The song remains the same

Memorial to Soviet Army

Centuries of misery have been visited upon the countries through which we are traveling.

They have been invaded, sacked, bombed, absorbed, cast out, had their people driven into exile and their soldiers sent home blinded and humiliated. On occasion, their territory has simply been a convenient theatre for bigger empires to wage war against each other. Conflict and defeat have left scars on the land, the buildings, and the people.

“Bulgaria,” a tour guide told us, “is forever on the wrong side.”

A public relations executive explained that centuries of hardship, followed by decades of communist rule, have made his countrymen fatalistic and complacent. Why bother with optimism when the entire saga of the past most likely foretells a cruel future?

Throughout our four days in Sofia, our guide and companion was the savvy and vivacious Viara – a business reporter for BTV who is currently on maternity leave. She was taken aback when I asked her about her parents memories of life under communist rule, which ended with a “velvet revolution” in November of 1989.

“I have my own memories of the communists,” she said, and proceeded to share with me a child’s perspective on the inanity of life under totalitarian rule.

People watched their step. They watched what they said and who they said it to. Managerial-class families like Viara’s could occasionally leave the country but always they would be shadowed, clumsily, by a KGB informant.

Only the party insiders – the ones who lived in the best houses and did not have to wait to buy automobiles or suffer shortages – were true believers in the Marxist creed. Which of course was primarily a pretext for the way things are everywhere — them that has, gets.

The regular people considered communism a joke, but expressed their true feelings only among trusted friends. “When they wanted to make jokes about the leaders and the party they would send the children out of the room, saying, ‘Now the grownups will talk,’” Viara explained.

Battle of Kleidion memorial: A blinded soldier returns to his mother

Her father’s job put him in touch with many merchants. They all did favors for each other. Her family rarely did without staples. “Luxury” items were another story. The waiting list to buy a car could stretch to 15 years – all so one could buy a flimsy bucket of bolts from an East German auto factory. Viara’s grandfather was allowed to buy his car just in time to give it to Viara’s parents as a wedding present.

A joke from that era went like this:

A man went to the auto dealer and said, “I would like to buy a car.”

The dealer replied, “What color do you want.”

The comrade replied, “Green. When will be it ready?” and was told to come back on May 15th – 15 years hence. He inquired, “Would it be acceptable if I came in the afternoon?”

The dealer was puzzled. “What does it matter? It’s 15 years from now!”

“Well, you see,” comrade customer replied, “I have an appointment with the plumber on the morning of that day.”

I asked Viara how Bulgarians viewed Americans, given the constant state-produced propaganda she and fellow citizens were exposed to (and, to be fair, American media’s depiction of the Soviet nations was often equally heavy handed).

She laughed. “We loved all things American!” she said. “Music, magazines . . . we coveted these things.”

Her father returned from a trip abroad with blue jeans for Viara and her brother, Roman. Defiantly, they wore their new denim to school, along with their communist party scarves and school hats. They were promptly sent home.

Viara’s mother marched down to the school and the principal apparently withered under her persuasion. Viara and her brother returned to school – with the jeans. Small victories like this were savored.

Viara is palpably proud of her city. Perhaps people her age (a dead-ringer for Tina Fey, Viara is about 30), who have lived most of their lives as free people, are also free of the fatalism so common among older people.

But some things have not changed – and in fact, the reality of life in modern Sofia demonstrates that in some ways things are the same all over.

“There are the written rules, and then there is the way things are really done,” Viara told me. “Most people are playing it two ways. And, if you know the right people, you don’t necessarily have to follow all the rules.”

As I sit writing this at an interminable customs checkpoint between Bulgaria and Serbia, I hear an American college student describe how she recently got a speeding ticket. “But,” she added, “my dad knows some state police, so . . . “

Communism. Capitalism. Democracy. Etcetera. It is always helpful to know the right people.

For us, in Sofia, and only in the best and most honorable sense, Viara was the right person to know. She made our visit incalculably richer than it would otherwise have been.

Ciao Bulgaria. Ciao Viara.

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