My relationship with Bulgaria…….

It’s amazing being in Bulgaria again and especially staying in my grandparents old apartment which isn’t rented out at the moment. I first came to stay in this apartment in 1980 when I was 10 yrs old. It was only the second time my dad saw his parents since he was two years old and his parents left Greece – more on that story soon.
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Back in 1980 we arrived by train from Greece and I distinctly remember my aunt Mirka running up and down the station looking for us but she didn’t recognise my dad till the platform was almost empty – it was the first time they had ever met. Well I have created quite a strong bond with my bulgarian family ever since and this is my 9th visit to Bulgaria to visit them.

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Bulgaria was such a different place in 1980. It took so long to get a visa to visit Communist Bulgaria then, every single bag was opened at the border and my dad had smokes to bribe the guards. We even had to go to the local police station every day to be registered. That got a bit tiring after a couple of weeks. I remember bringing over about a suitcase full of food – Greek olives, feta, cheddar cheese, biscuits, spaghetti, etc. these things were so hard or impossible to get in those days. Bananas and many other fruits were totally unavailable.
There was a shop on the main road of my grandparents apartment and I remember my grandad had some coupons to get salami and cheese which you could get now and then. We waited in line for about 2 hours – though I didn’t mind cause my grandad (George Miliankos) was such a good storyteller. I just loved being with him.

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Sadly I didn’t see him again after this trip when I was 10 years old. He died of a heart condition in 1986. On his death bed he told my grandma that the happiest time of his life was the 6 months he spent in Australia in 1975 – I was five then and I have so many fond memories of my grandad. He would love to walk and even though we had lived in our Northcote house for a year my parents were busy with work and then a new baby to ever really explore, though my grandad and I (I used to call him Dedo Georgi) would walk lots and we discovered so many new parks and Merri creek and lovely buildings. He would often tell me stories of Bulgaria and Uzbekistan (where they lived from 1948 -1960) and when the stories ran out he would make up stories of the people inside the buildings we saw. We would climb trees and bring home nests hoping the birds would follow (oops!). He was easily one of the most influential people in my life. So calm and centred and loved his family.
My grandma on the other hand was quite different – very feisty and passionate and would laugh and cry in the one sentence. I sort of consider this her apartment as I visited here so many times after my grandad had died.

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One of my most distinct memories is standing on this exact balcony – and she said to me – I’m not going to buy any new pants for you unless they have elastic cause you are getting too fat. I can still remember the position I was standing and what I was wearing as she said that. She meant well and did buy me some nice trousers that I loved despite the weight issue.

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This apartment is on the sixth floor and hasn’t had a working lift since way before 1980. It has always been a struggle for many people to get up to the apartment and I remember that in my grandma’s last years of life she hardly went out cause it was too hard to get back up.
I think I owe it to my grandma to write a bit of a story or an obituary if you like.
She was born in 1920 in northern Greece and died in 2006 in Plovdiv, Bulgaria. She was a staunch communist and one of the happiest photos I remember of her is one where she is wearing her communist medals.
She knew my grandad all her life as they grew up in the same village barely 100 metres from each others’ house. They married quite young and had their first child – my aunt Ketsa – in 1941. They both came from large families and their lives consisted of looking after the animals that they ate and got milk from and also working in the fields around the village to produce crops to sell and to feed the animals. My dad was born in 1946. However this was a time of great change in Greece (I have collected many stories from my grandma (I called her Baba Angelina) that I have on several tapes and I intend to write a book about it one day – though a short version follows).

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Greece was swept by civil war in the north where the communists were fighting the fascists (my grandma would love to use the term ‘fascists’ with a derogatory snarl).

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On a particular day in 1948 my grandad was in jail and my grandma was with other communist forces on a mountain near our village called ‘Vichi’.

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To cut a long story short, the fascists got the upper hand in this fight and 10,000 Communist Greeks retreated to the other side of the mountain into Albania. The war was ending by this stage and they couldn’t come back to Greece – they were stuck in Albania – my grandad was able to join his wife there. All the while my dad, a 2 year old toddler was being looked after by his paternal grandmother and aunt whose husband died in the war leaving her a 22 year old widow with a daughter. They lived in this strong stone house in our village – Kato Ydrousa.

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During this time there was also a policy called ‘Child-Gathering’ where the children of communists would be put into trucks and taken across the border and put into orphanages in Yugoslavia.

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When the soldiers came to the house they took my 7 year old aunt Ketsa but I guess they were in a hurry cause they missed my dad who was hidden by his grandma under a pile of of thick blankets. He was two at the time and remained in the village and didn’t see his parents again till he was thirty – at the airport in Melbourne, Australia.
Well in the mean time, there was nothing that poor Albania could do with 10,000 Greek refugees, so Stalin, being the nice person that he was! sent a disguised Norwegian sheep ship to Albania to pick them up, they sailed through Greek waters and into the Black Sea. When they were in the Bosphorus in Istanbul they were told not to even cough as they waited the two hours for the ship to clear customs and to get to the safety of the Communist friendly Black Sea.

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They had been under the deck of the ship with animals for about a week by this stage so you can imagine the stench!
Anyway they eventually got to the Ukrainian coast where they were apparently given clothes and food and money and transported to Moscow from where Stalin would send them all over Central Asia where there was so much work. My grandparents were sent to Uzbekistan where they lived till 1960.

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My grandma was eventually a foreman in a dress making company (she has always been a leader rather than a follower – I remember my maternal grandma – ‘Mae’ – telling me that she was scared of her as they were growing up), my grandad worked on the roads – getting them sealed all over Tashkent.

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They had had two children but neither was with them so they eventually had another one – my aunt Mirka in 1951. Then a few years later the Red Cross had matched my aunt Ketsa with her parents and sent her to Uzbekistan. She was reunited with her parents and her young sister after about 7 years in an orphanage, she was 14 years old. Such a lost childhood for her.

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My grandparents would write my dad letters though he would often just put them in the fire and say ‘No, they left me’. They craved to be reunited with their son so they made plans to emigrate to Bulgaria which was closer to Greece – coming back to Greece wasn’t an option in this Cold War period. The plan was to move to Bulgaria (they chose Plovdiv – the second largest city as they had friends who could help them) and then make the paperwork for my dad to come. By the time this had got sorted he was about 15 years old and his grandma just wouldn’t let him go. She had raised him, he was meant to look after her into old age and of course she loved him – she didn’t want to lose that – except for the daughter she lived with all her other children were repatriated to other communist countries. My dad and his cousin Menka were her life. Therefore, my dad continued to live in Greece, eventually went to the army, asked my maternal grandad if he could marry my mum (their houses were diagonally opposite all their lives), they married and nine months later I was born.

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My grandma says that she had a headache ever since 1969 when she missed her son’s wedding. Apparently this headache and the ongoing video footage of her life didn’t leave her till she died.
So, my dad moved to Australia -to live with his uncle George, Aunty Nada and cousins Meri, Lorraine and Simon – when I was one year old leaving a pregnant wife and child, in search of work. My mum gave birth to a daughter – Angelina – named after my grandma – though my dad never met her as she died at the age of 5 mths of pneumonia. Two and a half years later my mum and I followed (1973) and then in 1975 after my sister was born my Dedo Georgi and Baba Angelina from Bulgaria came to stay for 6 months. I still remember the tears that flowed at Tullamarine airport when they first saw their son since he was 2 years old.
The last few times I visited by grandma she became increasingly insular – wouldn’t go out much and lived on quite little money. She didn’t enjoy the fall of Communism. The pittance that they were given for a pension post communism only allowed her to eat Yoghurt and bread in the winter otherwise she would turn off her heating and wear six or more layers to stay warm. When I saw her in 1993 she hadn’t been to a dentist since 1990 or couldn’t afford all the medicines she needed. This was all provided for her during the communist years. She would spend long hours in her room and wouldn’t let anyone into it – it was a no go zone! It was strange that all my kids slept in her room this visit. My grandma died in 2006.

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On this visit I asked my aunt Ketsa whether she preferred the communist years and she definitely said yes. She explained that yes it may have been hard because they were told what to think and you couldn’t speak up and it was extremely difficult to travel and get visas, but things were so much cheaper and you had access to doctors and dentists and other services that are just too expensive today. Very interesting. All of my young cousins love Bulgaria now and wouldn’t ever want to go back to ‘those days’! I have enjoyed witnessing Bulgaria change over the years and now enjoying seeing my kids create a relationship with it and their cousins and aunts.
By Baba Miliking

3 thoughts on “My relationship with Bulgaria…….

  1. With a two year old son, I cant stop crying at the thought of your dad being separated from his parents, hiding under blankets etc. Amazing story Christos and I can start to see where your incredible resilience, zest for life and ambition comes from. You have an amazing drive to make the most of this incredibly lucky life we all have compared to the hardships of your family. xx Love Neri

    • Thanks Neri – it was wonderful to revisit the story – I guess I have taken the story for granted a bit but there is probably a reason that ‘rejection’ issues run in the family even now. Its hard to imagine leaving any of my kids & seeing them again at 30. Pretty crazy. Hope you and your lovely family are well.

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