Issue 17

QUOTE-UNQUOTE

The government was not caught off guard by the snow, because it had advance instructions to prepare for winter weather conditions.” Health Minister Professor Radoslav Gaydarski (second from right) “If the Bulgarian healthcare system is sick, then obviously it can't… one sick man can't cure another. Therefore I think the Bulgarian healthcare system is doing fine.

Emel Etem, MP for DPS

In the West businesses are transitioning to working from home because of viruses.

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YOUR THRACIAN WHAT?

No, this is actually the slogan for the latest competition sponsored by the National Tourism Agency, or DAT. Every year it spends huge amounts of taxpayer money to “popularise Bulgaria as a tourist destination”. DAT is also responsible for organising Bulgaria’s stands at international tourism expos, such as the World Travel Market in London’s ExCel Centre, and for creating tourist leaflets about Bulgaria which theoretically should be distributed in Bulgarian embassies abroad.

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CHRISTO AND ALL THOSE BAD THINGS

In 2004, Englishman Edward Vick, head of the German-based translation company EVS that also has offices in Bulgaria, created the Vick Foundation to support Bulgarian literature.

The novel of the year award is just one part of the initiative designed to give writers a chance to see their work published in English. In the beginning, Bulgarians were sceptical. Three years later, however, the Vick Prize has become a prestigious award for prose.

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WE'VE GOT MAIL

More's the pity most of the acquired habits mentioned don't travel well. I was reminded of that at a Christmas reunion back home when I was nodding, apparently negatively, as in incredulously or cynically, when friends were telling stories. That and the slow, deliberate conversation style acquired from speaking to others in English as a second language makes those in New York suspect some terminal brain damage has come from the heat they feel we're getting too much of here.

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A KNOW-HOW MAN

When he founded MTM GRUP 11 years ago, Manel Riera knew what he wanted to do: help small communities develop. At that time, the Autonomous Community of Catalunya was like Bulgaria: politicians couldn't make longterm plans and ordinary people couldn't turn their dreams into profitable businesses. Riera knew he could help. A lawyer and expert in business and public administration, he had extensive experience counselling Catalunya's administrative, construction and environmental ministers.

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KILL THAT BILL

Yes, things are changing: large retail and wholesale stores, many hotels and a growing number of restaurants now accept credit and debit cards in what remains an overwhelmingly cash economy.

The same is true when it comes to paying utility bills, only the shift is taking place at a lower pace. So if you haven't inked a property management contract, aren't lucky enough to have a friendly landlady willing to do the job for you, or don't have a reliable Internet connection, you have to be prepared to carry some cash and hardcopy bills with you whenever you want to pay up.

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THE SUNKEN PALACE

The forces of Ottoman Sultan Mehmed II – whose victory over the Byzantines earned him the epithet “The Conqueror” – finally broke through Constantinople's fortress walls on 29 May 1453 and flooded through the streets of the defeated city. Swarming into the square in front of the Hagia Sophia Church, they battered down its doors, driving out the Byzantines who had sought refuge inside like a herd of terrified sheep. Only a few metres away and beneath the surface where these dramatic events were taking place, all was quiet.

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LIFE AT SEA

A couple of years ago there were only a handful of relocators in Burgas and a few token British families in the surrounding villages. More recently, however, the expat community has mushroomed. Varna witnessed a flood of foreign sun-seekers when the country first came into the limelight, to the dismay of many Burgas natives - the two towns enjoy a longstanding love-hate relationship not unlike that between Glasgow and Auld Reekie.

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KUKEROVDEN

At the carnival in Rio you'll go Ah!, that's certain, while in Venice you'll go Uhm! when you meet the mysterious ladies behind Neo-Baroque masks.

Instead of Ipanema chicks, however, at the masquerade in Bulgaria you'll be confronted by wild, prancing kukeri, or mummers, with cowbells tied to their belts and horns on their heads. However, the sexual charge of the mummers' games is stronger than in Rio or Venice – because it is much more overt.

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DEADLY CHAOS

Ever been driven around in a Bulgarian taxi? Then most likely you remember clinging to the door handle in terror while the cab driver pulled out from the far right lane at a major intersection to make a left turn – on red in front of an on-coming tram. Although it probably only cost you a few years off your life and perhaps a dry-cleaning bill, the Bulgarian government pays a much higher price for such recklessness. According to a recent survey conducted by the Danish consulting firm COWI, Bulgaria shells out one billion euros every year for costs related to traffic accidents.

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DOOMED TO FRIENDSHIP

“We are back in the game,” proclaimed Bulgarian President Georgi Parvanov when he officially approved the South Stream gas deal with Russia. Many analysts believe South Stream will derail Nabucco, the major Western project aimed at bringing Caspian oil to Europe.

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VANISHED ARCHIVES

When the Bulgarian Communists, backed by the Red Army, entered Sofia on 9 September 1944, one of their first acts was to round up Bulgarian politicians and seize government archives. They would later be shipped to Moscow. The following February, the three regents of then underage King Simeon II, along with all governmental ministers serving between 1940 and 1944, were executed.

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THE RUSSIANS ARE COMING TO STAY

According to Internet jokesters, the Russians have invaded every corner of the world three times in human history: during the two World Wars and at the present time – purchasing real estate on every continent. After they bought up large chunks of London and the best properties in various European resorts, ads like this started appearing alongside the wisecracks: “Ideal opportunity on one of the only Greek islands welcoming Russian investments. A stone luxury villa complex in picturesque hills with a panoramic view of Zakynthos.

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BULGARIA TRAILS TURKEY IN LITERACY

Odiously for many Bulgarians, this country lags behind Turkey in terms of literacy, according to one of the most influential international surveys on the quality of education, the Programme for International Student Assessment, or PISA. It was conducted by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development.When I told a group of experts about these embarrassing results, one of them stood up and said it wasn't true. He said he was in touch with schoolchildren and they could all read and write. Besides, the United States was full of illiterates, he said.

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IN THE COUNTRY OF LAST TANKS

The easiest way to drive Bulgarians crazy is to steal a piece of what they perceive as their cultural or historical heritage – even if they regard it as scrap iron.When military police arrested Germans Thomas Martin and Matheus Meier and Bulgarian army major Aleksey Petrov for smuggling a dismantled tank that had been lying half-buried along the Turkish border, Bulgarians were infuriated – especially when the media announced that this rarity was worth a million euros on the antiquities market.

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KILLERS ON THE ROAD

This horrific story involves a 26-year-old mayor, blood-thirsty domestic dogs and a British woman who was so immersed in Bulgarian culture that she spoke Bulgarian, lived in a traditional house and even owned a horse and cart. Ann and her husband had lived in the village of Nedyalsko for two years before a pack of dogs viciously attacked and killed her. This was not an isolated incident: scars on her legs testified to the ongoing problem that ultimately resulted in her death, yet her neighbours ignored her pleas to control their dogs.

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GHOSTS OF THE PAST

Are you a Hitler aficionado hoping to impress your fellow travellers with some authentic neo-Nazi decorations? Or are you nostalgic for the Iron Curtain era when Brezhnev and other ageing cronies ran the show from the Kremlin? Then you'll like Sofia's antique market.

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ABOUT-FACE

Elen Koleva is young, but she's already won the National Film Centre's best female role award for her performance in Shivachki, or Seamstresses (see Vagabond No. 14). Despite her age, she has no illusions: Bulgaria won't see the likes of Hillary Clinton anytime soon, thanks to the simple fact that Bulgarian women are not treated as equal to men.

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