Issue 11

MY OWN CHOICE: NERDE YAMBOL, NERDE STAMBOUL*

I was pleasantly surprised that I was able to understand many restaurant menus in Sofia without knowing much Bulgarian. Kyufte, kavarma, sarmi, shkembe and baklava were among the dishes familiar to me, coming from Turkey. But discovering new tastes in delightful Bulgarian cuisine proved to be equally pleasant. I knew from the very beginning that I was going to enjoy Bulgaria's food and so far I haven't been disappointed.

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SMALL TOWN BLUES MELT AWAY

“Get to know Bulgaria so that you grow to love Sofia” was a popular saying in the Communist era. Foreigners can only understand its meaning if they lived in the country before 1989. But the unspoken message was clear: “Choose the capital if you want to enjoy a decent life, while the rest of Bulgaria is losers' territory”.

That kind of thinking is now obsolete because – as the latest data confirms – the sharp divide between capital and countryside is narrowing. Last year, investors started to take a keen interest in towns and regional centres, a trend that has gathered momentum.

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WELCOME TO TETOVO

You don't have to be a sersem to visit Tetovo, an Albanian city in Macedonia. But it helps.

Legend says that Tetovo was named after the mythical Teto, who cleared snakes from what was once a village at the foot of the Šar Mountain many centuries ago. But perhaps this fable alone won't persuade you to leave the Skopje to Ohrid highway and visit this city in northwest Macedonia close to the border with Kosovo. Indeed, Tetovo has hardly been a magnet for travellers. For a long time the only tourists near here were those en route to Macedonia's most famous ski resort, Popova Šapka.

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IMF WARNS OVER DEFICIT

Bulgaria's economy has continued to grow steadily so far this year, with analysts and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) predicting Gross Domestic Product (GDP) growth of over six percent by the end of the year. Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) continues to be a key driver of economic growth, unemployment continues to fall and inflation is under control. However, Bulgaria's current account deficit is still growing and the IMF warned that the government must continue to keep a firm hold on the fiscal reins to avoid driving it up.

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FOUND IN TRANSLATION

There's a famous joke about a British tourist in Paris who, mustering his meagre schoolboy linguistic skills, ordered a citron presseé in a café. He was beginning to savour the prospect of a freshly squeezed lemon juice until the French waiter laughed and asked if he wanted a squashed car!

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SEASIDE STORIES

I don't go out of my way to hang out with other expats in my free time. Of course, there are a couple of bars in Sofia you can go to if you really need a conversation about football, or to reminisce about good ol' stuff from the old country, like meat pies, or Eastenders.

But chances are you're going to end up copping an ear-bashing from some tedious old property developer, or casino manager, who is much more interested in your girlfriend than your views on TV soaps, British pastry dishes, or Liverpool FC.

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THE PURPLE, PURPLE FIELDS OF HOME

It is just after nine o'clock on a Monday morning. While I have coffee with friends in the courtyard of Ivan Vazov's house in central Sofia, the ground floor windows of the edifice opposite open. The building concerned houses a laboratory. Soon, a strong scent of lavender wafts towards us. Or sometimes it's of mint, roses or geranium – the aroma varies. But it always manages to override the capital's musty air for a few minutes.

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TO HAVE AND HAVE NOT

You may think that Bulgarians are non-violent, peace-loving people who hate sending troops to Iraq. You are wrong. Many Bulgarians believed that King Simeon's aggressive wars (see Vagabond 10) marked a high point in the country's history and that the 40 years of calm under his successor, King Peter, were a period of decline that actually led to the fall of Bulgaria under Byzantine rule. However, the long years of peace enabled the country to resist for decades before losing its political independence in 1018.

HALF A COUNTRY FOR A PRINCESS

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WE'VE GOT MAIL

This situation has now been clarified by customs authorities who confirm that cars can be left anywhere in accordance with Ministerial Act No. 725. So readers can now disregard the information on this particular subject in our June issue.

Susannah then wrote to us again.

Dear VAGABOND,

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TRAVELLING THESPIAN

Many British actors approaching 60 appear a little dissipated. By contrast, the fit and muscular figure I meet in a Sofia café looks like he could do 40 press-ups and then sprint around the capital's Nevskiy Square. But, then again, the performer in question once played athlete Harold Abrahams, forever immortalised in the 1981 movie Chariots of Fire.

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FILES WIDE SHUT

Have you ever feared that your best friend is reading your mail and snitching on you? Or that you should steer clear of political jokes? It may sound like a chapter from George Orwell's 1984 but it was a reality in Bulgaria just 18 years ago. The state had a huge repressive apparatus called State Security (DS), which monitored “ideologically incorrect” dissidents.

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NATIONAL HEALTH DISSERVICE

A month ago I visited a friend in Sofia's Pirogov Hospital. The following day he was due to undergo a partial leg amputation just below the knee. My friend had been suffering from diabetes for 47 years. Apart from that, he had enjoyed good health. He lives in a beautiful house in Burgas, where he is always surrounded by friends.

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EXAMINING YOUR DARK SIDE

She's the former manageress of a special café for mentally ill people (that enjoyed protected status), a property consultant who uses her background as a psychotherapist to help clients and a journalist who writes about real estate. And, as if this wasn't enough, she's also written two books. It may sound like an exhausting remit but Stanislava Ciurinskiene copes with her diverse roles admirably well. “They complement each other,” she says. “I became interested in psychology because I wanted to know more about myself.

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STRANDZHA SAVED?

In the Communist era, young people, lured by better prospects and brighter lights, fled the Strandzha Mountain area in droves. The state offered them special – but ultimately futile – incentives to make them stay. Curiously, it was city dwellers who spearheaded protests to prevent developers building in this hitherto protected part of the Black Sea coast last month. They forced a retreat.

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TOUGH ON THE PENSIONERS, KIND TO THE BASTARDS

Dozens of people suffer tear gas inhalation. Three individuals need treatment for rashes and pain in their eyes. Another person sustains a serious head wound. Who are the attackers? Take a sharp intake of breath. The law enforcement authorities.

If you think the victims were rioting football fans or vicious neo-Nazi thugs then you are wrong. The men in question, striking miners from the Maritsa-Iztok mines in southern Bulgaria, were merely blocking the road between Svilengrad and Ruse in protest against low pay. Then the big boys moved in.

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STAYING AHEAD IN THE PROPERTY JUNGLE

Seven months after EU entry, it's still difficult to analyse Bulgaria's real estate market because of the lack of reliable data. So I recommend buyers to discriminate and check out those areas with improved access routes. Recent extensions to Sofia's metro, including a line from Mladost to the airport, are the kind of developments that lead to increasing property prices and other bonuses such as the arrival of new low-cost airline routes.

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COMMIE KITSCH

You're in a prefabricated, concrete-housing building, furnished with the standard, ugly wallpaper, carpeting and lamps from the era of “developed Socialism”. It's the kind of home few Europeans aspire to in 2007. Indeed, until 1989, thousands risked their lives to leave this type of apartment and the drab uniformity that stretched far beyond interior designs.

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