Fiat Panda

Back to Bulgaria

After a few attempts at dealing with bureaucracy on my own, I surrendered and went in search of help. Happily, I found a reasonably priced lawyer, actually two Greek sisters that work together, to help with the process of acquiring Greek residency, getting the lease in order, and registering the car we brought from Bulgaria—a 1999 Fiat Panda that I adore.

After our first meeting, I immediately felt that the process was in very qualified hands. Plus, they answered all my questions about jellyfish, where to buy the best paint, find antique stores, and so on. But one of their answers brought me to tears: I would not be able to register our Panda in Greece because it is too old, and therefore has emissions issues. We bought the car after we had been in Bulgaria for a year, and realized that even though public transit was good in Sofia, having a car would increase our mobility significantly. Just after we started looking, the Panda popped up on Facebook, asking price: $400. An American/Greek flight attendant had bought it from her elderly landlord when she was living in Italy, and then brought it with her when she moved to Bulgaria. It was in pristine condition, but she had to sell it because her newly acquired German boyfriend barely fit in the car. The price was so low that I figured if it lasted for 6 months it was worth the investment.

This zippy little car has run like a dream. I have been known to develop an emotional bond with a few of my cars, and this one most definitely falls into that category. Just the thought of having to sell this car, and then go through the daunting process of buying another used car, felt overwhelming. Adding to the stress was that the registration in Bulgaria was set to expire July 31, giving me 48 hours to drive it back across the border and sell it, since doing so after expiration takes three times as long and is triple the cost.

I left at 1 a.m. in order to beat the heat. The plan was to drive straight to my Bulgarian mechanic, because he had already expressed an interest in buying it. I called him and he said he was still interested, although he wasn’t thrilled with the short notice or at having to spend a few hours of his time going to the notary to transfer ownership, then waiting in a long line to register the car. But this mechanic is a prince among men and has helped me out of many tight spots.

I was relieved that the Panda was going to be taken care of, but I still had to figure out how to get back to Greece. Plus, living in the Pilio outback without transportation isn’t an option. We wouldn’t be able to buy a Greek car—or even a motor-scooter—until I had residency; rental cars turned out to be outrageously expensive this time of year. We crossed that off of our list, too. All of this weighed on me as I made my way up the Aegean Coast in the wee hours of morning yet again.

I stopped in Thessaloniki, a major port city about halfway between Pilio and Sofia, for a coffee and to fill up the little Panda gas tank. As I got back into the car the weight of it all came crashing down on me. I burst out in tears. I was so sad to let the Panda go and I had no way to replace it. At the same time, a strange whirring noise, almost a whimper or a sob, emanated from the Panda’s engine.

That’s when it hit me: What if I paid the mechanic-prince to buy the Panda, and he turned around and leased it to me for a year? Why the heck not? I dried my tears and was filled with a new burst of energy—maybe it was the epiphany, or maybe just the caffeine kicking in. But it propelled me straight to the mechanic’s shop. When I shared with him my idea, he thought about it for thirty seconds, did the Bulgarian head nod, and agreed with a smile. As is often the case in Bulgaria, the process isn’t easy or quick, meaning that I’m now spending the weekend in Sofia. Luckily friends have agreed to let me stay at my old house on campus, now that it is theirs. And yet another friend graciously offered to let me borrow her car until we could get our own wheels, which now won’t be necessary.

So that is how I find myself back on the American College of Sofia’s campus for another weekend. I get to visit with Mecho and Liska— I will try to pack in as much love and treats as possible. Plus I can stock up on Mama’s ajvar, a divine North Macedonian concoction consisting of roasted red peppers and roasted eggplants. Maybe I’ll get into the city to eat some banitsa, Bulgaria’s crispy, buttery, cheesy pastry.

As I sit in this old dining room chair where I have spent many of hours working and looking out over campus, a wave a gratitude washes over me. I have been so fortunate to have made these Bulgarian friends over the past five years. Not one of them has hesitated to offer their help when I needed it the most. That is priceless.