Time is on a black run these last few months since my mother, Leo and I got back from skiing in Borovets, Bulgaria in April. As if it has ticked to the top of the mountain and someone has given it a big push downhill on skis and it is whooshing along. But there was a moment when we got off the plane in Sofia when I slid back in time. Back to East Berlin, mid 1980s. Back to Moscow, early 1990s. I smelt it immediately.
Communism smells. It smells of damp concrete and rank cabbage, cold birch forests and watery red berry juice. With just a drop of fear and aggression. A fist. Cold eyes. Maybe that’s my memory playing tricks but my nostrils flared as we walked into the airport and queued up to a uniformed man encased in a glass box with black eyes who stamped various pieces of paper that ominously disappeared.
Alex, the taxi driver, waited for us. I had ordered a car seat for Leo but there was no car seat. An hour later we were in the suburbs of Sofia, near the old pre-fabricated blocks of apartments to borrow a child seat from a friend of his. Nothing had changed since the days I lived in one of those almost enclosed spaces with paper-thin walls that the locals used to joke about leaning on and knocking over. The city was dark, cold and the streets empty. And that smell. The only difference between now and then was graffiti. The usual names and one lone hammer and sickle. Graffiti would never have been allowed in East Berlin or Moscow. Punishment was physical and usually severe.
I found a few Russian words in my mouth as we left the city and began to climb up the mountains. Alex told me that he thought life was hard for Bulgarians but he’d never left Sofia so he had nothing to compare with. We hit a pothole. And another. He wasn’t friendly or unfriendly. Matter-of-fact. When they opened the first McDonalds in Moscow they had to spend months retraining the staff to get them to smile and be nice. They had done a good job in the hotel in Borovets. Except for several unsmiling waitresses, the staff were kind and helpful – as long as you didn’t ask for anything that wasn’t on the menu. I once took a night-time tea down to the lobby and tried to ask for some hot water but hot water wasn’t on the menu. In 1989 I was in a restaurant (a seat bribed by a Russian friend) in Moscow and asked for something without meat and a very grumpy waitress pointed to the menu and wrote something down. Ten minutes later she came back and slammed a chicken salad in front of me.
‘But it is meat,’ I cried.
‘It is not meat, it is chicken,’ she screamed at me, and started flapping her arms in case I hadn’t understood. Then she thrust the menu at me again. I ate the chicken salad. We didn’t eat at the restaurant in the hotel in Borovets. It smelled of greasy kolbasa and watery red berry juice.
But once on the pistes the smell was forgotten.
‘I don’t want to go to a lesson,’ screamed Leo, the first, second, fourth and fifth day. ‘My legs hurt!’
‘Leo, listen to me,’ I began (always a bad start). ‘Just try. George will take you on the drag lift and go down with you. I will wait here. And you will get a star! And then when we get enough stars we will buy the Playdoh cookie monster.Okay?’ I got my iPhone out and prepared to tap in a star to his Reward App.
He went. Reluctantly. I watched him, smiling. I knew I was bribing him. I was teaching him that if he did something he didn’t necessarily want to do he would receive a monetary reward – namely, a toy of some sort or a trip. Stars were a symbol of capitalism. I felt uncomfortable doing it. It was working. And surely it was better than hammers and sickles? I wondered what capitalism smelled of. Burgers, chewing gum and coca-cola in one nostril but fresh orange juice, pizzas and juicy sun-kissed tomatoes in the other, I decided. In Russia in 1990 a tomato cost more than a bottle of Soviet Champagne. The state shops were empty – except for cabbages, onions, potatoes and an occasional delivery of peppers.
Later, while Leo was making pizzas and burgers in playdoh with my mother in the hotel, I glided between the pine trees on a chair lift, my skis resting on the runners below, ski poles on my lap, the sun glistening on the melting snow, and worried again about the forces of capitalism and the power of stars. But then I remembered that stink of fear.
The chairlift swung across a valley and I found myself high above the trees. A bear had been sighted recently but not near this piste. Even so. I found my heart crawl up my throat and try to jump out. I swallowed it down. Soon I was at the top. I slid off the chair and straight down to the piste, looping my hands through the pole handles. It was colder up here and a piercing wind blew. I set off. The snow was ploughed and perfect. I relaxed onto my thighs and touched the pole into the snow and half-mooned around it, then again the other side, sometimes curving more deeply, sometimes less, leaving behind the trail of a large snake. This was it, I thought. I’d waited twenty years to do this again, but here I was, faster and faster snaking down the mountain. The failed attempt at Serra da Estela, the journey from Portugal to England, juggling work, tantrums, the cost of a second-hand cookie monster on Ebay, the smells of Communism and an almost forgotten era: it was all worth it for this one ski down a mountain. I skied down through the clouds and the sun came out and lit up a million stars in the snow. I swooshed through them. By the time I got to the bottom I could smell only pine cones and big, juicy tomatoes. We would go for a pizza tonight and Leo would get a star if he ate it all up.