyssey would start, an odyssey that would affect my entire, future life. How could I have known all that? I hadn’t come to my senses yet. Everything happened so quickly, unexpectedly. But I have to recognize that I felt happy coming to this place; at least I was sheltered, though only for the nights. I wasn’t on the street.  Yes, every day and all day long, some Bulgarians, Romanians, and I  wandered like stray dogs over Madrid but during the nights we were in our beds. We became skilled at getting into a subway without a ticket. And sometimes we had to get off the subway and run headlong before the eyes of the controllers. Oh, we had to be very alert, to observe controllers’ uniforms from a distance; we had to have the eyes of a hawk.  What could we have done? Madrid is a big city and we had to take our lunch or supper (for free, of course)  at different and far-off places. So we had to manage and survive somehow.  Well, we were given a weekly subway pass, but we could not use it more than two or three days a week. Still, we were thankful to the Red Cross for everything they were doing for us, homeless aliens in Madrid.  Oh, I’ll never forget this period of my life. As a writer, all this was so interesting for me. I met different and various people there.  I was deeply impressed by everything I saw in Madrid. It was my first experience of living such a life - being almost on the street. But I wasn’t complaining. I enjoyed it. I almost felt pity at that time for my Bulgarian friends, the writers, and the journalists, satisfied by just being bookworms back home. I found myself in a totally new world, different from the communist system I had known. I then felt for the first time the thrill of being adventurous. As if I really got in touch with life itself. For me, every day was a new experience, a new challenge for surviving. Every day was new,  unpredictable as life itself is. So I enjoyed the life of a hobo in Madrid for three months. All these days I fooled around in the central part of Madrid in the company of some Bulgarians or Romanians. And sometimes I would just sit in the park, enjoying looking around, and watching all kinds of people passing by.

         I felt the pleasure of laziness and watchfulness there and then. Of course, some people would not understand how this could be enjoyable. Yes, for me, it was and still it is. And I enjoyed this opportunity of being a hobo there and then to the fullest. Oh, I still can see how, just for fun sometimes, we kept an eye on the sidewalks for some coins, for some “pesetas”. And sometimes we were happy finding some and buying the cheapest wine, Tinto.

       Homeless and unemployed aliens as we were what could we have done? In the morning, we were kicked out of the building, the Albergue, called by all of us Simankas (because of the nearby subway station) and in the evening we were back weary with calloused feet. And we were given a supper – a bocadillo (a baguette) for which we, of course, we're thankful. And the shower we used to take was almost always cold but still, we were thankful.

      Thanks to my knowledge of the Romanian language, I quickly made friends there. Actually, I was surrounded by Romanian guys. Four of us in the room were Bulgarians, and the rest of sixteen were all Romanians. Russian and Polish-speaking people were also abundant there and a few Africans. Oh, all kinds of scoundrels, all kinds of conmen, cheats, and thieves were sheltered there.  Nobody could have trusted anybody.  But I had nothing valuable ( I was already robbed), so I wasn’t afraid. Nobody would have been interested in my Cyrillic alphabet typewriter. And some of the guys were even making fun of my typewriter, but I did not care at all. Anyway, they would have not been able to understand me and I did not try to explain myself to them either. Otherwise, some of them were good guys. They set out abroad to make a better life for themselves, but for one or another reason they got homeless and sheltered in Simankas.

     Some homeless aliens were leaving and others were coming in. Simankas was always crowded.

A light fence of reed separated our homeless place from a police station.  If needed police would just raise the fence and immediately rush into the building. And sometimes they did it. From time to time some annoying heavy drinkers would be pacified by the supervisor or even evicted out of the shelter, and, of course, their comeback would be denied. One could lose a shelter in Simankas if that person was not to sign in for three nights in a row. So everybody was warned about the rules of the place from the very beginning and most of us abided by. Twice or thrice an old  Bulgarian fellow and I took our lunch for free at a place very close to our Bulgarian king’s house. There were even rumors that he was one of the sponsors of that place. After lunch, my Bulgarian friend, Todor Dashkov, and I rested for a while on the king’s bench outside the gate. I did not think to bother our king as I heard then many Bulgarians did by asking for some money.  No, I wouldn’t do it, whatsoever.

    So day in and day out we were doing the same: fooling around in the central part of Madrid. Only a few of the aliens' shelters in Simankas worked under the table. Most of us did not. I could not even think that I might have such a chance. It was impossible for me to find work whatever, without language and without somebody else’s help.  Time was passing by and I had to do something. I didn’t think at all of returning back to Bulgaria. I have already set my heart in the world. And I was determined to go to extreme lengths to achieve my goal.  America, California was on my mind.

         A Romanian guy, Daniel, and I were already conspiring to get to Canada on a cargo ship from Lisbon, Portugal. And from Canada, I thought then, it wouldn’t be a problem for me to get to California, USA. Oh, I wouldn’t forget a Bulgarian guy Stefan who bought me a ticket to Lisbon then. He knew some Spanish and was working under the table sometimes. He was also willing to come but was scared.  Another Bulgarian said he would not take the risk unless he was sure he would get in Canada. But he was also scared. He just did not want to recognize it.  I told them: unless I risked,  there was no way to know if I was going to get to Canada or not.  A try was required. And I tried.

 Both Daniel and I were determined to get onto the ship somehow,  by secretly climbing up the ropes of the ship. Of course, we could have done this during the night when the ship had been loaded-unloaded but we did not even have the chance to try. Daniel messed up the days when the ship would arrive, so we slept sweetly while the ship anchored and left early in the morning.
         The next ship to Canada was bound to come in a week.  So we were at a loss, not knowing what to do. We had no money left to stay in a hotel. We did not want to return to Simanaks in Madrid either.  We considered all possibilities. Perhaps it could be better if we looked for some shelters, accommodating homeless people in Lisbon, and remained there. But Daniel finally decided that it would be much better if we got back in Simankas and gave it another try in the spring. He cautiously bought a two-way ticket to Lisbon but I did not. I was almost sure we would get onto the ship and leave Europe. Even if I wanted I could not buy a two-way ticket to Lisbon. I had no money. And I could not remain in Lisbon by myself either. And what would have I done without Daniel?  Besides Spanish, Daniel knew German also. He was a very intelligent Romanian guy. With all the money he had, he bought me a ticket to a Spanish town. I was supposed to get off at the second bus stop from the border with Portugal, but I intended to travel to Madrid on that ticket. We thought we would trick the driver, but we could not. We pretended to be asleep but our artifice did not work. I was kicked off the bus. Daniel, of course, could continue his journey to Madrid (he had a ticket) but he got off with me, for which I was so thankful to him then.  Nevertheless, I was going to remain alone.  

     It was 2:30 am and the bus station was closed. Spain is a warm country but on the night of January, it gets cold so we decided to hide inside the railway station. Well, we had no other alternative to get to Madrid except by train somehow. And of course, we made a mistake going to the railway station at that time. We were observed by police and detained, and taking to the main town, Badajous by a police car. Police placed us under arrest but after a few hours, Daniel was released. He had his passport, so after the investigation police freed him. But it was not the same for me. With an affidavit from Madrid police that my passport was stolen, the police could not let go of me so easily.  I remained in arrest for three more days. Policemen must have been laughing at me: a Bulgarian man, not knowing Spanish or English, and carrying a typewriter, setting out in the world. Oh, I really must have been a comic scene for them but I didn’t care at all what they thought of me. I was impatient to leave the cell. I felt suffocated, incaged like a bird.  Never before in my life, I had been imprisoned. And when I was released I was so happy, I understood then what does it mean to live in freedom. I was ready to sleep under the starry sky in the cold night, but not to be imprisoned аgain.  And of course, this was going to happen to me. I had no money and I was far, far away from Madrid, from Simankas. I needed about 2000 peseta at that time to get to Madrid but who would give it to a stranger like me?  I really got into trouble.  

          I was alone, without Daniel.  I did know what happened to him. Did he get to Simankas in Madrid or not? What did I do then? I searched for the Red Cross in Badajous but without language, I could not succeed.  People passed by me, without even stopping to look at me. With a backpack and my appearance after so many days in arrest, I certainly did not look well. Oh, I still remember that sunny day. It was warm and pleasant. It was about noon. I had no choice but to walk to the highway and try hitchhiking. Cars and trucks would be passing but nobody would stop. But I kept walking and walking, believing that still, someone would take pity on me. What could I do? I had no choice. I had to walk. People are afraid of strangers and getting in a stranger’s car someone is a kind of risk. Of course, I knew it. But I still hoped deeply that somebody would dare to stop and give me a ride. I threw out the canned food from my backpack so I could walk more comfortably.  I have no idea how long  I walked. I was tired and sweaty and the sunlight glared off my eyes. Broken in spirit already I could not believe myself when a small truck stopped, I was tremendously happy. The driver proved to be a cheerful and chatty man, but unfortunately, soon he had to turn off the highway so again I found myself walking along the road.

I don’t remember exactly how many vehicles gave me a ride that day but it was for a very short distance. A car left me far away from the highway so I had to continue on a smaller road.  Madrid was at least two hundred and fifty miles ahead of me.  I really must have looked weird for some people then.  ‘Para Madrid, para Madrid’ - this I used to say in Spanish.  I still recall an old man, a villager, and his son with a Jeep. The old man looked at me astonished  Oh, perhaps he thought that I was a little crazy to hitchhike for such a long distance.  But I didn’t care at all. Of course, I was looking at this situation playfully.  What could I do? I had no money and I had to somehow get to Madrid, to Simankas.

         At twilight, I reached a small parking lot where I saw a big truck with curtains covered the windows. Perhaps the driver was sleeping in.  There was a small tavern there but without the language what would I do? I decided to spend the night there and in the morning to ask the driver of the big truck to give me a ride. Perhaps he was going to Madrid.

 So I remained there. I took my frugal supper – chocolate only and water and I lied under a tree nearby there, placing my backpack under my head. I was happy under the starry sky. I wasn’t in prison. All around me was dark and shining, glittering stars were above me. I was free. Tired, I fell asleep but later on I woke up. It might have been midnight. All around it was quiet. And it was cold. There was a barn near me so I entered in. To my surprise there was a big pig in, in a pigsty, lying quietly, not minding at all about my intrusion or me taking shelter in. There was enough space there so I squatted,  but my knees were so cold that I wrapped them with nailon. This gave me some protection from the cold. And little by little I fell asleep fatigued.
 I spent the night in such an uncomfortable position.  When I woke up there was dawn. All my body was in pain. The first thing I did was to take a look at the big truck but to my great disappointment, it wasn’t there.  The truck probably left at night. So I again had to walk on the road and pray for good fortune. I cheerfully strode in the coolness. Sometimes a car would stop and give me a short ride, sometimes I would walk and walk for hours under the burning sun, and again somebody would take pity on me. The new day for me was the same as the previous one and yet not the same.  A  truck gave me a ride to a long distance of about a hundred miles but I was still too far away from Madrid. And again I was walking and walking and walking. Oh, I won’t forget a young man at a gas station traveling alone in his van. At my request to take me to Madrid he just refused and smiled. My effort to convince him – as much as I could without Spanish -  that I was not a terrorist was in vain. Even the assurance that I was from Bulgaria, Hristo Stoichkov’s country (a very famous football player at that time in Barcelona) did not help. I could not understand that young man then but he was really scared of giving me a ride or...he just did not want to. People are different and this is their right.

        So I continued walking under the scorching sun and got in a big village.  It was late in the afternoon. I went already through a cold night so I thought perhaps I would find out a place in the lee somewhere there. And of course, I walked and walked around and probably I looked suspicious to someone because soon police came by and brought me to the police station. No, policemen did not arrest me – and why would they? - I gave them a document that I had already been arrested in Badajos. I think they tried to find a night shelter for me but they could not. They got me in their police open Jeep which seemed to be very old – as if it was from the Second World Two and drove me to another place and then again they brought me back to the police station. Oh, police must have been so comic circulating around with a stranger like me in their antiquated vehicle. Even now I am bursting out laughing as I am looking back on that occurrence. Obviously, the policemen did not know what to do with me, where to shelter me. At least they tried and I was thankful to them. Finally, they drove me out, far away from their village, and left me on a small road, and told me that over the nearby hill there was an Albergue, a shelter for homeless people. And they warned me not to walk on the highway which was parallel to the small road and left. But later on, I understood that they just lied to me. They just wanted to get rid of me. Yes, they tried to find a night shelter for me only to be under their observation.
 All this was a precautionary measure.  As a stranger without money, I could commit a crime in their community. Later on, I discovered that they just left me at the border of the province of Toledo and so I walked to Don Quixote’s place La Mancha, in the province of Cuidad Real. Oh, yes, I observed somewhere there on the taverns the name of Cervantes’ famous hero and his Dulcinea. But at that time I did not know that. And I really believed what the two policemen told me that the Albergue was quite close by.  It was still daylight and I was in a hurry. At any moment the twilight would descend. From the very beginning of my hitchhiking, I threw almost everything away from my backpack but I made a mistake throwing even the two bottles of water. The Albergue was near, as the two policemen told me so why should I carry an unnecessary load, I thought then. I had already eaten the last piece of chocolate ( all the time I hitchhiked I ate only chocolate)  and except my typewriter, big binoculars (both Daniel and I  were supposed to watch for a ship in Lisbon), I had nothing else in my backpack. And I strode with the hope that soon I was going to take a shower and sleep in a bed. And I walked and hurried up, and got across the hill but no village or town seemed to be around or at a distance, but an empty field and another hill far, far away. Meanwhile, the twilight fell imperceptibly. Darkness was already making its way and soon it descended completely. But the sky was starry and the moonlighting up the small road. Nearby on the left side of me was the highway.  I was hearing the noise of the speedy vehicles. The headlights of the vehicles appeared and disappeared in the darkness. I was walking and walking staring in the darkness. Of course, I felt extremely thirsty. I was cursing my recklessness of throwing the water. All inside me I was burning. I was dehydrated. I needed some water and I needed to get some rest. But I had to walk and I kept walking.   Hours have passed when finally I saw some lights in a distance. The lights far away gave me the illusion that the town was near but I had to walk long to get there. When I got to this town ( I cannot say for sure if it was Toledo) it might have been after midnight. I was already dead tired and I barely shuffled the deserted streets looking for some water.  The silver lining of such southern warm countries in Europe, like Spain, is that one could find some drinking water on the streets. So I was walking and looking around the empty and illuminated streets for someone.  I needed to ask about accommodation for homeless people.  Oh, I still remember a young girl who hurried up in getting away from me as I approached her. I must have looked terribly disgusting.  Bearded and slouching towards her, I really frightened the poor girl. Without a shower, for a week I reeked.  I walked and walked around until I came across a  police station and asked the drowsy man at the entrance to help me but angry and impolite he mumbled something and he threw me out.

      Anyway, I found myself again in the street strolling around like a tramp Charlie Chaplin looking for shelter anywhere. Walking around I got to the outskirts of the town where I found a house almost demolished, without any windows.  I laid down inside there but the cold breeze was blowing from all the directions so I had to leave that place and look for another one but unfortunately, I did not find any.  Meanwhile, it started to rain, it began to drizzle soft and gentle and I rambled around the town. At such a time to walk under the rain for me, it would have been poetic but not at that time, not after what I had gone through.  I was almost wet and exhausted to death.  I was barely dragging my feet.  All I needed, all I wanted was just a place to lie down and sleep. Oh, I sincerely envied a homeless man sleeping under the shade cover of a building, wrapped in a blanket.  As I walked and walked around the town I accidentally came across a small bus station.  The bus station was closed but I found a shady place nearby and I remained there waiting to open.  Perhaps I waited for two or three hours there. And that moment was undoubtedly one of the worst I had gone through in my life.  I was literally shaking with cold. I did not sleep in a bed for so long, I did not have a shower for so long and I was dirty, filthy. In that state in which I was then I felt the coldness colder than it really was.  I felt that I just could not continue my way on foot anymore, though Madrid was about only seventy miles away.   I was at the limit of my stamina. I really did not know what to do. I was at a loss. Early in the morning, the bus station opened and I entered inside there. Dead tired I squatted and leaned against the heater and its warmth made me fall asleep. I was feeling and hearing the janitor cleaning around me but I could not open my eyes. Later on, when I woke up there was daylight and the cafeteria in the bus station was already opened. People started crowding the place. I just thought about what I might do so I could get to Madrid on a bus. I  could not walk anymore. I had to figure something out. And, having watched the young seller in the cafeteria, it dawned on me. And thanks god, that saved me then. The binoculars that I carried in my backpack and cost at least 6000 pesetas I gave to that young man for 1000 pesetas – a bus ticket to Madrid. He also gave me some extra money for a subway ticket in Madrid so I would get to Simankas.  He wasn’t interested at all in my Cyrillic alphabet typewriter.  Oh, that moment was one of the happiest in my life and I could never forget it. Later on, I was on the bus to Madrid.  A young beautiful girl sat next to me and, as I was dirty of course and perhaps I was stinking, I felt like dirt. Never ever in my life had  I felt so uncomfortable as I felt then, sitting next to that beautiful young lady.  All the time I was looking outside through the window until I fell asleep. When I woke up the bus already was at the central bus station Mendez Alvaro in Madrid. Finally. I arrived. I was saved. I survived. My feet were wounded, bleeding and I barely could get to Simankas by subway.  Daniel was also there. Surprised and overjoyed, he hugged me and talked to the supervisor so I could again be sheltered in Simankas.  Daniel really proved to be an intelligent guy. He got to Madrid by train, by hiding in a washroom. As he told me then he had experience traveling this way. Of course, in his eyes, I must have looked like a fool. And I have to recognize that I never thought of traveling incognito like him ever in my life. Never before I had done it. However, I was much, much happy that I got in Simankas. It took me at least a week to recover. I stayed for another month in Madrid, wandering there again and in early March I left Spain and vowed never to go back there. And I have never in the past twenty-two years. Even to think of what I went through in Spain is so extremely painful for me. It hurts me even now. Perhaps that's why I just dared to tell about it on this day, after so many, many years.

My name is George Ivanov Vasilev, born in Bulgaria on October 5th, 1961. I am a former Bulgarian citizen but from 2000 due to my mixed marriage with a Romanian lady and some discrepancies with Bulgarian legislation in 1999, I renounced my Bulgarian citizenship in public and since then I am stateless.  Many years ago I used to publish in Bulgaria, in local newspapers mainly short fiction and non-fiction, essays and articles.

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