Although American Express and VISA keep on touting their travelers checks, I think they are " passé " - quite literally overtaken by credit- and debit-cards.
On my last travels, I found less and less places willing to accept them.
In April, 2004, none of the many money exchange offices in Sofia did.
So I decided to go to the impressive many lobbied marble/granite/steel and glass building of
BULBANK in the center of Sofia.
At the information counter, I showed my 50 Euro T.C. and asked if they could exchange it.
Yes, but it would take several days and
you'd first have to open an account so we can deposit the money in it.
But what if I need it to-day, right now?
You may ask at the foreign exchange counter,there ....
Irene and I walked to the pretty girl behind that counter and were impressed with her command of English.
Actually, only I was impressed, because Irene had anticipated to be needed as an interpreter.
So the problem was not language but banking practices, more along my former area of expertise.
I should have been forwarned by the little slip of paper stuck in the corner of her protective glass window
on which I made out the words:
"Ne raboti" - 'it does not work', a rather common "problema" in Bulgaria.
I made it appear a challenge, and she took me up on it.
Following what she insisted were "common procedures," she produced and filled out FOUR forms in a row, each of which I had to sign:
please click on thumbnails to enlarge
She shrugged off my comments that I could not read Bulgarian text and said she regretted
that there was no English version available;
then she changed her mind and offered to translate every sentence if necessary, but now I relented.
Halfway through, the department chief came by and briefly talked to her.
She told me he had approved the transaction in my special case.
After more than half an hour of transacting and banking, I received the counterpart fund of the 50 Euros, minus the
minimum commission of 1.5 Euro, i.e. 3%.
I complained about the wastage of paper (trees) and lack of consideration for the tourist/customer (why not have the four forms
reduced to one smaller one, with English text). I also told her that I had worked in a foreign bank for 5 years in the 1950's
at which time the proper design of forms had been emphasized, and I even offered my services as a consultant.
Of course, she said she was just working here, but I encouraged her to bring up my ideas to the department head or to submit them to a suggestion box.
Again, though, I wonder how much of the blame for this bureaucratic bungling goes to the funding agency, which apparently approves large sums of money for capital expenses
and expensive buildings, but does not seem to care much for streamlining operations and thus help toward the development of tourism.
This experience of mine is not restricted to Bulgaria, because I encountered similar problems in impressive bank buildings in the Caribbean, Indonesia, Kenya and Rwanda.