96 Years Bulgarian-Italian Solidarity: Work and Fun

Bulgaria-Italy Survey » SOCIETY | Author: Ivan Stancioff |June 2, 2011, Thursday // 09:45
Bulgaria: 96 Years Bulgarian-Italian Solidarity: Work and Fun

Article by Ivan Stancioff, former Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Bulgaria, and former Bulgarian Ambassador to the Court of St. James, for the "International Survey: Bulgaria-Italy" of (Sofia News Agency)


In Italy, as in Bulgaria, family history is respected and remembered.

I believe that to love a country one must have lived in it, known the people, learnt their sense of humor, their literature, their history, their music and their food and wine.

I was born in Sofia on April 1, 1929 and my first trip to Italy was in November 1931. I arrived in Rome via the Orient Express aged just over two, so that my memories are closely linked with the large wisteria-covered house my father had rented on Viale Pola N8 near Via Nomentana in Rome. He had just been appointed Secretary at the Bulgarian Embassy and remained there for six years which delighted him. He always maintained that this kindness on the part of the Bulgarian Foreign Office was simply due to the expense of moving his family of six children.

For the next 6 years while at home we spoke English with our parents, German with our Nanny, we spoke Italian with our friends in the street and in the beautiful Borghese park. It was here that we were first introduced to the cinema: "Mickey Mouse" and "Laurel and Hardy" in Italian!

To make their names sound Italian the film producers added "o" to their names: "Laurelo and Hardyo", this led me to invent a fourth language which allowed me to secretly communicate with my brother and that was German with an "o" added to every word. My mother who was a brilliant linguist and a purist in this field was horrified.

I felt it showed imagination!

At the age of six I was sent to the local Italian school where I had as a classmate Mussolini's daughter Anna-Maria who behaved very badly.

Part of our studies included learning songs like "Giovinezza" and "Faccetta Nera".

These childhood memories go back to family connections which started with my grandfather Dimitri Stancioff's marriage to Anna de Grenaud from Savoy, whose mother was a de la Chiesa di Cinzano, an old Piemontese family. Thus we acquired numerous Italian cousins.

After WWI and Bulgaria's defeat, one such cousin, an officer in the Italian occupation forces in Sofia, called on my grandfather who was then Minister of Foreign Affairs and said: "Excellency, I am your cousin Gabrio di San Marzano, how may I help you?". They became good friends and this connection continued years later when my grandfather was Minister to the Court of St. James and my father chose his cousin Gabrio as his best man.

The latter's job as Italian Consul in Cleveland, Ohio, and later in Porto Alegre, Brasil, consolidated the family relationship extending it to my generation when we lived in Maryland and danced with our young cousins Julio and Vanna and again, when I arrived in Brasil where Julio met our boat at the port of Santos. He and his wife Gemma later became godparents to our second son Sean.

Partly due to these family relationships my parents enjoyed their stay in Italy enormously. They made good friends allowing them to meet interesting people, visiting towns around Italy, as well as beautiful properties and gardens. We were often taken on these outings which held the promise of a good picnic in the countryside and games in the woods. We visited great houses and ancient churches. This is when our mother became fascinated with the symbols carved into capitals in Romance churches.

This passion which took her across Italy and which lasted for 45 years resulted in an archive now in the Warburg Institute in London. Unlike my mother who hated sand, we, like my father, loved the sea and during the hot Roman summers we would be driven to Ostia or to Anzio by my father's chauffeur Amato. He and his wife Ida followed us to Sofia in 1937 and remained until the war. We were also lucky to spend summer months in the mountains of the Abruzzi at Siusi, in the South Tirol and finally at Samaden in Switzerland.

In 1937 my mother, six children, two nannies and a mountain of luggage drove to Milan to take the Orient Express back to Sofia and then to Varna. The small house and beautiful garden designed by my mother near my grandparent's house and near the sea, became and still is Our Paradise. To our disappointment we were not allowed to swim until we had completed some chore for the gardener.

This minidiscipline turned out to be very useful later on at our farm in Maryland and now both in Varna and in Scotland. Another discipline I first resisted, since I already spoke 3 other languages, was to learn both French and Bulgarian simultaneously. We spent our winters in Sofia and that is when I had my first contact with the Italian Embassy; a friendship which has continued over the years.

We played among other games "Assassino", hiding behind the beautiful drawing-room curtains. At that time I was in love with Ambassador Magistrati's daughter Marinella and she was in love with my older brother Dimitri. He was twelve and I was nine!

When we left Europe sailing to America in 1946, I felt that I would never see the place again.

My Parents bought a small farm near Washington: one cow, two hundred chicken and we produced a lot of vegetables and flowers. The four older children went to universities, the three younger to local schools.

In the spring of 1950 I had a wonderful surprise: Charlie Grace, a school friend of mine, asked me to be his driver and interpreter during a two-month tour of 12 European countries. Since we had to help on the farm, I asked my father's permission. "Is he paying expenses?", I said: "Yes", and had a wonderful trip.

My friends father's office had shipped over a Cadillac despite the fact that I had suggested a small European car; they had also made reservations in all the best hotels in Europe. The only other car like it in Europe that year, belonged to Elizabeth Taylor; every time we pulled up to a Grand Hotel porters would rush out to help us, only to be met by two students in jeans! At one point my friend had to return to the US and we agreed to meet in Rome.

To waste the empty space in the Cadillac would have been criminal. My first hitchhikers were two young men from the North of Holland, the next one was a Dutch catholic from the South and the fourth was a Jewish boy from New York called Warren Wolf. The Dutch boys for some reason did not speak to one another but communicated through me in English. We lost them when we reached Rome. Remembering my days in Anzio, Warren and I drove on to the beach for the night. The next morning, through the car window we saw signs: "Danger – unexploded mines!"

I carefully reversed over my tracks and decided to try to find a safer room at Amato's – my father's old driver. He was furious when he learnt where we had spent the night and offered us his bed. I explained that Warren and I had just met. Amato's reaction was: "But he is your friend?" My "yes" ended the argument. "What is his name?" – "Warren"- "Say it in Italian!" – "It does not exist!"-"Family name?" – "Wolf" – "In Italian?" – "Lupo!" – "OK, you and Lupo sleep here, my wife and I will go to sleep at the neighbors". That evening we had a very good Roman dinner.

Since the year 1950 was an Anno Santo, Pilgrims had the right to free rooms in monasteries. The rest of our stay was paid by the Church. My Jewish friend enjoyed the joke.

Upon Charley's return from the US, he and I headed to Venice and from there to Austria and Germany. Our Italian holiday was over!

Back home, using my USD 500-salary I bought my first car - a 1925 Ford - the only motor I have ever had no electronics!

1951 was an important year in my life: I graduated from Georgetown University, was sworn in as a US citizen and started my first official job as a US Army interpreter working in Frankfurt, Germany. The army was recruiting East European refugees and training them to guard military installations, airports, fuel depots. A Bulgarian Guard Unit had just been created and whilst interpreting within the unit, my responsibilities included visiting refugees camps.

I found this work interesting, especially because it allowed me to help fellow refugees, who, unlike me, were suffering in the camps under very bad conditions. There were 2 Italian camps - one at Trieste and the other at Bagnoli near Naples. One morning we took off from Frankfurt Airport to pick up approximately 25 refugees from Bagnoli. As we approached Vesuvius, the pilot asked me to join him in the cockpit and informed me: "Those guys down there speak no English!" referring to the airport controllers.

My training in the Villa Borghese cinema helped to land us safely. When I stepped out of the plane, followed by my US Army Captain, I saw a line of bedraggled Bulgarians standing at attention in a row headed by a former Captain of the Royal Bulgarian Cavalry.When I greeted him, he kissed me on  both cheeks forcing my US colleague to flee into the plane. We loaded our "liberated" recruits and returned safely to Frankfurt where they could look forward to a better life.

After my service I returned to a job and post-graduate school in New York followed by six years in Brazil, five in Paris and twenty in London.

I returned to Bulgaria in 1990 after the Wall came down, to work with the Democrats. One of my jobs was to ask for support from the Sofia-based embassies. I called on the Italian Ambassador and whilst little aid was immediately forthcoming, he helped me out of a sticky diplomatic situation: I had to plan a dinner for H. M. Queen Giovanna, the Queen Mother.

 I decided that if I organize a dinner at a Bulgarian home, I will be attacked by all Sofia hostesses. Since she was born Italian and the Embassy was politically neutral ground, I suggested the idea to the Ambassador who, by the way was, a Socialist.

He was delighted and went to great pains to organize a magnificent evening. During the dinner the Queen suddenly said: "How strange this house is so close to my old home and I have never been here!" Lyubcho, an elderly retainer who was pouring her wine at that moment, said: "Madam, I served you here in April 1934". Later Ambassador Rastrelli rewarded Lyubcho for many years of service to Italian Embassies with a high Italian decoration.

While still Ambassador to London and Dublin, my Foreign Office asked me to visit major European countries and try to understand their view on Bulgaria being accepted in Schengen. During a conversation with Ambassador Rastrelli, he kindly suggested that I start my research at his Foreign Office and he gave me the names of two young diplomats in Rome. They received me at their excellent restaurant at the Foreign Office and over lunch analysed the situation country by country. As I travelled across Europe, I found that their assessment had been completely correct. I was very grateful for their help.

In Madrid I was surprised to be met by the Minister of Foreign Affairs. He welcomed me addressing me as "Mr. Minister". I tried to correct this error but was informed that whilst away from Sofia, I had been promoted but no one had informed me. I was similarly welcomed in Athens the next day. I would like to think that this elevation in status was due to my brilliant work on Schengen... Unfortunately, as I write, the question has still not been resolved.

Upon my return from Athens, Ambassador Rastrelli and his wife Pucci kindly invited me to dinner. Full of my newly acquired powers, I asked the ladies present, how I could help them? Pucci suggested that in other countries there were dances. I immediately promised to organize a spring dance in the Foreign Affairs building.

It was a great success, except for the fact that our diplomats didn't dance. The next morning I suggested to my deputy Minister that we would have to organise dancing classes. Unfortunately I was not able to implement this idea since we lost the election two days later and I lost my job. The same year the Rastrellis kindly organised an antiques fair providing any revenues to Karin Dom, our Varna Foundation for children with handicaps. I was very grateful.

Having worked in business most of my life, I strongly believe in bringing foreign investment and know-how to my Country. Thus, in London I was able to found the British-Bulgarian Chamber of Commerce.

I later decided to resign my ambassadorship and return to Sofia to implement this idea. My Company was responsible for bringing the London based, Framlington Bank who first invested on the Bulgarian Stock Exchange, Basalt AG, a German company working in hard stone for highways and railroads and, most important for Bulgarian – Italian commercial relations, Unicredito Italiano who privatised Bulbank.

Having an Italian Bank in Bulgaria has encouraged numerous Italian companies to invest here.

I was honored by the President of the Republic of Italy when I was named in 2006 Commander of the Italian Solidarity Star.

Given these historical ties over 70 years, Ambassador Benazzo and his wife Dana kindly suggested that I celebrate my 80th Birthday on April 1, 2009 at their beautiful residence. Special among my many friends I was able to invite, were some of my classmates of 1939 vintage!

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