After leaving the American Embassy I noticed an awful lot of policemen about. I saw one, and then there were two walking together, and then up at the end of the street, some more police patrolling in an old pre-war squad car. They drove back and forth and kept playing its siren, on and off. They have very strange sirens in Bulgaria. Instead of a steadily rising scream—”WooeeeeEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE”—like American sirens, they go: “NYAAH-nah NYAAH-nah.” I tried to look nonchalant as I walked up the steep cobblestoned street, though this was hard because I really wanted to hurry to all the orphanages and find my little brother, and Pugsy, my baby sister.
There by the corner, up the street from the Embassy, was the building where my Montessori school was. I went to it for a week or so before the Communists decided to shut it down. I think the building was still empty because some windows were boarded up, and a white sign on the big wooden double-door said TO LET. Yes, it was in English, not Bulgarian. Maybe Bulgarian doesn’t have a phrase for that, same way we don’t have an English version of “gesundheit” for when people sneeze. So instead we say, “God bless you!” which doesn’t mean the same thing at all.
The sign said TO LET but someone had written an i in the middle, to make it TOiLET, which is almost the same word in Bulgarian. And that’s pretty much what it smelt like. I guess people would see the sign and and come over and try to open the door, they’d do their business, right on the steps there. Drunks mostly, I suppose.
A couple of policemen got out of the automobile at the end of the street and started to address the other two who were walking together. In Bulgarian they were saying something about “a little girl we must find from fascist America.” They carried long rubber truncheons that they waved around as they surveyed the streetscape.
By now I was hiding behind some of the old rubbish bins in the forecourt. It smelled as bad there as on the doorstep. My heart was thumping as the four policemen walked past, two tall ones and two short ones. They seemed to be waking awfully slowly, and kept twisting their heads, looking around, and holding their noses when they passed the foul doorway with the TOiLET sign.
“Embassy!” one of them was saying now, a short and fat one in front, who seemed to be the leader. “She probably go to fascist America Embassy. We wait here till she come out, then we bring her to Premier Khrushchev!”
“Khrushchev! He give her a good talking-to!” laughed another of the men. “I will BURY you!” And they all laughed together, very wickedly.
I had to get away from there quickly. I could see the cops smoking cigarettes and leaning on lamp poles outside the Embassy. A produce van turned into the street and slowly made its way down toward us. For a moment or two it blocked the policemen from view, which meant they couldn’t see me either. This is when I got into the street and shot around the first corner.
The Central Orphanage of Sofia, I knew, was on the other side of the market square. I thought it was a good idea to disguise myself before I walked across town. Sheltering in a doorway, I took off my coat, reached in my school satchel and put on my Junior Pioneers sash, over my uniform blazer. Then I took my blue and red Junior Pioneers kerchief from around my neck and tied it over my head, babushka-style. I stuffed my coat in the satchel, as far as it would go, and headed for the market square.
There as usual was the old peasant woman, selling her trinkets and sweetmeats, and now some flowers too. She had baskets of pansies and violets. Little straw baskets with handles.
“Greetings, little grandmother,” I said. “I am peasant too, I come from far away to see today’s festival!”
“You must come from very far indeed,” said the old crone with a cackle. I don’t think she recognized me. “I can hardly understand your foreign accent. Are you from Gabagaba Novo?”
“Oh no,” I said, “I come from Buffaloonazihk.” I made up the name. “It is a very small village, unfortunately. My! What lovely flowers! We used to sell flowers such as these to raise money for the Peasant Junior Pioneers!”
“Five stotinki a basket!” the crone said sharply, looking away. “No discounts.”
There were one hundred stotinki to the Bulgarian pound. I had enough money for two baskets of flowers. I decided my disguise would be as a peasant flower girl, selling pansies and violets in the streets of Sofia, as I visited the orphanages one-by-one.
The crone was unfriendly today, but I am sure she was grateful for my patronage. I don’t think she’d had another customer that day. When I said I’d buy two flower baskets, she insisted I accept a handful of sweetmeats.
“You are sure they are pleasurable sweetmeats, little grandmother?” I asked. “I have heard of people becoming ill!”
“Those were not sweetmeats, little one! You have heard that story then. Those were sweetbreads sold by gypsies! Rolled in flour and honey and aged and fried in Bulgarian manner! They are heavy enough to kill a large dog! Look! There is gypsy now, selling his poisonous treats!”
Up by the blackened ruins of St. Balkaniko’s Church, which was now a combination flea market and stable, stood the gypsy with his cart. He rolled and fried his sweetbreads all day, frying them in ancient oil so foul you could smell it across the square.
“Somebody come from Central Committee, want to buy my sweetmeats cheap,” the crone went on. “They offer me twenty stotinki for all my sweetmeats! I say no, I want twenty, thirty times that! They say, ‘You old peasanty thief, such is highway robbery!’ They want sweetmeats because Central Commissary wants to make thirteen dozen sugar dumplings, boiled and fried in the Bulgarian manner, for special party. So I say, ‘You go to gypsy over there. Gypsy cheaper and his sweetmeats are made with real meat, and meat by-products. Yes, you go buy from gypsy,’ I say, and I shoo him away!” The ancient harridan opened her toothless mouth wide, and laughed a good long cackle over this clever prank.
The poisonous sweetbreads! I thought. Did any of my classmates eat those, I wondered. And as for Comrade Khrushchev! Even with his enormous tummy, they were certain to make him very ill indeed.
I picked up my flower baskets, and no sweetmeats, and said goodbye to the funny old peasant woman. My idea now was that I was going to present myself at the Central Orphanage, pretending to be a little girl selling flowers. I would go to each classroom, or bedroom, in the orphanage, and see if my brother and sister were there.
“None can enter orphanage,” said the guard at the door. “Orphans are going to assemble along the street the street. Vehicle with Comrade Khrushchev soon passes by. All orphan children in Sofia are to wave at him. See, even now they come!”
And up above us there was a clatter of children’s clogs and shoes. They streamed past us, hundreds of them, and found places to stand along the pavement. I looked up and down the street and saw that the same thing was happening on neighboring blocks. All the orphanages were emptying to say hail or farewell to Premier Khrushchev. It was a very big day in Sofia!
And off in the distance we heard many police sirens, leading the motor parade. As they came close, though, we could see that the police were not escorting a fine big limousine or armored truck. No! It was an ambulance, of old-fashioned make, at least twenty-five or thirty years old. From its many bullet holes i guessed that the vehicle had seen rough service during the war.
People waved and men took their hats off as it drove past. Inside was Khrushchev, laid out on a cot. So I was right about the dumplings!
He would almost certainly die. We had many, many doctors in Bulgaria, but I was told few of them knew anything, while the hospitals had very little medical equipment.
“We must all pray for a swift recovery,” said a tall, skinny woman in a mannish suit, probably one of the leaders of the orphanage. “Only we are Communists and do not pray. Therefore, children, let us all sing the Friendship Song!”
The Friendship Song turned out to be the song I learned in my first weeks in the Communist school they sent me to. We sang it in Russian:
O comrades of Bulgaria
Put faith in glorious Soviet friends
Who give you freedom and factory…
I pretended to sing along, with a mindless, joyous smile on my face, as I scurried down the pavement, waving my baskets of flowers and examining all the faces of the orphan children. I did not have to go far before I found them. My brother and Little Pugsy stood out from the other children, for they had nice clothes, probably the same ones they were wearing three days ago when they were taken away to the orphanage.
They were pleased to see me, of course, and hopped up and down. I didn’t want to tell them that our house was locked and that our parents had been sent to a slave-labor camp up by the Arctic Circle. I told them that we were going home, finally, to our real home, in America, where we could watch television all day. They were most excited to hear this.
But how would we get to the airport? It was many miles away, and I could not understand the streetcar routes, and I had no money for fares away. With a heavy heart I patiently led my brother and Baby Pugsy in the direction of the Embassy. Surely they could arrange transportation to the airport? It was a very long walk, as the police had cordoned off the streets for the Khrushchev motorcade, and Baby Pugsy couldn’t really walk very well, so I carried her most of the way, while my brother carried my satchel and flower baskets.
We passed many policemen, but they didn’t seem suspicious this time. Perhaps Khrushchev’s people were not looking for me anymore. Also, you will remember I was very well disguised in my Junior Pioneers sash and kerchief over my head.
Consuelo, the travel lady, was not at all surprised to see me at the Embassy. She told me she’d arranged a ride to the airport, but I’d run out of the Embassy so fast she couldn’t give me instructions. She agreed to make travel arrangements for my brother and Little Pugsy as well.
And so we three sat on a bench in the hallway near Consuelo’s desk, looking at her pretty travel posters and waiting an hour or two for the ride to arrive. The bench looked and felt like a pew in church. Consuelo was reading a big French magazine, probably Paris-Match.
“Have you had any news about Premier Khrushchev,” I asked, trying to be friendly to Consuelo while I waited there.
“I hear he was feeling poorly,” Consuelo said. “I could say more, but as an Embassy employee I’m forbidden to share political opinions.”
Mister Third Secretary now strode out of his office down the hall and gave us a snooty look. “More children, alas, more’s the pity. Consuelo, have you told them what happened to their parents?”
“Oh no, I forgot. I’ve been so busy making travel arrangements.”
I was afraid to ask what had happened to my parents, especially with my brother and sister sitting there beside me.
“Are our parents here?” my brother asked, eagerly.
“Oh no, ‘fraid not, you won’t be seeing your parents anywhere around here.” And Consuelo laughed merrily. “No, they’ve gone on without you. They’ll meet you in Vienna. We hope.”
“But what happened to them?” I asked. “Were they taken away to the Arctic Circle?”
“You’d have to ask them that,” Consuelo said. “I’m merely a lowly Embassy dogsbody.”
“Dogsbody?” asked my brother.
“Consuelo actually has a dog’s body,” explained the Third Secretary, who had been there all along, sitting on a window seat, puffing on a black cigarette, and glancing out into the Embassy courtyard. “You see, she becomes a lady only in the daytime. It works better that way. Oh look, your car is here. You have plenty of time to get to the airport.”
“Can’t we stay a little longer?” my brother asked. “I want to see Consuelo turn back into a dog.”
But it was not to be. We were led out to the big black limousine, and I’d spend much of the night wondering what my parents would look like when we finally met them. Would they look tortured and covered with frostbite? Would they be hopelessly crippled, like the old peasant woman’s son, the one who fought for the Germans and was sent to prison camp?
And what would we do for clothes? The only ones we had were those we stood up in. I had far too many questions. I fell asleep immediately when they put us on the airplane. When we landed, the last few months were like some horrible dream.