Intrepid Optimist is the place where I can share my stories; fact, fiction and thoughts from the past and present. It’s Written by myself for people who believe adventure knows no age
I am sure many will agree with me, that there is nothing more enjoyable than a picnic in the company of friends, with choice food and in a setting of your own choosing. Having said that, I have to admit that my most satisfying picnic was on a train, and alone.
When I visited Sofia in 1986 there were none of “Welcome to Beautiful Bulgaria” posters one sees today. On the contrary, one was strongly discouraged from going there at all. Theoretically, I was in the country to cover a meeting of the World Peace Council (WPC) and had been forewarned of the danger of inadvertently attracting the attention of the DS, the Darzhavna sigurnost, Bulgaria’s notorious secret service.
I stayed at the Grand Hotel Sofia, which was also the venue for the WPC. Listening to hours of monotonous, pro-Soviet doctrine was dreadfully tedious, and as often as I could, I would escape in an attempt to find something decent to eat which, in Sofia in those days, was difficult.
The food in the hotel was not sparse but of poor quality and bad boringly Eastern European. The only time, apart from breakfast which I ate in the hotel was one lunchtime and I was the only guest in a room the size of a football pitch. There were four, sour and unhelpful Bulgarian babushkas who considered themselves waitresses.
To liven up the dreadful meal which took forever to order and appear at my table, two attractive but unsmiling, female flutists, attired in white T-shirts with a collar and a black tie printed on them, entertained me. Their small repertoire included the Rondo from Saverio Mercandante’s Flute concert, which they repeated at least six times. To this day I cannot help but smile on hearing this lively piece of music.
Luckily, I did have one contact in the country, and what a good one it turned out to be. Luis Gallegos, an Ecuadorian friend from the time when I had a bar in Quito, called the “Wildcatter”, It was where he and other trainee diplomats hung out at. By the time I got to Sofia, he had become the Ecuadorian Ambassador to Bulgaria. Lucho and Fabiola, his charming wife, invited me to dinner. We dined well in the penthouse restaurant of a newly built international hotel. It was the only decent meal I had while in Bulgaria.
Our conversation was most amusing, especially after the Lucho cautioned me that even the lamps at the table we were sitting at, were rumoured to be bugged. After dinner, we returned to their residence for drinks and even there, in their own home they were concerned their conversations were being overheard.
I was to leave by train for East Berlin the following morning but was taken aback when they informed me that there would no restaurant car or even service on the train for the six-hour journey. Neither would there be an alternative at the station to buy food or drink for the journey. Of course, I did not want to believe them. Their advice was to fly to Berlin but my journey was a planned one – I had to go by train. Due to an official commitment – a state visit by the President of the Peoples Republic of China to Bulgaria – they regretted they would be unable to see me off.
Arriving at the railway station early the next day I found out to my horror they had been serious. There really was no food or drink to be had before boarding the train. Lucho told me this was not unusual, as the average Bulgarian spent his or her day searching and then queuing for food; even for a mere couple of tomatoes.
I was now seriously concerned. I was the only person in the scruffy, first-class carriage and I sat, miserably wondering how I would manage to get through the long journey without sustenance or even water.
Minutes before the train was destined to start, I heard my name being repeatedly shouted from the platform. Sticking my head out of the window I spied Lucho, attired in a morning suit with and tails – the formal dress for that day’s invitation. He was carrying a large package which he called my picnic basket. He and his wife had woken up that morning, worrying as to how I was to survive. Shouting a hasty goodbye, he pushed the package through the window to me, just as the train started to move.
I cannot describe my joy when I opened that gift. I felt like a small boy at Christmas; eagerly ripping at the coverings to get at his present. Inside was manna from heaven. There was bread, cheese, sausage, ham, fruit and chocolate, all of such, unavailable in Sofia but foreign diplomats travelled to Greece to do their tax-free shopping.. There was cutlery, a glass, a starched napkin, thee bottles of water and mercy upon mercies, two bottles of red Burgundy and a corkscrew.
Despite the deplorable condition of the carriage, no train journey has ever been quite so pleasant and for certain, no feast has ever been more gratefully appreciated and enjoyed as that lonesome picnic was.
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