Eau de Cologne (Odekolon)
I can’t stand cheap perfume. It smells like communists.
Isn’t it amazing how a simple scent can bring back so many memories?
This one is of a certain personage from my childhood in Bulgaria: a middle-aged, short, and stout man with a very thick neck and bolding head, who stinks of cognac and eau de cologne. There was only one type of cognac in those days: Sunny Beach, and one kind of perfume — Odekolon. Both were made from fermented cat urine.
I kept seeing this man everywhere. He was the janitor, the security guard, the tram driver, the hospital worker, the school administrator, and at the same time, the militiaman we feared and despised all at once. He was in control of our lives, whether we knew it or not, and he never failed to show his disdain for anyone who was his intellectual superior.
He was the man who, in October of 1977, went after Maria’s relatives after she escaped to the West through the Greek border and from there to the United States.
The day after she failed to appear at work, Maria’s brother, at age 30, was taken to the local militia headquarters in Dragoman, a small town north of Sofia. He was repeatedly beaten, tortured, questioned, then beaten some more by men smelling of that same Odekolon.
These men were enraged like beasts. They wanted answers. Why weren’t they informed of Maria’s intentions to escape, and who else knew about it? Who helped her and why.
Maria’s brother lost all of his front teeth from the beatings. His hair turned completely white. His hip was so severely damaged that he had a limp for the rest of his life. He was kept in isolation for three months without official charge, his mother and other relatives unaware of his whereabouts.
With no place to go and ask for information, Maria’s mother spent her nights praying for a miracle. She was also questioned, but at her home.
They arrived without warning in the middle of the night. The same Odekolon stench filled her head as soon as they entered her tiny house with their filthy shoes and thick necks. They sat at the kitchen table and waited to be served — salad, rakija, the whole deal. Their torsos were bulky, their arms and legs like sausages. Three sweaty men in militia uniforms drank, smoked, and ate for hours at her table before they were finally ready to begin their questioning.
How long did she know of her daughter’s plans to betray her country? Why hadn’t she informed them? What kind of a mother was she? The mother of traitors.
They returned the next night. And again the night after that.
For three years straight, Maria’s family was not allowed to function in society. There was no safety for them, no jobs, no company, no friends. Everyone avoided them like the plague. Their property (a small panel apartment), car (a Trabant), and bank account were “nationalized.” Maria was declared a traitor, and so was everyone related to her.
Maria knew this would happen, and still, she did it. She fled. She left the nightmare that was her country and escaped to the US as a refugee. Her many letters were confiscated and destroyed.
Her brother worked eventually. Everyone had a job in Communism. He was placed as a gravedigger at the Dragoman cemetery.
I met Maria’s brother on a flight from Frankfurt to New York sometime in the 1990s. He was on his first visit after the fall of the communists.
By that time, his sister had become a nurse in a big L.A. hospital. She had done well for herself, married a doctor. Had two adorable all American kids. Maria’s brother looked about 70, although he was in his mid-50s.
His sister had promised him a new set of teeth. American. The best.
In his suitcase, he had packed a whole roasted pig. Frozen and well wrapped in foil. His sister had asked for it. “Pigs are just not the same in L.A..” She had complained about a lot about the food on the phone.
He smelled of sweat. The plane was making him dizzy and uncomfortable. He was worried about the pig. “Is it true the border patrol takes away people’s food?”
I was annoyed at him. He didn’t know that people like him, with pigs in their suitcases, gave us Bulgarians a lousy reputation. Really? A pig?
“You are not allowed to bring food on the plane,” I said firmly.
“Oh, dear. What will happen to my pig?” he worried, “I have been roasting it all night.”
His face was pale, his eyes watery … “ah well …” he finally calmed down a little, “if the border fellows find the pig, they will enjoy it, I am sure! It is the best pig in the whole of Dragoman.”
I rolled my eyes and took another bite from the glue-like substance on my tray.
When we arrived in New York, Maria’s brother and I were split up waiting in line.
The customs guys found a half-eaten sandwich in my bag as well as an apple. They confiscated them without a word and waved me through.
Outside, before I greeted my boyfriend, I caught a glance at Maria’s brother.
With a massive grin on his face, he was pulling along a colossal leather suitcase.
The old kind, with buckles and no wheels.