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Jack Smith

Under Bulgarian auspices, blue is the song of the Danube, while the Dodgers' hue fades

October 21, 1985|Jack Smith

We traveled up the Danube by boat, saw Bavaria by motor coach and spent eight days surrendering to the temptations of Paris, only to return home on the night before the Dodgers lost the pennant.

Such are the perils of travel.

The Danube trip was idyllic. Rather than paddle our own canoe, we took a DER Tours cruise aboard the MS Sofia, a luxurious white river boat with a Bulgarian captain who looked like Cesar Romero and an exuberant Bulgarian tour director who reminded me of the young Debbie Reynolds.

We had had a pleasant flight on Pan American direct from Los Angeles to Frankfurt, watching the latest James Bond movie. It was improbable enough to put me in a proper mood for vacation.

In Frankfurt we connected with a Bulgarian Air Lines flight to Russe, a river port in Bulgaria. While not reassuringly shipshape in appearance, the Bulgarian plane played "I Just Called to Say I Love You" on the public address system, and a male steward passed big sliced buns stuffed with cheese and salami, one big green apple and one enormous tomato to each passenger. It was probably the least fattening meal we were to eat in four weeks.

In flight I learned how to say "Fasten your seat belts" in Bulgarian:

"3ACTErHYTb PEMHN" (make that last N backwards).

After we landed I looked back and saw that the tires were slick; but we had made it.

In customs at the airport I noticed that the Bulgarian guard seemed to be especially interested in magazines, and confiscated two or three. I had a new copy of Discover, and he began to thumb through it, looking, I suspected, for an erotic centerfold. In Communist countries, I remembered, nudity was considered capitalistic degeneracy. I wished I had brought along a copy of Playboy.

"It's about science," I said. "For the layman."

"Is good?"

"Is very good. You can have it," I added unnecessarily, since he had already put it aside, perhaps hoping that it contained diagrams of Star Wars.

The DER Tour buses were waiting and rather than going directly to the ship, we stopped in the inner city of Russe. The town was ringed with the kind of uninspired high-rise apartment houses we had seen years earlier in Moscow and which now mark all the industrialized cities of Europe. We are becoming a world of termites.

It was dusk when we stopped at the town square and the entire city seemed to be out walking. It is an institution one no longer sees in America. The ancient buildings along the square were of charming line and detail, with steeples, oriels and mansard roofs, but badly in need of paint. That lack of maintenance gave the whole place a drab look, and the people too looked drab in their plain clothes. What the opening of a J. W. Robinson's store would do for that town!

Like youths everywhere, the young people wore denims, traveled in predatory groups and seemed to be hunting in frustration for something to do. But many young families were out together, pushing perambulators and stopping to talk to other families. I wondered what sort of industries they were swallowed into during the day. This daily walk in the square was obviously their social life.

That evening we dined in an old-style Bulgarian restaurant in the base of a new 180-meter television tower. It was inside huge barrel vaults that were painted with owls, pheasants, mythic birds and opulent flowers, and looked Mexican to me. A Bulgarian combo played such familiar tunes as "Hora Staccato" and Lara's song from "Dr. Zhivago."

When we woke up the next morning MS Sophia was already under way, and Russe was behind us. Our cabin was spruce, up to date and roomy enough, if you didn't mind togetherness. The ship was to become our mother, and this cabin our womb, for a week.

I found that I was soon eased away from the stresses of my daily routine. Breakfast was at 8 or 8:30. Then aerobics on the sun deck at 10, under the energetic direction of Nina, the tour director. My wife always took part in these exertions, but since the sun deck bar opened at 10:30, I thought it wise to keep myself in shape for the first beer of the day.

One simply signs for everything on a cruise ship. It's as if there will never be a day of reckoning. So, as we sailed up the historic Danube, lined on either side by primeval forests, I saw no reason not to have my beer in the morning, before sharing a bottle of Bulgarian wine at lunch with our table companions, who happily turned out to be David and Eunice McConaughy of Rolling Hills Estates.

We were to see days of forests in the Balkans and then again in Germany, reminding me that in the Stone Age, before man took to the trees with axes to clear places for his cities and his roads, all Europe was a forest, fit only for fairy tales.

I soon lost sense of what day it was. We became much like the passengers in that wonderful movie of a few years ago, "If It's Tuesday, This Must Be Belgium." Except that it was just the opposite with me. When we reached Belgrade I didn't know what day it was, but I knew that if it was Belgrade, it must be Saturday, because DER Tours had told us we would be in Belgrade on Saturday.

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