Saturday, 29 September 2007

Red in the Morning (Chapter 4 - Bulgaria to Turkey)

Our one-night stay at the Legation lengthened into a long week-end, a week-end in which we learned a good deal about this satellite of Soviet Russia. Open-minded about Communism and a little sceptical of Press propaganda, I was interested to see whether in fact the system was as black as it was painted. In these four days I saw enough to last me for the rest of my life. The whole social structure is dominated by the military, and uniformed men seem to make up most of the population. Food and clothing are very scarce and of poor quality; petrol, at the equivalent of £ 1 per gallon, is muddy black and just about burnable. It is, of course, rationed and one has to search pretty thoroughly for a petrol station, even in Sofia. Bulgaria is a country where a rich man owns a bicycle.

Wherever we went, our number plate was recorded every five miles by a police watching-post, and deviation from the main road was strictly forbidden. Villages are afflicted with remote-control loudspeakers in the squares which blare forth unwanted martial music for the best part of every day, and every public amenity, from cattle-troughs to park benches and public lavatories, is stamped with the red star and a built-in plaque enjoining the Happy Workers to be thankful for the benevolence of the Glorious State.

We spent our last day, Sunday, with the Constant family on a picnic drive to a picturesque dam about twenty miles from the city. The man-made lake created in this flooded valley was a week-end magnet, and Sunday morning was the time for a mass-exodus by the townspeople. They are great walkers, the Bulgarians; indeed, they have to be. We passed group after group striding along the road towards the lake: twenty miles there and twenty back. Strenuous work for one day, but they all seemed fit and there was a lot of laughter, which we hadn't seen in the town. The men were nearly all stripped to the waist, carrying their shirts and soaking up the hot sun. The road was long and dusty, but the cool waters were reward enough for the long hike. I doubt if we should have enjoyed the day so much if we had had to hike back to Sofia. Half-way home, one of the hikers thumbed a lift. We gave him one and dropped him off in the city centre. He was very gallant and insisted on shaking hands with the driver and me and kissing the hands of the women. With a last sweeping bow he backed away and disappeared.

'A brave man,' said the Vice-Consul. 'That's the first time anyone has dared to accept a lift from me. If the police saw him getting out of a Legation car, he'll have a lot of awkward questions to answer.'

'But surely it's not as bad as that, is it?' I queried.

'You've no conception of life here,' said the Vice-Consul, but he would not elaborate and continued on a lighter note.

'Things are easing a little, though. Not so long ago it was forbidden to make the trip we did today, for instance. And there are not so many road checks now. But my wife's maid still has to shop black-market to buy edible meat, and report once a week to a certain someone who checks on our activities. It is ostensibly a visit to the doctor, but we know where she really goes; and she knows we know, but still the farce has to be enacted once a week regularly.' He concluded on a note of hope. 'But still, things are getting better.'

Our Yugoslav dinars at last changed to Bulgarian leva, we left the Legation on the Monday morning. Apparently the uprising rumour had been just a rumour. Bathed, fresh and clean, with our spare clothing washed and ironed at the thoughtful suggestion of our hostess, we took down last-minute addresses of these people who in the short space of a week-end had become good friends; we waved good-bye and sped off down the tree-lined avenue. Faces were still glued to the windows of the house opposite. Plovdiv would be our next big town.

Along the way we met many Bulgarian villagers which made a change from our lonely run from the border. Some of the older ones, when the excitement of inspecting our strangeness had passed, tried to talk to us in odd words of English and German, and by miming. But somehow there was always a policeman on the scene who, with a curt nod of the head, discouraged any fraternizing. We did manage to have a chat with one Bulgarian about thirty miles from Plovdiv. We had stopped in the middle of a night drive to brew up by the roadside, when a motor-cyclist pulled in, presumably thinking we needed assistance. Within a few minutes we were squatting round the Primus giving the news-hungry visitor, who spoke quite passable English, an unabridged report of the outside world. He told us that before the war he had been a prosperous factory owner, today he was paid just enough money to exist from one pay-day to the next. But, we reminded him, he was still pretty well off to own a motor-cycle. He gave a laconic grin and glanced at the machine. 'Oh, that belongs to an army officer. I'm a mechanic working overtime. It's out on test, that's all.'

That night, as we camped near Plovdiv, I began thinking about home and how well off our own people really were. They grumble about rising prices, weather, and the hundred and one other little complaints that make up the average Englishman's day, but in Bulgaria the problems of Mr Everyman are far more serious. He has to find something like £50 to get himself a winter coat, in England a comfort, in Bulgaria a necessity. The standard of living-never high-is now lower than almost anywhere else in Europe. What to us are elementary needs, to the average Bulgarian are inaccessible dreams, for the truth is that this unhappy country has been wrung dry by her Russian overlords. Nita and I sped on through the night, anxious to cross the border at first light the following morning. The past few days had spelled 'finish' to any sympathy I might have felt towards such a regime.

Through a rambling village-Svilengrad-an anxious moment while the customs searched one of the pannier-bags (fortunately not the camera and film bag), a curt nod, and we were past the barrier into Turkey. For the first time in days we felt really free again.