“Come back with me!” the police officer yelled out of his car’s window after pulling alongside my $600 diesel manual Chrysler minivan just as I was leaving Bulgaria. “Oh boy,” I thought to myself. “This could be bad.” Thoughts of corruption, bribery, and other stereotypes about Eastern Europe swirled through my head. I turned my 260,000 mile minivan around and followed the officer to a guard shack.
Upon arrival, I shut down the Italian 2.5-liter turbodiesel clacking under my van’s hood, and walked toward a temporary building not much larger than a shipping container. The uniformed gentleman explained the situation. “You don’t have a Vignette,” he said.
I was a bit confused, as I could have sworn I’d bought a 10-day pass on my arrival into the country (Before I go on: a Vignette is basically proof of purchase for a road toll (which is also called a Maut); it sometimes involves buying a sticker for your windshield, or it can be digitally tied to your license plate). “I checked my system, and you were good to go when you drove here from Serbia, so you must have bought one. I guess it expired,” he postulated. He was right; I had bought a six-day Vignette, I later discovered.
“You’re lucky you didn’t drive all the way to the last passport check. There, a new vignette would have cost you 85 Euros. I saved you 50 Euros by pulling you over,” he explained.
I didn’t have 35 Euros. In fact, I had fewer than 10, and it was all in the form of change in the small bin next to my van’s five-speed shifter. “Mind if I use a card?” I inquired. The man, who was speaking borderline perfect English, said “of course.”
Unfortunately, I’d just lost my debit card in eastern Turkey (this entire trip was a 3,500 mile trek from my parents’ place in Germany to a friend’s wedding in Turkey; I’ll write the full story soon), leaving me with a single credit card as a lifeline. I’d had luck using it in gas stations, but restaurants weren’t cool with it, since they for some reason wanted a PIN, which my credit card doesn’t have.
I had attempted to set up a PIN through my bank, but with no luck. I prayed that this little guard shack would follow the fuel stations’ leads and not ask me for a four-digit entry. If there was one thing I had been told upon entering eastern Europe, it was to limit involvement with authorities (this is sage advice for any nation). Of course, I wasn’t that lucky.
“Hchyello soar” the man behind the window called out in a thick accent. “Vee need a peen.” He pointed to the credit card reader.
I had no pin to give, so I turned to the officer who had pulled me over and told him I had to call my bank. “Yes yes, call your bank,” he responded. I did so, and found myself on hold.
It was hot outside of that guard shack — nearly 100 degrees Fahrenheit. I just stood there with my phone in my hand listening to elevator music. The Bulgarian guard was hanging out just a few feet away. It was clear that he was as bored as I, so we started chatting.
“So did you watch the finals last night?” he asked. “Yo, that Giannis block was absurd wasn’t it?” I responded with excitement, momentarily forgetting about my current predicament. I admitted that I had only seen the highlights on YouTube that morning. “It was nuts. I saw it live; I got up at like 3 AM to see it,” he told me, clearly pumped that I was an NBA fan.
(Eastern Europe loves basketball — just look at the NBA’s two MVPs this year: One is from Serbia, the other is from Greece. Billboards of famous basketball players abound in the Balkans).
We then spent the next hour chatting about basketball — our favorite players, the way injuries had been so devastating in this year’s playoffs, Kobe Bryant’s legacy (this Bulgarian was a huge Kobe fan; he had a lot to say about how sad he was after hearing of the Laker superstar’s passing), and his love for Phoenix Suns point guard Chris Paul.
Honestly, I was having a great time.
Yes, I was going to be late to my rendezvous with a reader in Belgrade, Serbia (see above), but I was learning a lot about this Bulgarian. He told me about how his wife knows not to bother him when he’s watching basketball; he told me about how he hoops in a local league; he even described his leadership style on the court (he ascribes to a fairly strict “Mamba Mentality”-esque doctrine).
But where the conversation reached its peak was when we started discussing the 2008 Boston Celtics.
“I used to live in Boston back in 2008. I worked for a swimming pool company over there,” the Bulgarian border guard told me.
“Oh shit, in 2008?” I responded. “That’s the Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, Rajon Rondo years!”
“Don’t forget Ray Allen!” he replied. He then walked me through how he met Celtics veteran point guard Sam Cassell, who — along with other Celtics players — was staying in the Bulgarian border guard’s apartment building, as it was close to the Celtics’ practice facility. The guard said Cassell’s entourage had held the door for him when they saw that he was arriving at the apartment building’s front door with hands full of groceries.
Sweat dripped from my head as I stood there somewhere along the border of Bulgaria listening in fascination as this man then began reminiscing about the Boston Celtics’ championship parade following their 2007-2008 season title. This was clearly one of this man’s greatest memories. He bursted with energy as he told the story.
After about an hour of conversation about basketball, I remembered that I had been on hold with my bank. I quickly moved my phone closer to my ear, only to hear elevator music.
“Just go,” he told me. “I can’t keep you here all day. But I also can’t promise that you won’t have to pay a fine when you return to Bulgaria, but just go. Have a good trip.”
I shook his hand, told him I enjoyed our talk, and headed west.
It’s possible that the result would have been the same even if I hadn’t known about The Truth. Still, the whole interaction was just pleasant and comfortable, and a reminder that knowing a little bit about sports can be tremendously advantageous while traveling. I have found that sports, cars and food are great equalizers, connecting people who may otherwise have very little in common. And when you’re in a stressful situation, having something in common with someone with whom you are in a predicament can make such a huge difference, as it humanizes all parties. He’s no longer border guard #528 and I’m no longer lawbreaker #20802810. I’m the American driving a crappy old Chrysler van, and the Laker fan. He’s the Bulgarian who used to live in Massachusetts, and who loves the Boston Celtics.