Bulgaria in 1975 presented a picture of perfected repression combined with enhanced depression. Buildings crying for renovation lined the streets of Sofia, the capital. Stores specialized in selling nothing. The Bulgarians either desperately wanted to talk to you or avoided you completely for fear of the secret police.
I took the train from Sofia to Plovdiv desiring to explore another Bulgarian city. The packed compartment defied the empty car. Curious locals filled my compartment to talk to me. They rarely saw outsiders. I enjoyed the brief stardom for two hours.
Up arrival in Plovdiv, I walked outside. Darkness hid any nearby lodging. In fact, it hid everything! A passing couple directed me to a near by hotel. The entrance echoed socialist dinginess.
“Do you have any rooms?” I asked the depressing looking attendant, dressed in clothes that yelled communist chic.
“You must go Balkantourist,” she replied in a sharp voice lacking any emotion.
“Where is Balkantourist?” I asked
“Balkantourist, you must go Balkantourist.”
So much for this, I walked out and returned to the train station. There was a 10:30 pm train to Istanbul, so I walked over to purchase a ticket.
“One ticket to Istanbul please.”
“You must go Balkantourist for international ticket.”
“Where is Balkantourist?”
“Balkantourist, you must go Balkantourist!”
“Where is it?”
“Balkantourist, go Balkantourist,” she shouted back
Mystified, I decided I’d board the train without a ticket. Perhaps on the train, they’d sell me one, at least to the boarder. I turned and walked into the restaurant.
I sat down and waited to be served. Five minutes passed, then ten, then another ten. No service. I tried to wave someone over, but they just ignored me. So, it seems I can’t sleep, can’t travel and can’t eat. Where the hell am I?
A group of students sat down at the next table. Within three minutes, they had their food. I stood up, with an expression that read, what kind of crazy place is this? The students saw me and invited me over. They ordered and paid for my meal of kebabs. Thus was Bulgaria in 1975, complete hostility mixed with incredible kindness, all at the same time.
I finished my meal, thanked them and went to board my train. I got all the way to the boarder and saw no conductor. Great. The train rolled across into Turkey. After immigration procedures finished, it departed for Istanbul.
Soon, a Turkish conductor came by.
“Ticket,” he asked
“I don’t have one. I have all this Bulgarian money though.” I held up a worthless wad of worthless money. He grabbed the money, handed me some tickets and left as I headed back to sanity.
I returned to Plovdiv after the fall of communism. Upon leaving the station, a lady approached me and asked if I need a place to stay. The many restaurants greeted me with good service. The city itself contains a historical centre worth exploring. The schizophrenic nature of the people vanished with communists. Initially, I had trouble recollecting this was the same city I visited 20 years earlier. Normality had replaced the insanity of the past.
Balkantourist still exists today, but operates as a normal travel agency.