Issue 57-58

HOW I DIDN'T START WORLD WAR III

His collection of short stories Brief History of the Airplane (Кратка история на самолета, Ciela Publishing) won the 2009 Helikon Award. His story Metastases has been shortlisted by the editors at the American publisher Dalkey Archive Press for inclusion in Best European Fiction. His recent book Recoil (Откат, Ciela Publishing, 2010), a collection of plays and dialogues, came out in December.

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STALINIST SOFIA

More than 20 years after the fall of Communism, Sofia still bears the signs of the regime in its architecture and monuments. The very centre of the city is constructed in the ostentatious style and design popular in the time of Joseph Stalin. The larger parks have monuments of Soviet soldiers, commemorating their feats in the Second World War and the supposed "eternal friendship" between the Bulgarian people and the Russians. Although the old buildings and monuments are despised by many, they bear witness to the country's past, which cannot easily be erased.

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TOWN OF GOLD

The waitress in the café approaches the table, carrying a tray with two small cups of steaming Turkish coffee. Then she stops nearby and starts spinning the tray round and round in the air, the cups rapidly turning upside down. You might think that she has gone mad and you are going to end up with coffee all over your clothes, but this doesn't happen and in a few seconds you are enjoying the so-called coffee on sand. This is a specialty one must definitely try when in Zlatograd.

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POLYTHENE PEST

One of the most disgusting peculiarities of life in Bulgaria is the ubiquitous polythene bag referred to by locals as potnik, or undershirt (because it is very thin and has two characteristic carrier strings, just like a potnik). You see these bags everywhere in Bulgaria, as vendors sell you anything from bread and banichki to ground coffee and raw meat in these cheap little bags. They are generously doled out by chemists, sock-sellers, food stalls in the market and bookshops, even though getting warm banichki or raw meat in one of them is a horribly messy business.

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ORHAN PAMUK

A book seller in Slaveykov Square, Sofia's equivalent of the Left Bank in Paris, checks out a grey-haired gentleman who is inspecting the books displayed on a makeshift stand. Here you can buy the latest self-improvement bestseller or a 1970s Bulgarian translation of the complete works of Dostoyevsky.

"Oh this," the seller says. "This is by Orhan Pamuk. A Nobel Prize laureate. He is in Bulgaria right now." He hardly looks at the man fondling his books.

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NEW SCAMS ON THE BLOCK

If you read the newspapers either in Bulgaria or abroad you will get the largely correct impression that Bulgaria in 2011 is a state where organised crime and politics have – somewhat uniquely even by Balkan standards – amalgamated themselves into a far-reaching network of corruption and nepotism. The sole purpose of this is quite simple: to steal money either from the state coffers or from ordinary taxpayers, from EU funds allocated to various projects or even from Western NGOs which donate to what they think are worthy causes.

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ESCAPE TO BULGARIA?

The fear of being caught and returned home. Nightmares of policemen, sirens and submachine guns. A constant feeling of being pursued, feeling unsafe. Cold sweat down your back when someone asks to see your documents. All of that might sound far-fetched, but not if you are considered an illegal immigrant in Bulgaria. When you are running away from your country there is always the fear that your escape might be foiled. 

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NOT SO VESELIE*

What should a Bulgarian do? Believe his or her eyes and common sense, or take in whatever is fed to them by omnipotent Civil Service officials, who can be maddeningly rigid in their attempts to stick to the letter of the law, while sometimes completely ignoring its spirit?

The case of Veselie, until a few years ago one of the last development-free sites on the Bulgarian southern Black Sea coast, provides an excellent, if completely absurd illustration.

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FEVER DREAMS

I was deep under the ocean when The Italian Gentleman first arrived and enraged at him for pulling me up. The plants had such colours – purples and scarlets and deep indigos – and the fish such strange shapes and spoke to me. I would have cried in my frustration, but though I floated through each sodden day, inside me was desert. The Italian Gentleman came and brought smells with him. Strongest was the smell of his cigarettes. They smelled like the land, as tobacco does, but of a strange land, not the one I knew. A spiced land, with odd creatures that burrow in it.

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MEGALITH OR NOT?

The longest day of the year is nearing its close. The sun is descending towards the horizon and, in accordance with the Law of Romantic Sunsets, the sky and the panorama of mountain peaks and plains are flushed with a couple of hundred shades of red and blue.

The expectant crowd gathered on the mountain peak in Sredna Gora circle around, talking among themselves.

The sun continues its descent and is suddenly hidden behind a large cliff. The people sense the change and grow quiet, their eyes riveted on the cliff.

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HÜZÜN ISTANBUL

It is "a state of mind that is ultimately as life-affirming as it is negating." For the Sufis, hüzün is the spiritual anguish of not being close enough to God. For St John of the Cross, this anguish causes the sufferer to plummet so far down that his soul will, as a result, soar to its divine desire. Hüzün is not a singular preoccupation but a communal emotion, not the sadness of an individual but the dark mood shared by millions.

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SCHOOLING FOR REFUGEES

"Be Good," is written on the blackboard by the Bulgarian language teacher at the Refugee Integration Centre in Sofia's Ovcha Kupel district. Several men and women of different ages bend over their notebooks to copy down what they have just been shown. They have come from Iraq, Pakistan, Syria and Nigeria and are now having their first lessons in Bulgarian grammar and spelling. Not knowing the language of the country would leave them helpless and unable to adapt.

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PRIME MINISTER REVEALS HYGIENE HABITS

This man, still idolised by many Bulgarian women in spite of his plummeting political popularity, revealed in an eye-opening interview for major newspaper Trud that he dreads Mondays and tries to avoid using the bathroom on such days.

"I do not shave, clip my fingernails or give out money on Mondays," the prime minister said.

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