Drum Bun

After Skopje, I went on a driving vacation. A driving vacation means you are doing just that: driving. I got on a bus at 8:30 in the morning at the bus-train station in downtown Skopje. The drive over the pass was a winter wonderland. Trees laden with snow. This is foreshadowing. Snow looks much better through a bus window or indeed any window, except a windshield when your are behind the steering wheel. When we got to Sofia around 2 PM, I walked to the Sixt office one block south, and got in my rented Skoda.

Google Maps workers live in a walled palace. They have no idea how roads are in the real world.

  1. They don’t know about weather. The world has Snow! OMG! not like Mountain View. Google maps in Bulgaria made no time allowance for the fact it was snowing heavily on A81 to Montana, when telling me that was the quickest route north to Vidin. My human friends warned me but I don’t check messages while driving. I’m the only one in the Balkans who doesn’t.
  2. They don’t know about left turns. Google Maps seems to time left turns at about zero, when estimating driving times. This is bad enough in the States, during rush hour. In a town like Sofia, it significantly impacts routing decisions.
  3. They don’t know about Cyrillic characters. Seriously. And when the voice output comes to a syllable it can’t render, it omits it, leaving not even a speech disfluency. So if map direction algorithm outputs “Turn left on улица хан крум toward несебър стария град,”, the voice says: “Turn left ontoward”.
  4. They don’t map potholes.

Uber robot cars will be worse. I was thinking on the drive into Bucharest, the next day, how many times I would have been killed if I were in an autonomous vehicle, but realistically, I think, the answer is none.

An autonomous vehicle placed in Bucharest and given a command would put up an alert that said:

“Your request cannot be completed safely at this time.”

and that alert would stay on the screen forever, while the hubcaps and then the wheels and then the trim and the engine were stolen, leaving a robot car indistinguishable from all the other cars in Romania, which is good, because if it stood out, somebody would rob it.

The problem is one of driving style. In California, you assume that the other driver is not paying attention. In Romania, the other drivers are paying attention, and you can count on it. The guy in the cement truck who pulls out into the street without even looking away from his cell phone can be confident that the other people on the street will notice him and swerve. The other drivers might look like they are engaged in fisticuffs or video games or drinking, but by California standards they are as attentive as one must be at the gates of heaven in the Sufi tale. The drivers will honk to say hello to the cement truck. Or to say that time has not stopped. I haven’t figured out honking down in these parts. In India it’s straight up “I’m here, this is your audio cue.” I do that myself on Old La Honda.

So you can plan your left turn out of the gas station with the idea that, even though it’s a dead blind corner, the people whizzing out of it will dodge you with surprising precision. And honk.

The border leaving Romania on the bridge between Giurgiu and Ruse would shame an African failed state. There are a few possible paths through the villages of the surrounding area, but the point at which they all come together is a dirt road which has had a deep stream carved into by the rains, and every 18-wheeler from Tallinn to Trieste is trying to get to Istanbul and they have to Evel Knievel this gorge to do it. Also, Uber cars take note, the Romanian drivers have a lot of hand gestures indicating their precedence, not all of them unfriendly, but your software needs to be able to recognize the glint in their eyes as well as the gang signs.

I did get in trouble at the border. I had not bought a Gas Tax “Vignette”. I did not know that word before, or at least that meaning of that word. I will either get a fine in the mail or I paid a bribe to the border police. Or maybe both. She didn’t give me change for euro 20 the bridge toll. I will see what Sixt has to say, when I turn in the car. If you go driving in Romania, find some way to buy a “Vignette”, even if the kiosk at the incoming border (Calafat) is obviously closed and people are looking at it curiously and driving on. If I ever drive in Romania again I will figure it out. Holy cow, you can buy them online. Learn something new every day.

I should mention, there were human interactions in Romania. I had not seen our friends in Craiova last year, due to lack of time, and this year, I didn’t see my friends in Iasi. But I got to speak in English with Andrei in Craiova, who will be 8 years old next month, and I got to meet Lara in Bucharest, who is four months old. Andrei’s uncle, Cristi, took me to a small museum in a house in Craiova, the morning that I left for Bucharest. This is Museum Week in the schools, and every place was filled with mobs of very young schoolchildren on field trips. That was the only generically touristic thing I did in Romania. Visiting with friends was the goal.

On Wednesday, I drove off to Nessebar, Bulgaria, a Black Sea Resort with a World Heritage Site.