My Random Road to Sofia – BALKAN NEWS MAGAZINE

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PART 1

A lot of businessmen and women, have a tendency to brush over the past, and simply move on. Blaming politics or kismet for their success or failure, I was no exception to this rule when in 1993, I finally left London, and burned my bridges behind me. Then in my late 40s, I was leaving behind an England which had changed dramatically, and at the tail end of Thatcherism – with all its broken promises –once more I had endured a further fatal crash, in the UK property market.

It was not for the first time either, because the avuncular Ted Heath had also brought many property boys to their knees in the mid 70s. With bank interest rates, cruising around 22.5%, by then owning property was only marginally better than having none at all. But I was younger then, and being full of energy, I simply started again from the beginning. But this time, it was the final straw.

By the mid 80s, I was also an established estate agent in Hammersmith, and covering quite a large area of West London, you would often see my ‘For Sale’ boards as far afield as West Kensington, Acton and Ealing. Regarded as a blight these days, then there were fewer estate agents in these parts of London, and so the ‘For Sale’ board was very good advertising.

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This Was ‘Patrick Brigham Estate Agents’ – short back and sides please

In 1985, they most certainly attracted a particular Bulgarian to my Studland Street office. He had seen a ‘Sold By’ notice, on one of my boards in South Kensington, and in an adjacent road to his ground floor apartment. Thinking on his feet, it was no surprise that he appeared in my office one sunny Saturday morning, because I had got a good price for this nearby flat, and he knew it.

His flat was awful, and without going through the semantics of estate agent speak, it was like comparing an apple with a dead ferret. The flat was so grubby, that – were I a less honest man – I would have recommended flooding it, and claiming on the insurance. Unsurprisingly, I didn’t sell his flat, the plaudits for that sale going to an agent in Shepherds Bush, who had managed to find a mug.

During that summer, and as regular as clockwork, this Bulgarian would visit my office every Saturday at precisely 10.30 am. Assuming it was in order to determine our sales progress, after a week or two it dawned on us that his visits were absolutely nothing to do with property at all, but to do with bacon sandwiches.

Saturday was a day for chatting, for handing out details, and arranging mortgages. John Bruce and I – he was my master mortgage lender from the Northern Rock Building Society – regularly received a considerable consignment of bacon sandwiches from the local café, and Kostas, the Cypriot proprietor, would turn up on the dot of 10.30am with a huge plate full of these English delicacies.

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Pass the mustard

Whilst we politely went through his ‘do you mind if I have one of those’ charade, and the ‘you wouldn’t happen, by any chance, to have a cup of coffee handy,’ routine, our visitor would discuss this strange and practically unknown country called Bulgaria.

Our secretary thought that Bulgaria might be in South America, whilst others said that it was a Soviet Republic close to Afganistan; although they were unsure where even that was. Finally, the dreaded G word was mentioned, and by looking at a rather tatty school atlas, we were able to discover where Bulgaria actually was on the map; it was just above Greece, and situated on the Black Sea.

Although his apartment was sold, during the two month completion period, he continued to visit us on a Saturday, parking his smart left hand drive 70s Mercedes outside the office, complete with German registration. Yes, Bulgaria was a Communist country, and yes, he had left it in the 60s, and gone to live in the USA, before coming to London.  And so the story unfolded, and expanded with stories of professional saber fighting, of bit parts in Hollywood films, of being a student at the Lee Strasberg acting school, and finally, a regrettable divorce.

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No Smoking Please

In the end, I got fed up with hearing about this strange and secret country, and simply said one Saturday, ‘why don’t you just show it to me?’ Which he arranged, and during Christmas and New Year in 1985, I got on a free flight to Sofia, in a rather aged Touplev 154, that reeked of kerosene, and – not for the first time – ended up in Bourgas.  But did it matter? No, because by then all of us in first class, were chain smoking Kent cigarettes, on our second free ½ bottle of Stolichnaya vodka, and as happy as Larry!

My first experience of how Communist countries worked, was on that flight – as far as I can remember that is –when it became clear that all my fellow passengers were either Bulgarian embassy workers, security people, trade attache’s, or visiting government officials from Sofia.

The proletariat was consigned to the cramped second class seats at the rear of the plane, and we the elite, were allowed – for the duration of the flight at least – to eat, drink, and do what we liked. That was everyone’s ambition during Communism, and for whatever reason I happened to be amongst these returning diplomats – which was never made very clear –  it seemed then, that this West London estate agent was due to be a good friend with the comrades of Bulgaria.

Patrick Brigham