Speakers’ Corner – Remember Me

The early morning sun peeked over the sea, forcing me to shield my eyes.  It was still; only the slosh of tiny waves lapping interrupted the tranquility. The view, however, was disrupted by statues of rotund middle-aged men and women in red or blue dated swimwear standing up to their ankles in the warm water.  They were bronzed, smooth-skinned, standing with arms out wide, like Christ on Calvary Hill, except there weren’t three, more like twenty.  I wiped my brow. Even at eight in the morning, it was sweltering.  I rubbed my eyes to make sure it wasn’t a mirage.

            ‘It’s the Russians,’ said an English voice to my rear.

            ‘The Russians? But why are they standing in the sea like that?’ I said, spinning around and recognizing someone I had met at the bar the previous night.

‘They get the sun’s reflection on parts of their bodies that they don’t get when sunbathing.’

‘I’ve never seen that before,’ I uttered. 

I waded in and threw my arms out, mimicking them.  I realised that there was a reason for their madness.  I scanned the alabaster strips beneath my arms and made a mental note.  A large man with a pot belly sneered at me from behind mirror sunglasses, and I dropped my arms.

‘It’s what they do, obsessed with all over suntans,’ said the man mocking them with a crucifixion pose. 

‘Who are they?’

‘It’s the politburo enjoying the Black Sea.  The perks of being at the top of the communist tree get you two weeks in Bulgaria on the Black Sea,’ he replied.

‘I’ve not seen them at our hotel?’

‘No, no, they are in special hotels with no foreigners.  They don’t mix, and no one wants to mingle with them.  They’re wary.  Wouldn’t you be?’ chuckled the man.

That was our first day on holiday in Varna, Bulgaria.  It was 1987, and the Berlin Wall was yet to fall.  We wanted a holiday somewhere different and cheap, and communist countries needed foreign currency.  The two weeks were an adventure and an education full of incidents.  It started when we arrived at Varna airport.  Sue showed her passport, and there was a pause while another officer was called to the booth.  They glared at our faces and studied at papers out of our eyesight below the counter.  Finally, they let us move on.  It wasn’t until later, when we examined Sue’s passport, that we realised that it noted her occupation as a civil servant. We couldn’t stop laughing, imagining spies tailing us, which seemed ridiculous as she worked at the Department of Employment in Holborn.  Sue was no MI6 agent or a likely story in a Le Carre espionage novel.   

We stayed in a self-contained resort, a couple of large hotels, with an expansive beach next to the Black Sea.  We were in the country but were captive in a small enclave.  It was basic provisions, no restaurants, and lunch could be bought from an official government van parked in a square off the beach.  It sold chicken and chips, each portion meticulously weighed out by the server.  I can remember being hungry all the time.  After a few days, we started hoarding rolls and boiled eggs from the communal breakfast for lunch.  Everything seemed scarce, and it only hinted at the privations ordinary citizens must have endured.  But this wasn’t for Bulgarians; it was a business to exploit as many dollars and pounds out of the visiting tourists as possible.  Only government-organised excursions were permitted, and we took a day cruise from the large port.  That seemed odd, as several Russian navy vessels were maneuvering out of the harbour.  Sue and I took photos of the ships, joking that we’ll soon get lifted by the secret service and be interrogated.

Tourists were allowed to take a local bus into Varna.  After a week, we became stir-crazy and decided we needed a day of shopping in the city.  The bureaucracy to buy a ticket and get on the bus was a struggle, mainly because no one spoke English, and the locals were concerned about our presence. In addition, we couldn’t read the signs and timetables because it was in the Cyrillic alphabet.   When we arrived in Varna city centre, we soon discovered there was nothing to see in the city, at least not for tourists.  The pristine streets were deserted. There was one large retail store.  The shop window resembled the image of a post-war 1950s shop in a provincial town in the UK, much like I’d seen on old Pathe newsreels, showing idealised domestic bliss, old vacuum cleaners, and top-loading washing machines. 

When we returned to get the bus home, Sue noted that she thought we were being followed.  Despite the boiling temperatures, a man in a simple, clean-cut suit was always a block behind or leaning on a car on the other side of the street.  He wasn’t bothering us, so we ignored him.  Moreover, we needed to figure out how to purchase a bus ticket; it was as challenging as before, and we reasoned that we could buy one on the bus.

‘I’m sorry,’ I said, lifting my hands upward, ’I don’t speak Bulgarian.’  The women bus conductor continued to gesture, her voice rising.  All heads on the bus turned toward the commotion.  She shouted something to the bus driver and the bus stopped in the middle of the countryside.  Some passengers joined in, presumably hurling insults in our direction, thinking we were trying to avoid the fare.

‘I didn’t understand where we bought the ticket,’ I explained, talking in a measured tone as if this would help with the language barrier.  I took my wallet out and showed them some notes.  This elicited more hysterical noises from the conductor.

‘That wasn’t a good idea, they think you’re trying to bribe them now,’ said Sue

‘They want you to leave the bus,’ said the man in the suit who suddenly appeared from nowhere. He spoke in flawless ‘Queen’s English’.

‘We didn’t understand the system,’ I pleaded, searching his eyes for some help.

He gave a cold and detached stare, ‘no you English don’t get much,’ and with a nod to the driver, we were manhandled off the bus to the raucous cheering of the passengers. It took us an hour to walk back to the resort.

I don’t want it to sound like we didn’t enjoy the holiday or Bulgaria.  Feta cheese, fabulous ice cream, and cheap beer linger long in the memory. The people and what we saw in the country were beautiful.  But it was a society that seemed scared, shrouded in suspicion, and under occupation. It was three years later that the communist bloc collapsed and Bulgaria transformed. 

Powdermills Bed & Breakfast had its first guests from Bulgaria this week.  The couple were from Varna.  They were here for two days, and I discussed my experience of their country.  They smiled in acknowledgment and talked about freedom.  When they were leaving, as thanks for our hospitality, Kremena gifted us a book of her poetry called Weed.  It was in Cyrillic and momentarily gave me the same cold sweats from all those years ago when I flicked through her book.  But there were several poems in English. 

Remember Me, a short poem resonated.  It’s hopeful. Primarily, it’s about remembering to be positive and upbeat about death and focus on the future. It ends in a clarion call to set a loved one free and focus on the future. However, for me, it had many parallels to Communist Bulgaria I visited. It’s saying, ‘forget the cynicism,’ and calls on optimism and harks to the future, to the country Bulgaria has become.  Freedom, to feel and believe in what you want, to speak your mind unhindered while always respecting others’ views and feelings, is universal.  And this short poem, more than anything, makes me want to return to Varna and witness the transformation of their society.

Remember me

For the silent breath of love

For the rose wave of the air

For the sweet rustle in the leaves

All greenery in my hands

All the sun in my hair

All the blue in my eyes

And no black in my dress

Only white to shine in the morning

Of the yellow rays of joy…

Jump now and go!

Kremena Anastasova