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A weekend with the Police

A Quest Bulgaria member (who would prefer to stay anonymous in this instance) shares his personal, extraordinary memories of the other side of the coin of living here! A Bulgarian policeman had always seemed to me to be a bit of a perk job. Many Bulgarian boys, when asked what they want to do when they grow up, reply ‘a policeman’. In fact, the police have major respect in Bulgaria from all generations. It is also clear that Bulgarian Police are not burdened with the law governed and by overkill morals.

During a short break with my Bulgarian girlfriend, the weather was unusually cold and wet, so beach and sea activities were restricted and the rest of the time was spent in bed, sleeping or dozing. So, when a friend rang to say she was seeing someone later, a policeman, and that we ought to meet him too, we agreed. We met up shortly after, in a posh hotel garden bar.

The policeman, was a man of typical Bulgarian build; short, stocky with a ‘beer’ belly, piercing blue eyes, no chin and slightly greying hair, neatly cut. His shorts showed thin-calved legs, without hair, although I don’t think they were shaved, whereas his arms, shown by his plain short-sleeved shirt were definitely not. A pair of good quality brown leather sandals supported this man, who just did not stop talking. His mobile was in constant use and was used extensively for planning the party path in order to impress his newly acquired guests.

As with most Bulgarian men, the policeman treated his girlfriend with a little disdain. He dominated conversations – mostly one-way – but you couldn’t fail to like the confident bordering on arrogant guy. Speaking a little Bulgarian myself, we debriefed our respective resumes. We found that the policeman and I liked many of the same things, essentially Bulgarian food, drink, football, women and life here in general. I found that being a policeman was indeed a good life here, and the perks were endless. I thought not dissimilar from being in the mafia, without having to look over your shoulder for the competition all the time.

We had just finished a beer or two when it was announced we would be heading to a nearby town. The policeman then told me that beer and driving can mix here; but only in the villages, as high speeds aren’t reached. Just one rule; don’t crash! His car was brought back from the apartment and parked up while we boarded for the first part of the adventure - Bulgarian driving!

If you’ve driven in Bulgaria and seen cars that just flash past regardless of oncoming traffic, well, this was one of them. It certainly sobered me up! I found that closing my eyes was the key to a less stressful journey. There was a police check en-route but a wave and a shout had my new policeman friend shooed on enthusiastically by his colleagues.

We planned to stop for cigarettes in the town further south but found no parking spaces to save any walking, so it had to be directly outside the shop. The policeman was relentless in his disregard for other automobiles as his car remained immobile in the middle of the road, blocking all traffic behind. This didn’t bother him in the least as the car sat, with a mayhem of cars queuing behind. A solitary man started complaining outside the shop until the policeman got out of the car, made himself known as the law and therefore quieted the complainer. There were initially a few honks which stopped as he was recognised in turn by each motorist. As he paused to talk to everyone he passed, it was clear he was well known in this town. Swapping of conversations with people in the street and calls on his mobile were continuous.

Cigarettes were bought for the ladies; the policeman doesn’t smoke, saying it leads to a painful death. Maybe that’s the rationale behind his driving, which showed a preference of a quick, painless death. After that the road was reopened and we drove off to shouts of ‘Ciao!’ from shop-owners and pedestrians on both sides of the street.

At the restaurant the preferential treatment continued. We were sat at a prime positioned table and served before others who had turning up earlier, all due to the policeman’s status and respect. A meal of the freshly cooked fish and the best beer was served, but our host forbade us to pay. Then, as I watched the policeman approach the cashier at the bar, all I saw exchanged was conversation.

It was then off to a new hotel with a private bar and pool. There were free drinks all round on the owner’s somewhat nervous insistence. During our drinks, we were told that we had free apartments booked in another town. As we moved off again under Formula One speed further down the road, the policeman’s mobile was in constant use as further plans were made.

We arrived at a luxurious hotel and were shown around then led to our complimentary room. This was all an offering from the owner to his policeman friend , and we were treated like royalty. Some locally caught fish was brought along and offered to us, but as we just didn’t have the facility to keep them overnight we declined.

The Bulgarian national football team was playing in the European cup qualifications that evening, so the TV was booked exclusively for us. Not only that, but complimentary food and Rakia was laid out for the evening from the very generous manager!

We freshened up in our assigned apartments then proceeded to party, spending a few hours watching live football, downing two bottles of grape Rakia and various traditional food. Us men, Bulgarian or not, had everything we could ask for at that point - free food and drink, live football and our lovely Bulgarian ladies!

Non-stop talking was the main activity and was quite a distraction the football. It was interesting getting feedback - or lack of - from the policeman when the opposition scored. I had to tell him they had scored before he replied with ‘normal’ – which was a typical Bulgarian reaction. The same reaction of ‘normal’ was made to the final score 2:0. He had for many years accepted that most European sides were better than Bulgaria, but I was surprised by his blasé response during the ups and downs of the match. Perhaps the taste of defeat was inbuilt in Bulgaria and they have learned not to be stressed about it. This was expected from him and other Bulgarians even before the match.

Football finished well past 11 pm but that wasn’t important. Our host had made further plans and before long, there was a shiny black Mercedes with a smartly dressed driver waiting outside to pick us up and drop us at a discotheque in a neighbouring town.

The venue was huge and state of the art. It was the sort of place you would expect to see VIPs and celebs. Our entry fee was waived, as were all the drinks that were served throughout the evening. I too felt as if I had been tagged with a VIP status as the policeman’s guest!

Dancing, drinking and even more eating ensued before we eventually had another chauffeur collect us and take us back to the hotel. There was one short stop on the way to meet up and share drinks with some traffic police on duty in the town, but time doesn’t matter here. You go to bed when you are tired, which we were, by 4:30 am!

The next morning breakfast was taken at a nearby restaurant. Again, there was no lapse in VIP treatment as the policeman’s mobile had no doubt been in action to prepare this earlier. Filled with a pancake breakfast and more beer (well, it was almost midday) I soaked up the final moments on the other side of the Bulgarian coin.

Finally, we went back to our village apartment while the policeman made his way to work. He was still on his mobile, talking and planning, as he waved goodbye to us, while we watched him drive off into the mysterious world of deciding what is right or wrong in life.

Two years ago it would have been impossible for me to come to terms with this situation. This acceptance of how to enjoy yourself and not feel indebted to people with their unbounded generosity comes with time. It was a whirlwind 24-hours and a stark view of how the other half live in Bulgaria. I had previously seen poverty-stricken communities trying to make ends meet and now I saw a community that finds the good things come their way by status and respect. I kept thinking; what had this man done beyond his role as a community policeman to get such treatment? The only thing I think is that he turns a blind eye on certain things. The respect and fear remains for the law, as I saw first hand, but at least the system of ‘hands on’ policing with the community exists.

All in all, community policing the way it is in Bulgaria is up and running as effectively as ever, well before it was reinvented and failed in the UK.