Issue 18

ALL THE PRESIDENT'S HACKS

The news was dramatic enough: At the end of January, the airplane President Georgi Parvanov and his retinue were flying in made an unscheduled landing in the Azores. It later turned out to have been caused by a minor flying incident. Bulgaria's free press reacted with lightning speed. Suppositions about what had caused the landing mushroomed. Thousands of faithful citizens appeared to be holding their breath in front of TV screens and morning tabloids (no broadsheets in Bulgaria any more) waiting for the latest news about the failed state visit.

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THE FEEL-BAD FACTOR

Anyone who has spent time in Bulgaria – especially on a long-distance train ride – knows that complaining is a national pastime. As your fellow passengers gripe for hours on end about the miserable state of the country, interrupting their grumbling only to answer their state-of-the-art mobile phones and to take sips from their flasks of homemade rakiya, you may wonder: do they really have it so bad?

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QUO VADIS, ALMA MATER?

Crowds of nervous university applicants and anxious parents who have come from near and far, huddling together in front of faculty buildings; thousands of relatives tuning in to the national radio to hear the exam question or clutching their phones to learn whether their “boy” or “girl” has passed. Soon this is going to be a thing of the past.

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CELEBRATING AN IRISH SAINT IN BULGARIA

Being a saint, as we all know, is hard. Saint Patrick's career certainly had its ups and downs. Born in Roman Britain in the 5th Century, he was kidnapped as a teenager and sold into slavery in Ireland. He spent six years working as a herdsman before making his escape. In his writings he describes how later he had a vision in which he heard the Irish calling him, so he went back to convert them to Christianity. This was no easy task as he had to defy the authority of local chieftains and to face the power of the old druidic religion.

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THE HOME FRONT

Ever since the Revival Period, Bulgarian literature and politics have gone hand-in-hand. The first Bulgarian novel, Pod igoto, or Under the Yoke, tells of the failed Aprilsko vastanie, or April Uprising, in 1876 and the country's subsequent liberation from the Ottoman Empire. Its author, Ivan Vazov, is revered as the patriarch of Bulgarian literature.

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CHECKMATE!

Starting out as a gym teacher in Dublin, Rob Maher honed the art of coaching people to win in sports and in real life. Later as a mechanical engineer, he learned to make ideas into reality.

Curious about the world, Rob Maher ventured to Bulgaria, which at the time was still considered somewhat enigmatic. He was enchanted by Sofia, a damsel-in-distress who needed a knight in shining armour to slay the dragon of inexperience, corruption and confusion that had held her captive for half a century, so she could live happily-ever-after in a modern European investment climate.

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CASHFLOW ROUNDABOUT

Three years ago, when I moved to Bulgaria, I was lulled into a false sense of comfort by the number of international banks here. If nothing else in the country worked, at least simple monetary transactions would be possible. How wrong I was!

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QUOTE-UNQUOTE

Bulgaria must achieve in 10 years that which took Europe 40 years to achieve.

European People's Party chairman Joseph Daul on Bulgaria's first year of EU membership. Many Bulgarians found this eerily reminiscent of Bulgaria's Stalinist post-war leader Georgi Dimitrov's call for increased productivity: "Bulgaria must achieve in five years what other nations strove for over decades."

Every year the disaster is the same: Emel Etem.

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FROM MIRACLE TO CATASTROPHE

A HARD START

Like fish out of water – that's how Bulgarians felt in 1878 when they found themselves citizens of two new countries: the Principality of Bulgaria which included the Sofia plains and territory north of the Balkan Mountains, and Eastern Rumelia which comprised the land south of the same range.

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SLAPSTICK COMEDY WITH PLENTY OF BALKAN PEPPER

Bulgarian humour can be tough, cynical, vulgar, sexist, anti-Semitic, anti-everybody – and all too often coprophilic. Have you heard the one about the man who went to city hall and wanted to change his name? The clerk refused: “Sorry, no name changes allowed.” But the poor guy insisted, “Look, I can't go on living with this name, I have to change it!” Finally, the clerk gave in and asked, “OK, what's your name?” “Ivan Shitsky,” answered the man. “Oh, in that case,” said the clerk, “I understand. What would you like your new name to be? “ “Petar Shitsky,” the man replied.

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THE BALKANS' LEAST KNOWN CAPITAL

A car comes racing out of the Ottoman charshiya, or bazaar, in Skopje, screeches past the steps in front of the Tito-era shopping centre and slams into a streetlamp. The driver throws the car into reverse and speeds away. Moments after he disappears into the dark streets of the old town, the lamp post snaps in two and crashes down onto the pavement.

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TOTALLY OFF THE RECORD

When Irish fans come to Sofia in June 2009 for the World Cup qualifier between Bulgaria and the Republic of Ireland, they may be reminded of a little known piece of distant sporting history. For it was against Bulgaria, in 1924, that newly independent Ireland played its first ever international football match. In 1922, after years of conflict between the British Empire and Irish rebels demanding an independent Irish republic, the Anglo-Irish peace treaty was signed. This divided the island into the independent Irish Free State and the smaller Northern Ireland.

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HUMAN TOUCH

Eighteen months ago Delka lived in an institution for people with intellectual special needs and had no clothes of her own. Similarly, Angel was banned from shaving himself and Stoyan was doomed to a life of boredom in the institution he was stashed away in. All that changed when they left these homes and moved into sheltered housing for people with intellectual challenges. Now the three enjoy personal freedoms they had long been denied: Delka wears clothes of her own choosing, Angel shaves himself whenever he feels like and Stoyan works in a library.

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BALKAN TREAT

A Greek, a Montenegrin and a Bulgarian real estate agent walk into a bar… It sounds like the beginning of yet another Balkan joke, but the scenario isn't very farfetched. The global credit crunch has affected the real estate sector all over the world and has forced many investors to explore less familiar markets. Recently, property companies have begun promoting Greece, Montenegro and Bulgaria as countries with holiday home markets unscathed by the world property crisis.

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AN IRISH FEAST

“St Patrick's day is a time for family, friends and, of course, the best of Irish food and drink,” smiles Ireland's down-to-earth celebrity chef, Eunice Power. “And who could resist perfectly cooked ham with Colcannon mash and parsley sauce after a long day spent taking in the annual parade?” Sounds tempting? Read on for the ultimate in Irish comfort food recipes for Paddy's Day!

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BY FAULT OR DESIGN

You are in probably the only EU country where architecture can be deadly – literally and figuratively. In Varna a concrete canopy collapsed, killing a girl; a tumbling building also crushed another couple of girls in central Sofia. The sandy beaches on the southern Black Sea coast are all but gone, replaced by hotels where pseudo-Egyptian statues are outnumbered only by pseudo-turrets and pseudo-balustrades. Most of them have crooked walls.

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STRICTLY CLASIFIED!

Previously, the Defence Ministry told Vagabond in a letter that the tanks were “classified information” because they were kept on military commission, adding they would be declassified as late as 2013. Vagabond started the story about the tanks lined up at the Turkish and Greek borders early in 2007, when it ran a detailed article. Many Bulgarian mainstream media followed suit. The Defence Ministry’s refusal to disclose details about what was known as the Krali Marko Defence Line, prompted the Access to Information Programme, a major NGO, to award it with its anti-prize the same year.

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MY OWN CHOICE: WHEN HOMEBODIES VENTURE OUT

During my twenties, most of which I spent in Manhattan, eating out was as much a part of my lifestyle as riding the subway or paying rent that I could barely afford. To live amongst such an embarrassment of culinary riches and not take advantage would have been, well, embarrassing. I happily joined my fellow New Yorkers in waiting two hours for a table at a favourite brunch spot or being snubbed by a snooty waiter at a chic Soho bistro.

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PROFESSIONAL HAZARDS

While playing football with his fellow writers on one of his frequent trips around Europe to poetry festivals, workshops and meetings, writer Georgi Gospodinov broke his leg. The cast didn't slow him down, however. Gospodinov limped through Vienna, Graz and Klagenfurt on crutches and won a writing stipend in Berlin, previously held by Mario Vargas Llosa, Mircea Cartarescu and Susan Sontag.

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WITH CYBER LOVE, ETC.

People often imagine expat life as easy and glamorous, a combination of Hemingway-esque bohemianism and Indiana Jones-style adventure, full of exotic food and drink, and attractive young locals eager to practice their English. Anyone who has started a new life abroad, however, knows that it can also have its downside: in fact, relocation ranks as the third most stressful life event after the death of a loved one and marriage or divorce. Numerous research studies show that the biggest stressor for expats is not culture shock, but the lack of a social circle.

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