October 29, 2018
THE BULGARIAN BORDER
One of the bad things about driving a right hand drive car in Europe is that all the toll booths and ticket machines are on the passenger side. Sometimes at the border the staff are on foot, leaning in to your window with a smile and a joke. Not in Bulgaria. I’m tired of the old gearstick-in-the-groin routine so I jump out of the cab and jog across the tarmac.
“Papers, “says the young woman behind the glass. I slide my passport through the slot.
“Next window,” she says. I’m a little preoccupied. I know I need a vignette to travel even on non-motorways in Bulgaria. I tried a couple of times to buy one on the Romanian side but you could only pay with cash and I’d already spent my remaining Levs.
“Can I pay for it with a card?” She laughs. It’s not a nice laugh but a cruel, “bloody foreigners’ laugh. I can’t see through the thick glass but I imagine she is rolling her eyes.
“Next window,” she repeats. The penny drops. I take a step to the right. The hatch opens. A man returns my passport.
“Car papers.” I’ve travelled to fifteen countries by this point. I’ve never been asked for the car papers. Truth is, I don’t have them on me. The DVLA had not sent them before I left for Europe and only this week, 16 weeks later, after some hassling of the DVLA have they turned up at home. To try and explain this to the man in the booth, this relic from the soviet era, seems an impossible task.
“I don’t have them.”
I keep it simple: “They are in the UK.”
He is incredulous. The hatch slides shut. I have visions of being man handled into a back room and interrogated. Instead he marches towards the van with a clipboard in hand. He writes down the registration number.
I still need a vignette but I don’t push my luck.
Things don’t improve when I get to the vignette hatch. Cash only. There is, apparently, a shop just after border control. I spend the next half an hour being given the runaround. I must go to a gas station, they don’t take cards, I must go to a booth, they don’t take cards. I go to a cash point and back to the booth. They don’t have change.
Welcome to Bulgaria.
It’s late when I arrive at the campsite. A flickering torch appears out the darkness. I hearten when I see it’s the nightwatchman, a Brit, who greets me to show me the ropes. I park up and settle down for the night.
The campsite reveals itself in the morning light, a crumbling, ramshackle crop of farmhouses and barns populated by a kind of laidback, hippyish set. It’s accentuated by an eerie, haunting, beautiful silence, the sound of your living room at three in the morning when the last party-goer has left. I explore. The face of an old man is carved into a tree: quiet, knowing, watchful. A couple of hammocks swing noiselessly in the breeze. A treehouse mourns for the children of the summer who once played in its chamber.
It’s not without beauty, in particular the river and tree-lined bank that runs along the foot of the site. Golden leaves line the floor of the camping area. Crickets chirp in the scorched grass. Fish flipflop in and out of the water. I’m minded of Tennyson: How sweet it were, hearing the downward stream, With half-shut eyes ever to seem. Falling asleep in a half-dream!
A local church group regularly use the grounds to meet and enjoy fellowship, have a bite to eat and discuss their literature. My analogue camera, perched upon its tripod, attracts some attention. I get talking to Martin, a Swiss man who moved, with his Bulgarian wife, from Switzerland to Bulgaria. His son Christopher is interested in photography and we go off and make some pictures. Later, he fires off a flare high into the Bulgarian sky. It echoes around the valley and lights up the pale blue sky. Simple pleasures, redolent of youth and the promise of a life yet lived. Perhaps also a symbol of a burgeoning Bulgaria, finally free from Soviet and Ottoman shackles to light up the world once more with its dazzling artisanship. It’s a hard task to balance the weight of the past with the hopes and aspirations of the future. As the men are packing up the cars to leave, the women start dancing to traditional folk music. Young and old link hands, keeping alive the old traditions. I’m pleased by this simple, unpretentious scene. It’s something I think we’ve lost back in the UK, this community and tradition; it’s been replaced by rabid individualism and soulless modernity.