Between Malki Chiflik and Sofia the road cuts through the Balkan range of mountains by means of several lofty viaducts and four tunnels. Back in December I had reason to travel this way to meet my friend Anne, who was arriving at the airport from her home in the Netherlands. As I left my home I was already a little anxious about the journey because of the thick blanket of snow that had covered the Republic of Bulgaria overnight, but I had no idea of the scale of the adventure that lay ahead of me. The stretch of road between tunnels two and three will stay in my mind forever as a place of great excitement, though not in a fun way like Panda’s Palace in Skegness.
For a hundred and sixty kilometres I sped in my trusty Opel Corsa along Bulgaria’s Road Four, trying to fit the names of towns like Sevlievo, Sopot and Balgarski Izvor to the tune of Get Your Kicks on Route Sixty Six that always rattles around in my head on long car journeys. Even stopping for a cuppa in the village of Golyama Brestnitsa didn’t help me hone my lyrics (though it always makes me smile because golyama means big) but from there the remaining seventy kilometres were along a motorway so by the time I had reached this point I thought I had cracked it, although flurries of snow were still around and threatening worse.
After the first tunnel the car’s engine seemed to be struggling a bit. I put it down to the bitterly cold and windy weather, the long drag of an incline that the road followed in that mountainous region and the fact that the car wasn’t much younger than I was. After the second tunnel it was struggling a lot and I could smell burning. I think one of the best decisions I have ever made in my life was to not attempt the third tunnel in which there would have been no emergency parking area, no emergency telephones, no reception for me to ring for help on my mobile phone, no facilities for changing into clean underpants and no hope of ever emerging alive. About two hundred metres from the entrance to tunnel three I pulled into a layby, switched the engine off and got out of the car to get a good lung full of the smoke that was coming from its undercarriage.
Obviously I could go no further and miraculously I had taken out motor vehicle recovery insurance only a week or so beforehand. Despite the gravity of the situation, I was pleased in a way that I was going to get value for money for the few quid that I had invested in the breakdown company, so I got back in the car and gave them a ring. I was delighted that the very helpful and polite lady operator at the other end of the line spoke very good English but frustrated that the only English word she didn’t know was ‘tunnel’. Locating me on the short stretch of road between the second and third tunnel would have been so simple had the range of her vocabulary been just that tiny bit greater. If I had had the foresight to take my Bulgarian dictionary with me on the journey I would have been able to tell her that the Bulgarian word for ‘tunnel’ was ‘toonell’ and nothing would have been lost in the divide between our tongues. However, unflustered and with the greatest of politeness, she told me that she would find a colleague who was more of a linguist than she was herself, and she would get him to ring me back within approximately twenty or thirty minutes.
My once trusty Opel Corsa motor carriage.
Alone and afraid and aware of the great potential for stickiness in my trousers, I sat behind the wheel of my no longer trusty car as the grey of the day turned to darkness and the flurry turned to blizzard. It started to get cold. I started to get more than a bit concerned. Would I freeze to death between tunnels two and three and would my friend spend the rest of her life in the arrivals lounge at Sofia airport? Actually, the latter of these concerns was less of a concern because I knew she had an airline ticket to fly home again a week later so her discomfort, at least, would be for less than all eternity.
Sure enough, my phone rang after roughly twenty minutes and a kind Balkan gentleman was able to take details of my location. He said he would get in touch with a mechanic in the nearby town of Botevgrad and I could expect to have roadside assistance within half an hour. I said thank you in my best Bulgarian, scraped the snow from the back window of my vehicle and prepared myself mentally for another reasonably short bout of sitting in a state of sub-zero, semi-abject misery.
Twenty minutes later a large yellow van pulled up behind me. I got out to speak to the driver and his mate but then noticed they were having a wee against the fence at the side of the road. I introduced myself with the word ‘breakdown’, also in my best Bulgarian. They responded by zipping up, shrugging their shoulders, getting back in their van and driving off like a bat out of a place a bit like hell but much colder. I returned to my car and had a breakdown of my own. I also rang Dutch Anne to explain my predicament and she told me not to worry because she had enough Bulgarian money to keep her in vending machine tea and stale airport sandwiches for a week.
Not many more minutes elapsed before a breakdown truck arrived. No one got out of the cab so I went and knocked on the window. The two men inside seemed reluctant to get out of the warmth but pointed to my car and repeated the word “Service. Service. Service.” So I wasn’t sure if they were from the mechanic’s garage or if they were just kind Bulgarian people offering to help me. A phone call to the breakdown company confirmed that they were the former, so it was agreed that my Corsa would be dragged up onto the back of their truck and we would all tootle off into the warmth of cosy Botevgrad and everyone would live happily ever after. On the way there it didn’t matter that the darkness and the heavy snow restricted our view of the road because the cigarette smoke inside the cab was so dense we couldn’t even see the windscreen.
The garage that we drove to through a labyrinth of snow swamped lanes in the darkest part of the town was as warm as I had hoped. A huge wood burner had been made out of an oil drum and one man had been given the permanent job of keeping it stoked up with logs. His name was Petrov and while his colleagues tinkered with the intimate bits of Ladas and Trabants and whatever the plural word for a Lexus is, he made a decent living from his career in warming people up, though he confided in me later that he did have to fiddle his overtime claim form a bit to make ends meet in July and August.
The breakdown company man on the phone was called Yordan. The driver of the breakdown truck was called Ilya. Yordan told me that the breakdown company would pay for me to stay in a hotel in Botevgrad for one night and that I could collect my repaired car the following day or, as an alternative, Ilya would drive me to the airport that night and I could make my own way back to the garage when the deed was done. Before the car was even lifted off the back of the truck Ilya told me that it would be ready to drive away before Christmas (this all happened on the thirteenth of December, by the way). I sat and talked to Petrov as I wondered when the car to whisk me away from all this would turn up and exactly which Christmas Ilya had in mind.
It became apparent that Ilya was the boss and he was busy working on a car that was hoisted up on a ramp while a thousand pieces of it lay scattered on the floor. He had five or six assistants working with him. Without being able to speak any words of English, Petrov offered me a cigarette and asked me if I liked the Beatles. I said no and yes to his questions respectively and he started singing Yellow Submarine. He then sang one or two other Lennon-McCartney classics to keep me amused. I told him that my favourite was I Am The Walrus and he had a stab at it but it was a struggle for him without the backing of an orchestra. So we moved on to the Rolling Stones, the Who and the Kinks. I tried to bring him up to date a bit by asking him about more recent recording artists that he might have known such as Queen, Elton John and Oasis. He sang a couple of lines of Candle In The Wind and then suddenly waved his hands in the air and shrieked ‘Suzi Quatro’ who was obviously his favourite because as well as singing, he danced around the wood burner as he did a not quite perfect rendition of her smash hit, Can The Can. I was laughing so much I just had to join in. Ilya and his team glanced across at we whirling dervishes, seeming pleased that Petrov had at last found a friend but worried that I had found Petrov.
Several other men came into the garage, each warming their hands with the heat from the stove, each offering me a cigarette, each lighting up next to huge canisters of oil and petrol, each asking me where I was from, each looking across at Ilya at work and laughing and then each disappearing off again into the darkness outside. There was a little variation to this theme as one man asked me if I had a cigarette (which I never have as the only thing I ever smoke is herrings), one man couldn’t speak because he was coughing so much (I was amazed at the way phlegm sizzles and gives off so much extra heat when spat into a wood burner) and one man offered me a white girl to keep me warm for only forty Leva (about €20, or £18). I’m sure he was joking but I suspect if I had said yes he would have been able to deliver. Meanwhile Petrov had moved on to Devil Gate Drive.
I try not to show impatience so I gave it an hour before giving my friend Didi a ring. A nice Bulgarian lady who sorts things out for tenderfoot immigrants like me. I handed my phone to Ilya and she asked him all the right questions before the device was passed back and she could tell me that there would be a car for the airport in about fifteen minutes but it just needed some minor modifications to make it roadworthy before departure.
Twenty minutes later, the car that had earlier been in a thousand pieces on the floor was reassembled and driven off the ramp and, rather impatiently, Ilya asked me if I was ready to go. I interrupted Petrov in between verses three and four of Suzi’s 48 Crash to bid him a tearful farewell and off we sped in a smog filled 1972 model Lada (with central cigarette lighting, velour finished ashtrays and rosewood spittoons) through the driving snow to meet with my friend at Sofia airport, only five hours late. When I arrived she couldn’t leave the terminal building straight away as she had arranged a meeting with a post-traumatic stress disorder counsellor funded by Ryanair.
The rest of the story is another story, which I will tell once I have recovered from this first bit.