Breaking into Bulgaria

—– 1 —–

We sat there, not daring to speak. The big man in uniform gave nothing away in his expression or demeanour. He carefully sifted through the documents and papers. Our hearts were racing, but time seemed to stand still. My wife in the back seat was strangely silent. All I could hear was her breathing.

George our driver didn’t flinch either – maybe it was a Bulgarian thing.

The heat and the tension were unbearable. We all stared at the wooden barrier just a meter in front of us. If by sheer willpower we could make it move out of our way – never mind levitation –  it would be practically in orbit.

During the summer lockdown there were announcements every day about travel restrictions. Countries flipped between green, yellow, and amber more often than the traffic lights at the end of our road. Either you could not travel there, or you could, but then not travel back home. Sensible people made the sensible decision to stay in Britain.

We didn’t. We had a wedding to celebrate. Or to be more precise, a wedding to celebrate again. Our daughter’s wedding on July 3rd had been a lovely, wonderful, and memorable day. The original date had been a year earlier, but the number of guests would have been restricted to a handful. Reluctantly they had postponed.

Freedom Day, when all lockdown restrictions were to be lifted was planned for June 21st. Everything was looking good, until this was postponed until after the wedding date. The fear was that wedding guests would remain restricted to 30, but then the government decided to lift this before the wedding. Four of George’s family took Covid tests, flew over from Bulgaria, took tests again and isolated for 5 days in Loughborough.

And so it was that eighty family and friends celebrated Hannah’s wedding to George in a lovely country house in Leicestershire. We wore masks, but we could dance outside, and did so with abandon. That was the English Wedding.

The away leg – the Bulgarian celebration – was planned for three weeks later in a little town called Gotse Delchev in the south of the country. The hotel venue was hired, and 65 guests had been invited. There were no restrictions on numbers, and Bulgaria was an amber country. Compared with the UK shenanigans, this was going to be a piece of Garash (Bulgarian cake).

—– 2 —–

We had given the man our passports, our vaccination certificates, our negative PCR test results, and our cycling proficiency test certificates. He muttered something in Bulgarian. He needed one more document.

George rummaged through every piece of paper he could find. He called his aunt on the phone. Bulgarian is utterly indecipherable to the untrained English ear, but it didn’t feel good. Our hearts sank a little. But then he had found some document in the glove compartment and handed that over.

And still no expression or giveaway signs from the official. Maybe this is just how Bulgarians are.

We had booked our flights to Greece back in May, with the intention of driving up to Gotse Delchev. We chose easyJet from Luton, only to have the outbound flight switched to fly from Gatwick.

I have a golden rule – always land where your car is. So, I worked out we could drive to Luton, take the train to Gatwick, and pick up our car from Luton when we landed there. Then, the outbound flight was cancelled (presumably due to lack of interest), so we rebooked both flights from Stansted with Ryanair and successfully got a refund on our original flights. More shenanigans.

But we were pretty pleased with ourselves. We would fly to Thessaloniki, spend a couple of days there and then drive over the border to Gotse Delchev for the wedding celebration Pt 2. Then get home in the reverse of this.

Bulgaria was on the UK’s amber list – so we were ready to sit through isolation when we returned home. A small price to pay for the wonderful prospect of a full-blown Bulgarian wedding celebration.

Although the delta variant was spreading through the UK, Bulgaria’s Covid rate was low. Everything was good. In fact, things got even better, when our government announced that Bulgaria would become green from July 19th .

What could possibly go wrong?

On July 11th, Bulgaria held  a snap general election and a new government was elected – the “There is Such a People” party, led by the musician and television host Slavi Trifonov.  

On July 19th, the new health minister Stoicho Katsarov announced that the UK was being added to Bulgaria’s red list. No Britains would be allowed into Bulgaria. Thousands of holidaymakers who had booked to fly to the eastern beaches would have to cancel.   

Bulgaria was green for us, but the UK was red to them. We would not be going to the party.

—– 3 —–

We were practically boiling in the car. As George was at pains to explain, it wasn’t in the same league as the hire car we had been driving. That had been a lovely bright blue air-conditioned Toyota Yaris.

The car we were in now had no air- conditioning and no air. The dashboard was held together with insulation tape. The passenger side window was glued shut. There was no oxygen.

Not that it mattered, as nobody in the car was breathing.

If we had booked flights into Sofia, we would have been able to claim our money back. Greece was still welcoming British tourists, so there was no way we could get a refund. We had never been to Thessalonica, and we hadn’t had a proper holiday for two years. So, we decided to go anyway.

George and Hannah were on their honeymoon in the Greek islands already. A Bulgarian man with his wife would have no problem getting back into Bulgaria, so their attendance at their own wedding celebration was safe.

George had been speaking to his family. A crazy idea was being discussed. Could we somehow be smuggled across the border? We were now the parents of a woman who was married to a Bulgarian. We checked the small print. Close relatives of Bulgarians would be allowed in – but this was spouses and children of native Bulgarians. We were two steps removed.

Maybe we could get in because we were travelling from Greece rather than the UK? Another nice try. We would have to have been in Greece for a month already for that to be allowed. We were most definitely in transit.

My wife was convinced that the right number of Lev would persuade a less than scrupulous border guard to turn a blind eye. It was just a question of how much. This worried me, as I was convinced, she would pay almost anything to be there. Despite the fact that money can talk, George was advising against it. We didn’t want to get into Bulgaria, only to spend our visit in an ex-communist police cell.

Her best idea was for us to both hide in the boot. Genius. Why would anyone check? And if they did, we could just pretend we were playing a game or something. Much as I love my wife, I have a deep fear of enclosed spaces from which I cannot escape. Otherwise, I’d have been all in favour.

Now she was on a roll. Surely, we could find a rocky path through the mountains, out of sight from any officials, under the cloak of darkness. Sound of Music-esq? See may see herself as s Julie Andrews she may be, but I’m no Christopher Plummer.

My favourite option was to simply smash through the barrier – but then I had been watching too many movies too. George’s car looked like it had done this many times – but then, as a battering ram, 0-60 in 5 minutes probably wasn’t going to hack it.

Despite having dismissed Plans A-F, George had recommended rocking up to the border and asking nicely. His family suggested aiming for one of the smaller border crossings. It was a nice drive across from Thessalonica – past a couple of large lakes, caressing the Aegean Sea and winding through the mountains. About 3 hours in our brand-new hybrid Toyota Yaris. So, we didn’t have that much to lose.

So, this is what we had done. We would drive to the border, cross our fingers and anything else, and rely on the “I’m British and I don’t understand what you are telling me” line. To be fair, one I had used successfully on number of occasions abroad, famously when a rogue taxi driver in Chile had tried to extract a few more pesos from me as we were shooting down some dark country road. But that’s another story.

It wasn’t so much of a plan, as much as a last resort, hit and hope.

We had spent a large part of our few days in Greece trying to book a hire car which we could take into Bulgaria. By the time we realised this was impossible, there seemed to be a national shortage of hire cars.

It had been late yesterday, when the nice woman at our hotel managed to secure us our car, so long as we stayed in Greece. Not cheap – but we persevered – with 4 bonus days in Greece, we could take the opportunity to drive around and see a bit more of it

We parked up in Kato Nevrakopj, a quiet village 12km south of the Greek-Bulgarian border and waited for George to come across form Bulgaria and attempt to smuggle us back in.

We parked our Yaris as discretely as we could on the side of the road in the town – given that it was bright blue and the newest car in the village by a mile. Never mind, we would be back in an hour or so. And we hopped into George’s car for our round trip to the Bulgarian border.

It was easy to drive through the border out of Greece. And now we were almost at the Bulgarian border control. George explained mysteriously that  his aunt recommended we go through the lorry lane, rather than one of the ones for cars.

There was no queue. We drew up at the barrier, handed over all the documents and waited.

—– 4 —–

It was probably only minutes, but they stretched out interminably. Finally, the man handed the stack of papers back to George and said something else unintelligible. He didn’t even look in the car to see who was inside, or to check whether we bore any resemblance to our passports.

The thought ran through my mind – if only we had borrowed a couple of Bulgarian passports, we would have been simply waived in without having to bear any resemblance to the photos.

George put his hand on the gear stick. Forward or reverse? We stared at the barrier. There was a shriek in the back seat.

The small wooden barrier began to elevate.

And we drove through triumphantly.

George’s aunt had been waiting on the Bulgarian side. We hadn’t seen her since the English wedding. Of course, Covid restrictions, common sense and medical advice meant we could only rub elbows in greetings and celebration. So of course, we didn’t give her the biggest hug we could, laughing and exchanging words in languages neither of us could understand. Of course, we didn’t.

After we didn’t hug, she climbed into the back seat, and we drove up to Gotse Delchev. The hotel was already being decorated. We checked in and found our lovely room. George drove us over to meet his mum, grandma and brother. Again, no hugging, honestly. And later, we found Hannah having her nails and hair done, and finished the day with a big family reunion meal.

The wedding celebration was amazing. Delicious food, wonderful singers, a brilliant violinist, some traditional Bulgarian marriage rituals, and lots of dancing with abandon until the early hours. During our stay we also had a lovely afternoon at an outdoor pool complex, and I clocked up some Bulgarian running miles. It’s a lovely country. And no Brits around anywhere.

—– Postscript —–

As George explained to us, Bulgaria works by people doing favours for each other. The wedding celebration was a case in point – the singers, violinists and the venue were all reliant on favours. Favours given, favours received, and favours reciprocated. This is their currency – acts of love and generosity, which over the lifetime of a friendship balance out to everyone’s benefit.

Maybe it’s relevant to mention, finally, a strange co-incidence. It turned out that one of George’s family had been at school with the head of the Bulgarian border control, co-incidentally the one that George’s family had recommended we drive to.

As it happened, the man was on holiday that week, so there is no way he could have bent the rules to let you us through, as a big favour. I mean, he would have had to leave specific instructions to one of the border officers, and we would have had to go through that specific lane. I guess if that had actually happened – the officer would have known who was in the car and would hardly have bothered to check.

That’s just crazy speculation, but wouldn’t that make a great story?

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