Chapter 22 – Sofia: Beautiful Name – Grim Reality
Updated: Feb 7, 2021
Tales of a Teenage Spy - The Life and Times of Gábor Rimner
Photo: The Grim Reality: This photo is a little unfair on Sofia. Indeed, winter is not normally the best way to illustrate the best aspects of anywhere in the northern hemisphere. Nor is the photo contemporary with Gábor Rimner's visit. This picture is from November, 1989, a full 16 years later, when Bulgaria was undergoing its sort-of change of system. But this was the first time I went to the country to photograph it, and the pic seemed suitably grim. And in truth, certainly compared to Hungary, Bulgaria was most definitely grim in 1989.
I can't remember, but I assume this is a monument to the liberation of the country from rule by Nazi Germany.
Chapter 22 – Sofia: Beautiful Name – Grim Reality
Nicolai was waiting for me at the airport, and we went into the Bulgarian capital by car.
It's funny the things that stick in your memory. On the way to his place, he told me that, just as Budapest sits astride the Danube, Sofia too had a river bisecting the city. Naturally, I was then looking out for the great waterway, except - I couldn't see any water!
In fact, I would have missed it had Nicolai not shouted out, proudly: “There's the river!” I mean, we were crossing a bridge which was, perhaps, all of 10 metres long, and down below there was nothing more than a ditch with a spoonful of water!
I remember I started laughing, and Nicolai got offended and said: “Oh, come on, we can't all have such big rivers as you have in Hungary.”
Nicolai lived in one of those ubiquitous, socialist housing estates, and his particular prefabricated block was full of army officers, a result, I assume, of his father's earlier life as a border guard.
When I arrived, Nicolai's parents were away in the Sudan, and he was at home only with his sister. She was about four years older than him, and disappeared soon after I arrived, going to the family dacha in Varna. I can't say I blame her.
My trip to Sofia was – at least as far as Nicolai was concerned – for fun and friendship, of course. But my ten days there turned out to be more than mere fun.
First and foremost, Bulgaria really was a socialist country. This came as a profound shock to me. The only eastern bloc country I knew was Hungary, and of course, we had our problems. But even my faded memory knew Budapest was a nice place, with parks and playgrounds and stuff.
Sofia, on the other hand, was grey: the buildings were grey, the streets were grey, the people were grey. The whole city was miserable. The way the Bulgarians dressed was depressing. And this was in July, with the sun out: what was it like in the grip of winter?
I held out hopes of better things on the coast, since we were to follow Nicolai's sister to the dacha after a few days. But if anything, it got worse: Varna reminded me of black and white newsreel films of an Italian or French seaside resort after the war.
Maybe I'd been spoiled by my holidays in western Europe, but going down a main street in Varna and Sofia, I expected to find shop windows displaying some sorts of goods, even if it was only inferior, socialist-made stuff.
The problem was, I could barely see any shop windows at all!
All you saw were huge walls, with the odd tiny window here and there. As for nightlife, it was unheard of! There was nowhere to go in the evenings, only to so-called pubs, where you could drink very cheap, very bad, Bulgarian beer.
I began to pity Nicolai for having to spend his life in a country like this. For me, it was no life at all. I even began having second thoughts about what might be awaiting me in Hungary. I hadn't been home for eight years. And the standard of living that I saw in Bulgaria got me scared and thinking again about this whole assignment: it might not be so full of joy and adventure after all.
Then there was the camera: my Asahi Pentax SLR – which in these days of iPhones looks and feels like a dinosaur – was then a cutting-edge piece of technology. As the flagship tool of my spy kit, it was to be used to send vital evidence of military developments to Washington, or so I imagined.
(In practice, whenever a photograph would have been useful in espionage, it proved impossible to get a camera anywhere near the target.)
But before I'd even got 'on station' for my derring-do mission, my Pentax was – stolen!
Losing the lovely implement might not have been so bad, had it – as in any decent Hollywood B movie - been sacrificed in a run chase by the secret police and thrown from the top of a train into a deep ravine to protect vital evidence of Rimner's brave skulduggery from falling into enemy hands. Something exotic, about which I could tell a riveting tale.
In reality, we were in what passed for a pub in communist times. It was a place with a counter, behind which was a barmaid, surrounded by dozens of crates, some of which contained bottles of lukewarm, inferior-quality beer. If you happened to know the boss, you might be able to get cold beer, but you normally needed connections for such service!
Anyhow, we were sitting outside on a terrace, and I put the camera on the back of my chair, because behind me there was nothing except a wall, so it seemed safe enough. About a metre from me, on the right, there was the door to the pub.
Well, we were drinking and drinking, and talking and talking, and when we stood up to leave, I reached back for the camera, and ... it just wasn't there.
It was either a customer, or, more likely, one of the waiters who had leaned across when going into the pub. We made a fuss, but we couldn't prove anything, of course, and they weren't going to let us search the place inside.
This mistake left me in a very delicate situation: it meant that in my first report, if I was honest, I was going to look stupid – I'd lost the camera!
But unknown to me at the time, my stupidity and the dexterous, light-fingered Bulgarian – whoever he or she was – were to cause far more grief than simple embarrassment with my US control.
In spite of my negative experiences, it was a very nice trip to Bulgaria. I was happy to be with my friend, Nicolai, and see things that I'd missed through not growing up in Hungary.
I also began realising that what I'd heard from my parents about Hungary and socialism when living my teenage years n Khartoum meant they bloody well knew what they were talking about.
The negatives – nay, absurdities - of life under communism were not just a bizarre, amusing set of anecdotes told by the older generation.
They were real - annoyingly, irritatingly, energy-sappingly, time-wastingly real - as I was very soon I was to realise and feel on my own skin, back home.