Issue 23

BRANDING BULGARIA

Horsemen gallop through the thick grass. Turf flies up from their horses' hooves, their manes stream in the wind, the faces of the horsemen radiate grandeur. In the distance is a rocky plateau. Zoom in. On the sheer cliff appears a relief of… a horseman.

An off-screen voice booms: "Come to Bulgaria, home of the Madara Horseman!" It's only now you realise that you're not watching a tourism advert for Mongolia, or a trailer for a new western by Clint Eastwood.

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IN BAD NEED OF A GOOD IMAGE

When expats and foreigners living in Bulgaria decided to take part in Vagabond's poll of what best epitomised Bulgaria, we knew the outcome would be more than eclectic. "Mountain ranges, vast open countryside, pleasant coastline (not the built-up areas), cafés full of sexy girls, and villages that have their own unique pace of life. The mix of old and new living alongside each other – for example, modern cars sharing the road with donkey carts. The way shepherds still move their livestock across the main roads.

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HOME HELP AND WHERE TO FIND IT

Every short or long term expat would concur that living in a foreign country poses all sorts of challenges – from understanding body language, to eating the food, finding your way around, guessing which municipal clerk does what, and so on. So when it comes to daily errands such as hoovering and ironing, dropping off and picking up the dry cleaning, doing your shopping, babysitting or walking the dog, things can get very complicated.

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RAIDERS OF NOAH'S ARK

Hasan Baba has stuck to the same daily routine for the past 23 years. When he wakes up in his little room at the information centre near Durupınar, he looks out through his window and sees the eternal snow cap of Mount Ararat. Then he makes tea. He tidies up the exhibition room, cleaning the modest collection that includes pictures, drawings, newspaper clippings, fossils and mysterious chunks which, according to the labels, are petrified wood dating from the time of the “Great Flood”. The elderly Kurd always stops in front of one framed letter. It came all the way from the United States.

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BG GLADIATORS, US STYLE

On a grassy field in Sofia, lit up by artificial green lights, two dozen men in full regalia ‒ helmets and shoulder and knee pads ‒ place two blocking bags about three metres, or 10 feet, apart. "The first two pairs, step up," an American voice says. Four of the guys get into the enclosed space. A quarterback hands the ball to a running back who tries ‒ and succeeds ‒ in evading a tackle from a linebacker by spinning and running. "Good, who's next?" the voice hollers above copious clapping and cheering. Two more pairs step up.

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JUMPIN' JOE

Joseph Beyrle couldn't remember the date when the Gestapo began interrogating him. He knew it was November 1944 and that he was in Berlin. He does, however, have vivid memories of the seven to 10 days when he was Himmler's guest.

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MEETING POINT

When Robert Gipson, an owner of an investment company in New York, first visited Bulgaria in August 2001, he came to meet his future in-laws. Or so he thought. Little did he know that quite soon he would be making a portion of his personal wealth available to charities in Bulgaria. His wife Nellie Gencheva-Gipson had a lot – but not all – to do with it.

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MATT BROWN: SURVEYING CHANGES

Effectively, it's Saddam Hussein's fault that Matt Brown ended up in Bulgaria. Fresh out of university, Matt was serving as a volunteer in the US Peace Corps in Pakistan when Iraq's invasion of Kuwait in 1991 prompted American military action in the Persian Gulf. Peace Corps withdrew from Pakistan and several other predominantly Muslim countries, fearing possible reprisals against Americans. Matt had married a fellow volunteer in Pakistan and after considering several possibilities for a new placement, they decided on Bulgaria.

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INSIDE SOFIA'S STUDENT TOWN

What would you be willing to endure to get a university degree? For the thousands of Bulgarians from the country who study in Sofia, but can't afford to rent a room or a flat on their own, this is not a hypothetical question and the only answer is to get used to life in Student Town. For most of them this means living with two other people in apartment buildings that need a bulldozer rather than an overhaul.

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NO CLUB FOR US

Groucho Marx famously said he'd never become a member of a club that would accept him as a member. In the wake of the damning EU report that suspended hundreds of million euros of aid to Bulgaria the Bulgarian political establishment should perhaps be watching Marx brothers' films rather than be ruling the country.

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WELCOME, WELGONE

Something happened while I was travelling on bus number 74, a few stops before the central railway station in Sofia. Six British tourists got on the bus, huge rucksacks on their backs, punched a ticket each and were even lucky enough to get seats. At the next stop, two ticket collectors got on. The foreigners were the first to face the ticket check. “No tickets for luggage!” said one of the men in broken English, as he pulled a brochure out of his pocket. The brochure set out and explained – in English – all the rights and obligations passengers have. “Fine!

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DOOMSDAY SAYERS, ATONE!

Weird eclecticism and vulgar pizzazz are traits of Sofia's architecture – thanks to a legacy of multiculturalism, political transition and poor planning. Nor is it the tidiest city in Europe. Fluttering blue-and-gold EU flags do little to sway the dingy impression made on first-time visitors. What newcomers fail to spot, however, is that Sofia is probably the most promising property market – not only in Bulgaria but in southeast Europe as a whole.

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GROWING PAINS

Over the last century Bulgaria's capital has expanded from what is now known as the "broader centre" into territories that Sofianites used to think of as "the outback". Wild expansion has swallowed up nearly all available building space for residential, office and especially logistics properties.

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TO CHICAGO AND BACK

One of Bulgaria's greatest writers, Aleko Konstantinov, went to the World's Columbian Exhibition in 1893 and returned with a travel book that has been set reading in Bulgarian schools for generations. Thanks to Aleko, or Happy Man as he was referred to, there is no Bulgarian secondary school student who does not know about the Niagara Falls and the Chicago slaughterhouses.

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THE TROUBLE WITH TOURISTS

Bulgaria has a lot to thank tourists for. They bring money, popularity and business to the country. Although Germans and Russians have been holidaying in this picturesque country for years, the real boom began in the early 2000s, when millions of Balkan and Western tourists flocked to the country to sample wines, laze on beaches, hit the slopes or cruise the cities.

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WILD WHAT?

The first time I arrived in Bulgaria my luggage went missing for two days. I ended up staying in a hotel with a stain the shape of Switzerland on the floor, and the towels were the size of beer mats. As it turns out, the missing and subsequently ransacked luggage, was the fault of a major Italian airline and the hotel, well, that was just down to my poor judgement. Almost everything else has been a pleasant surprise and I've enjoyed getting the hang of the place.

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YOU ARE THE PROBLEM

Bang! And your life has changed forever. A loved one has been taken from you by the statistic that Bulgarians don't care about, the rampant killing that goes on by motorised maniacs. Imagine if you turned up at your workplace to find everyone was dead and also in every nearby workplace until the deathtoll reached 1,000. You would be shocked, horrified and angry and that is the area that annoys me most, Bulgarians don't get angry about the stupidity that passes for driving on their roads.

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