Issue 43-44

BATAK

One of the golden rules of good writing says you must never start a story with description of a landscape.

In the case of Batak, however, the desire to do so is overwhelming. You are tempted to begin with the narrow road that meanders into the Rhodope all the way from Pazardzhik and Peshtera, and the fresh highland air. You search for the best adjectives to describe the water of the nearby Batak Reservoir (crystal? tranquil?). You remember that the Tsigov Chark resort has long been regarded as a pleasant and inexpensive place for a mountain holiday.

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NEITHER HERE, NOR THERE

You have a birthday and your best Bulgarian friend has a gift for you: a leather wallet. You unwrap it carefuly, you admire it and then, on closer inspection, you find one stotinka (the equivalent of less than half a penny) inside it. Giving an empty wallet is a bad omen in Bulgaria. It means that it will never get full.

Now that Bulgaria is not going to ban smoking indoors you reach for your cigarettes. Do not even think of lighting a cigarette from a burning candle, especially if you are on the Black Sea coast. It means that you will be taking the soul of a sailor.

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WHITE NIGHTS AT LUNA PARK, An excerpt

Sometimes it was her child, sometimes it had been entrusted to her by her Girl Scout leader, Mrs Fox. Once it had arrived on a ruota, the medieval Italian wheel where, in the depth of the night, foundlings were placed through an iron grille into a wooden box and spun behind a convent's walls.

Phoebe wondered what Edwin would think if he knew that she could sleep only while cradling him like some mutant newborn. She wondered what it would have been like if she had had her own children. Maybe she would have been spared the luxury of insomnia.

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THE LAST OF THE BOGOMILS

No matter where you are, be it in a city, a village or the middle of the countryside, the landscape of Bosnia and Herzegovina can be described in just four words: mountains, rivers, bridges, cemeteries.

The mountains and rivers have a wild splendour, the bridges an Ottoman grace and the newer cemeteries stand out for their sheer number and the recurring dates of death – between 1992 and 1995.

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THE TRUTH ABOUT ROSES

The Austro-Hungarian archaeologist, geographer and ethnographer Felix Kanitz, who visited Bulgarian lands 18 times between 1860 and 1883, could not complain of a lack of gratitude. His detailed map of Bulgaria was used by the Russian army in the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-1878 and won him a medal from the emperor. It was also used at the Congress of Berlin in June 1878. Present-day Bulgarian history books and academic works still quote Kanitz's accounts of the Bulgarian way of life and traditions at that time. There is a street in Sofia named after him.

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THE WOMEN IN BULGARIAN TRAMS SAY...

Thousands of Bulgarians, including some of the hacks and Boyko Borisov himself believe that an unregistered herbal medicine will save mankind from all kinds of cancer, diabetes, cirrhosis and even AIDS. That it can't is pretty obvious. But why are so many Bulgarians captivated by what can at best be described as a pretty ridiculous idea?

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A MATTER OF RESIGNATION

The news that the Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borisov receives three times as many letters as his predecessor Sergey Stanishev should surprise no one. A populist politician from his weightlifter’s shoulders to his tub thumping toes, he should expect that Bulgarian people, so long the victims of extraordinary situations, would temporarily forget their cynicism and believe that, like some superhero, he will ride to their rescue.

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SOFIA'S TEMPLES PART 2

They are all over Sofia; some with shining domes, some old and crumbling, and some housed in inconspicuous grey buildings. Through the many places of worship in Sofia you can trace back the history of the city for nearly two millennia, although many were only built during the last 150 years and bear the marks of wars and Communism.

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THINKING AT THE EDGE

Have you ever wondered how you would describe Bulgarian culture or young Bulgarians? If you think the question too philosophical, see German photographer Britta Morisse Pimentel's recipe.

A "vagabond" in her soul, Britta Morisse Pimentel arrived in Bulgaria in April 2009 at the suggestion of a friend. For the German, who is a graduate of the New York Institute of Photography, this wasn't her first plunge into the vibrancy of another country. She had lived in the US and in Brazil for some time and won the São Paulo Critics' Association award for one of her photo essays.

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THEN & NOW

Under Communism, when there was no private media and Big Brother was a lot more real than it is now on TV, jokes were perhaps the only outlet of social criticism. Amazingly, people risked losing their jobs – or worse – to tell that joke, over a rakiya, about how many militiamen it took to screw in a light bulb, or to quote, disparagingly, Todor Zhivkov's ridiculous statement about the need to make semi-conductors "full" conductors.

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THEN & NOW

Under Communism, when there was no private media and Big Brother was a lot more real than it is now on TV, jokes were perhaps the only outlet of social criticism. Amazingly, people risked losing their jobs – or worse – to tell that joke, over a rakiya, about how many militiamen it took to screw in a light bulb, or to quote, disparagingly, Todor Zhivkov's ridiculous statement about the need to make semi-conductors "full" conductors.

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QUOTE-UNQUOTE

Will a sensible investor put his money into Bulgaria, given we have such a finance minister, who is so inadequate that he changes his mind once in the morning, once in the afternoon and once in the evening?

Rumen Petkov, MP from the Bulgarian Socialist Party, on Minister of Finance Simeon Djankov

Sergey Stanishev looks more like a dormouse, so we have nothing in common except for the glasses, but mine are the result of reading books. I look like Brad Pitt wearing glasses!

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