Ivan approaches them with a stylish swagger. Teodora is more hesitant. She slows, wonders which way to go, stops occasionally to let others pass. Not Ivan. He treats them as a test of skills, swerving smoothly left and right, deftly measuring the angle of approach, slowing only when confronted by overwhelming odds, and never coming to a halt.
I am in Bulgaria, and I want to tell you about potholes. Not much of the essence of life to be found in holes in the road, you may say. I beg to differ, and so certainly would Teodora and Ivan. When Bulgaria joined the European Union in 2007, it brought beautiful mountains, sunny beaches, fine food – and the largest concentration of potholes between the North Cape and Istanbul. I admit I have yet to verify this in OECD statistics, but I cannot imagine anyone would contest my assertion. Bulgaria is surely the Champion of Potholes.
By Potholes, in mean those with a capital P, not the minor cavities you find in the country where you live. Let’s face it: your highways can’t compete. If there is a hole, it’s an insignificant exception to a smooth, unbroken surface – at most causing a bump and a rumble of tyres. Frankly, this is kids’ stuff. In Bulgaria, the holes are adult. They are male and full of testosterone. Aggressively waiting to do you serious harm, without provocation.
As you approach, a Bulgarian pothole looks much like any other. Almost too late, you realise it is wider than you thought, and extends two metres ahead. And it is black. Black because it is deep. Deep, deep down it goes, with jagged sides and a pool of evil liquid at the bottom. Axle-breaking deep. This is a hole which wins. It is stronger than you, and you are not going to do battle with it. You move aside, give way, weave and duck, screech the brakes, endanger oncoming cars with wild manoeuvres. Anything but engage the pothole in open combat.
Much of a Bulgarian road is thus unusable. Think of a slalom ski race. The skiers all carve their way along a narrow sinuous track. The rest of the slope is untouched. It is the same on potholed Bulgarian roads, except the traffic slaloms both ways on the same track.
As Ivan bowls along an empty road in the middle of the night, he picks the craters out in his headlights when they are just shadowy spots in the distance. He relishes his mastery and keeps his foot on the accelerator as he swings to and fro. In the West, driving at night means watching for curves, shielding from dazzling headlights and spotting road signs. In Bulgaria, you keep your eyes skinned for stray dogs, police traps – and the unending challenge of potholes.
Some are insidious rather than aggressive. You come upon sudden undulations in a cobbled city street, where a sagging foundation has created an elegant but alarming depression. Or collapsed drains, where concrete has crumbled away, leaving a few strands of rusting wire between you and the sewers below.
The potholes have their counterparts – obstacles rising menacingly from the surface. Watch out for the manhole lids which have failed to subside with the rest of the road, or piles of roadside rubble spilling carelessly into the middle. Just when you think you have negotiated all this, you hit a sleeping policeman, a concrete ridge laid for the unlikely event that you are speeding. Crawl over these with care, for they are designed to make your car bounce sharply half way over. These are traps for drive shafts, oil sumps and exhaust pipes.
Champion potholer is the municipal water company. You can’t miss their long chaotic trenches filled with not nearly enough stones and earth, leaving small precipices between the loose mass of rubble and the jagged edge of the road surface. When a flood of water comes cascading down the street, you know you are close to the action – a hole which has not just formed randomly, but is being dug on purpose. The next morning, the tap in the hotel room runs muddy.
So why IS Bulgaria supreme in potholes? Because the criminals in power have cheated and stolen, and the country has been bled of its wealth, that’s what people tell you. Nobody repairs the holes because there is no money left. Bulgaria’s long history is unfortunate. It had a number of periods of glory, but these came to an end over 600 years ago. Practically everything since then has gone wrong, bringing endless misery to the people. At every twist and turn, they seem to have been manipulated and exploited – by the Turks, by the Great Powers, by the Nazis, by the Communists, by the Mafia.
And now also by the European Union. With such a desperate folk memory, how can Bulgarians believe that this new power is going to do anything but rip them off? Teodora, who runs a small business, has spotted the trick. A condition of Bulgaria’s accession, she says, was that it give up its nuclear power station, because it competed with a French-built plant in Romania. The EU is a device to suck out Bulgaria’s resources. A manipulation to benefit the French – and worse still, the Romanians, whom Bulgarians consider an even lower form of life than themselves.
So is Teodora against the EU? – We had to join without anybody being able to see all the terms of the agreement. – But surely parliament could see the document it approved? – It was too long. Nobody could read it all. – Do you think the people of the other countries which ratified accession read the details? – No, but we Bulgarians were not allowed to have a referendum. – And what would you have voted, if there had been one? – I’d have voted to join the European Union.
No wonder, when it comes to the crunch, that Teodora wants to join. About the only road without potholes in Bulgaria was built by the European Union, running south from the capital for 100 kilometres with four lanes and not a ripple. But there must be a catch. Teodora knows for sure that the Greeks are deliberately blocking opening of the rest of the road to the Greek border.
Are the holes in the roads really the result of skulduggery? True, the banks seemed to overflow with money 12 years ago. Now there is clearly pitifully little money in the economy. Somehow, it has been drained away.
But one becomes wary of conspiracy theories. The potholes have a life of their own, and they tell a story – of fecklessness, poor construction, faulty materials, neglect and messiness. As they proliferate, they humiliate a once-proud people which is now down on its uppers and despises itself. The message of the holes is: abandon hope of an ordered life, a better society or the merest hint of prosperity. They are potholes in the hearts of a people.
As I look into these holes, I do indeed see the essence of life. I look into the abyss.