Monthly Archives: February 2016

Dogs in the [Ovcha kupel] Hood

Our children both being in school during the day, I began working part-time (very part-time) teaching English to pre-schoolers in a private school with several бази (locations) in Sofia. One of these was in the Овча купел (Ovcha kupel) neighborhood. Овча купел is a large neighborhood. Its name derives from the sheep that not only gamboled in the meadows, but apparently happily waded through the hot thermal water that leached up through the surface—and even gushed up after the 1858 earthquake. Hence, the area was a овча къпалня (sheep bath).

маршруткаThough less than 10 kilometers due west from where we lived near Sofia’s center, it was a long ride on маршрутка #27 or #29. The маршутка (marshrutka) is a mini-bus with a specific route but no specific stops. You stand along the route, flag it down like a taxi, hand the driver your money, and cling for dear life to a strap, seatback, or fellow passenger if there is no seat available (and there won’t be in rush hour). The driver smokes like a chimney just under the sign prominently declaring that smoking is forbidden, crams in as many passengers as seem willing to climb aboard, drives like a maniac, and comes to a screeching stop whenever a passenger notes that s/he would like to disembark. It’s a hair-raising experience that, like most other such experiences in life, you find yourself becoming blasé about once you’ve dulled the instinctive fear by repeated attempts. The long ride there and back together took more time than I actually spent with the children. But that’s not why I stopped teaching at the pre-school.

парк Овча купелOnce back on my own two feet at the corner, I had a 10- or 15-minute walk to the school building. I walked on the sidewalk near some stores and offices, and passed a large, green park. Within the park, though I never went to see it, is the abandoned remains of a public bath. It was built sometime after the earthquake to capitalize on the hot mineral spring. Once past the park, I would encounter on any day with any precipitation—or within a week of some precipitation having happened—the mud. Now, mud is not unknown to other neighborhoods in Sofia, or any other place in Bulgaria for that matter. There is a reason people have for centuries taken off their shoes before entering the house. But the mud in this particular part of Ovcha kupel was particularly puzzling, perhaps even telling. And not just because this might be seen as a modern-day sign of what the sheep gamboled through a century and a half before.

My observation is that there are three Ovcha kupels. There is the very old one of houses built before the war or at least before the Communist government started building the large-scale concrete panel residential blocks. There are the панелите (those concrete panel residential blocks) themselves. And there are now the new вили (villas) being built by the nouveau riche on streets such as the one where the pre-school rented its space. They are large. They have all the amenities. They have front and back lawns and tall fences to enclose those lawns. One can spend all one wants on one’s privately-owned space both inside and out, but that does not in any way motivate the municipality to spend any of the money it has on the spaces in-between. And the wide path separating one row of villas from another is a municipally-owned and municipally-ignored mud-covered space in-between. Not to be confused with what should be a road. Week after week, month after month, I tested the quality workmanship of my made-in-Bulgaria boots by dragging them through that mud. They passed the test, though I was more than irritated. But that’s not why I stopped teaching at the pre-school.


I did mention the mud problem to the director. She always drove so she didn’t need to worry about the daily slog. Still she was indignant about the state of affairs. “The EU has offered €20,000,” she said, “but it’s contingent on the municipality matching that with its own €20,000 and they just won’t do it.”

One day, I saw a group of people standing just where the road bordering the park became the “Road” of Mud. They gathered around a piece of heavy equipment, maybe a backhoe, possibly a grader. I didn’t intend to stop and chat, but then I heard one man speak English with an accent of the American south. It was my chance. “I don’t mean to be rude, but are there any plans to use this to pave the road? The mud is really awful.” Far from getting angry, the woman representing the local municipal government and translating for the American bewailed the situation as well. “And I’m just ruining my heels,” she lamented. I don’t want to overstate my influence or the humiliation the Bulgarian members of the group might have felt, but project street building began the next week and was completed within a month. The municipality must have found the €20,000 necessary. I notice that one of the villas on the street is now on sale for €249,000 and being marketed to British expatriates.

When I first started visiting Bulgaria in 1987, virtually no one in Sofia had a pet. In the village, there were dogs and cats, but these were in no way pets. They lived outside and fulfilled their purpose of guarding or sheepherding or rat/mice-eating. After 1989, it became popular to have a pet. Then came the difficult years of 1995-1997. People could barely feed themselves and their pets were abandoned to the streets. There were street dogs everywhere, and because they reproduced outside, there were often packs of feral dogs roaming in packs. It was scary. On January 9, 1997, the BTA News Agency reported “The cases of biting by stray dogs got frequent in the autumn of 1996 and a check by the competent authorities established that there are not reserves of antirabies vaccine which created panic among the population.” The street dog (and cat) situation is better now, but not a lot. The problem ebbs and flows. To euthanize them or house them is the continual debate that seems to have no end in sight.

On October 30, 2002, BTA reported that “A programme to be voted by the City Council on Wednesday provides for clearing Sofia of stray dogs within a year…There are 50,000 stray dogs in the capital.” Clearly, the public was aggrieved and the city not acting fast enough. On July 12, 2003, BTA unsurprisingly noted “One in four Sofianites identify the packs of stray dogs as the main problem for the capital city.”

I was often flustered not just by the muddy “street” itself but by the small pack of street dogs roaming up and down it. Small, well-groomed pet dogs behind the tall villa fences yapped as I went by and this seemed to rouse the fury of the large street dogs. Inevitably one day it happened. The pet dogs barked, three street dogs looked up, and I was the target available. They rushed toward me and even in my petrified state, the survival instinct kicked in. One stood on its hind legs and pushed on my chest with its front legs, bringing it almost to my height. Another took my right hand in its mouth, but without sinking its teeth in. I forced myself to stand still and to speak quietly and slowly, hoping they would be soothed. Somehow they were and backed off, but did not go far. I managed to walk to the pre-school gate, to press the buzzer, to announce my presence, and to enter without looking behind me. I spent the money for a cab home. And then I stopped teaching at the pre-school.

The Great Wall of Bulgaria

One day on our way to feed the horses in Borissovata Gradina, the children and I were surprised to see a car parked just outside the Vassil Levski Stadium metro station. It was parked inside an enormous glass box on the large sidewalk. A sign announced that Great Wall of China and Litex Motors of Bulgaria were partnering to build cars in a factory just outside of Lovech, less than 100 miles northeast of the capital Sofia.

знак за заводSeveral years before, in 2008, the Bulgarian government had announced Great Wall’s overtures and the Bulgarian prime minister’s support for the partnership. Great Wall knew exactly what to promise: socially responsible business, excellent work conditions, sound environmental policies, programs for employment of disadvantaged individuals, nearly 1500 jobs at the outset, more than 80 million Euros invested.

The Bulgarian PM also knew exactly what to promise: good business climate, tax legislation, qualified and highly educated work force. The contract was signed in April 2009. Bulgaria became Great Wall’s tariff-free entrée to the European Union. For Bulgarians, this may have been a unique “through the looking glass” moment. The world’s largest Communist country, China, was sending a private car company to invest in Bulgaria as a capitalist member of the EU. In 2015, Great Wall made Forbe’s list of Asia’s Fab 50 companies for the fifth year in a row, but its stake in Bulgaria is only 10%. Bulgarian former wrestler and current oligarch Grisha Ganchev’s Litex Motor supplied the other 90%.

кола с момиче gushed on opening day in February 2012 that the 500,000 plus square meter factory was “one of the most modern automobile factories in Europe.” Of the 120 workers actually employed on this first day, the “average age of the assembly line workers was 19 and the engineers 25.” Noting this fact hearkened back to the first decade after the 1989 changes, when job announcements often explicitly warned that applicants must be under the age of 30. What was said implicitly with such age requirements was that older employees long working for the Communist state were presumed to be unable to adjust to the new world order. Most of Great Wall’s employees weren’t even born before 1989, let alone with long working lives before the fall of that other Wall named Berlin. The New York Times was guardedly optimistic about the venture’s prospects. Just three months after opening day, Grisha Ganchev was arrested for tax evasion and fraud conducted through a criminal organization. The additional charge of threatening to kill the head of Bulgaria’s National Revenue Agency, Krassimir Stefanov, was dropped after Stefanov denied it had happened. Ganchev was released on bail. Great Wall/Litex carried on with car production.

Pre-1989, the Soviet Union and its satellites had more than a bit of difficulty resolving contradictory automotive desires. On the one hand, there was the desire to develop self-sufficient heavy industry that would prove the superiority of the Communist path. On the other, there was the desire to have reliable cars available to anyone who wished to purchase them. It was a bit of a push-me, pull-me. Sometimes ideology won, sometimes realpolitik.

Q: What must be included on the second page of the instructions for a Moskvich, Volga, or other socialist car? A: The full schedules of all busses and trains.

At first, the USSR simply shamelessly copied the West. The Soviet-made Moskvich was the German Opel Kadett by another name. At the end of what the USSR (and now Russia) referred to as the Great Patriotic War, they disassembled the German Opel car factory, moved it eastward, and began producing the cars themselves. Over the years, they introduced new models from time to time, but seemed unable to erase the sense that one was riding around in a tin can.

ШкодаFor many years, a Moskvitch was tantalizingly displayed in the ground floor window of the Central Department Store in Sofia (though I could only find a photo of the Czech Шкода). Unfortunately, the USSR was unable to copy German efficiency in producing a sufficiently steady stream of cars. My in-laws waited ten years to be able to buy their bright yellow Moskvich and it was not unheard of to wait as long as 20. My in-laws owned the car for considerably less time than the waiting period for purchase. In 1988, when after much bureaucratic wrangling from the Bulgarian side my future mother-in-law was given permission to visit us in DC, the yellow Moskvich was sold to pay for her airfare.

The respected Bulgarian weekly business newspaper, Kapital, opened its first article on the Great Wall/Litex partnership by dryly noting “Not a Moskvich…that’s how an advertisement for the new Bulgarian-Chinese automobile might sound.” Kapital also pointed out the irony that once again the technical know-how is coming from a “friendly socialist country,” albeit this time around from a private investor.



Q: Do you know why Moskvich owners are buried straight up when they die? A: Because their whole lives they were lying down under their Moskviches.



Bulgarians who did not wish to wait for ten or 20 years and had friends who could travel abroad had a brief window to “import” a foreign (aka, not from the USSR) car. For a time, cars could be purchased in, say, Germany or France or Italy, and then driven to Bulgaria. But authorities caught onto this preference for capitalist cars and imposed a 200 percent duty on their import, which essentially shut down the whole practice.

In 2015, Lovech’s Litex Motors/Great Wall plant was exporting cars to Macedonia, Serbia, Romania, and Italy with plans to expand the export market throughout Europe. Great Wall, however, has had its own problems with shortcutting the development process by simply copying existing car models of its competitors. Italy banned import of one Great Wall car on the grounds that it was a replica of a Fiat model. Japan complained that another Great Wall car was an imitation of a Toyota model. Xing Wenlin, Vice President of Great Wall Motors and the General Manager of its International Trade Division, says the times of copying have now passed. Kapital passes on a quote Xing Wenlin gave to Der Spiegel: “We already have enough money to develop on our own and to contract well-known designers.”

Nearly 50 years ago, the Italy flow of cars was a one-way street that took a wide detour through the Soviet Union. In 1966, the USSR partnered with Fiat, it not being possible to take a Fiat factory outright. The resulting car was called the Zhiguli in the USSR domestic market or the Lada everywhere else. In Bulgaria, if you owned a car at all, it was either a Moskvich or a Lada. Whether Fiat felt there was no point in bothering or the USSR thought the car already perfected, no significant design changes were ever made during Lada’s four-decade run. Reuters News Agency quoted official statistics saying 17.75 million Ladas were sold through March 2012. British auto journalist Jeremy Clarkson called the Lada “simply the worst car ever.”

LADA 1975


Q: What do you call a Lada at the top of a hill? A: A miracle.

Q: How many people does it take to build a Lada? A: Four. Two to fold and two to paste.


In 1921, Vladimir Ilyich Lenin decided to bring a little realpolitik to bear upon the Marxist-ruined Soviet economy by introducing the New Economic Policy or NEP. The market was freed ever so tiny a bit. His death only a few years later ended that experiment. But beginning in 1960, Bulgaria created its own version of NEP to facilitate import and export with capitalist countries. Cars were included in this new policy.

The state-owned Bulet company opened a car assembly plant in Plovdiv and created joint ventures with French car companies Renault and Alpine. An agreement with Fiat allowed the popular Fiat 124 model to be assembled in Lovech. Bulgaria thereby circumvented the tortuous path by which it received cars from the USSR. Bulgaria’s version of NEP lasted longer than Lenin’s but not by much. The unexpected trade possibilities outside of strict government control frightened the powers at the very top. In 1969 and 1970, the companies were shut down and their managers sentenced to lengthy prison terms. The Soviets by then had flooded the market with their Zhiguli/Lada car. The Lovech plant began producing Moskviches.

You can go to the Great Wall Bulgaria YouTube channel and see videos shot in Lovech. They alternate images of car interiors, car exteriors, fully clothed men working on an impeccably clean factory floor, and midriff-baring girls wearing the shortest of shorts dancing in front of Great Wall cars parked outside.

Despite Great Wall’s marketing acumen, it is clearly under the same delusion as most Bulgarian businesses—that is, there is no need for a native English speaker to check its English-language communications. Thus, the English version of its website happily if peculiarly announces “The male part of Litex Motors Team, the Bulgarian vehicles producer, as a sign of solidarity and support to the cause Movember, brought up a moustache.” Though a striking number of educated Bulgarians now speak English quite fluently, businesses persist in believing that there is no need to spend a penny on professional English-language marketing when office secretary Penka has a nephew Ivan who has been getting such good grades in his high school English class. Traversing the languages in the opposite directions seems equally fraught. The Институт за Български Език (Institute for Bulgarian Language) charged with, among other things, language competence, seems not to have been consulted for the Bulgarian equivalent of “pick-up.” Great Wall simply transliterated the word into Cyrillic.

Chinese or Bulgarian versions of English-language marketing aside, Lovech as Bulgaria’s Detroit is getting a second life. Bulgarians who can afford to buy a car can walk into dealerships in 12 cities across the country. Italians who want to buy a Chinese car made in Bulgaria can do that too.

In a December 5, 2012 Financial Times article, Kerin Hope and Theodor Troev saw the automobile manufacturing sector in Bulgaria making a comeback. “About 50 companies…employ more than 9,000 people around the country. The sector racked up about €1bn of sales in 2011, accounting for about 4 per cent of total exports. Customers include Mercedes-Benz, BMW, Ford, Audi, Citroen, Peugeot and Renault.” Great Wall didn’t get a mention.

But just one week later, Kerin Hope devoted an entire article to the company. The article begins:

Георги Тодоров“Barely four months after passing his driving test, George Todorov won a competition on Facebook to promote the Voleex C10 hatchback, a Chinese car assembled by Litex Motors in Bulgaria.

The Sofia student answered the question, “Why I should win a car”, by posting a Photoshopped picture of himself next to a Voleex on the social networking site, along with the message: “You don’t often feel proud of being Bulgarian because of something that’s manufactured here, so I’m grateful to Great Wall Motors for making it possible.” The image was “liked” by more than 25,000 Facebook subscribers.”

On August 4, 2015, the Specialized Criminal Court finally started the trial against Bulgarian former wrestler and current oligarch Grisha Ganchev. On January 13, 2016, Kapital reported that Great Wall/Litex Motors temporarily stopped production in order to prepare for the assembly of new models. 200 plus employees, a bit shy of the promised 1500 plus, had been working there.

On December 11, 2015, Прес-авто клуб България (Press-auto Club Bulgaria) announced that Skoda won Automobile of the Year in Bulgaria for the fourth year in a row.

Neofit Rilski / Неофит Рилски

Neofit RilskiMonks of many faiths, perhaps all, take vows of one kind or another. These are generally along the lines of chastity, poverty, and obedience—precisely the sorts of things that minimize distractions and maximize stability in a monastic order. Often the monk (or nun) will adopt a new name to show the thorough and permanent break from the old life to the new. But it perhaps takes a special kind of humility to adopt and retain the name of “Neophyte”—even after long years of leadership and the acquisition of expertise have made one the precise opposite of a neophyte. Even after making an incalculable contribution to the building of one’s nation.

signNikola Poppetrov Benin (1793–January 4, 1881), however, became the Neophyte of Rila, Неофит Рилски (Neofit Rilski). Born in Bansko, Neofit Rilski was the son of a monk who taught in a monastery school. He took up both of his father’s professions, first continuing his vocation and studies at Rila Monastery and then inaugurating his teaching career there. His boyhood home in Bansko is a lovely example of the traditional architecture of that time. The first floor is dedicated to the common needs (kitchen, food storage, farm animals) and the second to those of the family. It is beautifully preserved, and a wing has been built to house a detailed museum devoted to his life and work.

Rilski 20001Although he created the first popular Bulgarian translation of the New Testament (commissioned by American Protestant missionaries) he is more known and deservingly revered for his secular educational efforts. Professor Vera Boicheva notes in her Neofit Rilski: Creator of the Bulgarian National School that he was the first Bulgarian writer to champion the use of a pure Bulgarian language, rather than the Greek popularly used in education. It was a truly revolutionary idea: modern Bulgarian was not simply the language of the peasant or the market, but imperative to the continuing development of a national sensibility, culture, and identity without which the country would be ill prepared for independence from the Ottoman Empire.


къща музейNeofit Rilski lived through the worse years of that struggle for independence. The Bansko house constructed by his father is a tangible reminder. The walls are double built with space between them. This secret space could be entered by several entrances from the house should escape from Ottoman soldiers be necessary. Many houses throughout Bulgaria acted as mini-fortresses and hiding places.

By the time Neofit Rilski passed away at age 88 in Rila Monastery, the symbol of not only the Bulgarian Orthodox Church but Bulgarian culture preserved for five centuries, autonomy had been won and nation-building well and truly underway.

In order for the various dialects of the Bulgarian language to be unified, there had to be a way to teach the language in the same way students were already learning the languages of other countries. To that end, Neofit Rilski published the first Bulgarian language grammar book—211 pages—in 1835. And not only did he write the grammar book, he developed the pedagogy to utilize it in schools nationwide. Neofit Rilski thus had an impact not simply on the schools he personally directed—particularly the first fully secular and public school, in Gabrovo—he influenced other schools throughout the country.

The Bulgarian National Revival that flowered throughout Neofit Rilski’s life was an intellectual movement that forwarded a nationalism perhaps unique in the region (Modernism: The Creation of Nation-States (Discourses of Collective Identity in Central and Southeast Europe, Vol. 3/1)).

Rather than being conservative and inward-looking, Bulgarian nationalism was expansive and progressive with broad education of both men and women seen as key to the progress of the entire community. It is not incidental that the Slaveno-Bulgarian History of Paisii Hilendarski (also from Bansko) and Neofit Rilski’s Bolgarska grammatika 1835 [Hardcover] are not only the key publications of the early Revival but are meant to be educational. They are not a call to arms, not a political rallying cry, not dogmatic. They do not suggest circling the wagons. They suggest by their very nature that education is the revolution and education is critical to create a strong and independent nation. Nationalism, then, is not best expressed by attempts to expand the borders without but the minds within.

Nellie / Нели

old Sofia mapFor two years, we lived on Han Krum Street. Han Krum or Khan Krum is something like a founding father in Bulgaria. He led the First Bulgarian Empire at the turn of the ninth century and is probably best remembered for instituting the first written laws in his people’s history, mostly along the lines of no drinking, no stealing, and no lying. Like all good monarchs, Han Krum—aka Krum the Fearsome—vastly increased the territory over which he ruled. He defeated the Bulgarian arch nemesis the Byzantine Empire and made it as far north, east, and west as Hungary and Ukraine. He died before he could attempt taking Constantinople, though his preparations were apparently well underway. A map of Sofia marked “Plan of Sofia 1887-1912” shows the street with the name of “Tzar Krum,” but really the first Bulgarian leader with that title was Simeon the Great who won it after his own defeat of the Byzantines. It’s odd to see a map purporting to represent a city undergoing near constant change and development labeled as though frozen in time for 25 years.

Actually many maps use the name Tzar Krum Street well into the 1930s and so do the engraved words in the wall at William Gladstone Street, Tzar Krum Street’s north terminus. Perhaps the Communists changed the name not for historical accuracy but instead to remove monarchical presence of every kind. Having ousted the royal family, the change of a street name was likely a simple matter.

Sofia, like all cities, continues to change even as there are streets and buildings in the city center still recognizable from photographs a century old. Though car ownership has skyrocketed since the political changes of 1989, the garages that could be housing them have generally been converted to stores and offices and ateliers, perhaps nearly as many as those built specifically for those uses. All the garages of our small apartment block save one had been converted. One of these now serves as a плод и зеленчук (fruit and vegetable store). Tall and smiling black-haired Nellie presides.

In two years of daily shopping, I never saw anyone working there but Nellie. Her husband Sasho was sick, so much so that not only could he not help her but frequently could not even take care of their large, brown dog. The dog therefore is often in the tiny back room or curled up behind the desk that serves as Nellie’s office. Behind the desk, she watches movies, usually American children’s movies dubbed into Bulgarian, when business was slack. She has an identical twin who I never met. Nellie is not merely tall, but had a certain heft that one doesn’t associate with a purveyor of fruits and vegetables. Periodically she comments self-deprecatingly on her need to lose weight. “I used to be the thin one,” she said, “then my sister lost weight and I gained what she lost.”

We talked almost daily. I would wait until there was a break in customer traffic. The store was so tiny this necessitated a delicate dance with the one or two other customers who might be positioned between the crates, peering closely at apples imported from Greece or which bunches of green onions appeared the freshest. We talked about Clinton (she didn’t like him, didn’t find him sincere) and Obama (she felt enthusiastic). We talked about Bulgaria’s endemic bureaucracy and endemic corruption and how those might be entwined. We talked about her husband who she always referred to as “the boy” and “the poor thing.” When I visited a couple of years after we moved back to DC, she told me Sasho had passed away the year after we left.

white vanNellie has a round, childlike face and short-cropped hair only just beginning to show some flecks of white. She is younger than me, but she has a grandson just a few years younger than my son. Despite her daily, lonely grind, despite her sick husband, Nellie smiles a lot. Her eyes crinkle up, she laughs aloud, and she lets you know without actually saying it that the world was ever thus and ever will be so why complain. Her dog curls up on the floor. Her white van is parked out front, visible even in DC when I look the address up on GoogleMaps.

She knows her fruits and vegetables. She used to be an x-ray technician before the hospital downsized and before that a furniture maker, but now it’s the fruit and vegetable stand and she doesn’t look back. If you ask, she tells you what is Bulgarian-grown vs. a Greek import, which apples are the firmest, when the tiny sweet seedless oranges known as мандаринки (mandarinki), often with the stems and bright green leaves still attached, will be available. She advises you to buy the French-grown potatoes. Once I saw a neighbor point to some fresh apricots and ask Nellie, “Do they speak Bulgarian?”

Iranian datesNellie introduced me to large, fresh, soft, candy-sweet dates imported from Iran. The dates are a bit expensive for many and she doesn’t have a big demand for them, but she would make sure to have a box or two on hand whenever I asked. In the winter, she and many market stands and small stores have vats of pickled vegetables, but you have to plan in advance and bring your own empty jars to fill.


Sometimes I’d discover in the midst of cooking something that I was missing a key ingredient and was able to run downstairs, buy it, chat with Nellie, and return before the contents of the pot even started to simmer.

My daughter took riding lessons when we lived on Han Krum Street and often went herself, quite early before her lesson, so that she could go into the barn and feed the horses, avoiding the small white one whose stall sign warned he was a biter. She made sure that she had some coins, asking Nellie en route which apple or carrot was the best for horses. Nellie agreeably advised for even this request of her fruit and vegetable expertise, “Пиленце (Peelentze), little chick, the horse will eat any one you choose,” holding in her laughter until reporting to me later.