Posted by: Mark Wollemann: On the move | November 23, 2011

The hazards of driving in Bulgaria


We were on our way to the airport in Sofia on Sunday to pick up Jenna (who is here now and sharing in the new “Thanksgiving in Bulgaria” tradition) when I was pulled over by the road police. Uh, oh. What did I do?

I hadn’t been speeding (much); in fact I had just pulled away from a traffic light with the rest of the cars when I was beckoned to the side of the road by a sign-waving policeman. They have these little round signs with red circles on them and they point them at the car they want to pull over and, well, you just pull over to the shoulder of the road. It’s pretty effective. There was no mistaking that he was looking right at me.

Anyway … when he walked to the driver’s side window, I had all the documents ready. You need your own license, international driver’s license, passport — and then the car has its own papers. Some for ownership, some that indicate this is a rental car leased to you, some giving you permission to drive on Bulgaria’s roadways. It’s a mess of papers. When the officer walked up, I handed all of this to him. He tried to explain what I had done, but I just shook my head and said: “Nay Bulgarian. Amerikanski.” He smiled, reached into the car and turned on the daytime running lights. I knew what I had done wrong.

There’s a new law (or maybe it just takes effect every Nov. 1, I’m not 100 percent certain) that makes it a crime to drive without your daytime running lights on. So I was snagged. The officer asked me to walk back to the police car he and his partner were using, so I unbuckled my seat belt and guiltily shuffled back to where they were.

They started to explain, in Bulgarian, that I had violated this law. That a ticket was 20 leva (about 12-13 dollars). I said I understood and immediately reached into my pocket for a 20 leva note.

“Do I pay you?” I asked, taking out the money and pointing first to me with the money in my hand, then extending it toward them.

They both recoiled.

“Nay, nay, nay,” they said in unison.

They started to explain something about “banka” and “ticket” and I just kept shrugging my shoulders and saying: “I’m really sorry. I just don’t understand.”

It was a pitiful sight. They kept looking at each other and kept trying to figure out what to do with me. And I kept telling them, uh, yeah — I don’t understand. This was not an act. I didn’t understand. At all. I was trying to comply, because I knew I had forgotten to turn on the daytime running lights. But they clearly were NOT going to take the cash from me.

After a few minutes of this bit of theater of the absurd, the cop inside the car handed all the papers back to me and looked at me kindly. “No ticket,” he said.

“Really?” I said. “I’m sooooo sorry. Isvinete.”

And then I smacked myself in the forehead and said (maybe a bit too loudly), “Stupid!!” That was to indicate that I knew I had goofed up and that I was really sorry about it. This made them both laugh — well, maybe not laugh but to at least smile a bit.

“Really, no ticket?” I asked once more.

“No ticket,” he said again.

I bowed my head humbly (I wasn’t sure of the proper body language to employ, but I figured bowing is always a good tactic).

“Blagodaria (thank you!),” I said. “Mnogo blagodaria (thank you VERY much!!).”

I took the papers back to the car and sat down with a sigh of relief. That’s when Melody showed me some of the pictures she snapped while I was back there fighting for my life (or at least my 20 leva).

I said to her: “I don’t even want to know what they would have done if they had seen you snapping pictures.”

Then again, maybe they saw her and that’s why they wouldn’t take my 20 leva … hmmmmmm.

Either way, we were sent on our way, none the poorer for the experience — and richer by at least one measure: We had another story to tell.





  1. It is so interesting to hear about the “foreigner” experience from the “other side”. I average at least one call a day at work from a foreigner with limited English who is trying to navigate the state bureaucracy. It’s frustrating from my side. Thanks to you, I have a new appreciation for the frustration the caller may be experiencing. THANKS!

    Also, HAPPY THANKSGIVING IN BULGARIA to you, Mel, & Jen! Hope you all have a fabulous time together, celebrating your new tradition. Ciao!

  2. Ha ha! How funny! Maybe somebody told you by now, but there’s a big issue in Bulgaria with traffic police taking bribes from people (precisely in this way – in cash when they get stopped), given to them by drivers, in order to avoid getting a ticket and getting penalty points on their driver’s license. So, that explains the recoiling…. Nice to hear you got away, not only with not getting a ticket, but also with not (unintentionally) giving a bribe. And it may have actually been Melody’s taking the photos that made them not take it.

    Hope you have a great Thanksgiving with Jenna. I’m sorry I’m not there to see her. A big hug to all three of you.

    • Yeah, Kate. I was just happy to hang on to my 20 bgn. We miss you. Will you ever come back to YOUR country and see us?

  3. super post! too funny!

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