Après Dinner

The invitation came to me only because I happened to answer a phone in the newsroom.  The caller wondered would I like to join him for dinner in what I heard as Bearna on Saturday night.  “Bearna?”, I said, “Sure Galway is a long way to go for dinner.  What’s the occasion?” I asked, thinking this was some restaurateur looking to plug his new venture.

“No, no”, not Bearna!” came the response, “Varna! It’s in on the Black Sea, in Bulgaria.” I hesitated for all of two seconds before accepting this kind offer from a stranger.  This was the early 1980s and jetting off just to have dinner in Bulgaria was pretty exotic in an age before cheap flights.  Bulgaria was in the Soviet bloc and nothing like the commonplace tourist destination it has transformed into since the fall of the wall.

The plane took off from Dublin a couple of days later with about twenty-five journalists on board, all on the same vital mission as myself – to have a good time.  It turned out to be a charter flight that had only half filled with paying passengers and the opportunity was taken by the organiser to invite some journalists to sample the delights of this Soviet bloc country and hopefully to promote his business.

I sat with a colleague at the back, near the galley and we were the first to be offered a glass of sparkling Bulgarian red wine.  Fizzy red was new to me but after a brief approving taste, we kept the bottle.  This started a trend that was followed by most of the hacks in front of us.  We had a good flight, even being invited to the cockpit, between drinks, as you could in those pre-911 days.

By the time we landed we were in good form, new converts to Bulgarian bubbly.  Our first task was to briefly reconnoitre the airport bar before boarding a coach with a local guide excitedly telling us about the indubitable benefits of communism as we he proudly highlighted endless, ghastly apartment blocks.  He was trying his best to extoll the apparently idyllic virtues of a socialist regime, but we heard little of what he said.  Arriving at an hotel (where we were not staying because we were flying back after dinner) for the official tourist briefing we spotted another bar that called us to some investigative journalism and quickly went to work on the high stool.  Once again, we were not found wanting in our dedication to professional research.

After that brief respite, we were off again, this time to a night club and restaurant, a magnificent outdoor amphitheatre where there as a cabaret of some kind, though we didn’t see much of the show because we were still in working mode as travel journalists and checked out the bar.  A slight haze descended, notwithstanding the starry skies overhead.

Dinner came and went, a lavish banquet for our benefit, and we sampled more of the locally fermented grape in their interests of our readers.  The evening went quickly and before long we were on the bus back to the airport, homeward bound and feeling no pain.

Queuing at check-in, I spotted a desk with the overhead legend: “Have Gun, Won’t Travel”, a wordplay on the title of the old TV western series about a gunslinger called Paladin, “Have Gun, Will Travel”.  I just had to get a picture of this! I took a few frames in black & white and as I switched cameras for one with colour film (as you did in those heady days!), my elbows were lifted from behind.  I presumed my colleagues were messing and I carried on taking the pictures.  I quickly realised that it was not our lads but two hefty policemen, in uniform, carrying sub-machine guns.

“No photos!” they barked, sternly.  In my relaxed state, I was not too bothered and carried on shooting (!).  This was frowned upon.  “No photos here! You go now to your airplane”, and, tightening the grip on my elbows, they started me towards the airside exit.

I protested, gently (machine guns have the effect of dampening aggressive urges), and pleaded with them to let me buy duty-free, never one to miss a chance of some cheap booze and something for the other half (returning from a trip abroad without a present is never a great help in maintaining the old marital bliss).  They declined my request at first, but I prevailed, and they frog-marched me (gently) up a stairs to the small duty-free shop.  They were still holding my elbows when I asked the woman behind the counter for “perfume”.

Her English was almost as bad as my Bulgarian (zero) and when didn’t get an immediate result I gestured, sniffing my hand, and that seemed to do the trick – she produced a bottle of Christian Dior.  Even with my limited knowledge of such matters I knew the brand name and at a whopping US$50 in a duty free shop in an Eastern bloc country this had to be the Chateau Lafite of smellies, so I blew what dollars I had left and pocketed the prize before the nice policemen continued escorting me to the plane.

“See you lads”, says I, with a smile when we reached the steps.

“I don’t think so!” came the wry reply.  He smiled, but didn’t seem to be joking!

The journey home was uneventful, most of us were asleep before the plane lifted off the runaway.  We skipped the bar in Dublin airport, it being of no great travel interest to our readers and it also being closed at that hour of the morning.  After a short taxi ride, I was home, straight to bed, and asleep in no time, having paused briefly to deposit the perfume on the kitchen table – a nice surprise for my wife when she woke.

I slept for the whole day, waking late in the evening.  My wife cheerily enquired about the trip – great, pretty quiet, etc., not a lot of information from me.

“Nice present”, she said.  (yes!) I was glad she liked it but she seemed less than totally enamoured with my magnanimous gift.

“You didn’t by any chance get anything to go with it?” she enquired.  I was taken aback at the breath-taking ingratitude, knowing that it was a very expensive (and she would know!) bottle of smelly.  I was thinking her question was a tad selfish, but there had to more to this.

“Like what?”, I ventured, sheepishly.

“Like a razor!” she laughed.

Best après-rasage I ever had!

© Ronan Quinlan 2011

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