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