Issue 12

GO, GOTSE, GO!

Abraham Lincoln famously said that you can fool some of the people all of the time, all of the people some of the time, but you cannot fool all the people all the time.

Perhaps the masses are more malleable than Lincoln thought, at least in present-day Bulgaria. President Georgi Parvanov, it transpires from recently declassified documents, was an informer for DS, or Darzhavna sigurnost - the Communist-era secret police, the Bulgarian equivalent of Stasi and Securitate.

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PRO BONO PUBLICA

It seemed like the ending of a World Cup Championship where the Bulgarian boys had scored against Germany. National euphoria surrounded the five women and two men as they descended from a French aircraft at Sofia Airport. Even the hard-bitten wept as the longsuffering detainees fell into the arms of their loved ones.

It was the hottest day of the year but Bulgaria's establishment, bedecked in dark suits, lined the scorched tarmac, perhaps eager to bask in the plaudits and the reflected glory.

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BABIES FOR SALE

In the middle of the summer, the lead story on BBC1's Ten O'Clock News was a report on baby smuggling in Bulgaria. Presented by Sangita Myska, it used a hidden camera to expose a child trafficker operating out of the popular Black Sea resort of Varna.

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HAVE SHORTS, WON’T FILL OUT FORMS

On one of the hottest days of the summer an English friend and I went to Burgas City Council to get the forms needed to “regularise” some plumbing work in the garden of his newly acquired home. After some time in Bulgaria my friend had acclimatised to the system's eccentricities. But he was still genuinely surprised – even shocked – at some of the finer details of Bulgarian etiquette.

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CUSTOMER DISSERVICE

All of us know the rules. In fact, you'd have to be like the Peter Sellers character in Being There not to realise the scam. But, in case you're housebound, mentally retarded or a pauper, here's the routine. Even little bills are quickly rounded up in cafés and restaurants. The waiter will take a five leva note, knowing that they owe you, say, 60 stotinki. They then shuffle off, never to be seen again or, alternatively, give you a perfunctory look in the eye beforehand to gauge your determination – or gullibility. In other words, explicitly request the change or forget about it!

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SMOKES AND DRINK KEEP YOU IN THE PINK

Ask acquaintances about their hobbies or leisure activities. They'll go blank for a moment as they think about what they do in their free time. After a few seconds, most people will offer a vague answer: “listening to music”, “reading”, “watching movies”. A few folks do have real hobbies, like paragliding, or collecting pre-World War II shoelaces, whatever.

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THE BULGARIAN GULAG

Marin Georgiev's nightmare began in April 1961. A shepherd from Straldzha, he was peacefully minding his sheep when two State Security plainclothes agents arrested him. Georgiev was sent to a labour camp in Lovech without trial. His crime? He had refused “voluntarily” to give his land and livestock to the collective farms, the only type of holding permitted in Communist Bulgaria.

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THE OTHER EXPATS

Imagine you have committed no crime yet you are imprisoned for weeks, months, even years – without a release date. There's no point tearing days off a calendar. If you protest you could be placed in isolation for an unspecified period.

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SPLENDOUR BEFORE THE STORM

One of the most popular images associated with Bulgaria is the Tsarevets Hill in Veliko Tarnovo. Proud Bulgarians regard it as one of the important symbols of their statehood – to the point that they have made it the centrepiece of a sound and light show. It served as the capital of the restored Bulgarian kingdom from the time of the liberation from Byzantine rule until the Ottoman conquest, a kingdom that at one point stretched between three seas.

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EMBROIDERING THE EU

Visitors to Sofia's Nevsky Square will be familiar with the small embroidery market staffed by middle-aged women. But some of their designs have changed...

Needlepoint lace, colourful blankets and finely embroidered linen squares form the mainstay of the product on display. The artefacts represent a connection with Bulgaria's folk roots as well as a great opportunity for tourists to pick up a few light gifts. But such brief exchanges, haggling over a few leva, leave little time to uncover real lives and personal histories.

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THE UNDERWORLD OF CAPPADOCIA

Aliens had completed the link from the underground city of Agartha, at the centre of the Earth, to Cappadocia in Anatolia. Next they turned their attention to humans. The aliens predicted that Homo Sapiens would not travel farther than the moon over the next few millennia. So they built a shelter where the people of Cappadocia could live in safety.

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PROTECTING YOUR PROPERTY

You don't have to actually see the flooded or charred remains of homes on TV to consider buying property insurance. But recent developments may spur you into action. That can only be welcome because protecting your home against disasters – natural or man-made – is an essential preventative measure.

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ANCHORS AWEIGH

Bulgaria's sea and river ports are enjoying a renaissance as trans-European transport networks continue to develop and investment and traffic increase. Water transport, which had been superseded in most sectors by cheaper air freight and improved roads, has reasserted itself and is being integrated with other forms of transport.

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BULGARIA BATTLES BACK

Too many recent articles on the Bulgarian real estate market have focused on over-development and lack of infrastructure, even to the point of trying to dissuade investors from buying here. But such tales have to be put into perspective.

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GO EAST, YOUNG MAN!

Before the EU's fifth enlargement NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer compared “Old Europe” to a pensioner who needed transfusions of fresh ideas from the 10 incoming central and eastern European members.


Few people gauged his meaning until the second wave of the fifth enlargement, when it transpired that the 12 additional entrants provided welcome news to property investors.

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SOUL FOOD, BULGARIAN STYLE

When one Bulgarian housewife wants to insult another, she doesn't accuse her in public of neglecting her garden – Bulgarian gardens grow tomatoes, not honeysuckle. She simply calls her a zagoritendzhera, a “woman who has burned her pot”.

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WE'VE GOT MAIL

The LUKoil garage in Zapaden Park told me only Shell and OMV sold vignettes. The OMV garage in Knyazhevo said they only had weekly and monthly vignettes in stock, not yearly ones. The Shell garage at Dragichevo said the State Roads Agency, responsible for printing and distributing the vignettes, had stopped printing yearly ones. The OMV at Dupnitsa said it was nothing to do with them.

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MY OWN CHOICE: FOOD & DRINK IN SOFIA & BEYOND

Diplomats' culinary discoveries are often restricted by the profession. Either I'm the host – and my Bulgarian and foreign guests expect to be taken to grand hotels or to a rather limited selection of restaurants – or I'm invited and the same applies to me. Consequently, magical opportunities to discover the joys of Bulgarian scenery and food arise only during free time. This is particularly frustrating as my hobby is cookery and I'm a member of two societies – Slow Food and Chaîne des Rôtisseurs – which should motivate me to explore Bulgaria's culinary world more seriously.

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