Σάββατο, 24 Οκτωβρίου 2009

A long and instructive weekend

Or:Why I am never driving through Bulgaria again
Or:Authorities and people in three Balkan countries
Well about ten days ago I was invited by my friend Andrea to go visit her in Tirgu Mures in Transylvania.On a whim and against her sound advice,I decided to drive rather than fly or take the train.Moreover,I decided to drive all through the night along a route that was totally unknown to me for its greater part,the reason being twofold.Firstly,I wanted to go through Bulgaria and Romania at night in order to get to know people and places better-I am (still) a firm believer in good Balkan relationships-and seeing the people after dark is a great way of really getting acquainted.A second thought occurred to me:It would be a chance to cross the Danube by ferry instead of along a border bridge and a river this mighty has always aroused my curiosity.
I began my Journey-Mission from Thessaloniki at 7.45 pm on Friday.The first 300 km were uneventful and quite fast-by 11 I was some 65km before Sofia and even called my friend to brag.And then the traffic jam began,one long hour to get to Sofia.Add one more to find the road towards Vidin(you see the signposting in Bulgaria is very interesting:there are signs leading you off the highway-at least that's what they call it,for its greatest length it's just a two direction A road by international standards-and then no signs to tell you whether you should turn left or right.And in their majority they are in the "very well known"Cyrillic alphabet(I bet EVERYBODY can read it easily).After help from indeed very helpful petrol station and restaurant assistants I did find my way along the A1 highway to Varna,off which I was to turn to Vidin later.Soon enough and despite thick fog (and slow driving consequently)I was on the road to Vidin,clear skies and a moonlit night.
And then it hit.As I was driving through the otherwise pretty town of Montana(and I must mention here that in Bulgaria and Romania you get to drive through towns and villages even along big roads,a fascinating habit as you get to see the local architecture and the fact that in Bulgaria the main roads of most towns are cobblestoned)at about 3 in the morning I was flagged by two police officers,I knew I was not speeding so I naturally stopped and asked them what the matter was-in English of course!They said DOKUMENT!! in an authoritative tone and I showed them(this word I understood)my passsport,driving licence,etc.Their next word was(they spoke in single utterances)BAGGAGE.I understood that as well and flipped open my boot,to no comment from them.Their next move was to show me by hand gesture that I was to follow them -and I did.At the police station where apparently they took me-I can recognise one even without being able to read the language,they all look so official everywhere-another officer(their next in rank?)started firing questions at me in this wonderfully exotic Slavic language of theirs.I had not a clue what he was saying of course and I did make efforts to communicate in German,Italian,Greek.To no avail.So they turned to each other these Neanderthals-I wish I could have taken photos-and then started examining the contents of my rucksack(my waist bag seemed uninteresting to them),paying no attention to me.They seemed fascinated by my PDA.I did try to say INTERNET to them,pointing at it.No response.And their cells did not look inviting at all so I just shut up and waited.There was another rapid questioning by the big guy later-no communication again,more idle sitting for me and more of their tinkering with the palmtop.Luckily,about 3 hours after my happy meeting with those gentlemen,I remembered that my lawyer wakes up early and speaks Bulgarian so I gave her a ring(THANK YOU THANK YOU VODAPHONE ROAMING!!!) and she -on open speaker-spoke to them and me.She even called the Greek embassy in Sofia,who responded quite fast,and at about 7.30 I was motioned to get going.From a subsequent call to my lawyer I discovered that I looked suspicious to these bright investigators-what was a Greek in a private vehicle doing driving in the middle of the night in Montana,Bulgaria?A secret agent most likely,trying to destabilise the regime!
It took another 90 minutes to the ferry port outside Vidin,just to find the ferry leaving.Typical!So I asked for the next one,they said -in excellent Bulgarian of course-one hour and I waited,looking at the magnificently slowly flowing Danube(it is really blue!) and managing to have a somewhat English conversation with the duty free shop assistant who informed me that there are no ferries between midnight and 6am.Not that I was planning to drive back the same way,heaven and Montana police forbid!,plain curiosity.
Did they say one hour?Oh yes,it was two after all.A quarter after boarding the ferry I was on Romanian ground.
Do you know what a VIGNETTE is in Romanian? I certainly did not.However,a rather pretty and sour Romanian uniformed lady insisted on saying the word to me.Eventually and with the help of someone who spoke Greek it dawned on me that this is a ticket like thing one must buy at the border,a little piece of official looking paper that allows one to travel along Romanian roads(later I was to discover that even Romanians must have it to be allowed to travel outside their towns and I had the good ?luck to know about it back in Bulgaria,oh yes later later).So I took out a crisp 50 euro note(it cost 3 euros) and proffered it.Needless to say,no change and a lot of pouting on the sour lady's side.Not even change in lei they would offer-I wouldn't have minded.So about an hour later,after change had been collected from others and after a finger after finger computer typed receipt(most likely,all in Romanian) I was given my precious vignette(I discovered it again deep under my windscreen back in Greece) and started to drive off .And then,,,,,,,a n immaculately dressed in blue suit gentleman stopped me to demand 6 euros for port tax,yet another thrilling paper in Romanian.Seemingly,any vehicle landing on the port of Calafat must pay this tax.And they do not even bother to do vignette and tax in the same office.Why waste a good queue after all?

My journey to Tirgu Mures via Craiova,Pitesti and Brasov was pretty uneventful,allowing me to admire each and every town,the mountain drive and beautiful scenery from Pitesti to Brasov,the horse and cart next to expensive jeeps along the roads,the people asking for rides,the traffic all along(particularly at the edges of and inside towns,the gypsies.I even took time to learn that Romanians enjoy espresso coffee,use motels outside big towns to "rest" for an hour for a mere 40 lei(just under 10 euro)and a lot more.Romania,as I found,is an interesting mixture of old and new,of its new European self (a revival of its old European grandeur) and its communist interlude.
And at 8 something pm on Saturday,after 24 and a half hours of driving,stopping,getting lost,being hosted by police and exasperated by officials,after 36 hours of no sleep,I arrived in Tirgu Mures and was met by my dear dear friend.
Here I must deviate a little and paraphrase Confucius.
"Friends do not eventually find each other;they are in each other all along"
I met Andrea in November 2004,at a convention in Greece.I was different then and so was she-in situations.But as humans we have been the same since childhood I believe.Ever since that time I have felt myself a friend to her and Andrea a friend to me.It is a blessing our communication-despite frequent interruptions which I admit I am to blame for-has been easy due to our common knowledge of English.It was only last Saturday that we met again, after almost 5 years,and friends we are still and I hope to remain for a long long time.Simply because Andrea is a blessing.
After a long long chat,towards the end of which my internal switches started going down and I even called her JANE( a half waking dream that I owe her an explanation of,my mind was not clear enough then to interpret the subconscious message)and her readiness to smile,she gave me her own bed-she slept on the sofa and she is a tall lady,poor dear you must have woken up cramped and uttered not a moan!-I slept for nine long hours to wake up to PANCAKES!!!!!! and coffee and more chat with my friend.Then it was Tirgu Mures time, a picturesque medieval(the old part)town in Transylvania,a town heavy with history.Andrea took me to her place of work,museums(oh these Hungarian myths at the Hall of Mirrors are etched in my memory).Lunch a treat at a restaurant of choice(hey soup wonder!) then home again,meeting her father,a very wise gentleman who looks younger than me,playing with Whisky her cat and trying to lure her dog into conversation (next time promise!).Here I must mention that my friend lives in a house in a village just outside town,fruit trees and flowers all around,the kind o place anyone in their right mind would like to live in,very warm and welcoming.
More chat and then it was concert time for us
The music not good enough but who cares?When in the company of two pretty and witty ladies(Andrea introduced me to her friend Ioana,a gifted girl who will undoubtedly find her way and be happy),beer and talk and another bar that we closed,how can anyone not be happy?
Rest time then,Monday a work day for Andrea(sly me managed to postpone classes playing sick on the phone)and a return day(or so I thought it was)for me.
At 10 Monday morning we hugged goodbye(I hate partings and it was too short,I'm coming back!!!!!!!) and I left to return to what I call home.Except for the impressive drive over the Carpathians and the traffic around Bucharest, Romania was over quite soon.Bulgaria would have been too without a crash caused due to a hastily put up deviation sign seen too late in the fog outside Ruse(some car damage but again who cares when the heart is content?),fog,rain,3 flaggings by who else but the friendly Bulgarian police(vignette check again,no vignette bought at Ruse,soon they got bored of me not taking out my wallet to bribe and waved me off).a flat tyre midway to the Greek border,a 60 km detour towards FYROM and back owing to the eternally poor signposting in Bulgaria,some much needed sleep in the car after getting into Greece and ONLY 22 hours after departure....I arrived,a much wiser man.
Now the lessons I learnt:
A)Always listen to Andrea!She knows better!
B)Never drive through Bulgaria again(reasons enough above)
C)People in our countries are good(got help from everyone and I need to thank here the assistants at petrol stations and roadside cafes-despite language barriers they were invaluable).
D)Bulgarian women,despite the harsh financial condition their country is in,will not sell themselves out.They are of hardy proud material and will prevail and do not let any foolish Greek truck driver convince you otherwise,even at a regular roadside "bar" I stopped at for coffee I had no offers even after they had seen the fifty euro notes.Really respectable.
E)I am afraid Bulgaria will take time to become fully civilised-their communist past of spreading fear for foreigners is still very strong.
F)Romania is,despite many differences among regions,much more European.
H) Authorities are much the same everywhere(I wonder if they have a central breeding area somewhere in this wide world).Exceptions only exist to verify the rules.

A last word
Before this trip I had read with interest the blog of Vasile Andreica(the English there).Andrea suggested I add him to my Yahoo contacts.I did.And I am happy to have one more friend in Romania,a sensitive soul with a much greater ability of expressing himself in word pictures than many.Promise to come visit you Vasy,next time I'm there.
Which,incidentally,will definitely last longer and YES

MY DEAREST ANDREA MOST OF ALL!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

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