LONDON — London--The talk at the lunch table would have interested the emir of Kuwait. It was of lost kingdoms, revolutions and an uncertain future.
The guest of honor spoke with an air of quiet authority. "Exile i the best schooling for a king, providing he can return," he said.
He should know. After 44 years in exile, King Simeon II o Bulgaria has more than served the first part of his education. Now he is awaiting the second: return to the country he left when he was just 9 years old. He had been on the Bulgarian throne for three years.
In London on a recent working visit from his home in Spain, th king was having lunch with a few journalists in the Overseas Club, just off Piccadilly.
"Do you have any plans to go back to Bulgaria now that it's hel democratic elections?" someone asked him.
The king smiled. "Definitely," he said. "But only if I am called: T gate-crash is not my way. Impulsively, I would be there tomorrow, but we need to let things settle a bit."
He is a tall, slim man, balding, with a neatly kept beard, a thi face and boyish pink cheeks. Though he has been a king without a kingdom throughout his adult life -- he is now 53 -- he retains an indefinable regal air: beautiful manners, unassuming yet unquestioned authority and an easy, cultured articulateness. His English is fluent -- as are his French, German, Italian, Spanish and, of course, Bulgarian.
"Sometimes things do turn out differently from what one ha thought," he said, sipping a glass of red wine.
Certainly no one predicted the swift downfall of Communis leader Todor HD last November. Since then, a group of monarchists has campaigned in Bulgaria for the return of the king.
The years of working behind the scenes in Madrid helpin Bulgarian refugees now seem less futile. "My sons now tell me that they at last understand I wasn't wasting my time for all those years," he said.
The faded comfort of an English club seems a world away fro the intrigue and splendor of his childhood in the Bulgarian Royal Court.
When he was born in 1937, cannons fired a 150-gun salute, an a three-day holiday was declared. Joyous Bulgarian peasants crowded into the palace with gifts of flowers, fruit, chickens and lambs.
The joy turned to grief when his father, King Boris, die unexpectedly when the prince was 6. Rumors abounded that he had been poisoned by the Nazis for refusing to aid Hitler by sending Bulgarian troops to Russia.
"The first I remember of being king was when they told me m father had died and they addressed me as 'Your Majesty,' " he said.
A Council of Regency headed by his uncle, Prince Kyril, wa appointed to rule for the boy-king until he came of age. When a coup brought the Communists to power in 1944, Prince Kyril was executed, along with most of the country's government ministers and members of parliament.
Two years later, King Simeon fled the country with his mothe and sister, settling first in Egypt, then Spain.
There he became a successful international businessman married a Spanish woman and had five children.
"They don't speak Bulgarian," he admitted. "I wanted them t belong somewhere, and not to feel strange with their friends.
"So they are Spanish citizens. I wanted them to feel some roots to have somewhere they owe to and pay taxes to."
His eldest son and heir-apparent, 28-year-old Kardam, planned skiing trip to Bulgaria three years ago. "I told the authorities he was coming -- I don't like cloak and dagger -- and they said fine. The trip fell through in the end, I can't remember why, but my son is still interested in going."
After all these years, Bulgaria is obviously still close to his heart He spoke of life there after the revolution: "It's a big question mark how we will be able to remodel this society. There are big problems of adjustment to the joy of sudden freedom and to tough everyday realities.
"It will take quite a bit of imagination from people and elasticit from the government. Democracy means a lot of self-restraint. It will mean also forgetting on both sides."
Whether democracy signals a return of royalty to Bulgari
remains in doubt. The man who would again be king feels he can offer his country something valuable:
"A constitutional monarchy guarantees a certain tranquillity an rights and freedoms in times of stress," he said. And if the call never came? He smiled: "I have got my life reasonably laid out. It has no importance in my program for the medium-range future."