Issue 38

CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE BG KIND

Imagine you are in a restaurant with a Bulgarian friend. The meal is over and you ask how their steak was. Now, anywhere else in the world you would get the answer that the steak was good, or bad, or cold or whatever. In Bulgaria the answer is likely to be: It was better than I expected.

Sounds familiar? This and many other local experiences inspired Randall Baker's new book Bulgariana, a humorous take on life in this country today.

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MOSTAR

Bosnia and Herzegovina has an area of only 51,000 sq km, or 19,700 sq miles, but it contains three of the best-known bridges in the world. Near the Latin Bridge in Sarajevo on 28 June 1914, Gavrilo Princip shot Franz Ferdinand, the heir apparent to the Austro-Hungarian throne. The assassination prompted the Great War. The bridge over the Drina in Višegrad, which was built by Mehmed Paša Sokolović in 1577, is famous for a couple of reasons. Writer Ivo Andrić made it the main character in his book The Bridge on the Drina (1945) – and won the Nobel Prize for it.

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CRIMES OF THE SYSTEM

When the Black Book of Communism was published in France in 1997, Bulgaria featured on only two or three of its nearly 700 pages. It wasn't because the Bulgarians had enjoyed a milder version of dictatorship of the proletariat. On the contrary: between 1944 and 1989 the Communist authorities committed hundreds of crimes. But neither in 1997, nor in 2009, 20 years after the fall of the Communist regime, has there been any meaningful investigation into state crime in Bulgaria. Nor is there an institute or an agency to study and document these crimes.

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DUST TO DUST IN CENTRAL SOFIA

It is August 1999 and Lilyana Ilieva from Varna stumbles through the dark that envelopes the centre of Sofia at night. She reaches a huge ruin and, like several other people, crouches down by the pile of rubble that has spilled out of the mesh fencing surrounding the wreckage. Lilyana chooses a bigger fragment and puts it in her bag. "My father was in the army construction corps in 1949 and took part in the building of the mausoleum. When he learnt I was coming to Sofia, he asked me to bring him a piece of it. It was one of his dreams – to see the building demolished," Lilyana says.

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ADDING INSULT TO INJURY

Deciding between right and wrong has been an issue from the time somebody first wondered whether the idea of starting a fire by rubbing two sticks together was right. However, a couple of recent events seem to prove that the Bulgarians (and, interestingly, the world) might have lost their sense of judgement.

What was one of the first things done by the Citizens for European Development of Bulgaria, or GERB, MPs after the opening of the new parliament? Did they use their majority to deal with the economic crisis? Or with the continuing problems regarding EU funding?

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LETTER TO OGYGIA, An excerpt

Ten minutes. Sometimes five. That's how long his rapture lasts. From the beginning in the Prologue, his look is somehow solemn, joyful, his glances over there, where he expects her to appear, register things as he wants them: the street, its mood suffused by a recent shower, which will set the scene of hands sinking into each other, intimately. The reflection of buildings on her photochromatic lenses and later – their paling in the shade of the room where her eyes will appear, black as cherries, enough to lose a man in their blackness, sweet, melting.

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QUOTE-UNQUOTE

 

Throughout my whole career, I have always prepared for war in order to live in peace.

Boyko Borisov, Prime Minister

One day, the Movement for Rights and Freedoms will govern Bulgaria on its own.

Kasim Dal, deputy leader of the Turkish-dominated DPS

I am certain that the best thing for a man is to be loved and I am doing all I can to be loved, not only by the media but by everybody.

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THE ZHIVKOV PHENOMENON

Todor Zhivkov, who was toppled from power on 10 November 1989 after an internal party coup, was notorious for his peculiar sense of humour. In the 1980s he said: "I am the doyen of the first and general secretaries of all the Communist parties in the Socialist republics in Europe. A doyen does not mean the oldest but the longest in office." Zhivkov was right. He would manage to stay at the helm of the state and his party for a full 33 years.

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HIGH BEFORE HOMEROOM, An excerpt from a novel

"Nice thing he's doing, serving the country like that. Now Mitchell here ain't got much patriotism, we've had many a-talks about it. It ain't his fault, really, it's a generational thing. But I believe in this great nation, son. Can't take it for granted. We could be in a bread line with a buncha commies somewhere, instead of right here in the greatest country the earth has ever known." Pops grins and gazes fondly across his muddy, shit-stained yard. "The land of milk and honey." He turns to me. "Y'know," he says, "I served in 'Nam."

"Yeah?"

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BAD GUY

You thought the KGB in the Soviet Union, the Stasi in East Germany, the StB in Czechoslovakia and the Securitate in Romania were repressive agencies that terrorised millions of their own citizens and that would use every chance to sabotage the West, ranging from propaganda to drugs and arms smuggling? Quite right. All of those were responsible for heinous crimes such as sending innocent people to Communist labour camps as well as organising "wet jobs" such as the 1978 assassination of Bulgarian writer Georgi Markov in London and the 1981 attempt to murder Pope John Paul in Rome.

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AT A TIME OF CRISIS

Rays of hope have started to peep through the cloud-covered economic horizon – even in the new EU member states. Poland has managed to avoid going into recession. The Baltic states, which were on the verge of collapse until recently, have recorded a slight but encouraging restoration of productivity. The European Commission included Estonia and Bulgaria in the top five EU countries with the greatest financial stability.

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NEW TURKISH SLAVERY

Bulgarian pensioners in their thousands have become glued to Turkish soap operas and numerous travel firms (presumably unregistered) now offer trips to the colourful locations and sets where these passionate stories are filmed. Each advertisement, of course, hints at the chance of meeting the stars in the flesh.

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THE JUSTICES' NEW CLOTHES

Following a Supreme Judiciary Council decision at the beginning of 2009, all judges and prosecutors will have an average of 177 leva deducted from their salaries towards the new attire. The manufacturer was chosen from among three candidates, and the new gowns were introduced for the autumn season.

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