May 03, 2007

Bulgaria, back in the day

May 6 is Bulgarian Army Day, a major, fete-filled national holiday.

I have bad memories of the Bulgarian army. And the Bulgarian police. Bad memories of anyone Bulgarian in any kind of uniform wielding any kind of weapon. Or whistle.

It was 1985, four years before the fall of the Berlin Wall set in motion the revolutionary collapses of Eastern Europe's communist dictatorships, and I was on a two-week bus tour of Bulgaria, Hungary, and what were then Czechoslovakia and Romania. (Remind me to tell you about the Big Brother creepiness of Bucharest. I felt watched every moment, whether on the street or in my hotel room. The walls had eyes. My skin crawled, even in my sleep. Of the cities we visited, Bucharest was most chilling, and Sofia, Bulgaria ran a close second. Prague and Budapest were gay, beautiful havens in comparison.)

We had a free (only in the sense of no group activities planned) afternoon in Sofia. We'd been cooped up in a bus with bench seats and no bathroom for a week, so the few unscheduled hours felt like a gift, and everyone took off in his or her own direction.

I trotted off to see the Communist Party Headquarters building in central Sofia. The colossal red star atop the Stalinist wedding cake structure looked like the ones I'd seen in Cold War spy movies, and I stepped off the sidewalk into the cobbled square the building looked down on to take some pictures.

When I was smack in the middle, whistles started blowing. At me.

Pairs of glaring, uniformed men -- whether police or army I don't know -- lined the sidewalks on both sides of the square, blowing violently and waving their arms in aggressive "get out of there or else!" motions. Bad, blowing Bulgarians in black jodhpurs and boots, hats with black patent leather visors, and holstered (thank God) pistols.

I'd find out later (guidebooks don't tell you everything) that there were certain times of day when no one was allowed to cross the square in front of Party headquarters. Seems I'd picked one of those taboo times to make my lone, innocent way across the cobbles to get a few shots of the big red star. The guys with the guns and boots didn't like it, and they were going to make me pay. For a minute that felt like an hour, they played chicken with me.

I'd run toward a sidewalk, and when I'd nearly reached it, a pair of the nasties would whistle wildly and wave me off, back into the middle of the square. I'd head for the opposite sidewalk, and another pair would fire off a round of ear-piercing toots and shoo me back into the middle. Again and again. Finally, they let me step onto the sidewalk. When I reached the curb, I kept walking, fast, back to my hotel.

When I got there, I found I wasn't the only person with a close-encounter-of-the-police-state-kind story to tell.

While I was being humiliated in front of party headquarters, a married couple in our group had been suffering in the ZUM department store around the corner.

The husband was confined by multiple sclerosis to a wheelchair. As his wife pushed him around the cavernous place, she began photographing the empty shelves in the store's basement grocery and produce sections.

Armed guards rushed her and took her away, leaving her helpless husband in his wheelchair in the grim, gray basement, isolated and effectively alone. He couldn't communicate, as he spoke no Bulgarian and couldn't write in nor read the Cyrillic alphabet. And, because he was likely the only black man the passing shoppers had ever seen, they gawked and pointed and whispered. While his wife was enduring several hours of interrogation, the man sat, for all of those hours, in the exact spot where he'd been left. No one spoke to him, no one helped him.

Finally, the wife came to retrieve her husband. She'd been questioned, intimidated and accused of spying, and her film had been confiscated.

The couple left ZUM and went out into the street, thinking the ordeal was over. Then a van screeched up alongside them. A man jumped out and tried to grab the wife's camera. Seems the police realized they hadn't finished the job. If the woman still had the camera, she could buy more film, take more pictures of empty shelves...

Ahh, the bad old days in Bulgaria.

Today, of course, it's a happy democracy with a worldly citizenry and police who probably even help people. And ZUM? It's been converted into an upscale mall stocked with luxury goods.