September, 2010

  1. Kristin Dimitrova: Sabazius

    September 15, 2010 by Christopher Buxton

    Kristin Dimitrova is one of the Bulgarian writers I particularly enjoyed over the summer. In her novel Sabazius she has found an ingenious approach to the post communist condition.

    By giving her characters the names and attributes of Greek/Thracian Gods and heroes, she has found a way of explaining a mystery that was to confound many of those anti-communist activists who saw “democracy” quickly turn to kleptocracy. How was it that the old Communist elite and their children still pulled all the strings?

    The main character is Orpheus, an angry young man of principle, a skilled musician, in love but unable to communicate with his wife, Eurydice, a frustrated actress. Eurydice cannot understand why Orpheus doesn’t use his father’s connections to further his and her careers. Apollo is an old guard poet still living in the luxury flat provided by the party for its one time proteges.

    Orpheus finds that his life and the lives of those closest to him are increasingly controlled by the charismatic gangster, Sabazius – a Thracian variant of the son of Zeus, better known as Dionysos. Sabazius is a ruthless enforcer and manipulator. His cars roam the dark streets of Sofia’s industrial zones. He owns a string of night clubs where drugs are sold openly. Enemies and business rivals are eliminated. He uses the autocratic media mogul Midas’ television station to promote chalga. He breaks up Orpheus’ band, leaving Orpheus jobless and deserted.

    In the end it turns out that Sabazius is himself but a tool for the old gods and when he becomes inconvenient he will die in a hail of bullets.


  2. It’s all very well

    September 15, 2010 by Christopher Buxton

    Bulgarian Finance Minister Simeon Dyankov woke up one morning with a good idea. One sure-fire way of getting rid of corruption, tax evasion and money laundering at a stroke would be to abolish large cash transactions.

    Easy-peasy – with an absolute majority in Parliament – you just pass a law making it illegal to walk around with over 5000 leva in your pocket. Did I say walk around? – scratch that! – substitute drive around in your street busting 4×4.

    The good idea is that everyone will use banks for their transactions – thus providing the tax collectors and police with a useful paper-trail to follow. The new law provides that anyone found with such a sum on their person will see a quarter of it confiscated. So at a stroke Dyankov has put a red cross over the steotype of fat boys in dark glasses carrying Bila bags stuffed with bank notes to pay off street runners, police informers, judges and mistresses. Ageing pop stars will no longer receive their tax free fees under the table. Everyone’s heart will now thrill to the opening of bank statements announcing the safe arrival of legal money in their accounts.

    In a society in which large amounts of cash are transported in unsuitable vehicles over potholed roads, perhaps Dyankov was seeking to reduce opportunistic crime. Recently in the Rhodop village of Musachevo, gun toting gangsters made off with all the villagers’ monthly pensions, just after they had been delivered by van. Given that information about the regular movement of cash to remote villages is easily come by, such a raid would not have required much intelligent planning.

    In Bulgaria awareness of imminent crime is fanned by the press and magnified by friends’ lurid stories of thumbless Gypsy pick-pockets. I remember the sick feeling in my stomach when buying our first flat in Bulgaria in the early nineties. This involved drawing a vast sum from The International Bank, then walking through open streets to the State Savings Bank where the money was counted three times before a receipt was issued. It seemed a very risky thing to do. Out in the street I looked at the world through paranoid lenses. As I clutched the bag of money under my arm, everyone in my field of vision was transformed into a potential robber. I should have been carrying a gun.

    At the outset of capitalism in the nineties, honest fledgeling businessmen rattled vast distances with their trabants filled with banknotes, praying that they would not be robbed.

    Since then communications between banks has improved, but payments take time and organization. Buying a car, getting insurance, buying an apartment for my mother-in-law, I have toiled through the expensive and difficult international bank transfer route, making rapid calculations in dollars, euros, levs and pounds, keeping my fingers crossed that correct amounts are landing in the right accounts. Nevertheless, this is preferable to carrying cash without body guards. But it would be even better if credit cards were accepted everywhere.

    Good ideas always raise a storm of buts. The most obvious but is that a large number of Bulgarians don’t have bank accounts. Firms used to paying their employees in cash are already complaining that the system is unworkable.

    More frustrating for non-Bulgarian residents is the unpredictability of credit card acceptance. Thus I can use a credit card to pay supermarket, petrol and telephone bills, but I can’t use it to pay my Car and House Insurance. Large bills have to be paid by multiple use of cash machines over days.

    With the French Ambassador demanding that the Bulgarian Government appoints a Minister for Gypsies, a further interesting point arises. How will the black economy now function for this illiterate minority who depend on it?


  3. Open letter to the Mayor of Varna

    September 5, 2010 by Christopher Buxton

    My dear Mayor of Varna,

    First, may I offer my condolences following Chernomore’s home defeat at the hands of Chernomoretz Burgas!

    I mention this in the context of the friendly rivalry that our two great Black Sea cities have enjoyed over the years. Competition – as I am sure the UK’s new Prime Minister believes – is a great stimulus for positive development. I am sure that the great port of Varna would not want to be seen as lagging behind its southern rival in any sphere – let alone the attention it pays to road signing. Bulgarian traditions of hospitality demand that the stranger be first welcomed and then efficiently directed to his preferred destination.

    On Saturday we had to drive from my home town of Burgas to pick up some friends from England who had been routed to Varna airport. Starting from our flat at the end of the People’s Fist Complex, we followed signs for Varna (and for Burgas airport). The signs were prominent at every significant crossroads and roundabout. And so twenty minutes later you can picture us happily motoring past the Mutra-baroque hotels on the edge of Pomorie, secure in the knowledge that despite the discouraging view we were on the right track.

    Through Byala and Obzor, enjoying the view of ripening melons in Priseltsi, we counted down the kilometres to our destination.

    As our tires kissed the tarmac of the great bridge spanning the Varna inlet, we felt confident that this great city would not get us lost. We knew that shortly after the bridge we would have to circle round and drive west, but thereafter there would surely be plenty of signs.

    Our sad conclusion is that Varna is ashamed of its airport. From our leaving the Burgas road, we saw not one sign for the airport until the very last roundabout where a tiny sign had been put in as an afterthought. Never mind! We had some idea that the airport lay to the west of Varna so first as we rounded the looping exit from the Burgas road we followed signs for Sofia.

    You will now picture us bumping along a road flanked by railway lines and derelict warehouses. This must be the right direction and so we go straight on at two roundabouts. Ooops! Was that a sign hidden by a leafy bush. But we go straight on ignoring a turn to the right that looks like a Sahara Desert track. Doubt seizes us and we stop in a handy petrol station.

    My wife jumps out. The petrol pump attendant is a proud Varna citizen but he freely admits that the signage system in Varna is crap. He directs us backwards. We should have taken the Sahara track. We should look for a Metro supermarket, turn left and I’d be at the airport. So we leave Devnya Street named aptly after the sprawling Chemical Works that blights the valley to the west of Varna, and set off down a dusty bumpy track. Giant craters open up slowing our progress to a stately five kilometres an hour. Ahead I have to swerve to avoid an oncoming driver who has left his side of the dust track to avoid enormous potholes. Two unsigned roundabouts later and hurrah we see the Metro sign. I slow at the traffic lights lower my window and call to local driver who waves me down a road to the left. This doesn’t look like the road to the airport. It’s a long straight single track lined with parked cars and scrap metal dealerships. Gulping scepticism we drive its length to join a piece of motorway with signs to Dobrich. We come to a roundabout. Now desperate I decide to drive all the way round it. There might just be a sign at one of the intersections.

    Bingo! We have spotted the only sign for Varna Airport. This unique collector’s item pokes a shy finger off the roundabout. In thirty seconds I am parking in the generous airport car park.

    As we sat in the airport café, my wife and I wondered why the Varna council could be so ashamed of its airport. What scandal could have so besmirched this place that its very existence would be put in doubt? We were sipping from our tiny cartons of pineapple juice enjoying the view of Germans hefting bags into tour coaches drawn up ready to drive them to heavenly hotels. I called for the bill and as I scanned it and drew a deep breath, I grasped at least one explanation.

    I now understand that someone has sold the Airport restaurant concession to some make-money-quick merchant. The charge for the juice carton which costs 50 stotinki in any kiosk was five leva, a thousand percent mark-up. I dread to think what a farewell beer would have cost a passenger waiting for a delayed plane.

    Irritating though it was to pay ten leva for a few sips of pine-apple, I think that trying to hide the airport is a bit of an overreaction to this minor example of profiteering.

    Our guests arrived and in a short while we were driving forth, looking for signs to the city of dreams. I cannot fault the signs for leaving Varna. Unlike Constanza which is so hospitable it will not easily release its visitors, Varna cannot get rid of them too quickly.


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