Issue 21

BAY GANYO OF THE BALKANS

It is impossible to go to Bulgaria and not encounter Bay Ganyo. Born as a fictional character in a series of satirical short stories by writer Aleko Konstantinov in the 1890s, he has been living a life of his own for nearly a hundred years. During this time he has become a byword for a Bulgarian and when saying “Ganyo” in fact people often mean “Bulgar”.

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HOPING FOR A HOLE IN ONE

The world's most popular game is not football, as widely presumed, but golf. Although Bulgaria is definitely a football country, ongoing developments predict that golf courses will soon outnumber football pitches. In 2000, the opening of the first golf course in Ihtiman sounded like a joke. Nobody understood why a country where most people had trouble paying their electricity bills could possibly utilise one. Now, it's estimated that by 2020, there will be forty sites.

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THE INFLUX OF URBAN LUX

Recently, a penthouse apartment was bought for a reported £115 million, breaking the world record for the most expensive home ever sold. The apartment, at St James's Square, London, has not been built yet, and the development was only given planning permission by Westminster city council this March. The development will consist of a penthouse and five other apartments, each occupying an entire floor of the building. The cost of the apartment beats the previous record of £100 million, set recently by another unbuilt penthouse at a development in London.

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BATTLING THE CONSTRUCTION GODZILLA

For Bulgaria's Black Sea coast, 1 January 2008 was more than just the start of a new year; it was the beginning of a new era - at least on paper. On that date, the long-awaited Black Sea Coast Act came into effect. The controversial piece of legislation was intended to set out “public policy related to development and construction” in the Bulgarian Black Sea region. Its main goals are to secure the integrated development and preservation of the coast, to guarantee free public access to beaches and to assure the protection of the natural landscape.

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CHANGED BUT NOT REFORMED

Since the fall of Communism, no Bulgarian government has enforced major reforms before their term in office expired. The recent and unexpected reshuffle of ministers assures that this lack of improvement is set to continue, despite Prime Minister Sergey Stanishev's assurances of “significant structural and personal changes”. Only a week after the new appointments, he announced, “this is year zero”, and added that the preparation for the election campaign had begun.

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GYPSY VS ROMA

A year ago, Roma divas shook Sofia with heart-wrenching songs. No, it wasn't a Goran Bregovic concert, but a meeting of the Roma Inclusion Decade. It represented a musical and ideological triumph for the politically correct "Roma" in their battle against the pejorative "Gypsy". It was also a lofty moment for George Soros, who pledged to help the Roma cause and take on prejudiced locals. "Like me?" I think as I search my bag for my purse. Damn! My purse has been snatched!

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LOVE AND OTHER CATASTROPHES

The titles Petar Denchev chooses for his works are inversely proportional to his age. The story that earned this 22-year-old Varna man his first literary prize - in the Altera competition - was called "Malakof, I Want To Grow Old". The title of the novel which won him last year's Razvitie, or Development, contest for the best new Bulgarian novel, is even longer: Just Like a Man Kisses a Woman He Loves. However, Denchev, who studies theatre directing at the National Academy for Theatre and Film Arts, is growing up. His titles are getting shorter.

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TO HAVE OR HAVE NOT A BG ID

As the Republic of Bulgaria's national hymn proudly floods a festively decorated hall at the Office of the President, a choked up Macedonian (or Pakistani) stands before a state offi cial and emphatically declares: "I swear in the name of Levski to be a good citizen of the Republic of Bulgaria. I thrice renounce my previous citizenship!" With trembling hands, he grasps his new Bulgarian passport - which, like Ali Baba's magic words, also opens the door to the EU.

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SMOKERS VERY WELCOME

The Bulgarian State Railways have to ban smoking on all trains, Transport Minister Petar Mutafchiev decreed after a fire in the Sofia-Kardam overnight train in February which took nine lives. A burning cigarette end was one of the possible causes of the tragedy.

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DEAD BLACK SEA

“There is no bluefish, the bonito is imported from Turkey and was frozen two years ago. We don't serve sprat!” No matter what restaurant you go to on the Bulgarian Black Sea coast, this is what you'll hear. Talk to a fisherman and you'll get even more depressed. “There's no fish in the sea this year, apart from some lucky scad,” he'll say. Freshwater trout and North Sea salmon are now the standard in a country that has a sea of its own.

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IS CUSTOMER SERVICE IN BULGARIA AN OXYMORON?

Bulgaria, a beautiful country with a friendly and hospitable population, fits most expats' description of their ideal host nation. Most of us have been welcomed into our neighbours' homes to be fed on local produce and plied with lashings of rakiya. The lack of a common language is no barrier to these people's generosity. Yet as Bulgaria competes for a larger percentage of foreign tourism, you wonder how many visitors actually leave this pleasant land with warm memories of a kind, generous nation always happy to help.

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JONATHAN BOUSFIELD

At the beginning of the 1990s, when Bulgaria was far from the tourist-friendly paradise you are now being enticed to buy a second home in, Jon Bousfield came to Bulgaria for the first time. An Englishman, he arrived on a mission - to write, in cooperation with Dan Richardson, the first Bulgaria Rough Guide. Half a dozen visits and several editions later, he has become the man you have to listen to in case you wanted to explore Ivan Vazov, offal food in restaurants, patriotic fakes in Bulgarian museums and Sofia's nascent urban culture.

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A MATTER OF GENUFLECTION

"You can't make a silk purse out of a sow's ear.” Some people actually can. They are not alchemists, they are Bulgarians.

The years of Communist rule and frequent economic crises, when the expression “Sorry, we haven't” was used 1,000 times more often than “Marxist materialism,” cultivated the Bulgarian ability to make profit or gain even from thin air, in actual defiance of the Conservation of Energy Law.

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HAVE DIRTY CAR, WON'T TRAVEL

Not a very clever way to fight corruption, you would have thought, but this is exactly what the KAT, Bulgaria's notorious traffic cops, have been authorised to do through amendments to the Traffic Code. Now a traffic cop lurking in bushes or behind bends on motorways can flag you down and fine you up to 50 leva if he considers your car dirty. The definition of dirty is up to the cop in question to formulate.

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BIRDSPOTTERS

"We are not all lonely nerds and train-spotters". That is what most birdwatchers feel they need to add in defence of themselves when confessing to their secret passion for finding and following their feathered friends. Birders have often been labelled as compulsive "list tickers" or "twitchers" whose love for avian wildlife comes second to their desire to accumulate an ever increasing number of bird sightings. With over 10,000 species of birds worldwide there is plenty of scope for those with this obsession, but the range of people interested in this pastime is wide and varied.

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RIGHT OF WAY

You don't have to live in Bulgaria for long to notice that unlike London, Berlin and Tokyo, people in business suits rarely use public transport. The reason? With the exception of a couple of privately-run lines, municipal buses, trams and trolleybuses are old and hence slow, particularly at rush hour - not to mention overcrowded and dirty. Unfortunately, the clean and efficient underground, already a decade old, still operates in a very limited area.

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A KIND OF PARADISE, TO BE DISCOVERED

Anyone who has ventured as far south as Rezovo on the Bulgarian Black Sea coast has one tantalising memory: the enormous, completely empty beach seen from Rezovo's self-styled village square. It is huge, the sand looks extremely fine, and there is no one in sight: just the type of thing you could experience in Bulgaria before the Great Construction Boom of the mid-2000s. You don't get beaches like that in Europe anymore, you catch yourself thinking. They belong to Southeast Asia or the Caribbean, don't they; yet this one is right in front of you, within an arm's length's reach.

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MY OWN CHOICE: A SOURCE OF SUPREME JOY AND PLEASURE

One of the nice surprises after moving to Sofia was discovering it as a vibrant city, where finding a nice, affordable place to eat or drink was never a problem. I was expecting to find the cuisine was heavy and high in fat, like the food in most Central European countries, yet Bulgarian food is quite different. It is always made from the freshest seasonal ingredients. Like most great gastronomy, Bulgarian food is influenced by the neighbours.

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WE'VE GOT MAIL

Yellow Cheese Balls - Fried pieces of kashkaval
Potato Balls With Yellow Cheese - Mashed potato patties with kashkaval
Chicken Parson's Nose - Grilled chicken rumps
Chicken Lungs With Onion - Chicken livers with onions
Tolstolob - A genetically engineered hybrid between a trout and a carp
Panayorski Eggs - Yaytsa po panagyurski are poached eggs floating in yoghurt sauce
Pork Lung with Onion - Like chicken livers, but pork
Pork Neck of the Table - Fried vratna parzhola, or pork steak

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