On one of the hottest days of the summer an English friend and I went to Burgas City Council to get the forms needed to “regularise” some plumbing work in the garden of his newly acquired home. After some time in Bulgaria my friend had acclimatised to the system's eccentricities. But he was still genuinely surprised – even shocked – at some of the finer details of Bulgarian etiquette.
We strolled down Burgas's pedestrian main street. Just as we were entering City Hall I felt a strong hand on my shoulder. “Ne mozhe s kusi gashti!”, a voice ordered me. “Tova da ne vi e plazh!” (“You can't enter in shorts! This is not a beach!).
My friend didn't want to argue with the bouncer, but I did. “Why?” I asked. “It's 35 degrees outside.” “This is an institution (sic), and you have to dress respectfully,” he said. No admission. It turned out that we'd wasted our time anyway – shorts or no shorts, nothing could be done at the City Council offices as their computers were down. Mañana.
I, for one, would pay all due respect to any state agency as long as it provided me with the services funded by my taxes. I demand better pavements (Burgas, a major, expensive city is a particularly bad example as the local mayor prefers spending thousands on building small city parks rather than repairing the crumbling infrastructure), and I'd like to get forms with a smile rather than a scowl. If the mayor of Burgas would oblige me in these respects I'd happily appear in his offices wearing my Sunday best. But I don't get the services I pay for. Forcing me not to wear shorts in order not to get what I am entitled to can hardly make me love these guys more.
Burgas is not alone in trying to extort more respect from ordinary citizens. Plovdiv, Kyustendil and many other places have also imposed strict dress codes at city councils, tax offices and courts. I have seen newspaper reports about a court witness in Dobrich who was supposed to testify in a murder case, but was turned away by face control. He and others like him have provided unexpected business for local merchants: a shop owner close to Dobrich's court was quoted as saying that demand for long trousers had soared as increasing numbers of courthouse visitors were turned away for wearing Bermuda shorts.
The only exception the court in Varna makes is... for suspects. Anyone arrested by the police will be taken to court whatever the cut of their trousers.
There is no consistent rule about permissible attire so it's best to ask questions (bring a friend who speaks Bulgarian and is prepared to probe) before attempting interaction with the authorities. Some agencies, notably the Council of Ministers, proscribed summer footwear. The former speaker of parliament, Ognyan Gerdzhikov, imposed a blanket ban on flip-flops. “I don't care who it is. Turn Ivan Kostov (the leader of the rightwing opposition) away if he's wearing sandals,” Gerdzhikov was quoted as saying.
The mayor of Nesebar, a major resort on the southern Black Sea, has issued an order against “tourists wearing flip-flops and bathing suits as well as contractors in dusty overalls”.
Pazardzhik, traditionally not a very popular tourist destination, but apparently a centre of loose morals, is an interesting example. Mayor Ivan Evstatiev has allegedly forbidden female employees from wearing thongs, short skirts and cleavage-baring tops.
In Blagoevgrad, southwestern Bulgaria, local officials seem to be more cool-headed – literally. “The problem with shorts and flip-flops will go away as the weather gets cooler,” Mayor Lazar Prichkapov told the media.
You can't even go to the Bulgarian National Bank to change money if you're in shorts. Allegedly, Ivan Iskrov, the governor of the BNB, tightened up rules following a visit by M. Christian Noyer, gouverneur of Banque de France, and his wife, in 2004 or 2005. The French were reportedly “shocked” by the attire of many visitors to the BNB. Iskrov was so ashamed that he imposed a dress code the very next day.
As is usually the case with any request for information from a Bulgarian state agency, the BNB refused to provide VAGABOND with a written copy of that order. Thankfully, there are now commercial banks here.