Category Archives: US vs BG

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:

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 of Los Angeles


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:


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


and making that the entire flag:


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


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

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.

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!

Everything’s Worse In Bulgaria*

*according to lots of Bulgarians

One of the most common conversation tropes that one encounters when talking to Bulgarians is the idea that Bulgaria is worse in every way than some country. It was literally the first conversation I had in Bulgaria. Minutes after our plane landed in Sofia for the first time, we spoke with a woman at customs who saw that we were American. The conversation quickly turned into her wondering why we would move here, particularly since everything is more expensive in Bulgaria (untrue). When Huelo pointed out that tomatoes cost the equivalent of 10 or 11 leva a kilo in the States (and taste like cardboard), versus 2 leva a kilo in Sofia during the off-season, the woman quickly conceded that, okay, tomatoes were cheaper in Sofia, but everything besides the cost of that specific fruit is worse.

The same goes for healthcare. Getting signed up for the national health service or private insurance (as we currently are) leads to a lot of conversations about how much better the situation was under Communism. Unfortunately, capitalism has provided a structural incentive to abandon people to die, which is how the American system works. Everything to do with Bulgaria’s healthcare system is cheaper and easier by orders of magnitude than the American system, which is extraordinarily cruel and objectively the worst in the industrialized world. Doesn’t matter, though, Bulgaria’s system is terrible, according to Bulgarians.

This is such a common trope that it just popped up in the New York Times. The story was concerning the recent collapse of the South Stream pipeline, a Russian energy project that would pump Russian hydrocarbons under the Black Sea and into Europe through Bulgaria. The Times has a very typical New York Times-y approach to the story, discussing Russian statecraft with the sort of overwrought, conspiratorial tone that the Times shares with the John Birch Society. In one of the opening grafs, the typical Bulgarian lament pops up:

While Bulgaria’s Energy Ministry ostensibly wrote the legislation, documents reveal the hidden hand of the Kremlin: Not only did much of the language come from a subsidiary of Russia’s state-owned energy giant, Gazprom, but Mr. Putin’s energy minister was directly involved.

If this happens in the U.S., the whole government would resign,” said Martin Dimitrov, a minister of Parliament from Bulgaria’s Reformist Bloc. “Not in Bulgaria, apparently.”

Dimitrov, like most Bulgarians, doesn’t have a great deal of faith in the government. Bulgarians routinely list themselves as some of the unhappiest people in Europe, and at the root of a lot of it is a state that’s openly corrupt. The political situation even led to a spate of self-immolations in 2013–the most desperate and extreme public statement a human being can make.

As usual, though, the idea that this is impossible in the US, rather than exactly the same, is a very Bulgarian attitude. Despite Dimitrov’s naïve and ahistoric view that this would cause the government to fall, American legislation is entirely written by the interested private parties who will benefit from it. The Affordable Care Act (a.k.a. “Obamacare”), for instance, was written by a health care industry lobbyist, and is a multi-trillion dollar gift to the private insurance industry. That’s how all American legislation works: it’s why a recent study by Princeton and Northwestern Universities found the US was a functioning oligarchy, which Federal Reserve chair Janet Yellen–the person in charge of all the moneytacitly confirmed. The government didn’t fall.

Similarly, the last time the Bulgarian government came under question, it had to do with the appointment of an oligarch’s cretinous son to head the Bulgarian equivalent of the NSA. That action, perceived by tens of thousands as an unforgivable affront to democracy, did cause mass resignations. In America, no amount of revelations about the NSA, whether it’s a similar instance of public-private cronyism or revelations of mass spying, have ever caused so much as one substantive improvement in American political life.

We’ve come to Bulgaria with foreign eyes and can see how much it has going for it. Unlike America, Bulgaria has great fresh food, a healthy work-life balance, and a health care system that’s more functional and less a blight on the civilized world. Also, everyone complains, but simultaneously has 3 houses. Talk to most people, and they have an apartment, their parent’s house outside of town, and Baba’s house in the village, all of which they can live in and will inherit someday. Bulgarians may see a lot of problems here, but their country would benefit from correctly perceiving their problems in relation to those of others. They definitely wouldn’t be the most depressed people in Europe if they did.

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

This Bulgarian yogurt for MEN is blowing my mind

Super macho yogurt is relatively new in America, but it’s already found a place here on our shelves:


I wasn’t editorializing in the title, the promo literature puts MEN in all-caps. The Mars symbol in the E is their touch, too.

There are plenty of products that trickle-down this way, but this one is different. The marketing of yogurt is so different in the US and Bulgaria that globalization has put something on our shelves that’s even more absurd than yogurt for dudes is normally.


Last year in the US, a company calling itself “Powerful Yogurt” released a product for men. You know it’s for men because it’s got macho things like contours of six-pack abs on the label and it comes in “man-size” 8-ounce servings. That’s two more ounces than regular yogurt, which is edible only to little titty babies. The black and red color scheme, steer’s-head logo, and announcement of its protein content make it look like an aluminum-capped cup of beef jerky, the macho-est food.


Black/red! Steer’s-head! Protein! MEN!

In the last few years, marketers found themselves with a problem: men don’t buy yogurt. In the English-speaking world, yogurt has become the most feminine-gendered foodstuff, just edging out salad. Marketers spend billions of dollars getting women to fear being fat and steer them to low-calorie yogurt. Yogurt’s nutritional composition was feminized by linking it to the prevention of osteoporosis—just like it’s now being sold as a protein-rich food to make you swole.

Men are doing enough shopping these days that advertisers are scrambling to win them over with macho packaging, lest men be scared off by the femme motifs that dot supermarket shelves. Agribusiness marketing teams are victims of their own success, but they’re doing the best they can to butch-up the most feminine-coded product. Despite the snarky write-ups nicknaming it “brogurt,” it’s already working: just look (or don’t) at this Men’s Fitness write-up about how yogurt totally makes your balls bigger and helps you get chicks pregnant (tl;dr: scientists examine mouse nut to leverage anxieties about masculinity into yogurt sales).

Here’s the thing, though: in Bulgaria there’s no gender-stereotype associated with this product. Eastern European capitalism is interesting partly because it’s so new: marketing is less sophisticated to just such a degree that it creates a distancing effect. Since advertising is so new, they’ve missed out on a lot here–like the hyper-gendering of yogurt. Not only did Bulgaria never gender their yogurt, but yogurt is the most universal food in this country. It literally is: Lactobacillus bulgaricus, a world-famous strain of yogurt, is one of Bulgaria’s proudest achievements. In terms of national pride, yogurt ranks up there with the Cyrillic alphabet and the computer.

Most products don’t have an organic reason to exist, and probably a comfortable majority of things have been created to capitalize on fears inculcated in women. Look how shamelessly mad-men types invented the blue/pink color binary (in the 1940s) or cellulite (in the late ‘60s). MACHO YOGURT that’s NOT FOR SISSIES was invented to fill a niche that marketers created when they made yogurt too feminine. This product makes sense in the Anglophone context in which marketers made yogurt feminine in the first place. However, thanks to the wonders of globalization, it was plucked from America and replicated in Bulgaria. So now we have SUPER BUTCH yogurt here, for no reason. The weirdness of this product is a funny side-effect of globalization—but, then again, never underestimate the marketing power of overwrought appeals to macho bullshit.