Sofia Without Apples

Sofia a beautiful City with many attractions but walking around the city for some five hours there are things I noticed that this City lacking something. In the five hours of walking around and the thousands of shops that were passed, 80% of these were fashion and jewelery shops. The vast majority of the remainder were made up of fast food joints, restaurants, cafes and casinos!

It was with dismay that I peered upon shop after shop with total lack of interest in what was presented which essentially was materialistic matter. In all that time getting hypnotised by repetition of the same type of shops I did not see one single trader that sold fresh fruit or vegetables. In a country that has so much produce grown nationally I found this staggering.

The thousands of people here working and living in the city were all seen to be eating on the move with pizzas, sandwiches or cakes. It is no wonder the worry of eating habits are a concern in the Bulgarian City.

It seems that Sofia is obsessed with designer fashion and jewelry and personally I was quite shocked with this narrow minded trend of business lines based here. To a vast majority of the population who have money to throw away on this never ending source of material based luxury goods where you could spend a lifetime shopping you can't find an apple unless it is gold plated.

Why do I find this so disgusting or is it just me being so tied up an economy based on needs rather than wants living and non-materialistic world in village life on a smallholding?

Also, why do I feel that morally there is something drastically wrong with Sofia City in view of this?

Bulgarian Litterbugs

Rubbish in Bulgaria is all around us and this is a strong and quite off putting first impression many visitors get. This has been put down to a hangover form the communist era where you could be arrested and impounded from dropping litter in the street - what a good idea!

Since the demise of communism part of the freedom included the right to litter the streets without any recrimination and because they now have this right they exercise it to the full. This is more of a retaliation to the previous incarcerated system that went before and a habit now that has been embedded in countless Bulgarians who could be described as litterbugs.

The trouble is that the habits of the parents get passed over to the next generation and right now what I see is a confusion in littering habits. Schools teach ideals of caring for the community you live in but a different signal is coming from the home from their parents. It remains that the reason for towns and cities being 'clean' is mainly due to the street cleaners.

If you rise early before the streets have been given a going over you will see litter scattered everywhere but from dogs, cats and whatever else is around that have been into the big bins and leaving a mayhem of litter on the road and pavements. Included in the scavenging the previous evening are the Roma who sieve through the wastage for cardboard, plastic and metal for patching up their homes, selling on or fuel material for cooking and/or heating.

Even watching Roma children regularly searching through bins in town fast food joints, picking out left over food and walking off whilst eating what they found is common here. Quite a shock at first sight but all part of the how this Bulgaria runs on a day to day basis. This is quite a contrast or even a condradiction to the Roma who litter more than Bulgarian. You can almost certainly recognize most Roma homes by the litter that surround it, this is just how they are over here in Bulgaria with garden as rubbish dumps.

Things will change gradually with the introduction of on the spot fines that will come about in uniform with the EU, in fact back to communist policy.

It must be said that for may visitors to Bulgaria the litter spread around the country is quite an off putting factor and even now an annoying 'tut tut' is made when seeing Bulgarian folk thrown litter down without a thought. Perhaps one area of Bulgaria that doesn't appeal.

How can a population brought up on conservation and green living do these things? As mentioned earlier it may be that it is an abuse of the freedom they have been giving to do it...

Bulgarian Hearses and Zebra Crossings - Avoid

It's a bit like going round smashing windows so you can sell new windows but in Bulgaria it is a bit more morbid. The story unfolds.

Bulgaria would be a safer place without zebra crossings on the road. Anyone who has tried using them will know exactly what I'm talking about.

The worse thing about zebra crossings is it attracts pedestrian the passing traffic use this just like the spider attracting the fly to the web and when in pounce! This happens regularly and pretty soon you get used to it but one day it happened and the vehicle was a hearse. As the Zebra crossing was approached there was eye contact with the driver of the hearse, he was even trying to get business from an early death to himself as I saw he was smoking.

You have to step out onto the road to get traffic to stop but most time they don't. In this case I did exactly that and the big black estate slowed down, this was a signal for me to walk across as I did he sped up and I had to take a quick couple of steps back to avoid becoming his next horizontal customer!

As the car passed by me the driver was obviously on a mission for business as thick clouds of diesel fumes enveloped me as the engine laboured under maximum acceleration. Not only did he try and knock me over he was now trying to intoxicate me with the fumes.

When will I ever learn? - I must stop using zebra crossings in Bulgaria and always let hearses go by with a wide berth as they are on the hunt for new customers.

New Bulgarian Fire Engines?

Every day in Yambol the fire station is walked past and there always something happening there. A great comradeship of firemen work there and they have had a very busy time this year with the forest fires all around the area. Of course much of the time they just kill time and most occasions they are seen mustering around talking, working under the bonnet of a colleagues car, usually an old Lada, servicing something there. Before today I had never had a talk with any of them just a good morning and good day as everyone says as you walk past.

We were walking towards the town centre and Galia my Bulgarian partner stopped for the third time to speak to another friend. It's so hard to get from A-B with Galia who has friends everywhere. This friend works in the lottery office, well more like a stand alone trailer that had been furnished actually. She was in the street away from the cash desk talking with her brother who was a firemen and while the women chatted I chatted to the brother.

His proud grey mustache was the dominant feature and matched well with his grey fireman uniform on with an old style brass fireman's helmet high up on the sleeve of the jacket. He was a well built men as all the firemen are with hands Hulk would be proud of. He was straddling a very old Simpson moped I could see the cracks in the tire tread from age and a multi-coloured head scarf tied onto the headlamp to stop it falling off a typical machine Bulgarian ride around Yambol usually without helmets of course.

I noticed he was holding a crash helmet and new he had mice in his home or garage! How did I know? Well this crash helmet inner foam cushion had been nibbled away and taken somewhere for their bedding exactly the same thing happened with my crash helmet stored in my garage.

After exchange of greetings and a handshake, I asked how business was and he said there wasn't much around now summer had ended but that was good new we agreed. He told me that is was a very exciting time for the fire brigade as they are due some new fire engines and he went about telling me about it.

The fire engines they use now are old and they need lots of servicing, not a day goes by when something has to be tinkered with or adjusted with these grand but ancient machines but they still are good workhorses and do the job that they were intended for. There were a couple of new modern fire engines coming from Germany soon and the old one will be decommissioned.

I asked how old the current fire engines were, he said he didn't know but he had been working there for 32 years and they were there then. Asking about the new engines from Germany it was found that his idea of new was very different from my idea, these were only 22 years old he proudly confessed.

Well that goes back to 1985 and if I remember rightly, back in the UK fire engines then and now hadn't changed that much in style and the German type would certainly be up there in that league.

We will see more of this friendly fireman now as he has promised to show me around the fire station and insisted he would take me up the lookout tower directly he found out I was scared of heights - The little devil! Added to which my Lada was welcome to visit the fire station if there is a problem as they currently have lots of time on their hands and will service it during that time.

The friendliness of these people never fail to overwhelm! Would I have met him without Galia my Bulgarian partner? Probably not.

Bulgarian Coffee Cooler

Bulgarians are so cool and uninhibited at what they do the practical apects of their actions just amazes me sometimes.

The is a coffee shop that open very early in the morning where worker will pop in and get a take away coffee. Every day I see many people but the coffee and either sit down int he seating area on the pavement waiting for the coffee to cool down before being drunk or just walk off with it.

Today there was a slightly different tilt on one customer I saw buy a coffee. He arrived on a typical loud and smoky moped with a helmet that seemed to have been knitted by his Baba Mama. Most people light a cigarette with their coffee and that's their breakfast, this thin and ghostly figure did just that but in the cafe whilst the coffee was being ordered.

The coffee in one bare hand and the other bearing a glove. His cigarette held by his thin lips but tilted downward he made his way to his moped. Now the coffee was too hot to drink what was he going to do. He said good morning to me and I returned the compliment and asked if the coffee was indeed hot - small talk and talking about the obvious is common with Bulgarians.

He confirmed it was hot and then wished me a goodbye as he started up his moped again. The next thing I know he was riding the bike into the distance, after a negotiated bounce from the pavement into the road with one hand the other holding both the hot coffee and cigarette as he made his way to work.

What a good idea for cooling coffee, should be cool enough after a kilometer or two!

Lotto in Bulgaria

There is a very good Bulgarian friend of ours who lives and works in Yambol. Her job is managing a lottery hut and I had an invite to check the place out.

These lottery huts are in the main prefabricated huts usually stand alone in spots in the town centre walkways or very near or in the centre of blocks (tower blocks.) Having passed these places many time I have only been inside one once with another Bulgarian friend who does the lottery weekly and has won once in five years and then it wasn't' much!

The purpose of the lottery games is to support sport in Bulgaria and many have the Bulgarian writing on the facade of the hut as 'Sport Lotto'

This is essentially the same as the UK with the options available for example 5, 6 or 7 numbers chosen from 1-35, 1-42 or 1-49. Of course the less probability of winning the bigger the cash prize.

It is a finely balanced though as to whether the lottery system here are good. As with the system elsewhere in Europe it is another 'tax on the poor' or in the UK we used to call it the 'idiot tax'. There is not a lot of business generated from what I see and from what our Bulgarian lottery manager tells us but then it is a National Lottery not local which is why it carries on.

Before I even entered the hut there was a bright green car half parked on the road half on the pavement and half blocked the entrance to the lottery hut. I was told that this was our lottery manger friend's car and thats where she parks every day. Well parking habits never die in Bulgaria so no surprise there.

It feels like I am going to enter a betting office and the sense of smoke and messy customers remains was expected but this was far from the case.

With the odds and options of betting scattered on the iron barred front window but as you enter the atmosphere changes directly you cross the threshold. There is a polished wooden cash desk with a window front and lovely scenic pictures all around. On a shelf where you fill out your lottery card there are pot plant feeling quite at home there. There are ashtray placed on the desk, again they had been cleaned out and shone in the sun that peers in from the front window. It has the feel of someones home and actually our friend treats it exactly that way. No litter of used lottery cards on the floor a spotlessly clean environment in which makes you feel very welcome.

All the time we were there, it must have been about an hour with all the talking we all did, not on customer appeared and it was around 5:00 in the afternoon on a bright sunny day - a time when people finish work and walk home.

Bulgaria - Like the UK 50 years ago?

Bulgaria is like the UK 50 years ago is a statement that keep coming up as a comparison.

Well I picked up this article from 'Housekeeping Monthly' published in the UK in 1955 - okay 52 years ago but close enough.

I found it very much true to form as to regard to the way women treat their husbands/partners in Bulgaria. Blokes have never had it so good, me included!

HOW TO BE A GOOD WIFE


- Have dinner ready. Plan ahead, even the night before, to have a delicious meal ready, on time for his return. This is a way of letting him know that you have been thinking about him and are concerned about his needs. Most men are hungry when they come home and the prospect of a good meal (especially his favourite dish) is part of the warm welcome needed.

- Prepare yourself. Take 15 minutes to rest so you'll be refreshed when he arrives. Touch up your make-up, put a ribbon in your hair and be fresh-looking. He has just been with a lot of work-weary people.

- Be a little gay and a little more interesting for him. His boring day may need a lift and one of your duties is to provide it.

- Clear away the clutter. Make one last trip through the main part of the house just before your husband arrives.

- Gather up schoolbooks, toys, paper, etc. and then run a dust cloth over the tables.

- Over the cooler months of the year you should prepare and light a fire for him to unwind by.

- Your husband will feel he has reached a haven of rest and order, and it will give you a lift too. After all, catering for his comfort will provide you with immense personal satisfaction.

- Prepare the children. Take a few minutes to wash the children's hands and faces (if they are small), comb their hair and, if necessary, change their clothes. They are little treasures and he would like to see them playing the part. Minimize all noise. At the time of his arrival, eliminate all noise of the washer, dryer or vacuum. Try to encourage the children to be quiet.

- Be happy to see him.

- Greet him with a warm smile and show sincerity in your desire to please him.

- Listen to him. You may have a dozen important things to tell him, but the moment of his arrival is not the time. Let him talk first - remember, his topics of conversation are more important than yours.

- Make the evening his. Never complain if he comes home late or goes out to dinner, or other places of entertainment without you. Instead, try to understand his world of strain and pressure and his very real need to be at home and relax.

- Your goal: try to make sure your home is a place of peace, order and tranquility where your husband can renew himself in body and spirit.

- Don't greet him with complaints and problems.

- Don't complain if he ís late home for dinner or even if he stays out all night. Count this as minor compared to what he might have gone through that day.

- Make him comfortable. Make him lean back in a comfortable chair or have him lie down in the bedroom. Have a cool or warm drink ready for him.

- Arrange his pillow and offer to take off his shoes. Speak in a low, soothing and pleasant voice.

- Don't ask him questions about his actions or question his judgment or integrity. Remember, he is the master of the house and as such will always exercise his will with fairness and truthfulness. You have no right to question him.

A GOOD WIFE ALWAYS KNOWS HERE PLACE.

The only Bulgarian thing missing in this article is the rakia and salad prepared laid out on the dining table after work - Oh, these are the days! - Ooops sorry - Those were the days!

The Village Hairdresser - Beware!

In Skalitsa we have a hairdresser and if anything is to go by she is not a good advert as she has a mustache herself. Her name is Donka an elderly Skalitsa woman has been running the business for 38 years and never had a complaint until recently.

Her surgery, sorry saloon, has not been decorated for 38 years along with the same chair. It is my opinion that she was the vehicle from where punk hairstyles were founded

When ever I get the chance I go there but only because she is my friend and being seen in the village. I doesn't matter as many others have the same style but don't complain so I don't complain. The cost was 1.50 leva for a short back and sides with little bonuses in as some sides are shorter than others.

The other service she offered men was a shave. Now I have never been shaved before by another person, apart from having my appendix out! This was a first for me and for a fee of 50 stotinki it is actually cheaper than buying a razor blade. Why doesn't everyone go there for a shave then? Well I was to find out.

A nervy man sat there with the old lady bearing a cut throat razor and that's just what I feared. The trouble is I wear glasses and am shortsighted so looking in the mirror facing me which is also 38 years old, I can't see what is going on without the spectacles. It really wasn't something I was familair as she proceeded with the shave.

Funny I mentioned surgery by accident earlier because it was a general anesthetic that was needed before thew process began. but I this was all new I thought this is how it was having a shave with a cut throat razor.

When she had finished home made rakia was slapped on my face (ouch!) and I was asked to wait in the chair while we talked. Then a damp cloth was wiped and I was free to go after paying.

On myt way back along the Sklaitsa streets as usual it took a lifetime to get there meeting friends and neighbours en route stopping to talk. The strange thing is they normally ask me where I have been and what I am doing but today they knew where I'd been this time so just asked me where I was going. I wasn't quite sure how they knew until I finally got home.

Looking in the mirror there was a blood stained face staring back at me it looked like I had been treated and subjected to the torcher of a thousand cuts but all in the same area. Well for 50 stotinki was at a cut price and that's exactly what I got. No wonder everyone knew where I had been.

Don't just ask me my brother went there a few weeks later with sideburns Elvis style on one side and the original Black Adder style on the other. His face also looked like it had been through a mincer, you could have made black-pudding with the amount of blood that was seeping out! The only difference between his episode and mine was that he complained!

I still go there for a punk haircut but never for a shave even though she considers herself a cut above (and below) the rest.

A final thought came around that hairdressers used to be the wounded soldiers butcher of war but surely that was more than 38 years ago.

Ugly Bulgarian Baby -Not!

In Skalitsa one of my lovely neighbours recently had a baby - I had not seen the new Bulgarian addition to the Skalitsa village for a month or so and found it quite strange in fact quite worrying.

It was a boy and called Alexander, that's all the information that came out from the family. On asking around why the baby was being hidden from public it was tradition that families with new arrivals were not to get visits from friends and families for up to a couple months from birth as this was deemed as bad luck. This explained a lot.

Then on a lovely summer day I saw the pram being pushed down the road past my house and as Galia my Bulgarian partner and I were also on the road walking the other way we paused to finally get a glimpse of the child. Now my Bulgarian isn't excellent by any account but I heard Galia say in Bulgarian that the baby wasn't very pretty added to which she said that the left eye was bigger than the right one! I was absolutely certain that this is what she said. Also, uncharacteristically, we only spent about a minute with Alex and Maria his mother, usually a conversation would last anything up to an hour especially after not seeing them for so long!

When we walked away I questioned Galia who said that it wasn't good to spent time looking at the baby it was a bad thing to do in Bulgaria. I then asked why she insulted the baby by saying it was ugly and other nasty things about his eyes. She said this was a custom in Bulgaria where you say bad things about the baby as it brings good luck - I was quite amazed and also amused with this.

The following weekend we met up again with baby Alex and mother Maria, I had the strange custom of telling the mother in Bulgarian that her son had ears like Prince Charles and a mouth like a horse! She thanked me very much as she walked off in another brief encounter!

Freshly Ground Coffee in Bulgaria

Everyday I see groups of big hefty Roma women wondering the streets of Yambol. Not what you think as they wear bright orange florescent jackets armed with a couple of traffic cones and a broom. They look like Roma witches as they make their way to work have you guessed what work yet? Cleaning the street and by jove to they do a good job. If it wasn't for the Bulgarian habit of dropping litter wherever they want they would be out of a job - remember that for the moment.

All this takes place before 7:30 as I usually walk alongside them from the Gypsy quarters in the north part of the town towards the town centre. They have a mustering point to start with something that resembles a Steptoe and Son junkyard with corrugated iron fence surround and well used steps they sit on leading up to the broom and cone stock room which is basically a lorry trailer. The steps are used as a seating place for their lunchtime break some 5 1/2 hours later. As I walk home for lunch I see bottles of beer being swigged at with used plastic bags on their laps as plates. As always the Gypsies are even louder than the Bulgarians it seems they are argueing all the time, that's not the case - they are just talking in their own way.

When they work in the streets of Yambol they are non-stop, picking every trace of litter then sweeping the dust left not leaving a speck behind as if their lives depended on it. Looking at them working you would think they pay was on commission or faced a deduction from their wage if rubbish remains were missed. I actually dare not think how little they get in the first place but know that minimum wages here is 180 leva month (around 15 GB pounds a week.)

This morning as usual I was following a group of four of these brightly clad Gypsy workers, why they are all obese is beyond me with the amount of walking they do everyday. One was sipping black coffee out of a small plastic vending machine cup. she took down the final sip and flung the clear plastic cup into the road! Now this was true Bulgarian style but coming from a street cleaner was quite bizzare at that instant. I suppose she would clean it up later that day!

For a fleeting moment I just didn't understand this, but then it made conmplete sense - Of course, this is the Bulgarian Gypsies ensuring there is always going to be work for them, essentially and action of job creation.

Bulgarian Birthday Party

This is Bulgaria and in Yambol we had been invited to a birthday party of one of Galia's friend who live just five minute walk from our house. I had been told that her husband was a hotel chef and that the food was to be scrumptious and in plentiful supply home made rakia to accompany. Actually the day had been a very bad day for me and to be quite honest I didn't even want to go but we had promised and Galia said that a few rakia in the evening would be good after such a terrible day.

The simple gift of a jersey and single flower along with a chocolate bar for their 3 year old son was taken as we walked the cobbled stones towards the house. This young Bulgarian family live right next to a Roma based neighbour hood as the live Roma music got louder and louder thinking that the music entertainment was already laid on thanks to the Roma. We turned into their street with the Roma street party in full swing and it was only 6:30 in the evening. This is a daily happening in Yambol in this area and heard from far and wide in this area. Again no one complains as the pulsating, heaving beat of the chalga was a privilege to have around - and free! I can just see many foreigners looking at the same situation and pulling their hair out. This is what happens here and to me I really can now start to see the sense in enjoying the situation rather than getting frustrated and stressed out with what before would be described as a invasion of unwanted sound in 'my space!'

The front door was approached, a red painted thick metal facade or a better term would be a barricade with no character stood before us. Well this is Roma territory perhaps even letter boxes would present a possible breach of security here.

From an outsiders point of view this was a dump of an area as the birthday house on the side of the Roma littered road that was in total disrepair, it looked like it had been ploughed up ready for winter. Somehow I knew that once inside the house it would be a complete contrast to the chaos outside just like the blocks, (tower blocks) simply beautiful well kept and very clean Bulgarian havens.

The was so true as we took our shoes off to walk on the pristine carpets and ceramic tiled floors you really felt the urge to skate on gave a heaven from hell feeling and a sense of sanctuary. The iron door was slowly closed and an antiphonal effect took place as the open air Roma concert gradually gave was to Bulgarian pop-folk music could be heard in another direction coming another room in the house.

Katia the hostess and Bulgarian birthday girl was given birthday greetings and was wished good health, good luck, good business and luck in love which is a traditional greeting after the initial birthday compliments. The gift were gratefully received and the formalities were over.

The inside of the house was completely modern, spotless with plain white walls and ceiling. As we were led into the living room area a table with food fit for a king lay both meticulously and symmetrically perfect. The snow-capped shopska salad taking the limelight amongst the other delights still in their virgin state!

Another Bulgarian couple turned up half and hour later, more friends, more talking, more food and drink and the party started for real. As always the woman worked around the men who only moved to have their pictures taken or change the music CD and the later only because the women wer in the kitchen preparing more food. To be honest that isn't entirely true, the husband like I said was a chef and all the food had been prepared by him before we arrived. This is very rare so I am told and backed up entirely with what I generally see on a daily basis.

It was now approaching 12:00 and the first occasion that the time was checked up upon, this is not important here it is how you feel and we were all full of food that just kept coming. Rakia with the salad, beer with the meat course (beautiful melt in your mouth pork with mushrooms and sauce moat around rice castle.) The dessert no less special, home baked sponge birthday cake - They save the candles for birthday during power-cuts. This was moist and delicious and a midway sweetness enough to satisfy these sweet-toothed Bulgarians but not too overpowering for me. All finally washed down with lemonade.

I said it was food fit for a king but I was worried about my Princess Galia that something would turn into a pumpkin after midnight only to discover it was my stomach was that something! The characteristic elements of a Bulgarian birthday party are the same as for any gathering of Bulgarian friends and family - food, drink, music and not least talk.

We left in the early hours of the morning and even the Roma party had run out of energy in the Yambol streets. It was only then in the dead quiet of the night with an almost full moon showing us the way home did the time seem important with work the next morning. But in true Bulgarian fashion we didn't rush home.

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