Issue 15-16

BULGARIA REGAINED

THE EU continues to expand, and on 1 January Bulgaria and Romania join with a fanfare and celebrations. The festivities are alternately fraught with exuberance (the government employs the special effects manager of German rock band Rammstein to produce a fireworks extravaganza), officialdom (President Parvanov gives a solemn speech and attends a flag blessing ceremony with Prime Minister Stanishev), and at times contradiction (fireworks light up the building that until 1989 was the central headquarters of the then ruling Communist Party).

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NATURAL CURE

Juggling varied demands comes easily to a dynamic individual like Sylvia Paskaleva. A doctor, a health manager and a PhD student, she also heads the Sports Rehabilitation Complex of Sofia's State Administration Ministry. As such, she's ideally placed to gauge Bulgaria's future as a destination for tourists seeking restorative treatments.

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ENGLISH CHRISTMAS BULGARIAN STYLE

On our first holiday season since moving here we were hoping to experience a Bing Crosby style "White Christmas" - something that was very rare where we lived in England. Hopefully, it would snow for us and we could also create an English Christmas for our Bulgarian friends who had invited us to their celebrations.

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KILLING BORDERS

The easiestway toreach the West was to head east - to Bulgaria, at least according to one persistent rumour circulating among young East Germans during the Cold War. Security at Bulgaria's borders with Yugoslavia, Greece, and Turkey was lax and slipping across them was as simple as taking a stroll - or so went the urban legend. Myth or not, thousands of young Germans gave it a try.

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LOOK WHO'S BUILDING

One of the last remaining unspoilt stretches of the Bulgarian Black Sea coast was vandalised by an entrepreneur building a "hut." The story of the destruction of Yaylata, north of Kavarna, is brutal and at times surreal, but it exemplifies the complete disregard for nature, rules and common sense some Bulgarian construction entrepreneurs have espoused.

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TELLTALE

Hey, expat! You've been here a while? Prefer your chips with white cheese on? Ever found your foot tapping along to a chalga song? Concerned about the Balkanisation of your brain? It's time for you to consider!

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10 BEST TIPS

Coming from the UK you are bound to find Bulgaria's administrative system slow, awkward and corrupt, and private firms sluggish, overstaffed and reluctant to do business on the phone. However, you can manage – using your common sense, insisting on your rights, reading the small print and/or getting a good solicitor will go a long way towards saving you from trouble.

1. Language

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LOCAL ELECTIONS?

The November polls in Bulgaria were the first since the country's accession into the EU - for the first time in Bulgarian history expats in the country had the right to vote, while foreign observers were curious to see if the political class and ordinary Bulgarians alike, would demonstrate a European mentality.

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A GROWING FORCE

The impressive performance by the centre-right Citizens for the European Development of Bulgaria Party (GERB) in the municipal elections held on October 28 have confirmed speculation that the party is a growing force in Bulgarian politics. In three cities GERB candidates were elected mayor without going to run-off elections, and the party performed well across the country.

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STEVE WILLIAMS

Steve Williams is a man of many interests. Having held senior positions in the Foreign Office and various diplomatic postings from Argentina to Norway, he transferred from being head of the Americas Department at the FCO in London to the ambassadorial position in Sofia. During all those years, however, Mr Williams never lost his interest in sports, mountain walks and good music.

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ELIZABETH KOSTOVA

“My first impression of Bulgaria – and my memory of it ever after – was of mountains seen from the air, mountains high and deep, darkly verdant and mainly untouched by roads, although here and there a brown ribbon ran between villages or along sudden sheer cliffs.” Like Elizabeth Kostova, Paul and Helen, the heroes of The Historian first arrive in Bulgaria during Communist rule. But from then on the two visits, one fact and one fiction, diverge into very different, yet parallel tales.

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BULGARIAN CHRISTMAS

Bulgaria is no exception to the increasingly globalised Christmas, when people deck the halls with green plastic garlands made in China, decorate fake Christmas trees, adorn their front doors with evergreen wreaths and overspend on presents.

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IT'S ALL IN THE NAME

Anyone spending even a short time in Bulgaria will notice that sometimes the locals start acting strangely. They queue to buy carp. They slaughter lambs. They jump naked into rivers in the coldest of winters. They make queer concoctions. They begin hitting the booze at noon on a workday. And they don't worry about getting fired, because their bosses are drinking along.

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ERIC WEISS

At first glance France and Bulgaria may seem worlds apart – the refined sophisticate meets the impoverished cousin. Yet French photographer and diplomat Eric Weiss discovered a rich culture and an enduring love affair.

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THE CHRISTMAS PLACE

Carefully bending over, visitors go through a tiny door in the stone wall, which seems more like part of a mediaeval fortress in Europe than a church in the West Bank. Although the entrance to the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem is known as the Door of Humility, you are certainly not required to bump your head in penance when entering the basilica over the cave where Jesus is believed to have been born 2007 years ago.

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SPOTLIGHT ON SMALLER CITIES AND BUSINESS PROPERTIES IN 2008

“Will theBulgarian property bubble burst?" was the question of 2007. Experts had predicted a fall and investors were concerned. Other commentators argued that Bulgaria's entry into the EU would give a new push to property prices, although they would not rise as fast as during the last three years. The optimists were proved right and prices continued to rise by 30-35 percent in 2007. But the 2007 question still remains. What will happen to the bubble, and is there a bubble at all?

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IN A TRUE SPIRIT

If you have been to Sofia's Chepishev Restaurant in the Boyana district, you must have seen them. No one could fail to notice over 1,500 bottles displayed behind glass, on two floors. You don't have to be an expert to appreciate the sheer number and the diversity – bottles from 1906 and 1937 stand alongside Japanese whiskies and whiskies in china decanters. The collection, the largest in Eastern Europe, belongs to Plamen Petroff, a youthful 51-year-old whisky connoisseur. It is the result of a passion that changed his life overnight.

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MAKIN' BACON

If you've just moved to a village in Bulgaria, some things may be a bit of a shock to your system. Houses with roofs on the verge of collapse, ancient women using homemade hoes on acres of land and mangy dogs on short chains with no water in sight are just a few examples. In the UK, buildings would be condemned, social services would be called and the Animal Protection Service would come running, yet all these things are normal here; local folk don't even bat an eye.

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OUR OWN CHOICE IN 2007

Choosing a restaurant in a foreign country is not always an easy job, and personal experience is often the best way to go about it. However, if you would rather not experiment, but follow the recommended path of our group of diners, note the recurring places in their individual lists - they are definitely worth a visit.

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