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I'm Not Half the Man I Used to Be 

Richard, Gary & Don, Bulgarian Riviera

We were anxious to leave Romania, but somewhat fearful that more trouble lay ahead in Bulgaria.  Of all the countries in Eastern Europe, we knew that Bulgaria was the closest friend and ally of the Soviet Union.  The son of one of my Oxford tutors had been pulled off a train from Istanbul to Budapest while passing through Bulgaria because his hair was too long.  He had been taken to a police station, given a haircut, and put back on the train.  After what had happened in Bustend, we planned to keep to ourselves.


Romania played one last trick on us.  We treated ourselves to first-class tickets for the train ride from Bucharest to Varna, the Bulgarian city on the Black Sea.  When our train pulled into the station, the crowd on the platform all jumped onto the train cars while it was still moving.  By the time the train stopped, the doorways were jammed.  We spoke to a conductor.  Our first-class tickets were useless because we could not even enter our assigned car or any passenger car, for that matter. 


We were directed to a freight car where we found room on the floor with other groups.  The car was unlit, but we kept the door open.  Finding a common language was a struggle, but we learned that most of the other passengers had boarded the freight car in Moscow, where the train had originated.  They all had large suitcases strapped shut with very strong looking belts.  Every time the train stopped, some of the passengers scrambled out to fill up water bottles.  We pulled them back up into the car when their bottles were full, sometimes after the train had started moving.  We never figured out what kind of migration this way, but there seemed to be a lot of people moving from Russia to Bulgaria.  None of us wanted to repeat our ride on a freight car through Eastern Europe, especially Don and Richard.


The border was dramatic.  The train stopped on a bridge high over the Danube.  The guards dutifully collected our passports and were gone for a very long time.  We poked our heads out the doorway, surveying the scene at the little outdoor border station.  Then we watched in horror as the wind picked up a pile of papers and carried them, fluttering, into the Danube far below.  We just knew that our passports were among them.  What could be worse during the Cold War than missing passports, while sitting in a freight car on the border between Romania and Bulgaria?  Fortunately (for us at least) our passports were returned, and the train lurched a few feet ahead to a little restaurant.  Our first taste of Bulgaria was a cafeteria that served some kind of reptile, to the strains of a US country and western song over the loud speaker.  We changed to an ordinary steam engine train to Varna, one with seats for us, while our friends in the box car continued to Sophia.


Varna was a typical seaport, and the public washroom set a standard that was never exceeded on the downward side during our whole expedition.  We had departed the West's "land of the toilet" and had entered the East's "land of the hole in the ground."  Varna won the award for two reasons:  no privacy stalls and no drainpipes for the sinks.  The water drained through a hole right on your feet, where it splashed to the floor and joined the water from all the other sinks that ran down a hole in the corner of the room.


Entering Bulgaria marked another unmarked boundary.  We had entered the land where a shake of the head from left to right meant yes, and a nod up and down meant no.  This was the source of endless amusement for us, because no matter how often we told ourselves about this custom, it never sank in.  We constantly had to give each other reminders.


We hired a cab and set out for the Riviera of the Black Sea.  After the frustration of being turned away -- "nur gruppen"  "only groups" again --  we found a new high rise hotel that took us in.  It was one of many modern buildings, a Miami Beach without traffic.


We got a chance to watch the winners in the Communist world at play.  Our guess was that a vacation on the Black Sea coast was reserved for the lucky ones, but we never learned exactly which groups were there with us.  In any event, they were having fun.


Nightlife consisted of a rock performance.  We sat on the edge of a large room in our hotel, a night club for "gruppen."  The lead singer sang British and American hits in Bulgarian, punctuated with an occasional phrase of English.  We almost lost it when his wistful performance of "Yesterday" by the Beetles included only one phrase, blurted out at the top of his lungs:  "I'm not half the man I used to be!"  When it came around the second time, we almost died.  Another of our favorite lyrics was "Put your can in the can of the man from Galilee," from a spiritual hit of that era.


The next day, I performed my life's only rescue.  We noticed that there were no lifeguards on the lovely beach.   We also noticed that many of these Eastern Europeans, having the vacation of a lifetime, did not know how to swim.  This was a dangerous combination.  At one point, I saw two teen-aged girls sharing a rubber raft, but drifting too far from the shore.  They were waving and calling, but I could not tell what they were trying to tell me.   I swam in their direction, but they shook their heads and waved me off.  I turned away, but heard them calling again.  I approached again, and they shook their heads.  Idiot!  They were saying yes, and I was an idiot.  I swam to them and managed to pull them ashore.  They wouldn't let go of their raft until I had beached it on the sand.  I got a hug and a kiss from each, but we found no common language, and both moved on.


When we got to Sofia, our hotel included a direct view of the St. Alexander Nevsky church, then a museum.  It was the very center of town, and there often was not one car to be seen on the broad boulevards of this, another city that called itself the Paris of the East.  We visited an old monastery outside of town, which gave us a hint of the orthodox Christian tradition of Bulgaria.  We filed past the tomb of Georgi Demitrov, Bulgaria's counterpart of Lenin's tomb.  I must not have walked fast enough, because the woman in peasant clothes behind me pushed me ahead with her fist whenever I slowed down.  Lines were a serious matter behind the Iron Curtain.


There was a desk clerk at our hotel in Sofia who was happy to practice her English with us.  She was about our age, and her English was excellent.  Her family came from the Lake Ochrid part of Yugoslavian Macedonia, but they had moved to Bulgaria to get better medical treatment for her sick father.  This was a new concept to us -- moving to Bulgaria for the medical care.  We resolved not to get sick during our stop in Macedonia!


She spoke to us in the hotel without any inhibitions.  Her brother had been dragged into a police station, and they had shaved his head.  Her sister had been picked up for having a skirt too short.  The police tattooed circles around each leg below the knee so she would never be tempted to wear a short skirt again.  And so on.  We recounted our story from Bustend, and she was not surprised.


Her shift was over at 1:00 am, and we politely offered to wait with her at the bus stop in front of the hotel until her bus came.  She apologized, but had to decline.  She could lose her job if anyone saw her on the street with us, even in front of the hotel.  Those were the facts of life.  We kissed her good-bye, then watched out the window until the bus came.

Next chapter: Skopje, Belgrade, and Sarajevo

In front of Soviet-Bulgarian "friendship" billboard

Last updated September 2, 2002.