Monthly Archives: October 2014

Flag Politics & The Balkan Flag-Based Sports Catastrophe

slavic flags

Flags with pan-Slavic-inspired patterns. Top Row: Russia, pan-Slavic flag Middle Row: Bulgaria, Slovakia, Slovenia Bottom Row: Serbia, Czech Republic, Croatia

I love flags. Flags are endlessly fascinating—each one is not only a piece of design work, but carries with it centuries of history. For instance, here in Eastern Europe and the Balkans, many of the flags are similar tricolors of white, blue, and red. Sometimes, they’re exactly like the flag of Russia with different seals on them. These flags all share the same genealogy, laying claim to a shared historical heritage. You can see the same history at work in the flags of many Arab states.

bosnia kosovo flags

Flags of Bosnia & Herzegovina (l) and Kosovo (r)

In the same way that these flags indicate a national kinship, some attest to a willful separation. The flags of Bosnia & Herzegovina and Kosovo share similar design elements, none of which look remotely like the Pan-Slavic colors of the former Yugoslavia. Here, the blue and gold represent an EU future rather than a Balkan past, reflecting the acrimony tied up in their nationhood. If the design elements seem designed by consensus—anodyne white stars, shapes indicating national boundaries—it’s because they essentially were, indicating the external actors like the UN and NATO which led to the original Balkanization.

Suffice to say, there’s a lot of history that goes into making a flag, and around here, a lot of it is painful—and continually contested. Vexillology doesn’t often make the news, but a Balkan sporting event is just the sort of thing to turn a flag into an international incident.

That’s what happened last week, during a football* match in Belgrade. Serbia and Albania were playing a qualifying match for the 2016 European cup when a consumer drone flew over the field carrying an Albanian nationalist banner. A Serbian player grabbed the flag and tried remove it from the field, and all hell broke loose. Continue reading


7 Cool Bulgarian-English Translations

One of my favorite things about learning a new language is discovering cool translations. It’s one thing for a word to be similar, like how railroads are iron roads in Bulgaria. I get a big thrill when a word communicates its meaning using totally new signifiers. A good example is the the German word for a lighter, feuerzeug, which literally means “fire thing.” No one can say it’s not a “fire thing,” that’s for sure.

As I learn Bulgarian, I’m encountering some of these cool translations. Here are 7 of my favorites so far:

7. Curiosity (Любопитство) — “Love-to-ask”

Living outside the States for the first time, I have a mighty lyubopitsvo (to Huelo’s probable annoyance, I imagine) about everything we encounter. Every few minutes, it’s “sweetie, who was ‘General Totleben’?” or “Wait, what village did Baba Stoyanka live in, again?” Unfortunately, I don’t bring this curiosity to my language lessons, which is why it took me 7 months to learn the words for left and right. Actually, maybe that makes the Bulgarian word more apropos for me: I definitely love to ask more than study.

6. Slug (Гол охлюв) — “Naked Snail”

Bulgarian isn’t always like German, whose compound words make it so every animal is a different animal with an adjective. For instance, what could a “shield toad” be but a tortoise? My university mascot, the Gol ohliov, is the first Bulgarian critter I’ve discovered so far who gets stuck with this ignominious convention. “Naked snail”: not only is it evocative, it’s adorable. As a less PG-13 entry, Bulgarian also borrowed another German compound-name for something else. It’s a part of the anatomy, and it’s been dubbed “shame lips.”

5. Impression (Впечaтление) — “En-stamp-ment”

When something makes an impression on someone, it imprints itself in their memory. The image conjures up the empty space that’s left after something comes into our lives momentarily and departs, and the contours that leave its shape behind. Bulgarian has a similar word, with a pechat, a stamp, doing the impressing.

Continue reading

Surviving Na Gosti

Na Gosti - comic 1

Bulgaria is one of those countries with a hospitality culture that guidebooks and Sunday newspaper sections rave about.

This means that you will be cared for in a way that can be both warm and oppressively overbearing, welcoming and kind of weird. Spend any time here and make friends with any locals, and you will end up invited На Гости (Na Gosti). The literal translation of na gosti is “as guest,” which makes gosti the rare Bulgarian word that sounds remotely like its English counterpart. Na Gosti isn’t just going over for dinner—it’s more like participating in a local folk dance, where everyone knows the steps except you. Here’s the choreography for surviving Na Gosti:

Na Gosti - comic 2

First, there are 3 things you need to know:

  1. You need to eat and drink slower than you ever thought possible, because
  2. It is your host’s duty to force-feed you, and
  3. You will be there for at least 5 hours.

Na gosti is a battle between host and guest: the host must make you eat, and you must avoid excruciating gut pain. Continue reading