In spring of 1993, my phone rang on a Friday. Could I be in Sofiya, Bulgaria on Monday to teach a class? This sort of thing happened at Andersen, usually because someone made a promise, hung up the phone, and then said “now what?” I said yes. I could change my mind after I figured out where Bulgaria was, but if I’d said no, the possibility didn’t exist.
The purpose? To teach real estate appraisal, in a course sponsored by a privatization agency. Privatization was all the rage, and on the ancient Balkan Air707 from Zurich, the airline magazine included a prospectus for foreign buyers who might want to own the airline.
The Wall had just fallen, and Sofiya in the spring had a sense of promise. Russian mobsters hadn’t yet sensed the opportunity that lay ahead, and Bulgars were busy doing things like renaming all of the streets and fixing up their hotels in anticipation of the wave of money. The Grand Hotel Sofiya put me on the American floor, where their approach to meeting international standards for quiet rooms was to double the rate, and leave every other room vacant. It worked pretty well, but management had yet to realize Americans also expected curtains on the windows.
One afternoon after class I was walking down an unidentifiable street (new signs, but old maps) trying to find my way to Vitosha street, which hadn’t changed name and which pointed to a mountain. I learned to find everything by way of Vitosha, or by former street names. I headed down a side street by a government building, I was spotted by a man with a cart and a sign. “Amerikanski?” He asked. “Da” I said, wondering how he could tell. Perhaps it was the camera. His cart bore a sign that said “XOT ΔOΓ.” My mastery of the Cyrillic alphabet was growing, and I could read signs at a slow walking pace. “Hot Dog?” I said. “Da, Hot Dog!” He was very excited, with the opportunity to sell a XOT ΔOΓ to a real Amerikanski. “Een XOT ΔOΓ,” said I.
The translation was less successful for the actual item. The cart yielded a baguette, from which he cut a six-inch section. With a spoon handle he dug a hole, sort of a tunnel, through its center. With a flourish, he produced the cold XOT ΔOΓ, and jammed it through the center of the bread-tube. The finishing touch was a squiggly bead of brown mustard on the crusty exterior. His broad grin left me no choice – I gave him the 5 leva, took the XOT ΔOΓ, and ate it, with exaggerated gusto.
The flight home had a special treat – a real Tupolev 185. Balkan Air had adopted as many western conventions as it could find, including non-smoking seats, first class, and the requirement to stow one’s tray-table before takeoff (despite the absence of retaining clips for the trays.) First class consisted of a doily on the headrest, which was nice. Non-smoking was less effective, having been modeled on Eastern Bloc railroads – Smoking on the right side, nonsmoking on the left. The Tupolev is screechy and underpowered copy of the much-admired 707, so in the light traffic of the Sofiya airport, the pilot adopted standard practice – he taxied out to the midpoint of the runway, trundled slowly to the far end of the field, and turned around. Standing on the brakes, he spooled the engines to full power until the airplane shuddered on the threshold. Then he lifted his feet from the brakes, and we vaulted forward, to the clatter of 185 dropping tray-tables.