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Today we drove through Buinovo gorge, a spectacular 10-kilometer canyon over the Buinovska river. The river has carved the vertical walls of the gorge, and they rise so close to each other that, according to the locals, wolves can jump from one side to the other. The region is rich in caves and other notable natural formations.

We explored the Yagodinska Peshtera (Strawbery Cave), arguably the most beautiful cave in the country. In addition to the more well-known cave formations such as stalactites, stalagmites and stalagtons (or pillars), we saw other less common shapes: cave pearls and leopard skin patterns on the walls.

These stalactite and stalagmite will "kiss" in 300 years.

I especially liked the biggest hall in the cave, the Christmas Hall (called after several rocks shaped like Santa and his elves). This is where many speleologists and cavers gather every year to celebrate New Year’s in a behooving manner – under the ground. This hall is in fact an operative ceremonial hall and many cavers have gotten married here. However, the Yagodinska Cave performs marriage ceremonies only. For divorces, the spouses have to go in the nearby Devil’s Throat Cave: where two go in but only one comes out!

And speaking of relationships, Oriana managed to stick her coin to the wall of fidelity, which means that she has no sins. The coins of those who have been unfaithful will fall on the ground.

Oriana managed to stick her 5 stotinki coin to the wall - she is not a sinner!

We spent the evening in Plovdiv, the second largest city in Bulgaria. We walked around the old town, the modern shopping streets, and the ruins of an ancient Roman amphitheatre. We almost lost my mother to a big antique shop – after almost an hour of digging through aged thingamabobs, she finally bought a very old book of recipes. The pages looked like burnt and were falling apart and its language was old-fashioned and pretty funny. Still, as my mom said, the book contained timeless housewife wisdom.

The Plovdiv amphitheater

The old town in Plovdiv

By her third night in Bulgaria, Oriana had already discovered that almost every meal, be it drinks, soups, salads, or main dishes, had cheese and/or yogurt and/or tomatoes. On the last day of the trip, she actually confessed that before visiting me, she had hated tomatoes with passion but since trying her very first Shopska salad, she had been devouring our tomatoes with great appetite. Here, she also tried for the first time rabbit stew, grilled octopus, cow’s tongue in butter, and pork (the last one, by mistake, oops!)

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The bagpipe contest in Gela

My mom, her friend Lidia, Oriana, and I left Sofia early in the morning to go to the Bagpipe Festival in Gela.

The drive is about 3.5 – 4 hours on narrow meandering roads through the Rhodope Mountain, which gave me just enough time to teach Oriana how to read in Bulgarian. I wrote down the Bulgarian alphabet (the Cyrillic alphabet that we share with the other Slavic peoples) and its transliteration in English. Oriana picked it up very quickly because unlike in English, in Bulgarian you pronounce exactly what you read. Her only difficulty were the differences between lowercase and uppercase and the variety of misguiding fonts. Soon, she could read all street signs!

Dancing horo to the music of the bagpipes on a meadow above Gela village

The festival in the village of Gela was in fact on a wide clearing among the hills above Gela. Hundreds of people had set up camping tents for the two-day festival and thousands more had come on foot for the day. As at any village fair, there were open grills with kiyfteta and kebapcheta, stands with souvenirs, jewelry, and toys, and machines for cotton candy and caramelized apples.

We left my mom and Lidia in the line in front of a gigantic barbecue with seven lambs roasting on skewers. Later, we saw the two of them had taken out a Maid of the Mist* raincoat to protect themselves from the pieces of roasted lamb that were flying from under the butcher’s axe. (*My mom still keeps the raincoats from our visit to Niagara Falls ten years ago).

You can't have a festival without the roasted lambs!

Meanwhile, Oriana and I sat down on the ground in front of the main stage of the bagpipe contest, in Bulgarian gaidarsko nadsvirvane. We saw men and women bagpipers, young boys and girls bagpipers, a duet, and even a bagpiper trio, and all contestants were dressed in colorful national garments.

Each time the bagpipers switched to a more upbeat rhythm, the crowd broke out dancing! Oriana didn’t resist and quickly joined the horo! Watch the video and see how fast she picked up the rhythm!

 

We saw a bagpipe maker who explained to us that Scottish bagpipes and Bulgarian gaida are very different: the Scottish instrument has three pipes and produces a solemn sound that makes it suitable for military marches and memorials; the gaida has one long pipe and a more melodious sound that often accompanies folklore singing. The most famous type of Bulgarian bagpipe is the kaba gaida.

With Oriana in Shiroka Laka

After a day of horo dancing, folk songs, and roast lamb misadventures, we went to the nearby Shiroka Laka village for the night. Shiroka Laka, with its  quaint little cobblestone streets and two-storey houses with white stone ground floors and wooden second floors with balconies full of flowerpots, completely charmed Oriana. I think she said she could live there. In Shiroka Laka, we also saw the famous school of Bulgarian folklore music, which most probably is where many of the bagpipe contestants study.

Until late at night we could see happy tipsy people coming back from the festival in Gela. One such happy and tipsy Nordic-looking boy was playing his own kaba gaida and walking down the street. He told us, in broken Bulgarian, that his mother was Norwegian and his father – Bulgarian, and that he had found himself a gaida in Norway and for the past six months had been teaching himself how to play by simply listening to folk music!

The Norwegian-Bulgarian who taught himself how to play the gaida

We stayed at the house of one of my father’s friends who is a famous journalist. The rooms were full of interesting souvenirs from all over the world, and the garden was inhabited by at least four cats. When we continued our journey in the morning, we left several bottles of our family winery Villa Melnik as a sign of gratitude to our host.

Today was a great cultural experience for Oriana. I think she appreciated the legendary Bulgarian folklore and ethnography.


My plan was to dazzle Oriana from the beginning – with a hike to one of Bulgaria’s most beautiful places, the Seven Rila Lakes (Read my previous post about the Seven Rila Lakes and the Paneurhythmy rituals that take place there.)

Our friends Alex and Yoana joined us at my place around 8am, and we began the day with breakfast of champions: yoghurt, lutenitsa, bread with cheeses and meats, ayran (a drink made from yogurt, water, and salt), and my mother’s specialty: banitsa with cheese!

Getting our feet and hands exfoliated by small trout - natural SPA!

By 10 o’clock, we had met with Martin and Emi at Separeva Banya, and drove together to the lift at Chalet Pionerska. The 20-minute lift ride to hut Sedemte Ezera (Seven Lakes) was freezing, and at one point we could hardly see the seats in front of and behind us because of the fog.  Still, we were determined to conquer the lakes despite the weather, and set off towards the Dolnoto ezero (Lower lake), Ribnoto ezero (Fish Lake), and Bliznaka (the Twins lake).

Oriana is a high-school teacher of English Literature, and she was very surprised to learn how international my friends’ education is. Alex, Martin, and I graduated from the American high-school in Bulgaria, and currently study in universities in the States and England, and Yoana has just enrolled in Belgium. During our hike, we switched between English, Spanish, and Bulgarian, with occasional remarks in German coming from our polyglot Marto. I explained to my guest that an increasing number of young Bulgarians get their bachelor’s or master’s abroad. As part of the EU, we are allowed to study, work, and travel freely, and as true Europeans, many of us speak three, even four languages and love traveling to different countries.   

The weather turned out to be very favorable. Every time we reached a new lake, the fog moved away and allowed us to enjoy the view. We dipped our hands and feet in the Trilistnika lake (Three-leafed lake) and let a school of small trout exfoliate our skin (you’d pay a fortune for this in a SPA center!). We snacked on my mom’s banitsa and dried fruit near Bubreka (the Kidney lake), drank pure Rila water from a waterfall, and climbed the steep path to the two highest lakes, Okoto (the Eye) and Sulzata (the Tear). From the peak of the mountain, we saw the entire seven lakes and the opening where the followers of the White Brotherhood perform Paneurhythmy every year.  Had there been no fog, we would have seen the entire Sofia Valley and the Balkan Mountain Range.

The fog is moving away from the Kidney Lake, so that we can take pictures of it!

It took us about 3.5 hours going up and 1.5 hours coming down the mountain. On the way back, we stopped for juice and sandwiches in Separeva Banya, where we saw (and smelled the sulfur fumes of) the highest geyser in Bulgaria.

I thought that a day in nature will be a good introduction to Bulgaria, but this is only a little piece of what’s coming up.

 


My friend Oriana has been backpacking Europe for about a month now, read her blog here. Today, she is coming to Sofia, and I have prepared for her an epic 10-day trip in Bulgaria full of cultural, natural, historic, and party destinations. I’m uploading our itinerary here and hope that it will give you ideas for your own journey.  Check back for updates and photos from our adventure!


Thursday

Oriana arrives. Evening sightseeing in Sofia.

Friday

Seven Rila Lakes – day of hiking (read my previous post about this magical place and my post about the White Brotherhood that convenes there). Evening sightseeing in Sofia.

Saturday

International bagpipe festival in Gela Village, near Shiroka Luka, Smolyan. Night in Gela visitor’s house.

Sunday

May stay for the second day of the festival in the morning. Visiting nearby Trigrad Gorge, Yagodinska cave, Dyavolsko Gurlo Cave (Devil’s Throat) – read my previous post about it, and Chudnite Mostove rock formation. Night in Plovdiv.

Monday

Morning sightseeing inPlovdiv: Renaissance town and ancient Roman amphitheatre. Traditional arts and crafts at Etar village. Night in Veliko Turnovo in the most beautiful old house in town.

Tuesday

A day in Veliko Turnovo, the ancient Bulgarian capital: the castle, the river, the market. The Preobrazhen monastery. Maybe visit nearby Arbanasi and Bozhentsi, two villages of rich architectural heritage.

Wednesday

A day at Sunny Beach sea resort, the Ibiza of the Balkans! 😉

Thursday

Second day at Sunny Beach and the near-by town of Sozopol. At night, an Armin Van Bruuen concert at Cacao Beach– the gran finale of the Solar Summer Fest!

Friday

Morning in the port city of Burgas (unfortunately a day ahead of the Spirit of Burgas festival) – the sand figures exhibition. Night at Hisarya – visiting the mineral springs Roman Baths and the Roman ruins.

Saturday

Visiting Starosel near Hisarya in the morning – the Starosel Winery and the Thracian temple ruins. Back in Sofia.

Sunday

Sofia by day. Oriana doesn’t want to leave in the afternoon.


What is the most delicious fruit in the world?

Forest strawberries from Rila mountain that you have picked up yourself (or with your mom’s help)!

Have you been to the most beautiful place in the world, the Seven Rila Lakes?


King Simeon's Saragyol Palace in Rila Mountain, a wooden royal residence used as a hunting lodge.

Borovets is the biggest mountain resort in Bulgaria. Located at the foot of Musala peak in Rila, less than an hour away from the capital, the resort is a magnet both for the fans of extreme winter sports and those who seek the coolness of the mountain in the summer.  In addition to the excellent ski-slopes, the resort offers horse-back riding, mountain biking, golf, hiking trails, and some interesting opportunities for sightseeing. To me, the “palaces” of Borovets are a telltale of the Bulgarian entrepreneurial thinking and practices.

The King’s Hunting Lodge

Borovets is the oldest mountain resort in Bulgaria. It used to be the haven of relaxation for the noble and the rich. In 1914, the Bulgarian king Ferdinand I built his summer hunting lodge here.  In 1946, the monarchy became a republic after a referendum conducted under Soviet pressure. The royal family was banished and the lodge was nationalized.

In 2001, the former king Simeon Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, who was only nine years old at the time of the flight, returned to Bulgaria, won the parliamentary elections to become the prime-minister, and regained his rights over the property his family owned before 1946. This restitution was very controversial because it wasn’t completely clear what belonged to Ferdinand’s heirs, what belonged to the state, and what belonged to the institution that mediated between the two. The public debate continued when it became clear that absurdly, the Bulgarian government had by mistake (!) returned to Simeon more property than what he had originally claimed. The value of this property is somewhere about 160 million euro and includes 2100 hectares of forests around Borovets and parts of Rila’s highest peak.

The 5-Star Palaces

This five-star hotel in Borovets was notorious fame

Today, there are several “palaces” in Borovets. The resort, as too many other Bulgarian resorts, has been overbuilt with huge hotels that might be completely full during the winter season, but remain empty during most of the year. Such hotels are the projects of megalomaniacs with a distorted vision for the development of the resort.

The problem is that Borovets is full of 5 and 4-star hotels, yet its infrastructure is horrible: roads are bad, the sidewalks and sweeps of grass are untidy, weeds grow in the fountains, there is not enough street lights or maps with directions. Some of the closed-down restaurants (seasonally or permanently) look scary and run-down, and one simply doesn’t feel secure walking by them. Apparently our businessmen invest in luxurious hotels forgetting that tourists will have to leave their premises at some point and will encounter surroundings that do not live up to their expectations.

The financial crisis is probably partially responsible for the many abandoned hotel construction sites and empty apartment buildings that lack tenants and buyers. On the other hand, such unfinished projects invariably suggest shady affairs. One such popular case is a palace-like hotel built by one notorious mafia boss who was later shot dead abroad. While the police was investigating the origin of the mobster’s fortune, his wife sold the hotel and thus legalized the profit from the sale.

This problems and controversies around the resort are a pity because the nature surrounding Borovets is truly awe-inspiring.

Only one of the many lifts in Borovets

Borovets, Rila Mountain

***

Did you see my photos from the Seven Rila Lakes?


On Sunday, I went to a fabulous Bulgarian-English wedding at the St. Nedelya church in Sofia. I want to tell you more about the mother of the bride because she is an exceptional woman!

She is married to an Englishman, and they have lived in London forever, yet their two children (the bride and her brother) were baptized as Orthodox Christians instead of Anglicans like the father.

This Bulgarian woman has taught her children such love and respect for their roots that the bride decided to marry in Sofia, in an Orthodox church, despite the fact that her groom and his family (and her own family on the English side) are Anglican! Thus, the groom, his parents, and all of their British guests, including some guests from Brunei, had come to our St. Nedelya church for the ceremony! To make everything perfect, they baptized their little baby boy as an Orthodox Christian too!

The wedding ceremony in the beautifully painted church was lead by two priests: one to perform the ritual, and one to sing accompanied by the choir. Then, all the guests, mostly British and a few Bulgarians, went out of the church and reentered a few minutes later for the second ceremony, the baby’s baptism. The baby started to laugh as its feet touched the water basin!

Next, we all headed for the Sheraton, Sofia’s oldest and most renowned hotel. The menu was only typical Bulgarian cuisine presented in a gourmet way. The entertainment was splendid too: four dancers in national garments and a folklore singer and bagpiper kept both the foreign and local guests in good spirits all night long. The Brits picked up our rhythms surprisingly fast!

Wearing the crowns during the wedding ceremony in St. Nedelya church in Sofia

This was a wonderful transnational interreligious wedding, and it was all made possible thanks to the vigor of that incredible Bulgarian mother of the bride who not only preserved her national sprit in the foreign land, but also continued it through her children and grandchildren.

***

Read more about traditional Bulgarian wedding rituals 

or about a rather upsetting baptism ceremony in an Orthodox monastery.

***

Gourmet Bulgarian appetizers: lukanka, shopska salad, snezhanka salad, kashkaval, kyopulu, grape leaf sarmi

Traditional breaking of the bread: whoever breaks the bigger part off the bread will be the leader in the home. These are two couples: the newlyweds and the bride's recently married brother and sister-in-law.

I uploaded these videos from the party at the Sheraton Hotel. I think it’s obvious who are the Brits and who the Bulgarians! Enjoy!


Last weekend, we took a day-trip to the Trigrad gorge, but in addition to nature’s beauty, we encountered man’s small-mindedness.

Trigrad gorge in the Rhodope mountain, Bulgaria

The majestic gorge is situated on the southern side of the  Rhodope mountain, near the town of Trigrad, about 3.5 hours away from Sofia. For 7km, Trigradska River meanders through the canyon-like gorge. The sheer rocks on both sides of it reach a height of 300-350m. The distance between these rock walls is at first 300m, but then reduces to mere 50-60m. It feels like you are standing beween the Symplegades, the Clashing Rocks from the myth about Jason and the Argonauts.

From the Trigrad gorge, the river vanishes into Dyavolsko Gurlo, or the Devil’s Throat cave. This cave is like an abyss, in which the river enters and falls from a 42-meter height.  This is the highest underground waterfall in Bulgaria, and it forms an enormous underground hall called Buchashta zala, or the Rumbling Hall: 110m long, 40m wide, and 35m high. You can easily fit the capital’s Alexander Nevski cathedral in there. Legend says that the Thracian hero Orpheus entered the Underworld to retrieve his beloved Eurydice from the dead precisely through the Dyavolsko Gurlo cave.

Here, the cliffs on the two sides of the Trigrad gorge are 300m high and less than 100m apart.

The place is frequented by Bulgarian and foreign tourists and, of course, is full of merchants. In this remote part of Bulgaria, the merchants are mostly old people from the nearby mountain villages who are selling hand-picked herbs and home-made jams and honey from forest fruits and trees. Every baba (grandmother, old lady) has piled her table with jars and is smiling at you and beckoning you to buy hers. There is a baba or a dyado (grandfather, old man) every 10m from the exit of the cave to the parking lot.

We buy a jar from the first baba and some herbs from the next one a few steps over. But then we don’t need anything else (plus, the goodies on every table are about the same), so we politely refuse to the next old man saying that we’ve already got enough.  And then he begins to supplicate and even begs us to buy from him too: “It’s not fair,” he says, “tourists always buy from those two because they are closer to the cave’s exit, and there are no clients left for me.” Eventually, we take pity on this dyado, and buy some more herbs from him.

A little bit further down the road, there are more ladies. This time a little bit more cheerfully, one invites us to buy from her jams. “No thank you, we already bought some from someone else.”  “Oh, you bought from those women? They add sugar to their jam! Mine is better!”

It saddens me to see that these people, who share a similar fate and have decided to earn a living in a similar way, don’t hesitate to do the dirty on each other. This seems to be typical behavior for many Bulgarians. We always look at each other’s riches and success and either try to screw each other up or defame and depreciate each other.  We have a word that signifies that our chests and hearts have shrunk under the pressures of a rough life. Unfortunately this state of being has become a national feature and has turned many of us into narrow-minded, petty people.

Looking up the Dyavolsko Gurlo cave

Looking down the Dyavolsko Gurlo



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. 


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


Watching Love.net, the newly released Bulgarian movie about love and sex on the Internet, provoked me to write about online dating from (my friends’) experience.

I just came back from studying for a semester in London (I normally study in Boston, MA). The Bosotn University study abroad program I attended was very well organized in terms of academics, internship, accommodation, and travel opportunities, but it significantly lacked in the social aspect: the classroom program was entirely of American students and we (the Americans and I) were in no way integrated with British students. Thus, our main way of meeting British students was through pubs, clubs, and… online dating.

Model and actress Dilyana Popova in a scene from Love.net

My girl friends came up with the idea. The four of them were disappointed that they couldn’t really make friendships at a club (you know, loud music and drinks do not presuppose deep conversations), so they created profiles in http://www.OkCupid.com, the UK’s largest free dating website. They put up some pictures and info and a status “looking for friendship” (at least that’s what they said) and started talking to boys online. According to them, this was the easiest way to learn about English culture.

My friends even went on several dates! One of them even took notes after her dates and called them “social/cultural experiments”. She actually turned up with pretty good cultural observations after these dates, which completely undermined my conservative position that online dating is sketchy (dodgy, if we use the British term). She learned about the London underground and alternative life from a tattoo artist and about the peer pressure that married couples exert on their male friends from a “chap” in his 30ies looking for his future Mrs.  Of course, online dating enabled my American friends to have their “Euro fling” too.

So the moral of my story is that: 1) To my surprise, online dating can actually provide real cultural immersion and a chance to meet interesting people that you might never think of approaching otherwise. 2) But still, Boston University should provide its students with safer means of meeting Brits that do not include the web and blind dates.

I’d love to hear your stories about online dating as a cross-cultural experience.


The tagline of the new Bulgarian movie Love.net says "What do you think about love from first email?"

The Internet has changed every aspect of our modern society, even love.

Love.net is a Bulgarian movie about love and sex on the Web. The movie unwinds the intertwined stories of eight online dwellers and explores their motivation for looking for fun or understanding among the profiles of strangers on dating websites. As the characters of Love.net  struggle with unhappy marriages, suppressed desires, teenage curiosity, and moral degradation, they understand that the Internet is both what brings them together and what grows them apart.

In 2007, the producer Ilian Dzhevelekov cooperated with the administrators of Bulgaria’s biggest online dating site, www.elmaz.com, and asked its visitors to share their stories for the upcoming movie. In two months, their profile received 7,000 responses and over 50,000 views. These true stories, with all their sorrow and perversion, are portrayed in the movie by some of the best Bulgarian cinema and theatre actors: Hristo Shopov, Zahary Baharov, Koyna Ruseva, Dilyana Popova, Diana Dobreva, Lilia Maraviglia, and more.

Elmaz.com has over 1.6 million registered users (Bulgaria’s population is 7 million).  At every moment, there are about 10,000 users online. The movie captures the modern social phenomenon of online dating and provokes the audience to think about its controversies.

The movie is in cinemas in Sofia since this April, but will soon be available online and on DVD. I strongly recommend it!


Bailey and Maura, the two American friends who visited me in Bulgaria for a couple of days, left today. I always invite my classmates from Boston University to come visit, but actually having two of them at home was even more thrilling than I had imagined!

In Bansko, ski capital of the Balkans

I took Bailey and Maura around Sofia, then south through Sandanski – a city famous for its hot mineral springs and spa centers, the Rhozen monastery, and Melnik – the wine capital of Bulgaria. We entered Greece through Kulata and visited Thessaloniki – the second biggest Greek city. After that we stopped at the port Kavala and then entered Bulgaria through Kato Nevrokopi. We finally spent some time in the ski resort Bansko before heading back to Sofia.

I tried to show the girls a good variety of everything you can find in Bulgaria – beautiful mountains, traditional architecture, good food and wine, clubbing and bars in the capital, as well as the Greek ancient monuments. I tired to explain to them the political and economic realities of the Balkan countries  and their role in the EU. I also told them more about our interconnected history and culture and taught them how to read the Cyrillic alphabet (click to read my post about it).

The word the girls used to describe Bulgaria was “different”. Their reaction and this word demonstrated to me that they really understood what they saw, and indicated to me that I had succeeded in presenting my country objectively.

Bailey and Maura understood that Bulgaria and Eastern Europe are “different” because they are not as orderly or settled as England or the States. There is always something bittersweet about the scenery. From the ornamented neo-classical buildings with the unattractive graffiti on the walls in the capital to the picturesque green fields and mountains with the weather-beaten pothole-filled roads, nothing in my country is only black or only white.

Especially our congested cities where shopping malls sprout even where there is no planned streets or parking spots create the feeling of misbalance that is so typical for most of Eastern Europe. Still, our lives do not lack in any convenience or sign of modernity, and our dynamic lifestyles revolve around universal priorities such as family, fun, work, and nature. We can at the same time shock and charm foreigners. That’s why I think that “different” is a very good way to describe us.

***

Read more about our Bulgaria Trip:

Easter Egg Fights


Happy Easter!

My friends from Boston, MA and Albany, NY, Maura and Bailey, are visiting me in Bulgaria for a week! Just in time to witness an Easter celebration – Eastern European style.

Probably the strangest thing they did today was an Easter egg fight! As part of Eastern Orthodox Christianity, we paint hard boiled eggs and fight with them:

  • Find the “sharp” end of the egg
  • Wrap your fist around the egg, with the sharp end pointing downwards
  • Hit the “blunt” side of your opponent’s egg with your sharp side
  • If you cracked their egg, you are the winner. If not, you lose this round.
  • Then turn your egg around and offer your blunt end for hitting
  • You opponent will hit you with their sharp end
  • The winner from the match keeps fighting other eggs until there is one egg champion.
  •  The best part, you get to eat all your cracked eggs!
  • Ways to cheat: get a wooden egg and paint it as an Easter egg or find a duck egg, which is typically a little big bigger and much stronger.

We don’t have the Easter Bunny, egg hunts around the garden, or as much chocolate as they have in the States on this holiday, but our egg fights, the Easter feast, and the family gathering definitely make Easter one of the best holidays in Bulgaria!

***

Read more about our Bulgaria Trip:

The “Different” Balkans


The authentic Berbatov T-shirt cost £67 but was selling like hot bread at the Manchester United Megastore! I admit, I got a much cheaper version from a street vendor.

My UK travels have kept me away from my blog for too long! But don’t think that I’m not observing the culture and taking mental notes about future articles!

I just had a lovely sunny weekend visiting a friend at the University of Manchester. Thanks god she’s a sports fan or I would’ve overlooked visiting the famous Manchester United Stadium and would’ve missed out on a great opportunity to see probably the currently strongest Bulgarian brand in action!

In a previous post, I wrote about who Dimitar Berbatov is and why Bulgarians are so proud of the Man United striker. But now, I actually witnessed that he has the potential to become an endorsement superstar (although of much lesser proportion) similar to Tiger Woods or David Beckham.

Among the merchandise, the highest proportion of course was dedicated to the team as a whole (Man United has always tried to put the spotlight on the collective rather than the individual, even during the time of Beckham), but surprisingly, probably the next most-popular images were those of Owen and Berbatov. It felt so good to see scarves, mugs, t-shirts, and posters with his handsome face and resonant name!

I learned that the Bulgarians at the University of Manchester are constantly buying Berbatov merchandise and shipping it to friends at home.

Berba is certainly the most successful brand Bulgaria has exported in the recent years. He is not only a good player, but also a celebrity whose good looks and status of a fashion icon are additionally enhanced by his socially responsible initiatives(the Dimitar Berbatov Foundation for the development of children’s talent). This winning combination has won him loyal fans from all over the world.

However, so far, he seems to be endorsing mainly products and services in Bulgaria: he has been the face of UNICEF Bulgaria, First Investment Bank, Vivatel telecom company, and more (follow the links to the ads). His image is one of the hard-working and successful man. But on a global scale, Berbatov is still only part of the Manchester United brand. His name is rarely evoked outside the Man United context, and he hasn’t really moved beyond endorsing his team’s corporate  sponsors like AON or Turkish Airlines (check out these cool commercials). From what I saw in Manchester, I’d like to think that he could further leverage his potential.

We randomly met these guys who had flown from Sofia just to see the Man U vs Fulham game and cheer for their idol.


Poli Genova, Bulgarian contestant for Eurovision 2011

It’s that time of the year again: time for Eurovision 2011 – Düsseldorf. (read my post about Bulgaria in Eurovision 2010)

This year, the Bulgarian contestant is the lovely Poli Genova!

I still remember Poli as the face of the children’s music TV show Bonn-Bon. Born in 1987, she now hosts and stars in many shows while also pursuing a degree as a Director.  Poli took part in the national level of Eurovision 2009, but her song One Lifetime is Not Enough became second in the finals.

This year, she became the national champion with a new song, Na Inat (In Defiance)!  The lyrics go: “I will find the strength inside me, I know there is so much that I can achieve. There is so much love in me, there is a reason for me to stay. We will stay and we will find a reason to stay in spite of everything. There is so much we can achieve here.” Thus, the song urges young Bulgarian people to stay in our country and to try to achieve their dreams here, “in defiance”! Poli is the perfect person to sing such a song because she is the epitome of successful Bulgarian youth!

Listen to the Bulgarian Eurovision 2011 song below and comment if you absolutely love it!!! Do you think that Poli should translate the lyrics?

Watch Bulgaria’s performance on the Eurovision semi-final on May 12th and vote for Bulgaria!


Happy 8th March, the International Day of Women!

I wanted to tell you more about Bulgarian women today, so I browsed the web and found several forums with previous years’ polls about the Greatest Bulgarian Women from the past to the present. These are my top ten Bulgarian women-idols, in no particular order:

Valya Balkanska – the folklore singer we are most proud of, as her song “Izlel e Delyu Haydutin” became part of the Voyager space odyssey in 1977. 

Baba Tonka – Tonka Obretenova was a revolutionary during the movement for our independence from the Ottoman yoke in the 1810s. She was an elderly but courageous lady who greatly supported the secret revolutionary committee and offered shelter to many of the heroes of that time who in turn affectionately called her Baba Tonka (grandmother Tonka).

Raina Kniaginia and the flag of the April Uprising, 1876Raina Kniaginia – Have you seen the woman- personification of the French revolution in the painting Liberty Leading the People? Raina Kniaginia is that person for us, but she was a real historical figure. When she was 20, she famously sew the flag of the April Uprising against the Ottoman yoke in 1876 and waved it together with the revolutionary hero Georgi Benkovski.

Baba Vanga – Blinded by a wind storm as a child, Baba Vanga received the mystic powers to see the future. She lead a very pious life in a region with hot thermal waters called Rupite near the Kozhuh mountains. Many ordinary people and even doctors and government officials went to see her and believed in her advice. Many of her prophecies have come true. I should write a longer article about her soon!

Stefka Kostadinova – she is our most celebrated female sports champion. In 1987, she set a world record in high jump, 2.09 meters, which still has not been surpassed. She is currently the president of out Olympic Committee.

Nevena Kokanova, "First lady of Bulgarian cinema "Nevena Kokanova – the “First Lady of Bulgarian cinema”. One of the most beautiful and talented actresses ever to live!

Dora Gabe and Elisaveta Bagriana – I can never decide which one of these two ladies I like more, so I will just include them side by side. Dora and Elisaveta were contemporaries: socialites, beauty icons, best friends, rivals for the heart of the same man, and the two most talented poets of their time.

Raina Kabaivanska – one of the world’s best opera singers. Luciano Pavarotti once said, “Tosca of the past was Maria Callas. Tosca of the present is Raina Kabaivanska”.

Neshka Robeva – a genius choreographer who intertwines modern ballet with tradition folklore dances. Her magical performances have inspired audiences from every continent to fall in love with Bulgarian dance and rhythm.

Lily Ivanova – She has been the prima of Bulgarian pop music for over 50 years and has delivered over 10,000 stage performances all over the globe. Her songs have and will continue to bring joy to several generations.


 

Which country was I in again?! I get a little bit confused when I see my parents, a Bulgarian high school, the Bulgarian London Choir, the Ambassador, a March 3rd celebration, and a big BG audience all at once in London!

Today, March 3, is Bulgaria’s Independence Day. On this day, we celebrate the signing of the San Stefano Treaty in 1878, which ended the war for the liberation of Bulgaria after 500 years of Ottoman yoke, and the beginning of the third Bulgarian kingdom.

A day before that, March 2nd, the Bulgarian Embassy in London invited all Bulgarian expatriates and their friends to a concert in Regent Hall on Oxford Street.

Luckily, this coincided with my parents’ arrival in London! I couldn’t resist the temptation of seeing a Bulgarian concert in London (so that I can write about it in my blog), so I basically dragged my parents from the airport to the event – despite their protests about wanting to do something English.

I don’t know what I was expecting. Probably something splendid because after all, this is London. But it wasn’t anything as exclusive as the gala events of the famous Bulgarian London City Club.

I think I have mixed feelings about the concert. On one hand, it was quite disappointing that there was no decorations, no flags really, and a very plain program. I was even irritated at one point: before we heard a recital by the students from the Bulgarian school, their teacher asked the audience to be lenient about the mistakes that her students might make because “they’ve tried to learn the piece as well as they can despite of the pressure that the English language has put on their Bulgarian language”…

…really?! I’m sorry but you just can’t say that because it’s a very bad excuse. Even if you spend most of the time in the UK, even if one of your parents is British, even if you do most of your communication in English, don’t try to make any excuses about not being fluent in your mother tongue (or both of your native tongues, if that is the case). Other than that, the students did a pretty fine job actually. Especially that young girl who filled the entire hall with her powerful voice.

The second part of the show, on the other hand, was simply mind-blowing! It was The London Bulgarian Choir who sang “folklore songs from the present and the past”. You MUST listen to their music on their official website above, because they are exceptional! And a big portion of them is not even Bulgarian!! Their conductor and lead singer, Dessislava Stefanova, a former student of the Philip Koutev Bulgarian Folk Ensemble, is a an enchanting singer and a very good marketer: if you come by London you can sign up for private classes or workshops with her. You can also follow the London Bulgarian Choir on Twitter, Facebook, Flickr, MySpace, YouTube, Wikipedia, or via their mailing list. Dessislava translated and explained one of their songs in English for the many “friends of Bulgaria”:

–     Mitre, Mitre, why does your son look so ill?

Is it from too much rakia-brandy? Or is it from eating too many pickles?

–      My son is not ill; last night he came from Saparevo village.

He made love to all the Saparevo girls and wrote them down in his book.

But he lost the book, so now he is like ill.


 

Yesterday, Google’s logo wore a martenitsa, the traditional Bulgarian symbol of the coming of spring! The martenitsa is an ornament made of intertwined red and white wool, often in the shape of a boy and a girl.  It symbolizes the arrival of spring, good health, and fertility.

We start wearing the martenitsa on March 1st, the day of Baba Marta (Grandmother March), and we wear it until we see a budding tree or a stork.

March 1st is also popular in Romania and Moldova under the name Martisor. Google called its file Martisor but it linked to articles about Baba Marta.

I just received some martenitisi from my cousin and my mom. I wonder how my colleagues at my internship will react when I present them one each?

Read my article about hanging martenitsi on trees in Boston.

 

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