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And speaking of the “Gypsy Nightingale” Sofi Marinova To Represent Bulgaria in Eurovision 2012, I recently stumbled upon a very interesting documentary series from the UK, Big Fat Gypsy Weddings.

The series follow several gypsy families as they plan their daughters’ weddings and offers commentaries about this ethnic group’s traditions regarding interaction between the genders, family values, educating the youth, choosing a house, and so on. The 5-episode series aired for the first time in 2011 on Channel  4  ( on TLC in North America under the name My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding). The second episode got 8.7 million viewers, giving Channel 4 the highest ratings since Big Brother. Check out the series on YouTube:

 

The show distinguishes between Irish Traveler and British Romani Gypsies. What is fascinating to me is that these two communities seem completely different from the Easter European gypsies. So I made a little investigation:

There are three types or lines of Gypsies that emigrated from their land of origin in today’s Pakistan during three exoduses in the period 1000-1400s AD: Domari, the Egyptian and Middle Eastern Gypsies; Lomavren, the central gypsies of Armenia and Turkey, and Romani, who made their way to the Byzantine Empire, through the southern Balkans (Romania, Bulgaria, Serbia, Moldova, Hungary etc) and now populate all of Europe. The Gypsies have always been a semi-nomadic cultural group with their own language (and sixty dialects) and religion.

The Irish Travelers, which the TV series also focuses on, on the other hand, are not from the same Indian ethnic origin as Gypsies, but they share a similar nomadic background and do not mind being called Gypsies. Travellers are of Irish origin, populate Ireland, the UK, and USA, and have their own language and traditions, but are often put under common denominator with Gypsies because of their similar lifestyle.

I personally had never seen Gypsies in the light in which Big Fat Gypsy Weddings present them!  There seem to be striking differences between the living conditions and lifestyles of Western European and Easter European gypsies. On one hand, this is normal because there are such differences between Western and Eastern European countries in general. On the other hand, it really disturbed me to see that even the most ostracized and marginal community in Europe seems to be so much better off in  the West than in the East.   

The TV shows portrays Gypsies (Romani and Travellers) as a group with ostentatious sense of fashion, yet a very conservative worldview that is driven by a very strict moral code. UK gypsies may be over-the-top and hardly compatible with the “settled community”, but their culture seems fascinatingly rich. Thus,  UK Gypsies seem worlds apart from Eastern Europeans gypsies.  

The majority of Bulgarian and Romanian gypsies  live in poor conditions in the outskirts of the cities or in very poor villages (there are exceptions of course). In the countryside, their main occupation is shepherds or day-laborers. In the cities, they often collect metal for scrap, clean cars at traffic lights, beg, or pickpocket.  None of the Gypsy slums I have seen in Eastern Europe look like the nice houses portrayed in the British series. Like in the UK, Bulgarian gypsy families are large but mainly because girls give birth at a very young age and have many, many children.

Regarding their sense of style, I have never seen Bulgarian gypsies dressed as flashy and colorful as the Travellers in the UK in their daily life (except for a wedding, as the video below demonstrates).  Our gypsies usually wear clothes that they find or that are given to them, or very cheap clothes sold in bulk – so they look more like shabby street urchins than like provocative fashion divas. They would rarely be able to afford buying new dresses for each wedding they attend like their UK counterparts. Our gypsies do, however, put on make-up sometimes and often bleach their hair – and this applies both to boys and girls. Therefore, in Bulgaria we have a saying “dressed as a gypsy”, which might mean very scruffy and ragged, but might also mean  flamboyant to the point of looking ridiculous.

Bulgarian gypsy weddings are, similarly, a great celebration for the community, but in a very different, much less glamorous way. They usually include an orchestra (often times with a dancing bear), the entire village/neighborhood as guests, and a lot of bargaining and arranging the marriages of the next daughters in line. Compare this video from a Bulgarian gypsy wedding (notice the surrounding – this is the gypsy quarter in Stara Zagora) to the UK series and tell me what other striking differences do you notice?

***

You Might Also Find Interesting: 

On The Gypsy Riots in Bulgaria from October 2011

Goran Bregovic Plays for Balkan Unity in Sofia

Gypsies in Sofia: FUNNY PICTURE

The Bulgarian English Wedding

The Polish Bulgarian Wedding,  Or Who Can Drink More: Polish or Bulgarian? 

When Marriage Stops Seeming So Far Away


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.


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.


 

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.


The name is "Crazy Cock" in English but "Wild Rooster" in Bulgarian! There we go, Bulgarians and Americans in a Bulgarian restaurant in London!

This Friday, my two cousins, two of my friends from high-school in Sofia, four of my American girlfriends, and I went to a Bulgarian restaurant in London!

For a long time, I had wanted to give my American friends a true Bulgarian experience – of course I talk to them about my country all the time, but I really wanted them to create their own impression of our culture and traditions.  So I looked up a Bulgarian restaurant in London, The Crazy Cock (click on this link to read my friend’s review on Yelp).

The thing that worried me about this restaurant were the online reviews: every single one of them was negative! They were all by Bulgarians who were complaining about how overpriced the food was, how scandalous the waitresses looked, how bad the pop-folk music was, and so on. Still, this was my only chance to present my friends with an objective image of Bulgaria.

The interior of the restaurant shows the exterior of a traditional house.

The restaurant actually looked great! It was decorated like the outside of a traditional house from the Bulgarian Enlightenment era:  the walls were covered in river stones and had colorful balconies like in the town of Melnik. On one of the walls, they  had a – I must admit – quite ostentatious picture of St. Cyril and Methodius, but at least it gave me a reason to talk about the canonized brothers who created the Cyrillic alphabet (read my previous article to learn more)!

The food was also very good! We, the Bulgarians got excited and ordered all sorts of delicacies for our American guests: for appetizers, we got shopska salad, snezhanka (yoghurt, cucumbers, garlic, dill, and walnuts), liutenitza, assorted lukanka (dried pork and beef meze) and cheese, very tender cow’s tongue in oil, and chicken liver with veggies. The girls even tried rakia (40% alcohol that Bulgarians use for drinking as well as disinfection), but they didn’t like it too much.

My friend is very excited about Bulgarian cuisine and is taking pictures for her food blog: http://sushiandwine.tumblr.com/

For the main course, we ordered chicken and vegetables on a hot clay plate (sach) and guyveche, which consists of cheese, tomatoes, peppers, egg, and sausage prepared in a clay pot. Us the Bulgarians joked around that many of our typical meals were not on the menu because they UK had banned such imports: pig’s ears, intestines, brain, hearts, etc.

The entertainment was as classy as it gets! At first, we watched pop-folk (chalga) videos on the TV.  The Americans quickly caught the pattern: blonde or brunette chalga singers with fake lips and breasts and promiscuous stage behavior. Around 9:00pm, a live band of Bulgarian Roma started playing old Bulgarian ballads and folk songs. I gave my good friend Connie a quick lesson in our dance moves, and she promised to join me and my cousin for a Bulgarian dance class at our embassy next Thursday (that should make a great blog post!)

We had a great time at the Crazy Cock! The waitresses were sexy and weren’t in a hurry to serve us. The owner of the place didn’t really come to greet us although we were the first and the only guests for the first two hours. He was also the band’s drummer and the restaurant’s loudest customer. But other than that, our party was merry, the conversations were flowing, and the dinner lasted almost four hours! Overall, it was a pretty authentic experience!

At the end, my friend asked me why most of the online reviews were negative. Well, I told her, you would expect that the only Bulgarian restaurant in London would try to present the country in the best possible light with Bulgarian-quality food and Western-quality service. Instead, this was a very typical Bulgarian place – with all its positive and negative connotations.

To my dear friends I can just say, thank you for embracing Bulgarian culture and cuisine! I hope you enjoyed it!

Next goal: make them try Bulgarian Dancing!!!

****

You want to read more about my favorite Bulgarian food? Look at this!

Or read a very detailed account of our dinner (with a very lovely introduction for me), from the food expert-blogger Connie!


As surprising as it sounds, studying “double-abroad” for a semester in London, UK, while studying full-time in Boston, USA, has helped me rediscover my connection with Bulgaria and with my family in many new ways.

As I was strolling about South Kensington last week, I happened upon the most beautiful tri-colored flag fluttering above the door, on the side of which there was a golden plaque saying Embassy of the Republic of Bulgaria. What a nice surprise to find out that my Embassy was right next door to me during my stay in London! I wouldn’t have thought about looking for it myself.

Yet the feeling of comfort at the sight of my national flag was nothing compared to the feeling of comfort when I met with my cousin, Petra. Petra bears the name of my father’s mother, and I – that of his grandmother.

Petra just completed her undergraduate degree here in London, and is now looking for a job in the non-profit sector. Because both of us study abroad, we rarely saw each other in the recent years. It was amazing to hear how similar our stories about living and studying abroad sound, and how we both try to popularize the Bulgarian culture and history among our friends. Maybe she too should start a blog.

The highlight of our reunion was when Petra and I went to a folklore dance class at the Embassy.  It is a beautiful building and an arts gallery. We danced in the main hall, surrounded by contemporary Bulgarian paintings, right in front of the grand staircase and a golden Bulgarian Coat of Arms. There were ten-fifteen dancers, both beginners and almost-professionals, and one instructor. We danced to some of the most famous national folk songs. At one point, we were all dancing the horo and singing „Имала майка едно ми чедо, едно ми чедо Никола” (see the video). At this moment, I was sure that everyone felt very patriotic!

The dance classes at the embassy take place every Thursday and Friday from 7:30pm. Usually, both Bulgarians and foreigners of all ages attend. It’s a great way to celebrate the Bulgarian folklore and to get a good work out!

 

Check out the official website of Boiko Andonov, a  Bulgarian folklore dancer and choreographer in London.


It’s a freezing Friday in London, and I just had an hour-long conversation with a Hungarian immigrant on a bench in Hyde Park.

The Albert Memorial commissioned by Queen Victoria in memory of her husband, Prince Albert.

I was sitting on a bench in front of the Albert Memorial in Hyde Park and reading Churchill’s biography (yes, because I’m such a geek), when I heard the very polite and pleasantly foreign sound of “Excuse me, could I sit down?” I nodded, and as the girl was sitting down and taking a bite of her hot-dog, she mumbled “I’m very frustrated.”

“Why are you frustrated?” I asked.

“When you arrive at Royal Albert Hall [the gorgeous round building across from Albert Memorial] very early before the show, they make you go to their restaurant upstairs and have a meal. But this restaurant is so expensive, and they make you go! I make good money, I’m not poor, but I wouldn’t go to such a restaurant! All they think about here is money! This is the worst city I have ever been to because they turn everything into money-making!”

The Statue of Europe in front of Albert Memorial

The Hungarian girl whose name I never learned was beautiful in a very typical Eastern European way. She had red lipstick and white glitter on her eye-lashes.  Her dark chestnut hair was diligently combed in a half-do. Her eyes were green. She was a belly-dancer. She lived and danced in several European cities, as well as in Maryland, USA. She was the apprentice to a belly-dancing teacher here in the UK. She now lived in London with her Hungarian fiancée.

“He loves the city. He works in banking, he goes out at 8, he works a lot, he travels a lot, he comes back late, on weekends he runs in the park – London is for him. I hate it. I hate the cold, I hate the rain. I miss sun and the beach,” she said. When she finished her hot-dog, she had a cigarette: “All artists smoke,” was her remark.

She said that everything in London is about money. People come here to work for a few years, earn a little fortune, and then go back home. People in Maryland were different; they were warmer.  But then, it’s easier to get rich here than in the USA.

A plane flying over the Statue of Africa at the Albert Memorial

During the week, she rehearses, bikes, swims, and walks. On most weekends, she dances at weddings, bachelor parties, and other events. She earns well enough to pay some bills and have things of her own. She lives with her fiancée, so she doesn’t need to pay rent herself, but she cooks and cleans the house, which is her way of sharing the burden with him.

She was interested in my studies. She asked if I liked the university and Boston, and I said that I love being around so many interesting people from around the world. I suggested her to take a dancing class at one of the nearby universities: like Richmond or Imperial College; it had never occurred to her.

I shared how surprised I was to hear Bulgarian speech every single day here in London. She responded that there weren’t many Hungarians here.

The Statue of America

When she asked me about the future, I told her that I was thinking of working in Europe or the States for a few years before eventually going back to Bulgaria. “Maybe you’ll change your mind. You are very young,” was her response.

“I feel  that I still have things to do here.  I want to master my belly dancing. I need probably two more years here. Then I might go back. Yes, I might go back when I turn 35.”

***

This is not the first time I meet Eastern Europeans immigrants far away from home. Read my post “One Way Ticket to the States” about my encounter with an Illegal immigrant from Bulgaria who works as a pizza delivery boy in Boston.


Every major city has a famous plaza with street performers and artists. In Boston, they are around Harvard Square and Quincy Market. In London, they are near Covent Garden, Neal Street, and Trafalgar Square.

But have you ever wondered what exactly street performers are? Are they a tourist attraction appointed by the city hall? Is this their full time job? Is it just a hobby? Do they do it because they really appreciate art or because they would otherwise have to beg?

I love street performers and always stop to watch them. But very often, I leave right away after the last trick, without leaving anything in their hat.

On the picture, the girl’s chalk art says: “To make this picture beautiful, I need more colors – a drink and a cigarette – please do your best to make it beautiful. Any coin would be better than none. I hesitate to say thank you. ”

Street artists can make a place really special. But they don’t live on appreciation.

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