As told to Penny L. Pringlebury, As.Sc.
In 1958 my father took a job building an oil refinery in the far-off land of Bulgaria. I was eight years old. As Bulgaria was now a Communist country, my parents decided I would have to go away for my schooling. After sending off for some brochures, they decided to send me to a convent school in Switzerland, the Academie of St. Eustache.
There were no Catholic schools in Bulgaria. All the local schools were run by the state, and like public schools in America, their curriculum consisted mostly of teaching the pupils Communist propaganda about how the Catholic Church was evil and had supported the Nazis. Also I did not understand Bulgarian, which is a difficult tongue spoken by very few people.
At St. Eustache, people spoke only normal languages, that is, French, German and English. You could pretty much begin your sentence in French and finish in German or English, and you would still be understood, more or less. This is one advantage of going to school in Switzerland. Another is that my boarding school was near Gstaad, so I got to learn how to ski, just before Christmas 1958.
Unfortunately my education in Switzerland did not long continue. After reuniting with my family for the Christmas holidays (which the Reds in Bulgaria called “Winter Holidays”), the Communist officials refused to let me leave the country. They said there was now a law against permitting children under 14 to travel internationally unless accompanied by parent or guardian. My father was busy with work, near the oilfields by the Black Sea; whilst my mother had to take care of my little brother and Baby Pugsy. There was nothing for it but that I too would need to remain in Bulgaria.
The only English-speaking school in Bulgaria was a Montessori school next door to the American Embassy in Sofia. It had only seven students. I attended it for a week or two, but then it was closed down. We were told this was because it didn’t have enough enrollment to continue. Later on I heard that Moscow had decided to ban all Montessori schools from the Iron Curtain countries. The local commissars forced me to attend the Communist state school in my neighborhood. I have already mentioned that I did not understand Bulgarian. Therefore I was beaten every day for not knowing my lessons.
Instead of regular schoolbooks, the teacher distributed pamphlets that appeared to be repair manuals for battle tanks. These were in Russian. They had been printed during the War, and were illustrated with drawings of the tanks killing many Germans.
Russian is a language very much like Bulgarian, and some of my classmates had little difficulty memorizing a paragraph or two of the repair manual. This is what we were given as homework. After I made friends with one or two of them, they taught me to recite the lesson phonetically, although I did not know what I was saying. But if I could recite it well enough, I would not be beaten.
My father brought a colleague home for dinner one evening. My parents wished to show me off, because they thought I was learning Bulgarian. I recited a little bit, and my father’s coworker laughed and applauded and told me my Russian was very good.
“What did she say?” my mother asked.
“She did say, ‘Congratulations Comrade on making friends with new T-34 tank which Comrade Stalin has personally built for Great Patriotic War! May you have many days of enjoyment, and run over many fascists with your stout Soviet treads. The T-34 you will discover is easy to maintain but like all Soviet craftsmanship will sometimes need extra care. You should keep copy of manual in tank at all times, and change oil every 30 kilometers…'”
By and by, I learned a little Bulgarian and Russian as the weeks passed. My classmates and I were required to join the Junior Pioneers, an organization something like the Brownies in America. Except we did not sell cookies, and our uniform was not brown. We wore white blouses with blue and red kerchiefs.
At our meetings we marched around and sang songs in Russian. I could understand some of the words by this point:
O comrades of Bulgaria
Put faith in glorious Soviet friends
Who give you freedom and factory…
Premier Khrushchev of the USSR was going to visit Bulgaria soon. Our Comrade Leader, a large, wide woman with a deep booming voice, told us Comrade Khrushchev would be reviewing the Junior Pioneers and giving awards. If we wished to gain an award, we needed to earn 100 merits. We could do this by selling subscriptions to Bulgar Youth magazine, and by reporting on counter-revolutionary activity in our neighborhood.
My friends and I did not wish to sell subscriptions to Bulgar Youth, as it had not been published since 1953. But representatives of this dubious periodical came regularly to our classroom and our Junior Pioneer meetings, exhorting us to sell subscriptions door-to-door. We could win useful prizes, we were told. A young man in army uniform told us how he had sold 500 subscriptions and won a bicycle.
It was a very solid, sturdy, Soviet-made machine, he said, and it had seen service during the War. It had an electric horn, and an electric lamp in front and a reflector in back. He said he once allowed a friend to borrow it, and the friend accidentally crashed into a tramcar on the route leading to the mental hospital. The tramcar was dented, but the bicycle was not damaged at all.
That is what a fine, strong bicycle it was. And we could have one too if we sold 500 subscriptions.
My friends and I decided to devote our afternoons to hunting down counter-revolutionary activity. There were still many fascists hiding out in Sofia. Many of them sold ices and meat pies from pushcarts in the marketplace. They became very frightened when they saw a group of us Young Pioneers approach them.
There was a wizened old peasant woman in the square who sold trinkets and handmade dolls painted in the Bulgarian manner. She was rumored to have a son who fought for the Germans during the War, a son who was grievously wounded and spent years in Soviet prison camp. He was a mindless invalid now. We liked to form a circle around the old woman’s pushcart, and taunt her. “Come, little grandmother, give up your secrets,” we would taunt, tugging at her babushka. Well you know what, she was completely bald!
Reaching deep into the folds of her clothing, she brought out a red leather coin purse tied to a string. She handed each of us a coin, and told us to go away and buy sweetbreads from the gypsy on the corner. Bulgarian sweetbreads were new to me. They are made of some animal’s internal organ, which has been cut up and fried, then dipped in honey or molasses, and fried again. I spent my entire month’s allowance (15,000 Bulgarian pounds, or about $1.50 at current rates) on a big bag of sweetbreads and became quite ill. I ate half and took the rest home to my mother (my father was back at the oilfields on the Black Sea) and she pronounced them absolutely disgusting. She left them outside for the dustman. Unfortunately the neighbor’s dog discovered them and soon perished.
I missed three days of school after that. The teacher was quite cross, and forced me to write a 5,000-word essay on “The Wisdom of Atheism in the Time of Scientific Socialism.” This I did, but I did it in English since I could not write more than a few words of Bulgarian. When I was asked to read it to the class, and try to translate it in my few words of halting Bulgarian-Russian, I just ignored what I had actually written and made something up. I said something like, “Comrades, it has been categorically proven no God exists. Wherefore then shall we put our noses to the plow for a false idol. Would not we better spend our hours in dancing and frolicking and hunting down revisionist and neo-fascist offenders within our own families and friends? Has not Comrade Lenin shown us the true path?” (Etc. Etc.) The teacher purred with delight.
What I had actually written, in English—and I cribbed most of this from an essay I had written a few months earlier at the convent school in Switzerland—was something on the order of:
Holy chrism is a mixture of olive oil and balm, blessed by the bishop on Holy Thursday. Confirmation is the sacrament in which the Holy Ghost comes to us in a special way, to make us strong and perfect Christians and soldiers of Jesus Christ.
Forgetful me! I did not destroy or even hide my English-language original! This sin of omission would come back to haunt me.
But I had other affairs to attend to. Comrade Khrushchev would be visiting our school soon, on a state visit with the Prime Minister of Bulgaria, Comrade Yugov. I was selected to be chairman in charge of the Decorations Committee. (To be continued)