(The sixth in my series of travel stories for the granddaughters – November 1964)
The old peasant woman, comfortable in the passenger seat, gabbled away at me off and on for miles. I replied as civilly as I could, and asked her to tell me when we reached the turn-off to Bulgaria. Her side of the story, for her family that night, would be: “This young foreign man in his car (a car! My dear!) didn’t know where he was or why, or what I was telling him. I had to shout at him to make him stop where I wanted to get off. At that point, he didn’t know whether to go north or south!” She was relieved to be back on her feet again; I was annoyed in case I had missed the turn-off.
It was an unpaved back road that didn’t even show up on my map of Yugoslavia. The only car on the road was mine, and the old woman the only pedestrian – plodding along to who knew where for who knew how many miles. Common decency required that I stop and offer her a lift; common decency probably required that she accept. Whatever language she spoke, it wasn’t the Serbo-Croat of my dictionary. Wikipedia reckons it was a Macedonian dialect of Bulgarian, but I didn’t know that then.
I had indeed missed the turn-off. I recalled passing a weather-beaten wooden signpost with weird lettering, which probably didn’t spell “Bulgaria” anyway. Ah well, what can you do? The back road ended at the Greek border, so I crossed there and travelled for the next four months with a slowly expiring Bulgarian visa. That night I pulled up at the Youth Hostel in Thessaloniki, and the next night drank coffee on the roof with fellow-hostellers after watching the movie Zorba the Greek. I wrote about all that in January, though without mentioning the wretched old peasant woman who was responsible for the trouble and strife (Cockney slang) in my life ever since.
It’s hard to remember, now, why I had bothered to get a Bulgarian visa, back in London. Nobody ever deliberately headed for Bulgaria, except on the way through to somewhere else. Entering Bulgaria with Linda four months later was simplicity itself, with a visa from Istanbul. Leaving the country was rather more memorable, occurring on yet another back road. Yet again, my car was the only traffic for miles around – the only vehicle wanting to cross into Romania at this godforsaken spot, at least.
My side of the conversation went something like this, in pidgin German interspersed with occasional words from my Bulgarian-English dictionary. “It has been a pleasant stay in your beautiful country. Now please change our unspent local currency into Romanian currency. Oh, well, any currency will do. Well, if you don’t have any foreign currency, never mind; we will exchange it at the Romanian post just over there (a hundred yards across a bridge). What?! It’s illegal to take Bulgarian currency out of the country? Never mind, we’ll go back to the petrol pump a few miles back and spend it there. What do you mean you’ve already stamped us out of Bulgaria? Well, stamp us back in again, please. We would need another visa for that? And you aren’t authorised to issue visas? Sheesh. Tell you what, you keep our passports and we will drive back and get the petrol. Oh dear. We can’t travel in Bulgaria without a passport. So we must just give you the money, and you will give us a receipt? Hmm. I don’t think so.”
I demanded to speak with the Ministry of Tourism, then Foreign Affairs, then Internal Affairs, then the Prime Minister’s Office; oh, and the British Embassy. Please. Pronto. The phone rang hot for the next three hours, while we sulked in the car and wondered if we might have to stay in it all night.
In the end the Romanians changed the money for us without a fuss. It wasn’t illegal for them, which was just as well, I guess.