A Traveler In The Foreign Service: Bulgaria Is The Place To Break Down

bulgarian ladaForeign Service Officers (FSO’s) know how desirable their post is upon discovering how many houseguests they receive. If you live in Paris, people who you once shared a peanut butter sandwich with in grammar school and long lost cousins you don’t like to begin with will come out of the woodwork looking for a free place to stay. But friends who are willing to come visit you in Niger or Kazakhstan are real friends indeed.

Macedonia is a beautiful country, but it’s a tough sell for Americans, so the only houseguests we had while living in the country for two years were our parents and one of my brothers. Flying into a small airport like Skopje from the U.S. is a huge effort and expense, so we wanted to show them everything in the region while they were in town. The first road trip I had planned for my parents was to Sofia, Bulgaria, which is about 2.5 hours east of Skopje.

It was my parents’ first trip to the Balkans, and I was behind the wheel, with both my wife and mother in the backseat barking driving instructions at me as we twisted and turned our way towards Bulgaria’s capital. Slow down! Watch that guy, he’s not stopping for you! What does that sign say!?Yet as we thundered down a rare straightaway only miles after crossing the border into Bulgaria, the backseat drivers, bless them, were strangely quiet. Out of nowhere, I saw a huge mound of dirt and rocks laying smack across the entire width of the two-lane road and tried to slam on the brakes, to no avail.

We went airborne, Dukes of Hazard Style across the mound, and the car slammed down front end first, knocking my glasses right off my face. The road, as it turns out, had come to an end with no warning. We were OK, but the car was making odd noises. We coasted into a gas station, which was staffed with very cute young girls working as pump attendants.

They seemed to think our problem was hilarious, but we soon realized that we had oil leaking from our transmission fluid pan. The girls, in their smart one-piece gas station attendant outfits, pointed us towards a garage up the street.

By this time, the car had lost too much fluid and I couldn’t even steer it properly. Luckily the road was straight and we coasted into what seemed to be a deserted mechanic’s garage. A few young people sat huddled around a space heater in a freezing cold café attached to the quiet garage on an unseasonably frigid April afternoon.

The café was empty and the group seemed to view our entrance as an unwanted intrusion on their quiet, uneventful day. Lacking any Bulgarian language skills, I pointed to the car, which was perched at their entrance and said, “PROBLEM.” They summoned a young man with filthy, coal black hands.

The young man looked at the car and began asking us questions in Bulgarian, as we stood around looking concerned and cold. Soon, another short swarthy man came around and starting poking at the undersides of our leaking car.

“PRO-BLEM,” he said.
To which, I retorted, “BIG PRO-BLEM?” Hoping against hope he’d say it wasn’t.

He shook his head yes, meaning no, in that odd, counterintuitive way Bulgarians are famous for.

We repaired to the icy cold café and my father shouted at the lackadaisical youths huddling around the space heater, as though they were hard of hearing rather than unable to understand English.

“COFFFFEEEEE???” he shouted.

He startled them but they brewed him a fresh cup, and when they asked for the equivalent of 25 cents, my father was thrilled.

“Where can you get a cup of coffee for only 25 cents?” he said to no one in particular.

As we sat in the empty café looking out onto a tableau of heavy gray skies, I silently assessed our situation. We were stuck in a small town, the name of which I did not know, in the Bulgarian countryside. Our car had some unknown malady. None of us knew a thing about auto repairs, nor could we speak Bulgarian.

We’re from the United States. Our car has diplomatic plates. We’re rich, at least so they think. They’re poor, or at least so we think. It’s freezing cold. My dad is hollering at the staff in his friendly, gregarious way, trying to befriend them, but quite possibly also making them angry.

I was quite convinced that the men were about to gouge us. Would they demand our first-born child? My wife? Quarts of my blood? Only time would tell.

The mechanics ascertained that the pan, which holds the transmission fluid, had been sliced open in the accident. The swarthy man and his apprentice were welding and pounding it back together with a hammer. In the U.S., most mechanics would have told us that they had to order a new part and charge us a fortune for their time. But this plucky crew was actually fixing the darn thing. But would it make it to Sofia?

As we sat in the café staring enviously at the “employees” who clung to the only space heater in the place like leeches, my mother and wife broached the topic of turning back to Skopje. But like Clark Griswold in the movie “Vacation,” I was not to be deterred. One hour away from Sofia and they want to turn back? I had promised my family a Bulgarian holiday, and a Bulgarian holiday they would have.

After a little more than two hours of merciless hammering and welding, the men in jumpsuits proclaimed that the car was fixed. I followed them to the front desk to pay with butterflies in my stomach. Here it comes, I thought.

The elder mechanic punched the figure 67 onto a calculator and turned it around for my dad and I to see the digits. He looked at us as if to determine if we found the figure acceptable. 67, 67 what? I thought. Gold bouillon coins? Heads of cattle? Virgins to be sacrificed at the Temple of Bulgarian Mechanics?

This prince of a man broke the suspense by saying “LEVA,” Bulgaria’s currency. As if reading my mind, he then did some calculation and came up with a price of 30 euros. I thought that my father was going to leap across the counter and embrace him in a bear hug, but I just wanted to pay and escape before he changed his mind.

As we hopped into our car, which started and seemed to work just fine, we were all giddy with excitement.

“Boy, if I was him I would have charged you enough to retire on!” my dad said.

We barely used the car after arriving in Sofia and the weekend passed without further vehicular incident. But on Monday morning, I went out into the icy streets to dust snow off the car, and noticed that we had two flat tires.

I alerted the staff of The Hotel Meg, where we were staying, and thankfully, they felt some kind of responsibility, even though the car was parked across the street from the hotel.

An extraordinarily nice young man named Goce immediately went out into the freezing cold and began putting our spare on one of the flats. In less than an hour, Goce had the spare on one flat, and the other jacked up. He, my dad and I then piled into a battered old Communist-era taxi with the two flat tires hanging half out of the tiny little trunk.

There was something wrong with the driver’s seat and it literally hung down onto the back seat into my dad’s lap. The driver asked for the equivalent of $1 for the ride to the garage, and even offered to stick around until the tires were fixed and then drive us back to the Hotel Meg.

The little garage was busy, but the men dropped everything to deal with our bum tires. As they dipped the first one into a huge vat of awful, sludgy, icy cold water, my dad remarked, presciently, “Godammit, I’m glad I don’t have to dip my hand in that cold, dirty water!”

As we waited for the mechanic’s verdict, I sat in a tiny little makeshift café attached to the garage, watching people with dull, blank expressions drink ebony black coffee from small white plastic cups. I felt so happy that it would be my last time hanging out in such a dismal place.

I felt certain that the man would tell us we needed new tires. I was wrong. They patched them up, charged us 7 Euros, and we were back in the battered taxi, with the driver on my lap this time, heading back to the Hotel Meg.

“Bulgaria is alright!” my dad proclaimed, and I laughed.

“No seriously,” he continued, “You can get things fixed here! I wish we would bring some of these mechanics back to the States!”

Read more from “A Traveler In the Foreign Service” here.

[Photo by Sludgegulper on Flickr]