Issue 102

WILLOW SUNDAY OR FLOWER DAY

If your first visit to Bulgaria happens during the Sunday before Easter, a curious sight will attract your attention: long, patient queues form in front of churches in busy cities, quiet villages and popular monasteries. People wait until they eventually reach a table where a priest – sometimes solemn, but usually indifferent – distributes bunches of willow twigs.

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CHIPROVTSI'S CARPETS

A smiling man offering to sell you a traditional carpet supposedly woven by his old mother herself – everyone who has been to any part of the Middle East has met the omnipresent "genuine" rug dealer.

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BULGARIA'S FORTRESSES

Castle-wise, Bulgaria is nothing to compare with Scotland - and most other European countries. There is little reminiscent of Transylvania's menacing fortifications, Bavaria's fairy tale confections, or the Loire Valley's romantic châteaux. Fortresses were built in Bulgaria from Antiquity to the 19th Century and, although many were lost in war-time destruction and postwar turbulence, the country still has several sites combining stunning scenery with relatively well-preserved fortifications.

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THE UNBULGARIANS: EHLIBEJTE MEHMETAJ, ALBANIA

She volunteered in the Bulgarian Red Cross Refugee-Migrants Service, and now works for the Council for Women Refugees in Bulgaria. There, she helps migrants to integrate, adapt and deal with the Bulgarian administration. She is fluent in Albanian, Turkish, Bulgarian, and also speaks Arabic and English.

How did you arrive in Bulgaria?

We left Albania in 1998 and initially went to Turkey. Then my father came to Bulgaria and was granted refugee status. We came here through the procedure for family reunion, in 2004. I was 14.

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MEET THE UNBULGARIANS

What does it mean to be Bulgarian? And what does it take not to qualify as one?

Here are some of the commonplaces spread by the mainstream media. Foreigners are rich, highly marriageable material. Or they are funny people who buy decaying rural houses and settle there, happy to grow tomatoes. They are poor migrants who want to sponge on Bulgaria's social security system. Or they are nice fellows who get drunk on a tiny glass of rakiya. Then there are the terrorists...

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QUOTE-UNQUOTE

Ukraine is an artificial country.

Borislav Vangelov of the VMRO, the new director of the State Agency for Bulgarians Abroad

I will not tell you the names of the candidates to head military intelligence. If I do, they will be shot and killed.

Defence Minister Nikolay Nenchev

With me, in GERB, I have an army of women who are not only hardworking, but cannot be suspected of corruption.

Prime Minister Boyko Borisov

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UNDERGROUND UNDERWATER

Balaklava: to the people in the West, the name evokes associations with the knitted facepack seen in Hollywood films about terrorism and bank robberies. The more historically minded would also think of the Crimean War of 1853-1856, when the heroic, but pointless Charge of the Light Brigade took place. If you dig deeper into the history of this small town, which is now a neighbourhood of Sevastopol, you will discover more military connections. During the Crimean War, Florence Nightingale worked in Balaklava, and British photographers took the first 360-degree photographs in history there.

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THE KNIFE, An excerpt from the novel You Belong Here

Mum says I have the memory of an elephant. That Jay got the brains, Emily, the beauty, and me, I never forget.

I remember sixth grade: Blair Cavaney, year five toff kicking Johnny in the nuts, not once, but twice because he looked 'weird.' Walker and me, suspended for a week because we pushed him up against the dental shed. Told him that you never kick anyone in the nuts. That if he did it again, we'd kick his head in.

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