Driving in Bulgaria, Part 1: Car Shopping

It was bound to happen sooner or later.

After months – yes, months – of relying on taxis and the goodwill of friends to get around in Sofia, I recently took the bold step of beginning to look for a car. It’s hard to overstate the layers of complication and premeditation that led me to this point.

Those not living in Bulgaria might find it difficult to understand why it took me until November to  begin this process in earnest. After all, we arrived on August 1.

But really, what’s the point  when it takes three months for the government to issue the all-important identity card? Without it, the best I could have managed was renting or leasing a car or, more perilous still, buying one and somehow arranging to keep the papers in another driver’s name until I could by the car outright.

And honestly, we haven’t been in a huge rush to drive here. Crowded Tsarigradsko Shose makes the devilishly chaotic Route 4 in northern New Jersey look like a cow path.  Please don’t take this the wrong way – no national insults are intended – but Bulgarian traffic operates according to a terrifying logic all its own. Tailgating has been refined to an art form, and slow driving is interpreted as a sign of mortal weakness. Horn honking seems reserved for expressions of fury. And the rotaries – I think here, particularly, of the infamous Circle of Death near the Carrefour – resemble nothing so much as a high-stakes game of Frogger.

But when we saw snow flurries in mid-October, I realized that I could delay the inevitable no longer. So when a friend offered to escort a few newbies to the vast used-car lots south of town, I came along for the ride.

It is the place where Western European cars of murky lineage come to die or, perhaps, enjoy a vigorous retirement in the Balkans. Picture acres of BMWs, Peugeots and Volvos. There are plenty of Toyotas and Hondas, too, along with the occasional Lada or Trabant.  Some are nearly brand-new while others have clearly done hard time on the streets of Rome, Paris or Berlin. The challenge, of course, is to find the cherry amid the lemons.

We had heard stories of disaster and  intrigue – the car that blew up on the Sofia to Istanbul run, the tricks that sellers play with odometers and a laptop.

Still, we had a mechanic we trusted. And I had my heart set on a nice, rugged Subaru – something that could handle everything Bulgaria threw at it. Would my dream come true? Stay tuned.

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