Monthly Archives: February 2015

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!