Bulgaria was a communist state. Getting through the border was an ordeal. A lot of umming and arrhing. We were in a movie without the cameraman. The radiant autumn day which seemed not until that moment to have been paying much attention now soaked up our little collection of intrigues and miscommunications with reading glasses on. We hadn’t actually figured on the possibility of not being allowed into the country. Finally, after about two hours, and due mostly to the negotiation skills of Kurtl, we got through. The Iron Curtain was nothing to Kurt. A lunchtime conversation over a glass of beer. All it took was time and good nature.
About half way to Plovdiv, we passed a lone soldier, machinegun slung over his shoulder, posted to an intersection on a country road in the middle of nowhere. Success. We had crossed over into alien territory.
To get to Bulgaria, we had driven through Yugoslavia, also communist, but somewhat more open to the western world. No machine guns anywhere. But we hadn’t taken any country roads either. Yugoslavia started out like a version of Austria but dropped off steadily in terms of any known criteria. One look at Belgrade from the motorway at a hundred kilometres an hour and we instantly agreed to carry on. In the end, by some sort of contrary force of circumstance, we stopped at a town further south. We walked into a coffee house, the style of which was big, dark and dingy. We guessed that was the only style around, replete with photographs of Tito on the wall. Moustaches without hope.
Dimcho Pavlov was a tall man with dark, curly hair and a moustache. He exuded strength. He was one of the sculptors we’d become friendly with at the symposium in Bad Vöslau. Not a guy to pick a fight with.
Dimcho’s wife, Susa, was a nice-looking blonde. She had a job in publishing. I have no recollection what their children’s hair colour was, but they all lived in a semi-detached house in Plovdiv, not too far from the centre of town.
Paul and Kurt and I had gotten friendly with a number of the sculptors, especially the three Japanese guys, of whom Ohara was really more of a painter. Ohara was the silent type, able (like my Mum) to say things without speaking. He had the look of a finely attuned human being.
Daniel Théberge and Ohara would have got on fine. Daniel would have got on with Yagi too. Yagi was a barrel of laughs.
In fact, I believe Daniel should have seriously considered Japan for a country in which to settle. He had Turkey as the prime candidate at the time when I knew him, picking grapes outside of Nîmes.
It is possible Daniel and Pauline might have tried out Bulgaria for a place to live, on their way to Turkey. As Dimcho took us on a guided tour of Bulgarian communism, Kurtl, Paul, Maria and I got a little look for ourselves and liked everything we saw. Out of town to a gathering of the Bulgarian communist youth where Paul and I got to sing a couple of songs. To a monastery in the mountains, which was the first time Paul and I had seen an entire deciduous forest in full autumn colour. The monastery, now Orthodox (which says quite a lot for the atheist communists), had changed hands at least five times, religion-wise, over the last three thousand years. With the current batch of long-haired priests however, candle-lit darkness inside and bold geometric frescos outside, I thought: if I ever need a religion apart from Christianity, this is it.
One evening we walked downtown. Plovdiv had a character all its own, almost medieval, with its buildings of wood and plaster. Eventually, we arrived at the sculptors’ and painters’ house. Poets and musicians, said Dimcho, had a place of their own. I can’t remember what happened to the dancers and architects. I suppose they had their own place too. Them and the film makers. Under communism, all artists were provided with a place to entertain themselves. Also their guests, as was our duty that evening. A well-known Russian painter was passing through. No problem. We would sing in Russian.
After that, on the way home, we walked by a house from which came the sounds of a party. Kurt opened the gate and wandered straight in. Kurt had no fear of parties. The rest of us followed. There weren’t so many people there, maybe seven or eight, who were all in the middle of frog legs and chips, singing while they ate. They shared with us their frog legs and chips, and we listened to each others’ familiar strangeness, and talked with our hands, and sang and drank, and sang some more. In the end, we were encouraged to leave by Susa telling us these were all working people who had to get up in the morning.
We had no idea. We didn’t speak their language.
On my twenty third and a half birthday we arrived in Crete. We found an abandoned farm complex near Xepha and moved in. It didn’t take long before the locals came down to let us know we were depriving them of income. So we moved up to the village.
It was while there that Maria told me she was pregnant. She wanted to get married. Actually, she said the only way she was going to keep the baby was if we got married. I told her I wouldn’t marry but why couldn’t we keep the baby anyway? I even suggested, if she didn’t like that idea, that I could keep the baby on my own. Maria was horrified. She took the bus to Iraklion and got an abortion.
I should have married Maria on the spot. What the fuckever was my problem?
Otherwise, we were having a high old time. What was a little old abortion? Maria brought a new guy back from Iraklion, an American. On top of beautiful, she was tough. Britta and Christian arrived from Austria. We were a tribe and Kurt was daddy. Some of us found work unloading bags of urea. In the evenings we walked across the street to the bar, drank raki, ate small fish and danced on the tables.
One morning I’m reading on the balcony. I look up from my book to see something wholly unusual.
On another occasion, in London, I’d had a similar experience with Clara and Paul after a picnic up on Hampstead Heath. Walking tipsy across the park, we stopped to admire the view. We were looking right out across the city of London. Clara was wearing her round, welding-type glasses. She took them off and held them out to me.
“Have a look through these, Terry,” she said, as if there were something special about her glasses.
I told her I didn’t need to look through her glasses. But she insisted. And so I put them on.
Tears sprang to my eyes.
It was the first time I’d seen anything.
At least in three dimensions.
The beserk beauty of space.
The angles things make together.
Everything exactly where it should be.
“What is all the fuss about?” I thought.
Here on the balcony in Xepha though, at ten in the morning, I am stone cold sober.
On my own.
No special sunglasses.
I don’t even cry.