“I like to use local transport, travel the back roads,” I had said to my husband’s friend Eric, whom we accompanied on a trip to Eastern Europe earlier this month. “I’ve met some of the nicest people on public transport. It’s the best way to meet locals.”
My hearty endorsement of anything that wasn’t a plane was the main reason that we didn’t book flights to get us from Romania to Turkey. Instead, we set out one morning by rail from Brasov, about 100 miles north of Bucharest, and used two connecting trains to get us to Varna, a Black Sea resort town in Bulgaria. We decided to stay two nights in Varna before continuing on to Istanbul by bus. The idea looked good on paper, at least.
Although the trains ran like clockwork, it was a long and rather monotonous day. Our train-compartment mates were either very shy (two ladies en route to Sophia) or didn’t speak English (an older woman doing crosswords in a newspaper with bare-breasted women on the front page). After a couple of brief exchanges, I was relegated to amuse myself by talking to Francis (I live with him, so we talk all the time, you know?) and Eric (he’ll never read this blog post anyway). Tick tock.
We reached Varna at 8:15 p.m., or 20:15, as they like to say in Europe. Upon hearing of our arrival, the last traces of sunshine had vanished and we were greeted by biting wind and rain as we stepped out of the station. Very Three Stooges-like, we made our way around the side of the building and through the parking lot, in search of taxi cabs. “There they are, over there, over there!” I yelled over my shoulder at Larry and Moe.
While there may have been a taxi rank in the train station parking lot (husband insists there was, but this has not been verified), I galloped over to the single-file line of yellow that was parked curbside on the main road. The driver from the last car, a large, bald man with ruddy skin, jumped from his car and popped the trunk open for our luggage. Dressed all in black, right down to his leather bomber jacket, he was an imposing figure. In my head, I named him Boris. Eager to escape the rain, we piled into the car and gave him the name of our hotel.
There’s something about taxi drivers in Eastern Europe and the multitude of tricks that they use to separate a tourist from their cash. We’d already been scammed twice by taxi drivers on this trip (I had another expression for it, but will refrain from using it here), so I had preemptively used my noggin and emailed the hotel the night before to ask how much it should cost to get from the train station to the hotel. “No more than five lev,” was the answer that was relayed back to me.
Although we were quite used to the ‘meters optional’ type of cabs, for some reason—tired, cold, wet, Stooge-like—we didn’t negotiate the fixed rate when we set out. The driver had to stop and ask one of his comrades (okay, I guess that was then…) for directions, and then before you could even say feta cheese, we were at the hotel.
“Ten lev,” Boris said as he started to unload our bags.
If there’s one thing that makes me go from zero to righteous indignation in about six seconds, it’s when I feel like I’m being scammed. The dollar amount is irrelevant; it’s the principle. For me, it’s also like a sport—survival of the fittest, savviest traveler, or something like that. “What? Are you kidding?!” I yelled. “No way. Five lev. That’s all. Five lev.”
“Ten lev,” he growled.
“No, look, the hotel told me it was five lev. Come inside. Come on. Let’s go ask them.”
A stream of angry Bulgarian, with a “fuck you” thrown in for good measure, spewed from Boris’s mouth. He kicked at one of our bags. Two employees of the restaurant next door, out back having a smoke, looked on in amusement. I started walking into the hotel and Boris had no choice but to follow. Francis and Eric followed, too, but kept a healthy distance, like they didn’t know me.
I explained my predicament to the bewildered man at the front desk. Boris then told his side, arms waving, spittle spitting. The front desk attendant gave me a sheepish look and shrugged his shoulders.
In disbelief that I was just thrown under the bus by the hotel attendant, I realized that Boris had me backed into a corner. We locked eyes in a tense standoff (if I had horns, I would have locked them with Boris’s horns, but I don’t, so we just locked eyes). Seconds passed. The hotel attendant stayed seated, muscles tensed and ready to dive under the desk. Finally, I reluctantly withdrew a ten lev note from my wallet and held it out.
Boris snatched the bill from my hand and turned on his heel. “Yeah, well fuck you, too!” I screamed as he went out the door. Sighting him through the front windows of the hotel, I thrust my middle finger out in defiance and shook it at the back of his bobbing bald head until it finally disappeared.
I could see Francis and Eric out of the corner of my eye, hiding behind a pillar. I straightened my shoulders and smoothed down the front of my jacket. The front desk attendant finally stood up. With a forced smile and a tentative voice, he said, “May I help you?”
Postscript: I’ll save y’all the trouble of going to a foreign currency converter web site right now and tell you that the difference between five lev and 10 lev is $3.58 U.S. You can laugh. It’s the principle.
Being (figuratively) thrown under a bus, in a foreign country, with no one to back you up is just No Bueno.
At least it made for a good blog post! 🙂
Laura Zera says
The hotel attendant referred to a certain sector of the industry as the Taxi Mafia. He knew that they knew where to find him!
Molly Greene says
Ha! I have also been known to waggle a finger in the past so can relate. But girlfriend, $4 bucks? Only the best throw themselves under the bus, love you for this, love the post, welcome home!
Jo King-VonBargen says
Ha! Love it to pieces! Good for YOU, Warrior Woman! Even if it's two cents, you're right. It's the principle of the thing. I could just picture your two fellas cowering behind the pillar. Who says women don't have all the balls? Right on, sister girl, I'd travel with you any time!!
Laura Zera says
Thanks, Molly! Glad I'm not the only one that isn't perfectly zen in all environments.
Laura Zera says
Thank you, Jo. Glad that someone understands! Ha! Although 'tis true that my ego is getting in the way there somewhere, to some extent!
"I could see Francis and Erik out of the corner of my eye, hiding behind a pillar". From one who often (perhaps insanely) wonders why everyone else isn't having the same reaction as I,I LOL'd at this moment of recognition. 'nother great piece Laura.
Laura Zera says
It's so true, hey, Kendall? Though in this case, Francis and Eric were kind enough to 'respect my reaction' afterward. They might even travel with me again.
as a Bulgarian I confirm that there is a taxi driver mafia, once I almost had a fight with one of them. My advice is if you get a cab from the airport in sofia, please take the ones that are exactly in the front, because they have the contract and they won’t charge you more. Never show them that you are scared – that’s what they want you to be…. and what else can I say …. they are fucking scumbags and I am sorry because that’s what foreign tourists face when they visit Bulgaria
Laura Zera says
It’s really unfortunate. This guy was such a thug, and the hotel employee was completely afraid of him! It wouldn’t keep me from coming back to Bulgaria, though. We met plenty of other kind people there during our short stay. But now we’ve learned and hopefully other people will see this post and be aware of it, too. Thanks for the tip and for reading the blog!
Chris James says
Love it! You’re right, it is the principle, but then again, I tell myself to be circumspect when I’m on the other guy’s turf 🙂
Laura Zera says
Probably not a bad idea, Chris. And yet I somehow doubt I’ll ever be able to fully embrace it. 😉