18th April 2014 Sofia, Bulgaria
My Parents Lived in Bulgaria in the 60s
by Denise Holt
After David Holt’s story for #100UKBG from earlier this week, today – a few days before Easter – we look at his wife Denise’s most vivid memory of Bulgaria – an Easter service at Alexander Nevski Cathedral.
Dame Denise Holt is a Non Executive Director on the boards of HSBC Bank. A former career diplomat, Denise was British Ambassador to Spain, Andorra, Mexico, and held overseas postings in Ireland and Brazil.
In the 60s, her parents were on a diplomatic mission in Bulgaria.
My father, Dennis Mills, was posted to Bulgaria in 1965. He was Hanslope man, and his communications role made him a permanent target for Bulgarian security services. As a 16 year old visiting from boarding school I was not much aware of that side of life.
Life was good for Embassy staff in those days. Despite our lowly place in the pecking order, we had a handsome flat on Shipka: large and sprawling, with beautiful wooden floors and very effective central heating controlled by some city-wide system. When we first arrived it was furnished in a heavy, dark, style which looked completely original. Later, the Ministry of Works provided us with standard issue Embassy furniture, which made us feel more at home. Above all, I remember the wonderful wisteria winding its way over the entire front of the building, draping our balcony in great candelabras of purple flowers during the Easter holidays.
We were of course aware of our good fortune. Most Bulgarians lived in ugly, crumbling, modern blocks. Our privileged position was brought home by every trip to the diplomatic store, where we would buy not luxuries, but everyday foodstuffs that were simply not available to the Bulgarian in the street. And by the fact that we had a car: there were hardly any on the streets of Sofia. We could use the Ambassador’s swimming pool for an hour or so a day in the summer, and the Embassy had a ski-chalet where two or three families at a time would have hilarious weekends.
But this was the upside of a rigorously enforced separation from real life. The policeman on guard outside our block wasn’t there to protect us but to watch for comings and goings. Our maid was almost certainly a security plant. Nonetheless, we made some breakthroughs.
My mother worked in the Visa section and we came to have a number of Bulgarian acquaintances among the local staff (some of whom may also have been plants). My parents watched England win the World Cup with Bulgarian friends, and an eligible English student studying archeology at Sofia University introduced me to young Bulgarians, with whom it was possible to have a slightly guarded social life: skating, strolling on boulevards, and even expeditions into the mountains.
My memories are of the stunningly beautiful countryside, dotted with paradoxical notices such as: “Do not pick the fruit: they are your fruit”; the cloying scent of attar of roses; the beaches at Varna – no English tourists in sight, all Russian with quite different ways of using the beach. I was particularly fascinated by the habit of sunbathing standing up. And, most vivid of all: a surprisingly well-attended Easter service in Alexander Nevski Cathedral, the priests in ornate orthodox costumes, the unique and ethereal singing, the congregation’s joy when candles were lit at midnight. Somehow, an unexpected memory of Bulgaria in the dark days of 1966!