Bulgaria: Creating a Positive First Impression
Novinite is publishing for the first time the first impressions of Thomas Tait, a former Chief Executive of the Nevada Commission on Tourism, who visited Bulgaria in the 1990s and today calls the country his "second home".
During the past twenty-eight years, Tait has put to practice his extensive knowledge of tourism development in eighty cities in forty-three nations.
He performs as an C-level tourism expert for the US State Department, has written two novels and a screen play set in Eastern Europe during the 19th Century and is the Chairman of the Outside Las Vegas Foundation, to which he has provided guidance for the past fourteen years.
I am neither an accidental tourist nor an accident prone traveler. Early in my journeys to foreign nations, I realized there were practical safeguards I had to take to guarantee long life, serviceable limbs and an intact wallet. As a result, I haven’t taken many chances; neither have I placed myself in harm’s way. While my eldest daughter is fearless – I am more introspective, embracing sage caution when unusual conditions arise.
Life in the United States differs from life in Eastern Europe, and the differences did not make for polite conversation. America, held up as a decadent land, filled with conspicuous consumers by a Soviet population subjected to decades-long totalitarian rule. ‘Do not emulate the American way of life,’ they decried. Similarly, US news agencies pictured Soviet citizens as tired, frumpy and sad. That same media sent us images of a population who more often than not donned thick coats and fur hats. Men and women snaked through long lines in frigid weather to collect a measured quota of bread, meat, milk and cheese. Because of our basic and idiosyncratic differences, tempers on both sides flared with regularity.
Parents and teachers taught us we should hate communists because they hated us. Each night in October and November 1962 during the Cuban Missile Crisis, I climbed a hill near my parent’s house and sat with friends in terrified silence. We’d gaze to the southeast, waiting for Russia’s intermediate-range ballistic missiles to pounce. I shuddered that our new rulers, middle-aged males and women, reflected the unattractiveness of both Nikita Khrushchev and his wife, Nina.
Then in 1990, after the fall of the Berlin Wall, I visited the Czech Republic, nee Czechoslovakia, and Hungary. There I observed immense potential to attract Western travelers. Those two nations were on the fringe of Eastern Europe. Compulsory Soviet doctrine became their policy only after the Soviet Empire assimilated those nations and others following World War II.
My visits painted an enlightened picture of culture and humanity within the communist Bloc. The blanket of misinformation that had obscured my vision disappeared; allowing new, focused perspectives on old lies. I wondered how many other Soviet nations had such rich and impressionable cultural endowments as those two countries. Imagine my elation when I received an invitation to visit the 'real' Eastern Europe, a nation that by choice enjoyed a long-standing communist affiliation. My mission was to test one country’s self-reported flaws in its tourism zones. I made my way to the library and collected baseline data for the assignment.
My strengths in the visitation arena included destination marketing, branding, rural and environmental tourism, infrastructure, air service expansion, gaming, spa, events, shows and conventions. So, when in 1996 the summons from the US State Department to conduct a comprehensive tourism survey of Bulgaria arrived, surprise and elation reigned supreme. A solid measure of self-confidence, the trademark characteristic instilled by my parents and mentors, remained in command. I embraced the invitation and soon received an agenda outlining three weeks of various activities in-country, commencing on January 21, 1997. That special day marked the eve of the swearing in of Bulgaria’s first social-democrat elected president, Petyr Stoyanov.
Stoyanov became Bulgaria's 2nd elected leader since the country’s break with the Eastern Bloc in 1990. The 1st president of the country a Socialist, Mr. Stoyanov represented the St. George's Democratic Party. In a bold step toward democratization, Stoyanov’s service had to prove fruitful for Bulgaria to embrace with success free-market economics. Further, he’d become an important player in the alignment of US and Western European trade policies with countries of the former Soviet Union. This project’s importance must not be lost on me.
I was to be housed in an apartment in Sofia, Bulgaria’s capital. My transport, meetings and tours throughout the country coordinated by a Bulgarian national representing the US State Department, Nikolai Gerazimov. On familiar terms with the length of time needed to move any tourism initiative through a bureaucracy, I studied the mechanics of Bolshevik parliaments. Thus I came to question the likelihood of this assignment’s success within a relative period. Balancing that, my communications with Nikolai were thorough, positive and professional. I felt in good hands, but the nagging disquiet lingered that the trip might prove unpredictable, or worse, unsuccessful.
The afternoon of January 20, I started my excursion through a short hop from Las Vegas to Los Angeles. After a short layover, I connected with an overnight flight to Frankfurt. Upon arriving in Germany, the climate took a turn for the worse. Throughout central Europe heavy snow and skin pelting ice chips delayed incoming and outbound flights; made vehicular traffic miserable and pedestrian travel near impossible.
The trials of international travel had by then become second nature. On that night, the airport bars were open inside the massive Frankfurt airport terminal and I was happy.
I served as the executive director for the Nevada State Commission on Tourism for the past eight-plus years. In 1989, with executives from Las Vegas, we launched a first-ever marketing blitz in several foreign countries. Our mission was uncomplicated: start new visitation, or with the Japanese, encourage their visitors to linger in Las Vegas for longer than one night. Japanese guests historically stayed in Las Vegas just long enough for a meal, a show and to join a tour group bound for the Grand Canyon. After three years of gentle persuasion, we influenced Japanese tour-operators to pitch longer stays to their clients.
That reality afforded me a barometer to gauge the timeliness of effective change in delivery of tourism products or services. I predicted Bulgaria’s tourism transformation to be years in the making.
By the time of my visit, the cultural uniquenesses of non-English-speaking foreign countries excited me. For example, before crossing any street, I checked for oncoming traffic in both directions. I overcame embarrassment when a male companion grabbed my hand and held it on our way to an appointment. Vigilance in which pocket a gained business card should be placed became important; likewise, watching out for disreputable others who might pick those same pockets.
I speculated on what surprises the former communist-era leisure destination had in store for me. In my prep for the assignment, I uncovered elfin documentation focused upon Bulgarian tourism. Two key points rang out in everything I read. The Black Sea Coast on its Eastern border served as a favored summer vacation and medical-spa destination for Soviet workers. And, Bulgaria’s inland contained steep mountain ranges with heavy snow accumulation, allowing its three resort communities to be proclaimed winter sport havens.
I had seen a report hinting that women who vacationed on the Black Sea coast sunbathed topless and looked nothing as unappealing as Khrushchev’s wife. That lurid bit of information penetrated my consciousness – alas, I was to visit that shoreline in winter.
I wanted this journey to unveil eye-opening examples of untapped cultural jewels shrouded from the West until then by a restricted press. So, after a few hours delay, I joined the queue for a bus ferrying us to the Balkan Airlines plane that served Sofia. It was necessary for me to experience multiple aspects of Bulgarian tourism, so Balkan Air became my first of many products to test.
I climbed aboard the unique, Soviet-built Tupelov 154M airplane, configured to seat 180 passengers, six across with a central aisle. As we passengers streamed through the passageway, I saw no overhead baggage bins. Instead there were tubular metal racks faced with bungee cord, the same as those found on trains and buses. Because of the threat of turbulence, I placed only my jacket on that rack, and lay my briefcase under the seat in front of me.
My window seat, mid-cabin, had legroom akin to that in the economy cabins of US domestic air carriers. The forward seat back contained a scrappy fold-down tray table made of a tin-like material. It had seen better days, but remained functional. My seatmates, a husband and wife from Bulgaria named Irina and Dimitri had just completed a trip abroad. They were a handsome couple which I learned to be a Balkan characteristic. I spoke no Bulgarian or Russian as they did. But, they understood rudimentary English and wanted to brush up on small talk in my language. So, we chatted up Las Vegas, Hollywood, New York and the sexual antics of Bill Clinton.
Once airborne, the storm ramped up, but not enough to bring air-safety anxiety. The flight would be just two-and-one-half hours. We could smoke upon lift-off I learned as most passengers lit-up just then. My seatmate offered me a Russian Sobranie Black, and I passed him an American Marlboro Light. His wife chose a Sobranie Pink. Any nausea I experienced from the bumpy takeoff ended with the calming effect brought by a cabin full of rich tobacco fumes. Page5
Vodka bottles made their way from pockets and purses onto the tray tables. A cabin attendant with a taut blouse and large enough bosoms to guarantee its snugness strode by with plastic cups. A little later, a different attendant whirled a beverage cart down the aisle. This she did, so those who didn’t know to BYOB could have a taste of the airline’s proffered and formidable Ukrainian grain spirit. Aside from that, frills were non-existent: no in-flight movie and the sole airline publication contained no English translation. I reviewed the agenda for the weeks ahead; the coming adventure pleasing me. In celebration, I had more vodka and toasted my seatmates, who exchanged more cigarettes with me.
When we had been at altitude fifteen minutes longer than scheduled, the pilot addressed us in Bulgarian over the plane's intercom. I expected his message to be repeated in English. When it wasn’t, I summoned an English-friendly cabin attendant and asked her to interpret his message. Rather, she made her way to the cockpit and spoke with the flight crew. In perfect English, the captain said that Sofia became inaccessible due to fog. Our flight sped to a new destination, a place called Burgas.
If I had learned a driblet about Sofia, I possessed less than a dram of knowledge about Burgas. Did it even exist in Bulgaria or was it in a neighboring country? Turkey? Romania? Inconclusive thoughts about the pending dilemma coursed through my alcohol-warmed brain. Dimitri poured me more vodka from his personal stash and told me where Burgas resided.
Forty-five minutes later we started our descent into Burgas, touching-down in another twenty. Upon landing, the passengers broke out in thunderous applause. I learned from Irina this grateful out-pour to be the customary response when a landing resulted in no injury to the plane or its passengers.
Out the window I saw what I suspected to be the airport’s terminal; its lights being turned on. The pilot told us that the Burgas airport operated during warm seasons, serving a popular travel destination from May to October. Seasonality, he apologized, also meant that there would be no border police or customs officials present to process us into the country. Feeling like Gilligan, I wondered how this challenge would play out.
We deplaned, directed into the tiny terminal complex by our crew into a reception hall built to house passengers until screened for admittance. The room accommodated 200 people without chairs. Its stark white walls on three sides held no decoration and the forth, large windows, faced the tarmac. Four unmanned glassed-in cubicles signed Passport Control stood opposite the windows. There were no restrooms, but I noted when the need became great, squirming passengers had received escort to the proper chamber. We stood in those close quarters, littering the floor with cigarette butts for two hours awaiting the border guards.
As if on cue, four starched officers marched into the room from the building's interior, took their positions in the booths, and started the arrivals screening. The passengers divided themselves into four even lines. After another thirty minutes, I received official permission to enter Bulgaria. From the look on the screening officer’s face, I might have been the first American he’d seen fly into Burgas.
Passing into the spacious Customs' hall, I noted my fellow passenger’s personal effects appeared to be accounted for on the rotating carousel – except mine. The two bags containing the clothes and toiletries I needed to complete my three-week assignment had not arrived.
Seeking a Custom's official or airline employee who spoke enough English to aid me, I found a cooperative but not bi-lingual officer named Stefan. He had a kind face, deep-set eyes, salty brown hair and a Balkan weightlifter’s physique. His stiff, sharp-pressed uniform contained most of the twenty extra pounds he carried (holiday weight gain?). He wore well-worn brogues, but they sported a proud high gloss. To him I explained my predicament and saw he knew what I needed. Most important, I sensed he wanted to help me. As the passengers filed out of the terminal with their bags, Dimitri and Irina came by to wish me well. They told me they had family in Burgas who were coming to retrieve them. I bid them goodbye and continued the hunt.
Stefan took me to the Balkan Airline’s cupboard and by jiggling the door showed its security. I told him through a mixture of signing and speaking single words that I must not leave the airport without proof my bags hadn’t arrived with me. I needed a certificate signed by an official of the government or the air carrier.
My rescuer pried open a cabinet he believed contained lost luggage forms. He smiled upon finding one and presented it. Beyond the title line of the form, not one word of English existed.
Stefan assisted me in completing the form by miming its requirements. The other border police officers said good night to Stefan, and I noted that only he and I remained in the terminal. He signed, dated and stamped the form, and presented it to me, wishing me a good visit to his country as he motioned me to the exit door. Briefcase in hand, I moseyed away from Stefan, exiting the warm bright terminal into the frigid black night. The lights of Burgas tinkled in the distance, reminding me that I had only a glimmer of a notion where I stood in relationship to Sofia. I then realized that my fellow passengers and the plane’s crew had moved to some place without me.
Stefan turned off the terminal's lights and locked its doors behind him. He approached and told me, as best he could, that the coaches hired to transport passengers to Sofia departed thirty minutes earlier. He pointed me to a taxi stand about 100 hundred yards away. A lone cab sat at that curb, its driver standing beside it smoking a cigarette. As I approached, I saw even though dressed heavy for winter he had great height and a reed thin ruddy face sporting a few days of beard growth. His hair appeared at once both combed and wild. He glanced in my direction and nodded. I said hello and asked him the way to Sofia.
He said, “Very Far,” and pointed to his right. Beyond bedraggled, I reviewed my bleak situation, now bleaker. I had no phone to call Nikolai, no local currency and no idea how much time it would take to reach the capital. Should I stay in Burgas or try to reach Sofia by taxi? That I had no way to measure the honor of Bulgarian cab drivers or Burgas-based cabbies crossed my mind. I decided to take the chance and head to Sofia.
I asked him his name (Alexandr) followed by asking the cost to ferry me to Sofia. He gave me a number using American dollars. I offered a smaller number, to which he said "okay." His response seemed too fast, leading me to believe I might have shimmied my offer south. Shrugging my shoulders at the learning experience, I slid into the chilled leatherette rear seat of my Sofia-bound Soviet-built Lada taxicab.
I looked around to find non-existent seat belt seconds before Alexandr set off for the capital with a flurry of resolve and a noisy tail pipe. I hoped I might nap for at least part of the trip, but the muffler's racket, cavernesque potholes and the lack of restraints made that choice improbable. In between teeth jarring thumps, Alexandr and I tried small talk. I learned his wife's name was Maria; he had three children and hailed from the ancient Byzantine, nee Thracian, city of Nessebar. Pictures of his handsome kids dotted the dashboard, mollifying me.
Forty minutes into the drive we slid into an immense fog bank which I inferred to be the same mist that kept our flight from landing in Sofia. As thick as a decent milk shake, the shroud afforded twenty-five feet of visibility. Upon leaving Burgas, the one lane available to us became burdened with slow truck traffic we had to pass. Oncoming cars and trucks passed their obstacles by dangerously gliding into our lane, which only served to intensify my ennui. Road challenges didn’t appear to bother Alexandr very much. I never learned how much anxiety he felt about the dismal highway conditions. He didn't tell me, or if he said, it must have been under his breath or in a language I didn’t understand.
After four white-knuckle hours, we rose above the fog and entered the foothills of a craggy mountain range due east of Sofia. Now early morning; the scenery took my breath away. Alexandr asked if I wanted to eat. I said that I would, but added that I had no Bulgarian money. To which he said in fair English, "I buy breakfast."
He left the highway onto a dirt road and we descended for five minutes. After two, the fog re-blanketed us in a wave thicker than thieves eating pea soup. Even though worn out beyond recognition, I went on full alert. There were no signs of life anywhere. No vehicles, no pedestrians, no other buildings, nothing but dense forest and shrubs and fog, and Alexandr. It wasn't creepy like Transylvania, but a damned good replication of its film portrayal. Nefarious thoughts raced through my mind. Would I ever see my family again? Would I live another day?
We crept into a thick grove of trees and approached a building that appeared much like a World War II Quonset hut. Painted in shades of green and brown, it blended in camouflage to the surrounding flora. Three lone cars sat empty on the far side of the building – yet no sign identified the hut’s purpose. With trepidation, I walked with Alexandr toward a door in the front of the building.
My adrenaline was spiking, senses on full alert. If I was to be victimized, it would be soon. Alexandr grabbed the door handle with me standing behind him and turned it as though he'd done it a hundred times. I expected to see the Bulgarian equivalent of Freddie Kruger waiting on the other side; my eyes closed involuntarily.
When he opened the door, fears dissolved; the ganglia in my nose went into overdrive, excited by pleasant aromas wafting outward, including fresh bread, rich coffee, and chicken soup. My eyes focused on the minimally decorated, well-kept diner-style caf? before us. Bright curtains hung on its windows and festive Bulgarian cloths brightened its dozen-plus tables, two occupied. My obvious hunger showed – Alexandr sat us near the kitchen.
I learned the scrumptiousness of traditional Bulgarian soups that morning, consuming copious amounts of hearty stew along with bread, black coffee and organic orange juice. I gained keen appreciation for Bulgaria's morning staples. Alexandr added Bulgarian yogurt to his meal. My stomach reacts when I eat a soured dairy product including yogurt. Sadly, I missed sampling that much-loved Balkan treat.
After breakfast and back on the highway, Alexandr said we'd arrive in Sofia within an hour. He asked where he should take me when we got there. I didn’t have an idea where to be deposited and shrugged: which is the international sign for befuddlement. I likewise didn’t own the street address of my intended apartment, or where Nikolai lived, or where the Sofia airport sat relative to city center. What I knew equaled a lot of nothing.
We drifted out of the mountain's clear skies and settled into the irrepressible fog bank. At least I had briefly appreciated the Bulgarian landscape. I hoped that the fog dissipated sometime during the coming three weeks.
Alexandr suggested he drop me at the Sheraton Hotel, the only Western brand hotel in his country. He understood that English-speaking employees worked there. It sat in the city center, near important offices, he said. I told him that it was a wise choice, making him smile. Within the hour, we approached the historic edifice of the Sheraton Sofia Hotel Balkan.
I paid Alexandr, offered him my heartfelt thanks, and with my briefcase in hand, I entered the hotel. With no other guests present in the lobby area and only one person staffing reception I approached the employee, a woman in her early thirties. As I came near, she looked up, gave me a generous smile and said, “You must be Mr. Tait.”
Given the craziness of the past several hours, it shocked me that a measure of surprise remained in me. She had no reason to blurt out my name – I had no reservation at that hotel, or at any other. I must have given her my most confused look. She smiled as a mother does her child and added, “Your colleague has been frantic to find you. He told me he left messages at every hotel in the city thinking you might surface at one."
She added after appraising me top to bottom, "You appear to be worn-out from your difficult trip. Why don’t you take a seat in the lounge and I’ll bring you a cup of cappuccino? Then I'll call your colleague and tell him you are here.”
I went to the lounge, which she opened just for me, and sipped on the proffered lush cappuccino, of a kind only caffeine-addicted Europeans can craft. After collecting my thoughts for ten minutes, Nikolai arrived. We exchanged greetings, and I filled him in on my Frankfurt to Sofia journey. He listened intently and asked questions in near-perfect English (as he could in French, German, Russian, and Bulgarian, I learned). I felt in good hands and looked forward to the disruptions complicating my visit fading into memory.
Nikolai took the lost luggage report from me and we hustled to a market to buy toiletries. Then we drove to my temporary quarters for a shower and shave before the Presidential Inauguration ceremony. I remained in my travel clothes, but I'd attend on time, as planned.
Balkan Airlines staff didn't lose my luggage; the Western European carrier I flew from Los Angeles to Frankfurt did. My bags at the Sofia airport the following day, by way of Burgas as the fog had not cleared. Nikolai arranged for a young man to transport my belongings to the apartment.
Upon completion of my survey, President Stoyanov reviewed it and invited me to return and discuss it. From that meeting and later consults with in-country tourism leaders, several initiatives took form, jump-starting the restructure and rekindling of their industry.
It’s safe to say that my first impression of the Bulgarian people, their cuisine and spirit reached my highest levels of praise. Today, I call Bulgaria my second home, and my many friendships established there: lifelong.
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