Discover more from Brent and Michael Are Going Places
That Time Our Apartment in Bulgaria Caught on Fire
Our first year of nomading, I wondered, "What's the catch?" Later that year, I discovered what it is.
Michael and I left Seattle to become nomads at the end of 2017, and I immediately loved the lifestyle. We were suddenly meeting all these great people and seeing so many fantastic new places — all for half the cost of what we’d been paying for a much more staid life back in Seattle.
Before now, no choice I’d ever made had been so clear-cut. Weren’t there pros and cons to everything? What were the cons to nomading?
I couldn’t help but ask myself, “What’s the catch?”
Then, in August of 2018, we traveled to Bansko, a little resort town in the Pirin Mountains of Bulgaria.
As a ski town, Bansko’s apartments and amenities were going unused much of the year, and the locals were trying to turn the place into a year-round tourist destination. Meanwhile, two enterprising nomads had taken note of the low cost of living and started a coworking community, Coworking Bansko, which had quickly turned Bansko into a vibrant, year-round nomad hub.
It was our first visit to Central Europe, and Michael and I were surprised by the area’s natural beauty. We didn’t mind the low cost of living either: our rustic two-bedroom chalet rented for $300 a month.
We quickly made ourselves at home, catching up with old friends and rapidly meeting new ones. And I found myself asking yet again: why the hell doesn’t everyone who can swing it do this nomading thing?
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One Sunday in September, Michael and I were enjoying a lazy morning in our apartment. We'd just finished breakfast when I smelled smoke. It had a strong chemical smell, like burning rubber.
"Someone must be burning garbage," Michael said, and I nodded.
We started cleaning the dishes.
By the time we were done, the smoke smelled stronger. More pungent too.
"That's really bad," I said. "I wonder what the hell they're burning."
One of the windows was open, and Michael stepped closer to look outside.
"Strange," he said. "I don't see anything."
I joined him at the window. Weirdly, the air smelled cleaner outside.
Why would the smoke be stronger inside the apartment?
We opened the window wider. Outside, the air didn't smell of smoke at all. Only fresh mountain breeze.
I turned to Michael. "Something's wrong."
We looked back toward the kitchen. We both still smelled smoke, and, yeah, it definitely seemed to be coming from inside the apartment. But we'd literally just finished cleaning the stovetop, so we knew the burners were off. And we'd never even turned on the oven.
"Do you think it's somewhere else in the apartment?" Michael asked. Neither of us wanted to use the word "fire."
But now the answer was obvious. The front room had a skylight, and a strange haze hung in the light shining down from above.
The smoke really was inside the apartment. And it was getting thicker by the second.
For a moment, neither of us moved. This all seemed so impossibly strange.
Michael jerked into motion. "Let’s check the bedrooms."
He turned for one of the rooms, and I veered for the master bedroom, the one with the en suite bathroom.
I looked around the room, which was very large and extended into shadowy corners under a sloped roof. It did smell smoky, but if there was a fire, I definitely would have seen it.
I stepped up to the bathroom and pulled open the door.
And the back wall to the bathroom burst up into flames.
Man, did it blaze! It must have been smoldering, deprived of oxygen until the moment I opened the door.
The bedroom around me was instantly full of heavy black smoke, making the flames seem like hellfire, evil and unnatural.
It was discombobulating. It took me a moment to make sense of what I was seeing.
I'd been in front of fires before, sometimes even raging ones: big campfires and the like. But those had been controlled fires — fires that were no danger to me.
This one wasn’t controlled at all. And it was a big danger to me.
The bathroom is on fire!
The message finally hit my brain, and it was the single most terrifying moment of my life.
Even weirder, the moment stretched out, even as it also felt frozen in place. It was like time itself had swallowed me whole.
The flames seemed to be centered on the hot water tank, an exterior one that hung down from the ceiling. Was it the wiring? The flames were now spreading up the walls behind it, scorching it, peeling the paint in thick curls.
Was there a gas line in there somewhere about to blow?
I slammed the bathroom door shut.
"The bathroom's on fire!" I shouted to Michael.
By opening the door, I'd flooded the whole apartment with that heavy black smoke. I could feel it coating my face like grease.
Even now, the air thick with smoke, there was no alarm going off. Did the apartment really not have a smoke detector? And had I really never bothered to check?
Michael appeared next to me, punching numbers into his phone. I knew he was calling the emergency number in Bulgaria. What was it again? 1-2-2? Or 1-1-2? But none of the numbers seemed to be working.
I fumbled around the apartment looking for the fire extinguisher.
Nothing hanging on the wall, nothing on the floor, nothing in the cupboard under the sink!
I ran to the front door, threw it open, and looked out into the hallway.
Really? No fire extinguishers out here either?!
And also no fire alarms to pull.
"Go find someone to call the fire department!" Michael said.
Who? I wondered. It was off-season in a ski town, and we'd never seen or heard anyone else in our particular building.
I ran out into the hall again, banging on the different doors. "Fire!" I shouted. "Fire!"
No one answered any of the doors, so I had to assume we really were the only people in our building.
I ran down the stairs, still looking for a fire extinguisher or a fire alarm. Hell, at this point I would have settled for a damn bucket!
But no, there was nothing.
I burst out into the central courtyard between four different apartment buildings.
"Help!" I shouted. "Fire! Fire!"
No one responded.
Finally, a Bulgarian woman appeared, on her way to another building. Her face looked worn, and she was dressed in dark clothes, even in summer.
"Help!" I said, pointing back at my building. "My apartment's on fire!"
Her eyes narrowed. I'd learned a few words of Bulgarian, but it had never occurred to me to learn the words "fire" or "help," which I now realized seemed rather important.
I pulled out my own phone, for which I had yet to buy a European sim card. I gestured between it and her. "Fire department! Can you call the fire department? There's a fire in our building!"
Still confused, and obviously scared by my frantic behavior, she broke eye contact and hurried onward.
Really? I thought. Even if you don't speak English, you can't figure out I need help from fucking context?!
Meanwhile, back in the hallway outside the apartment, Michael finally used Facebook messenger to contact the apartment manager. The manager messaged back right away to say he'd called the fire department and they were on the way. He also suggested turning off the circuit breakers to cut the electricity.
Which was an excellent idea. Michael ran to the circuit breaker box and flipped the switches.
Had we killed the fire? At this point, we had no way of knowing. Smoke now filled the whole apartment, swirling in the air in strange, plastic-y ribbons. It felt like floating spider webs, except they were black and downright nasty-looking.
But the door to the bathroom wasn't on fire. The flames hadn't spread into the rest of the apartment.
We both had the exact same thought.
What about our laptops? And our passports?!
For digital nomads, laptops and passports are the two most important things you own — in a way, the only important things you own. We hadn't even been nomading a year, but we already knew that.
So against the advice of all the experts, who tell you to immediately leave any area with a fire and wait outside for help from a place of safety, we darted back into the apartment to snatch those things — and also our stash of hidden cash.
It was our laptops and passports. It's impossible to overstate how inconvenient that would have been if we'd lost either of those thing while living overseas.
Even so, going back in the apartment was still deeply stupid.
Soon the fire-persons arrived, and we directed them inside.
It turned out the fire was caused by faulty wiring on that water heater. It had been temperamental ever since we’d moved in, and a handyman — almost certainly not an electrician — had come in twice to try to fix it.
In other words, my new life as a nomad clearly wasn’t as safe and sanitized as the one I once knew — the life of a middle class American.
Even now, the thing that frightens me the most isn’t so much the fire — accidents happen everywhere. It’s the fact that the building had no smoke detectors or fire extinguishers, and the local regulations were also obviously so sub-par.
Our apartment manager even admitted he'd been bugging the owners about getting smoke detectors and fire extinguishers, but they'd always complained about the expense. And it should be noted: Bulgaria is a very poor country.
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But what if we'd been sleeping when the fire started? With no smoke detector to wake us up, the fire could have spread to the point where we couldn’t reach the door — or the smoke could have asphyxiated us in our sleep.
And what other than smoke detectors and fire extinguishers were we taking for granted? What about lead in the paint or pipes, or toxins in the local water system? Had there been a secret Chernobyl-like nuclear disaster back in the Soviet era, and we were slowly being poisoned by radiation?
The fact is, I personally still feel much safer outside of America, if only because I spend so much less time in a car. And, well, no mass shootings.
As for the risk of fire, I quickly ordered a small portable smoke detector and we now carry it with us and set it up wherever we go.
But our apartment catching on fire in Bulgaria still showed me “the catch” of my new life as a nomad.
It means being forced to sometimes live outside my comfort zone.
A year later, I got another reminder of this when our airplane caught on fire over the Atlantic.
Unexpected things happen to everyone everywhere. But they happen more often when you’re on the move — and when you’re living in cities and countries where you’re not familiar with local customs.
Bad things are also more likely to happen in poorer countries like Bulgaria, which is a truly depressing thing to appreciate. Everyone says, “You can’t put a value on human life!” But the fact is, we do.
For me, the pros of nomading still far outweigh the cons. And there are lots of great reasons to visit poorer countries even if the risks may be slightly higher. Indeed, I wish more Westerners were exposed to the reality of life in the developing world.
But there’s a price to be paid for everything in all our lives. I paid part of mine in those moments of terror in that Bansko apartment.