The unexpected greatness of Bulgaria’s local flags

As I’ve said in previous posts, I love flags. Fluttering all around us, they combine design, history, and politics–what could be more interesting than that? I know that I may be in the minority on this, but I think vexillology–the study of flags–is just about the coolest thing. You may not think so, yet, but I’d invite you to check out this TED Talk from the host of design podcast “99% Invisible,” and you might come away with a better idea of what I’m talking about.

The talk is called “the worst-designed thing you’ve never noticed,” which refers to civic flags. The world around, the flags of cities and regions tend to be hideous, designed-by-committee affairs. For a flag lover like me, one of the joys of moving to a new continent is seeing so many new designs. Moving to Bulgaria, I was impressed by how good the municipal shields and local flags are here. Instead of being the worst-designed thing around, Bulgaria’s local and regional civic iconography is pretty cool.

What’s the big deal with municipal design, anyway?

Every city has its own seal and flag, but like so many things about the places where we live, they may get ignored in the rush of everyday life. Unless someone lives in a city with an extraordinary sense of civic pride invested in its flag–basically just Chicago and Washington, DC–they may have no idea what their flag even looks like. I didn’t know what my hometown’s flag looked like for a long time, but it looks like this:
2000px-Flag_of_San_Diego,_California.svg

It’s not pretty, and it resembles most US city flags. A tricolor composed of not-very-appealing colors, with a seal in the middle that has at least 5 design elements too many:

Flag_-_Los_Angeles

Flag of Los Angeles

2000px-Flag_of_New_York_City.svg

Flag of New York

American municipal seals will generally include between 3 and 5 design motifs in honor of local industry, several human figures (Greek goddesses or settlers & indians), regional fauna, an eagle, farm equipment, mottos in at least 2 languages, and the date of founding. The result usually looks like this:

Minneapolis_seal

It’s one thing for a seal to be stamped on top of an official document. Unfortunately, most US state flags plop these unsightly seals on monochrome, usually blue, fields. This design motif is disparagingly known as “blobs on bedsheets,” for obvious reasons. The US isn’t alone in this; Mexico’s state flags follow almost the same styling, except the favored color is white.

Europe generally doesn’t fare much better. US seals show their age, mostly looking like the 18th century wood-block prints they initially were. European regional and municipal flags betray their medieval origins by usually being mish-mashes of elements like cups, crowns, and castles; crazy blends of animals, crosses, and heraldic elements, or uninspired color bands festooned with shields. The best European city flag, Amsterdam, is the result of taking the most distinct element from a typical European municipal coat-of-arms

Wapen_van_Amsterdam.svg

and making that the entire flag:

450px-Flag_of_Amsterdam.svg

People with an eye for design will single out Chicago, the District of Columbia, Amsterdam, and a few other exceptions as examples of terrific municipal design. There are probably only a handful of people who associate Bulgaria with terrific municipal design–one of whom lives in my apartment. However, Bulgaria deserves to rank great civic art alongside terrific yogurt and cheap domestic beer as points of national pride. Here’s why. Continue reading

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In Praise of Email

Nearly a year ago, my wife and I moved from California to the Balkans. I knew that this would involve some sacrifices, especially as far as communication with my friends and family, and that seeing loved ones would go from being an everyday event to a rare joy. It was obvious that keeping in touch would be a lot more important for maintaining relationships, but it didn’t seem like it would be a lot more work. The small country to which we were moving has some of the fastest Internet in the world, so there are no technical obstacles keeping us from being in touch with friends in America. There’s a bigger problem putting a serious damper on my correspondence, which I wasn’t even aware of  before moving to a different hemisphere. At some point in the recent past, email has become nearly as archaic for most people as physical correspondence. Receiving an email and being expected to reply to it has taken on the baneful weight of an imposition. A long personal email has become something the recipient has to grudgingly deal with, like a homework assignment or being left in charge of an ex’s dogs after a breakup.

There’s a decent amount of research online charting email’s path to the status of an anachronism. More and more each year, email is something that’s used solely for work. Among the next generation of Internet users, teens, email is as popular as learning cursive and opposition to same-sex marriage. The tech press reliably releases headlines declaring email doomed, if not dead already. I didn’t learn how unpopular personal emails are from Wired, though, or from marketers wringing their hands over the inaccessibility of tweens’ wallets. Once I was no longer accessible to my fellow American by phone, it became clear that email has been dragged to the desktop recycle bin in our hearts.

It’s a shame, because if you want to communicate long-distance, email is an excellent medium. It’s not perfect—written online communication cuts out the nuances of tone present in spoken conversation, but it has no space constraints and is transmitted instantaneously. Given the popular affection for minimalism embodied in the simple design of Apple, it’s a little surprising that email hasn’t become unexpectedly fashionable: what could be more flat and clean than a big, white box ready to be filled with black sans-serif type? As soon as you find yourself alone in a strange new permanence, you have a lot to tell the folks back home. Email is perfect for laying out your ideas, comfortably rolling out a story in rich detail to the only sympathetic eyes you may have.

However, I quickly noticed that most of my friends weren’t interested in continuing an email chain beyond more than a few exchanges. Emails started getting responded to with terse, sentence-long prose, or simply going unanswered. I expected this from my friends who were teachers, working 60-hour weeks, but it happened just as often with friends who are fellow partially employed freelance writers. One non-responder could be found on Tumblr some weekends soliciting questions from strangers, in hopes of curing his single man’s Saturday-night boredom.

At the same time that emails were going unanswered, many of the recipients were telling me about the latest must-have apps that would bridge the gap between our physical locations. One friend enthusiastically boosts Instagram so he can send me pictures, one hypes Snapchat so we can chat in short bursts. Both of these functionalities are currently available to us through email, to which all can avail themselves if they so choose.

Embedded in these pitches is a certain brand of cyber-utopianism. If only we had the newest app, the reasoning goes, we’d finally have the right platform for keeping in touch. It sells users based on the idea of a glaring deficit in existing online communications technology, to be rectified with a soon-to-be-released solution. WhatsApp, for instance, bills itself as the “easiest and cheapest” way to chat with friends—finally, a way to send online messages for free! Email seems like a perfectly functional way to accomplish the tasks of sending text and pictures, so it’s hard to grasp the appeal of platforms whose only innovation over email is built-in word limitations. To those less invested in the cyber-utopian narrative, it looks less like a communications revolution than a shift in consumer tastes driven by hype. Continue reading

Pinterest or Communism? Glass windows behind an Iron Curtain

The perception of Communism–particularly coming from the US, the global capital of red-baiting–is one of deprivation. Life under Marxist-Leninist command economy is miserable, repressive, defined by scarcity, and above all, drab. Those who could escape forced collectivizations had to deal with the more quotidian, grinding horror of state-enforced tedium.

That’s the message echoed in a title like “The Bleak Banality of Shopping in Communist Europe.” A piece that was recently shared with me by a fellow Amerikanka, the article highlights a new photobook, Window-Shopping through the Iron Curtain, detailing the lives of consumers within the Soviet bloc.

However, looking at the actual photos, it looks less like the hellish drudgery one might expect from Communism’s reputation. Instead of bleak banality, the photos look beautiful, in a very contemporary way. Shopping in Communism looks more like something out of one of Wes Anderson’s wet dreams. Continue reading

“Deacon Levski” Review / Дякон Левски ревю

Written by Lorenzo, and also published on sabinap.com. Thanks Sabina!!

As someone who neither is Bulgarian nor speaks Bulgarian, I’m not Dqkon Levski‘s target audience. However, my wife and I attended the premiere at NDK on account of our friend Milena’s horse, a magnificent animal named Karina who was a credit to the film. With a beautiful, tawny coat and mighty, piston-like haunches, Karina brightened the film during the roughly 18 seconds she was onscreen, hurling the poor child-Levski into a pond. Unfortunately, having brought class to the proceedings, Karina promptly disappeared and the film took another 4 hours to reach its inevitable and merciful conclusion.

Screen Shot 2015-03-13 at 7.53.32 PM

Breakout star Karina, literally and figuratively saddled with the film’s dead weight.

As I said, I’m not the target audience for this film. When you’ve been studying Bulgarian for 7 months as I have, one of the most frustrating experiences you encounter is not understanding something. Not understanding nearly a word of a 4-hour-plus film is enough to make an exacting person like me nearly suicidal. At 2 hours, I was so thoroughly discouraged that I was planning to drop Bulgarian and just learn German instead. The, the intertitles announced PART 2, and I was debating which key to best cut my throat with. Seriously, I understood as much Turkish as I did Bulgarian. My wife tells me they were speaking an archaic-sounding version of Bulgarian, which may be true or may be something to protect my feelings. However, judging by Levski’s 4.7 rating on IMDb, I’m guessing a lot of Bulgarians didn’t get much of it, either.

The film begins inside a church. Ottoman soldiers and their mustaches have their swords drawn, menacing Bulgarkas with death and implied defilement. So far, so legible. The imagery of a leering Turk raping an innocent Bulgarian maiden in Christ’s house is imagery even I can understand. Hopefully that communicates what kind of register Levski is working in, and what level of grace, artfulness, and subtlety the audience can expect.

We’re introduced to a baby named Ali Aslan. A reader may ask: why is the audience being introduced to important babies? Especially fictional ones? It’s a great question! As a fan of film specifically and being entertained in general, I’ll say here what I tell every new parent I meet: children are boring. They don’t do interesting things or have valuable things to contribute. No one needs to get in front of a camera before they’re at least 25.

However, we meet Ali and li’l Vasil Levski. I’ll admit that I was a little harsh on the film for the first half hour, since I had no idea that the apple-cheeked little scamp we saw onscreen was the future Apostle of Freedom. Maybe that was my fault: it definitely seemed like he introduced himself as “Boyan,” and his father’s grave revealed his family name as Kunchev. I thought to myself, who the hell is this “Boyan Kunchev” kid, and why have we still not met Vasil Levski 30 minutes into the film? And WHERE IS MILENA’S AMAZING HORSE??

Continue reading

Nothing’s inevitable except death and…

Bulgaria was just in the news, and not just for any reason, but because it just topped a “best in the world” list. According to a recent Wall Street Journal piece, “Expats looking to minimize their income-tax bill may want to pack up and move to Bulgaria.” According to the study quoted by the WSJ, expats in Bulgaria pay the lowest income and business tax rates in the world at just 10%.

They say that nothing’s inevitable but death and taxes, but at 10%, it barely stings. For comparison, we have to repatriate as much if not more back to the US, where we don’t even live. And yet we’re still blocked from using Netflix–that’s “democracy” for you! Local legend has it that the income tax rate sits at 10% since that’s the absolute maximum the government found that it could expect to collect. If the state demanded any more than that, and people would find some way to only pay 10%. It’s hard to verify a story like this, but since one university study values the total of Bulgaria’s untaxed shadow economy as almost 1/3 of the country’s GDP, it’s plausible.

One of the most refreshing things about living in Bulgaria is the sense of freedom. Sure, you see pregnant women smoking more often, but as Patrick Henry said, “give me low fetal birth weight or give me death. “That includes freedom from taxation–which a certain section of the voting spectrum treats as a paramount directive. America’s right-wing Heritage Foundation, for instance, just bumped up Bulgaria’s ranking on its “economic freedom index.” The even more right-wing Cato Institute chided Greece for reaping the whirlwind of being so much less free than Bulgaria.

To give an example of what a dream this is, when the US invaded Iraq, one of its first prerogatives was opening the country for business. The country’s proconsul, L. Paul Bremer enacted a series of laws to wipe the nation’s slate clean in favor of business. Iraq’s maximum corporate tax rate was set at 15%. Even with an invader presenting a conquered country as a gift to global business interests couldn’t meet Bulgaria’s sweet, almost-single digit tax rate.

Last year, Cato awarded Bulgaria its seemingly one-off “Balkan Prize,” declaring this country the happiest in the Balkans according to its high amounts of liberty. Despite a tax rate that makes American libertarians drool, though, Bulgaria is actually one of the unhappiest countries in the world. Evidently, low taxes aren’t all a country needs to be happy–but it is very nice.

3 Weirdest Things on Bulgarian TV

3. Every folk channel

Summer of 2008, I ended up at a barbecue in a stranger’s backyard. I made friends with the only guy there my age, partially because that’s basic social self-preservation and mostly because the majority of the party’s milieu was possessed of an uncanny foreign mien. In front of two goats roasting on spits, we sipped margaritas and chatted up girls while everyone else spoke to each other in Slavic-sounding languages of unknown origin.

The vibe got progressively more Wicker Man as homemade instruments materialized and the backyard was filled with weird, discordant folk songs. As a man near me blew into a ten-gallon goat-stomach bagpipe, we got swept into a plodding circle-dance, and I did my best to mimic the kicks, steps, steps, kicks and steps.

I was at a Bulgarian house party, and only years later did I realize that I had faked my way through my first horo.

That was my introduction to the strange world of Bulgarian folk music and dancing, but today I can enjoy not one nor two but five folk music channels. Each of these five channels plays videos like the one above all day, every day. The videos all have the same basic visual elements. They are filmed in a “traditional” Bulgarian location: either a scenic outdoor locale or in front of an old building like a hizha or mehanaThere is an all-male band, playing a cacophony of horns, woodwinds, and animal-guts instruments. Finally, there is a singer, male or female, usually in traditional Bulgarian dress, who dances by swaying gently from side to side and waving their arms.

As you can surmise from the staggering number of folk music videos that play ’round-the-clock, there’s a ton of Bulgarian folk, and it all sounds and looks very similar. Actually, not only does it sound alike, but I need to confess something here that’ll forever make me an outsider in this country (don’t tell the babas). People here crap a lot on Bulgaria’s domestic pop music genre, Chalga, but I’d probably rather listen to an hour of chalga than an entire folk song.

Not being a music “person,” I can’t explain what’s so off-putting about all these songs: the instruments involved, the time signatures, the sheer relentless repetition, and some demonic x-factor combine to make this genre uniquely madness-inducing for me. If I have to compare what these tunes sound like to anything else, it wouldn’t be another music genre. Instead, the effect reminds me of what I’d hear when I’d watch South Park episodes online, accidentally open a window twice, and have to hear Primus’s demented theme song doubled-up.

2. English for Peacekeepers

In 2004, Bulgaria joined NATO. For a tiny country that lost two world wars, it doesn’t seem useful to get entangled into a military alliance. First, Bulgaria had to buy its Navy a bunch of submarines to comport with NATO standards. Since Bulgaria’s greatest maritime threat is counterfeit cigarette smugglers, they purchased 4 nuclear submarines, acceded to NATO, and promptly decommissioned them. Then, there’s the indignity of having to do a ton of extra work. Not only do Bulgaria’s armed forces have to impress some bigshot American generals, but some poor airmen who probably just want to drink Nescafe and smoke have to fly sorties around the Black Sea every time a Russian MiG pops up.

On the other hand there’s like, prestige, and the fact that Albania definitely can’t push us around any more!

Some of the extra NATO-mandated work is learning “English for Peacekeepers.” The “show” is a half-hour program where narrators with thick accents teach viewers military-oriented English. The lessons seem be aimed at Bulgarians in the armed forces, who will have to communicate in English with their north atlantic counterparts.

As you can see from the clip above, in addition to being stilted and bizarre, the show is also really boring for a military-themed programming block. Granted, if your jet is on fire, the word for ejector rack will probably seem really important. But instead of teaching cool war things, every installment of English for Peacekeepers is more like “I had the opportunity to learn mine-clearing techniques,” or “There’s a possibility we will attend the defense summit in November.”

1. Agro TV’s Techno-tools block

Life in Europe is governed by one simple maxim: anything that can be set to a throbbing techno beat will be set to a throbbing techno beat.

As the son of a European, I’ve known this since I was a kid. In the mid-90s, when the Space Jam soundtrack ruled the Earth and American parents still listened to, I don’t know, Rush or Hall & Oates, my dad was playing the Chemical Brothers and Prodigy. More recently I’ve been told this sounds cool–but at the time, dad’s beloved machine-gun synth beats and downtempo basslines were just another one of those things that makes the child of an immigrant feel perpetually out-of-place.

Now that I live here, I can attest that the stereotypes about this continent moving to an electronic beat is pretty true. I’ve heard pumping techno songs piped into my bank as I stand in line, and been served coffee by a woman cheerily singing along to that Romanian “Numa Numa” song that went viral some years ago. So I was barely surprised that Agro TV, the agricultural channel, features half an hour of farm equipment action-footage set to techno.

Most of Agro TV’s programming is news relevant to the daily operation of running a farm: weather, weekly temperatures, commodities prices, boring stuff. But for half an hour, farmer Ivan ditches the milking pail for the EDGE OF HIS SEAT, as Agro TV brings Ibiza to rural Bulgaria. This show is half an hour of German-made farm machinery, threshers and combines tilling fields and baling hay to thumping electronica. It’s like a real-life version of the Upright Citizens Brigade‘s “Crane Wars” sketch, where a breathless hype man sells footage of construction with the language of a monster truck rally: Crane Wars Crane Wars CRANE WARS! Watch inclined planes PUNISH Earth’s gravitational pull!

Knitting in Bulgaria

sweater sighting at Kukeri Festival in Pernik, Bulgaria

sweater sighting at Kukeri Festival in Pernik, Bulgaria

While Lorenzo’s busy learning Bulgarian at breakneck speed, and sharing his keen insights into our charmed lives here in Bulgaria, I’m knitting.

Living here provides endless inspiration, and a welcome new perspective on my hobby/obsession. Recently I posted a piece on my blog, entitled, Knitting is a Right, Not a Privilege, about how learning from Bulgarian knitters has completely changed my outlook. I wrote the piece for other knitters, but anyone who’s ever worn slippers made by their baba will probably relate:

Here, handknits are widely available, and consequently, not treated gently. When I knit in public, no one suggests I should sell my work. Instead, people remark that their grandma makes new socks for them every winter, or that they buy all their slippers from a prolific neighbor. At the market, I like to compliment anyone I see wearing a handknit sweater, or a garment that’s been visibly mended. Usually, the wearer will beam and tell me who made or mended it for them, or if they did it themselves.

You can find the full article here. Enjoy!