Issue 28-29

THE RAGE OF THE MALTESE FALCONS

The bold decoration on an alcohol factory near Ihtiman has done what many believed to be an impossibility – rousing the Knights Hospitallers out of the quiet charitable existence they have led since the Second World War, and forcing them to take bold action. Bogdan Patashev, first secretary of the Sovereign Military Order of Malta in Bulgaria, lodged an angry protest with the Bulgarian Foreign Ministry. According to the note, the medal adorning the factory is the same symbol used by the Knights Hospitallers, an order founded in the 11th Century to care for sick pilgrims in the Holy Land.

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FACE ON, FACE OFF

Happy families are all alike, every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. When Leo Tolstoy created one of the most famous clichés in modern literature, he forgot one important thing: he didn't mention how unhappy families act when they try to hide their misery. They may argue, they may fight, they may smash aristocratic vases pilfered by Soviet soldiers or knick-knacks made of Chinese plastic from the Everything-for-One-Leva stores. Yet the moment an outsider steps into their home, harmony reigns. Tears and snot are wiped away.

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EXPATS ARE DOING IT FOR THEMSELVES

It's no secret that Bulgaria has been criticised for its lack of adequate aid. For example, the BBC documentary on the Mogilino orphans and the frequent reports on the stray dogs problem have sent out damning messages to the rest of the world of a country still lagging behind in its approach to charitable causes. In response, the ever-growing expat community have taken matters into their own hands, with projects that show that it's not just tourism and property that are on the rise, but also awareness and fundraising. All this is done without government support.

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AND THEN ORPHEUS DESCENDED INTO HELL

Our Friday gig went totally lame. The plum of our show was my black eye. Bellerophon was once again slapping the bass and blowing kisses to the audience, I was taking my revenge on it, and Pegasus was trying to mediate between all sides. When this is done by drums, the result defies description. People evacuated themselves with headaches. Bellerophon bid us goodbye at the earliest possible moment and left us "to square our accounts." Pegasus and I decided to drink a shot of vodka. We both knew we would never come back here again. We collected our payments.

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ESCAPE TO ISTANBUL

Numerically, Istanbul has had many faces: it is now the world's third-largest city by population, for the Byzantines it was the Second Rome, while for generations of settlers – from the Arabs to the Crusaders to the Ottomans – it was the Number One city they sought to conquer. So why not cheat on your favourite Bulgarian winter getaway and sneak over to Istanbul? Just think about it: from Sofia, only five hours by car or one by plane separate you from the most cosmopolitan and lively spot in the world.

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ERNESTINA SHINOVA

At the Zlatna roza, or Golden Rose, Film Festival in 2008, Ernestina Shinova won the Best Leading Actress Award for her performance in Hindemith, a film directed by her husband Andrey Slabakov. She worked double time to earn it – she plays both main characters, who spend their days obsessively watching commercials and buying the latest Hindemith brand products. A parody of the nouveau riche's consumer lifestyle, the film strikes a rare balance of humour and melancholy.

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GREDDY ASSA

Born in 1954 into a Jewish family in Pleven, Greddy Assa graduated from the Art Department at Veliko Tarnovo University with a degree in mural painting. Between 2000 and 2004 he was associate dean of the National Art Academy and to this day remains one of the most highly respected professors there. His paintings are in the Holocaust Museum in Washington and in the Bundestag in Berlin, as well as in galleries in Tel Aviv, Aachen and elsewhere. He has had solo exhibits in Germany, Hungary, Austria, Sweden and Switzerland. He recently returned from a one-man show in Beijing.

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SONIA ROUVE

There are two opposed views about the ability of wives to write biographies of their husbands. One is that they make excellent biographers because, at least in theory, they know their husbands well. The other is that they are bad – and that's because they may either eulogise or negate disproportionately.

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WINE, WINE, WINE & WINE

Winter in Bulgaria wouldn't be complete without the endless name day celebrations, quivering slabs of slanina, or salted pork fat, and litres of rich red wine. In January and February alone you'll be required to do damage to your liver and waistline on Vasilyovden, or St Basil's Day; Yordanovden, or St Jordan's Day; Ivanovden, or St John's Day; Antonovden, or St Anthony's Day; Atanasovden, or St Athanasius's Day; and, of course, Trifon Zarezan, the winegrower's holiday on 14 February, which many people also celebrate on 1 February.

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THE PAST OF OTHERS

Iliya Troyanov is a man of many faces, languages and passports. After his parents fled Communist Bulgaria and settled in Western Europe in 1971, he spent most of his childhood in Germany and Kenya. He is, in the noble tradition of Bruce Chatwin, a nomad for our times whose life's mission is to explore the meaning of adventure, identity, hybridity and home. He has travelled widely and lived in India during the ᴀve-year research for The Collector of Worlds, his imaginative tour de force on the life and times of Richard Francis Burton, the 19 Century British explorer of Africa and Asia.

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FROM DURANKULAK TO REZOVO

The Get-To-Know-the-Fatherland-To-Fall-in-Love-With-It slogan perhaps made sense at some point – back when Bulgaria's natural environment was still relatively unmolested, and potholed roads led to places of breathtaking beauty. Bulgarians getting to know their homeland today run the risk of wanting to disappear rather than fall in love – especially when exploring the Black Sea coast.

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MY OWN CHOICE: ELISABETH HORNUNG

Sofia is a town to discover. I like that. There is not just one shopping street, only one quarter with clubs and bars, and one area with fancy restaurants. Most of Sofia's good places to go to are hidden in tiny streets and in slightly shattered-looking houses.

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HOMO URBANUS

If you would rather watch seaside landscapes, snow-capped mountains, lush green valleys or deep forests, look elsewhere. Jean-Marc Caracci has focused on the urban setting as a frame for his surrealist portraits of Europeans. Ignoring political definitions, he has been travelling across the continent's capitals taking pictures of the people who live in them.

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SEE SOME WRITING ON THE WALL

Willem van Ee has been ambassador of The Netherlands in Bulgaria since 2005, with less than a year to go. He believes in an EU with a human face, meaning that the European project is primarily for all of us peoples and citizens. Van Ee thinks that the colourful walls on the buildings in Sofia, which are part of the Dutch-inspired Wall-to-Wall Poetry project, will stimulate people's minds and make them believe that although every country is different, we are all united by the shared European values.

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SAINT TRIFON WHO?

No matter where you are – Los Angeles, London, Paris, Moscow, Bangkok or Tokyo – 14 February is celebrated in the same way. Crossing cultural and religious boundaries, Valentine's Day everywhere includes red hearts, chocolate, champagne and Mariah Carey singing "Without You."

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misLEADING ADVICE No 3

Chess Mates

There is always a great many people playing chess in the park opposite Bulgaria's National Theatre in Sofia. They wouldn't mind at all if you were to produce a piece of advice on their game, or even if you move one of their pieces on the board for them.

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Be Polite!

Then invited to a buffet party in Bulgaria, it is recommended that you demonstrate good manners, modesty and self-restraint by waiting for at least 45 minutes before tucking into the food and drinks.

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HOME SECURITY

If you're going away for the weekend or for the whole winter, now is the time to make sure that your home is really your castle. Burglary is not uncommon in Bulgaria, so if you feel unprotected from theft, now is the time to act.

Burglaries in Bulgaria come in two types. The first are so-called kokoshkarski, or petty robberies, committed by individuals or small groups of burglars who are sometimes drug addicts and who quickly snatch up whatever they can lay their hands on in hopes of pawning it.

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GATED IN OR BLOCKED OUT

According to a saying very popular among Bulgarians in the past, "In his life, a man must do three things: raise a child, plant a tree and build a house for his family." Nowadays this way of thinking no longer reflects the urban lifestyle – the current ratio of houses to apartments in most cities is approximately 20:80. In Sofia it has reached 10:90.

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A ROOM WITHOUT A VIEW

The year 2008 taught the world a bitter lesson – in economy terms, we're all in the same boat. No country is safe from the effects of a global crisis. During 2008 most players on the Bulgarian property scene were still in denial about the pending meltdown, hoping they could somehow avoid it. Now that the crisis is offcially here, what's to be expected? The property market and its various sectors will continue to change dramatically as certain crisis-related phenomena appear that we all will have to deal with.

The mortgage mafia

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