Issue 22

CSKA'S OWN GOAL

Elizabeth Kubler-Ross wasn't into football, but her theory about grief can be applied to Bulgaria's most famous football team – and its fans. Denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance – when UEFA refused to renew CSKA's license, that's what the team's fans and leaders went through…almost.

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MOSTLY OTC

Whether you have lived in Bulgaria for a while or are just visiting, you must have noticed them – small, big, shiny, old, part of a bigger chain or located in the proprietor's first floor flat - pharmacies can be found everywhere. You'll soon learn that a chemist's, or apteka is the only place to buy medicines in Bulgaria – from antibiotics to other prescription medicines to generic drugs such as Analgin, Paracetamol and vitamins.

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THINK GREEN

Paved with red sandstone and grey granite cobbles, the path to a particular building on Sofia's Kozyak Street is reminiscent of antique pavements around Aleksandr Nevskiy Square. The edifice in question is the American Embassy in Bulgaria - one of the Balkans' true pioneering green projects. Designed by US Virginia Beach-based CMSS Architects, the complex incorporates modern US design whilst simultaneously blending with surrounding buildings thanks to the contemporary and traditional Bulgarian influences.

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USAID IN BULGARIA

Whether it's true or not, Bulgarians frequently describe themselves as a nation with a pessimistic streak. Still, as long as we're pulling out cultural stereotypes, what about Americans? Incorrigible optimists, some may say, who believe that anything is possible with hard work and determination.

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AMI, DON'T GO HOME!

Vute was strolling around the centre of Sofia, when he suddenly caught sight of his friend, Nane, on Eagles Bridge holding a bouquet of flowers. "Who are you waiting for?" Vute asked. "The Americans!" replied Nane. Socialism was at its peak. "Are you out of your mind?" said Vute. "Didn't you wait here for the Russians on 9 September too?" "Well, they showed up, didn't they?" answered Nane.

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CHILDREN OF THE "REVOLUTION"?

If it hadn't been raining in Kazanlak - and the rest of Bulgaria - everything would have gone according to plan. A thousand children would have drawn on the city centre pavements with coloured chalk. Afterwards, they would have watched a children's concert on the open-air stage. Somewhere in the very front rows of the crowd, the event organiser Evgeniya Zhivkova and Prime Minister Sergey Stanishev would have stood proudly, watching the fun.

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CITIZEN BUZZ

The image of Buzz Aldrin stepping out onto a lunar landscape had the Communist Bloc community clenching their teeth, whilst his fellow Americans stood agape with glee. As the celebrity astronaut made his final checks before taking one giant leap for mankind on 20 July exactly 39 years ago, he poignantly whispered to Houston: “Beautiful! Beautiful! Magnificent desolation!" These contrasting emotions are now starkly familiar to the 78 year-old ex-Moon missioner.

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DANCES WITH THE SUN

When Lyubomir Kyumyurdzhiev entered the tepee of the Blackfeet, or Nitsitapiksi, to become the first Bulgarian accepted as their spiritual brother, they knew it was no coincidence. In fact, they don't think anything in the world is coincidence. Everything is cause and effect. The fact that we often don't realise the causes of a given event doesn't make it a random occurrence.

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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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GREG HOUSTON: A BLACK AMERICAN IN SOFIA

"It's kind of hard to miss me," beams Greg Houston, in a masterstroke of understatement. Dark skinned and physically imposing, he stands out in a crowd, but even more so in a relatively homogenous society such as Bulgaria. Unlike what you would expect from someone responsible for overseeing the American Embassy in Bulgaria's crucial security, he wears a warming smile, which readily gives way to sincere laughs.

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A FINAL TOUCH

"An ambassador is an honest man sent abroad to lie for his country," once said the English diplomat Henry Wotton Jr (1568-1639). In the world of diplomacy, Wotton's wisdom largely holds true to this day. But there are exceptions (that only confirm the rule) - especially if you ask the Bulgarians. During the past three years they have become used to an unusually honest and straightforward American ambassador who's rarely hesitated to call a spade a spade.

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THESSALONIKI

Just as people can't hide love or a cough, cities can't hide their history. Thessaloniki is no exception. This part of the Thermaic Gulf was making history centuries before 315 BC, when the Macedonian King Cassander founded a city there. He christened the new settlement after his wife, Thessalonike, the daughter of Filip II of Macedonia, who was herself named after one of her father's victories.

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FROM THE BLUE RIDGE TO THE BALKANS

Sometimes just a sentence, a word said in passing, can evoke a powerful image that endures forever. Consider this: Two people are talking - about pain and an horrible odour. One of them is bound to die unless help arrives. You don't know the peoples' names, nor the time or the place; nor do you have any background information about them. You know only that something is terribly wrong with the male character, causing a potent stench, and that three big birds squat “obscenely” close by: vultures. The woman's first comment – “Don't!

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PEACE CORPS IN ACTION

They arrived in Bulgaria in 1991, at the beginning of the country's transition to democracy. During the 17 years of their mission in Bulgaria, the Peace Corps have grown from 26 to 141 volunteers working in 132 towns within English language primary and secondary education, community and organisational development and youth development programmes. The path to acceptance in Bulgaria hasn't always run smoothly, but gradually Americans won the respect and love of Bulgarians by being consistently friendly and trying to help with whatever they can.

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SOZOPOL FICTION SEMINARS

What better way to celebrate the Bulgarian alphabet on 24 May than bringing Bulgarian writers together with their international counterparts? In the spirit of Cyril and Methodius, the original pioneers of Slavic literacy, the Elizabeth Kostova Foundation hosted its first annual summer fiction-writing seminar in Sozopol in May 2008.

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MY OWN CHOICE: OFF OFF OFF THE BEATEN TRACK

The first time I came to Bulgaria, I entered via the dusty no-man's land between Giurgiu and Ruse. Standing all alone on the edge of Romania, I watched as shifty-eyed travellers shoved contraband cigarettes into their luggage and trekked down an unpaved road towards the border. From my vantage point, Bulgaria did not look terribly inviting.

Since then, my view of this country has changed dramatically. I've spent so much time here over the past three years that I now consider it my second home. And for me, feeling truly comfortable in a place involves eating like a local.

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BULGARIA OF THE SENSES

One of my favourite ways to surprise visitors to Sofia is to take them to the springs beside the old baths and ask them to hold their hands under the running water. Hot water straight from the source is a novelty for most of us. A cooling mist of water sprayed from around the canopy of a restaurant on a hot summer's day is another sensory pleasure that I experienced for the first time here. Walking in the snow in the hills above Pernik just before Christmas I was dazzled by the glittering surface of the fresh, powdery snow, whose crust had frozen overnight.

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END OF THE GOLD RUSH?

Real estate high-rollers take note: Bulgaria's era of wildly speculative deals is officially over. The country now has a new image: a stable economy and a much more predictable real estate market. The country's investment profile has changed, too. Before, foreign investors came to buy cheap properties, waited until their prices doubled - usually within a year - and sold them. Now they make long-term investments and prefer high-quality properties that can be let for a better price, rather than low-budget buys with poor potential for rental income.

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WE'VE GOT MAIL

The way I see it, a great many people look after them. I have no other explanation for such a large population of street animals. However, feeding them your stale bread and uneaten food and changing their pots of water is not enough. Well, some cats wear flea collars and some dogs have been neutered. But these are the exceptions, not the rule. All my neighbours who have a soft spot for the dozens of stray dogs and cats in the neighbourhood seem to think giving them pills or taking them to the vet to neuter them or even cleaning after them is too much.

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WE'VE GOT MAIL

Well, some cats wear flea collars and some dogs have been neutered. But these are the exceptions, not the rule. All my neighbours who have a soft spot for the dozens of stray dogs and cats in the neighbourhood seem to think giving them pills or taking them to the vet to neuter them or even cleaning after them is too much. They love and take care of the animals but would not go that far in their affection. It makes me think Bulgarians believe in everyone doing their job, meaning they never do anything which in their opinion is not their job. The same thing goes for dog poo.

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