Travel in the time of tyrannical insanity

by | Dec 7, 2023

Bulgaria in 1975 presents 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 wanted to talk to you or avoided you 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 with curious locals desiring to talk to me. They seldom saw outsiders. I enjoyed the brief stardom for two hours.

Upon arrival in Plovdiv, I walked outside. Darkness hid any lodgings and everything else! A passing couple directed me to a nearby 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.”

Frustrated, 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”, I asked.

“You must go Balkantourist for an international ticket.” The ticket seller seemed irritated at this silly foreigner.

“Where is Balkantourist?”

“Balkantourist, you must go Balkantourist!”  

“Where is it?”, I asked again.

“Balkantourist, go Balkantourist,” she shouted.

Mystified, I decided I’d board the train without a ticket. Perhaps there they’d sell me one to the border. It was time to eat, and I walked into the restaurant.

I sat down and waited to be served. Five minutes passed, then ten, then another ten. 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, wondering if I’d stumbled into some kind of insanity. They 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.

After my meal, I thanked them and went to board my train. Several hours later, I got to the border and still no conductor. The train soon 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 held up a worthless wad of Bulgarian money. He grabbed the money, handed me some tickets and left as I headed back into sanity.

I returned to Plovdiv after the fall of communism. Upon leaving the station, a lady approached me and asked if I needed a place to stay. Plovdiv’s many restaurants greeted me with wonderful service. Its historical centre desired exploration. The schizophrenic nature of the people vanished with communists. I had trouble recollecting this was the same country I visited 20 years earlier. Normality had replaced its past insanity. 

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