Issue 34

LET'S GO ON A BRIGADE

When in 1194 the citizens of Chartres donated their labour to dig the foundations of the new Cathedral of Our Lady, whose predecessor had burned down, they had a couple of aims in mind. The first one was purely practical. The cathedral, which housed the tunic of the Virgin Mary, attracted a host of pilgrims and their money to the city. The second was their religious enthusiasm. They worked without pay to purge themselves from sin.

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THE BIG BREAD ISSUE

After just a few weeks in Bulgaria, or a few hours of watching Bulgarian TV, you will have noticed that something quite strange is going on with Bulgarian bread. On the one hand, Bulgarians left, right and centre will swear by the quality of their bread, and President Parvanov will be seen partaking of bread dipped in salt from a plate proffered to him by a girl clad in a 19th Century "folk" costume – yes, you've guessed right: he is opening a new cultural centre or meeting dignitaries in the provinces.

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BITING HARDER

While last autumn the prevailing opinion of people in this country was that the economic crisis did not have a direct effect on them, their view is now completely different. Nearly half of them say that the crisis has entered their homes, in one way or another. This is what a series of surveys conducted by the Open Society Institute show about the impact of the country's economic situation on Bulgaria's population.

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BALKAN BUTTERFLIES

The flap of a butterfly's wings in the Amazon jungle may set off a tornado in the Pacific, but the citizens of the EU proved that they do not believe in the chaos theory and the ability of small actions to bring about big events. In a record low turnout, only 43.42 percent of the people living in the member countries cast their vote in the European parliament elections.

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NIKOLAY VASSILEV

One of the major problems encountered by expats and visitors alike when going around in and out of Sofia is their inability to read even the simplest place names and street signs. Unless you are well-versed in the Cyrillic alphabet, you will find it impossible to pronounce relatively common names such as Бургас and Несебър, not to mention the more complicated Пазарджик and Велико Търново and, of course, that all-time favourite, Джулюница.

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GOOD MOURNING

It seems that Bulgaria has declared more days of national mourning recently than any other country on the planet. Yet confusion reigns as to precisely what should happen. The only beneficiaries seem to be populist politicians who demand such days – and sanctimonious media quick to condemn any lapses in mourning etiquette by the country’s "great and good."

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FOR WHOM THE SIREN WAILS

You probably spent the three minutes when sirens sounded all over Bulgaria at 12 noon on 2 June in a state of quiet surprise.

Despite the terrifying wail, there was no panic on the streets. Just the opposite. Pedestrians stopped walking, cars came to a standstill and everyone in their offices, homes or on the beach stood up, heads bowed. Some were peeking around, surveying the scene for apostates who kept on walking, driving or drinking coffee.

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ART IN TRANSLATION

One of the shifts that has been slowly taking place in Bulgaria since "The Changes," as most Bulgarians refer to the collapse of Communism 20 years ago, has been the re-emergence of an independent Bulgarian literary tradition. Not that it had disappeared. Simply that it had been quieted. There was once a time when merely to distribute self-published poetry or fiction among friends would have been punished by the thought police. Yet now Bulgarian writers are finding their voices again, and finding an audience, both in their country and abroad.

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NANCY MCELDOWNEY HELLO & GOODBYE

Bulgaria is obviously not a major player in world politics but maybe I'm quite wrong about that, if the careers of most American ambassadors in the post-Communist phase are anything to go by. Take John Beyrle, Nancy McEldowney's predecessor. After three years at Kozyak Street, the location of the new American Embassy in Sofia, Beyrle is now the American ambassador to Russia. You don't need to be involved in international politics to understand that this is one of the most important jobs an American diplomat can hold, especially at the present time.

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QUOTE-UNQUOTE

A government hurriedly giving top jobs to all kinds of cronies before an election means it knows it will lose.

Ivan Krastev, political scientist

The most terrifying thing in our political life is the mutrisation, or criminalisation, of politics. I mean who he was – a man with a murky past, who suddenly boarded the boat of power and began giving advice to others. If such types have the potential to become prime ministers, what does this mean in terms of feelings, experience, strategy and national interests?

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WE'VE GOT MAIL

First of all, I am a guest in this country, so I have to follow the rules of my hosts, whether they obey them themselves or not.

Secondly, we can't complain of corruption here and at the same time find nothing wrong with passing a 20 leva note to a policeman. I know they don't get paid much and need some extra income in order to feed their children. But hey, this is not my problem. The Bulgarian state should pay decent salaries to its employees; it's not my duty to make up the deficit. Their job is to protect me, not to rob me.

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NEW FACES OF BULGARIAN POLITICS

Nelson Mandela, Mahatma Gandhi, Andrei Sakharov and others whose political biography includes a sojourn in jail acquired a host of peers in Bulgaria in the space of just a couple of weeks. The newly-fledged "dissidents" left prison with a confident look in their eyes and a brand new immunity from prosecution, and set off on the thorny road of Bulgarian politics.

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MAKE OR BREAK

It is always embarrassing to see a grown man cry. But at the oil-wrestling tournament in Kırkpınar, a suburb of Edirne – just a few miles from the Bulgarian border, you will have to endure it. You will see hundreds of men of all shapes and sizes, from hefty fellows to beardless boys and sturdy youths alike, weeping on the oilsoaked grass of the stadium.

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