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A Tank Full of Supreme Grade Frustration

Dear Rudy,

When my husband, Ed, was 70 years old and I much younger (67!), we took a driving trip from Göteborg, Sweden, to Turkey, where our son and his wife were teaching. We had many unanticipated adventures, but the most stressful was getting stuck in Bulgaria.

The USSR had just fallen, and the distribution of goods and services to European Union satellite countries was practically nil. As we entered Bulgaria, we tried to buy gasoline coupons, but were brushed off and told to stop at the police station in a town along the way. This happened at several stops, and eventually we were shooed off to our destination (Burges) with the promise that we could get gasoline coupons there. We were running so low on gas that we had to skip a couple of side trips we had planned to make.

We coasted on fumes into our hotel parking lot, grateful that we had made it that far. After checking into a dilapidated room, we went to the lobby to purchase our gasoline coupons. "No gas," we were told. We asked a bunch of questions, pleaded for help, and began to feel panicky for the first time. "Use diesel," we were told. We tried to explain that our new Volvo wouldn't run on diesel, and that we couldn't leave the country without gas. But our pleas had no impact on the so-called customer assistance person. Ed was very polite, certain that some nice person would show up to help us, and he admonished me to remain composed and cordial.

We retreated to our tacky room, in which a little broken radio was hanging out of the wall by wires, the furniture was falling apart, and the curtains were in shreds. I decided to tackle the problem more aggressively and returned to the lobby. Using what I thought was persuasive logic, I approached the head person at the desk. I calmly and patiently explained the whole situation. Her reply? "No gas." "What are we supposed to do?" I asked. She shrugged. "I'll call the American Embassy in Sophia," I shouted, suddenly losing my patience. "You don't have the number," she said smugly. "Oh, but I do," I said, pulling out my list of American embassy numbers in Eastern European countries.

She finally started cracking a little. "Go to the car rental desk," she said, pointing to a little space in a corner of the lobby. I got the same brush-off there, but then I started to rant and cry. So much attention was now directed our way that the car rental attendant seemed concerned. "No, no, quiet down. Don't be so disturbed," she said.

But I continued to be disturbed, and finally she called out a very formidable looking obese man, who was apprized of the situation. He wanted to drive me in my car to get a few liters of gasoline. I insisted that my husband come, too. He objected, but I held fast, and finally he agreed. My one concession: We had to allow him to drive. We were desperate, so we reluctantly assented. He knew nothing about automatic transmissions and kept trying to shift gears. My husband was more concerned about that than about getting out of Bulgaria.

Before long, we arrived at a closed gas station. Our driver rapped on the door, talked with a cohort, and soon they were hooking up electricity to run the pumps. We were allowed to purchase 6 liters of gasoline, which cost us dearly. We figured we'd make it to Edirne, Turkey, but not much further. That evening we walked the streets from the hotel to the highway to familiarize ourselves with our "escape route," planning to hightail it out of there at dawn.

As we left, we saw a somber looking couple trying to finagle some gasoline out of the customer service people. I wish I had stopped to advise them to throw a fit early on.




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