Issue 66

JONATHAN ALLEN

We sat in a side room of the British residence in central Sofia a day after someone had broken the window of Jonathan Allen's Landrover and stolen his GPS. Of course, this could happen anywhere, Allen laughed, noting that his car has been broken into three times in five months, the other two in the UK. The Bulgarian police were very efficient, he told me. "At the end of the report-filing procedure – I did learn some new vocabulary, ogled – the policewoman said, because you are a foreigner we will have to inform your embassy.
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DREAM OR NIGHTMARE

By the dawn of 2002 most Britons’ optimism for the New Millennium was already fading. We began to realise New Labour was just Old Tory with a more sophisticated PR machine. The current economic crisis was beginning to look inevitable and the cost of living was on the increase. As a nation, we hunkered down and turned to our favourite distraction for solace and escape – television.

Programmes like A Place in the Sun and No Going Home held the nation captivated.

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BUYING BRIDES

From a politically correct standpoint, the whole idea of having to sell and buy girls and women is of course completely unacceptable. However, the Brides' Fair at Mogila rarely results in an actual "deal" of this sort. It is nevertheless very colourful, a lot of fun and a must-see for visitors and residents of southern Bulgaria.

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YOUR PEOPLE'S WAY, An excerpt

Tomas insists the new exercises will help.

"Come on!" he yells, "like a clam! Clam!"

And even though his arm movements suggest the opening and closing of a shell, it takes me a moment to understand what he's saying. With his accent, I keep hearing "klum." I lie on my side and, with feet together, very slowly begin to lift my top leg, forming a greater-than sign.

"Come on," he says, "this is not geriatrics. Higher."

"Tomas. It's worse this time."

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CUPCAKE

One day Cupcake stopped showing up altogether. For the last few months they'd seen him less and less oft en on his favorite bench, and when he did turn up, he more or less behaved himself. Finally he disappeared entirely. Had the neighborhood thugs beaten him up? No, they hadn't, or at least nobody had run into him on the street with a black eye or a broken nose, not for months now. Th e neighborhood started getting used to the idea that Cupcake had settled down, that he was sitting at home with his Mattie the Fatty and sobering up.

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MONUMENTAL GAMES

Until recently Skopje, the capital of the former Yugoslav republic of Macedonia (if we are to go by the name the United Nations uses to refer to it in offi cial correspondence), was worth a visit for a handful of reasons, but the list was not very long. It consisted of the juicy chevapi and tavche gravche, or baked beans, taken with zholta, or yellow, rakiya, in the small canteens in the charshia, or market place.

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CONCRETE LEFTOVERS

The children of the 21st Century will have a hard time understanding how such a ridiculous and supposedly omniscient system as the Communist one could hold in thrall a quarter of the world's population for so many decades.

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SOFIA'S HIDDEN MUSEUM

It grows but does not age, as the motto of Sofia proudly boasts: judging by the city's history, it is easy to see why. Two Neolithic settlements existed here and, in the 1st Millennium BC, the Thracians created another, which later become the Roman Serdica, the beloved "My true Rome" of Emperor Constantine the Great (306-337). The city then became the Bulgarian stronghold of Sredets, the centre of an Ottoman province and, in 1879, the capital of Bulgaria. For centuries, Sofia was the place where kings and dictators ruled, and artists, composers, writers and architects created.

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DEMIR BABA TEKKE

If you are looking for a place in Bulgaria that combines nature, architecture and spirituality, Demir Baba's tekke will be among your top choices.

The saint's stone tekke, or shrine, lies at the foot of the cliffs of Kamenen Rid. Dense woods rustle around Demir Baba's tomb, an object so exquisite that from afar it looks like a toy that you could hold in your hand.

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QUIET CHARM OF ELENA

The town is small now, but it used to be a centre of the Bulgarian Revival period. It was called the "Bulgarian Bethlehem," as it boasted three churches at a time when most towns and villages had either one, or none. As you enter it through the winding roads of the Stara Planina, the trees and bushes all around are arrayed in spring green.

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FOREIGN AND STUDYING IN BULGARIA

Twenty-five years ago, when Communism was alive and kicking, foreigners on Bulgarian streets were a rarity and mostly restricted to the Black Sea resorts and some major tourist sights. Otherwise, most of the visible non-Bulgarian faces in the country were in the cities with major universities. There, young people from the Arab countries mingled with Vietnamese and South Africans, the result of Communist Bulgaria's propaganda of the Socialist lifestyle outside Europe.

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BULGARIANS ABROAD

The history of Bulgarian emigration is long and complicated. These descendants of Slavs and Proto-Bulgarians, who themselves arrived in the Balkans about 1,400 years ago, have rarely been afraid to set off in search of a better future elsewhere. At the beginning of the 19th Century whole villages moved to Russia after its unsuccessful wars with the Ottomans. When the Titanic sank in 1912, dozens of Bulgarians from poor mountain villages disappeared with her, indicative of the mass migration to the United States.

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WELCOME TO BARACK OBAMA

Following a protracted deed poll action, the residents of the village near Blagoevgrad managed to achieve what many of their peers in other parts of Bulgaria had wanted for years: to change the name of their village to that of an American president. The first signs directing traffic to what is now officially known as Barakovo have already been erected on the Е79.

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QUOTE-UNQUOTE

Populism is big in Bulgaria. We, as a post-Communist country, still think like Communists. All of us.

Prime Minister Boyko Borisov explains why he forced members of political boards in the government to return their bonus payments

The fact that Bulgaria is a risky economy matters only to people dealing with official propaganda and the economists who kowtow to the government. They boast about data we all know is false, but we do know that there is misbalance in Bulgaria.

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CATHARSIS IN QATAR

It was, however, completely ignored by Qatar's business community, as no Qatari entrepreneur bothered to even show up at a state-sponsored and much-trumpeted Bulgarian "business forum" there in March.

Prime Minister Boyko Borisov, who appears to be increasingly desperate to retain his image as an omniscient and omnipotent strongman, was furious – and reacted in his usual way, by putting the blame on someone else and instantly sacking some of his ministers.

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