07 December 2009
Big Bad Bulgaria, Or How I Talked My Way Out Of A Speeding Ticket
I was unsure of how, exactly, I was going to write about to adequately reflect on Bulgaria. My first thought was the incredibly maintained 1,800 year-old Roman Amphitheater in Plovdiv. It was spectacular and probably one of my favorite “sites” I have ever seen. Then I thought, “maybe my amazing $4 haircut that included a shampoo, condition and head massage.” Also good. Then I through around making the Rila Monastery the focal point. Oldest monastery in Bulgaria, tucked away in the mountains, has the whole “ooohhhh ahhhh” feeling required for such a venue, we got locked out trying to stay the night in the monastic cells...so both humorous and amazing. Next I through around the overall natural beauty. I mean, the country is just spectacular. Deep valleys, sky-high peaks, rivers, waterfalls; you name it, it’s here.
My problem was that nothing in the past few weeks had been particularly funny or ridiculous. Eastern Europe was - for the most part - put together, on time and functioning. Save for a private hostel “room” that had 3-foot high ceilings, Bulgaria was pretty “all good.” That is, until our ride back to Sofia from the monastery. It all began the day we started renting cars in this part of the world. Drivers here are bad. Like, obscenely bad. They invent lanes where lanes do not exist, they speed, they pass on blind corners, they park ANYWHERE and they simply don’t care about the “rules of the road.” So we leave the Monastery at half nine and are zooming down the highway at a reasonable 65mph. I turn off at a service station to have our bumper screwed back in (a steep hill and some rocks had their way with Matt the day before). It costs 65 cents for the service. Amazing! All is well.
I pull out of the service station and make a left back onto the highway. Traffic is steaming ahead so I play “rally car race driver” to get us up to speed. Just as soon as we’re going with “the flow” everyone behind me starts slowing down. I take my foot off the gas and coast up the hill we’re currently ascending. Just as we cusp over the highest point I see it - a speed trap. Two police officers with red wands flagging cars to the side of the road. Of course, all the Bulgarians know the cops are there because they drive the road every day. Me? I’m guessing 65mph is just dandy. Wrong. The leather-pants wearing cops flags me. I obey and pull off the road.
He walks up to the driver window with that usual police officer stride of “I’m way better than you.” I roll down the window. Wanting to make it known that I do not speak Bulgarian, I say, “hello there officer.” He stops in his tracks, a bit stunned. “No Bulgarian?” he asks. I nod my head no. “Registration, passport, license and you come over here.” The last part included a hand motion and a pivot as he redirected himself back to his own car. I bundle the necessary documents together and saunter to his vehicle, ready to take the ticket I have no idea my “reckless” speed has brought to me. He is busy writing another 60-year-old grandma-looking woman a ticket. She is screaming at him and rolling her eyes at me. I roll mine back. He rips her carbon copy off and now it’s my turn to play ball.
“You know how fast you are going,” he asks. “No, but I had just pulled out, so not very fast,” I tell him. “How fast was I going then?” He looks at me as if he has no idea what to say. “Too fast,” he replies, snatching my passport and drivers license frantically looking for the photo page. “Too fast. Too fast! Didn’t you see the speed limit sign, he says.” The answer to that question is no because there are no speed limits signs anywhere in Bulgaria. There are also no directional signs, no traffic signals and no lines on the pavement. What are plentiful, however, is pot holes. This is followed by some inaudible mumbling in Bulgarian before he pulls out a translation guide that literally reads across the top, “So You Got Pulled Over In Bulgaria.” It’s the official “how to” guide of police actions. Amazing.
The officer flips to the “So you were driving too fast” page and points to a speed bracket that reads 31mpg-59mph and says “this is you.” You were going 32mph too fast” (how convenient). The fine for this offense, you ask? $450. “How do you know this is how fast I was going?” I ask. “Police photo camera,” he tell me. “Can I please see the photo and speed stamp because I have yet to see any documents that show that I was, in fact, speeding.” He’s getting angry but I’m feeling firm and justified. Okay, I was speeding, but I wasn’t going 97mph and I’m not about to pay $450. “Listen, I don’t have the photo. You just pay me now and it’s fine.” Um, no. “That doesn’t sound official,” I start. “Why don’t you just write me the ticket and I will pay it in the appropriate manner.” Naturally, he doesn’t like this response and immediately starts huffing. After all, that $450 was headed straight for his back pocket. “NO!” he shouts.
This is when he realizes I know what’s going on. His response? He stands up, shoves my passport and driver’s license into my chest and says sternly, “You are bad driver. Bad driver go. Go bad driver. Go.” Now I am apparently off the hook and being encouraged by the police officer to “leave the scene;” a police officer who “polices” in the European country with THE MOST road fatalities per capita has just called me a bad driver. I walked calmly back to the car, told Matt of my successful escape and we drove off. I finally had my amazing Bulgaria story.