asofiaAnd so I took a late evening flight out to Sofia, capital city of Bulgaria, one of the EU’s most recent member states (it acceded in 2007). Because of the time difference it was almost midnight when I landed but, nevertheless, the Secretary General of the Bulgarian Economic and Social Council, Mr Anton Lazarov, and a colleague, Ms Hristina Vergieva, were waiting at the airport to greet me. Now that’s what I call class! It’s good, and more than a little strange, to be back in Sofia. The last time I was here was 1981 – twenty-eight years ago! In that year my girlfriend (later to be my wife) and I took the Orient Express from Venice to Istanbul. But our train was a trundling plebeian convoy, and not the luxurious version that rich train enthusiasts now take. We’d got our calculations hopelessly wrong and pretty much ran out of food by the end of the first day. The trip took three-and-a-half days and so, for the rest of the journey, we relied on what we could buy on station platforms and the charity of Turkish families returning home (in fact, they were wonderfully generous). In those days, Sofia was a confluence between two main railway lines taking Yugoslav holiday makers and Turkish gastarbeiters south. We didn’t dare leave the train for long, but I remember drab, though still elegant, buildings and the exoticism of Cyrillic script everywhere. As we rapidly realised, the ‘real’ Orient Express represented a symbiosis between a sort of travelling smuggling machine and a mobile supermarket. By the time we got to Bulgaria, the Yugoslavs had been thoroughly fleeced by so-called customs officials who paraded up and down the train accompanied by muscle-bound and thuggish enforcers. I imagine the same held pretty much true for the Turks. But in Sofia, where the two flows south joined together, the Bulgarians cheerfully added a wagon to the back of the train full of ‘duty free’ goods, ranging from stereo music centres and televisions through to cigarettes and spirits. The mood lightened. Suddenly, all the deutschmarks and dollars that had been hidden away (rolling the notes up and putting them in cigarettes, with a bit of tobacco on top, was a favourite hiding place) appeared in a frenetic spending spree. The come-uppance came when the train got to Edirne, on the Greek/Turkish frontier. We were stuck there for almost twelve hours, as customs officials went though the train systematically, enthusiastically slapping customs duties on everything our fellow travellers had bought in the added-on wagon! And now here I am again, so many years, and so much history later. I stayed up far too late reading up on Bulgaria’s tortured history and proud past. It is, truly, good to be back.