Issue 49-50

RIGHT TO KNOW

"Goodness gracious! An English woman wants to come and live in Bulgaria? Can we switch places?" Such was the lively response I got from the clerk at Toplofikatsia Sofia, the capital city's heating utility, when I called to enquire if there was any way by which a London friend of mine, who's moving to Sofia, can check her bills in a language other than Bulgarian. The official, however, quickly became matter-of-fact, admitted she was joking and said that heating bills were delivered by courier and were only issued in Bulgarian.

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MY OWN CHOCE: 竹田 恒治

I have been posted abroad many times in my career and before leaving for a new country what concerns me most is the living conditions, particularly the local food.

When it was decided that I was to go to Bulgaria, I took my family to the only Bulgarian restaurant in Tokyo, called "Sofia." We tried some Bulgarian dishes and so I already had an idea about Bulgarian food before my arrival here.

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CITY CLOCKS OF SOFIA

They measure the passage of time and the heartbeat of the city. They are an institution and a mark of civilisation. The city clocks still tick away in their public places around the city, reminding people that the duration of the second is the same as a hundred years ago – it's only what they do with it that has changed.

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HEALTHY HEALTH SYSTEM?

Three different health ministers in little more than a year and health care reforms that are constantly postponed and heatedly challenged. A national health insurance authority which is the focus of investigations into more than 300 million leva in missing budget allocations and hospitals on the verge of bankruptcy. Even if you have had no immediate contact with the Bulgarian public health care system, the news that you hear daily can hardly be a comfort.

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HONOUR OR DISHONOUR?

I have seen and photographed many war monuments while living in Bulgaria. This particular one, which shows three Bulgarian Communist partizani, or guerilla fighters from the Second World War, is on the road from Kocherinovo to Rila, near the village of Stob. It would not have impressed me much had I not noticed the nickname of one of the three "heroes." Hristo Nikolov Hristov was known as Sokola or the Falcon, a nickname that reminded me of the fictional French partisan Chocolate Mousse in the 1984 comedy film Top Secret.

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BULGARIA BACK IN TIME

The first surprise comes when you look at the pictures. This is another Bulgaria, with mellower light, sombre people and the nostalgic atmosphere of the 1950s. Little details like a chipped pavement or a drab house have been turned into a backdrop for the people who feature in almost every picture. The result is outstanding. Warm and realistic, the pictures make you want to take in the world through these eyes.

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A BULGARIAN INSPIRATION

Cracked ice covered the river and chunks of it were floating on the surface, forming a giant jigsaw puzzle. The sight caught the attention of Belgian Marie-Chantal Biela. She stopped, took a picture and walked on. What she had seen, she later turned into an abstract lithograph.

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PAST IMPERFECT

When you arrived in Sofia, what was the first place your Bulgarian friends took you to? They probably showed you St Aleksandr Nevskiy Cathedral, took you for a stroll along the yellow brick road from the National Assembly to the Stalinist "Largo," or did you go shopping in one of the new "malls," the hit of the Bulgarian economy? Maybe you already tasted rakiya and shopska salad, or been to the chalga, your first experience with Bulgar pop culture?

But no one took you to Zaharna Fabrika, or Sugar Factory.

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KOSOVO POLJE

No one seems to know anything about it. The Albanian children playing on the streets of Kosovo Polje – a town which is rather like a suburb of Pristina – never heard. The women are likewise oblivious. When approached, taxi drivers tend to shrug their shoulders. A policeman makes an effort to explain, but his English turns out to be worse than his botched attempt at drawing a simple map of the area. Everyone is polite and forthcoming, but knows nothing.

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SITOVO LETTERS

A Soviet undercover agent tries to decipher an ancient inscription protected by a stone guardian… this could be the beginning of a Dan Brown novel but is, in fact, a true story set not in Rome, Paris or Washington, but near the village of Sitovo, on the northern slopes of the Rhodope.

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NO MORE @ ONDA

Expats used to buying their copies of Vagabond in Sofia will no longer be able to do so at Onda, the coffee shop chain, as its new management has decided against renewing its distribution contract with Vagabond Media. Victoria Pavlova, Onda's new general manager, told us that she would like to see "other opportunities" to "add value" to Onda's customers.

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EMPIRE BURLESQUE

Increasingly, many Bulgarians have started to think that something has gone very wrong with the new establishment dominated by Boyko Borisov's GERB, or Citizens for the European Development of Bulgaria. To start off with, there is a sharp discrepancy between that political party's name and the methods it uses to govern itself – and the country.

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THROWN INTO NATURE, An excerpt from a novel

There is hardly anything more natural than hating Nature. Yet people don't realize this, because of their crazy ideas. For example, many think that this world is ruled by the Devil. As some of the ancients put it, the Devil saw the Kingdom of God and tried to make something similar. He is a sorry imitator, by their own admission. Yet not entirely inept, they add, and mighty cruel, too. But all of that is stuff and nonsense. Others reckon that the world is God's doing. If this is so, then He is not who they think He is but just some experimenting idiot. All that is stuff and nonsense, too.

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OCTOPUS'S GARDEN

A flurry of political, diplomatic and media activity ensued, but this can scarcely conceal the fact that out of the nine original suspects, just three remain accused, while from the comfort of his home the "Head of the Octopus" has declared his intention of getting involved in politics.

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QUOTE-UNQUOTE

If people like (former prime minister) Ivan Kostov, who plundered Bulgaria, get the power again, I am going to resort to guerilla warfare.

Volen Siderov, leader of the Ataka party

Volen has the charisma of an action actor. You can compare him with Mel Gibson in Braveheart, with Alain Delon in Two Men in the City, with Brad Pitt in Troy with his "anger of Achilles son of Peleus." In Volen there is something both wild and beautiful.

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WE'VE GOT MAIL

It was even more difficult for me to understand. It had something to do with my British citizenship and passport. The Russian consulate in Varna said that the UK and Russia had not signed a certain agreement that would have allowed the Russian consulate to issue me a visa?! To complicate the matter further, the Russian consulate associated me with somebody they had had telephone conversations with. I had never called the Russian Consulate in Varna.

I prefer to travel on my British passport. I do not hold a valid Bulgarian passport.

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