BULGARIA FOR BEGINNERS

by Richard Cherry

So, you're in Bulgaria for a limited time and you want to know those must-do things while you're here? Here's a handful to keep you busy for a few days

Chow Down, BG style.

Eat 100 percent Bulgarian-style for a day, just so you can say you did. Kick off in the morning with banitsa, an oily, cheesy pastry creation suitable for breakfast and roof insulation purposes only.

At lunch, have a gevrek. They're those bread-rings sold by old ladies on street corners. Possibly invented during the war, when fresh bread was unavailable, the idea kind of stuck, as a nostalgia thing. Chewier than old boots, you'll be munching away for hours.

Those being completely nutrition-free, however, you'll need some protein from somewhere. So wash it down with a boza. This drink is a kind of sour liquid porridge with just a hint of alcohol (…honestly). Bulgarians give it to babies to toughen ‘em up. Be brave: boza looks like somebody already drank it once.

Your evening meal will include a salad consisting of salty white cheese, tomatoes, and cucumbers. Cucumbers are, in fact, pretty hard to avoid; they pop up in almost everything. Leave it to the Bulgarians to uncover the versatility of this internationally underrated vegetable.

Don't forget a nice plate of chicken hearts. Not at all bad; but, as you add lemon juice to your dish of 30 or 40 hearts, it's impossible not to reflect, guiltily, that that's a lot of dead chickens.

Get the hell out of those expat pubs.

You know the places I'm talking about. Did you come to Bulgaria to hang out with Irish rugby players? No. You wanna get to one of those bars where you get frisked before you go in, where they play chalga music and you drink vodka all night, and end up dancing on tables till 6am. Just one thing: if there are a lot of big black Mercedes parked outside, be really careful whose bird you try to chat up.

Impress your Bulgarian friends by becoming a connoisseur of BG beers.

OK, you've tried a Zagorka, maybe a Kamenitza, and found them mildly lacking in charm. You ask yourself: In a country where I can get a 500ml bottle of Becks for 50p, why would I drink the local gear? Because you can, of course. What's the difference between an Ariana and an Astika? A Bolyarka and a Burgasko? There's something here for everyone, ranging from bland, gassy lagers to dark, toxic brews more suited to a petrie dish than a beer glass. Discover for yourself the full spectrum of Bulgarian beers, from the merely tolerable to the completely un-keep-downable. And imagine how sharply you'll rise in your Bulgarian friends' estimation when, having been offered an Almus, you can smile sagely and say, “No thanks! That stuff's made with Danube water.”

Learn a few key phrases in Bulgarian.

So you're giving a presentation to some potential Bulgarian clients. Some impolite guy keeps disturbing you by mumbling into his mobile phone. With a look of disdain, casually say to the bloke “Млъкни, бе” (Mlukni, be: it means “shut up”). You'll see a ripple of appreciation at your awareness of this useful Bulgarianism. Deal clinched.

You're out for a drink with an attractive Bulgarian chick. You raise glasses to toast each others' health. Forget the usual “Наздраве” (Nazdrave, “To your health”). Boring! Say instead “Хайде да се чукнем” (Hayde da se chuknem). This subtle double entendre means, literally, “Let's knock”. But your companion's blush, and giggle, will reveal that she knows you're not just talking about bumping glassware. A real winner.

Take up smoking.

Bulgarian cigarettes have more than doubled in price over the last few years, and they're still not much more than a euro a pack. At that price, you can't afford not to smoke! Not only are you supporting the Bulgarian economy (think tobacco growing), but as a smoker in Bulgaria you're at liberty to smoke wherever you damn like; in the office, the pub, the restaurant.

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