May, 2011

  1. European Initiative no 55553: Prime Minister Job-swap

    May 17, 2011 by Christopher Buxton

    Based on my local greengrocer’s plea: Can’t we swap yours for ours?

    Bulgaria’s Greatest Living Statesman glared at the Downing Street cat. It just sat there cleaning its whiskers – yet another example of privilege he’d have to deal with. Ey, my furry friend, if I don’t see some dead mice soon, I’ll have you stuffed and mounted for the Bankya Natural History Museum.

    The cat stretched and yawned. It didn’t seem to understand straight talking any more than that useless cabinet of ministers Dave had left him with. All they wanted to do was to reminisce about their school days. When he’d threatened to bang heads together, they perked up but said that they preferred the cane. Parliamentary Question Time was a different matter. That Ed Milliband just opened and closed his mouth like a goldfish. A bit like Stanishev on heat – easy to bat away with some choice words that had his party laughing like jackals.

    In times of stress a man needs to remind himself of his greatness and so BGLS reached into his pocket and unfolded the plans for electrically heated motorways. In a stroke he’d solve the UK’s winter transport problems. He’d call the BBC – make sure there was a picture of him with a spade and some cable on the M1, He would have basked in this imagined glory but at that moment the phone rang with international urgency. Two days into the new Job-Swap European initiative, Colleague Cameron still couldn’t find his way out of a Bulgarian toilet, let alone cope with the rough and tumble of everyday politics.

    What would it be this time? Did he have to explain the Macedonian question yet again? How many times did he have to say that with Berlusconi in charge of Macedonia, all Cameron had to do was send some hot Bulgarian totty over from Kyustendil? Or would it be more complaints about the roads in Sofia? It wasn’t as though he hadn’t warned Cameron about taking his Rolls Royce. If the holes in the roads didn’t smash it up, there’d be Volen Siderov, jumping on the bonnet, armed with a megaphone.

    He picked up the phone and listened to Cameron gabbling away – this time it was about hospitals and cockroaches. Why was Cameron obsessed with the Bulgarian health system instead of something simple like motorways? These English politicians just loved to put hedgehogs in their underpants. “Listen Davecho, don’t worry about the cockroaches. We need them to find out where pipes go. And don’t worry about all our best doctors coming over to your country. Bulgaria has the best health system in the world? Who needs doctors or nurses? We’ve got a hundred medical newspapers and we pay two and a half million pensioners to read them and keep the rest of us informed.”

    BGLS slammed the phone down and looked through his engagement diary: Tsvetelina had laid on lunch with the Governor of the Bank of England so she could arrange their overdraft facilities and that good lad, Berbatov had arranged a kick about for five o’clock with photographers laid on. BGLS frowned. What was this meeting with HRH in half an hour? He didn’t remember seeing a dossier. Was this the pseudonym of some local gangster? He pressed the intercom.

    Well HRH turned out to be the Queen of England. Although she was only symbolic, he still had to see her once a week. It was a lot better than having to put up with Purvanov’s ugly mug. Dave had told him a lot about all the formalities, but BGLS hadn’t paid any attention. The Queen was a woman and she’d be delighted to spend time with a red blooded man for a change. These English were all wimps and her husband was a Greek – enough said.

    Mitko the Ears had an excellent way of cutting through the London traffic in the Hummer specially adapted by Gosho Ganchev.

    By the time they reached the gates of Buckingham Palace, BGLS was ready to rely on his undoubted Balkan charm. If his hair-raising Fireman stories didn’t make the Queen’s knees tremble, then he’d make her laugh with some salty tales from his bodyguard days. Ey, he slapped his pocket to make sure he had his daughter’s photo ready. Prince Harry seemed a lad with a good sense of humour.

    His measured tread echoed through the marbled hallway. A chandelier tinkled. Mighty doors opened. There was the Queen standing by the tea table as if she’d been waiting for such a man all her life. He kicked a yapping corgi aside, grabbed her hand and pressed his lips to her gloved fingers.

    “Oh!”

    BGLS winked. He always had a way with women.


  2. Review of Nashington by Mihael Veshim

    May 14, 2011 by Christopher Buxton

    How Bulgarians behave when they are far from home is as fruitful an opportunity for satire now as it was when Aleko Konstantinov presented the world with his wonderful creation, Bai Ganyo. In today’s febrile Bulgaria, continually racked by corruption and economic crises, where right wing commentators are talking of a third national catastrophe, caused by falling birth rates and increased emigration, Mikhael Veshim has attempted to lighten the mood with his latest book, Nashington. The nearest English translation could be Ourshington or Washingrad.
    As the title implies, this sometimes hilarious, sometimes melancholy novel celebrates Bulgarians’ resource in recreating a little Bulgaria in whatever corner of the world they find themselves in.
    Four Bulgarian men gather to celebrate St George’s Day in the land of the free. Gosho is an extraordinary gardener and cook, able to magic Bulgarian tomatoes, peppers and cucumbers from his suburban plot in a land where vegetables normally taste of genetically modified cardboard. To these skills he has added animal husbandry, successfully raising a lamb bought for his name day from the local pet shop. He is blissfully unaware that in the land of the free, such a purchase will inevitably lead to a visit from the animal welfare police, who might just spot the lamb’s cooked carcass on the dining table.
    With forthright bluntness Gosho is ready to point out that his Korean neighbours have a pet dog – he assumes is destined for their cooking pot.
    For his friend Tosho, the name day feast provides welcome training for an imminent hot-dog eating championship. Rasho whose smoking and drinking have brought him to a centimeter from death’s door, has had a pace maker fitted that sounds an alarm the moment a cigarette or glass of rakia approaches his lips. Rasho bitterly resents this alien intrusion that seems designed to thwart his very Bulgarian need for spectacular self annihilation.
    His friend Sasho, firearms expert and talented handyman is apparently the most successful of the group. There is nothing he can’t do with his magic screwdriver. He can even disable Rasho’s pacemaker, so that he can drink and smoke to his heart’s discontent.
    Like Bai Ganyo, our four heroes feel a healthy distrust for the country they find themselves in. Having failed to realize their dreams in the land of supposedly limitless opportunity, they console themselves with their undoubted intellectual and cultural superiority. Gosho’s only fear is that his son may be “Americanchised”, that he will be contaminated. His Serbian friend’s son has come out as a homosexual. Gosho prays to the Bulgarian God that the same does not happen to his son.
    Veshim is a gentler satirist than Aleko Konstantinov. Bai Ganyo with his miserly peasant cunning and his thick headed ignorance continues to be a painful stereotype for Bulgarians, anxious to claim their rightful place in Europe. Veshim shows a real affection for his characters and does not miss the opportunity to confirm Bulgarian prejudices about America. The Bulgarian reader will be tickled by our heroes’ improvisations in combating a culture of general ignorance, petty restrictions, political correctness, celebrity fixation and tasteless cuisine. The sure sign that this book does little to challenge stereotypes is the presentation of the only black American character as a shallow airhead.
    Veshim has produced a book for the folks back home. Worried by the increasing disappearance of young talent in waves of emigration, Bulgarian readers will take comfort that the grass is not greener on the other side of the mountain, and that there is something heroic in our comic characters’ attempt to preserve their Bulgarian spirit in alien climes.


  3. Cultural Differences

    May 14, 2011 by Christopher Buxton

    Ankara, Sunday: it’s our first night, having just arrived, transported from the airport to a hotel in the central Ulus district. It’s gone ten, but it still feels early for us, so we go out in search of a celebratory glass of beer.
    Of course we are aware that in Turkey, a secular Moslem state, bars serving alcohol are not to be found in every street. You have to look out for the blue signs advertising Efes beer. Luckily we appear to be located in Beer Street – there are two Efes signs. However being Sunday all the bars are dark. Just round the corner, there’s a flash of azure.
    Beneath a supermarket broad well lit steps lead us down into a large subterranean hall with a high ceiling. The area is divided into sections of orderly white plastic tables and chairs by rows of artificial plants. High up, fierce strip lighting emphasizes that this is a waiting room for lost souls – lost souls who can be distracted by large soundless TV screens showing curvaceous singers. Off this waiting room are a four or five low ceilinged dives, each fronted by an obsequious waiter and a grey haired man in a black suit, who advertises his importance, by being seated alone, beads in hand, in front of the door to his dark smoky hole.
    We prefer the open space and a nodding young waiter accompanies us to a table. Apart from a morose lonely raki drinker, we are the only customers in this section.
    I order two beers and forget to ask how much they will cost. The waiter darts off and as we wait, an extraordinary shape passes by our table. Tomorrow in the Museum of Anatolian Civilizations we will see many similar figures. This Hittite fertility goddess has squeezed her substantial pale body into a mini-dress which is more straps than material. Tottering on high heels she makes for the solitary drinker. As she bends over him her dress rides up further where her enormous buttocks reach the backs of her knees. The drinker appears oblivious and Miss Five by Five disappears.
    Our nodding waiter reappears with beers and a dish of peanuts, which from their taste I realize have been retrieved from the depths of the Dead Sea. The price is 15 Turkish lira – this seems a bit steep, but this is our first night and we’re not disposed to quarrel. I hand him a 20 lira note. He becomes quite effusive – perhaps he is ashamed – we cannot know; but he scurries away and returns within seconds with a dish of hazel nuts.
    Meanwhile, perhaps thinking that we might have more than beer in mind, we are approached by a succession of women. The first is another Hittite goddess, taller than her strapped sister, she waddles towards us with an air of regret and a handful of necklaces. I assume wrongly that she is intent on selling the latter, but as the enormity of her approaching body fills my field of vision and I am forced to look her in the eyes, a pasty face that has seldom seen the Turkish sun assumes an effusive smile. She swoops and seizes Annie’s hand, shakes it, releases it and seizes mine. She says nothing. In a second she has released my hand and tottered away on her high heels. We do not see her again.
    A second woman approaches with a much more confident step. I’ve seen her earlier talking to the very important man who sits in front of the nearest dive. She is slimmer, wears a tight top and jeans. Her thirty years old face is topped with blonde hair. She too insists on shaking our hands, as though we were VIPs on a luxury aeroplane. No words pass but she lingers as if expecting more than embarrassed incomprehension. She is too professional to show discomfort and in a second she has swooped over the artificial bush to talk to a new lone drinker who has just sat down in the next sector.
    Our waiter appears with a servile shuffle and a third woman at his shoulder. To my surprise he has come to give me my change. He is bowing so low that I cannot see his face. The third woman bobs sinuously in the background. Like the waiter, she prefers to avoid eye contact. She has a darker complexion than her sisters and is dressed quite modestly in green chemise and loose trousers.
    I hear a murmur at my elbow. I look down and realize that the waiter is trying to communicate with my shoes. I overhear his proposal: “She will like you buy her a beer.”
    My shoes do not respond. But Annie and I wave our hands in what we hope to be a universally understood gesture of helpless incredulity. The beer hall houri simpers and retreats as graciously as a cobra that has momentarily forgotten its purpose in life.
    Captured in our cultural balloon, we are now left in peace to finish our drinks.


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