Issue 27

misLEADING ADVICE No 2

One Bulgarian Rose

Bulgaria's traffic police are the staunch and incorruptible guardians of law and order on the nation's roads. They would never dream of accepting money from any driver caught committing an infraction. The only way to appease these tough men is to keep a basket of flowers on the back seat, in order to present each of them with, for example, a rose whenever necessary.

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Ersatz Souvenirs

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DON'T PANICK THE PANIC

A child building a house out of stacks of devalued bills – in 1997 Bulgarian high school students didn't need this textbook illustration of Germany's economic crisis of 1923 to understand what hyperinflation means. They had just experienced it firsthand a few months earlier, when the exchange rate for the US dollar reached 3,000 leva. Prices jumped daily. Desperate mothers learned how to make soup out of yesterday's breadcrumbs. Thousands of families discovered soy as a meat substitute.

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MERRY CHRISTMAS IN A HOME AWAY FROM HOME

RETURN TO CHRISTMAS PAST

Fiona Williams shares memories and a good English Christmas dish

A graduate in archaeology and ancient history, a teacher of English as a foreign language and a Montessori nursery school teacher, Fiona Williams has been in Sofia for just over a year with her husband, Steve, the British Ambassador to Bulgaria. While expecting their two daughters and son to join them for the holiday season, Fiona will be hanging up the Christmas stockings that she bought here 24 years ago.

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BULGARIAN CHRISTMAS

You're an expat in Bulgaria this Christmas and you want to celebrate the winter holidays with the locals. But you are confused: Why are your usually easygoing neighbours banging on your door in the middle of the night or pouring grain over your head? Why does the whole village suddenly reek of garlic and pork fat? Here's a bit of insight into Bulgarian superstitions and traditions to help you avoid embarrassing cultural faux pas, such as getting up from the dinner table too soon or falling victim to evil horsemen.

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10 REASONS TO VISIT ATHENS

If you've been to Athens at the height of the tourist season, you'll probably be hard-pressed to come up with even a single reason to visit the "cradle of democracy and Western civilisation." The rocky hills only intensify the August heat, the hordes of tourists make the narrow streets even more claustrophobic, and the bill you get at the overcrowded tavern is as big as your chances of slipping on the steps of the Propylaea, which have been shined smooth by centuries of visitors.

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MY OWN CHOICE: TOP CHOICES 2008

Whether you're a newcomer or a veteran expat in Bulgaria, you'd have noticed it already – the local wining and dining scene, in the cities at least, is anything but short of places. Perhaps Bulgarians' die-hard habit of unwinding among friends, salads and rakiya has a lot to do with it. It also explains the huge numbers in restaurants on week nights. What Vagabond's group of diners outlined in 2008 was the diversity of choices on offer despite any expectations to the contrary.

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SOC NOIR

For Javor Gardev – loved by some and disliked by others (probably with equal strength) – 2008 has been a successful year. Zift, the 35-year-old director's first film, went to its first international festival, in Moscow, and won the Best Direction Award. Soon afterwards Gardev's second child was born. Zift later became the Bulgarian Best Foreign Language Film Oscar nomination, and was also pronounced as historic (at least by its fans) due to its introducing a new genre in cinema – Socialist Noir.

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CATCHING THE GREEN WAVE

In Bulgarian, a zelena valna, or green wave, used to mean a series of green traffic lights – something every Bulgarian driver dreams about in Sofia's traffic-clogged streets. More recently, however, a different kind of green wave has appeared – one that stops cars dead in their tracks. A couple of times a year, police estimate that between 2,000 and 3,000 people take to the streets in central Sofia to protest against construction on Bulgaria's Black Sea coast and mountains.

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THE ARCHIVIST'S STORY

"I was about to make tea," Pavel offers. On the bureau beside the window sit an electric samovar, a serving tray, tea glasses and spoons, a darkly tarnished tin, all left behind by the office's previous occupant, absent now. Behind the desk, where a row of pictures once hung, the plaster is noticeably lighter; only nails remain. "Would you like to sit down?"

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BLACK MARTENITSI

The secretary Mimi screamed and threw down the martenitsa the second she realised it was made from locks of hair. After managing to control her shaking hands, she picked up the phone – first she called the police, then she called her boss, whose mail she had been opening and getting ready for his arrival at 10 o'clock. Her boss, the prominent construction magnate Mr G.B. Nedyalkov, became hysterical when he found out the order of her actions, but it was already too late.

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THE BATTLE OF PLEVEN

If you happen to find yourself in Pleven's central square on 10 December, you might think you've stumbled into a historical film. Men in copies of 19th Century Russian, Romanian and Ottoman military uniforms pose with sabres and Berdana and Martini rifles against a backdrop of cannons and bayonets – the fence surrounding the Mausoleum, one of the city's prime tourist attractions. This re-enactment of the Ottomans' surrender to the Russians at Pleven in 1877 after a five-month siege is a set, not for a film, but for the city's traditional liberation celebrations.

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WE'VE GOT MAIL

They circle the perimeter of our land and often take an aggressive stance. We spoke to the neighbour and subsequently with the police, because my 14-year-old son had had a close and dangerous encounter with the dogs. Usually they were kept in for a few days, but then let out again.What we did not realise at the time is that a small herd of 20-odd calves were being housed in the family's garden. These cattle are being milked and slaughtered on the same premises.

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QUOTE-UNQUOTE

There's a new phenomenon on the Bulgarian market – massive numbers of businesses are being put up for sale. The amount has increased many times over and affects a wide variety of sectors – for example, construction, real estate, pharmacies and communications. Almost every sector is witnessing similar dynamics, which is a clear indication that a crisis is looming.

Bozhidar Danev, chairman of the Bulgarian Chamber of Commerce

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A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE

When the Secretary of the Executive Bureau of the BSP stood in front of some 800 participants in the party's 47th Congress and read out a statement by President Georgi Parvanov, people learned the answer of an important question: against the background of a parliamentary decision condemning Fascism and Communism in equal measure, why wouldn't Bulgarian school kids learn about it in school?

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WELCOME TO THE BULGARIAN ALPS?

"Bulgaria: Austria of the Balkans." This sounds like an alluring idea – especially if you're thinking in terms of infrastructure, standard of living and architecture. However, the people pushing this slogan are investors with a different agenda – they mean Bulgaria to match Austria by length of ski runs. Even Bulgaria's most famous resorts, including Borovets in the Rila, Bansko in the Pirin and Pamporovo in the Rhodope,don't come even close to such a comparison. So despite the financial crisis, several projects to build new ski resorts are in advanced stages of development.

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