I am a bike enthusiast. Not a very fast or skilled biker or anything like that. I don’t even know that much about gears, pedals, helmets, brands, and all the rest. I just love the feeling of getting on a bicycle and going places. To me it means freedom.
It took me a while to get my first bike.
In Bulgaria we had only one brand: BALKAN, named after the great mountains. Balkan was also the name of our People’s Republic National Airline. And the famous Kashkaval cheese. And the giant fancy hotel in the center of Sofia. And my uncle Misho’s German Shepard. And many other things.
When discussing bikes, the kids used the diminutive Balkanche, making sure they were not talking about airlines, dogs or cheese, but also expressing their feelings for the bikes: simple, small, sleek, and impossible to find.
I wanted a green one, although I wouldn’t have minded having one in blue, of course. A bike is a bike after all, the color makes no difference. After repeatedly asking my parents for one, my dad finally agreed.
“You are old enough to have a bike now. Green it is! If you see one in the store, find out how much it costs and let me know. I will buy it for you.” He winked at mom.
Excited beyond belief I went to the only Balkanche shop I knew of in the center of Sofia: across from the №10 tram stop and next to the central Market, which was named after the Communist leader “Georgy Kirkov.”
The bike shop was completely empty except for a giant counter. A huge cash register was promptly displayed in the middle of it. The air was foggy and smelled of cigarettes. At first I didn’t see anyone inside, but soon I noticed that behind the cash register there sat a fat angry Aunt, drinking coffee from a clear plastic cup and reading The Worker’s Affairs national newspaper .
“Excuse me, do you have Balkancheta?”
The woman looked at me with one eye.
“Of course not. Today is Wednesday.”
Now this might seem like a strange answer to you, but to me it made perfect sense. She didn’t sell on Wednesdays. So I posed a natural follow up: “When do you expect to release some?”
The woman closed her newspaper and looked straight at me.
“It is hard to say. We had them a few weeks ago on a Tuesday. They sold out immediately. Try again next week.”
Fantastic! I was more than happy. They had them! So it was only logical that they should have them again and very possibly on a Tuesday! All I had to do is keep checking.
“How much do they cost?” I asked, determined to get as much information
from her as I possibly could.
“Ninety leva, but I hear the new model will be a Hundered and Twenty.”
With that the woman opened up her People’s Affairs again and made it clear that she was done talking.
Oh my oh my! How exciting! A new model! They are making a new model!
I will be the first kid to have the new Balkanche!
For the next few days all I talked about, thought, and dreamed was the new Balkanche model.
Maybe they will make it like the German BMX! Maybe it will be orange! It will have a basket in the front! And lights! How lucky that I didn’t have a bike yet, I’ll be at the shop the following week on a Tuesday and it is very likely, absolutely possible that the new Balkanche will be released that very day!!!
Now the word “release” might seem a little strange to you, but in those days it was the most common shopping word in Bulgaria.
“When will you release some cheese?” my grandma would often ask at the Gastronome. That’s because the first supplies were always given by the party leaders to relatives and friends before they go to the store counters. Whatever was left over was then “released” for sale to random people.
You couldn’t leave it to chance though, so every morning all the grandmas and grandpas would line up in front of the stores and wait patiently for the angry Aunts to arrive and open up. The merchandise of the day would then be revealed and people in the front of the line would have access to whatever was “released”.
The grandmas and the grandpas would then start to fight over whose turn it was on the line and how much they should buy. It was not uncommon for a neighbor to scream out from her balcony on any given morning:
“Toshi, they have released some sunflower oil in the supermarket, line up, your grandma is coming!”
You would then run and try to get in the front of the line somehow and proceed to spend all of your pocket money on oil if your grandma doesn’t make it on time.
And so the situation was rather similar with Balkencheta.
You needed some serious connections in the Balkan factory. There was probably a list. Maybe several lists. A big party leader would be in charge of distribution. Another, smaller leader would get second distribution and so on. Courtesy bottles of homemade Rakija were to be given in advance and as a thank you to the leaders. And eventually once in a blue moon a few Balkancheta would be left unclaimed and “released” for sale to whoever happens to be wondering by the shop on a given day.
Of course I didn’t know at that time how the system worked, I was only eight years old and trying to understand why and how and when and where things were. And the sooner I learned, the sooner I would be biking in Western park.
The next day at school my second grade teacher, comrade Vesselinova, spoke about how things would be in the future. How according to plan Communism would arrive in exactly the year 2000. How at that point money would be eliminated altogether and people would live in perfect happiness. We would just go to the stores and get whatever we needed without any need to pay.
“Will they have Balkancheta then?” I asked eagerly.
“Naturally. Balkancheta. Scooters. Motorcycles. Whatever you want.”
Comrade Vesselinova seemed very wise and knowledgeable. She also had very long fingers and enjoyed squeezing the necks of kids who asked too many questions. I was lucky, though, as even though I talked a lot, she liked me very much and never made me stand in front of the black board and listen to her scream. I knew that I had room for one more clarification question from the comrade, an insurance of sorts:
“Does that mean that the Balkancheta will be completely free in the year 2000?”
“Yes! Completely!” Comrade Vesselinova snapped. She was starting to get annoyed.
Well this made no sense at all. I didn’t dare ask what seemed obvious. How would the stores have free Balkancheta in the year 2000 when they had none at all in 1982, not even for Ninety leva (or a Hundered Twenty for the new model.) Let’s not forget that everybody’s monthly salary was exactly a hundred leva, so these bikes were not cheap. I had to get mine as soon as possible. Waiting until Communism arrives in the year 2000 seemed just too long and too risky.
After school I ran to the shop. It was closed between 2 and 4. Afternoon break. Although I knew that it couldn’t have been later than 1:15 or so. Maybe 1:20. Oh boy, this was going to be hard! Much harder than I imagined in the beginning.
So for the next few weeks I made it a habit to always sit next to the middle doors of the №10 tram. The doors opened straight across from the shop. Since the stop was Central market, there were always old ladies with bags full of potatoes or whatever else had been “released” in the market on that particular day. The grandmas and grandpas always got on the tram slowly using the front door. That’s where they liked to yell at kids for help with the bags and to “get the hell up from the priority seats”. So if I were near the middle doors of the tram, I had just enough time to jump out, run like mad to the store, open the door, ask if there were Balkancheta, and then run back and get up on the tram without having to wait who knows for how long for the next №10.
As you might have guessed by now, there never were any Balkancheta of any kind in that shop. Not the old model. Not the new model. Nor any helmets or replacement parts. Neither wheels nor bells nor tires, locks or baskets.
The shop was always empty and the Aunt at the counter seemed to always be late to open in the morning and early to close in the afternoon.
Nevertheless I kept at it. Day after day I went there and asked her for Balkanche.
Finally on a Tuesday morning she greeted me triumphant.
“We got delivery yesterday!”
Her eyes sparkled in strange excitement.
“The new model at that. Three of them. All green.
You should have come then. They sold out within seconds.”