VAGABOND FEATURES

HIGHFLIGHTS

Its main purpose was to present travel destinations to both incoming and outgoing travellers. To put it in another way, we would carry stories and travelogues about Bulgaria and about world destinations that air companies flying out of Sofia Airport reached. Significantly, we also ran information about the airport itself – those little but very useful tids and bits that passengers want to know when they have a couple of hours to bide between flights.

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LIFE AFTER 100 VAGABONDS

As you know very well in the course of the past eight years, this journal has always avoided sweet-talk and commonplaces. We have tried, with the kind of resources we have had, not to take anything for granted, to pose uneasy questions and to demand straightforward answers. This has applied to everything – from politicians to ambassadors, from artists to inanimate objects such as Bulgarian Orthodox churches sitting in the middle of reservoirs. This is why I thought, initially, I wouldn't be making any particular statements regarding our 100th issue.

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FORGOTTEN POWS

Bulgaria fought against Britain and the United States during the Second World War. What the pro-Nazi regime in Sofia called a "symbolic war" started on 14 December 1941. As a result, Bulgaria was bombed by the Allies, with the heaviest casualties resulting in Sofia during the raids in the winter of 1943-1944.

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WOMEN'S RIGHTS IN THE COLD WAR

One of the great ironies of the Cold War is that the two superpowers often championed issues that they cared little about in practice. The East bloc defended the social rights of the world’s workers while treating their own citizens like indentured servants. The United States campaigned for political freedoms abroad while brutally oppressing or marginalising their own African-American and Native American populations at home. Any rhetoric that could be deployed against the enemy became a weapon in the wider ideological battle.

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IN THE COUNTRY OF ANGRY WAITERS

I have been asked – repeatedly, time and again, over and over in the course of many years – by various visitors and expats why is restaurant and bar service in Bulgaria so bad. Waiters and waitresses, I am being told, are the worst in Europe. They are surly, slow, do not react to customer demands, and do not count out your change when they do not overcharge. They seem to be constantly angry.

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WHAT'S NOT IN A PICTURE

Britain has maintained diplomatic relations with Bulgaria (with interruptions, due to the First and the Second World Wars) since the beginning of the 20th Century, but until the 1960s its envoys were not named "ambassadors." After a series of agents, general consuls, political representatives, high commissioners and so on, the first "real" ambassador, Sir William Harpham, arrived in Sofia in 1962.

The ambassador had to present his credentials to the Bulgarian Government in full and formal diplomatic uniform on a day when the temperature was well below freezing point.

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SIGHTS AND SIGNS OF A NATION

Think again! Communism with the highly ritualised rules for social behaviour its omniscient apparatchiks generated may be no more, but the system that followed it, referred by Bulgarians as the ongoing Transition, failed to change the way the former apparatchiks, many of them now businessmen and entrepreneurs, thought.

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BEWARE OF FALLING SUBJECTS

In London, they urge you to look to the right before crossing the street and to mind the gap (between the train and the platform). In Germany they love bans, especially strict ones.

In Communist Bulgaria public signs amalgamated the idea of urging people to do things deemed safe for them and to ban them from other things that are dangerous or unhealthy. To put it in another way, they taught people how to live and behave.

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WHAT IS BOZA?

Foreigners in Bulgaria love Shopska salad and banitsa, and many are filled with strong emotions at the smell of tripe soup with lots of garlic and chilli peppers. But if there is an item of the local cuisine which arouses unanimous suspicious among Westerners, it is boza.

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HORROR ISLAND

If there was a competition for the most surreal road sign in Bulgaria, Belene would be a top contender. The standard signposts in the centre of this 8,300-strong town on the Danube list the following places of interest. First is "Municipality," the building of the City Council. Then comes the Bus Station. And then – hold your breath – you can choose to go to either the Nuclear Power Plant or the Prison.

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TOP 10 TECHNIQUES TO INFURIATE YOUR BULGARIAN FRIENDS

Try making tea to a Briton without boiling the water properly, then leave the tea bag in the cup for way too long. Watch him or her in the eye and say "with all due respect, this is the right way to make tea."

The French are also pretty easy to annoy, especially if you tell them the guillotine, that ultimate symbol of liberty, equality and fraternity, had already existed in Yorkshire. Danes are difficult because they are generally rational to the point of nonchalance, but do ask someone you dislike what is his salary after tax.

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MOVABLE EASTER

Last year, an early-April trip to Poland provided an interesting insight into the calendar system. Heavy snow still covered the streets and temperatures were unusually low, causing concerns about climate change and the well-being of the storks who had already returned, only to find frozen fields and lakes deprived of any food. In Poland, as well as in the Catholic and Protestant parts of the world, Easter had already been celebrated at the very end of March, and Easter bunnies made of snow were still sitting in the gardens of some creative people.

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JAIL AT LAND'S END

Preventing prison breaks have always been a top priority for authorities, but few solved the problem so efficiently as Socialist Romania in the first years of Stalinism. Opponents of the regime were sent to Sighetu Marmației, on the banks of the Tisa River, in the northwest of Romania. On the other side of the border, only 2 km away, was the USSR, the unlikeliest place one would try to escape to.

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14 FEBURARY DILEMMA

The question "What to do on St Valentine's Day?" can be frustrating. For those in a relationship, there is the what-to-buy-this-year horror, while for some singles there is the feeling of loneliness. The anti-globalists become incensed at the heart-shaped mania that is taking over the world and the cynics point to the billions of dollars generated by the sales of romantic lingerie, chocolate and holidays. It is hard to deny that most of the red or pink trivia sold everywhere before 14 February – plus the music on the radio and the movies on the TV – are outrageously kitschy.

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TASTY MULTI-KULTI

No matter how wide your restaurant comfort zone is, a day comes when you crave to bite something different that your usual shopska and kebapcheta. You would want something different – and if you have been living in Bulgaria for long enough you'd know how hard it is to find it. In Sofia, restaurants come and go, replacing one another with the predictability of the moon phases, but most of the time new establishments do what their predecessors used to do. Which is, follow the trend.

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WHO WAS FRANK THOMPSON?

When former Pink Floyd front man, Roger Waters, visited Bulgaria in August, one of his must-see sights was the grave of Major Frank Thompson, in the village of Litakovo outside of Botevgrad. If you are exiting from the Sofia Metro at the James Bourchier station, there is a large sign directing you to Major Thompson Street. In the town of Svoge, the train station is named after this mysterious Englishman and there is a also village called "Tompsan" in the Svoge Municipality.

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TOP 10 BULGARIAN NIGHTMARES

Every person has their own fears and usually these have to do with past experiences, current difficulties and so on. But some types of fears are experienced collectively. These are archetypal fears that, with a bow and a wink to Freud and Jung, may be termed national nightmares. What are Bulgarians most scared of? Are they scared of things that other nations, for example the Belgians, are not? Are the Bulgarians so different from the Greeks and the Turks in the way they fear others and each other?

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10 WAYS TO FIGHT OSTALGIA

If opinion polls are anything to go by, Bulgarians are the most pessimistic Europeans. In contrast to the Danes who, despite – or perhaps because of – their climate and taxation levels, have persistently, over the course of many years, emerged as the most contented people in Europe, Bulgarians are becoming increasingly unhappy and morose.

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COB HOUSING

Walk into any traditional Bulgarian house and the evidence of building with mud will be visible somewhere: from clay ovens in kitchens to interior walls and outdoor barns. Building with cob, a combination of straw, clay, earth and often other natural materials such as lime, has long been used as a worldwide building technique that has evolved very little over time.

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DRIVING SAFELY IN BULGARIA

Bulgarian drivers, pedestrians, and on-lookers are forever moaning about congestion, haphazardly parked cars, lack of parking facilities, potholes, corrupt cops and so on and so forth. As at some stage you are bound to get yourself involved in the traffic, here is some essential advice on rules, regulations and customs, as well as a a bagful of tips and tricks.

Sofia and the big cities

Local drivers detest what they call "downtown traffic jams," but they’ve never been to Naples or seen the M25.

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