Page 10, 2nd May 2008

2nd May 2008
Page 10
Page 10, 2nd May 2008 — I survived my
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Organisations: European Union
People: Hussein, Ivan Vazof
Locations: Sofia, London

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I survived my

brush with the Bulgarian mafia

Charlie Hegarty Notebook

hen T S Eliot wrote "The worlds revolve like ancient women / gathering fuel in vacant lots" while working in a London bank in the 1920s, I feel sure he had rural Bulgaria in mind.

These vacant lots, straggling on the outskirts of villages, are fascinating places, populated by donkeys and chickens as well as ancient women, and interspersed with the seedy evidence of fly-tipping. This leads me to my first generalisation: there are few dustbins in rural Bulgaria.

My second thought is that planning permission is still in its infancy in these parts. When the locals require an extra balcony or boudoir they simply slap them on to an exterior wall; as these dwellings often lean crazily in the first place, such extensions only add to their rustic charm. Although I have not checked on this, I think the expression "Nimby" ("not in my backyard") might not exist in the Bulgarian language; this is because villagers routinely chuck everything into their backyards — especially rusting cars, old mattresses and iron bedsteads. Yet they also find space to plant primroses and hyacinths, which just goes to show that they are all poets at heart.

/wandered around Bulgaria the week after Easter, noting the differences between one civilisation and another. In the capital, Sofia, there is a dearth of iron railings. Can you call yourself a capital city without iron railings? It is possible that Sofia's iron railings have all been smuggled into the backyards of villages. There are also many rusting cars on the streets, so perhaps there is a two-way traffic.

When Bulgaria properly joins the EU, will we be able to enforce MOT certificates on them? This would return the country to horses and carts — a slower but more civilised pace. There would be the added advantage that crooks and bandits would be immediately recognisable: they all drive big black 4x4s and prance about in long black leather coats. I caught sight of my first mafioso outside Sofia's main cathedral; he was definitely wearing the correct gear, to which he had added black sunglasses and a bullet-. shaped head for extra effect. He was shouting loudly into his mobile (very uncivilised) and I stared at him until I remembered that you must not make eye contact with these people; otherwise you could end up in a bin bag on a vacant lot.

My next generalisation is that there are no morbidly obese people in Bulgaria such as you find in the Chiltern Hundreds where I live. This may be because their preferred diet is yoghurt and cucumber. with the odd bit of greasy lamb thrown in at festivals. Or it may be because if you are unemployed in Sofia you sit on the pavement with a pair of scales and invite people to weigh themselves as they weave past the potholes; this consciousness of calorie intake on the part of the populace is very commendable.

The late King Hussein of Jordan was nicknamed "plucky little King"; by the same token I would describe Bulgaria as a "plucky little country" — at least. it is little compared to Turkey, by whom it was enslaved for several hundred years. To be a nation you have to have a national epic: Bulgaria's contribution to world literature is a stirring narrative about the Ottoman oppression, entitled Under the Yoke, written by a civilised gentleman called Ivan Vazof in 1893. I know he was civilised as I visited his house, now a museum, and there were chandeliers suspended from his study ceiling.

My last generalisation is that a truly civilised country will always provide loo paper in public conveniences. Bulgaria has not yet grasped this requirement; it can be inconvenient.




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