Issue 3

MY OWN CHOICE: EATERIES THAT STAND THE TEST OF TIME DESERVE FAITHFULNESS

Restaurants are like women: I remain loyal to them unless they start cheating on me. There have been but a few restaurants that have. My first impressions may be excellent and I begin going there regularly, but after they catch on and have enough patrons, they change. The food is prepared with less and less care, portions shrink, waiters become either too offhand or too lazy. However, my love for the eateries I'm going to tell you about has stood the test of time, sometimes for decades.

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GO PICK SOME SPEARMINT

In 1546, a band of French travelers carrying a rare variety of spearmint from Persia to Western Europe stopped in the region of what is now the Bulgarian town of Chirpan. The locals welcomed the strangers with open arms, and before long the Frenchmen discovered that the wines, cheeses, and women in Bulgaria were a lot nicer than those they had grown accustomed to in Flanders. Their leader, Pierre de Lemanche, offered a Bulgarian maiden a whiff of crushed spearmint leaves, in an attempt to impress her.

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THE COST OF LIVING

How much would you pay for a room with a view in Sofia? How much for a pint? If you thought it was impossible these days to get a decent fl at for under 1,500,000 pounds, or to get a round in and still have change from a tenner, think again. It may be time to give Bulgaria a try.

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PELIN

The saying "bitter like pelin" aptly describes the opinion of a large part of the drinking community, and probably of all teetotallers, in Bulgaria. They believe that this wormwood wine is definitely not to die for.

But the strange drink - neither wine, nor sangria, nor aperitif a la Fernet - has enough fans among the rest of the population. So many, in fact, that the EU has agreed to accept it as a Bulgarian trademark denoting an aromatic wine-based drink.

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THE POLITICS OF SPITE

Is Volen Siderov a Bulgarian version of Haider or Zhirinovsky? Does his good showing in the first round of the residential election parallel the rise of Le Pen in France? Are all the 600,000 Bulgarians who voted for him racists and xenophobes?

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THE HEAT IS ON

Only yesterday, in a rare moment of revelation, did I discover the secret of the central heating system in Sofia: if you want to stay warm in winter, you don't switch it off. Ever. Forget about the hefty bills and crank it up!

Just as in the good old days, before the advance of heating meters and evil companies who read them, heating had one mode, and it was "ON". All winter, no matter how cold or warm it was, the heating was ON - and it was affordable.

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THE PLATE OF DISCORD

At the beginning of October, another spanner was thrown into the works in Bulgarian-British relations, already fraught with questions over immigration and British labour market policy. It came in the form of a rare 12th Century Byzantine plate. The ancient treasure was a source of consternation both for Christie's and for Bulgarians, who accused the auction house of trying to sell an artefact that had allegedly been smuggled out of the country.

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MASTER AND SLAVE

The Russian company AtomStroyExport has won the tender to design, construct and commission Bulgaria's Belene Nuclear Power Plant. A month away from being a member of the EU, and only days after the release of the new European Green Book for Energy that calls for the diversification and security of supply, Bulgaria is increasing its energy dependence on Russia - a very delicate issue for the EU.

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BULGARIA'S 'LOCOMOTIVE' SLACKENS OFF

Until recently, Germany was considered the "locomotive" of Bulgaria's accession to the EU. For years, it was seen as the most outspoken advocate of Bulgaria's membership. In 2006, however, an increasing number of warnings have been voiced in political circles in Berlin and especially in Munich, that neither Bulgaria nor the other candidate country, Romania, are ready to become full members of the exclusive European club.

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WE'VE GOT MAIL

As I drive frequently, I am stopped frequently - usually for speeding. The best advice to foreigners that I can give is, when stopped by the police, be sure to speak absolutely no Bulgarian - even if you can. Even a basic understanding of the language is a sure indication to the police that you should know better than to break the traffic laws. You might even try saying in your most innocent mid-western American accent (if you can do one) " I am sorry officer, but I just don't understand... I am sorry... what". Complete ignorance is the best defence.

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FAR FROM THE DANUBE, An excerpt from a novel

There are probably not many English authors who can claim to have accompanied the launch of their book with a live set of Bulgarian folksongs. At the Helikon bookshop in Sofia this October, Christopher Buxton picked up his guitar and sang for the audience attending the Bulgarian launch of his novel Far From the Danube.

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KEEP MIGRANT WORKERS OUT

"You need a 64p stamp to Bulgaria," said the clerk at my local Indian-run postoffice. "It's not in the EU."

"Yet," I added.

"Ah yes," he smiled. "I read in the paper. They're afraid Bulgarians and Romanians will take their jobs."

"We just bought a house in Bulgaria," a woman in the queue said. "Frankly, I don't think they'll come in their hundreds of thousands. Why would they, there's so much going on there."

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LONDON'S BEST-KEPT SECRET

In1833 architect Sir John Soane, owner of the building at 12-14 Lincoln's Inn Fields in London, decided to put an end to the drama which had been going on for years behind the white Portland stone facade decorated with antique sculpture and Gothic consoles.

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THE GREAT BORDER DEBATE, TAKE 2

London has poured cold water on Bulgaria's mounting excitement over its entry into the EU next year.

While preaching the benefits of integration and the free movement of peoples, the government of prime minister Tony Blair last month announced

Unveiled by Home Secretary John Reid at the height of a xenophobic tabloid newspaper campaign that portrayed Sofia as hopelessly corrupt and crime-ridden, the new rules would severely restrict the right of Bulgarians (and Romanians) to work in Britain. Note that Bulgarians will still be able to live in the UK after 1 January.

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JERUSALEM SYNDROME

Jerusalem, deemed holy by three religions, abounds in historical and mythical landmarks which can overwhelm visitors with contemplation and awe. Like other sacred places, it invokes that peculiar feeling of rubbing shoulders with Eternity.

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CHARITY WITHOUT PRETENCE

The Centre for Hope looks after 20 children with multiple physical disabilities. After Nelly Radeva first helped out at the centre three years ago she decided to expand on its activities. At first, friends discouraged Radeva, a dealer in modern Bulgarian art who has been living in Germany for 13 years. "They said there was no point in doing this in Bulgaria. But my indignation at the lack of a normal city environment for disabled children, at the lack of understanding and the fear with which people treated them, became too strong," Radeva says.

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COMIN' HOME FOR CHRISTMAS

Well, 'tis the season and all that and, as this goes to print, people all over the Western world will be gearing up for that special festive time when we see family, exchange tokens of love, wallow in gluttony and try not to get into any rows over the dinner table. In many families the flow of conversation throughout the big day will be largely affected by the flow of wine. Normal conversation taboos will slowly be eroded.

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DIFFERENT WORLDS

Somewhere in outer space the voice of Bulgarian folksinger Valya Balkanska is hurtling toward the stars. The recording of her singing the folksong Izlel je Delyo Hajdutin, the Bulgarian Shepherdesses' Song, was one of 27 tracks included on a gold disc that was launched into space onboard the Voyager spacecraft in 1977. It was part of a NASA project in collaboration with American popular scientist Carl Sagan, to bring a greeting from Planet Earth to any alien life forms out there in the far reaches of the universe.

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MERRY CHRISTMAS

The Bulgarian name for Christmas, Koleda, still bears traces of the holiday's pagan origin: the Roman festival Kalendae, celebrated on 25 December, the day when the new sun was born. Despite some minor differences, both Anglican and Orthodox Christmases have gradually lost their religious significance. They have been commercialised and, for many, are now just another excuse for a shopping binge.

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WHOSE ARE THESE ILLUSIONS, ANYWAY?

Hackscomplainthat little is happening in Bulgarian literature these days, but they are wrong. In October, a book by a young woman made headlines in the tabloids, some of which took the unusual course of kindly publishing both sympathetic interviews with the author and large excerpts from her oeuvre. Some Bulgarians old enough to remember Communism and its collapse at the end of 1989 were infuriated, but others hailed the book as a "literary phenomenon".

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