Varna to Varna


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Varna is a city in Bulgaria. The Black Sea lives here. It probably got its name from the old Turkish word Kara, which means both “black” and “north.” Because of the depth, the water in the middle of the sea does look black sometimes. Once you move out from the shores a few thousand meters, along a little shelf, the sea drops off into a fathomless abyss. It reaches the depth of around 7,300 feet at its center. It is black in another sense, too. Surrounded by countries like Bulgaria, Romania, Ukraine, Georgia, it is a sea less familiar to the West. It is, thus, the unknown sea. There’s a scale model of the entire Black Sea in a public park in Varna. You can play on it with your Bulgarian godchildren. The model is big enough that you have to use your hands to climb over the Caucus Mountains. As you walk around the perimeter, you and the children whisper the names of all the port cities. Sevastopol, Kerch, Yalta, Rize, Trabzon, Novorossiysk. At Batumi, the great Georgian port, your goddaughter slides off the edge and lands giggling below at the center of the sea.


Varna is also a city in Italy. The coincidence seems an empty one at first. I happen to be traveling from the Black Sea to the Italian Alps — called, by chance, from one Varna to the other. The trip from Varna, Bulgaria to Varna, Italy is a few buses, a plane, and then a handful of trains that take you up, up into the Alps, where they stick houses on the sides of mountains with Alpine conjuring tricks. Here in the mountains is the inverse of the bottomless sea. Here, the shifting of the tectonic plates pushed the rock ever upward in folds and cascading formations that end in crags of naked stone reaching to the sun. Here, the Earth was tricked into living in the sky.

The fables from this part of the world speak of a dwarf king named Laurin and his love of a beautiful princess. He captured her, as dwarf kings will do. Later, his treachery was discovered and the princess freed. The little king uttered a curse that no one should see the beauty of his kingdom by night or day. He forgot, though, to mention the twilight. By the ruse of fairytale logic, his Rosengarten mountain blazes forth in a rosy light every evening. As it does today. The rocks catch the evening light and blush until the sun goes down.

We traveled inside the mountain near here, through a shaft at St. Ignaz driven directly into the side of the Alps more than 200 years ago for the extraction of copper ore. You put on a yellow helmet and overcoat and jump into the mining cart. Then you penetrate the Earth along the rickety track through a tunnel for about a kilometer. When the cart finally stops, you are inside the insides of the mountain. There should be secrets here, but there is only silence and the constant dripping of water through the rock as the elements slowly wear this behemoth back down to size. Does the slow trickle of water call these mountains, finally, back to the sea, drawing the Alpine Varna inevitably back to the Varna on the coast?

My friend lives in Brixen (Bressanone in Italian), one of the major cities of the Südtirol, though it contains only 21,000 people. The city of Vahrn (the Italians call it Varna) is, today, essentially the northern suburb of Brixen. I travel up here every so often to chart the progress of my friend, to bring him word from the civilization the rest of us inhabit beneath the sky. A Pakistani by birth, and a New Yorker for many years by choice, my friend has become Südtirolian in his heart. He has absorbed, without exactly trying, the specific passions and distractions of these parts. The mountains simply claimed him, I suppose.

One thing that bothers him is that Brixen (Bressanone), Varhn (Varna), and the other cities of this region always bear two names. It gnaws at him, this Alpine schizophrenia. The Südtirol, formerly a part of Austria, was given to Italy as a reward for joining the winning side after World War I. Various attempts to make the area more “Italian” ensued. But the wheels of Italianization really began to move once the Fascists took power in Italy in the late 1920s. In 1939, Mussolini decided it was time to take the final step. Hitler, for his own Hitlerian reasons, had never cast his otherwise covetous eye on the Südtirol. He was happy to let the Italians have it, thinking that the Germans in the Südtirol should come back down to the German heartland where they could hear him better. So, Hitler and Mussolini cooked up a scheme whereby the German-speaking citizens of the area would be encouraged to move away, into Greater Germany. At that time, Greater Germany included much of the northern and western coast of the Black Sea. The plan, then, was to move the people of the Südtirol from Varna to Varna, more or less. From the Alpine mountains to the coast of the Black Sea.

Thus, the troubled dreams of my Pakistani/American/Südtirolian friend, strange things he hears from inside the mountains. He is having nightmares of relocation. People in the Südtirol don’t talk about these things very much anymore. Why should they? But the old fears can still trickle back after the midnight hour, in the dark mountain nights when a clump of Alpine rock can take any form the imagination will give it. A sensitive man, if he listens hard enough on a moonless night, he can almost hear the waves of the Black Sea lapping up against the rocks of the Dolomites.

I think I can hear it, too, the way that the one Varna calls to the other. They don’t say anything to each other, in particular. They simply whisper that name back and forth, the one speaking sounds of water, the other speaking sounds of stone. • 10 September 2010