There was a recent item in the news about the residents of a Sofia tower block who woke up one day to find that every tyre on every car in the car park had been stabbed with a screwdriver. The report said that the culprit was an Englishman who had been in Bulgaria visiting his wife’s family and had left on an early flight that morning. That all sounds a little too convenient. The ‘Englishman’ allowed the police to avoid doing any actual police work and could be blamed easily without being able to defend himself.
However, assuming that this convenient Englishman did exist, I can perhaps understand what happened. The English are magnificent at repressed rage and will seethe quietly until exploding into a sudden act of aggression when the accumulated frustration and anger boils over. In turn, driving in Bulgaria is a magnificent way to generate a great deal of frustration and anger.
Bulgarians themselves don’t really notice the issues with driving as it’s simply part of their everyday lives. Plus, they’re much better at dealing with rage and will let it out with a prolonged parp on the horn or shouted abuse so that it dissipates quickly rather than festers. This too, is part of their everyday lives.
Roads are battlegrounds for the clashes between English and Bulgarian cultures so, if you’re planning to drive on them, here are some of the things to be aware of…
The quality declines as soon as you’re off the main carriageways. The road surfaces here are a patchwork of different repairs – squares of tarmac of various shades and heights with networks of cracks, sunken grates, and crumbling edges. This is punctuated with yawning potholes that make it seem as though the area has been recently shelled. A blanket of snow is enough to turn these potholes into tiger traps that are deep enough to make your CD player jump and concertina your spine.
If you drive the same route regularly, you’ll develop muscle memory; instinctively finding the best road position to avoid the extra obstacles and devoting half your attention to the ground directly in front of you to check for new craters. When Bulgarian police are looking for drunk drivers, they don’t stop the cars that are weaving all over the road, they stop the ones that are being driven in a straight line.
There are several reasons for the quality of the road surfaces. One is the extremes of temperature: shatteringly cold in the winter and meltingly hot in the summer. This, combined with the sheer quantity of heavy trucks – even in quiet suburban areas – means that the tarmac on some roads has folded over and squashed into ruts formed by lorry tyres.
This is further exacerbated as building roads is a popular form of corruption. Aside from routinely awarding contracts to friends and relations and claiming EU money for the infrastructure of highways that are unlikely ever to exist, it’s common practice for contractors to take funds for laying asphalt to a certain depth – say, 20cm – then put down just 14cm. They can then pocket the money issued for the missing 6cm.
Rules of the Road
You can’t rely on road markings to help you. These will probably have been worn away or tarmacked over and you’ll have to guess where the boundaries of your lane might be or where junctions are. Spotting speed bumps is like identifying a rip current and often the only clue that there’s a sudden summit rising out of the ground in front of you is that the road surface seems suspiciously unbroken.
From the general behaviour of drivers, I assume there isn’t a Bulgarian Highway Code but if there is, following it will put you at a serious disadvantage when driving. Rules are seen as advisory rather than mandatory and largely depend on who is watching and how likely it is that you’ll get caught. This reflects the baffling and entirely contradictory Bulgarian approach to rules in general.
The attitude will either be:
a) Strict adherence to the exact wording of the rule, regardless of the actual intention behind it.
Useful for people like bureaucrats and administrators who are always looking for an excuse to get rid of you before you can make them do their job, and traffic police looking for a bribe (one of the ‘key phrases’ in a Bulgarian guide book is what to say when talking to a policeman: ‘can I pay the fine to you now’).
b) Infinite flexibility and creative interpretation.
Exploiting every possible loophole and shortcut is a national character trait and generally seen as something to be admired and respected. There’s a specific word for someone who exhibits these qualities: a tarikat (тарикат).
Which of these attitudes you adopt depends on what benefits you the most at that particular moment. It’s also quite normal to use b) while simultaneously using a) to criticise other people for doing the same thing as you.
Traffic brings out the absolute worst in Bulgarian drivers, especially tarikats. It’s not seen as a passive inconvenience that has to be endured with patience, it’s seen as a challenge to test ingenuity and bravado. Hopping lanes, jumping red lights, ignoring one way systems, pulling in at the head of a queue that’s been stopped by a red light – all are valid tactics when facing heavy traffic.
Exploiting the lack of road markings, Bulgarian drivers are also very adept at making new lanes for themselves in widths that would seem to defy physics. I was once overtaken on a two lane highway while I myself was in the process of overtaking someone else.
If the Bulgarian Highway Code does exist, there must be a section in it that states that every driver must know their vehicle’s length to the nearest millimetre and can accurately assess the size of a gap in under a second. To help with this, many cars are also equipped with advanced four-wheel-drives that allow them to dash sideways like startled crabs. Indicators are used but usually only when the manoeuvre is in progress or just after it’s happened so the effect is less like a warning and more like gloating.
Inside lanes will often be blocked with parked cars and, if a suburban pavement is wide enough to almost fit a vehicle on, someone will leave their car there. Incidentally, it isn’t considered parking if you’re dropping off or waiting for someone – the most used button on a Bulgarian car’s dashboard is the hazard warning light.
While there are certainly parking restrictions, nobody really knows what they are and they’re liable to change without warning or any form of signage. Even if there’s a patch of tarmacked ground with parking bays outlined on it, this is no guarantee that your car is safe.
Parking Enforcement is a flatbed truck called a pyek (паяк) which translates as ‘spider’ due to the appearance of the crane on the back that lifts cars onto its trailer and takes them away to a compound. The pyek’s arrival in a neighbourhood has the same impact as the first tank of an invading army. Locals will be scurrying for their vehicles, shouting warnings to each other, and huddling together in groups for comfort and gossip.
At first glance, the cars the pyek targets would seem to be random. However, if you look closely, a pattern emerges that is centred around the food stalls where city workers congregate to eat. If your car is taken, you’ll be charged a standard fee plus an hourly rate for however long it’s at the compound. You’ll have to pay this in cash which the attendant will invariably pocket. This means that you’ll then have to pay it again when it shows up as an outstanding fine on your licence.
In the City Centre
As well as the above considerations, you’ve got a lot of extra ones too. In Sofia, for example, these will include: cobbled streets, one-way systems, unexpected dead-ends, parking zones (paid by text message without a translation), trams, buses, trolley buses, horse-drawn gypsy carts, and pedestrians who often walk in the street because the surfaces of the pavements are worse than the roads.
There are problems like this with all city centres though, so it’s probably best to avoid driving there altogether and use public transport instead. In Sofia, the payment system on the buses is utterly baffling, but the metro is excellent – clean, reliable, and easy to navigate.
These are two laned with a speed limit of 140kmph. Patches of the inside lane will suffer from the familiar road surface issues and, if it’s busy, you’ll get the usual traffic tarikats – but this time at more dangerous speeds.
In the mythical Highway Code, there must be a section that states that the outside lane is only for use by Audis, Mercedes and high-spec SUVs. If you don’t drive one of those and stray into the outside lane, you’re trespassing on their right for exclusivity and they have the entitlement – perhaps even the obligation – to force you out by screaming up behind you to within an inch of your bumper and flashing their lights in outraged indignation. Whatever the circumstances, no matter how heavy the traffic or how life-threatening the risk, it is your legal responsibility to pull into the inside lane so that they can arrive at their destination five seconds earlier.
You will also get some cars – and all motorbikes – that will drive like they’re in a Jason Statham film, using both lanes and often the hard shoulder to weave between vehicles and test out their gap estimating skills. It’s as if they’re in a video game and can simply respawn if they get a decision slightly wrong. This thrillseeking element of driving can also be witnessed at level crossings where some drivers will wait patiently until the train is almost on them before dashing across just in front of it (I’ve seen this happen more than once).
Advice for the Convenient Englishman
You’ve got to find ways to deal with the inevitable anger and frustration that these issues will provoke. You could get yourself a nice, relaxing CD to play in your car – maybe something classical with a piano – or you could try breathing exercises. What works well for me, however, is hand gestures.
I don’t mean the middle-finger. This will drive the recipient into an instant frenzy and they’ll shout abuse, perhaps get out of their car to confront you or, if you’re on the highway, swerve in front of you and slam on their brakes. No, your secret weapon is flicking the Vs. Bulgarians don’t have that gesture and will most likely think that you’re suggesting that they do something twice. This will cause confusion rather than rage while satisfying your own sense of outrage. You’ve told them what you think of them – it doesn’t so much matter if they understand it or not.
(A side note: watch out for the ‘wanker’ hand gesture. They don’t know the word or the specific meaning, but the action is pretty self explanatory.)
Along with the tarikats and thrillseekers, I should also mention the rare, but psychologically vital, heroes of the roads. Very occasionally you’ll see them: cruising in the outside lane of the highway at exactly 140 kmph with a long queue of frantically flashing Audis behind them or pulled in close to the centre line of a single lane windy mountain road so that a Mercedes can’t overtake on a blind corner. These heroes should be celebrated and supported every chance you get.
The key thing is to remember though, is that you’re the outsider here. You’re driving on their roads, it’s their driving culture, and it’s their everyday lives – they shouldn’t have to change a single thing just to suit your English sensibilities. Therefore, you’re the one who needs to adapt. Try to be more assertive and confident in your driving style. At junctions, for example, it’s a matter of claiming the right of way rather than waiting politely for someone to give you your turn. Keep in mind that while Bulgarians are quick to anger, they’re also quick to forgive so if someone makes a mistake, they’ll acknowledge it and move on, they won’t dwell on it endlessly or let it ruin their whole day.
If none of these things work and you still find yourself seething and bubbling with rage, you could always write about your experiences of driving in Bulgaria. It’s much more cathartic than creeping around car parks in the dead of night with a screwdriver.