Tag Archives: Evropa

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!

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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

A Trip to Real Europe

A small portion of Hungary's Parliament.

A small portion of Hungary’s Parliament.

Last week, we left humble Bulgaria for the ornate charm of Real Europe. We spent a week in Hungary, and I say Real Europe because Budapest has everything that people associate with Europe when they fantasize about studying abroad, or “finding themselves” on a journey of self-discovery with topless beaches.

Budapest is usually linked with Prague and Vienna as one of three uniquely beautiful European cities. Hungary’s capital is truly breathtaking: a blend of ornate Gothic splendor, baroque Hapsburg grace, and the charm of art nouveau. Budapest boasts a railway station designed by Gustave Eiffel, and its incredible parliament building makes the mad King Ludwig’s Neuschwanstein look like a puddle of piss. Ludwig II spent the duration of his reign and much of the royal Bavarian treasury building otherworldly castles—Neuschwanstein inspired the castle in Disney’s Cinderella—and NOW HE LOOKS LIKE AN IDIOT.

St. Stephens Basilica, one of the countless buildings in Budapest that make the Swan King of Bavaria look like a mouth-breathing waste of space.

St. Stephen’s Basilica, one of the countless buildings in Budapest that make Bavaria’s Swan King look like a mouth-breathing waste of space.

As our bus wove through Serbia towards Hungary, we noticed how much the scenery resembled what we’re used to in Bulgaria. Along the highway were countless signs in Turkish and red-with-white-crescent Turkish flags, advertising Turkish food and roadside mosques for weary truckers on long hauls from Anatolia. There were even separate lanes for trucks coming from Turkey at the border, a sign of how dependent the Balkans are on trade and commerce from our regional power. As our friend observed, kind of like a mini-China.

But Alhamdulillah for the Turkish influence, because by the time you get to Hungary, everything is German-inflected. Hungarian food is delicious, but it’s very Central European. After a few days of eating animal fats, fry, carbs, and starch, you’re ready for plain yogurt again. Eating in Hungary starts to feel like dining at an upscale county fair, and funnel cake gets old fast.

Part of the Dohány Street synagogue, the largest synagogue in Europe.

Part of the Dohány Street synagogue, the largest synagogue in Europe.

The richness of the food and the grandiose architecture are awe-inspiring, especially coming from Sofia. The perverse course of history conspired to make Sofia a warren of Brutalist Soviet-era concrete bloks, with the occasional Stalinist Gothic and Byzantine revivalism thrown in. To put it euphemistically, living in Sofia has a certain lo-fi charm. In contrast, Budapest is very developed, with first-world touches like the availability of pour-over coffee and toilets that can handle paper. It’s amazing what a difference it makes when every local you encounter speaks excellent English. A testament to both Budapest’s status and the bizarre and inscrutable nature of the Hungarian language.

Budapest’s stature isn’t just written on the façades of its buildings, it’s on the street. After driving through 3 countries in this neighborhood, I noticed that the trash bins are a good indicator of whether the coffee is imported from Ethiopia or dispensed from outdoor Nescafé vending machines. The ritzier parts of Europe have new trash and recycling bins, while these Czech-made aluminum whales are omnipresent in Bulgaria and Serbia.

The charming trash bins that keep the Balkans clean

The charming trash bins that keep the Balkans clean

Continue reading

Can Azerbaijan Buy Its Way Into Europe?

european orientWhat do you get the leader that has everything? Ilham Aliyev, the President-for-life of Azerbaijan, was lucky enough to inherit his post from his father, Heydar Aliyev, in 2003. The country sits on enormous Caspian Sea oil and natural gas reserves, and in an ostentatious display of autocratic petrostate pride, the world’s tallest flagpole was built in the capital, Baku, in 2010 (It was subsequently edged out by a 10’-taller pole in Dushanbe, Turkmenistan).

However, there’s one thing that could confer legitimacy and a certain je ne sais quoi that Azerbaijan doesn’t yet have—European respectability.

“East is East and West is West and never the twain shall meet.” –Rudyard Kipling

In 2011, Azerbaijan unveiled its new slogan: “European Charm of the Orient.” Replacing the less inviting motto “Land of Flames,” the slogan is part of a PR campaign to project a certain image. One typical tourism video opens with attractive people sitting poolside. A laughing couple races along a coastal highway in their Porsche, on their way to sheep-covered hills which give way to endless forests. The parts with the smiling, telegenic people bring to mind the French Riviera, and the verdant landscape looks like Ireland or Burgundy. The country is emphasizing its European charm, rather than situating itself in that space called the Orient. Besides a brief shot of a Mosque in a panoramic long shot of Baku (and an Azerbaijani rug on TV in a blonde woman’s hotel room), markers of Azerbaijan as “non-European” are conspicuously absent. The video signals to prospective visitors that Azerbaijan is European, like Amalfi or Barcelona; not “Oriental,” like Istanbul or Dubai.

Dividing Europe and Asia are the Caucasus mountains: home to Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia. All three had been part of the Soviet Union, gaining their independence in the 1990s. Azerbaijan is a republic of 9.5 million people that borders Turkey, Russia, and Iran in addition to its Caucasian neighbors. Azerbaijan is physically located in a boundary space, and it’s trying to decisively mark itself as a member of Europe. The country has been “culturally” non-European; for centuries it’s been represented and described it as an Other.

What it has going for it, in addition to the European charm from the ads, is oil and gas. On Azerbaijan’s official tourism webpage, one of the tabs highlighted by the republic’s Ministry of Culture and Tourism is a page for the Naftalan medical resort. Alongside “national cuisine” and “top 10 reasons to visit Azerbaijan,” the Ministry sells the spa as one of the most compelling reasons to visit the country. The page exhorts you to book a trip to the spa for Naftalan oil treatments, and boasts of the countless health benefits from taking dip in the unique hydrocarbon.  The Caspian is estimated to hold as much as $5 trillion of oil reserves: Azerbaijan has so much oil that one of their main attractions is bathing tourists in it.

In 1998, Dick Cheney, then-CEO of Halliburton, said “I cannot think of a time when we have had a region emerge as suddenly to become as strategically significant as the Caspian.” Three years later, Azerbaijan had joined the Council of Europe. Their resources can pay the price of admission, but Azerbaijan is cementing its European aspirations with a grand, multi-billion dollar public relations project. The case of Azerbaijan says a lot about cultural borders, nationhood, and how far money can really take you.

“Europe is a cultural continent, not a geographical one. It is its culture that gives it a common identity. The roots that have formed it…are those of Christianity.” –Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger

19th century German map of Europe in 1250 CE

19th century German map of Europe in 1250 CE

Most Americans associate European culture with white people who enjoy day-drinking, fütbol, and techno music. However, for most of its history and today, “Europe” has been used synonymously with “Christendom.” As with all identity, what Europe isn’t is as important as what it is. “Europe and Islam have been considered to be two terms with contrasting historical connotation,” says Dr. Ioannis Grigoriadis, “European and Islamic cultures were juxtaposed, with the borders of Europe contiguous with those of Christianity.” Europe hasn’t just staked its identity on Christianity. Equally important is that it be considered an entity contradistinct from the Muslim world. Continue reading