Issue 2

MY OWN CHOICE: PASSION FOOD

When I was asked to write about my 10 favourite restaurants I felt a little uneasy. The main reason was that I would much rather have written a column about how the media in Bulgaria gets bullied by politicians on all levels, as we have just experienced with the sacking of one of Bulgaria's most respected and capable journalists, Ivo Indzhev, by Rupert Murdoch's bTV. Bulgaria's current president, the reformed former communist Georgi Parvanov put pressure on the management of the private TV channel to fire Ivo Indzhev, for having the nerve to ask questions about his financial affairs.

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THE ROAD AHEAD

On the day Bulgaria was told it could join the EU in 2007 (probably the most ardently awaited report in history since the press releases for the Treaty of Neuilly), I got a call from a friend who was stuck in a mid-afternoon traffic jam. Nothing particularly noteworthy, I thought, traffic jams are hardly anything to write home about these days, unless you are driving to the Mediterranean and end up spending half your holiday on some Italian motorway.

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WHERE IN BULGARIA ARE YOU?

The area was proclaimed Bulgaria's first natural park in 1937. Scientists are still arguing over how the "stone forest" was formed. Some think that it was the result of a process similar to that by which cave stalactites are formed, others that it is a fossilised coral reef. The stones date back at least 50 million years, and cover about 653 acres.

The first drawings of the stone forest were made by the Englishman Thomas Spratt, a geologist and a sea captain, who visited during the Crimean War.

Where in Bulgaria are you?

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ASKING THE WRONG QUESTIONS

TV presenter: Talking about slander, let me ask you this. It may sound strange to you, but we have received emails saying that Mr Parvanov owns a $100,000 maisonette in a building on a downtown Sofia boulevard. I am reluctant to bring up something which, I admit, I have not checked myself, but if there is something in the rumour shouldn't it be verified? There seems to be a link to Mr Mandzhukov, who received a medal from the president.

M. Mirchev: Well, this is typical petty slander. Let's put it on the table and check the facts.*

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NU TIMES FOR DAVID VAROD

Builders are swarming over scaffolding, busily hammering, drilling and sawing away. It sounds like a Black Sea developer's dream, but we are not in Varna or Burgas, we are on the edge of Sofia, in Boyana, where the set for a new John Cusack film is under construction. In the middle of this industrious scene stands David Varod, Nu Image's man in Bulgaria.

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ESSENTIAL MAINTENANCE

Buying an off-plan apartment may seem like the easiest way to invest in Bulgaria: no company set-up required, resort-style amenities that come as part of the package and so on. But once you become the owner of No.1 Paradise Towers, you will be expected to pay your way.

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SILLY PAST

First-time visitors to Bulgaria are bound to spot them at some stage: little metal plates hung at street corners, in parks, in Communist-era office corridors, perhaps in a ramshackle old factory or two (if you happen to wander round any of those).

The plates are neatly written in indecipherable Cyrillic. Who devised them, you may ask yourself? If you happen to come from one of those countries where signs are actually supposed to mean something useful to the public, like "Mind the gap", or "Push the bell only once", you may well wonder what they are meant to convey.

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N-POWER

To most foreigners, the Kozloduy Nuclear Power Plant represents another Chernobyl, a Soviet time bomb. Wrong.

Most Bulgarians, various polls suggest, consider the Kozloduy Nuclear Power Plant to be a source of national pride, a miraculous moneymaking machine, the loss of which would be an outrageous price to pay for EU membership. Wrong again.

In modern Bulgarian history there is no better example of stubbornly held misconceptions than the Kozloduy Nuclear Power Plant. At home, it is overvalued while abroad its relative safety is undervalued.

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FOR YOUR EYES ONLY

"When do you change the rope?" My question is left hanging in the air because the white-bearded monk to whom it is directed seems too busy with his primitive hoisting device. Accompanied by an incredible squeaking, he is pulling a huge rope basket out of a 300 metre deep abyss. Inside this ancestor of a lift there is another monk, humbly squatting. When the basket finally reaches the top and the man inside it has jumped skilfully onto the wooden platform, the white-bearded monk turns to us.

"The rope," I repeat my question, "When do you change it?"

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SUPERSTITIOUS MINDS

What prompts one of sport's legendary hard men to skulk and scream at the edge of a football pitch accompanied by one of his daughter's cuddly toys? Well it wasn't FIFA or FA directives, leastways not yet, which drove Stuart Pearce to reach for the stuffed pony called Beanie. It was that old sporting helpmeet: superstition.

In Pearce's case the team he manages, Manchester City, had, pre-Beanie, lost all league games bar one. They had also been dumped out of the Carling League Cup by lower-than-lowly Chesterfield.

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SUNDAY TANGO

In a ritual every bit as rehearsed as his dance steps, my father carefully prepares for his weekly Sunday engagement. Impeccably dressed in his tailored green gabardine jacket, a present from a friend in London in the early 1990s, he goes dancing.

The venue is always the same: a live music hall in Sofia, but the dance and the day can vary. The tango, waltz, rumba, or foxtrot - sometimes on a Saturday, sometimes on a Sunday, although my father prefers the latter. Dancing starts at half past two and goes on until six.

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CASINO DESPERADOS

Sitting on my balcony last weekend, all seemed pretty fine in my universe. It was a lovely afternoon. I had a good book open. My coffee was steaming. Yet, for some reason I couldn't concentrate and felt that I was missing something. Went through a few little checks... Work? No. Family or friend's birthday? No. Date? Nope. So I shrugged and went to take a shower. When I finished my ablutions I noticed that my phone was showing a text message. I checked it and saw that it was from a good mate in Paris.

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FEEBLY STITCHED

To stitch together patches of clashing colours, you will need a solid neutral thread. The result may not be aesthetically pleasing, but it will do, provided the thread doesn't break. The latest developments in the four new Central European EU members, however, have shown that this is inevitable. And Bulgaria, with a tri-partite coalition of clashing colours in power, and due to join the EU in January 2007, might get caught up in the same political game for years to come.

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BULGARIA VERSUS IRELAND

A Bulgarian friend told me an interesting story about Ireland today. There is a well known poster "The Doors of Dublin", showing the city's Georgian doors in all their colourful splendour.

On the internet she had found the explanation for this profusion of colour. An Irish tour guide had told a party of visitors that on the death of the English queen (unspecified) the citizens of Dublin had been ordered to paint their doors black as a sign of mourning. The rebellious Irish decided instead to paint them anything but.

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TO VEIL OR NOT TO VEIL

"She probably studies medicine," a young man says to his friend as their eyes appreciatively follow the pretty girl in a headscarf as she crosses Dzhumayata, Plovdiv's central square.

This presumption is probably correct as the Medical University in Plovdiv attracts students from Turkey who don't feel they can comply with the ban on wearing headscarves in educational establishments in their native country.

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DUSTBINS AND DOG FIGHTS

There are two things about Bulgaria that are so closely entwined that you rarely see one without the other: wild dogs and rubbish. The two are an integral part of Bulgarian life, although it's safe to assume that both their days are numbered.

Being kept awake during your first few weeks in Bulgaria is a rite of passage that only the luckiest of expats manages to avoid. Once you've become accustomed to the nightly dog fights and howling, your only reminder of the nuisance comes via bleary-eyed house guests who complain about the incessant racket.

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ART AND ATTITUDE

The first interview attempt was a disaster. In the summer of 2001 Thea and I were sitting across from each other and awkwardness slowly cast its web over Thea's vision of art as a world-changing force. It was hard for me to comprehend.

"Intense," I thought, "but insane."

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BORDER CROSSING

A Palestinian in Sofia

Outside the Banya Bashi mosque in Sofia, we were taking off our shoes to have a peek inside, when a well-fed middle-aged man with Arabic features said in English: "It's lunchtime but I let you go in, just for you. Where you from?"

"I'm from here," I said, "and Michael is from New Zealand."

"Ah, you life here and your boyfriend visiting you," he interpreted.

"No, we live in England," I said.

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