Four Hours in KAT Purgatory

19/05/2008 by Christopher Buxton

Help! I’m turning into Professor Vuchkov
I must stop moaning about life in my beloved Bulgaria

The German expressionist George Grosz has a painting of prisoners exercising in the gaol yard. Pale and flabby, eyes cast downwards, their shoulders weighed down with an awful resignation, they circle beneath a leaden sky, with no destination to lift their eyes or spirits. Their guards are no less trapped. They are part of this grey pointless Horo.
And so to KAT! That man made purgatory where those wishing to drive a car in Bulgaria have to wait for hours in a succession of queues in front of low frosted windows that are seldom opened. Like Grosz’s prisoners we jostle with ever weakening resolve in a contracting space where queues collide and no-one is sure of the final outcome.
Reaching the head of the first queue after an hour, at last we grovel at a low opening. We pray to every God and Kafka that we have been in the correct line. We scrabble in servile haste to provide the requested documentation, always in a panic lest some scrap of paper has been lost. Our backs bent, we twist our necks to understand the comments and instructions that are muttered by a scarcely visible clerk. At last a piece of paper is stamped and we are told to go to Window Number Five in a separate building.
Outside a sun is shining. Half a mile and a world away People are stripping on the beach. Proud Grannies are parading new babies in the park. A teenager is experiencing a first kiss. Heads down, we rush to our next destination. Our progress is followed by the bored eyes of otherwise inactive police officers, who stand in silent groups, probably praying for some outbreak of lunacy, that will disturb the stultifying atmosphere.
Window Number 5 has a crowd of people in front of it, everyone intensely aware of a notice informing us of an impending thirty minute rest-break. Those underpaid and overworked clerks, imprisoned behind their glass walls, are as much part of the demoralizing game as we who wait in queues for their attention.
At Twelve o’clock, the frosted glass snaps shut almost removing our finger tips. We turn away with that feeling of every prisoner about to be returned from exercise yard to their cell. Somehow the outside world seems tainted and we hold on in our constricted space.
Half an hour passes, with each slow second to be calculated like the euro to the lev. At last the glass snaps open with an impatience that brooks no small talk. Anonymous ringed hands shuffle our documents. A brisk stamp and we are sent to join the queue at the State bank counter. Every pleasure must be paid for. Here at least, in contrast to the KAT clerks, the tellers are visible in all their resentful discontent, like bored predators behind a clear glass barrier.
In this queue, there is an opportunity to participate in a non verbal language lesson. Drop your head into your shoulders. Lift your bent arm and with your fingers loosely open rotate your hand two inches to the right of your mouth which is drawn downwards in an expressive pout. With this gesture you can convey the helplessness that every Bulgarian feels.
Money finally paid, we are sent to Window number 4. There, we encounter a restless milling group that fills the narrow corridor. There is no queue as it is unclear which of the two closed frosted windows will open as number 4. Something more important than a coffee break must be engaging the clerks on the other side of Alice’s frosted mirror. We can only imagine a fascinating and important discussion taking place between Michka and Kichka about the relative failings of their daughters- in- law, Tonka and Donka, and the ailments of their mothers Tinka and Binka.
A young man, who has shifted from one foot to the other in paroxysms of anxiety, at last plucks up the courage to rap his knuckles on the glass. There is a scream of outrage and one of the windows shoots back. An angry voice demands to know who has dared to knock on the window. Clearly fearing that he will be turned into a toad, the young man gabbles his question. Is he in the right queue? No of course he isn’t. He retires in confusion and the rest of us are warned of the dire consequences of daring to knock again. The window slams shut.
Half an hour passes. Kichka, bored at last by Michka’s endless complaining finds that some completed documents have arrived on her desk. The window shoots back. Two names are called. The lucky pair depart. Another half hour and our bladders are bursting. Someone says there is a toilet just a few feet down the opposite corridor.
However in this looking glass world, the open corridor door bears the legend “Entrance to outside persons strictly forbidden.” Yes the toilet is available to the public but instead of crossing the few feet of corridor, we have to leave the main building, pass through the hangar sized garage and re-enter the corridor through someone’s private office in order to reach the sure fire contender for the coveted title of dirtiest toilet in the Balkans.
There is no lock on the door – no doubt to discourage those who have acquired the explicable desire to cut their wrists in their long wait for documentation.
Back at Window Number 4, a tall slim Russian goddess is talking urgently in English to a plump stumpy westie. It turns out that they are in the wrong queue and they have to return through the hangar garage. Their Mercedes is now fifteenth in line. The hangar presents a tableau of tense inactivity. Groups of drivers stand in one corner awaiting the summons to drive in their shiny new western cars for cursory inspection. Close by the mechanics and vehicle inspectors gaze into space. Opposite them, a veteran police officer chats to a supervisor about better times when drivers of Ladas and Trabants showed proper respect.
God created Purgatory – a place between Heaven and Hell – to give sufficient time to those destined for heaven to contemplate their sins. If heaven in Bulgaria gives drivers the privilege of taking part in the most thrilling dodgem ride in the world, then it is only proper that we pass through the Purgatory of KAT. And Purgatory is temporary. Finally Kichka’s window opens and we hear our names called. The precious documents are clutched to our heart and it as if George Grosz’s prisoners have dissolved into the sunshine streaming from the open door.
Bulgarian roads – repaired by the EU and rutted by building contractors’ lorries await.