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On Tuesday, my mom and I went to an ice-cream and wine tasting! The event took place at Gelateria Confetti in Sofia and was organized by Bacchus, the wine and gourmet magazine.  Read the magazine’s article here. These are the six combinations (click on the pics to enlarge):

Vanilla truffle ice-cream with nuts and chardonnay paired with Cluster Chardonnay

Dark chocolate ice-cream with nuts paired with Solitaire Merlot

Strawberry and pistachio ice-cream with fresh strawberries and mint leaves paired with Asti Canti sparkling wine. One of my two favorites for the night!

Lavender ice-cream, cheesecake, and Rudesheimer Berg Roseneck Riesling Spatlese – my definite favorite for the evening, both in terms of ice-cream and wine!

Prosecco ice-cream decorated with melon, paired with Rosé

And the gran finale: Malaga ice-cream decorated with grapes and paired with Gran Feudo Blanco Dulce de Moscatel!

***

Read my previous post about sexy Bulgarian ice-cream advertising.

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This used to be customary practice in hotels a few years back, and it was funny to see it again: In Bulgaria, many hotels give you the remote control for the TV and the AC at check-in. You have to return them at check-out. I guess it’s a clever means of precaution against guests who steal the shampoos and the towels.

I took the photo last weekend at a hotel in Melnik.


My International Marketing class was all about how differences in culture affect the way business is done in different countries, but this week I had my own mini business-cultural shock!

In the States, the term “team building” is associated with some sort of leadership skills exercises, brainstorming sessions, team discussions, and most of all, fun activities that require group work,  team communication, and the development of interpersonal connections.

Sozopol at Black Sea, Bulgaria

So when I was invited to attend a team building weekend in Sozopol, a beautiful Bulgarian Black Sea resort, I expected to join some organized team activities… eh, American business school brainwashing…

It turns out that in Bulgaria, “team building” means going for a weekend of heavy eating and drinking at the expense of the firm!

What details would you like me to give? Starting on Friday afternoon with a five to six-hour long dinner that starts around 8 and ends with breakfast for the survivors. Many liters of ouzo, wine, and beer. All the festive meals you can find on Easter and Christmas combined. “Brainstorming” is another word for telling jokes and sharing embarrassing real stories. On Saturday:  a yacht trip along the coast, grilled fish and cocktails onboard, and jumping off the deck in the water, then an afternoon nap, and again the “team building” dinner session all over again.

In the States, time is money. But in the nations of south-east Europe, we have all the time in the world. That’s why Bulgarians (and Greeks, Serbs, etc) take their sweet time to get to know each other in the way they consider most personal – at the table, with good wine and good food, laughing together, and making real relationships. To an American-trained business student like me, the Bulgarian “adaptation” of team-building at first seemed like a waste of time. But then I realized that it is perfectly suited to our culture and very, very effective for us! As my international marketing professor said, in order to make business in a foreign country, you first have to understand its culture.

ACTUALLY, I’m not sure that what I said above is right. In Europe, Bulgaria is second to last in terms of productivity per worker per hour. We are at $17.8 per worker per hour compared to $57.5 for Luxembourg at the first position and $34.2 for Spain, which is in the mid-positions. Only Romania is behind us with $10.0 per hour per worker. Enough said. 


Sofia's Monument of the Soviet Army transformed with Western symbolism, anonymous graffiti artist.

This is probably the most clever (and certainly the boldest) street artwork that Bulgaria has seen for years! On Saturday, June 18th, an anonymous graffiti artist transformed Sofia’s Monument of the Soviet Army by painting the Red Army soldiers over as Western pop culture symbols.

Sofia woke up to the sight of That Yellow Bastard, the Joker, Wolverine, Santa Claus, Superman, Ronald McDonald, Captain America, Robin, and Wonder Woman. The former-Soviet-soldiers-gone-superhero had replaced the USSR flag with the American. The message under the statues reads “keep abreast of the time”. The “Bulgarian Banksy”, as the Herald Sun nicknamed the artist, remains a mystery.

And the Monument of the Soviet Army before the graffiti, surrounded by a skate park.

The Monument of the Soviet Army is one of the landmarks of Sofia, but it is also very controversial.  It was erected in 1953-6 in order to commemorate the Soviet soldiers who rescued Europe from the Nazi. Still, many young Bulgarians perceive it as a celebration of those who forced communism onto Bulgaria in 1944 and consider it out of place. Ever since the fall of communism in 1989, the monument has been a bone of contention among “anti-communists” and “anti-capitalists”.

Today, the park around the monument is a skaters and bikers park. At night, it is full of young alternative people having fun. To me, this speaks that as long as the park is beautiful and well-kept it doesn’t really matter if the monument is outdated or not. However, I also think that it would be good to replace this monument with something that better relates to the young people of the EU.

But then again, the graffiti artist brings up a good point by replacing the symbol of the “communist occupants” with the symbol of the “capitalist occupants”.  Fifty years ago, we glorified the world power of that time, the Soviet Union. Today, as indicated by the movies we watch, the fashion we wear, and the food we eat, we are simply glorifying the current world power, the USA. Probably it is time to create something of our own and be proud of it: be it high art or graffiti.

***Several Facebook groups were created for and against the work of art/vandalism.  It was announced that city officials will clean up the monument on Tuesday at 8am, so several Facebook activists urged people to go see the graffiti in the morning and thus show their support for the anonymous artist. However, the superhero and pop culture characters artwork was cleaned between midnight and 6am last night! The citizens who visited the monument around 8am went home highly disappointed. 


This is a great interview with Gencho Genchev  about a very interesting trend in Bulgarian advertising. If brief, it notes that since 2005, many of our TV commercials have revolved around the theme of the “good old” socialism.

The idea is that everything used to be better in our socialist past: fresh produce and meat tasted real and without genetic modifications; human interaction was genuine, not online; life was simple and beautiful.

Many Bulgarians over the age of 30 associate socialism with the idea of high quality and high productivity. Not surprisingly, many of the brands that became popular during those times remain some of the market leaders today (these are mostly foods: Regular Biscuits, rose lokum, liutenitza Purvomai). Even when multinational companies bought some of these brands and pretty much changed the ingredients and the production process, the brands still remained and so did their customer loyalty.

I think that not all Westerners will understand our urge to idealize socialism in advertising. Although it’s widely accepted that most people look at their past with tenderness and nostalgia, the Western world often doesn’t realize that those who lived during socialism make no exception.

What makes the commercialization of our past such a successful marketing tool in Bulgaria? Could it be simply nostalgia for the olden days? Could it be some sort of a reaction against the modern consumerism and its overwhelming array of branded choices?

The shopkeeper: “Ooo Pepi, you look beautiful today! The new hotdogs Leki: the same taste as in those days!”

In her memories, the shopkeeper years ago: “Ooo Pepi! They just brought in the hotdogs!”

“Give me a kilo!”

Tagline: Delicious memories. Hotdog Leki.

***

Read my previous post: Why do Americans Have So Many Types of Breakfast Cereal?


Previously, I wrote about my dad’s 30-year-old fridge from Socialist times.

Now I’ll talk about British ovens.

This is an AGA cooker. According to Wikipedia, it is a “stored-heat stove and cooker invented in 1929 by the Nobel Prize-winning  Swedish physicist Gustaf Dalen.. chief engineer of the Swedish AGA company”. Dalen actually invented it while he was blind.

But mind you, the Aga cooker is more than a stove. For the British, it is a sign of prestige and dignity.

The Aga is extremely energy inefficient (425kWh per week compared to 580kWH per year for a normal gas oven), extremely impractical (with its four ovens and as much steel as a small Korean car), practically indestructible with its at least 50 years lifespan, and godlessly expensive, ranging from $13,000 to $30,000.

But Aga is something of a cult for the Brits from the middle and upper class. With its olden-days-looking exterior and robust interior, the Aga personifies the British taste for tradition and style (or traditional style). That’s why it is usually the centerpiece of the house. A housewife will always show off her Aga to her guests.  In fact, out of the entire home, the British invest the most money and effort in their kitchens, which is quite paradoxical since they are known for their mediocre cuisine (which I don’t really agree with).

And if you look at the official Aga website, you will see that the Aga culture is very similar to the Harley Davidson Rider’s Club – Brits simply become one with their Aga.


I saw this exhibition at the Saatchi Gallery in London two Fridays ago and I found it very inspiring. There was so much meaning to these eight huge rocks with tiny paper crosses on top. Man conquering nature. The human aspiration overcoming all obstacles. Death eventually reigning all.

Still, isn’t it ironic to claim to have conquered the rock if the cross is so small compared to it? The author Kris Martin found the megaliths in Colorado.

Summits by Kris Martin, Saatchi Gallery London

Summits by Kris Martin, Saatchi Gallery London. A paper cross on top.


Don’t you just love a summer cocktail at the beach!

Here are my four suggestions from four of my favorite countries:

Pimm’s: My latest discovery! A delicious English 25% alcohol similar to gin and served with “lemonade” (or the generic name the English use for Sprite, 7up and ginger ale) and chopped cucumber, orange, strawberry, and mint. Order it at any pub! Refreshing and citrusy! I might have gotten a bottle for myself from London 😉 What’s the time? It’s Pimm’s o’clock!

Sangria : Typical for Spain and Portugal, but also for Boston’s Newbury street, with red wine, rum, apples, oranges, lemon, strawberries or also with white wine, melon, and pineapple.

Mastika/Ouzo: These are respectively the Bulgarian and Greek version of a 40% liquor made of mastic, a Mediterranean tree. These drinks are served as a digestif and have a very distinctive liquorice sweet smell and taste. The best part is that they turn milky white when you mix them with ice or water because they “crystallize”.  In Bulgaria, we love Mastika mixed with Menta, a mint liquor (this cocktail is called Cloud) as well as taken with watermelon (or together with girls with watermelon bras)!  In Greece, they have Ouzo with mezze such as octopus, zucchini, and calamari. I’m sure that men can tell you the difference between the two, but I’m not that good!


Goran Bregovic‘s performance at the Balkan Music Awards 2011 took place in Alexander Batemberg Square in Sofia and  finished an hour ago!

The Balkan Music Awards featured performances by top singers from Greece, Serbia, Romania, Turkey, Macedonia, Croatia, Slovenia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Bulgaria . There was also a stage appearance by the queen of roma music and Nobel Peace Prize nominee Esma Redzhepova.

The concert culminated with the sounds of the enigmatic Balkan musician Goran Bregovic and his Weddings and Funerals Orchestra! His first song was called “Presidente, halo!” and the second, a collaboration between him and Gypsy Kings, “Balkanjeros”.  The entire crowd went wild! Everyone was dancing! It was a true celebration of the Balkan spirit!

However, the event didn’t go entirely perfect. Only minutes before Goran Bregovic came up on stage and announced that he was dedicating his pieces to his beloved roma people, a fight between roma and Bulgarian boys had erupted near where I stood. I don’t know which gang provoked the conflict, and luckily the police intervened (although with quite a delay), but it was still very unpleasant to see signs of ethnic tension during a show that was meant to unite the peoples from the Balkans.

Keep making your music Goran because it transcends differences and connects people!

This video is not from tonight, but this is the Balkanjeros song, so enjoy!


I just came back from London (that’s twice in a month’s time) and I’m still in a Royal Wedding mood! But instead of talking to you about the abundance of Will and Kate merchandise there, I will naturally tell you more about the Bulgarian traditional wedding.

By an old custom, the Bulgarian bride's veil is red

The wedding is probably the most lavish of our rituals and carries a lot of symbolism bequeathed to us by our ancestors, the pagan Slavs. There are several stages:

Matchmaking: Firstly, members of the boy’s family, or at least the father and uncle, pay a secretive visit to the girl’s house in order to “make an assessment of it” and to meet her parents. This happens in the evening or at night so that the boy’s family can walk away without a public embarrassed if they are rejected. If the two sides achieve and agreement, they will celebrate the engagement and drink rakia for the good health of their youth.

Later, the boy’s extended family can pay an official engagement visit and bring presents for the future bride and her family.  This is when the couple exchanges rings – an iron one for the strong, mighty groom, and a golden one for the pure, noble bride.  Only after this engagement, the boy and the girl are allowed to meet in public and to dance next to each other at the horo. The wedding itself might take place as long as 2-3 years later.

Braiding the hair of the bride-to-be meant the end of her carefree girlhood.

Pre-wedding rituals: The young bride’s girl friends gather at her house and prepare ritual breads with magic significance: they knead the boy’s ring and girl’s bracelet into the dough and decorate the bread with dough birds as a symbol of marriage. The young girls also decorate a branch of a special tree, which will be later given to the best man for ransom. They also make a red-and-white wedding  flag and decorate it with an apple and a bunch of basil.

The bride has to wear “something old” to remind her of her family and her past, “something new” that will bring her luck in her new life, “something borrowed” to signify that her friends and family will always help her, and “something blue” to symbolize fidelity.

The moment when the young girls braid the long hair of the bride-to-be is very important because it signifies that she is leaving the careless childhood and becoming a married woman. For the ancient Slavs loose hair means a free person. This is a very sad moment at the house of the girl, and all her friends and female relatives try to persuade her to remain a child and stay at home.

In some parts of the country, the bride's face is beautifully painted. The hair is decorated with flowers and golden coins.

In contrast, the mood at the groom’s house is festive because the family is not losing but adding a new member. His friends shave his beard, which symbolizes the end of bachelorhood.

Taking the Bride: With loud singing and merrymaking in the streets, the groom’s party goes to the girl’s house, but finds the door locked. In order to receive the bride, the groom and his best man have to go through some challenges that include paying ransom by stuffing the bride’s shoe with money, having to pay for the best man’s decorated branch and flag, and even fighting with the bride’s brother!

As the young bride finally leaves her father’s house, she is wearing a red veil to protect her from the evil eye, and her girl friends are singing bittersweet songs. Traditionally, the Slav bride wore a red dress, but this changed to white during Roman times.  Oats, millet, and walnuts are thrown in the air above the couple to symbolize fertility.

The entire wedding party goes to the church where the two are wed. After that, there is dancing, singing, eating, drinking, and feasting for “three days and three nights”.

At the New House:  The girl is taken to the house of the boy where the two of them will live from now on. The first night for the newlyweds is very important. The groom’s sisters-in-law prepare their bed with the special linen that the bride has been sawing and embroidering since she was a child. At some point during that night, the groom will shoot his pistol in the air and take the bride’s shirt outside – so that everyone can see that she was pure (all Bulgarian girls are pure, naturally!).

A traditional wedding continues for several days and the entire village celebrates together with the two family kins.

***

There you go! Now did somebody say that the Royal Wedding was too flamboyant? 🙂

For more beautiful pictures from old weddings in Sofia, check out: http://stara-sofia.com/obichai.html

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