hiervan alvast een stukje….
TWO YEARS IN ABSURDISTAN
The true stories of two years living in a country in turmoil
By Annemarie A. Enters-Gijsberti Hodenpijl
The fatal phone call came around nine in the evening.
John’s face showed surprise.
Bulgaria, I heard. ‘Gosh, Sofia,’ I thought.
John looked at me and told about the mission for which we had to live for two or three years in Bulgaria.
We discussed half an hour about its pros and cons and decided to go for it.
At this moment I could not foresee how living there would modify my view of life.
The assignment: to start-up and direct a Bulgarian Investment Bank, where John could apply all his knowledge was a tantalizing challenge for a man that ended his career as a general bank manager at the biggest bank in the Netherlands, quitting when a merger had taken place.
In the seventies, John had been several times to Sofia for business.
For me, this country was like a white page in a book.
The collapse of the Berlin Wall had triggered big help organizations, like the World Bank and the EBRD, to pour money for development in those Eastern European countries, to lift the appalling financial situation in which those countries had sunk.
Accepting the challenge to help Bulgaria towards a better level seemed a good next step. Sharing our knowledge and help to change the history of the East bloc was another afterthought. Deliberately changing our warm nest for some hardship, the dangers and adventure, was a big risk, although at that time we were not aware of the dangers and the rising criminality.
Naïvely I thought Bulgarians would love to absorb Western knowledge. Reality proved to be different and I never encountered that they were dying to get Western knowledge.
Daily confrontation with a struggling population added another dimension to my life. Nothing was predictable and living without the so-called granted comforts became an adventure. I should not have wanted to miss those two years, taking the robbing of the mafia for granted.
From mid-august on, we focussed on Bulgaria, although it still was not certain if Mr P, John’s contact, would win the tender. Was it guts feeling that living in Bulgaria stood in the stars?
Now the Berlin Wall had collapsed, I hoped the creepy East Bloc ambience would have changed for a better one. Before this collapse, I had registered misery, poverty and silly autocratic rules in Eastern Europe; a system based on fear resulted in lethargy for the majority of the population.
In Prague, a beautiful city, the complete inventory of a shop I saw stocked in its show-window. Dining out in a nice place, however, was no problem when you knew your way around.
In Budapest, it was a bit better. Gypsy music made you forget the fatty food. Rumania was worse regarding food and shopping. The food I got in the restaurants of big state-owned hotels was so bad, that probably my dogs would have refused it.
Bulgarian yoghurt, its good wines, and rose-oil were familiar. As none of our friends chose Bulgaria as a holiday destination, first-hand information lacked. Many grim spy stories were set in Eastern Europe and I loved reading them in my safe comfortable home. Eastern Europe’s secret service was rather drastic in eliminating presumed foes. The original method to kill someone with a poisoned umbrella was one I linked with this country.
We thought that helping Bulgaria to lift their sloppy economy would spare us from secret service or mafia attacks. However, I proved wrong. The population was difficult to understand. Living with a combination of Byzantine thinking and Slavic mentality often got us the wrong end of the stick.
From December 1st, John was by contract the president of the Bulgarian Investment Bank. Therefore, organizing our move, finding an office and a place to live, became a top priority.
Forget about help from the Bulgarian EBRD representative, as this man was not cooperative, due to a matter of jealousy between him and his London college, Miss Messy (I called her so as she was rather chaotic) because she was the one that won the prize with John’s signed contract.
For me Cyrillic characters were Abracadabra, so first I tried to master this alphabet. As no money was available for a Bulgarian language course, using hands and feet plus a simple dictionary, proved to work well.
Considering ourselves old and wise enough not to make too many stupid mistakes, we started this Bulgarian adventure. The only thing we knew for sure was that life would not be boring.
Our children thought it a splendid idea: good for Dad to create ‘his own bank’ and for Mom to use her practical and creative abilities for 1000 %. They looked forward to visiting us in a country unknown to them as well.
Not all our friends shared our enthusiasm. Some declared us mad. Others told us frankly, they lacked our guts for a total change and accepting a much lower standard of living. Surviving with less for a few years would not harm us. I planned to take sufficient stuff with me, thinking I always could order something and have it delivered. As no information leaked out about Bulgarians’ growing nouveau rich Mafia, we still considered it a safe country.
To satisfy our friends and relatives curiosity, I promised them to write monthly letters about our new life.
In November, John went to London, signed the contract at the EBRD headquarters and prepared the necessary paperwork to accept the nomination as Director of the Bank to be.
Between 1972 and 1974, he frequently stayed in the Grand Hotel Sofia. Now he housed in the beautifully restored and redecorated Sheraton-Balkan hotel. I was dying to get some information. Life did not seem too bad, was his answer. During the meeting with the shareholders, John met Penyo, the initiator of the project. A clever fellow, who started his career working for the Central Bank. Some oil speculations did not make him poor, so his ambition rose. Becoming a banker would give him more power and status, than the expensive cars, a typical status symbol of the nouveau riche. Penyo’s English was reasonably good. He reached a helping hand when John looked for office space and a house. With his brand new American Lincoln Continental car and driver, he took John on a tour to Boyana, a small village uphill the Vitosha Mountain, the best area to live, according to his knowledge.
When Penyo told his driver: ‘Just drive around,’ the reaction of this man shocked John. The man stopped at every street corner and asked his boss for instructions, which way to take ‘Right, left, return?’ He appeared mortally afraid to take the wrong decision. Had communism drained all initiative out of ordinary people? It seemed so. When John told me about his experience, I hardly could believe my ears and I hoped his Bulgarian support staff would be more assertive.
Penyo’s information about the outrageous prices for renting decent quarters shocked us. The official state-owned organization BODEKA possessed several apartment blocks in Izstock rented out to foreigners and lower diplomats at $1200 per month. It had even a waiting list. The other possibility was renting a weekend house of one of the former big communistic shots. Soon we found out how well those ‘ex-communists’ understood the rules of a free-market.
I will spare you the hassle between the Bulgarian banks before we finally could call Bulgaria our residency.
Although John had a signed contract, the EBRD put the assignment on ice for 6 months. This happened 2nd January 1994. John icily accepted, even if he got no salary, as he was eager to create a bank according to his own ideas.
I still had two living creatures to care for and leaving without them was out of the question. We loved our dogs, a beagle, and a Labrador retriever dearly. Moving with dogs complicated matters, but diplomatic friends always had managed to bring their beloved animals in another country, so why not us?
Details about a monthly fee and all expenses were still vague. I told John I had a nasty gut feeling about this arrangement.
As I used to have everything under control, being constant ‘on-hold’ by often postponing the startup, my system could not stand. This stupid delay made it impossible to take action. In principle, we were sitting next to the telephone to wait for the green light. My level regarding the efficiency of the EBRD officials dropped dramatically. Officially John resided already in Sofia, we had a signed contract to sell our house and my tax-free Jeep ran out of its 3 months duty-free period.
Because I refused to live in a crummy place, John mentioned the expense problem regarding the housing allowance. After some brainstorming, the EBRD suggested constructing a house for the manager. This would be a solid first investment for the bank to be. The EBRD even spoke of building a complete ex-pat compound. Excellent idea, I thought, but how long could it take to get the authorization? We were rather optimistic about this as in Holland the construction of our house took less than 3 months. Although I did not foresee a miracle, I hoped this special method by using modules was a possibility.
The EBRD lawyers minimized eventual problems concerning official documents, importing part of our furniture, work permit, etc. They acted with an air: ‘we have the money and thus the power to do what we like.’ The Bulgarian officials did not share their opinion. Now I can laugh about it, but I did not think it so funny when we met with the typical ‘chicken and egg’ question about getting our furniture.
We needed health certificates for our dogs. The Dutch government must duly stamp those documents. That was not all, as an authorized person had to translate those papers in Bulgarian. Gathering official stamps seemed to be a hobby in certain countries. It was understandable that all vaccinations had to be valid. However, it was rather hectic. The examination, translation, and authorization were only valid when the vet had seen our dogs within 3 days prior to departure. Since we still were unaware of an exact start-up day, I found it rather stressful.
John gave me the job to organize our moving with all its silly details and uncertainties.
Moving through a war zone, being the shortest trip, was impossible at that time. Driving through Romania was dangerous. Stolen trucks and murdered drivers were not something we were waiting for.
Finally, the contract arrived and things could be set in motion. Now house hunting became a priority.
To prevent eventual boredom, I decided to take my piano and my ceramic kiln with me. The decision about the porcelain painting stuff turned out to be the best I could have taken, as, through my ability to share my knowledge, I created extraordinary friendships.
For house hunting, a plane ticket for me was not included and as I did not rely completely on my husband’s ideas about housing, we decided to travel to Bulgaria with the new Jeep. Driving through Italy and Greece was a good way to find out if we could take our dogs with us by car instead of having them suffer from an air trip. One ferry boat (offering the cheapest fare) allowed to have animals in your cabin, so we booked a ticket on this vessel.
At that time, you still needed a visa for Bulgaria. The consulate had limited opening hours, but fortunately, it was located in The Hague. We queued behind some waiting persons. They were all business people. Was a holiday in this country no option? Instead of a warm welcome, officials treated us with the same indifference as I experienced during the period before the Berlin Wall collapsed. To my surprise, Eastern bloc apathy still worked. Their jobs seemed to bore them and on top of it, they treated everybody that asked for the enforced travel document with utter disdain. Kafka’s book was probably Bulgaria’s Bible as I could not understand why they acted like extremely slow working robots. After filling out a long list with illogical questions, we had to glue our picture on the flimsy paper. There was no glue available. The idea of having a pot of glue in your handbag was rather hilarious, although during this moment I did see it that way. For payment, they insisted on cash in Dutch guilders. If you could not provide the exact amount of money, you did not get loose change. Those rigid rules and their indifferent attitude were things I hated.
To prevent some future medical disasters we had an extra medical check-up, including a visit to the dentist. I bought medication for us and for our dogs, sufficient to fill a shoebox, a wise decision I discovered later.
During a meeting at an International Women Club, I spoke about our future move. One woman told me about Anneke, whom she supposed was living now in Sofia.
The day before our departure for the househunting trip, two incredible things happened. One was the visit of this Anneke, and the other was an invitation to dinner where we met a Bulgarian couple.
Anneke’s visit happened after my husband’s telephone call to the Dutch consul in Sofia, to get some information about the local situation. When John heard his wife Anneke was in The Hague, this diplomat said she perhaps had some time to come and see us. She did and when I saw her, I liked her immediately.
She could inform me about shopping possibilities, confirming my idea: you could not shop until you drop. As Bulgarian supermarkets were scarce and quality and quantity of their products were poor, diplomats had permission to buy imported goods at the Diplomatic shop After brainstorming with her, my list of useful items to pack got much longer.
Anneke was on the board of the International Women Club. She invited me to its monthly lunch on Tuesday, when we were in Sofia. This was a nice start and now Bulgaria was a bit less unfamiliar to me.
The same evening, Marian invited us for dinner at her place. Marian, a very active person, taught me the secrets of porcelain painting. Now she was working as a real estate agent. One of her clients, Radoslav, a Bulgarian diplomat wanted to rent better housing than his government had provided. Thinking it a good idea for us to get some information about his country, she asked this diplomat plus wife to join for dinner. Super, we thought and as I could not wait to learn more about daily life, what person could better inform us than a Bulgarian? Forget it. They were like oysters about the actual situation. Probably they did not want to discourage us. However, he possessed with his mother a little dacha in Boyana, a small village uphill Sofia. He told us it was just perfect for us and we could rent it for the first few months. His mother was a widow and his father had been a general. Boyana was half way up the Vitosha Mountain, near the woods, where we could walk our dogs. As a special recommendation, he told us, his neighbour was the president. Milan, one of his friends spoke fluently French and we could count on his help. We got Milan’s telephone number and Radoslav would contact this friend immediately. Milan had been an ambassador in France and he certainly was willing to show us his dacha, after which we could decide to rent it or not. So far, my utterly down-to-earth husband never used his basic instincts. Since the accumulation of coincidences from the moment our Bulgarian adventure began, even John started to believe in predestination. Help just seemed to come from heaven and going to Bulgaria probably stood written in the stars.
Our journey seemed more the Camel trophies rally rather than a holiday trip. As former Yugoslavia was still at war, we calculated 5 days for this trip. Having spare time was no luxury as we had a ticket for the ferry from Brindisi. Early arrival at Bulgaria’s border was important, as, according to dramatic newspaper articles, border crossing could take many hours. Newspapers loved to print disaster scenarios and the information about a possible 3 day waiting period before we could enter Bulgaria did not make us happy. Driving at night on Bulgarian roads was not recommendable as horse carriages; still, a popular transport often lacked illumination.
Finally, a few days before our departure, we received the booking confirmation of the ferry for Brindisi to Igoumenitsa. Internet was not yet available, but the fax machine did its job.
The morning of our departure, we brought our dogs to the kennel. Next, to our luggage, John uploaded the Jeep with two wooden crates filled to the brim with old useful banking files, plus extra clothing for his first month in a hotel.
Our automobile club provided a detailed description in Dutch of our planned trip with marked roads. Another club, the ANWB, sent road maps with Cyrillic characters.
The first night we stayed with friends in Geneva, saving on the hotel bill, but spending it on a dinner invitation.
Our trip went smoothly until we arrived in Italy. My Jeep started to cough just on a stretch of the Italian autostrada where, due to roadworks, cars were driving in both directions on one track. The speed of the Jeep dropped dramatically, thinking about missing our next-day ferry boat reservation but not daring to speak it out. Italians handle their cars like race drivers, so no wonder our slow coughing car irritated them. Stopping and restarting did solve the problem for about 10 minutes and then the Jeep got his hiccup again. As an extra bonus, the air-conditioning stopped. It became warmer and warmer. After an extensive search, we found a garage where the mechanic discovered rust in the petrol filter. Probably my new Jeep stood with its belly in seawater during transport from the States. The garage had no new filter in stock, but the mechanic could fix the climate control.
In our hotel, the manager was so kind to telephone the local garage, explaining all more rapid than we could do. Thank heavens we could get it fixed early next morning so we arrived in time at Brindisi’s port.
We found ‘our’ boat and drove the Jeep to the indicated place in its belly. The decoration of the ship, sailing under the Cypriot flag consisted of a lot of rust. A young man welcomed us and he brought our suitcases efficiently to our luxury cabin with a bathroom. Taking dogs into the hut would never be a problem, even wild dogs could do no harm and if they did, nobody would notice. Probably our standard of comfort was still too high for our coming adventure. The supposed bathroom was a small toilet with a shower ‘practically’ placed just on top of the toilet.
For dinner, we got some flimsy tickets. We could take menu A or B. We choose the less fatty meal and for dessert, we took one orange, presented with a stainless steel dog bowl as if it were the crown jewels. The dilapidation-look of the Cypriot boat became later very familiar and we realised we soon would be back to basics.
Arrival time had been a mystery, probably 9 o’clock. However, at around 6 o’clock in the morning, a man suddenly burst in our cabin, shouting we immediately had to leave the boat. Instead of abandoning the ship before sinking, arrival had been more rapid than foreseen. For extensive toilet-pot, showering or breakfast was no time.
Our fellow passengers were truck drivers and Turkish people. The latter ones drove very antiquely Mercedes packed up the roof nearly twice its size, returning home after their ‘Gastarbeiter’ work.
Although we had splendid weather and the scenery was stunning, our stomach started to rumble. Clever Turks stopped at the side of the road, unloading camping kitchens to prepare a sumptuous breakfast. We decided to look for at a nice little restaurant. Forget it. One hour later, we had not even seen the smallest café. We nearly lost all hope, but about 3 hours later, we saw a crummy place that made our heart jump.
Two gloomy men were consuming ouzo. Their wives got nothing and when those fellows were leaving, they chased their woman like cattle in the back of the truck. Would Bulgarians handle women likewise? We were kinder to our dogs.
Good service was out of the question, so we went inside and ordered coffee. A toothless old woman could brew coffee with or without sugar. It’s cooking took ages. Fortunately, she sold some eatable stuff, like wrapped ‘Nutella-croissants’ full of stabilizers, giving us new energy to continue our way. The first 150 kilometres we drove on a brand new road, paid by the European Community, as indicated on huge billboards. After that, the road was old and bad. Driving through the picturesque primitive villages searching for food and drinks, we saw many unpaved roads. We were happy it was not raining when a donkey or a tractor would work better than my 4×4.
After about 215 kilometres, we left the mountains. Nearing Kalambaka, we saw those bizarre impressive Meteor Monasteries, where James Bond excelled with the hang-glider act. We decided to visit these phenomena on our way back.
Driving in Greece was even more creative than in Italy, where stopping means you lose your priority. Here it looked like a computer game, but life. Drivers used the emergency lanes on both sides as well, creating a 5-track road of the 3-track one, leaving it a mystery if you were on the 2 or on the 3-lane side. Fortunately, the expected ‘boom’ did not happen.
Between trucks and horse with carriages, my brand new Jeep was something from another planet.
During lunchtime, we stopped at the tiny village Platamon at the Aegean coast. Seeing its fishing boats towed in the sand, I presumed the fish would be fresh. We took a stroll through this lovely little village and chose a restaurant on the beach, where we ordered delicious shrimps. The relaxing sound of the waves accompanied our lunch. There was no time for a siesta, as we had to hurry up to find a decent hotel.
Thessaloniki offered nothing, so we drove on to Serres. My mother had stayed there 12 years ago and we were glad she gave the name of the hotel, supposed to be rather good. She remembered there was closed car parking. We found it. There was a room available and we could park the car. The owner had lost all energy to keep this place shipshape, but the beds were good and we had our own bathroom. After our long day of driving, a shower did wonders. I had to think twice before I put the water on as this Byzantine shower sprayed everything: toilet, washstand and towel rack. Getting into the bathroom in birthday dress and leaving the towels on our bed was the only solution for keeping them dry. The wet tiles got very slippery, but we managed to do the shower job without falling or breaking a leg.
As dining in Greece starts late, we first joined the locals for an early evening stroll in the vivid streets and squares: to see and to be seen.
Our hotel had no dining facilities. The owner gave us a close-by address. Arriving at 10 o’clock, at the nice garden restaurant, we were firsts. Ordering early was no problem and when we had almost finished, other customers arrived. Many young children, who should be in their beds according to our lifestyle, came with their parents. Their favourite dish was French-fried, topped up with rasped cheese and for drinks, the locals ordered Coca-Cola mixed with white wine in one glass, exactly as I had seen 15 years ago in Romania.
We slept like roses. Serres had been a better choice than the much noisier Thessaloniki. As expected, breakfast was far from spectacular. A piece of industrial toast wrapped in cellophane and a weak cup of tea served with minimal service, miles away from gigantic overstuffed buffet breakfasts in the big Western hotels was all. Fortunately, we still had a pack of cookies we bought during our first breakfast stop.
My excitement grew, as soon we would enter our ‘new world’.
Nearing the border on the now deserted road, I saw several blockhouses, ‘no entry’ signs and unfriendly symbols indicating someone forbade EVERYTHING. You risked a shot on the spot if you dared to take a picture. I could not discover anything interesting, worth a picture. Obviously, the old paranoid system’s influence still worked. Communists loved to control everything with terror and it seemed you even needed permission to blow your nose in Bulgaria. It looked as if we were entering a prison camp, with its lifeless and chilling atmosphere.
We arrived as an early bird a long way before the grim border, where a long line of waiting trucks made me sigh. This was not funny. However, a small white car drove past those trucks and we decided to follow it; a wise decision. After we overtook at least 60 vehicles, I stopped counting. As those lorry drivers were well prepared with folding chairs and cooking material, they expected a very long waiting period. For them, it was serious business or better: loss of business and no picnic beside the road. Stories in Western newspapers about 3 days waiting time for Bulgaria’s borders darted through my mind. As I was curious how long our border crossing would take, I checked the time.
After the visa experience at the consulate, this second encounter with Bulgarian officials confirmed my Kafka-like ideas about their training in being utterly indifferent towards persons coming to spend money in their country. Forget about a warm welcome. They were no workaholics either. No top actor could do better to look at you if you were a top criminal than those bureaucrats. I hoped not all Bulgarians were grey, dull and hostile.
We stopped at the first dilapidated cubicle, where several unfriendly looking creatures easily could win a contest of apathetic conduct.
The first ‘actor’ asked for DM 3 for ‘veterinair kontrol’. Nothing was controlled and we even did not need to drive through the dry lane supposed to contain some disinfectant fluid. Pure bribe! We did not get a receipt. After this, we had to stop again. The next fellow took our passports. After profound examination, we got it back with a yellow paper, being a temporary import declaration for my car. Losing the yellow paper could provoke a disaster when you wanted to leave the country. Next official, 5 meters further, summoned us to get out of the car. John had to fill in some papers in a crummy little office with a small glass sliding window. Good heavens, what would they do with all those papers? Chap number 4 gave us a homemade piece of cardboard torn from an old cigarette package with a pencil written number on it. We had to give this thumped ‘document’ to the next man, 30 meters further.
After all, it did take us only 45 minutes: Not bad for a private car. Poor truckers, as during our border crossing I did not see a single van move one inch. (When we were more or less settled, we read in a daily Bulgarian bulletin those long waiting times caused losses of about $80.000 income per day.) Finally, we were in Bulgaria.
It took us three and half hours to reach Sofia. The road to Bulgaria’s capital was not as bad as expected. According to information from the Dutch car club, petrol stations still were scarce. When I saw a modern petrol station, I crossed it on the map. Petrol was not as expensive as in Holland; back home, we paid 3 times as much.
We saw out-of-date trucks, grumbling Trabants, and other Eastern Bloc Brands, giving the impression someone had put back the clock 50 years. In Greece, we had not seen that many antiquities and the difference with traffic in Bulgaria was stunning. The old-fashioned car design with the rounded corners was so old, that now it came back as ‘new’ in the West.
After one hour driving, oncoming cars gave warning signals with their headlights. We got the message: speed control. Indeed, there was the KAT (Kontrol Avtomobil Technik). Like in the West, the cops wanted to grab in an easy way some extra money. Brotherly feeling towards the Bulgarians crept in and we could keep the money in our pockets.
With the Cyrillic road map on my lap, I tried to decipher the name of the villages we entered. John loves to keep a good speed, so my code cracking of the Cyrillic village name just finished after passing it. Being very curious about our new country of residence, I wanted to absorb as much as possible of its scenery. We did not see stunning castles or lovely villages, but in the summertime, you could call them, with some effort, picturesque. Many small houses had grapes covered domes. Instead of flowers, vegetables covered every inch of their plot.
The wonderful scenery alongside the river Struma between towering rocks with wild running streams were grateful items for photographers. Unfortunately, it was too dangerous to stop for making spectacular pictures. Suddenly nature ended… Near the industrial city of Blagoevgrad, the place seemed to be played with grey paint. The atmosphere became quite different. Having travelled through Hungary, the former Czechoslovakia and Romania, industrial cities were no high-tech sightseeing places either, but this place could be the décor for a movie of a war zone without having to make any alterations. Rusting mining wagons at a cable over the road looked far from safe and the grimness of the drab apartment buildings was sickening. Weed was the only green I saw, as industrial dust covered everything. Grooming was no hobby. How depressing to live here. Even the children, dressed in T-shirts in need of mending, playing a bit in a weed field, lacked a smile on their face.
We did not see an inviting place to stop for a stroll or for coffee. However, during our trip, we saw not a single café or road restaurant. Luckily, unlike average Dutchman, we easily can handle many hours without a coffee break. Having passed the city of Stanke Dimitrov (now called Dupnitza), the scenery changed for a better one. We drove through glowing hills where we hardly saw a living soul.
Although a traffic-sign indicated, driving with animals and carriages on this ‘international highway’ was forbidden, near Sofia, many more horses and carriages were taking the road. Probably those traffic signs only acted as decoration.
Soon I found out that the population ignored many rules. The buses, written off in Germany, drove like a crippled elderly and produced clouds of stinking black smoke. Environmental freaks were not yet active here. Street maps were of no use as most nameplates had fallen off or rusted away. Because some big communistic heroes had fallen into disgrace and new trendy heroes recently got the honour of a street name, finding your way was quite difficult.
Being one of the higher buildings, we found the Vitosha Hotel without asking around.
The Sheraton hotel was better, but its parking place was Mafia owned and as we did not want to lose our car on our first days in Bulgaria, John had booked a room in the Vitosha Hotel because of its indoor garage.
The hotel did not look bad, but it was far from dazzling. An outdated design was expected, but the unfinished look of our bathroom and undrinkable tap water surprised me.
After the meagre breakfast, we were hungry. As it still was lunchtime, we decided to attack the outdoor hotel buffet. The traditional snacks looked very inviting. John ordered a bottle of wine and we filled our plates with a variety of grilled meats and other goodies, Mediterranean style. I tried all specialities. Yoghurt was one of their top products: delicious and cool on a warm summer day. Yoghurt soup, prepared with cucumber, garlic, walnuts, and dill was a special Bulgarian dish. Grilled zucchini, topped up with yoghurt mixed with a lot of garlic and dill, called ‘tikwitsti’, soon became one of my favourite dishes. I still prepare this fresh dish during a warm summer day as a starter. You could taste the sun in the tomatoes. The meat was delicious. Eating a lot of peppers and yoghurt Mediterranean style meant that you could reach the age of 100. As I loved the Mediterranean kitchen, finding something to eat would be one worry less. Another plus was the excellent wine, surprisingly cheap.
After lunch, we decided to see as much as possible of Sofia and its outskirts, including Boyana.
First, we made an appointment with Milan. A local telephone call was no problem, but to our surprise, it was impossible to reach our relatives in Holland, Belgium or in The States.
We got the car out of the garage and we took the road to the centre. At the first traffic light, some boys swarmed around our car with a water bottle and a sponge. John nodded approvingly and they started to clean. After our 5 days Paris-Dakar-like trip this was no luxury. When John gave them a tip, their reaction amazed me. They looked as if we gave them a $100 bill. A few Stotinki (one Lev = 100 Stotinki) made them feel like millionaires. I was as stunned as they were, but for different reasons. ‘Gosh, this country must be dirt poor,’ I told John, realizing its poverty level seemed worse than in several Central African countries.
John parked the Jeep with crook-lock near the EBRD office.
I absorbed Sophia’s atmosphere.
A paint job would have done wonders in the drab looking city. Were Bulgarians too poor to buy paint, did they lack the energy to do paint- or repair jobs or was it that paint was not available?
The lethargic atmosphere gave me the impression as if people used sedatives. Why was nobody interested to clean up, repair or take some weed out of the parks? This startled me. Nevertheless, how poor they were, people were rather well dressed. None of the women wore jeans. Were skirts, perhaps their Sunday outfit? Red painted hair was very popular and the combination of pink lipstick surprised me. In other East bloc countries deodorant probably was not sold, but here nobody smelled.
People sat in the parks, reading, playing chess or eating nuts, being abundantly for sale. Sofia’s poor condition shocked me. I did not see one single unbroken park-bench. As many tiles on the pavement were missing, you had to watch your step. Tramways had the same dirty, antique and unkempt radiation as the public transport diesel cars. Trolley buses often stopped and the driver had to reconnect the poles that slipped frequently from the cable. Although many things looked familiar, I entered a completely different world. Even the nice weather looked drab. Sofia’s valley was for ¾ parts surrounded by mountains, therefore the often-present smog could not escape.
After a stiff walk, we headed to the Sheraton Hotel for tea. At this moment, I did not foresee that this nicely decorated Hotel would become a second home for us where we would attend many parties and meet our foreign friends-group quite often.
As I knew, the parking place in front of the Sheraton was Mafia owned. Big intimidating looking fellows were handling this place and I wondered how ‘safe’ it was, to park there.
On Sunday, the big Tsum department store was not open. The show windows with cartons of washing powder and deodorant piled up clumsily did not make me greedy for shopping. A refinement to attract the customer was not important. Perhaps they did this on purpose not to drag the customers from their survival package, but at least I did not have to pack a wagon load of washing powder. Later I heard the amazing story that this product was only recently on the Bulgarian market and before that, you could get a fine when you tried to smuggle washing powder into the country.
All shop windows were dirty. Apparently, window washing was not one of their hobbies.
In Lisbon’s poor area, the Alfama, everything was clean and shining. What caused Bulgaria’s sluggishness: the communist oppression, or their Slavic mentality? I never found out completely. After tardy tea, we drove up to Boyana, the former communistic compound, entering this through an open barrier, seeing now useless small rusting guard cubicles and a constantly blinking traffic light. Previously only high communists had permission to be in this part of Boyana. During the old system, ordinary people could not even enter this ‘commie’s dacha compound’ for a stroll. My expectations were high about the lifestyle of those former commies, but to my surprise, I did not see one single well-tended garden. Everybody grew vegetables and fruit on their plots, looking far from the gardens of the chateau of Villandry. Haphazard sticking in the ground was very in. Tomatoes everywhere, fruit trees as well and heaps of rubbish in their yards and on top of that, the majority of the houses were dilapidated or under construction.
We could not find ‘our’ house, but I knew the Dutch Philips manager lived here. I asked one of the guards if they knew where his house was. He did not understand one word, so I asked another person. Apparently, nobody spoke a foreign language, thus we tried in our minimal basic Bulgarian: ‘Molja (= please) Philips Direktor’ and this worked. The man got the message and showed us the way. John said I could not just ring their bell, but I said, ‘why not, we are compatriots.’ Therefore, I did and they kindly asked us in, or actually out, as we had drinks in their garden.
When we found out a good friend of us was his boss, the conversation became more open. We heard much more ins and outs of Bulgaria as Anneke had told me. Searl strongly advised us to rent a house in Boyana. The continental climate had hot summers and cold winters and in the summer time, in Sofia city, the suffocating smog was unbearable. Boyana, halfway up the Vitosha Mountain at approximately 700 or 800 meters altitude had a nice climate. Even during the hot summer, it was pleasant and fresh. Moreover, you could drink the tap water coming straight from the Vitosha Mountain.
I hoped Searl would ask if we liked to see their house. When she did, I jumped up immediately.
A Bulgarian interior was a big surprise. Aesthetics, regarding style, material and finishing were miles away from what I called elegantly, but it had its charm to start living like the locals. Their unorthodox way to find a place to live had worked and we got the advice to do the same: ringing doorbells and asking around. As Yellow pages did not exist yet and neither there were real estate agents, this was the best way to find a place.
Boyana was the place to live, especially with dogs. Not one wall in their house was straight. Why didn’t they use a ruler, or trusted Bulgarians their eyes? We got rather uneasy when house rental prices came up and heard they paid $7000 per month… ‘Per year, you mean,’ I said, but no, they had to pay this every month and the owner did nothing when something was broken. Hallelujah.
For drinks, she served delicious homemade tomato juice. Drinking and driving were out of the question, we heard. A driver was a necessity, they told us. Luckily, a car plus driver was included in John’s contract.
An old washing machine on their terrace caught my attention. Searl saw my surprise and commented about some funny customs regulations. The broken-down machine was irreparable. Leaving it behind was no option. She had the choice between taking it back home or to pay import duty; fully absurd.
When we talked about the office and house-constructing project, we got the address of a Turkish architect. He had already designed three petrol stations, quick and clean. Their experience with Bulgarian builders turned out to be disastrous. We would contact this Turkish architect as soon as possible and perhaps this man could construct a house for us.
Jules told us more: dealing with Bulgarians was difficult as they seldom respected our Western rules. Although the Mafia got more and more influence, it was not yet very dangerous. Bulgaria had a long way to go, but it was a challenge to help, although often your efforts were not appreciated.
It all had been very informative and I was happy we had met. We drove to our hotel and this new information kept my mind working.
Before dinner, we took a dip in the hotel pool. We were the only courageous ones to swim. The tiles around the pool looked as someone had shot at them and some were lying loose, so you had to watch your step. It was exactly as I had experienced years ago in Eastern Europe: drab, loose tiles, Spartan welded steps, hurting your feet and a sloppy towel service. After some calls, a fellow handed me a towel with a minimum of courtesy. The dressing rooms were far from cosy. Communists had other priorities than creating a warm atmosphere. Their idea of luxury had more to do with ‘expensive’ and ‘impressive’, I soon found out.
It was convenient to stay in the hotel for dinner, to avoid a drink-driving problem. The hotel had several restaurants and we tried the ‘Italian’. The food was tasty, service a bit clumsy and the wine extraordinarily cheap. I did not see other guests from the West and I really felt being ‘abroad’.
During our evening meal, I thought more and more about the house, we would see the next day. Would we like it? Boyana was quite different than I had imagined, but its atmosphere was friendly. Why was everything so untidy? I had not seen one well-maintained garden. There was one exception: the Dutch we just met had lovely flowerbeds and they kept the place tidy. I could hardly sleep from excitement to find a place where we could live nicely during the coming years.