Living in Bulgaria

IN THE COUNTRY OF SAD SOUVENIRS

The trouble is that most of it is obviously ugly, kitschy, smelly, or all of the above. There are the crude fridge magnets and the decorative plates and coffee mugs with amazingly incompetent representations of local and national tourist sites. There are the decorative glass bottles filled with a concoction you are told is Rakiya (well, it might be, but just don't drink it).

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HAS BULGARIA CHANGED FOR THE BETTER SINCE 1999?

Sitting with friends in a slick Ego pizzeria, it suddenly occurred to me that it was almost 10 years to the day since a Balkan Airlines plane made up of different coloured bits of metal first deposited me on the melting tarmac of Sofia airport to the wild applause of the passengers. In celebrating the sight of Bulgaria’s once-crumbling infrastructure, I am of course perfectly aware that this kind of "shittiness chic" so beloved of my generation of Western European travellers annoys many Bulgarians. Would I have noticed the colour of the wing metal on a British Airways flight? Probably not.

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NOT A BUYERS' MARKET

It has become a commonplace that street markets represent the cities they are in and indicate their prevailing cultures. London's famous Camden Lock Market, Acton Market and, of course, Portobello Road Market have long become tourist attractions as well as local hangouts, and so have New York's PS 234, Paris's Rue Cler, Madrid's El Rastro and Istanbul's Kapali Carsi.

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SOCIETY ON THE HIGH

In the past 20 years drug culture in Bulgaria has been on the rise. Originally just another transit point on the famed Balkan drug route favoured for its lax security and corrupt customs officials, it has now become a final destination, especially for one of the most potent illegal drugs, heroin.

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MERRY MOMENTS ON BULGARIAN PAVEMENTS

In their cross concrete eruptions, slabs tilting, rocking, soaking ankles with hidden waters, potholed, jagged, stepped and rooted.

I step I shuffle I trudge I trip I stagger I lurch I shift my gaze to my feet as they chart the three dimensional jigsaw.

I am blocked thwarted diverted by the hulks of deserted cars, black monsters that nose the walls and fences and stretch their arses to the very gutter.

They sleep in my path like bulky panthers fed on elephant, sleek in obese glossiness.

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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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WHEN OK IS NOT O.K.

I've been an official Bulgarian resident for two weeks now and will bring my American take of the English language to the teenagers of Pazardzhik soon as I become their EFL teacher. I love many things about my new home in Bulgaria, but I also find that it is essential in any transitional time in life to maintain a high level of humour. Quirks about the magical land of Bulgaria that seem quite bizarre, looked at with an eye of absurdity, become quite entertaining.

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CAR CHAUVINISM

For a year I was driving around in my Lada, completely oblivious to how much it was blighting my social status. Then I got my Ford Escort. Granted, it wasn't that much of an upgrade considering the Ford's scratched panels and 1995 birth date, but it ticked over much better than the 1985 Lada Combi with home-made LPG conversion. I noticed a difference right away. I was able to drive in the fast lane without a bigger car driving on my tail just to prove a point. I got cut up less, and people didn't block me in at parking spaces.

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BINGEING IT

Is the expat community full of certified alcoholics who, instead of spending their time in Bulgaria visiting cultural sites and learning the language, sit in English bars watching satellite TV and hitting the bottle? Equally, is the indigenous male population full of alcoholics who on waking at 6 am reach for the nearest rakiya bottle?

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FOR THE LIFE OF A DOG

Tierschutz Mission Phönix, the only animal refuge in the 100 km radius of Burgas, have been told to leave. The municipality wish to build a holiday park over the small piece of land by the road from Burgas to Sozopol, so the shelter faces a date with a bulldozer.

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THE DATING GAME

To complicate the problem, you are no longer on home ground, you are now part of the Bulgarian dating market, so now you not only have to contend with the fact that your good looks faded long ago and your confidence diminished the minute you labelled yourself "a bad mother," but you also have to search for a date in a marketplace that doesn't speak your language or understand your culture.

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DÉJÀ VU

Rejoice all you oldies who pine for the atmosphere of Communist Bulgaria. It is alive and well (despite a few cosmetic alterations) in a now private, formerly stated-owned, bank in Burgas. There is no need to sit at home dabbing Kleenex to the eye as you watch your seventh re-run of Goodbye Lenin. Hurry on down to re-experience the thrill of being put in your proper place.

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STREET EATING

As any visitor to foreign lands knows, there is a tendency to play it safe when it comes to eating native. Most prefer to stay out of harm's way at inviting-looking cafés and restaurants with Latin letters or at least pictures. However, by sticking to this practice, they will be missing out on a tremendously tasty part of Bulgaria.

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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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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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RACISM AGAINST US?

"Foreigner” was a dirty word when I was young. It was the label given to immigrants who couldn't speak our language and lived by their own set of rules and customs. Additional names and labels were given to denigrate skin colour or ethnic background - vile words such as “Paki,” “Chink” or “Wog.”

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