Gipsy Summer in Bulgaria

The bad news here in Sofia is that the recent Bulgarian elections have solved nothing. “Indecision, uncertainty and divisions still paralyse the political establishment” – would probably be the formula of words used by quality media. This means in plain English – it’s still a mess but the names of the mess-makers have changed.

The centre-right party (GERB) won the largest share of the votes but now has the unenviable task of seeking coalition partners from a ragbag of nationalist losers for whom any criticism of Bulgaria is an anti-Bulgarian plot perpetrated by greedy Western, imperialist interests designed to pull Bulgaria away from its traditional alliance with Russia, and foment another war.

Pity Boyko Borisov, Bulgaria’s new prime minister in waiting (and former holder of the top post between 2009 and 2013), the karate-kicking, footballing man of the people. This label “man of the people” means everything in Bulgaria. It means someone who does not use fancy words, someone who would share a few rakiyas with ordinary folk, someone defiantly anti-intellectual. Bulgarians, you see, like their leader to be one of them, unlike the Brits who tend to like someone of intelligence and gravitas. (I say “tend” because that traditional assumption may be changing.) Anyway, Western leaders will soon be getting re-acquainted with the bullet-headed, bear-like, ex-bodyguard Borisov who rather fits the classic stereotype of Bulgarians resembling weight-lifters or wrestlers.

The good news? Well, I can say that Sofia is actually looking rather … fit for human habitation as we have been blessed with what they call here a gipsy summer – cloudless days with a sun not so oppressive to make you sweat but not as ineffectual as Britain’s October orangey version. Sofia’s Borisova Gradina park (not, incidentally, named after Borisov*) has been looking quite beautiful, now that the mud has dried and we don’t have to stare at the ground the whole time. Instead we can appreciate the autumn blaze and the odd black squirrel. Keen readers of this column will remember that squirrels are rare in Sofia – unlike in London where they will eat out of your hand – so much so that here people stop to take their photo when they appear.

I even remarked to a Bulgarian friend that Sofia was looking rather presentable. He was having none of it. (I should explain that he had once spent a few days with friends in Hampstead.)

“It’s a Balkan shithole,” he said with a certainty that made it difficult for me to contradict him.
I murmured that my wife, on occasion, had said much the same.

“I like the sound of your wife,” he said.

There is other good news. Bulgaria’s wine producers look set to enjoy an exceptionally lucrative autumn. Why? Because Gérard Depardieu is set to appear in a film in Bulgaria. The French super-sized star claimed in a recent interview that he drank 14 bottles of wine a day. I’m assuming – and it would be somehow ungallant of Depardieu not to sample a few Bulgarian brands – that he will sink a few gallons of Mavrud during his stay. Of course I don’t want to count the bottles until they’ve been uncorked. Let’s hope the news is for real.

Like all small countries with an inferiority complex, Bulgaria relishes celebrity visits. From the moment he is airlifted off the plane, Depardieu will never be out of the news. The hotel where he stays will already be re-training its sommelier. Depardieu, like so many other famous visitors, will be lauded on every chat show and asked ad nauseam what he thinks of Bulgaria. Cue agreeable noises about the friendliness of the people, the beauty of Vitosha and the professionalism of local movie technicians.

And, yes, you can be sure that the Bulgarian bear Borisov will seek a photo opportunity with the French bear. And, for perhaps a short time, little Bulgaria, the country with a giant banitsa on its shoulder, will feel better about itself.

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