Issue 19

GANG BANG

Organised crime in Bulgaria has two sources: the former State Security, or DS, and former athletes. The Bulgarian mafia often makes headlines with gangland murders, but even if you're not an underworld aficionado, you've probably seen some of these wiseguys on the street, in stores or at nightclubs. A mutra, or mafioso, is easy to spot: just look for a guy with short hair, black clothes, a fancy car and a stunning babe on his arm.

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A LACK OF TRANSPARENCY

In Bulgaria no one would dare attempt such a citizen's arrest and in practice hitmen and those who hire them remain anonymous. This situation has led Bulgarians to feel that certain people in the country are untouchable. Boyko Borisov voiced this belief when he was secretary of the Interior Ministry, or MVR in 2001-2005. After every high-profile gangland killing, he would tell the media: “They are killing each other off because they're not in jail.

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WARM BLANKET OR WET FLANNEL

My weekend UK Arts supplement would have me believe that in the cinema world, Romania is the next Brazil. Three hard hitting films on life before and after the downfall of Communism have suddenly put Eastern Europe back on the must-see movie map.

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HEALTH AND SAFETY VS COMMON SENSE

Bulgaria's carefree environment provides expats like myself with a sense of freedom and safety rarely experienced in our home country. Especially in the countryside, life here is sometimes safer for children and teens, less complicated for adults, and harks back to Britain's admirable values of 50 years ago, where everyone “looked out” for each other. However, whilst life here is so much more straightforward and relaxed, Bulgaria trails way behind the rest of Europe in terms of health and safety.

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MILLIMETRE DEMOCRACY

Today someone tried to kill me. Three times. As I crossed the street at a zebra crossing, a sports car shot through a red light and miraculously missed me. A plumber saved me from falling into a gaping manhole by sticking his head out of it just before I was about to step in. A chunk of plaster the size of a small dog came crashing down off a building as I passed by. And this was on a good day - the pack of stray dogs that usually prowls the pavements on my way to work must have had the day off.

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THE EXPAT STRIKES BACK

Bulgarians are very conservative at heart. They crave the quiet life. They don't want fuss. They don't like hassle. This attitude has many positive sides. In Bulgaria, respectable folk don't have to put up with mouthy teenagers on public transport, as in Britain. You can walk around after dark in relative safety. There are no brawls in the street at pub closing time. The dominant philosophy is “live and let live”. Touch wood.

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HIDDEN ISLAND

Rising out of the waves of the Aegean just two hours by ferry from Alexandroupoli, Samothrace is the answer to the most puzzling Greek paradox: where can you find an island with an idyllic landscape, dramatic mountains, a classical past, friendly locals and excellent beaches - and no tourists?

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FOR MEN'S EYES ONLY

A place like Mt Athos makes you realise what temptations life has in store. In the monastic republic, established on the easternmost finger of the Chalcidice Peninsula in 885 by a chrysobull, or edict, of Byzantine Emperor Basil I, almost everything carries the stamp of “temptation”. On the Holy Mountain, however, anything regarded as “temptation” is banned.

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THESSALONIKI BEYOND IKEA

It is a truly gorgeous day today - the sun is shining, birds are singing in gardens which are full of colourful bulbs and bushes, and the water of the Aegean is shimmering in the light.

Thessaloniki doesn't need much of an introduction: for more than a decade it has been a favourite shopping as well as holiday destination among Bulgarians and expats alike. Once the "ignored little sister" of Athens, Salonika is lively and young, with its own rhythm and spirit as well as cultural, economic and gastronomic life.

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A DANGEROUS BALANCING ACT

THE TREATY OF NEUILLY

When news of the 27 November 1919 treaty signed in the Paris suburb of Neuilly-sur-Seine reached Bulgaria, there was not a dry eye to be found. The victors in the First World War forced the defeated nation to accept a peace deal that Bulgarians to this day consider a national catastrophe.

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BOOMING SALES

Why did the Bulgarian property market attract so many Britons? There are lots of theories but no definite answer. Some experts say British estate agents simply identified a need for a cheap and attractive destination, and Bulgaria seemed to be the ideal place. Pessimists suspect that the whole Bulgarian property craze was just a brilliant PR campaign. Most locals believe it was the country's accession to NATO and the EU that ignited the foreign interest, but it actually began in 2002, long before there was any certainty that Bulgaria would join these organisations.

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THE MALLIFICATION OF BULGARIA

Before the 21st Century, all Bulgarian cities had one thing in common: most offices, entertainment spots and shopping areas were located in their centres. Their outskirts resembled sleepy, concrete jungles with poor or nonexistent infrastructure. Those who lived “uptown” had to go “downtown” to find a good nightclub or buy a pair of shoes. Reputable companies rented offices in the city centres as a sign of true prosperity and reliability.

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MY OWN CHOICE: WINING AND DINING IN MY BALKAN NEIGHBOURHOOD

In contemporary terms, it mainly describes business conferences and meetings. Few are aware today that the word's original meaning was “drinking in company”. For my ancestors, the almost ceremonial way of associating food and drink with the exchange of opinions and lively philosophical discussions among peers made the symposium a vital and indispensable means of communication. It was considered not a personal, but a social process aiming at bringing together and unifying family, friends or colleagues.

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WE'VE GOT MAIL

It appears that there is a year long litter festival. This festival consists of adorning the trees and bushes with litter, and also along the roadside litter can be seen. There is normally a pile of litter outside each village. Presumably this pile is to further enhance the surrounding area; it can be dipped into as and when required.

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DID HE LIE AGAIN?

“The president was not at the hotel. Someone is trying to make himself look good at someone else's expense.”

“But did the president join a hunting party in the region on 1 March?”

“That is our answer.”

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THE BLACK BOX

A yuppie pukes up $500 worth of truffles and Bordeaux into a New York City gutter while his brother walks pinschers in Central Park. They are both Bulgarian and their father - or at least his remains - is packed away in a black box. Such a scene can only be straight out of an Alek Popov novel. Born in 1966, he is one of those rare Bulgarian writers who can describe the life of his compatriots abroad without tumbling from the lifeline of self-irony into the abyss of misguided patriotism.

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