“Oh my god, it’s him!” Aleks cried. She was jumping up and down and giggling like a schoolgirl.
I had heard stories about the man and now here he was, screaming at me in Bulgarian and furiously waving his little fists. Aleks was clearly delighted that he was in his usual good form, as it were.
Perhaps unfortunately for him, the man did not actually seem intimidating or imposing in any way. His apparent hatred of the world and everything in it was actually kind of comedic, which I gathered was not the effect he was going for and this seemed to make him only angrier. Looking around, I realised it wasn’t just me. Nobody else seemed to be paying him any mind either. Poor guy.
“He said that he’s not your fucking mother and you can put your own fucking bags under the bus,” Aleks translated happily.
Ah. A complete lack of service without a smile. This didn’t bother me, though I had again forgotten that the price of the bus ticket does not include the extra fee for your luggage, which you pay to the driver. I stored our bags under the bus and smiled at the driver while he screamed at me some more. Aleks gave me a gentle nudge.
“Oh, yes, here you are. Sorry”.
The driver continued yelling, at my girlfriend, at me, and the universe in general. Aleks didn’t bother translating though it seemed pretty clear he was colourfully explaining his innermost feelings about stupid tourists. Aleks had travelled this route many times during the previous few years, and as we stood by the bus sharing a last cigarette before the journey she started laughing, regaling me again with tales of the psychotic Bulgarian bus driver.
Aleks’ enthusiasm for life is at times remarkable. When she gets excited about something her voice becomes louder and her speech faster, which in itself is not unusual. As a typically multilingual European however she has one other interesting little quirk, which tends to present itself at the most wonderfully inappropriate moments. We were still smoking our cigarette as she talked and laughed about the crazy little man. She became louder and more animated until I finally stopped her.
“Aleks. Aleks! ALEKS!!!”
“What?” She stopped mid sentence.
“I don’t speak that language”.
There was a brief moment of silence.
“Ah, shit”, she offered mildly.
The man to whom her anecdote had referred did speak that language and he was standing right behind us.
“I think we should get on the bus”, she said quietly.
He looked to be about fifty. Of less than average height, average build, receding hair… on appearances alone he was an altogether unremarkable fellow. He had become a source of conversation on at least two continents however simply because he should not have been allowed employment anywhere near other humans. He clearly despised them anyway. It was a mystery why he was driving a passenger coach and not a truck.
We pulled out of the ridiculously huge Istanbul bus terminal and once on the road our driver was quiet and even seemed calm for a few minutes. Reaching the western outskirts of Istanbul he was again muttering irritably to himself. One hour later he was randomly shouting and swearing (my giggling translator kept me apprised of his more colourful outbursts) and by the halfway point in our journey our driver was waging an all-out one man war against everyone and everything, both inside the bus and out. We were seated toward the front, which was good because I didn’t want to miss anything.
“Smoke my fucking cock!” he screamed at the driver of the heavily laden truck ahead, which had been slowing our progress up a steady incline. Leaning slightly from my isle seat I caught glimpses of him in his rear-view mirror, his face distorted and crimson with rage. I found myself staring at him, imagining his obscene outbursts rising in pitch until their shockwaves knocked the birds from the sky. He checked his rear-view mirror and noticed me staring blankly back at him. I came back to reality as he menacingly enquired whether I also would care to smoke his cock (no translation required). I politely declined his kind offer with a small shake of my head, not yet having learned of a cultural quirk that, as far as I know, is unique to the Bulgarians.
The driver gave me a disgusted look from his mirror. I decided to stare attentively at my shoes for a while. Aleks smiled, leaned back into her seat and went to sleep.
As the horizon swallowed the sun’s last rays I realised that several uneventful minutes had passed. At that moment, as if the driver had read my thoughts the bus careened off the highway for no apparent reason to embark on a surreal ten minute adventure down a narrow dirt laneway which ran a parallel course. Gnarled tree branches encroached into the bumpy track and the driver hurled abuse left and right as he diligently sideswiped each of them. Aleks awoke with the other dozing passengers and the ensuing collective murmur indicated that something slightly unusual was happening. I wondered if this could be cause for alarm as, all things being relative, ‘something slightly unusual’ on this ride would be the way to describe, well, something very fucking weird indeed. I recalled Aleks’ stories about how riding this particular bus was akin to playing Russian roulette and that one day the driver would decide to simply end it all, taking fifty innocent people with him in one final desperate act of senseless rage. I guessed we were close to the border now but wondered if we were about to become statistics in a news story we would never see. We could still see the lights of the vehicles travelling on the highway to our right. Naturally they were moving more quickly, which infuriated our driver even more. He again took a sharp turn into what might well have been an open field. Some passengers reached for various handheld devices, perhaps preparing to send final messages to loved ones as the lights from the highway grew more distant behind us. Then with a loud despairing sigh, as if the madman at the wheel had lost his nerve and given up all hope of giving up, he turned the bus back onto what looked like some kind of dirt road and back toward the highway. Aleks’ brow was furrowed in thought and nobody spoke as we re-entered the flow of traffic, except of course the driver, though his muttering was now despondent rather than angry, as if he had run out of strength. Gradually we slowed to a standstill. He became quiet. We had reached the border.
Everything about this place looked cold and intimidating, which didn’t seem accidental. Arriving in the middle of the night was almost frightening. Towering floodlights cast a cold white glow over the post-communist Eastern bloc buildings and their surrounding razor wire here at the new, easternmost point of the European Union. Even the lunatic behind the wheel of the bus seemed to know that this was a place to be calm and cooperative. There were people here with guns. Big ones.
At least we didn’t have to wait here for literally days, like the truck drivers parked for several kilometres back, waiting to be searched before given clearance to enter the EU.
I was glad to have Aleks beside me. This was her part of the world and she was relaxed, though wearing a deliberately sombre expression, as were the other passengers. She told me not to smile too much and not to laugh, which I have a tendency to do when nervous. All passengers were ordered off the bus. We were ordered back on the bus. The bus drove forward about thirty metres. We were ordered off the bus to claim our luggage from beneath and open it for inspection. Back on the bus. This was going to take a while.
Before long our passports, having earlier been collected for inspection, were efficiently returned by a no-nonsense type border guard. I wondered if people applying for jobs at these places were required to fit a psychological profile of some kind, or pass a test to prove their ability to uphold certain eastern European stereotypes. Then I figured that it was late at night and this woman was probably just tired and looking forward to the end of another long shift. Either way, she was rapidly yelling out names that I would not easily be able to pronounce, and flinging passports around the bus when something suddenly stopped her. It could only be one thing.
The woman handed my passport to another official standing silently at the door of the bus. Neither could read my name. They then showed it to the bus driver who barely even glanced at it. He just stood up, swivelled on his heels and pointed at me. I was ordered off the bus. This was all getting a bit weird. Surely other westerners had passed through this border. I mean, the Cyrillic alphabet looks a bit weird to me too. I can’t read it but I know what it looks like. These people were looking at my passport like it was written in hieroglyphics.
“Schnell, schnell!!” barked a man with an automatic weapon (I didn’t know that people in this part of the world often assume a foreigner’s native tongue to be German). I schnelled my arse off the bus and was taken to a small building with a small window, behind which stood a large man who demanded a small amount of money. I was immensely relieved and couldn’t help but smile as I paid him. The man smiled back as he stamped my passport. Machine-gun guy schnelled my arse back onto the bus.
As I took my seat, Aleks asked me how I knew what ‘schnell’ meant. I told her that I’d probably picked it up watching re-runs of Hogan’s Heroes as a kid. I had to explain about the heroic wisecracking Americans and the bumbling incompetent Germans.
“Ah, one of your western historical documentaries”, she said with a straight face. “I also learned that word when I was a teenager… watching German porn”.
The border guards gave me a severe look as they stepped off the bus for the final time. Aleks was elbowing me hard in the ribs but that just made me laugh more. We rolled into Bulgaria.