Stuck in Bulgaria: My surreal night in Sofia Airport
Translation by:Jo Heinrich
I'm a clumsy person, I have always been that way. I often find myself in ridiculous situations, in unlikely places. In this very moment, I'm detained in the international zone of Sofia Airport as a result of some absurd and surreal events. My life right now is a remake of The Terminal.
The tone is set only a few moments after take-off. The pilot makes an unusual annoucement, to say the least: "We are passing through some turbulence, and we request that you keep your safety belts unfastened, so that we can quickly evacuate the plane." I glance at my colleagues, who have all come for the same reason: a seminar in the city of Plovdiv, two hours away from Sofia, the capital. They seem to have the same reaction as me, hovering somewhere between panic and a terrible urge to burst into laughter. In the end, the turbulence is short-lived and harmless, and the plane lands as planned. It is only later that things start to go wrong.
L'Aventure, c'est l'Aventure
Once I get to customs, the police check my papers. My passport expired in 2015, but according to the Paris customs officers, it is still possible to travel within the Schengen Area. I've got nothing to worry about. Except that Bulgaria isn't part of it, and the Bulgarian border police definitely know that. Since the 1st of September 2007, Bulgaria has been a member of the European Union, but not of the eurozone. It is therefore not subject to the same regulations. Bulgaria's ratification was supposed to take place in early 2014, except that it was postponed to a later date because of three countries (Germany, United Kingdom and Denmark) that opposed it.
That being said, nothing serious could happen to me as I have brought my identity card (visas aren't necessary for European nationals). To my surprise, I am told that this is also invalid, just like my passport. Endless negotiations ensue with the police. Five minutes later, I am given my verdict: "You cannot enter Bulgarian territory, go back to France," I am told in guttural English. Taken aback, I ask for an explanation, but no one from customs seems to want to speak to me in English. French even less. One way or another, nobody seems to want to talk to me, or even listen to what I have to say. Remembering that I took out 40 Euros (the equivalent of a sixth of the Bulgarian minimum wage), I come up with a strange idea. Then I dismiss it as completely clichéd, even condescending.
Still, corruption cases in the Bulgarian police force are not uncommon, as traffic offences can be dealt with by using bribes and small 'arrangements'. This was reported in a 2014 documentary by the Franco-German network Arte called "Bulgarie, les flics ripoux sous surveillance" [NB. "Bulgaria, bad cops under surveillance" in French]. In it, they showed a policeman accepting a 20 lev note (10 Euros) from a driver after stopping him on the streets of Sofia. At the time, the Minister of Interior, Veselin Vuchkov, started a huge project and implemented a multitude of measures specifically aimed at traffic enforcement. "He is interested in mobilising the police, not for hunting down serious criminals, but for watching over their colleagues who, left to their own devices, would succumb to temptation," the Bulgarian journalist, Ivo Indjev, reported on his blog.
One of the policemen, with greying hair and a beer belly, orders me to sit down. With a vintage revolver attached to his shoulder strap, he is a master at playing the big shot. He makes me think of Aldo Maccione on the beach trying to seduce girls lounging around in the sun.
At last I manage to get the French embassy on the phone. My enthusiasm quickly fades. My identity card has been considered invalid since October 2016, and it's only in Bulgaria that I have found out. Conclusion: a risk of identity theft and, as a consequence, I am banned from entering the country. I have to get used to the idea that I will be sent back to France. Well, according to the police, until the following day at 5 pm to be exact. That's when my relationship with the border patrol, which was pretty contentious up until now, changes entirely. The Bulgarian Aldo Maccione explains that I have to stay in the customs office until 8 pm, after which I will be 'free' to go back to the international zone and spend the next 24 hours there.
Seeing me completely demoralised, he offers me a cigarette. Smoking is banned in Sofia Airport, as in all other airports. But this is apparently not the case for Bulgarian police officers. "Cigarettes from Bulgaria, very good!" I ask to go to the toilet. Aldo gives me permission as long as I don't "run away," he specifies, giving me a big slap on the shoulder, followed by a fat roar of laughter. When I return, he welcomes me to Bulgaria, with just as loud a laugh. Just like the comedian Dieudonné in his sketch on the African president.
He gets out a bottle of alcohol and places two glasses on the table. I realise he is already drunk. When I say he places two glasses, it goes without saying that this is a euphemism. In reality, Aldo does it much more violently, Bulgarian cowboy style.
He tries to enlighten me on the contents of the bottle. I don't understand a word, apart from the fact that it's 50% alcohol, and that it has something to do with fermented milk. "To France and Bulgaria!" he cries, lifting his glass before consuming the drink. I do the same. The taste seems strange, but in view of the situation, it's not that surprising. A phone rings. The ringtone is more than familiar; I've heard it throughout my childhood. "Do you like Supermario in France?" he asks, as if it were the most serious question in the world. I wonder what impact my answer may have, but given the fact that I can't seem to find a rational way of communicating, I end up nodding. Someone bursts into the room. It is probably a policeman, or one of Aldo's friends. He is holding a briefcase in his hands. He opens it in front of me to reveal some sort of dismantled assault rifle. Aldo is not as baffled as me, and seems more or less amused. He talks to his friend, probably asking if the rifle contains bullets, but I can't guarantee that, given that I don't speak Bulgarian.
After a long wait, I am finally told that I will be free to leave the following day at 5 pm, and that I am now "free" to walk around the international zone. To top it off, Aldo tries to comfort me by making dirty jokes about Bulgarian women and strippers. At the end of his shift, he wishes me luck by slapping me once more on the shoulder. A policewoman replaces him. She is also armed, like all the police at the airport. She's still not aware of my situation. I stand up to explain it to her and she replies by saying that I reek of alcohol. I try to make it clear that it was her colleague making me drink, but she will not listen and orders me to sit down. What a great atmosphere, this new team...
Going through customs, the Bulgarian national anthem pours out of a speaker above the automatic door. I ignore it and go up the escalator to get back to the international zone. Famished, I make for the first fast-food place I see. And just like that, I hit a new low-point: the cashier doesn't accept Euros. I leave the place fuming, and look for a corner to spend the night. Walking round the whole terminal, I end up finding a large black leather massage chair. A young Bulgarian woman is sitting next to it.
Her name is Nia, she's nineteen years old and she works at the airport three days a week. Her job consists of offering travellers trips in augmented reality. It is the terminal's main attraction, and it costs five Euros. For ten minutes. I get along with her very quickly. Her English being very good, the conversation is much easier. I tell her my story starting from the beginning. She seems to have some empathy, which is a real sense of relief for me. Nia says she feels out of kilter with the Bulgarian population, age-wise. "People don't understand why I have tattoos or why I go round with a lip piercing. That's life," says the young woman. Her part-time work helps her put some money aside, but Nia is also a photographic model for an agency, and hopes to continue her studies in graphic design in Italy. At midnight, Nia leaves the airport and with a knot in my stomach, I turn back to my massage chair to spend the night there.
Several stiff necks later, I wake up to go back to the police office, where two French officers are waiting to repatriate me. Well, not exactly. Under orders from the French Home Office, they initially came to escort a young Afghan refugee who was also barred from entering Bulgaria, whose aim is to return to France to try and settle there. Their mission is also to take me back to Paris, but only afterwards. As he and I are in the same boat, I smile at him. He looks pleased to be able to go back to France, where he didn't manage to get asylum status a few weeks earlier. I discuss my situation as well as his with the policemen, and I realise that his joy will sadly be short-lived.
The remarks made by the French border police are stuck in my head. The higher-ranked one of the two explains to me how easy it is for them to recognise someone with no documents, especially when they are "blacks with white shoes". It is what they say next that saddens me: "Our lad here is over the moon. As Bulgaria doesn't want him, he'll be taken back to France. But what he doesn't know is that after his time in detention, he'll be caught and sent back to Afghanistan." Confused, I ask him how he can be so sure. He continues: "That's always what happens. The lawyers will swarm around him and make him and his family believe he can be saved," which is, according to him, legally impossible. As far as the policeman is concerned, there is no doubt over the refugee's fate. He will have to pay 2,000 Euros and return to his homeland. He finishes on a questionable note: "The police are always getting shit, but we never talk about the rest. Everyone wants to fill their pockets because, in fact, money makes the world go round."
After endless negotiations with different airlines, they finally manage to find me a ticket. I head towards the departure lounge, followed by the two Bulgarian police officers that I ended up getting on with. At the duty free shops, I ask them what the best local Bulgarian product is. To my great surprise, I am told it's wine. Anything goes here. I exchange a handshake with the two police officers who wish me a good trip home to France, and with a spring in my step I board the plane.
When I arrive, a police van is waiting for me on the tarmac, near the plane. "Are you the journalist who was expelled from Bulgaria?" I nod, laughing, the situation still seems so absurd to me. I am put in the van to go to the police station at the far edge of Charles de Gaulle Airport. After having checked my criminal record, they tell me everything's in order. I decide to tell my epic Bulgarian saga to the officers, who don't understand why I wasn't allowed to enter the country, even with an expired French passport. When I'm free to leave, I head towards the door, then I turn round to say that I am thinking of writing a story on the ludicrous episode I've just been through. They seem to approve. A policewoman calls out: "Don't forget to mention us in your article. And in a positive light for once, that will be remarkable for us." I smile and close the door behind me. I stand there motionless for a few moments, thinking over everything that has happened to me. It has been quite remarkable for me too.
Translated from Bloqué en Bulgarie : ma nuit surréaliste à l’aéroport