Shortages

AT THE START OF THE ‘LOCKDOWN’ in March 2020, there was some panic purchasing and it became difficult to buy items such as toilet paper, paracetamol tablets, yeast, and several other products used regularly. Fortunately, this situation has been resolved. Having experienced this situation briefly reminded me of two trips I made to Belgrade, the former Yugoslavia during the 1980s.

 

BLOG Prof Sreyevic

Often, I used to stay with my friend ‘R’, who had a flat in the heart of Dorćol, an old part of the city’s centre. One day, R announced that he had secured two places on a prestigious tour to visit the extensive Roman archaeological site at Gamzigrad in eastern Serbia. The tour group was to travel in two buses. One of them was for the ‘intellectuals’ and the other for the ‘workers’. We were to travel with the latter. The long drive from Belgrade to Gamzigrad was highly enjoyable. Everyone was drinking alcohol, chatting loudly, and often breaking into song. I wondered how we would cope with what promised to be a serious guided tour of the ruins of what had once been one of Diocletian’s huge palaces.

We were shown around by the eminent Professor Dragoslav Srejović (1931-1996), an archaeologist significantly involved in the discovery of the ancient Lepenski Vir site (9000-7000 BC) on a bank of the River Danube. I was impressed that everyone on the tour, especially my ‘tanked up’ fellow bus travellers, listened to the Prof quietly, attentively, and respectfully. By the time we had seen around the ruins, it was well after 1 pm. We were taken to a field with a few trees where there were long tables covered with tasty snacks and bottles of wine. We enjoyed these before boarding our coaches. I thought that we were about to head back to Belgrade, but we did not.

We were driven to a restaurant in nearby Zaječar, a town close to Bulgaria. What I had thought had been our lunch at Gamzigrad was merely a light hors’ d’oeuvre. We were served a hearty three-course meal. The desert was baklava. This was not served in the form of dainty little pieces like ‘petit fours’ but generously large slices. Turkish coffee ended the meal. The coffee was served in cups bearing the logo of the restaurant. Several of the group took them home as souvenirs.

After lunch, we had about an hour to look around Zaječar. R and I stepped into a food shop. My friend became very excited when he saw packs of butter on sale. This commodity was almost unavailable in Belgrade at the time. We carried our butter back to the coach, where R told some of the other passengers about his discovery. Moments later, everybody on our bus stampeded towards the shop and emptied it of butter.

On another visit to Belgrade, in April 1983, my friends were most upset. There was a severe shortage of coffee (in any form) in the city. This was a serious problem for people in the capital of Yugoslavia. I was staying in Belgrade on my way Bulgaria, which I was visiting for the first time. I told my friend, R, with whom I was staying in Belgrade, that if I found coffee in Bulgaria, I would bring some back for him and his friends.

There was no shortage of coffee in Bulgaria. I bought two kilogrammes of the stuff and after my short tour of the country, I headed back to Yugoslavia by train. At the Bulgarian side of the border, the train stopped. My travelling companion, S, and I were almost the only passengers in our carriage. After a wait of more than fifteen minutes, a Bulgarian customs official entered our compartment. He asked (in passable English) if we had anything to declare. We said that we had nothing. Then, he asked if we were carrying any coffee. I told him that I had two kilogramme packets, and he frowned before saying:

“Not allowed.”

I asked him what to do about it. He shrugged his shoulders and said again:

“No allowed.”

I offered him the bags of coffee. He nodded his head up and down, which is the Bulgarian expression for ‘no’, and not to be confused with the English head nodding that means ‘yes’.

“Shall I throw it out of the window?” I asked.

“Not,” he replied before leaving our compartment.

Then, nothing happened for more than one hour. The train did not move, the countryside was silent, the train was noiseless, and nobody moved inside the train. After this long period of inactivity, I peered out of our compartment and looked up and down the carriage’s corridor. At one end, ‘our’ official and a couple of his colleagues, were smoking cigarettes and nursing tiny cups of coffee.

Suddenly, there was a jolt and our train began moving into the no-mans-land between Bulgaria and Yugoslavia. Clearly, my illegal export of coffee had been forgotten or forgiven. My friends in Belgrade were extremely happy with my gift of coffee beans from Sofia.

On subsequent visits to Belgrade, I never again encountered shortages of anything as basic as butter and coffee. I hope that Britain never finds itself in the ‘shortage’ situation, which is anticipated by some who believe that this might become a problem if the country leaves Europe without a trade deal.

Bulgarian mineral water

bottle

In 1967, there was a serious strike of dock workers in the United Kingdom. There were anxieties about shortages of stocks of various household goods. And one of the most worried people was my late mother. Maybe, having lived through the lean days of early post-WW2 Britain, she did not want her family to be caught short of any essential supplies.

Very soon, she filled one of our smaller bedrooms with enough toilet rolls to keep an army happy. We did not have to buy toilet paper for many years after the strike was over.

Some years after she died, my father and I looked into a large cupboard which was used mainly to store unwanted furniture and other junk. We hardly ever opened this storage area because we knew there was little inside it that we might ever want to see again. However, when we opened the cupboard sometime in the 1980s, my father and I found that its floor was packed solid with a layer of tins of canned meat: ham and so on. Sadly, this went to waste.

My mother worried that in addition to shortages of groceries, the strike might lead to a failure of the public water supply. To prepare for this possible tragedy, my mother bought bottled water. Today, water packaged in plastic bottles is extremely common,and many will not leave home without a bottle of water. However, in the late 1960s in the UK, bottled water was a bit of a rarity. In those days, it was de rigeur to drink only bottled water in France, but in the UK you just turned on the tap.

Given the scarcity of bottled water in the UK of 1967, it is amazing that my mother was able to find quite a few gallons of the stuff. What amazes me to this day is that all of the bottles bore labels indicating that they contained spring water bottled in Bulgaria.

Hard currency

currency

Back in 1983, I visited Bulgaria. I had been advised that it was very unwise to exchange currency in the country any other way than by using the state’s official foreign exchange desks. So, as soon as I disembarked at the railway station at Sofia, I changed some of my UK Pounds into Bulgarian Leva. Even at the official exchange rate, one Pound had a more than adequate spending power.

My friend and I took  a taxi to the city centre. When we arrived, the meter , I asked the driver how much we needed to pay. He answered:

“One Deutschmark, One Dollar, One Swiss Franc, or one Pound.”

I said that I wanted to pay in Bulgarian Leva. He said:

“Two Leva”

But, I protested:

“The meter says only one Leva”

The driver turned around and said:

“Two people: two Leva”

I repeat this true tale to emphasise how little local money was valued in comparison with so-called ‘hard currency’. Also, in a few months when the UK leaves the European Union, probably without a trade deal, the Pound, which is already sinking in value, might cease to be a hard currency. Who knows, but here in the UK we might prefer to be paid not in our own currency but in one of the harder currencies such as the US Dollar or the Euro.

Ticket to Sofia

BULG 1 sofia church

A church in Sofia, 1983

I decided to travel to Bulgaria in Easter 1983; it was close to Yugoslavia and I had not been there before. I wanted to travel by train rather than air, and to visit friends on the way. I planned to start my journey from Rainham, the village in Kent where I had been practising dentistry for just over a year.

 

I went to the local station and asked about buying a return ticket from Rainham to Sofia. I was told that as this was not a commonly made journey I needed to go to a special office at London’s Victoria Station to get this prepared. I did as I was instructed, paid the fare, and was informed that my ticket would be ready for collection a week later. Armed with this bespoke ticket and a Bulgarian visa, I left Rainham for Dover, crossed the English Channel by steamer, and then boarded a train bound for Milan.

BULG 4 Sofia outskirts

A factory on the outskirts of Sofia, 1983

My future wife, Lopa, was living in Milan, where the company for whom she worked as a management consultant was based. During the few days that I stayed with her, I met Dijana (from Belgrade) and her then boyfriend quite by chance in the Piazza del Duomo, the huge square in front of the cathedral. They came to eat with us at Lopa’s flat, where her mother was also staying during a long visit from India. Dijana, whose interests in feminism were developing rapidly at the time, was impressed that Lopa’s mother was a doctor, a gynaecologist. She held female professionals in much higher regard than male ones.

After dinner, Dijana and her friend washed the dishes. I remember that when her unshaven boyfriend, who was desperately attempting to empathise with her burgeoning feminism, was washing a pan, he pointed out that he was washing the outside of the pan as well as the inside. He claimed vociferously and self-righteously that most men ignored the outsides of cooking pans, whereas women always washed them. I believe that his close relationship with Dijana was short-lived.

BULG 3 Sofia univ

University of Sofia, 1983

I continued my rail journey to Belgrade, where I stayed, as usual, with Raša. I learned that disaster had struck: there was a grave shortage of coffee in the city. This was truly a tragedy amongst its citizens, most of whom drank vast quantities of the stuff. I promised Raša that if I saw coffee for sale in Bulgaria, I would bring him some on my return. A few days later, I met my friend Shabnam at Belgrade’s railway station. She had arrived from London, and was joining me on the trip toBulgaria.

When our train had crossed the border and entered Bulgarian territory, a Bulgarian immigration official came into our compartment and examined our passports. After handing them back to us, he sat down and asked us where we were going. When we said that we were visiting Bulgaria and going no further, he smiled. It was, I felt, an expression of genuine joy. He was so pleased that we were taking the trouble to visit his country rather than simply using it as a corridor, as most travellers did on their way to Turkey.

BULG 1a Sofia Station

A railway station in Sofia, 1983

At the main railway station in Sofia we exchanged some of our Sterling for Bulgarian Lev at an official bureau-de-change. I had read that it was best to avoid black market currency exchanges because, even though a highly favourable rate of exchange could be expected, there were serious penalties for foreigners who used unofficial money-changers. Even at the official rate of exchange, we found everything in Bulgaria to be ridiculously cheap by our standards.

The station was quite far from the city centre. We hired a taxi to take us there. When we reached the destination, I asked how much we needed to pay. I spoke in my primitive Serbo-Croatian which was useful for making me understood in Bulgaria. This was not surprising as Bulgarian and Serbo-Croatian are quite closely related on the family tree of languages. The driver replied,“One Pound, one Dollar, one Deutschmark, one Swiss Franc…” “But we have Lev,” I interrupted, waving some Bulgarian currency notes at him. The driver stuck his nose into the air contemptuously, and said, “Two.” I pointed at the meter, which indicated a fare of one Lev, and said, “It says ‘one’.” He turned around and pointed at the two of us, and said, “Two, you are two people.” I gave up and paid. After all, 2 Lev was worth about 3 pence in those days.

BULG 5 Sofia dimitrov

Mausoleum of Bulgarian Communist politician Georgi Dimitrov[1882-1949] in Sofia, 1983

A lady at the tourist office arranged for us to stay in some private accommodation, and then explained how we should reach the place. I asked her to repeat the information as I had not heard it properly. She looked at me sternly, and said in English, “You need to concentrate better.”

 

This is an excerpt from my book “Scrabble with Slivovitz”, which is available on Amazon and bookdepository.com

BULG 0 Scrabble