Issue 26

BULGARIA'S 3 Ms

Next 1 March, when you tie a martenitsa, or a red-and-white braided yarn, on your wrist, you'll be wearing much more than the remnant of an ancient tradition. The martenitsa not only protects you from the evil eye and announces the coming of spring, it also symbolises Bulgaria itself – according to Vagabond's readers.

The martenitsa won the first ever Symbols of Bulgaria @ Vagabond campaign. A misty morning in the Rhodope came in second, and Bulgaria's ubiquitous mutri took third.

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TOP 10 EYESORES

You can't miss them: hulking monstrosities of bronze, stone or concrete that tower over town squares, parks and public buildings all across Bulgaria. Once part of the Communist regime's propaganda machine, these monuments to past heroes and future dreams now rank among the most potent reminders of Soviet ideology and its megalomaniacal aesthetics. Some have disappeared – the Georgi Dimitrov Mausoleum in Sofia was blown to pieces in 1999, The Alyosha in Pleven was torn down, and many busts of Lenin have disappeared, most likely sold for scrap metal.

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10 REASONS TO VISIT EDESSA

Try recalling every stereotype you've known about mass tourism in Greece and then imagine what could be the opposite. Now open your eyes. What you see is Edessa.

Edessa resists any "hidden treasure" cliché. This town of 20,000, in the region of Macedonia, is among the last places untainted by mass tourism, a fact appreciated by travellers who look for authentic Greek landscape, atmosphere and calm.

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FROM THE FIRST ROOM WINDOW

"If you don't learn to savour the upsides of living in a foreign country, the downsides can drive you crazy," observes Mark Stevens, director of British defence and aerospace company BAE Systems in Sofia. His words capture the attitude shared by many general managers of large international companies in Bulgaria.

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THE RISE AND FALL OF THE BULGARIAN KEBAPCHE

I am sitting in the courtyard of the unnamed eatery in the village of Leshten, on the western slopes of the Rhodope. The view before me is magnificent – the sun is setting over the Pirin, and its last rays colour in dark red the nearby mud-and-wood houses. The home-made rakiya I've tasted is probably the best in southwestern Bulgaria, the shopska has been made with hand-picked pink tomatoes, and the white cheese is simply fabulous.

A man of perhaps 80 slowly comes up the path to the restaurant. “Hi,” he says.

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A FRENCH CULINARY DREAM

My first encounter with this year's Nobel Prize winners in medicine was not academic, but gastronomic. And like a fine five-course meal, my haute cuisine experience with Professor Luc Montagnier and Dr Françoise Barré-Sinoussi has a comedic appetiser.

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YOANNA BOUKOVSKA

Bulgarian cinema has yet to match the success of contemporary Romanian films. However, the past year has brought a ray of hope – and Yoanna Boukovska is aware of it. Her most recent role was in Small Talk, a modern adaptation of Chekhov's Uncle Vanya, directed by Vlado Kralev. The action is set in Varvara. "It's one of the few remaining wild spots on the southern Black Sea coast. It has an amazing atmosphere, very nostalgic, just like in old Bulgarian films," Yoanna says. The film will hit theatres in early November.

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misLEADING ADVICE No 1

Guardian Angels

In Bulgaria, black Mercedes G-Class SUV's with identical numbers on the license plates are driven by public-minded citizens who serve as police assistants on voluntary basis. Do not hesitate to stop such a vehicle and ask the driver for assistance of any kind, from changing your flat tire to giving you a free lift to the nearest public convenience.

***

30'

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MY OWN CHOICE: SWISH SWISS

I came to Bulgaria as a hospitality industry expert, and gastronomy is an important aspect of my work. People hire me to open their hotels, provide consultation for their tourism projects or simply for my opinion on various matters. Clients rely on my professional help, which is based on the international experience that I have gained working on many different projects and at my own restaurant in Switzerland (www.restaurantpalace.ch).

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HOW TO SNAP FISH

If a picture is worth a thousand words, then Lyubomir Klissurov definitely has a lot to say – but he would be unable to because he is usually under water. He took his first underwater photographs of the Black Sea in 1973. Since then, he's collected so much material that he claims to have the world's largest collection of underwater shots featuring Black Sea flora and fauna.

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QUOTE-UNQUOTE

I propose that you put up banners at your companies, saying: 'Do Not Steal! The BSP and Stanishev Hate Competition.'

Boyko Borisov, Mayor of Sofia

Hello, you clowns. Haya doin'?

Prime Minister Sergey Stanishev, addressing a delegation of the three-party opposition who handed him a "pink slip" petition

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CRIMES AND PUNISHMENTS

The sentence could not be appealed and the man was sent to jail immediately. Compare to Maxim Staviyski, the figure skater, who killed a person and seriously injured another while driving drunk last year. He was given a two-year suspended sentence.

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A MORTAGAGE MELTDOWN?

Bulgarians who hold hefty mortgages may receive an unpleasant Christmas present from their banks, as yet another increase in interest rates on home loans is just around the corner. According to credit experts, rates will soon rise by 0.5 to 1 percentage point. Some banks have already pushed up their interest rates by almost 2 percentage points this year, and the base interest rate has reached 5.33 percent, its highest level in 10 years. Will credit holders manage to pay their debts or is a wave of US-style defaults imminent?

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THE LONG HANDS OF CORRUPTION

During the week in which The New York Times carried its "Mob Muscles Its Way Into Politics in Bulgaria" article, Bulgaria witnessed yet another series of interesting events that most Bulgarians have become used to during the Transition years but that most foreigners in and outside the country still have difficulties to come to terms with.

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WE'VE GOT MAIL

Hardly any other European country can boast with a magazine with a concept like yours, at such a high level in both style and diversity.

Congratulations and keep on like that!

Jerry Schu, Luxembourg-Sofia

 

Dear Vagabond,

My wife and I were avid readers of your magazine whilst we lived in Bulgaria, but due to family reasons we have recently returned to the UK after two and a half years in Bulgaria.

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WHEN OK IS NOT O.K.

I've been an official Bulgarian resident for two weeks now and will bring my American take of the English language to the teenagers of Pazardzhik soon as I become their EFL teacher. I love many things about my new home in Bulgaria, but I also find that it is essential in any transitional time in life to maintain a high level of humour. Quirks about the magical land of Bulgaria that seem quite bizarre, looked at with an eye of absurdity, become quite entertaining.

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CAR CHAUVINISM

For a year I was driving around in my Lada, completely oblivious to how much it was blighting my social status. Then I got my Ford Escort. Granted, it wasn't that much of an upgrade considering the Ford's scratched panels and 1995 birth date, but it ticked over much better than the 1985 Lada Combi with home-made LPG conversion. I noticed a difference right away. I was able to drive in the fast lane without a bigger car driving on my tail just to prove a point. I got cut up less, and people didn't block me in at parking spaces.

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BINGEING IT

Is the expat community full of certified alcoholics who, instead of spending their time in Bulgaria visiting cultural sites and learning the language, sit in English bars watching satellite TV and hitting the bottle? Equally, is the indigenous male population full of alcoholics who on waking at 6 am reach for the nearest rakiya bottle?

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