Bulgaria will always surprise you – no matter how much you think you know.
I have developed the dangerous smugness of an old Bulgaria-hand. I know how to use a bus. You need a ticket for each journey and you need to perforate it one of the unobtrusive perforating machines that line the inside of the bus. Then for the length of the journey, you must resist the temptation to screw the ticket up and use it to clean your ears. There is always a possibility that a ticket inspector will appear and demand to see your ticket and check its unique perforation.
Visitors arriving at Sofia Central Station will find no notices in the main foreign languages beside the central bus stops to help them. They may assume (wrongly) that tickets will be sold on the bus.
Those blessed with a little Bulgarian willl discover that tickets can be bought at the nearby kiosk. They cost one lev each but if you buy a block of ten there is a discount, enabling you to make ten separate journeys for 7 levs 50.
A little knowledge is a dangerous thing.
Even unsuspecting Bulgarians may not be aware of a number of small but significant rules that are printed in small Cyrilic type on the last ticket.
First the tickets are numbered and must be used in ascending order. Passengers must be ready to show not just the perforated ticket but also the remaining unused tickets to an inspector to prove that they have not bought the ticket on the black market from an enterprising ticket tout.
The second rule is fatal in its unpredictability. Foreign tourists are rarely single. They often come in pairs. So imagine you are a couple and you have bought a block of ten tickets – calculating that this will give you five journeys to and from the main tourist sites.
On the third journey an inspector looms into view. Dangerously confident you hand over your tickets. The inspector has had no training in dealing with foreigners so he begins to shout. If you are unlucky enough to understand a little Bulgarian, you will realise that one of you is an unauthorized passenger and must pay an on the spot fine.
It is absolutely your fault that you failed to read the tiny Bulgarian print on the last ticket, that informs you that the block is to be used by one passenger only. It is the duty of every citizen of the world to read the small print on the back of bus tickets.
On this occasion I made the fatal mistake of revealing that i understood Bulgarian. Retelling this story I heard how someone had witnessed a similar scene recently. The Inspector had shouted at uncomprehending tourists and amazingly this had led to such a threatening revolt by the other passengers that the Inspector had to retire in confusion to get off at the next stop and immediately join the Attacka party.
(Attacka is the extreme nationalist party. All foreigners apart from Jen Marie Le Pen are unwelcome)
At the excellent Hotel Metropolitan I received a letter from the mayor of Sofia, Bate Boyko, welcoming me to his city. I would like to challenge him to explain the absurd public transport system in a way that every foreign visitor will understand.