Friday, July 19, 2013

A Trip to Bulgaria in 1971

My dad surely had a lot of adventures in his job.  He was the sales & marketing director for a multinational petrochemical company, Ethyl Corporation, and it seemed that he was never home, traveling the globe.  One of my earliest memories is of him sending me a stuffed kangaroo from Australia, where he was when my birthday rolled around.  His passport had hundreds of pages in it, with accordion-style inserts as long as my arm.  There were decorative visas in it, with entry and exit stamps from all over the globe.  I wish I knew where it was; I don't remember coming across it when I was packing up my mom's house last year.  When he was alive, I used to badger him to write down some of his stories.  I even bought him a dictaphone gadget, but as far as I know, he never used it.

One story that he regaled us with was a trip behind the Iron Curtain in the early 1970's.  I wish I had a video of him telling the story; one of the best parts was his imitating a propeller airplane.  Not long before he died he gave me a written account of the trip as a Christmas present.  My copy was lost when I moved several times recently, but my sister sent me her copy.  I am happy to share it with you today:

“It was a dark and stormy night ….” or more correctly, it was a cold, dark and rainy morning.  And there I was at Zaventem Airport in Brussels at six a.m., checking in for a flight to Sophia, Bulgaria, via Frankfurt and Vienna.  I was filled with foreboding.  The day was somewhere between Christmas and New Years and although I had made dozens of trips in Europe, this was the first time I was required to fill out an exit visa which I realized was only for travel to Eastern [European] countries.  Events were to confirm that my foreboding was not misplaced.

As I sat in the departure lounge waiting for my flight to Frankfurt to be called, I had a chance to ponder the circumstances that had brought me to this place at this time.

I was then Marketing Director for the Middle East, Europe and Africa for an international chemical company with headquarters in Brussels and had [the] responsibility for shipping and delivery, customer service and several other activities.  There were several people under me, which must have been the reason for that somewhat euphemistic title.  Actually the fancy title did not last long, but that is another story.

Since it was between major holidays, I had chosen to make the trip myself instead of sending one of the staff.

We had a major manufacturing plant in Thessalonika, Greece, and had made a deal with the Bulgarians to make shipment to their refinery at Burgas in railcars as a very important replacement for shipment in drums from an Eastern European manufacturer.  It is important to know that the product involved was very toxic and a person could be poisoned either by breathing the vapors or by absorbing the liquid through the skin.  More later about the hazards involved in handling this chemical.

It is also important to know that we are required, as part of our agreement with the Bulgarians, to make initial delivery prior to the end of the year and the contents of the railcars were to be discharged and in storage by December 31.  We were familiar with the way the refinery had handled the Eastern European product and were much concerned about the possibility of damage to our railcars.

Thus I was on my way to look after the safe handling of our product to and to prevent damage to our tank cars.

Part of my worry was that my baggage might be lost, so I put everything into two briefcases, one with clothing and toilet articles and the other with flanges and adapters, which I estimated would be required to hook up our railcars to the Bulgarians’ facility.  If I were traveling today the iron in that one briefcase would set off security alarms all over Europe.

The first leg of my journey was uneventful.  I normally passed through Frankfurt several times a week and I was very familiar with that air terminal.

The second of the three legs was also routine and we arrived in Vienna pretty much on schedule.  I checked in for the flight to Sophia and settled down to wait for departure in two or three hours.  About an hour before departure I noticed a crowd around the airline ticket counter and heard voices raised in German.  After a short search I found a young man who spoke English, and who filled me in on what was going on. 

Sophia was fogged in.  (This was not at all uncommon in winter months).  Austrian Airlines notified passengers that they would be flown to Bucharest in Romania and then would go by train to Sophia.  This arrangement gave me some worry so I hooked up with the English-speaking fellow.  Turned out he was from Leipzig, in East Germany, a commercial traveler, and spoke a little of both the Romanian and Bulgarian languages.  There were about fifteen people in our group and I examined each person looking for an American.

One fellow stood out.  He looked like an American but his suit was rumpled and dirty and he had several days’ growth of beard.  I was attracted to another passenger who was female, had red hair and was a real beauty.

We boarded the plane and off we flew into the night.

The airport terminal at Bucharest was dark except for a few bulbs here and there.  This was the impression I had of all Eastern Europe – dark and foreboding.  There were guards standing around dressed in padded uniforms reminding me of the Chinese soldiers I had seen.  And they were well armed.

Another impression I gained was that no one seemed to be in charge and no one knew what was going on.  We huddled in a group in the terminal building and I stuck with my German friend.  I was exceedingly glad that I had only hand luggage.

Finally we were loaded on a bus for a trip to the center of Bucharest and it was dark all the way.  We drew up to the Intercontinental Hotel and we disembarked with instructions to use the hotel currency exchange to change our funds into local money to purchase our train ticket to Sophia.  We overwhelmed the poor money changer but finally managed to change enough for our tickets.  We were ordered to cross a main thoroughfare [on foot] to a travel agency to buy tickets.  Here I encountered another Eastern European characteristic – tram tracks that, combined with darkness, made crossing busy streets at night an adventure.

The travel agent now informed us that the tickets were to be purchased with foreign currency, so the whole group stumbled across the street to the hotel and converted our money back to the original.  The teller was somewhat put out but we got the proper money, went back to the travel agency and got our tickets, or rather ticket – since we were all on one ticket.  This was to cause a lot of trouble later.

Because he was multilingual, my German friend was given charge of the ticket, and I stuck even closer.  The train was leaving right away.

With all the back and forth, I had an opportunity to speak to the rumpled, unshaven fellow in our group.  To my great surprise he turned out to be the president of a Canadian steel manufacturing company.  He was on his way to Sophia to purchase some technology from the Bulgarians.  He had been on the way for several days, and with cancelled flights and changes in airlines, his baggage was long since lost.  Thus dirty suit and unshaven beard.  He, like I, had to be in Sophia by December 31.

We gathered in the hotel lobby to await developments.  Then, we learned that the train had gone, but that it had to stop at the Bulgarian frontier for customs and immigration formalities.  Since the border was only ten miles away, we would be loaded in a fleet of taxicabs and could catch the train while it waited for clearance to proceed.

About this time I began to notice the pretty girl with red hair, who was a member of our group – and she was crying.  I took the fatherly approach and told her I had three daughters and nothing would surprise me.  She had a sad tale to tell.  Turned out she was a company secretary from Copenhagen.  She had spent her last summer’s holiday at a resort on the Black Sea and had met a young man from Sophia.  The boy’s parents had invited her to spend the holidays with them and she had been on the way for four days.  On the first day of her journey the Copenhagen airport was fogged in so she went back home.  Starting the next day she had an erratic pattern of flights ending up in Romania, where she had no desire at all to be, and her money was running out.  I offered to stay with her to give her courage. 

When the taxicabs were assembled, the four of us, the East German, the Canadian, the Danish secretary and I boarded one cab and set out for the Romanian-Bulgarian border.  When we arrived, the train was long gone into Bulgaria.  Now what?

There was much disagreement among the group with some opting to cross the Danube River Bridge on foot and take their chances in Bulgaria.  We four decided to go back to Bucharest and try for a train the next day.  We still had the train ticket – first class seats for fifteen people.  Later on we were very glad.

Then we encountered the next problem:  The taxis had been paid for the trip to the border, but, as the drivers pointed out, this did not include our return fare.  They, however, were the “only game in town” and the return trip was triple the one-way fare.  But we paid and eventually were back at the Intercontinental Hotel in Bucharest.  After a short stop at the bar, we all repaired to our rooms for the night.

It had been a long day.

Day two began with our meeting for breakfast as agreed.  The multilingual German had determined the time of departure for the train for Sophia and had even been able to make telephone contact with the people in Sophia expecting to meet the Canadian and the red-haired secretary.

The train station was within walking distance of the hotel.  We picked up our baggage and went to catch our train.  The station was absolute bedlam.  About twenty trains all letting off steam and people going in every direction.  Which was our train?  Finally we were able to get on what we dearly hoped was a train headed to Sophia.

I remember that every traveler seemed to be carrying baskets of food and a jug of wine or water in a mesh bag.  We found out later why everyone was so equipped.

The train had compartments seating six passengers much like the trains in England and other European countries.  We found one with only a couple already seated and we four settled down for our trip.

The train got underway, and since it was daylight, we were able to enjoy the scenery.  We crossed the Danube into Bulgaria and saw the customs building where we had our adventure the night before.  Trouble developed almost immediately.  The conductor came to punch our tickets and found that the couple in our compartment was traveling on a second-class ticket.  It was an awkward moment.  But then our East German companion remembered that he had a ticket for fifteen passengers and we simply included our new friends on our ticket and all was well.

We had a difficult conversation with our fellow passengers and learned that he was a Bulgarian citizen and she was Romanian.  They were married to each other, but not allowed to live in each other’s country.  The only way they could get together was to ride the train.  Sounds a bit farfetched but absolutely nothing surprised me at this point.

What the couple had was a lot of food and a big jug of wine which, under the circumstances they happily shared with us.  There was nothing to eat or drink on the train, which explained why all of the people at the train station in Bucharest had food and wine.

To round out our meal, the Canadian revealed that he had a bottle of Canadian Club in his briefcase, which he had planned to give to his Bulgarian friends, but he decided to sacrifice it and we all made use of it.

To pass the time, I decided to wander through the train and up ahead I came to some cars with bunks on the sides, much like the troop trains in the USA during the war.  This train had come from somewhere in Russia and the passengers looked like Mongolians or some other fierce race of people.  They had been on the way a long time and floors of the cars were littered with orange peels and other garbage.  I didn’t linger.  (Note from me: These people were probably from Kazakhstan ... interesting coincidence!)

The sun went down and finally we arrived in Sophia in the dark.  Again the station was very dimly lit with an occasional bare bulb.  This time we had to cross railroad tracks on foot.  But happily the red-haired secretary met her boyfriend and the Canadian’s business people met him.  This left me and the German.  There were no taxis or other transportation whatsoever, so we got on a tram and thanks to my friend we eventually arrived at the Intercontinental Hotel.  I had been there on a previous trip so I felt at home.

So ended day two.

Day three dawned and I woke up with a sense of urgency since I was at least a day behind schedule with all of the delays.  I had a letter from the Bulgarians giving the address of an office in Sophia and the names of the people in charge.  The hotel gave me directions to the office, which was within walking distance.  A couple of interesting things: most streets there are named for important dates.
Thus, in this country, streets might be named the 4th of July or the 25th of December.  At that time I knew little of Bulgarian history so was unable to recognize the dates but I was to learn a little before I left the country.  Many offices were located in large former residences and that was the case with the Bulgarian oil company.

I found the house and went inside.  If I have one memory of my trip to Eastern Europe it is darkness.  The office building I went into had no lights in the hallway.  While I was holding my letter up to the skylight, trying to read a name, a woman came along and asked me in English what I wanted.  She told me that she thought the refinery in Burgas was closed for the holidays but that she would phone and find out.  My heart sank.  All that trouble and I was wiped out. 

Sure enough, the refinery was closed (at least to visitors) and I would be unable to get in until January 2.  This was about December 29.  With a sad heart I went back to the hotel to decide what to do for four days.  I booked my flight to Burgas on Balkan Bavarian Airlines and sent a telegram to the refinery telling them I would be there on January 2.  My East German friend showed up and, since he was spending New Years in Sophia, he also had time on his hands.

He and I spent time sitting in sidewalk cafes drinking coffee while flirting with local girls. (Not my dad!) There was nothing else to do. 

One day I visited the tomb of Georgi Dimitrov, the first premier of Bulgaria under Communist rule, and known as the father of socialism in that country.  There he was embalmed and preserved in his bed much like Lenin in Moscow.  There were military guards everywhere and I was warned to be exceedingly careful not to show any sign of disrespect.  I saw one fellow hustled out because he had his hands in his pockets.

Then finally it was New Years’ Eve and who should show up at the hotel but my Canadian friend from the trip on the train.  He had finished his business with the Bulgarians but still had no luggage.  I loaned him my razor and he looked a little better after using it.  We three, the Canadian, the German and I, booked a table at the hotel nightclub for the New Years’ party and celebrated with the Bulgarians.

On January 2 I went to the airport and took the flight to Burgas on the Black Sea where the refinery was located.  To my happy surprise, a woman from the refinery met my flight and took me to the plant.  I was able to visit the facility where our product was handled and found that our railcars were empty, having probably been unloaded under nitrogen pressure.  Because of its toxicity we never handled the product under pressure but moved it under vacuum to avoid the possibility of leakage. 

I could find no evidence of spillage, nor could I see any external signs of damage to our railcars.  I was really wondering what in the world I was doing there at all.

I took the opportunity, however, to inspect the handling facility at that unusual refinery.  Storage of the product was in a large, riveted horizontal tank.  When I inquired about the means of measuring the amount of product in the tank, the personnel involved showed me a long, wooden stick, which they inserted into an open hatch on the top of the tank.  The discoloration on the stick showed the volume of the liquid in the tank.  I was horrified!  This is a deadly product and both the fumes and the liquid can cause a terrible death.

I decided that the less I knew the better, and I arranged to leave the plant.

The Bulgarians helped me book a flight back to Sophia for the next day and took me to the hotel where I spent the night.  Burgas is a tourist resort in the summer months but not much going on in January.  I passed the time and took a taxi to the airport the next morning.

Taking a domestic flight in Bulgaria is quite the experience.  The aircraft are Russian-built imitations of US planes, but very bare bones.  There is no insulation on the interior and the piping and wiring are all exposed.  No seat belts and mean looking flight crews.  I saw on more than one occasion the captain leaning out of the left hand cockpit window shouting and arguing with the ground crew.

Then there was the matter of getting on the proper flight.  Since no English was spoken, I resorted to pointing to the plane and asking, “Sophia?”  It occurred to me that this question might be interpreted as an inquiry as to whether the flight might have come from Sophia. 

There was some reason to be concerned about safety.  I read later that this same flight had flown into a mountain another day.  Some of the people at the refinery thought that I was on the flight.

But this time I got the right plane headed to Sophia.  Here a rather strange thing happened.  Our salesman who normally called on the Bulgarians, thinking that he might have to leave the country in a hurry, had sat down with the airline guide and compiled a complete list of all flights leaving Sophia for any destination for the entire calendar week.  He had given me a copy of this list, not knowing what I might get into on my trip.  I had the list in my briefcase, and while in the air to Sophia, I got it out to see when I might be able to leave Sophia. 

To my happy surprise, there was listed a British European Airways (BEA) flight from Sophia to London scheduled to depart about an hour after the arrival of my domestic flight.

The minute my flight arrived, I hustled into the terminal to find BEA.  Their office was located in a remote area, but I found it, opened the door and asked if anyone spoke English.  A British voice came back, saying “Actually, old chap, that’s all we do speak!”  It sounded like angels singing.

So I pulled out my airline ticket with an open segment from Sophia to Brussels and asked if I could get a seat on their London flight.  I must have looked a bit harried, because my newfound British friend suggested that I go down to the airport canteen and have a cup of tea while he got the necessary endorsements.

So that’s what I did.  But I had been there only a few minutes when the BEA man came through the door.  This time he looked hassled.  He said, “Look at this ticket!”  Our travel agent in Brussels had prepared the ticket and in the space for “validity” he had shown the ticket to be good from December 27, 1971 to December 26, 1971 (instead of 1972).  The Bulgarians, being bureaucratic nit-pickers, had refused the endorse the ticket and they had final say in such matters.

I thought of a way out.  I had a Universal Air Travel Pass and I told the BEA fellow to write a new ticket, charge it to the ATP and I would sort it out back in Brussels.  He then told me that the Bulgarians would not accept the ATP and that the ticket must be purchased in cash.  I had been on the way quite a few days and I was running low on money, so this was not an option for me.  He said to let him work on the problem, and for me to go back to the bank to sell my Leva (Bulgarian currency).  The bank had a limited amount of foreign currency, so I ended up with a few US dollars, some francs, marks and other money.

The BEA guy showed up and told me the British Airline had agreed to accept my ATP and would generate enough cash to pay the Bulgarians.  This was very unusual and when I got back to Brussels, I wrote to the president of BEA telling him how his people in Sophia had saved me.

But my troubles were not quite over.  Although I now had a new ticket properly endorsed, there was a departure tax that was not included in the travel pass.  So I dug out the miscellaneous money I had from the airport bank, and told the BEA man to take what he needed.

Meanwhile I could see the plane for London warming up on the tarmac.  Finally I had completed all necessary formalities and could proceed to immigration for departure clearance.  My well-traveled passport had about 100 pages of visas and entry and exit stamps.  I was the last passenger through, and the official slowly examined every page.  While this was going on, I could see the flight attendant at the top of the stairs looking at her watch.  The engines were running and I was holding up the flight.

Finally the immigration bureaucrat stamped my passport.  I ran out the door and up the loading stairs and said to the stewardess, “Close the door!  Don’t let them take me off!”  A little exaggeration, I’m afraid.  We took off to Budapest en route to London.  The stewardess said, as we rolled down the runway, “I think you need a large whiskey.  I couldn’t have agreed more.

It is difficult to put into words my feelings when we arrived at Heathrow that evening.  The first sensation was how bright it was compared to the places I had been in the past few days.  There were lights everywhere.  The people in the air terminal were happy and, of course, I had the feeling of having escaped from a captive situation.  To be fair, this is not strictly true.  But there was a distinct feeling of freedom on my part.

My odyssey was not quite over.  I still had to get to Brussels and home.  There was a flight leaving almost immediately, and I was back in familiar surroundings late that evening.  Only one last minor problem: The airport banks were closed and I could not buy francs to get my car out of the airport carpark.  The attendant was willing to buy my foreign currency at a ridiculous rate of exchange, which I gladly paid.

Then I was home.  I had missed New Years’ and had accomplished absolutely nothing.  Other than the companions in Romania and on the train, I saw nothing beyond the New Years’ party in Sophia.  I sometimes wonder what happened to the red-haired secretary from Copenhagen.  

1 comment:

Gmarks said...

What a wonderful gift your father left his daughters. I am the youngest of three girls who grew up in SE Asia and my father was never home. He was Regional Director for Qantas Airways for many decades, so I should be forgiving :). I don't ever recall that he made it to a play, ballet recital or graduation, let alone write on a birthday card. I would absolutely treasure this epistle that he took the time to write for you. Thanks for sharing. It was a great story that captured so much of the era, in that part of the world.