Flying back home is always exciting. After spending over 12 years in UK, going back to Bulgaria is not only a trip to the people I love. It’s a trip back in time – too many memories from my teen years fill the streets of Bulgaria, and specifically – Varna.
Varna to me is the most beautiful city in the world. A lot would argue otherwise, but that is their problem. In this article though, I shan’t be showing you the beauty of Varna – I shall leave that pleasure to the sisters.
This time around, I want to take a trip back in time, to the days of my early childhood and Bulgaria’s late communism. Days filled with the remnants of an almost forgotten, pre-democracy era. I would like to take you to the Retro Museum, and share with you what life was like when I was but a babe.
A lot of the younger generation have forgotten, or have never lived through or used any of the artefacts on display in the museum, which is a pity. I believe we should get to know our history. Knowing what communism looked like, what were its ideas and ideals, could help us build a critical outlook on the surrounding world. After all, knowing communism in Bulgaria, is knowing communism in the ex – Eastern Block.
I arrived in Bulgaria early morning on a Monday. Throughout the flight I kept thinking, I shouldn’t go to the Retro Museum alone, I shall bring with me a close friend, couple of years older than me, and with more clear memories of life in communist Bulgaria. It took some planning – going out when you have 2 kids always does – but we went.
On a Wednesday afternoon, in late January, we got in my car and went to Grand Mall, located on the route out of Varna.
First impressions of Retro Museum Varna
Grand Mall is quite modern. I kept wondering if we would really be able to feel the spirit of communism? As we emerged on the 1st floor via the escalators, the sight of the Retro Museum calmed me down – there was a Simson motorbike out front (a relic from my childhood, on which my brother split his knee and I fell under a truck riding it). The whole front of the museum was in dark, cheerful, communist red. An exceptionally cheerful young lady welcomed us. She sold us the tickets and pointed us in the direction of the entrance, kindly advising us to keep our jackets on.
Upon entry, we realised why. The temperature in the actual museum was barely over 8 degrees – in order to preserve the retro cars on display. The cold was the first thing to hit our senses. The second was the music playing over the speakers – old, Bulgarian estradna music. Now, for people who grew up in the West – estradna music is like the pop music and theatre art of communism combined in one. For us, growing up in the Eastern Block, well estradna music is the music we, our parents, and even our grandparents grew up with, and the music which we still listen to with great pleasure.
The third thing that hit us, was the vastness of the museum. People don’t have much respect for communism nowadays, we presumed the museum would be a small hall, with few items and cars. Boy, were we wrong! On an area of 4000 sq. meters (43056 sq. feet), the sheer amount of artefacts was overwhelming.
With our stunned senses, it took us a couple of minutes to decide which way to go. We followed Julie Andrews’ advice – “Let’s start at the very beginning, a very good place to start…”. And as we were in a museum dedicated to communism, of course we turned left at the entrance.
Devotion to Lenin
The first thing you will see turning left, is a cabinet filled with busts of the Russian father of communism – Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov aka Lenin. It is amazing how much devotion to one man can a nation have. There are many busts, statues and portraits in the museum of Lenin, Stalin, Brezhnev and Zhivkov (the Bulgarian version of Brezhnev). I believe the most amusing arrangement of the artefacts is a photograph, taken during WWII. You can see the magnified faces of Stalin, Roosevelt and Churchill, displayed on half a wall, with a bust of Stalin put in front of Churchill’s face. Subliminal message – communism rocks!
Everyone stepping in the museum would take away with them different memories, and the artefacts displayed would bring out different recollections of a past, simpler, and often happier life. What I would like to share with you, are my recollections, and my surprise of how many of these items I remember and cherish from my childhood, and the nostalgia this place brought up in me.
A walk down memory lane
One of the first things we saw was a collection of old washing machines, and one in particular. The semi-automatic machine was a present to me from a friend, during my student years in Varna. As much as it helped with the washing, it was proper hard work to use it. In a semi-automatic, you would put your clothes first time with washing powder, then take them out, change the water, put them in a second time, then change the water again, put them in one last time, and then take them out and drain them yourselves. And yes, I was only 18 at the time I owned that mastery of the tech genius! But believe it or not – it saved me lots of time and money!
Another ‘weird’ artefacts we saw was the soaps ‘Lux’ and ‘Bebe’, which we all remember was the next step from using homemade lard soap. The next display showed the extremely popular ‘Karo’ shaving cream, the only brand both of my grandfathers ever trusted and used. I still remember the smell of it on them, when they used to pick me up as a child.
Our next stop was the display of bicycles, tricycles and winter sleds. The orange ‘Balkan’ was a family heirloom, used by my dad and my brother – although I’m positive ours was red!
The tricycle in the museum has an uncanny resemblance to the one my dad, my aunt, myself and my brother have all used over the years.
Next to it we found a wooden winter sled. I remember being dressed in a cosmonavt (full-size, huge, outside winter onesie), sat on this sled, and my dad making our way from home to my grandparents’ in 30-40 cm of snow. I was on top of the world – whilst my dad got hit with lots of snowballs from behind!
Next was the not-so-kind memory of cigarettes ‘Arda’- a super-strong, non-filtered monstrosity from when smokers were smokers and men were men. I remember trying them in my teen years, when they were super cheap and I could afford them. It was definitely a once in a lifetime experience – nearly choked to death after the first puff. Just the memory of them makes me cough!
Electronics during communism
We went to the electronics next. The sight of the old landline phones made us both laugh. Remembering dialling over and over again a phone number, because the first gazillion times you dial the wrong number just as you get to the end of the phone number.
We couldn’t believe seeing the old ‘Sofia’ and ‘Veliko Turnovo’ TVs. My great-great parents used to have a ‘Sofia’ TV in the kitchen.
My family had a ‘Veliko Turnovo’ TV in our flat. Me and my brother were the only remote controls for it.
Next was the old computers ‘Pravetz’, the first Bulgarian-made computers, which all schools have in for extracurricular activities. In all fairness, the ‘activities’ we did was a prehistoric version of ‘Angry Birds’ – but, oh, the fun we had playing with them! You just can’t get the same feeling of satisfaction on a smartphone!
Toys to remember
Games and toys – they filled our childhoods with rivalry, enjoyment, passion and laughter. Some of the best ones – if not all- were on display in the Retro Museum. The mother of PSP was there – a Russian invention, letting you play with the favourite wolf from the popular Russian animation ‘Nu, Pogody’, making him gather eggs, dropped by hens. I always wanted one of those!
Rubik’s cube, the round button mosaic, Triola – a children’s type of clarinet – they were all there, and in mint condition! My favourite game was there as well – ‘Don’t be upset, man’ is its name, and it is a simple board game. I don’t think there was a Bulgarian home without one. It was the communist version of monopoly, but it taught us not to get upset when you lose the game, instead of teaching us about capitalism and consumerism.
I think my favourite item on display from the toys section was the big trucks – blue and a red one. Me and my brother used to have one, which was red. We spent a few summers digging up my grandma’s garden, loading all the dirt on the truck, ‘driving’ it to the other end of the garden and dumping it there. Oh, the laughter we had while grandma was chasing us around the garden!
Once upon a time in a communist household
Next stop on our tour was household items. They ranged from handheld mixer, to dark green glass bottles filled with sunflower oil, to reusable shopping bags – way before it was fashionable to save the planet!
Near the exit we found another stand with toys – all of them rubber toys. I think the cutest, most memorable and recognisable one was the bear Misha from the Olympics in Russia in 1986. Another favourite was the crocodile Ghena – from a popular children’s movie. And of course, my favourite – the rooster water can. I ‘helped’ my grandma water the flowers with it – of course none of the flowers I looked after survived… I guess that says more about me than the water can…
Cars, retro cars
The most distinct feature of the museum is the retro cars. They are a glamorous portrayal of what cars used to be – fun, reliable, eternal, the ultimate communist perpeto mobile. Here you will find Scoda, Lada, Moskvich, even Chaika – the car only government officials could ever dream of!
All of those cars bring fond memories in all Bulgarians. I don’t remember my dad’s first Moskvich, but I have a couple of pictures with it, and I suspect he might’ve loved it more than my mum.
My aunt and uncle used to drive a Scoda – with the engine in the back – take that Ferrari! I still remember the smell of it and the fun rides with my aunt – even though they were short ones. The first car I ever drove was a Zhiguli – one of the Lada models. The car was older than my aunt. At the time my grandad taught me to drive, the car would’ve been 35 years old – and still in pristine condition! My amazing 13-year-old self did try very hard to wreck it with my driving, but a 35-year-old Zhiguli is not one to be trampled with!
If you want to relive your childhood, do visit the Retro Museum in Varna. If you have no idea what communism was like, please do visit the Retro Museum in Varna. And remember, when a childhood is so good that it belongs in a museum, you are lucky to have had it!