Issue 35-36

THE SUMMER OF THEIR DISCONTENT

On 15 September 1989 the school year began in an unusual way. Our class teacher announced in a stern voice: "Children, we have to be very happy that Marin did not leave for Turkey. If he had, he wouldn't now be sitting at his desk; he would be shining shoes on the streets of Istanbul instead. But he and his family remained here because they know that their true motherland is Bulgaria, not Turkey."

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TREMOR OF INTENT

Even Boyko Borisov, popularly referred to as "Batte Boyko," or Big Brother Boyko, was surprised at the scale of his victory in the recent general election. The mayor of Sofia's party, GERB, or Citizens for a European Bulgaria, garnered 39.72 percent of the vote, trouncing the Bulgarian Socialist Party.

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COMING OUT IN BULGARIA

Nothing illustrates better Bulgaria's ambivalence towards relatively new post-Communist concepts such as human rights than its attitude towards gays. On the one hand, one of the country's mega chalga stars, Aziz, is both a Gypsy and a very open gay, who aggressively promotes his sexuality as well as his extravagant appearance and lifestyle. Controversial he may be, especially when viewed by Boyko Borisov who notoriously bans his billboards in Sofia, but he is both entertaining on TV and very rich – and many Bulgarians consider these qualities "make up" for his "crooked" sexuality.

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WE'VE GOT MAIL

It also provides information about the "transparency" of everything and the mystical ways things seem to work here... For about three weeks now I've been trying to pay the postage fee of 60 leva through the bank – what an adventure it's been! Seems as though they never heard of such a thing as a money transfer. Today, suddenly, it seemed to work – until somebody called me back later to say it didn't, and I had to come back to the bank again, because of some ima problem, or there's a problem.

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FRAGILE: HANDLE WITH CARE

Judging by the number of stray dogs and cats, you may think Bulgarians have a problem with street animals. You will be right. As a rule Bulgarians tend to take good care of everything inside their own home and be negligent of whatever lies just outside their front door. Stray animals, many of which are the result of un-neutered pets, are just one example.

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THE GLASS RIVER, An excerpt from a novel

It was called The Church of the Assumption – a typical Orthodox construction from the early nineteenth century, looking more like a large chapel.

"This is the oldest church in the region, that's why it's the main one," Victor clarified. "Correct, Father?"

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WHO IS BATTE BOYKO?

The photographs of ousted Communist dictator Todor Zhivkov surrounded by a crowd of nostalgic Bulgarians in the 1990s and King Simeon returning from exile a few years later look similar in one way. They both show the return of deposed rulers, and behind both Zhivkov and Saxe- Coburg-Gotha, there is the same strong young man with watchful eyes and a fringe of hair on his forehead.

A simple bodyguard? No. This is Bulgaria's current prime minister, Boyko Borisov.

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THE GIPSON ARCHIVE

Three years ago, in New York, distinguished Bulgarian photographer Ivo Hadjimishev was having dinner with Nellie and Robert Gipson, a Bulgarian- American family, who had sponsored educational and museum projects in Bulgaria for years (see Vagabond No. 23, August 2008).

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NINE MONTHS AND BEYOND

Before the democratic changes in 1989, women in Bulgaria had antenatal examinations in their regional clinic and gave birth in the regional hospital without having the right to choose their obstetrician or midwife. Since then, everything has changed – even the conditions in the hospitals of the still unreformed healthcare system.

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SECOND LIFE

What happens when a psychology graduate with the nose of a reporter and the talent of a writer locks herself up in a flat for six months, only communicating with the world through Internet dating sites? In Stanislava Ciuriskiene's case, the result is an intriguing, insightful and edifying book that you won't be able to put down.

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HAPPY HOLIDAYS

We believed that this art had died out – after all, the Constitution guarantees freedom of speech – until we read the following headline on a local news site, verbatim: "There Is No Drop in Tourist Flow to Sunny Beach."

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HAPPY HOLIDAYS

Journalists mastered another art. In a single line, they could put together the proclamations of the Communist Party "Socialist Bulgaria is making progress towards complete victory" and the unpleasant truth "There will be electricity shortages this winter."

We believed that this art had died out – after all, the Constitution guarantees freedom of speech – until we read the following headline on a local news site, verbatim: "There Is No Drop in Tourist Flow to Sunny Beach."

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THE CALL OF THE SIRENS

The owner of one of the two taverns on the Aliki beach puts a second pitcher of retsina and a plate of yoghurt topped with Thassos honey on the table. Figs taken from the jam jar stick out from the yoghurt. "It's on the house!" he says and hurries off to clean the table that another jolly company has just left.

The paper table covers of the restaurant are of the recently trendy type – with a map of the island printed on them. From such a perspective Thassos looks small, traversable and familiar. Especially when you live in Bulgaria.

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SHALOM! SHALOM!

In 1909, 9 September fell on a Thursday. Usually, Thursdays were business as usual for the numerous Jewish shops and other establishments in what at the time was a city with a significant Jewish population. But on that day they were all closed, as if it was a Sabbath. The streets of the Jewish neighbourhoods – the rich lived on either side of what is today Maria Louisa Blvd and the poor in Yuchbunar, present-day Zone B5 – were nearly deserted. The only sound was the buzz of thousands of voices coming from the market near the Banya Bashi Mosque.

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RANA DASGUPTA: BULGARIA CANCELLED

No one likes spam, but many of us, for one reason or another, keep casting a curious eye on those little by-lines some people include at the end of their emails. "Faith is believing what you know ain't so" someone quotes Mark Twain to me while someone else keeps asking me do I really need to print this email. "Jesus loves you! Don't give a shit."

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NOT A BUYERS' MARKET

It has become a commonplace that street markets represent the cities they are in and indicate their prevailing cultures. London's famous Camden Lock Market, Acton Market and, of course, Portobello Road Market have long become tourist attractions as well as local hangouts, and so have New York's PS 234, Paris's Rue Cler, Madrid's El Rastro and Istanbul's Kapali Carsi.

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THEN € NOW

"The Bulgarian economy is stable." The words former Finance Minister Plamen Oresharski uttered in October 2008 seem more than just a little out of place a year later. The economic crisis is in full swing and, according to the most optimistic forecasts, will reach its peak from October to December 2009. As a result of the generous spending indulged in from the valuable budget surplus that Bulgaria accumulated over the years when foreign investment flowed in, the picture is far from rosy.

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misLEADING ADVICE No 9

Lawn and Order

Bulgarians are extremely disciplined people. For example, in a public park, they will never sit on the bench specially designated for foreigners’ use. These benches are marked by the “Пази боята” sign.

***

D.I.Y.

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QUOTE-UNQUOTE

Let us wish him a long life, a bright aura and a saintly name.

Lyutvi Mestan, vice chairman of the Movement for Rights and Freedoms, or DPS, referring to Boyko Borisov

MPs have no power. Their power is legislative. The power is in my hands! I am the instrument of power who distributes the cash in the state!

Ahmed Dogan, leader of the DPS, during his election campaign

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