VAGABOND FEATURES

CONFUSINGLY BIG HAPPY FAMILY

Sounds like a nightmare? The truth is even scarier: all those monstrously unpronounceable words refer to your friend's relatives. The above is, in fact, only a small sample of all the baffling kinship terms that exist in Bulgarian. You can probably describe your relationship to extended family members with a modest vocabulary consisting of grandfather, grandmother, father-in-law, mother-in-law, brother-in-law, sister-in-law, son-in-law, daughter-in-law, uncle, aunt, nephew, niece and cousin.

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TWISTED WISDOMS

Bulgarians are no exception. Throughout the centuries, they have produced their share of common sense maxims covering all aspects of life, including many virtues. Hard work is endorsed ("The vineyard doesn't need a prayer but a hoe" and "He who doesn't work shouldn't eat") as are hospitality and generosity ("Treat your guest, and forgive your enemy"), and humbleness ("Take a big bite of food, but don't say a big word").

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C IS FOR SOFIA, A STANDS FOR BURGAS

Number plates usually reflect the year of the first registration, or the province where the car's owner resides, or sometimes they give out nothing at all except a unique combination of letters and numbers detectable by the traffic authorities and the police.

Theoretically, they should give out meaningful information in Bulgaria as well. But try to find out what an Y stand for on a local number plate and then think of the TX on another, and you are bound to see that not even number plates in this country are produced the way things are done elsewhere.

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ADVANCED BULGARIAN

One thing your Bulgarian instructor will probably not be telling you, possibly because many Bulgarians will be at a loss themselves, is the sometimes intricate details and innuendoes of this country's new Newspeak.

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VOODOO CHRISTIANITY

Our sin? We had not lit candles when we entered the church. He, however, did not see any contradiction in the fact that the veneration of "healing" springs is a tradition that Eastern Orthodoxy in Bulgaria has inherited from paganism.

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DAY OF FLOWERS

Palm Sunday in Bulgaria, which is on 24 April this year according to the Eastern Orthodox Church, is an event that offers a glimpse of yet another contradiction in society, between half-forgotten traditions, religion and pure joie de vivre.

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BIRTHPLACE OF BULGARIA'S LAST DICTATOR

You are in an unsightly socialist town where rustic houses are scattered amongst prefabricated housing blocks. Men are repairing Ladas and Moskviches and women are dusting carpets in the patches of green. You head for the town square and discover that it is appropriately covered with the large white slabs to be seen in so many other Bulgarian towns, the result of a 1980s plan by Communist rulers to implement pedestrian zones. But there is something a little out of kilter here. The town is oddly clean and the pavement is not falling apart. There are few stray dogs in the streets.

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VANGA GOES GLOBAL

As 2015 was drawing to a close and the unravelling conflict in the Middle East (the ISIS, the refugees, the airstrikes, Russia, Turkey, the EU, etc, etc) spiralled deeper into a state that can best be described with expletives, the name of a Bulgarian suddenly hit the international news.

It was Vanga, the blind clairvoyant who died on 11 August 1996.

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MUZEIKO - BUILDING OF THE YEAR

A few months after its opening, Sofia's Muzeiko, the first museum for children in Eastern Europe, is not only full with visitors eager to learn more about nature, history and space. In December, Muzeiko won the Building of the Year 2015 award in the Educational Infrastructure category. The museum was also a nominee in two more categories, Building Incorporating Green Elements and Concrete in Architecture.

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SOFIA IN THE 1990S

After several years of hectic building and reconstruction – including new Roman ruins and roads that need repairing only two weeks after they have been inaugurated by the prime minister – Sofia looks transformed. In many ways it is. Chain stores and shopping malls dominate the urban landscape, foreign tourists fill the downtown area, and Western coffee culture is replacing the older, Balkan one. There is a metro, and the graffiti are much more sophisticated than the erstwhile political or emotional slogans scribbled on walls. McDonalds is not a novelty and sushi has gone out of fashion.

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WHAT IS MUZEIKO?

Most museums in Bulgaria are still stuck somewhere in the 1970s in terms of the organisation of exhibits, captions layout, photography policy and the content of gift shops. In recent years this has started to change with places like the Stara Zagora's history museum and the Pliocene museum at Dorkovo village, in the Rhodope.

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LET'S DISCUSS IT

When asked about the things which she doesn't like in Bulgaria, Athena Lao points to a flaw in local mentality. "There are a lot of inefficiencies and frustrations that are completely avoidable and fixable, but some Bulgarians' first impulse is to shrug their shoulders and say nothing can be done, 'because it's Bulgaria'," says the young American from Athens, Georgia. She arrived in Blagoevgrad, in Bulgaria's southwest, in 2012 for a one-year tenure as a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant after she graduated in Classical Languages and Literature from Harvard University.

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HARBINGERS OF SPRING

They are finally home: after flying thousands of kilometres from Africa, the storks have returned to Bulgaria, back to their old nests. Even more have passed through the country, on their way farther into Europe; according to the Bulgarian Society for the Protection of Birds, about 75 percent of the storks on the continent arrive through Bulgaria.

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MICKEY MOUSE CASTLE BUILDING

On a crisp spring morning, the distant hum of traffic on the Trakiya Highway can barely be heard in the narrow Trayanovi Vrata Pass, in the Sredna Gora mountains. Birds sing, the sky is blue, and early greenery covers the slopes. Until not that long ago, the romantic ruins of an ancient and medieval fortress used to stand there; a labyrinth of still-standing arches and walls, a piece of ancient Rome on Bulgaria soil.

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MEET THE UNBULGARIANS

What does it mean to be Bulgarian? And what does it take not to qualify as one?

Here are some of the commonplaces spread by the mainstream media. Foreigners are rich, highly marriageable material. Or they are funny people who buy decaying rural houses and settle there, happy to grow tomatoes. They are poor migrants who want to sponge on Bulgaria's social security system. Or they are nice fellows who get drunk on a tiny glass of rakiya. Then there are the terrorists...

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