Issue 25

KILL THE BEEB

To understand why Bulgaria has become the only EU country – and one of a handful of states in the world with dubious media records – to ban the BBC World Service on FM, one has to consider the historical background.

Since the BBC started broadcasting to the world in the 1930s, the Bulgarian governments have been either less than enthusiastic about it or openly hostile – exactly the opposite of what listeners who relied on the BBC for fast and reliable information felt like.

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CREDIT CRUNCH BLUES? NOT IN BULGARIA

In July a Bulgarian bank approved a 500,000 euro mortgage for an apartment in Sofia. To repay the loan, in the next 25 years the "lucky" borrower will pay monthly instalments of 3,500 euros. The media has been touting this record loan as an example that Bulgaria has successfully avoided the repercussions of the global credit crunch. But is this a fact or just wishful thinking?

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THE 1920s, THROUGH THE EYES OF A BAVARIAN WOMAN

"Sofia Central Station disappointed me: it is small, untidy, the waiting halls are lacking any kind of standard." No, this isn't an online travel forum posting in which a Western tourist vents his exasperation that, despite Bulgaria's being part of the EU, travelling on its railways is not on a par with that in Germany. Instead, this is a diary entry by a frozen and exhausted woman about her arrival in Bulgaria for the first time in January 1924.

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RUDOLF BARTSCH

You must have seen them if you live or happened to visit Sofia in late September – a dozen of billboards in key spots in Sofia carrying a rather unusual message. Rather than bank deposits and high-end residential properties, they advertise… men. Not the glossy and groomed Beckham variety but the unglamourous, ordinary type.

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AND THE DANUBE FLOWS ON

Mountains divide people, rivers unite them — and the Danube is no exception. Any archaeologist will tell you that for thousands of years the Danube used to unite the peoples who lived along its banks. However, in the 1st Century AD the Roman legions arrived and Europe's second-largest river after the Volga became a dividing line between "civilisation" and the "barbarians."

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CITIZEN HH.

Hristo Hristov is a quiet man with an aristocratic goatee who sits in an office, writes books and appears unharmful to anybody because he looks like an oldfashioned librarian. But in fact he is a very dangerous man. During the past decade he gained access to and meticulously studied hundreds of archive volumes belonging to the Communist-era State Security, or Darzhavna sigurnost. In them he has found some horrifying documents proving beyond any reasonable doubt what now NATO and EU Bulgaria got itself involved in when the Communist Party and the Warsaw Pact were in place.

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FOR THE LIFE OF A DOG

Tierschutz Mission Phönix, the only animal refuge in the 100 km radius of Burgas, have been told to leave. The municipality wish to build a holiday park over the small piece of land by the road from Burgas to Sozopol, so the shelter faces a date with a bulldozer.

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MEMORIES FROM A HOT SEA AND BUYING A ROPE

There are no avider postcard fans in the world than German tourists. When they arrive in a new place, they waste no time seeing the sights, but rush to the bookstores where they wrestle with other German tourists to lay hands on the best local postcards and write greetings to all their acquaintances, aunts and distant cousins "at home." Then they quickly resume their journeys, without ever bothering to take a look at the towns they've been in. For them postcard writing is a fulltime job.

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MY OWN CHOICE: DR MITKO VASSILEV

Everyone living and working in a multicultural environment is aware that each country has its own specifics as to the ways of communication, business practices and even leisure. In my years-long work at the German-Bulgarian Chamber of Industry and Commerce, I have had the opportunity to gain first-hand experience in this. My German partners make a distinct difference between the professional and the personal, whereas for Bulgarian business people this line is blurred and personal contacts are given somewhat greater weight.

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OKTOBER FEASTS

Unlike the freshly brewed rakiya savoured in small glasses amid a handful of fellow brewers or family members, at Oktoberfest, which celebrates the new beer produced by Munich's breweries, beer is drunk in one-litre tankards, called Maß, in the company of hundreds of thousands. Oktoberfest is the largest public festival in the world.

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A MATTER OF NECESSITY

The fireworks in the first minutes of 2012 in Bulgaria will possibly put an end to a long story that began on 4 June 1880. Then, Bulgarian parliament passed legislation for the printing of the first leva notes. On 1 January 2012 the Bulgarians will change them for euro notes. The leva will become museum exhibits and the world will lose one more exotic currency.

It was called lev and for more than 40 years it carried the portrait of the Stalinist dictator Georgi Dimitrov. On a couple of occasions in its existence it went through sinister inflation – for the last time in 1996–97.

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A TALE OF TWO BORISES, OOPS CITIES

With Bulgaria as a new EU member, Sofia supposedly joins the list of Europe's most significant capital cities, alongside London. Incidentally, London's new mayor, Boris Johnson, shares his moniker with the incumbent Sofia mayor, Boyko Borisov. Despite having a name connection, how deep do other similarities between the mayor of the East and the mayor of the West run?

Upbringing and education

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THE DATING GAME

To complicate the problem, you are no longer on home ground, you are now part of the Bulgarian dating market, so now you not only have to contend with the fact that your good looks faded long ago and your confidence diminished the minute you labelled yourself "a bad mother," but you also have to search for a date in a marketplace that doesn't speak your language or understand your culture.

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THROUGH THE GORGES OF THE BALKANS

In the mid-1980s when I was a student in Dresden, then in the GDR, I received a strange letter. It arrived in an ordinary envelope, postmarked and addressed, but it was empty; it appeared to have been opened and then inexpertly resealed. Upon closer inspection, a folded grey sheet of paper fell out, which turned out to be a signed and stamped official form. East German customs informed me in their inimitable style that "one item of printed material cut from a capitalist media source containing content hostile to the GDR's civic order" had been removed from my postal package.

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WHERE IN BULGARIA ARE YOU?

Until the early 1950s, Bulgarians and Turks on either side of the border used to go hunting together and paid one another friendly visits. But in the 1950s the Communists closed the border checkpoint as Warsaw Pact Bulgaria declared the entire Strandzha a border zone and restricted access to it. The village found itself at the very heart of a complicated system of defences and barriers, and even today guards will check your ID before you are allowed to enter.

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WE'VE GOT MAIL

However, whilst staying at the Srebana guesthouse last week I found myself looking for some reading material to pass the time (ahem) and reached out for the Vagabond. Suffice it to say I haven't put it down since!! Marvellous writing, honest opinions and incredibly funny to boot.

Glynn Clarke, Botevo, Varna

 

DEAR VAGABOND

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NEIGHBOURING BULLY

Recent years have seen a number of objects wither and become extinct, just like the Jura dinosaurs. Not too long ago a friend went to his local post office in Kinlochewe, Scotland, to post a letter. He duly addressed the envelope with his fountain pen and asked for some blotting paper. "Blotting paper?" the young Indian girl behind the counter asked. Around her neck hung the latest (well, at the time) version of the iPod.

Likewise with professions. Have you seen your typist recently? Your switchboard operator? Do you know what a switchboard means? A mettre-en-page?

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MONUMENTAL CRAZE

A priest I know in one of the remotest corners of Bulgaria recently told me: "Don't think that the Bulgarian Church has anything to do with believing in God. It's all about money and power. The liturgy is a sleight-of-hand." I won't name the man for fear his local bishop might promptly excommunicate him, but I pondered over what he'd said while I was looking at the construction site of a new Orthodox chapellette, in that unique mutro-baroque style you've seen in Boyana.

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