Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Sofia bikes

Before heading south to Plovdiv I've spent a little less than 24 hours in Sofia. It was relentlessly hot, and to a large extent everything was as I remembered it. Lots of shabby houses still standing around, several new glass and steel buildings int he outskirts, and building sites everywhere which gives a sense of a constant work in process.

Besides from the better looking park in front of NDK, two things impressed me, though. One was the boom of small stores/bars/restaurant with a dedicatedly alternative and green image. The second thing was that it seemed everyone has bought a bike since I was last around.

(Picture grabbed from the  Among the Birds blog) (c) 2010 Zona Urbana

There are a lot of cool places to go nowadays for those living in, or staying in Sofia. A bunch of alternative water holes present themselves on this lovely cartooned map of Sofia. A must for anyone who wants to visit the best of Sofia. This kind of places, the common ground between them might be a shared clientèle, and shared values like alternative life style, small scale and environmental thinking. It is vegetarian restaurants, bio-shops, and craft stores producing jewelery form recycled material.

As a Swede, it is not without envy that I watch such places appearing one more and more street corners. In my home town, Lund, the development seems to be the opposite - small stores are rapidly pushed out of market by big retail chains and the shopping malls outside the city. It is curious how the numerous malls in Sofia has not yet managed to destroy this market for small scale commercial activities.

Two reasons are obvious - more and more young Bulgarians have developed a taste for this kind of things, and also some money to pay restaurant bills with. And due to the still rough state of many buildings in central Sofia, rents are still far from what they are in Western Europe, even in a place like Lund, which makes it easier to make money on small businesses. If I was a Sofia politician, I would think a lot about how to improve buildings in the center, without raising rents too much. Too many cities have made their centers tidy but boring. Sofia still has a chance to avoid that.

So for the bikes. When I was living in Sofia, some people did bike, but they were very rare. It was perfectly possible to go an entire day without seeing a single bike. Now, bikers are still a minority, they are a very visible minority. In almost every crossing you would see one biker navigating between cars.

Which is probably one clue why so many people do it. Biking is green, cheap and fashionable as in Western Europe, but except for that it seems to be the absolutely fastest way to move through central Sofia. Cars are usually stuck in two lines, buses and trams as well, but a daring biker find his way in between. A Swedish biker probably wouldn't, let's say that the bicyclists in Sofia bike pretty much as the drivers drive.

I look forward to coming back to this city twice a year for the rest of my life, and this is the kind of things I hope to see more of. Which reminds me of my everyday life back home... it is definitely time for me to buy a new bike.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Walking the dog

I have been spending christmas and new year with my fiancee's family in Pleven, Bulgaria, and to some extent become part of this family. As such I needed a task in order to feel needed and beloved. My task: to walk the dog. (The dog is a food loving cocker named Beki)

Regularly taking walks in the socialist architectured housing area that like so many other in Bulgaria is called Drujba (friendship) has provided me with plenty of details that highlight the differences between Sweden and Bulgaria. The Darkness at the Edge of Town, the other dogs and the other people.

The darkness is a very striking feature if you go out after sunset. Not that it is completely dark, but the street lights are positioned further away from each other, somehow. It all gives a vey spooky impression the first night, but after a while you feel at home in it. After all, a human being feels better when it is dark at night, than in fabricated light. And what can be cozier than the lights coming from windows when the outside is almost black?

The dogs are always an issue for a foreigner in Bulgaria, but when you are walking a dog (that is not even yours), you are carefulle watching out for what other dogs are around you.

These can be divided into three groups. There are of course some who are owned by individuals, who usually are with them. This kind of dogs are plenty in Sweden and pose no problem. Unless you are in the mountain where the shepherds dogs are half wild, big as bears, and often very far from their owners. But that is another story.

The second kind of dogs is a kind that I really miss back home. It is dogs who are taken care of collectively by a group of people. It could be the inhabitants in a block, or the people who work in an office building - those who see the dog every day, who feed it, caress it and talk to it. No one takes the dog home, and it sleeps where it pleases. These dogs of course do not get violent, since they have everything they want and people take care of them.

I think this arrangement does so much for a collective of people, and I think that these dogs live as well as any dog, so why couldn't it be like this everywhere? Still I have only seen it happen in Bulgaria (I guess it happens in other countries outside the western world, as well).

The third group of dogs are those who live completely wild. Since Drujba is located where Pleven ends, right next to it begins a small forest that probably is perfect for wild dogs. From there they can make detours into the housing area looking for food (read: garbage), and then go back to sleep unthreatened at night. Human beings tend to avoid them. For all I know they live well when they live, but you often see them with broken legs and similar signs of a dangerous life style.

Stray dogs, picture from Wikipedia

My heart always starts beating faster when I see these wild dogs. They have not been violent with me and Becki, but since they are probably quite suspicious of humans, I try to avoid them. I have no idea how they and Becki would interact, and I did get bitten once. That is also another story, a really great one, actually.

The other people could not be easily divided into cathegories. They are rather a large collection of indiviuals. In Amos Oz's novel A Tale of Love and Darkness someone says about Jerusalem's population that 10% are very rich, 10% very poor and 80% very odd. That would be a very good explanation of street life in a Bulgarian city as well. And ther are lots of people. If you walk a dog in a housing area in Sweden you will not meet many people, and those you meet are unlikely to talk to you.

I remember saying hello to a dog in Sweden, whereupon its owner looked suspiciously at me and asked: "Do you know her?" Here you don't need to know a dog in order to talk to it, or to its owner. When I walk Beki, I hear all kinds of hellos and compliments of the dog.

The most shocking for me was the day before christmas when some middle aged guys sipping rakija asked me if it wasn't about time to slaughter it for christmas. What would you answer to that?

Not much, I just walk the dog home, shocked and slightly amused. Once I got home and sat down with a cup of coffee I looked out at the identical rows of houses and thought that the houses might be dull but their inhabitants not.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Buying Bulgarian

I have complained about my consumer habits elsewhere, but nontheless I today had the pleasure to go shopping for a suitcase. For years I was pleased with my black back pack. Maybe it was a mid-life crisis, maybe something else - I had decided that now was the right time to buy one. In the end I settled for a suitcase that seemed reliable, was fashionable green and was made in Bulgaria.

By Frizabela [Public domain], from Wikimedia Commons

People in Bulgaria have often advised me to buy Bulgarian products, absolutely not Turkish or Chinese. I have often followed their advice to show my good manners, but I regarded their opinion as just another national prejudice on the balkans. Of course Bulgarians will think that Bulgarian T-shirts or suitcases are better than Turkish ones, just like Serbs will think that their goods are the best. So will Romanians and Turks.

There is no denial that people in the Balkans host strong and largely irrelevant prejudices agaist each other. But when I talk to Bulgarians about this issue, most people have a list of personal examples where Bulgarian goods were in deed much better produced than Turkish or Chinese ones.

So I have I. I have bought a number of clothes, bags and similar things produced in Bulgaria, often at a much better quality than the price first indicated. As a rule of thumb it is actually a good advice to buy Bulgarian stuff in Bulgaria. You know what you get, and it is usually a good product at a good price. This can not be said about everything that is sold in Bulgaria.

But how can this be? If one compares China and Bulgaria, one could easily get away with cultural differences, but I do not believe in that. But what cultural differences could explain the differences in quality between Turkish and Bulgarian goods, sold in Bulgaria?

After all, Bulgaria was part of the Ottoman Empire almost 500 years. After the world wars, when Bulgaria was directing its production to Soviet tastes and needs, and profoundly ignored the quality of its industry output, Turkey struggled vehemently to adapt European culture and values.

Mayde the simple truth is that the best Turkish goods are unlikely to end up in stores in Bulgaria. Those that go for export probably go to markets with wealthier customers. The same goes for China. A lot of high quality products are manufactured in China, but what is sold on Bulgarian markets is generally crap.

Bulgarian manufacturers probably have some difficulties to reach out to markets abroad. And with the die hard competition from very cheap chinese and turkish products, they have a chance to nice themselves as high quality providers. Which is why much of the best Bulgaria has to offer is sold here. Tashev, for example, is a great market for bags and outdoor gear, but I have never seen the brand abroad.

Still, that hardly explains half the question. How can Bulgarian producers meet a higher standard than (some) Turkish ones? Turkey is currently one of the world's most dynamic countries, and it's economic statistics look every bit as good as the Bulgarian one's. Shouldn't he country produce better stuff?

Maybe Turkish industry can, but simpy won't, because it doesn't pay off. Whereas Bulgaria is just another East European country, Turkey and China have become the sweatshops of the West. Go into any clothes store in Sweden and you will find hundreds of garments made in Turkey, plenty made in China, but hardly any made in Bulgaria.

What Turkey and China have that Bulgaria is not is a globalized industry with big producing units. Which generates cheap products and economic development at the expense of quality.

What Bulgarian producers do have at the moment is small producing units with reputations - any Bulgarian into mountaneering knows what Tashev is and where its factory is located, just like the vendor who sold my suitcase knew which factory it was made in. Only if the consumers know this, can a free market reward high quality producers.

There are probably many people in Bulgaria who would like to see its industry move towards larger profits and larger producing units. That would be risky. It is so much easier to make things right on a small scale. And the fact that the producers are more or less known by the consumers is probably the only reason that many, like me, feel a confidence in Bulgarian products

P.s. Small is beautiful, not only when it comes to the garment industry. We live in a time were food production is taken over by agribusinesses, with horrible consequenses for everyone involved. That the landscape gets dominated by west european agribusinesses is probably an imminent danger in Bulgaria, with so fertile lands, innefficient agriculture and economically weak landholders.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

A pleasant crisis

Everywhere you go these days in Bulgaria you hear about the crisis. People avoid celebrating the holidays in restaurants and they make jokes about how santa claus is coping with the crisis. In the weekly Kapital writers take a glance at 2011. An optimist argues that the bottom is reached, while a pessimist argue that the crisis will continue throughout an unknown future.

True enough, Bulgaria has been affected by the international financial turmoil. Unemployment have risen, and remains uncomfortably high even after the country returned to GDP growth earlier this year. Bulgarian companies are cautious about investing, and many Bulgarians are forced to cut down expenses. But I am still a little curious about the strong feeling of crisis.
Bulgarian unemployment 2000 - 2010

Data from Eurostat

There are hardly any Bulgarian now who does not remember times that were rougher than this. Much rougher. After all, the current unemplyment levels are hardly higher than they were in 2006, when the country was booming. The crisis in Bulgaria is nothing compared to its neighbours Romania and Greece, or even in the Irish tiger economy. Wouldn't the correct emotional response be "thanks god we live in Bulgaria and not in Greece or Ireland"?

Such a response would probably demand a massive mental change in a country that by and large sees itself as a poor corner of Europe. But the sense of crisis probably is probably well founded. One reason is that unemployment in Bulgaria is still a very diferent reality in than what it is in the west.Another is the massive mistrust against politicians. When the world is shaking, Bulgarians wisely enough do not trust their own politicians to do what not even Obama has been able to do - turn the economy around. The statistics might look promising now, but they can be replaced with bad surprises any day. In the Kapital article mentioned above, the pessimist first of all mentioned the risk that misdirected populism causes havoc in the Bulgarian economy with increased spenditure, taxes and borrowing. Few will object against that.

Maybe more striking than fear of the future in this article was the pride with wich Kapitals economical writers discussed this subject. They have always loved to discuss fundamental economical issues rather than business news (which makes the paper readable), and it is as if they enjoy having found a topic both worthy of discussion and relevant for Bulgarian everyday life.

This crisis is not the kind of crisis that empty people's stomachs, but it is historical news. For the first time in a very long time, Bulgaria is so integrated in the western hemisphere, that her economical development is more dependent on what happens in Brussels and New York, than on decicions by maverick Balkan politicians. The fact that Bulgaria is in a moderate state of crisis like all other European countries hint at something that many Bulgarians have been waiting for: she is finally becoming just a normal country.

(Which by the way, The Economist realized before me... )

Saturday, December 25, 2010

The rift

The day before christmas I watched a news clip about a charity, where Bulgarian kids collected money for other Bulgarian kids. Completely normal and laudable of course, but there is still someething significant about it - not so long ago Swedish kids collected money for Bulgarian kids, and the thought that Bulgarian kids had money over for charity was utopian.

By Edal Anton Lefterov (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 ( or GFDL (], via Wikimedia Commons.These Bulgarian children have nothing to do with this post

Still, the number of ragged roma children who approach you for stotinki* in the train stations is not visibly lower than any time since 2007 when I started to regularly visit Bulgaria. This charity campaign, and numerous other good initiatives indicate that there are still thousand of Bulgarian children in need of help from somewhere. What has changed is that there are now Bulgarians rich enough, and good hearted enough, to give them a hand.

More people have money for consumer vanity as the incredible number of shopping malls show. The metro in Sofia is slowly growing, and roads are rebuilt. In a small city like Pleven, there are new park benches to sit on and brand new second hand city buses. Sitting on these benches an buses you can see the same poor retired workers as always. To them, development must seem like a joke.

Where development feels real is not on these benches or buses, but in the cafés of Sofia. My personal favourites are Onda and Pop Art in Sofia. What is most heartening is how cheap the coffee still is. The pricing shows that the target group is neither an impoverished intelligentia, filhty rich mafioti and their girlfriends or west european businessmen. These cafés, that are the best places in Sofia, take aim at the group of people that are said to be absolutely crucial for a positive development in any country: the local middle class.

A such class clearly exists today, and most Bulgarians I know belong to it. It is a highly educated class that can thank Foreign Direct Investments for their relative wealth. Without western multinational companies in Bulgaria most of my friends would have much lower wages, and they would not be able to support the blooming varitey of cafés and artistic shops that is the true pearl of Bulgaria.

For these Bulgarians, and many, life gets a little better every day. But next to them, or rather below them, there is a huge mass of people who are not part of this development. The rift betweens those whose life develop those whose life does not growns bigger each year. Which it is normal. Every development has its winners and losers. But ther is still a tragedy in it, and social inequalities raise a host of new problems that do not exist in a country where everyone is poor. (Was there ever a country where everyone was rich) Schools must try to diffuse the differences beween individuals. City planners must try to avoid ethnical and ecomical segregation. All public instituions must redefine their work, from simply existing to become the fabric that binds society together.

Slavenka Drakulic writes in Café Europa (I think!) about Bulgarians and the notion of social equality. After the fall of communism they where keen to enjoy the freedoms of capitalism, but abhorred by its injustices, according to Drakulic. 20 years later, I think many have accepted certain injustices as necessities and moved on. Charity campaigns where Bulgarian children help other Bulgarian childrens show both an acceptance of economical differences between Bulgarians, and a wish to deal with this new social reality.

As most often, the thoughts in this post originally came from my girlfriend.

*Stotinki is the smalles Bulgarian coins, like cents, ören or kopeks.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

A hundred years of solitude

21.00 18/12 2010

I am at a gathering with the Bulgarian diaspora in Lund, Sweden. During the next week must of us will be travelling to Bulgaria to celebrate christmas and new years eve, so this is a kind of good bye meeting. Since the community in Lund is mainly made up of students, the participants in our gathering change form semester to semester. I couldn't claim that I know everyone present very well,some people I have met only a few times, but none the less it is a cordial meeting. All speakers refer to "we" and "us" in a way that makes it sound that we have always been together.

10.24 19/12 2010

The plane to Sofia is delayed, like most other planes on European airports this day. But we need not shead tears - Cimber Sterling offers us a free lunch, and I again find myself in the midst of a cordial group of Bulgarians. One of them was present the previous day, the other I haven't seen in half a year. But nontheless , we entertain ourself so vividly that I do not once manage to pick up the book from my backpack. And just like yesterday, the language and discussion invokes the image of us as people who have known each other forever. We don't belive so, but the illusion makes us feel comfortable for the moment.

The wait at the airport was prolonged, and at one point I did manage to skim through the Sydsvenskan of the day. As so often on christmas, the editor's column remembered those who are alone at this holiday that most people spend with their near and dear one's. The column stated that involuntary solitude is a problem, but it also noted that there is a very high correlation between the number of single house holds and a high GDP. So is solitude the price we pay for being rich? Not necessarily, Sydsvenskan wrote. The fact that many people live alone does not prove that they are lonely. Some people like being alone, and an individualistic society lets the individual choose for him or herself which group to belong to. The column supported its opinions with research that shows that people are not more lonely in Sweden today than they were in the 80's.

I don't think the issue can be dealt with so easily. As a matter of fact, what most foreigners I know says about Sweden, and what frustrates many visitors, is the strong individualism that creates a certain alienation between people. I remember a Polish friend that had seen the film Lilja forever. What terrified her the most was not so much the criminals who forced Lilja into prostitution - such people and problems exist everywhere . but the indifferent attitude from the neighbours. No one sees what is happening, because noone feel olliged, or alowed, to know anyhting about their neighbours.

Swedish people do have friends, of course, and between friends we are probably not more individualistic than any other people. But with people we don't know at all, or with people that we don't know very well, we adopt a polite but strict 'mind your own business' attitude. For good and for bad. In many situations a person does better without the opinions of curious neighbours'. But we also overlook many wrongdoings, like neighbours who beat their children or bus passengers who threathen other passengers, simply because we don't feel that this is our problem.

Within Europe, Bulgaria is probably as far from Sweden as you get when it comes to individualism and group responsibility. With more than one Bulgarian around, a strong group feeling tends to materialize almost immediately. You might have to listen to more life stories than you ever wanted, but you will never feel alone. It is also hard to think a story like Lilja forever set in a Bulgarian city, where neighbours tend to be highly aware about who lives in each flat. It is less than 24 hours since I and my girlfriend arrived in our friend's flat in Sofia - but I think most of the house already know that we are here. Which doesn't prevent a hundred and one other problems that Bulgarians face every day. And I can not for my life imagine a Bulgarian op/ed. like Sydsvenskan saying that solitude can be a good thing and that it is a sign of a developed economy. After all, there is a difference between lonely and alone, but the noun to both adjectives is loneliness.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Arabian chicken

If I lived a slow life, closer to myself and my environment, would I then be blogging? I think no. Blogging is a here-today-gone-tomorrow-activity that celebrates the short minded society we live in. The media is the message, and the message of this media is to read, react and forget. 50 years from now, schoolkids will still be reading about the great writers of teh 19th century, not about the great blogers of th 21th..Anyway...

I have had the privilege to spend almost a week in one of the less exploited Bulgarian seaside resorts. It has been a slow life. Nothing else to do than to visit one of the three possible beaches, and ponder where to consume your lunch and dinner. That's not a rythm of life that triggers you to blog.

Anyway... the lunch today did truly deserve a blog post. We spent the morning on a beach, slowly descending into a meditative existance where your body turns into wind, salt and sea. I guess we would never have left the beach, if it wasn't for the thunderstorm. It came. We ran.

Right before the rain started faling on us, we entered a place that looked more or less open for guests.

-Is it open? My fiancee asked.

The face of the man we met int he stairs told us that he made up the answer right there and then.

-Yeah, sure. Welcome up on the terace.

We sat down on a terace with  view of the sea, with a roof but no walls. That proved crucial five minutes later when the rain was at its most intensive. We were handed menues, and skillfully picked the cheapest dishes (always go for chicken, and traditional salads).

Not that the menu was much of an advice. When the women in charge came up to us, it appeared that only a handful of the dishes in the meny were actually available. One of them was the "Arabian chicken", a kind of crepe with chicken, ham, cucumbers and mushrooms. I immediately fell for the offer and ordered an arabian chicken, whereas my grlfirend stayed with a traditional sirene po shopski.

The woman went down the stairs and we took a look at the menu. Damn! Of course the Arabian chicken costed three times as much as the chicken dish I had planned to order. For a moment we contemplated to go down to the kitchen and change the order, but what the heck... you only live once, and who wat s to die without haveing tasted the Arabian chicken.

This is when Harry showed up. Harry was a she, a 46 days old boxer puppy who came to us to look for a warm place and someone to cuddle him in the cold unfriendly weather. At this time the thunder was right above us. After saying hello, he decide to take a nap, using my feet as his cushion. Sweet...

The food came. It was tasty, and the people in the restaurant did their best to become our friends, so we were prepared to forgive them the 7 EUR Arabian Chicken. Nice place, we thought, and prepared ourselves to go.

That's when the owner shows up and tells us that because we are the first clients of the season, they had decided to give us a special dish of grilled captain's fish, and half a litre of wine!

We enjoyed the fish and the wine, and Harry enjoyed our company. Pretty soon she found a place to sleep in my fiancees's knee. So there we sat  getting drunk on wine that we never had ordered, with the restaurant owner's dog sleeping in our knee. What can you do but to laugh. We agreed - this would never happen in Sweden, and that is a pity.


I am not sure. Maybe this could happen in Sweden, under very specific circumstances. The thing about Bulgaria is that here it happens stuff like this all the time. Yesterday at dinner there was no dog, but well three cats hanging around in the restaurant,making the visit into something else than pure eating.

One obvious reason is that people here are not so neurotic about animals. At the dinner yesterday on cat had parked itself on a restaurant table. The bulgarian customers did not freak out, as Swedes would do, but in stead started to cuddle with it. After all, a cat has never killed anyone. Neither has a puppy.

But it is not only about anumals. The thing is that something happens once you have said hello to the restaurant owner's dog, cat, child or whatever - the professional distance between you and the restaurant owner dissapears, and you start interacting on a human level. My impression is that Bulgarians always wait for this to happen. They wait for something else to come up so that they can start behaving like friends and not customers. Not only the customers - the restaurant owners want it as well.

And as always - when all people involved in a situation want something to happen, it happens. We were treated as friends, and when we were happy to have experienced something out of the normal holiday routine. Somewhere along the line the price of the Arabian Chicken fell to about a quarter of the menu price. Sometimes it pays off to order something unexpected.