For a year I was driving around in my Lada, completely oblivious to how much it was blighting my social status. Then I got my Ford Escort. Granted, it wasn't that much of an upgrade considering the Ford's scratched panels and 1995 birth date, but it ticked over much better than the 1985 Lada Combi with home-made LPG conversion. I noticed a difference right away. I was able to drive in the fast lane without a bigger car driving on my tail just to prove a point. I got cut up less, and people didn't block me in at parking spaces. I had accepted all of the above as normal Bulgarian driving practice, but the road hogging and general bullying seemed to ease up once I started driving the Ford.
I also noticed another thing – the petrol station attendants started washing my windows. They even washed the wing mirrors with a smaller, custom-made squeegee. I detected a pattern: When on a couple of occasions I had hired a car, I got the gold treatment at petrol stations – but never in my little Lada.
Then, a few months after I acquired my new car, the inevitable happened. An impromptu sheep crossing sent me swerving into the car in front, and the bumper didn't live to tell the tale. I gaffer-taped the remaining bumper on and thought no more about it, until I realised the window washing had stopped again. I had been demoted. I was back in the Lada ranking.
Having a funky old car in the UK is just like having an eccentric but loveable sibling: your mates might light-heartedly rib you about it, but they'll never hold it against you. When I told my UK-based male friends about my new ride in Bulgaria, there were hearty chuckles and a few jokes were swapped about my Soviet street-cruiser before the topic changed. When I told the local village lads, there was a mortified silence as if I'd cursed their baba's goatherd. They wanted to know why, as a "rich" Westerner, I had spent good money on such a clapped-out old car. They didn't want to hear that the car purchase was the last priority after buying our Bulgarian home and making significant renovations. They also didn't want to hear that I'd rather fit in than career around the village in a flashy 4x4.
I was quite surprised that they would rank cars over houses, but thought it must just be due to them being of prime car-loving age. That was until the guy that we bought the house from paid us a visit to see how the work was going. He rolled up in a brand new BMW, then proceeded to explain how he was sad to sell their lovely village house and downgrade to an urban apartment, but money was tight. I was happy to see they had spent the money wisely.
It's not just the outward appearance of my car that has caused gasps. It's when I step out of it – presumably as I've broken the girls' car rule and not bought a Ford Ka. My battered old work-horse of an auto is tantamount to arriving at a chalga club in jeans and trainers.
My partner doesn't drive, and on several occasions I've pulled up to fuel stations only to be quizzed extensively as to why my "husband" isn't driving. Once, the police pulled me over for the sole purpose of asking this question. As a laugh, I told them he was hugely drunk. To which they laughed, nodded knowingly and sent me on my wifely way.
I've now surmised that, as a rule, women don't drive in Bulgaria unless a) their sozzled husbands have lost their licence or b) they are chic girls-about-town with a cute two-door accessory.
It's easier to presume that there are just two main types of cars in Bulgaria: Mercedes-Benz, then the others. If the big blackwindowed Mercedes S212, E500 or E55 AMG isn't being driven by mutri, then it's being driven by someone who likes to think they're mutri or their equivalent – even if in reality they still live in a stale apartment with the majority of their extended family because of the meagre income they have. With the explosion of flashy mobsters, the more ordinary Bulgarians became keen to get a slice of the luxury pie. Snappy clothes, big muscles, a dazzling girlfriend and, of course, a large expensive car, became really important.
The desire for a supreme car is so exalted that a variety of banks and – gulp – lending firms offer large wads of cash for that sole purpose. Car-craving Bulgarians will often purchase their vehicles at dismal terms just to own their own shiny set of wheels.
Which poses the question: In a country where a drive to the shops or parking on a narrow street can lead to scratches and dents, is it really worth it? Just look outside any casino hall or large mehana and you'll see that yes, it is to some people.
A HANDY GUIDE
To put you in the know what your car says about you in Bulgaria
An Audi A8, BMW 7 Series, Mercedes
You're desperately cool. You wear shades indoors and in winter and sport rib-crushingly tight shirts. All other vehicles must scoot away fast or be blinded by flashing headlights.
A Jaguar XJ8
You're female, with long blond hair and breasts that cost a fraction of your car. Your boyfriend got the car customised, because he knows the right people.
A 4WD Toyota, Chrysler or Hummer
You're either a politician or a "businessman" that doesn't want to look overly mutri. All other cars may as well be invisible. You'll just drive over them.
A pre-2000 German car (not VW)
You once had it all, but made some bad investments/ business decisions/bribes. The upgraded drivers feel sorry for you. But not sorry enough to let you overtake them.
A Range Rover, Toyota pick-up or Jeep Grand Cherokee
You're a foreigner. You bought yourself a quaint Bulgarian village home, and you know that small wheels won't do.
An Alfa Romeo, Subaru Impreza or pimped-up VW Polo
You're a cool, new-generation Bulgarian boy-racer interested in speed rather than size. Great for weaving in and out of city traffic, rubbish when you get caught on a rock visiting family in the village.
A Ford Ka, new Mini or Mazda
You're a sexy Bulgarian bambina with a high-powered job or parents or a boyfriend with money. But you can't drive to (literally) save your life.
A Mondeo, Dodge or any kind of Peugeot
You're foreign. You can drive past the traffic police carefree.
A Lada Niva
You either work for the electric or water board, or you're a foreigner wanting to "fit in" without stooping as low as a Lada Combi.
Any kind of Combi (Skoda, Ford, Opel)
You're a working man, your car has done a lot of miles, and it shows. You know your car is slow, but you're going to drive it in the fast lane anyway.
Any kind of van
You're an absolute road monster with complete disregard to your safety and that of those around you. You spew exhaust fumes constantly whilst intimidating all other vehicles within ten feet.
An old Polo, Lada, Ford Escort, Trabant, Moskvich, Skoda or anything a bit funky
You know the roads and know that whenever you venture out, it could be your last trip, by either mechanical error, driver error or being trodden on by a BMW.
You want to die.
A horse and a cart
Why are you reading Vagabond?
Remember Teachers and Jews do not drive Volvos in Bulgaria