On the day Bulgaria was told it could join the EU in 2007 (probably the most ardently awaited report in history since the press releases for the Treaty of Neuilly), I got a call from a friend who was stuck in a mid-afternoon traffic jam. Nothing particularly noteworthy, I thought, traffic jams are hardly anything to write home about these days, unless you are driving to the Mediterranean and end up spending half your holiday on some Italian motorway.
However, my friend said he was sitting in a traffic jam that was developing underground. Hristo said he had gone to one of the three underground car parks in the middle of town, done some shopping, and had climbed back into his third-hand Opel to head home. The following scene was unfolding in front of him.
A mutra had parked next to him on Level -1.
Mutri are always in a hurry, if you know what I mean. They speed up, they overtake in the emergency lane, they flash their headlights in your rearview mirror the moment you dare put your foot on the accelerator, they run the lights, and they would rather be killed by rival mutri than stop at a zebra crossing.
Creative people, you might think: they rarely break any rules if the number of tickets given to them by the cops is anything to go by.
So the mutra next to Hristo revved up, saw no one was coming in through the entrance, and apparently decided he would beat the traffic if he went out of there rather than the exit. He almost got away with it, Hristo said, but just when he was on the very steep stretch of the ramp, someone appeared from the opposite direction.
The mutra tried the flashing-of-headlights routine (see Guide p xix in case you don't know what that means), but it was too late. There was someone else behind, and then someone else, and so on - a queue had quickly formed.
The mutra then tried to reverse back down the ramp. He almost did it, but some other mutra, having spotted an easy way out, had followed him and now almost bumped into his back. And mutri don't like being bumped in the back.
If you've been in Sofia for a while you know that the fastest way to get out of a Bulgarian traffic jam is to press your horn and go on hooting as hard as you can. The recalcitrant crowd stuck on both the -1 and the Ground Levels quickly resorted to this tried and tested method. It lasted for 45 minutes.
The police had to intervene. They closed the whole facility and blocked off the street outside to make way for at least 30 cars to get out.
Fortunately, there were no casualties, unlike the case of the driver who decided to make an U-Turn inside the Lyulin Tunnel because no cars were coming from behind.
This creative interpretation of rules, any rules, is a fact of life in this country - and a source of pride to its citizens. We saw it under the Ottomans, especially when it came to taxes. We saw it between the wars (read Andreshko), and when Communism arrived it became the only way to get by. Millions survived by pretending to go along with the rules, while in fact they were doing their own thing.
In the West, rules are made for people to follow. These rules may not seem very wise, nor is complying with them always very pleasant, but most think that they do make life a little easier in the long run.
This kind of thinking is alien to Bulgarians. Whenever we are given a rule, the first thing that comes to mind is how to break it while seeming to adhere to it.
Yes, we are in for a very interesting time when the EU starts implementing its curve-of-cucumbers rules in its newest member state.
This will happen on 1 January 2007.
*The headline is a translation of the sign. It was made using EU funds by a local council in southern Bulgaria