You are hereA fond farewell from Bulgaria.

A fond farewell from Bulgaria.

Before the Berlin Wall came down and Eastern European countries were almost inaccessible, I had reason to spend a few days in Bulgaria. Being a member of the Prague based, KGB sponsored, International Organization of Journalists (IOJ), I had been able to wangle an invitation to visit Sofia out of the Bulgarian Press Bureau; which was an ideal way to get into the country with the minimum of questions being asked.

Each day I was accompanied by a different, usually diffident and bored official guide, who was only too happy to leave me to my own devices in the evening. This did not mean I was free from surveillance, which was inefficient to say the least. I easily shook free of my shadow on the first evening and was able to complete the assignment I was really there to do.  With the job safely behind me, I did not have to worry any more about being under observation but after losing me that first evening, they changed their tactics - they joined me for drinks.

I would go into a cafe for a drink (food, apart from in the hotels, was un-obtainable) and minutes later a man would enter and, without invitation, would set himself down at my table and attempt to strike up a dialogue with me. This was not too easy because their English was virtually non-existent, as was my Bulgarian. But somehow they would persist in their efforts to draw me into conversation. There was no doubt who they were because  as they entered, conversation would die down and the customers would give them a wide berth. The waiters would also ensure that we were served promptly - by Bulgarian standards.

On one particular evening I tried, without luck, to get a table at an official tourist restaurant, which held performances of Bulgarian folklore dancing.  However, the place, I gathered, was fully booked for some foreign notables. The restaurant was deep in a forest, somewhere on the outskirts of the city and I had taken a taxi to get there. By the time I finished arguing with the huge moron of a doorkeeper, including an unsuccessful bribery attempt, the taxi had departed and I was left stranded.

With no option but to head back to town, I set off on foot down the drive. Away from the illuminated building the forest was pitch black and I had no idea in which direction was home. Fortunately at the end of the drive I came across a drunken gateman and he pointed me in the right direction. Stumbling blindly through the dark,  I rounded a bend in the forest to find a cafe; a typical, dingy Communist era place; no food and normally off bounds to tourists. The waiter was so surprised to see a well dressed foreigner arrive out of the night and on foot, that he did not object to me being there. The few male customers were in overalls and looked and smelled as though they were forest labourers.

You do not need a foreign language to order a red wine and on being informed that a taxi was out of the question, I asked for a pitcher of the stuff and sat pondering how I was going to get back to civilization. The wine had hardly been banged down in front of me when one of them entered the premises. He was dressed in the standard black leather jacket, which across Eastern Europe was the preferred dress for the goons of officialdom. He merely nodded unsmilingly to the waiter and ignoring the customers, who in turn ignored him, came over and sat down at my table.

I assumed it must have been the either the moron or the taxi driver who had informed authorities in Sofia, that a foreigner was out and about on his own and leather jacket had been hastily despatched into the night to find me. Initially he was aggressive but accepted a glass of my wine, followed by quite a few more, which I ended up paying for, knowing that his type did do not have government expense accounts, even for entertaining a suspicious foreigner. 

Looking back it is difficult to believe that two people who spoke not one word of each other’s language could have a three hour conversation – but we did. By the time we left that cafe, he was totally incoherent, and I had no choice but to rely on him to get me out of the forest and back to my hotel, but somehow he did.

Frequently falling down and being hauled to his feet by me, he drunkenly staggered and veered along the ill-defined road. I never discovered how he had gotten to the cafe in the first place, being so far from the city.  Eventually we made it to my destination but he refused my offer of a night cap in the hotel bar and the last I heard of him was the sound of him vomiting in the hotel garden.  In reality he would never have been allowed in because regardless of what his status was, only foreign guests, local big-wigs or crooks with US dollars to spend were allowed access. I often wonder how or what he reported back to his superiors the following morning.

On my last evening in Sofia, I was invited by a South American ambassador and his charming wife, who were old friends. We elegantly dined in the penthouse restaurant of the city’s foremost international hotel and it was the only decent meal I had whilst in Bulgaria. Our conversation was most amusing after the couple cautioned me that even the dining room tables were reported to be bugged.

I was to leave the following morning - by train to East Berlin via Belgrade - and I was taken aback when they advised me that there was no restaurant car nor alternative possibilities to buy food or drink on the train. They also regretted that due to official commitments – a state welcome ceremony for the Chinese President – they would be unable to help with provisions.

Arriving at the railway station early the following morning I found out to my horror that they had been serious. There really was no food or drink to be had before boarding the train. I later heard that this was not unusual, as the average Bulgarian had to spend his or her day searching and then queuing, for even a couple of tomatoes.  I took a seat in an empty, first class carriage and was miserably considering how I would manage to get through the journey without sustenance, liquid or otherwise.

Only minutes before the train was destined to start, I heard my name being repeatedly shouted from the platform. Sticking my head out of the window I spied my old friend the ambassador, dressed to the nines, in a grey morning suit with tails - the formal dress for that day’s invitation. In his arms he had a bulging cloth bag, which he hurriedly passed through the window to me, as the train started to move off.

I cannot describe my joy, when I opened that parcel. I felt like a small boy at Christmas; eagerly ripping at the paper wrapping to get at his present. Inside that  bag there was manna from heaven. There before me was bread, cheese, sausage, ham, fruit, all from Greece which was where the foreign diplomats in Bulgaria went to do their tax free shopping. There was cutlery, a glass, a starched napkin, bottled water and mercy upon mercies, three bottles of good red wine and an opener.

No train journey has ever been quite so pleasant and for cetain no banquet or feast has ever been more gratefully appreciated and enjoyed as that one was.

Text: BRT

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