Instead of gorging on chocolate, you colour hard boiled eggs. The shops are full of paints and dyes and your Facebook feed fills up with photos of elaborate designs and advice about techniques. You decorate them on the Thursday or Saturday before Easter Sunday and make sure that the first one is always red. This egg is saved for a year. On the day itself, you ‘battle’ by holding an egg in your fist and hitting it against an opponent’s - first the top, then the bottom. You win if yours doesn’t crack. You then eat egg salad until June.
Thursday, May 12, 2022
There’s a televised event held at Alexander Nevsky Cathedral at midnight and, if you’re in the centre at around this time, you’ll see lots of people carrying candles home from it. Like Christmas though, the main tradition at Easter is for families to get together for a big home cooked meal and the city empties as people travel back to their home towns and villages. The meal they eat consists of rice mixed with chunks of lung, and lamb. Lamb isn’t commonly eaten here - only on special occasions such as Easter or St George’s Day which follows soon afterwards.
A tiny town close to the Greek border that has historically been swapped between the Bulgarians, the Greeks and the Ottomans. What looks like a dried up river slices right through the middle but this is actually a flood defence that peters out at the top of the only street. Numerous hotels and restaurants back onto the sand pyramids that loom over the town and provide the ideal conditions for locals to cut wine cellars into them. Most people in Melnik have a sideline in selling wine which they produce from their own patches of vineyards in the surrounding fields.
They nest in the eaves of apartment blocks and wheel around the skies at incredible speeds, changing direction suddenly and dipping at impossible angles between buildings and electricity lines. Dusk is the busiest period, but you can hear their constant squeaking throughout the day and there’s often a frenzy of activity at random moments. They arrive in Spring and, if you’re fortunate enough to have an open balcony above the height of about the fourth floor, you can spend hours on early summer evenings watching them as they zip by, often close enough to hear the beats of their wings.
Monday, April 11, 2022
We’d been waiting at the level crossing for about ten minutes, which is an eon for a Bulgarian driver, so inevitably those queuing behind us ignored the red light, pulled out, and drove around the barrier. Just us and the silver Corsa on the other side of the tracks remained. Another five minutes passed. The Corsa driver got out of his car, checked for trains in both directions, got back in, and crossed. As soon as his wheels had left the tracks, the train rattled past. He stopped next to us and wound his window down. ‘Train’s coming’ he said.
Friday, April 8, 2022
This is one of those really useful survival words. The literal translation is ‘similar’ but it can also be ‘same to you’. This means that – with a certain amount of foreigner’s blur - you can use it as a response in a variety of situations. At Easter, for example, it’s common to say Hristos voskrese (Христос воскресе) which means ‘Christ is risen’. You’re meant to reply with voistina voskrese (воистина воскресе) ‘truly, he is risen’, but I feign ignorance and go with podobno instead. Watch out for serving staff saying ‘enjoy your meal’ though (I’ve made this mistake several times).
Tuesday, April 5, 2022
Dealing with Bulgarian bureaucracy has conditioned me to expect a quagmire of arbitrary complications, but the process was totally straightforward. Most of it was done easily online, I had regular emails guiding me through things, and the new passport came in about two weeks. However, for those two weeks, I felt like more of an outsider here: short-tempered, cynical, and far less tolerant of everyday Bulgarian quirks. It was the subconscious knowledge that I couldn’t escape. I have no desire to leave Bulgaria but knowing that I couldn’t – even in an emergency – gave me an underlying sense of being trapped.
As well as people selling flowers on pavements, you’ll find at least one flower shop on every shopping street and in most metro stations. It’s always a joy to see stern commuters furtively carrying bunches upside down on their way home. Flowers are given on numerous occasions: to teachers at the beginning and end of the school year, to female relatives of people who have birthdays, and on ‘days’ such as Flowers Day and Ladies’ Day. To avoid bad luck, it’s crucial to give an odd number of flowers - florists won’t even sell them to you in even numbers.
Sofia’s buses are in the process of modernising with Oyster card type scanners, but previously you had to buy a book of tickets. For each journey you stamped one in a kind of hole punch that was mounted at head height. The tickets were numbered so that if inspectors got on, they could check your stamped ticket against those left in your book to make sure it was in sequence. You would always see some tickets left on seats for others to use - these were the final tickets from books which meant that inspectors couldn’t check them for verification.
Monday, April 4, 2022
There must be a Bulgarian version of: ‘Your food is wonderful, but if you keep giving me more of it, I’ll end up in hospital’. You need something assertive enough to be clear, and polite enough not to cause offence. The trick is to leave enough on your plate to pick at without it appearing that you’re running low. This is more difficult than you might think as drink is also an issue. If your glass is anything other than overflowing, you need to guard it vigilantly because if you turn away for a second, it will have magically refilled.