Special to the Mountain News-WA
By Lu André
From his collection: Life Stories – For the Mind and Soul
I bought my first car when I was 32. That was back in communist Bulgaria.
Bulgaria turned communist at the end of WW II—1944, and for the next 15-20 years you could think of this once beautiful and prosperous country as a large prison. People who weren’t communists, or didn’t turned communist to survive, were stripped of almost everything human. On top of that, most goods were exported to the Soviet Union, our “Big Brother,” so food, clothing and necessities were really sparse.
My grandmother’s two sisters had left Bulgaria quite young and were living in Cleveland. My grandfather’s two brothers were living in America, too. Later, my older uncle went to Cleveland from Austria where he had gone to study just before the war end, and I always joked that most of my family was living in the States.
During those tough, initial twenty years it was a blessing when the regime allowed small food and clothing packages to be sent from relatives living abroad. Every two or three months – whenever packages were allowed to come into the country – it was like Christmas. The whole family would gather around the cardboard box almost destroyed by the shipping and the custom search, and we would start taking out our “presents.” My aunt was smart and used crumbled and torn pages of newspapers as wrapping paper. The dumb custom “officers” let that “useless” paper go through, and thus we were able to read news from the free world.
Maybe the most valuable thing in the packages, beside the clothes and some necessities, was the coffee – if someone at the customs didn’t “confiscate” it. Oh, wait! That was for my parents; for me the best thing was the chewing gum. Wrigley! Doublemint and Juicy Fruit. I’d chew each stick forever until it would start to disintegrate, then I will combine a new stick with that and make a larger ball—I had to make them last as long as possible—I didn’t know if I’ll get a new batch in the next package. Actually, no one knew if there ever would be another package.
Still the coffee was the king of the pack. My grandmother would bake it on the wood stove and my duty was to grind it. It took forever to produce a few cups of coffee worth with this old Turkish hand grinder. I had to stop many times to rest my arm. But the coffee was great. We had the best coffee in town. Because it was so precious and was going down so fast, my grandfather came up with the idea of having two batches. For the Turkish coffee to taste its best, the coffee has to have some substance. You achieve this “thickness” when you add some baked and ground soya beans to it – about an 80-20 coffee/soy blend. It was an art to have the proper mixture and my grandfather was an expert. So, we had one container with the “perfect” mix and one with a 50-50 coffee/soy mix, which would be served to friends when they come to visit. I know right away you are thinking—that’s not right, you should have served your friends the best. Yeah, right!
Well, I better explain. In this picturesque, small town—Samokov, tucked high in our tallest mountains—was where our family was exiled. Many other families considered “anti-communist” by the regime were sent there too. They were mostly people and families who were “someone” in previous life. Our friends included a former diplomat in Italy, a former top army general, the best attorney in the capital, several ex-wealthy oversea merchants, the wealthiest rose oil producer in Bulgaria and Europe, just to name a few. Since all of them were not allowed to do anything in their “retirement” all they could do was visit each other and talk. And drink coffee. Lots of coffee. No dinners or brunches or anything like that because there was not much food. You’d be lucky to get a cookie with your coffee if the housewife baked some. So, after some “initial trials” my family discovered really fast that the proper coffee mix didn’t last for too long if it was served as it should be. Hence, the gradual toning down of the “pure” mix.
Our friends got used to this “lesser” coffee, first because the transition was done gradually and second, because there was no comparison. Plus, like with everything back then, you couldn’t get good stuff all of the time anyway. So, only 50% mix was served.
One time, my grandfather had his best friend over and he knew the coffee secret. They were drinking the real deal. Soon after the friend’s arrival a friendly couple came to visit, too. I was in charge of making the coffee. I quickly finished the half and half mix and served them nice boiling hot coffee. Well, the wife had a very long nose. She had smelled the coffee my grandfather and his friend were sipping and when the new one came in she coldly remarked: “We definitely didn’t get the same!” To be honest, I don’t remember how the story panned out, I was only eleven or twelve then, but this phrase remained and was used, as a joke, on many other occasions.
During the 70’s and the 80’s the regime and life in Bulgaria eased up a bit. The Russians were building different “who knows what” in some Middle East countries, mainly Libya. Workers were needed and since Bulgaria was closer and presumed “neutral” it was specialists and people from Bulgaria who were sent there. When I said “people” you may have thought “regular, normal people,” right? No, if they would have sent me there I would have escaped right away. They sent only people who were communists or “adopted” communism for better life. The deal was really lucrative. These workers could wire money back to their families or just keep it until the end of the contract. When I say money, I mean real money—they were paid in US dollars.
Special stores opened in the biggest cities in our country. These stores had the best goods you could imagine imported from the west. The stores were like small oases in the communist desert. That is why they had tight security. You could get in there only if you had proof that the dollars you had were legally obtained. So, to enter you had to show your passport, which every Bulgarian had to carry on them whenever they were outside their home, and a government-issued document for your foreign money. The guys who worked outside Bulgaria could shop there, and their families could do that, too. The government started to enjoy receiving the “real stuff.” Soon people were allowed to receive US money and other western currencies from their relatives abroad. Those people too, could shop at the special stores—CoreCom. I can’t remember what the name really stood for but I remember what it was commonly called—“Correction to Communism.” This moniker fit great because the whole idea of having such stores was absolutely against everything the communists preached and were bragging about.
Anyway. When one of my grandmother’s sisters died, my grandmother inherited some money. She gave it all to me, so I could buy a car. I bought it from one of these special chain of stores, which had expanded to sell cars, too. Having a car back then was a super big deal. Most of you, guys, have owned a car by the time you were eighteen or twenty, and have been in cars since childbirth. This was not the case in Bulgaria.
When I was a young boy there were only two or three cars in Samokov. There were lots of horse and buggies—the type that looked like a truck’s cargo bed only with a horse in front. Most of them had a tail post, protruding from the back, which I guess had to do something with the suspension. It was fun to ride on those things. You had to hide so the driver didn’t see you while the buggy was passing by. Then you crouch low and run behind the buggy and jump on this post. You had to be careful so you were not seen or felt, because presumably the driver could feel your weight reducing the speed of the buggy and chase you. If he caught you he could even beat you. I think they just didn’t want their horse to pull extra weight. So, that was our child’s fun experience on four wheels.
Our family had a friend who was a professor of arts. He was considered the best sculptor in the country. In order for him to continue his work and not be prosecuted, he and his wife had to “swallow” their pride and put on the “communist” mask. Because of that he could continue his work, although now it had to be geared towards glorifying communist achievements. Gradually he had big sculptures all over the country and he was doing really well financially. They used to come visit every so often. First they had a motorcycle, which in those days was also a big deal. While the two families were inside chatting I was outside flirting with the bike. What would it be if I could ride on this thing? So many times I would see them ride off and come home with my head down. One day they offered to give me a ride to the end of town. “But you have to walk back!” Are you kidding? I’d walk ten times around town to get a ride. I sat between them and we rode off. Whoa! What an experience! I haven’t forgotten how it felt—the wind in my hair, the noise of the engine, the speed, the running of the houses and images passing me by when we rode. It was quite something – excitement to the highest I tell you!
Much later I found out that my grandfather had asked them to do it. “Give this boy a ride! So, what if he has to walk back.” Several years later the professor and his wife, plus his assistant who was my uncle’s best friend, would come to visit, this time with their new car. Almost the same routine happened. I say “almost” because, yes, I would still drool out there by the car, picture myself riding in it and so on, only this time I did not get a ride. Maybe I would have gotten one but after a few visits they stopped coming. He became too famous, and socializing with “marked and doomed” people would have looked really bad and even dangerous on his resume. So, no car experiences until my late teenage years.
We had a distant cousin who was a WW II veteran and his left leg was damaged. He was allowed, as a source of income, to have a car (given to him after been expropriated from a wealthy someone) and use it as a taxi. It was a black Chrysler.
My two friends and I liked to hike in the mountains during our summer breaks. We’d pack our backpacks with as much as we could carry, jump on the bus to the mountain resource—about a 20-minute ride—and then walk on a gravel road for another 40-50 minutes to the where the mountain path started. This was the most boring and hence the most exhausting part of the whole trip. The sun was beating on us, the scenery wasn’t great, and did I say it was boring? We thought it could have been the steepness of that road that wore us down, or that it was the combination of that plus the fact that it was the first “mountain” walk of the year for us.
Anyway, when I graduated from high school, as a present my grandfather asked George, the guy with the “taxi,” to take us from our home to the mountain track. George owed my grandfather a big favor for something, so he accepted to be paid only for the gas. This was such a huge treat. Not only did we get not to walk on that horrible gravel road with our heavy backpacks, we got to ride in a real car for the first time. I still remember the smell of the car interior, the round gauges, the wooden trim and the leather seats. We were in Heaven!
So, almost fourteen years later I got my Lada. It was a Russian or actually, Soviet Union-made Italian Fiat. They bought the license to manufacture this older Fiat model. The contract did not allow them to change too much and the cars, although really basic, were riding great. All this happened relatively fast, but they were making just cars and the supply of accessories was almost non-existent. Soon there were many cars in our capital, which had a population of a bit over a million people.
You’d be driving on the streets or on the roads, and when it would start raining the weirdest thing would happen. I don’t think you’ll see this anywhere else in the world! Most of the traffic would stop. It would not be due to an accident. It would not be for an ambulance or a fire truck. It was not due to a cop or red light, or anything you could think of. People would get out of their cars and start putting their wipers on. Because you could not buy them readily, some people started stealing them off the cars. I drove home late one night in the rain and forgot to take them off. The next morning—no wipers. I had an old one and drove like that, with one half-working wiper for more than a month until I managed to buy a set. This craziness lasted for about two-three years until a manufacturing plant was set in Bulgaria for car parts.
Next time when you are driving in your car, sipping your expensive Starbucks coffee and it starts raining – and you don’t have to stop, get out in the rain to put on and use your nice, smooth cleaning wipers – be thankful for all the blessings you have!
Thanks Lu…I enjoy your stories! It makes one think and appreciate what we have in this country. I have a good friend who lived in Lithuania during the war. She and her family were sent to concentration camps and then pawned off to several different countries. She was raised in Australia. She talks about the cabbage and potatoes they ate daily … with the occasional onion thrown in–but rarely. Needless to say, she loves food too much now.
Thank you very much, Paula, for taking the time to write about my story! It feels good to read a positive comment. Thanks, also for sharing your indirect experience with communism.
I was a bit anemic as a young child. I remember how my parents would buy enough meat for one hamburger. My uncle had to go to the neighboring village to a shepherd and buy the meat from him. This was illegal, (they had to give the extra meat to the government) and dangerous, so it had to be done the night. My grandfather would grill the burger inside the stove for me. I wanted to share and they made me eat it by myself, to get at least some strength. I don’t know what good it did me, because I felt really bad that they didn’t get any. This repeated for several months – one hamburger per month.