The Dust-Covered Objects in My Childhood Attic Tell the Story of Communist Era Bulgaria

The Dust-Covered Objects in My Childhood Attic Tell the Story of Communist Era Bulgaria

The chests full of French yarn, a German tape recorder, and other objects speak to a time when sourcing Western products from behind the Iron Curtain required a mix of immense opportunity and effort.
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In the attic of my childhood home in Sofia, Bulgaria, there is a treasure chest. It looks like a prop from a pirate movie, big enough to hold a fortune. But instead of being filled with gold, the chest is crammed with rolls of knitting yarn from the 20th-century French manufacturer Pingouin, sorted by color and packed accordingly inside a motley collection of plastic bags.

These rolls, of which there are at least 100, have been sitting in that chest for 60 years, ever since my grandparents moved into the house that would one day become my childhood home. Today, I can go online and order the same amount of vintage Pingouin on eBay or Etsy in just a few clicks. But when my grandma first stored it in that chest all those years prior, the world was an unthinkably different place.

My grandparents were born in the 1920s, when Bulgaria was a monarchy ruled by a tsar who assumed power after the First World War. There were wide boulevards named after the country’s sole ruler, but there was also postwar turmoil. In the late 1940s, with the end of World War II, came the start of communism: The tsar was ousted, the streets were renamed, and the country, my country, found itself trapped behind a rare, one-way kind of border meant more to keep people from leaving than entering.

The border applied to objects, too, albeit in reverse. Western products were banned: No Johnnie Walker whisky, no Swiss chocolate, no Pingouin knitting yarn. Even imported products like fresh produce were absent from the shelves of Bulgarian markets. When my grandmother graduated from high school right after the Communist Party came to power in Bulgaria, "there was nothing," she once told me. (Even after I was born, after the Communist Party had fallen out of power, the shortage lingered; friends of my mother’s who were traveling abroad would sometimes fly back with packs of baby formula for me.)

But that was after 1990. During the Bulgarian Communist Party’s roughly 45-year rule, there was really no way out of the Soviet Bloc, except for a select few who scored business abroad. My grandfather, an architect, was among them. In the 196os, he was recruited by a Bulgarian company called Technoimpex whose mission was to deploy highly qualified experts abroad (and extend the ideological reach of the Communist Party). The job was a way for my family to live on the other side of the Iron Curtain for four years, so they left Bulgaria for a small Tunisian city called Gafsa, perched at the northern tip of the Sahara Desert.

The trip from Sofia to Gafsa took two days, three planes, and an eight-hour train ride. My grandfather went first. My grandmother followed three months later, boarding a plane for the first time with my mother and uncle, ages four and eight, respectively. Over the next few years, my grandfather would go on to design dozens of buildings in Gafsa and nearby villages, including a market hall with impressive arched windows, a pavilion with a concrete facade that doubles as an arabesque brise-soleil, and a conference center clad in local stone. Every summer, my family would load up their Peugeot 404, cross the Mediterranean on a ferry, and road trip back to Bulgaria, stopping by whichever countries would grant them visas along the way.

Neither Spain nor England would, but many other countries did: In Switzerland, my mother got her first pair of patent leather shoes from Salamander. In Belgium, she asked to trade them for a pet parrot. (It didn’t work.) When they reached Bulgaria, they would stop by a store called Corecom, which sold Western goods but only accepted hard currency (not soft, worthless Bulgarian levs), meaning access to the store and its imported items was a privilege to a small subset of Bulgarians who were authorized to travel abroad or do business with Westerners. With the money they saved from my grandfather’s deployment, my family would buy the stuff they needed—a washing machine, a fridge, and that Peugeot 404—and the stuff they wanted: Scottish whisky, Swiss chocolate, a record player.

Today, the whisky and the chocolate are gone, but many of the objects they sourced from beyond Bulgaria’s communist borders still sit in our dusty attic, neatly stored in cardboard boxes and treasure chests (there are more than one). As I sift through the plastic bags inside the biggest one, filled with the Pingouin knitting yarn, I can almost see my grandmother in the Tunisian souk where she and her Bulgarian friend, Elena—whose husband, Damian, was also an architect and my grandfather’s colleague—went shopping. I can see her hunched over the stalls marveling at the blues, greens, and mother of pearl yarns she would later weave into sweaters and tops (one of which I wore to dinner just yesterday). I remember her stories about a strange man following her around in that souk, presumably to make sure she wasn’t fraternizing with ‘the enemy’ or running away from the communist regime (like many Bulgarians did when they got the chance to temporarily leave the country). That man, she would later learn, was part of the so-called Committee for State Security, Bulgaria’s version of the KGB.

In one corner of my childhood home’s attic, where the roof’s slope makes it difficult to stand up straight, I find my baby bottle in its original packaging. (It reads Chicco, an Italian brand—clearly a Corecom purchase.) In another corner, I come across a camping tent from France, several carpets from Tunisia and Morocco, a German Magnetophon, and a metal husk that once held a propane tank for heating, from Spain. 

For years, I wondered why my family kept all this stuff tucked away in our home, some of it broken, some of it obsolete. But I’ve since realized that this attic is the product of an era so defined by absence, that when the opportunity presented itself, we swung the pendulum in the opposite direction. We turned into hamsters, holding onto whatever belongings we acquired by stashing them in the forever expanding pouches of our house: One silverware set, two silverware sets, three. A spare glass shade for the living room chandelier, and a spare spare. And yarn, more yarn than my grandmother could ever knit. Indeed, the world was an unthinkably different place then, and my family’s attic is a wondrous portal into it.  

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