When expats and foreigners living in Bulgaria decided to take part in Vagabond's poll of what best epitomised Bulgaria, we knew the outcome would be more than eclectic. "Mountain ranges, vast open countryside, pleasant coastline (not the built-up areas), cafés full of sexy girls, and villages that have their own unique pace of life. The mix of old and new living alongside each other – for example, modern cars sharing the road with donkey carts. The way shepherds still move their livestock across the main roads. These are the things that symbolise Bulgaria – an eclectic mix of all of the above," wrote a reader from southern Bulgaria.
During the first stage of the campaign, 15 June-15 July, we received many nominations. Readers portrayed a Bulgaria that was a lot more varied than the Bulgarians' impressions of their own country. If the Symbol of Bulgaria campaign, which ended in late June, is anything to go by, most Bulgarians chose to fixate on the Middle Ages – their preferred emblem of Bulgaria was the Madara Horseman (see p60 for the full details on the BABTI campaign). Except for the rose, all the top nominations referred to Bulgaria's glorious but quite distant past, rather than the present.
The fact that Bulgaria is badly in need of a good image is obvious. The Bulgarian state is planning to spend $1.53 million to employ Western PR agencies to spruce up its image abroad, reported Reuters.
According to the State Agency for Tourism, nearly 5,151,000 tourists visited Bulgaria in 2007. The estimated number of expats and foreigners living here more or less permanently hovers around 60,000. However, neither the BABTI organisers nor President Parvanov, who patronised the campaign, gave a thought to them – even though tourists and expats were officially the "targets" of the comprehensive campaign.
To fill the gap, Vagabond decided to ask its readers what they thought symbolised Bulgaria best.
Vagabond received many responses. The 10 most popular and interesting suggestions have made it to the final round: the martenitsa; pretty girls in sexy attire; mutri; fancy cars sharing the road with donkey carts; rakiya and cigarette smoke; stray dogs; a misty morning in the Rhodope; overbuilding; central Sofia's cosmopolitanism; and the expression ey sega.
Cast a vote for your favourite before 18 October on www.vagabondbg. com. Vagabond will announce the winner on 20 October. The deadline for voting is still a long way off, but it's already clear that foreigners view Bulgaria very differently than the Bulgarians do. The nominations that readers sent Vagabond did not include the Madara Horseman, the kebapche or the Cyrillic alphabet, while Rila Monastery and Tsarevets got only limited support and did not make it into the Top 10.
During the three years that he's lived in Bulgaria, one expat amassed impressions that sharply contrasted the Bulgarians' image of themselves. While locals consider themselves hard-working, well-educated and honest, the expat begs to differ: "Inefficiency, idleness, corruption, deviousness, laziness, always whinging and whining, incapable of doing anything correctly. Need I go on?"
Other suggestions were more concrete – the lack of parking places, surly waitresses and the ubiquitous plastic bags "decorating" trees and bushes. The majority of the nominations, however, expressed positive feelings about Bulgaria – as well as a strong dose of humour.
Some foreigners are more familiar with Bulgaria's tourist attractions than many Bulgarians themselves. For example, one reader from Bansko not only found the Byalgrad Krepost, or White City Fortress, near the Village of Gugutka in the Rhodope, he even went so far as to collect information about it before nominating it for the symbol of Bulgaria. Here is his pitch: "According to the Wikipedia entry it is called White Fortress following an attempted invasion by the ancient Scots who exposed their bare, lily-white chests, glaring in the sun, in an effort to confuse the defenders. This conjures up a fabulous picture, but what a group of marauding Scots were doing here in Bulgaria hundreds of years ago is in itself interesting. Maybe they had just run out of whisky and were looking for the local rakiya!"
The ladies were impressed by "Bulgarian style" communication. For one teacher, the Bulgarian village lifestyle is a treasure – one that locals undervalue. "The villages have a truly wonderful culture of growing, eating and drinking. First of all, they live in harmony with their normal daily life. Fruit and nut trees are in abundance and it is so lovely to see children climbing trees and eating from nature," she wrote.
An American woman was struck by the complex steps of the horo and its meaning in the lives of small communities: "There is an element of horo that is also a commentary on Bulgarian society and culture: it is community-focused. You don't have much of a horo if only the best dancers in town participate. The whole point – and the fun of it – is that everyone can join in."
Another group of readers discovered symbols on the street – literally. A reader in Burgas nominated "a poor defunct Trabant that has stood on the street for so long that they simply tarmacked it in." She even sent us a picture – she wasn't exaggerating. If the poor Traby ever had a chance of once again puttering along the roads in Burgas, the fecklessness of road repair crews have grounded it forever.
One witty nomination from Sofia referred to Georgi Parvanov – as a person rather than the current head of state: "Born in a village, he made it big in the city. He used to be a State Security collaborator and organised anti-NATO rallies, now he is a pro-Western democrat. Pumps up patriotism whenever there is a chance. Dances the horo. What better symbol of Bulgaria's transition to democracy?"
The irony of this, however, seems to have been lost on some readers. The following commentary appeared in the forum on www.vagabond-bg.com: "I was very surprised that you have a nomination of Mr Parvanov for a symbol! Is this some kind of joke or what? He is a president who has not done absolutely nothing for the people in Bulgaria, and of course he is one of the most corrupted politicians in Bulgaria. I am not agree with you. Please take him off the list (sic)."
What The martenitsa
Why Giving your friends red and white braids for health and happiness on 1 March is a beautiful and fairly unique Bulgarian tradition (they have it in some parts of Romania as well). Martenitsi are little tokens of love and friendship. Every springtime visitor to the country wears one – Prince Charles couldn't bring himself to take his off for months. "The martenitsi not only represent Bulgaria, but it can also be adopted by other nations. It carries a powerful, self-perpetuating message. The shamrock worked for the Irish, why not the martenitsa for the Bulgarians?" an Irish reader proposed. "I am surprise that no one has noticed the one thing that every Bulgarian and every visitor to Bulgaria does every year – tie on a martenitsa on 1 March," another nomination added.
Why These beefy boys with buzz cuts and expensive cars are the ultimate embodiment of post-Communist Bulgaria. One interesting aspect of the Bulgarian mutri is that they actively support the German economy, thanks to their penchant for pricey German cars, a German reader living on the Black Sea coast noted. And a Greek participant added: "But it is better for one to look like that than to look like Azis."
These eye-catching individuals may look like they just stepped out of the latest B-list action film, yet the scariest thing is that no one seems to have the guts to stand up to them.
What Pretty Girls in Skimpy Attire
Why Thousands of stunning babes dressed in clothing that leaves nothing to the imagination. You wouldn't even find that in Venezuela! Some are the (wanna-be) girlfriends and wives of mutri, but the assumption that all these beauties are mixed up with the mafia is very far from the truth. The results come from genetic mixing between dozens of ethnicities and conquerors – don't forget, Bulgaria is a crossroads. Most of these ladies have fully respectable professions and even successful careers as lawyers, doctors and managers.
What Rakiya & Cigarette Smoke
Why Spaniards have their botellon, Bavarians – their famous beer, Austrians – their schnapps, and Bulgarians – their home-brewed rakiya. The beverage is a cultural institution. Foreigners who visit the country swoon over the low drink prices and often surpass their usual quota – with good reason. The potholes seem shallower, the electricity bills lower, and the officials more polite and uncorrupted – all after you gulp down sufficient quantities of this hooch.
Of course, in Germany, Austria and much of the EU, smoking bans and anti-homebrew laws make it difficult to enjoy your rakiya and cigarettes. That's not the case in Bulgaria – for now. Cigarette smoking, along with rakiya drinking, is cultivated as an art form and plays a huge role in the get-togethers Bulgarians often enjoy, but this may soon become a thing of the past if the EU has its way.
What Stray dogs
Why You can find feral dogs in a few cities in Spain, Italy and in Greek villages along the Bulgarian border. But Bulgaria is the only country that is entirely – from its capital to its tiniest villages – divided into territories controlled by roving packs of stray dogs. They're usually friendly, but sometimes they can be dangerous. The way Bulgarians "solve" the stray dog problem is also indicative of the way they handle challenges in life. First, some terrible incident occurs – for example, a dog mauls a child. Frenzied protests by local residents demanding that the pack be liquidated immediately ensue. The animal rights defenders get involved. The municipality gives someone money to house the homeless creatures. In the end, the shelter never gets built, the money disappears and the incident is forgotten – until the next attack.
What Donkey Carts Next to 4WDs
Why The old and the new in Bulgaria exist alongside each other – modern cars share the road with donkey carts, an ecological and economical mode of transport. Bulgaria is the only European country – besides possibly Romania – where you can see that.
What Central Sofia
Why Within less than a square mile in central Sofia you can find several Orthodox churches, a mosque and a synagogue, all within sight of each other. They date back to different periods in history – evidence of Bulgaria's multiculturalism and cosmopolitanism through the ages.
What A misty morning in the Rhodope
Why The fresh breeze carries the sound of a herd's tinkling bells from at least a few hills away. The people are friendly, the mountain resembles a frozen sea, and the yoghurt and banitsa for breakfast are like nowhere else. Absolutely fascinating. Very different from either the Apennines or the Alps.
What Ey sega
Why The ubiquitous Bulgarian response ey sega, or in a bit now, to any question starting with "when?" epitomises Bulgarians' highly elastic concept of time – it can mean anywhere from now until eternity - possibly something like mañana but with less urgency. This is at once an infuriating and endearing Bulgarian characteristic.
What Overbuilding on the Black Sea coast (and elsewhere)
Why Some might argue that they've already seen it in Spain. However, the Bulgarians not only managed to encase their coastline in concrete in less than five years, they also succeeded in overbuilding to such an extent that fewer than five hotel-free beaches remain on the entire Bulgarian Black Sea coast. Significantly, they did this largely due to their perception that foreigners' interest in Bulgaria as a vacation spot and a second home location would increase.