Between our village, Malki Chiflik, and our capital, Sofia, the road cuts its way through the Balkan range of mountains, assisted by several lofty viaducts of the finest concrete construction and four very dark 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. As a result of the events that followed, 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 the Las Vegas Amusement Arcade in Skegness. What I get hours of amusement from is wondering if there is a Skegness Amusement Arcade in Las Vegas, or anywhere in the world. I also ponder at length over the possible existence of a Grimsby Kebab House in Cappadocia to complement the Cappadocia Kebab House in Grimsby.
For 130 kilometres I zipped confidently but carefully in my trusty Opel Corsa along Bulgaria’s imaginatively named Road Four, trying to fit the names of the towns and villages that I passed through (such as Sevlievo, Sopot and Balgarski Izvor) into the words of the song Get Your Kicks on Route 66 that always rattles around in my head on long car journeys. Not an easy task at all! I thought that stopping for a cuppa in the village of Golyama Brestnitsa might help me concentrate on honing my lyrics (though it always makes me smile cheekily because golyama is the Bulgarian word for big) but I was mistaken. However, I drew comfort from the fact that from that point the remaining hundred kilometres were along a motorway so I thought I had cracked it, although flurries of snow were still around and a heavy sky threatened 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 fill my lungs with the smoke that was coming from its undercarriage whilst scratching my head, wondering what to do and trying not to cry.
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 Leva (our currency) 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 just been enriched by that single word. 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, nothing would have been lost in the divide between our tongues and I would have spent a lot less time feeling lost in a frozen wilderness. 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.
Alone and afraid and very much aware of the great potential for the panic-related escape of body fluids, I sat behind the wheel of my car that could no longer be considered trusty 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 who knew all about tunnels 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 very much indeed 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 temperature, semi-abject misery.
The semi-abject miserymobile.
Another twenty minutes later, a large yellow breakdown truck 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 other side of the layby. Nervously, I introduced myself with the words putna pomosht (road breakdown), again my best Bulgarian. They responded by zipping up, shrugging their shoulders, getting back in their vehicle and driving off like a bat out of a place a bit like hell but very very cold. 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 in her pocket to keep her in vending machine coffee and stale airport sandwiches for a week.
Not many more minutes elapsed before a second 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 ‘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 nearby 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, but I did feel that the degree of precariousness of my situation had subsided somewhat.
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 old 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 motor mending deed was done. Before the car was even lifted off the back of the truck Ilya told me that it would definitely be ready to drive away before Christmas (this all happened on the thirteenth of December, by the way). I sat and chatted with 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 to perform an accurate rendition 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 slightly more recent recording artists that he might have known such as Queen, Elton John, Oasis and Lady Gaga. He responded with a couple of lines of Candle in The Wind and then suddenly waved his hands in the air and shrieked ‘Suzi Quatro! 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 interpretation 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.
As the minutes and hours passed, 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 icy 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 to get 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, the second of Suzi’s records to reach the number one spot in the UK music charts.
I always try not to show impatience so I gave it a couple of hours before giving my friend Didi a ring. She’s a nice Bulgarian lady who earns a living from sorting things out for not quite bi-lingual 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.
Forty 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. The answer to his question didn’t take much thinking about. I interrupted Petrov in between verses three and four of Ms. Quatro’s 48 Crash to bid him a sad farewell and off we sped in a smog-filled 1972 model Lada Niva (with central cigarette lighting, velour finished ashtrays and rosewood spittoons) through the driving snow to meet with my friend at Sofia airport, only six hours late. When I arrived she told me that she couldn’t leave the terminal building straight away as she had arranged a meeting with a post-traumatic stress disorder counsellor provided by Ryanair, the cost of which hadn’t been included in the original price of her ticket … obviously!
The moral of the story is that if you are in Bulgaria and you wake up to discover that during the night there has been a heavy fall of snow, you should just stay under the duvet with a big bottle of rakia and wait for spring to arrive.