Archive for the ‘Wales’ Category

Margaret Thatcher (1925 – 2013)

thatcher election wave

The start of it all: Thatcher conquers 10 Downing Street

The British media are evidently awash with coverage of the death of Margaret Thatcher, former Conservative British Prime Minister.

There’s saturation coverage on all my UK online sources: you’d be forgiven for thinking a catastrophe had occurred within the British royal family. (No, Thatcher will not receive a state funeral, as some have proposed.)

Reaction across the UK (and beyond) has been, as expected, extreme. We’ve had the usual formulaic ‘tributes’ from prominent politicians; vituperative negative comments by extreme UK public figures: even street parties to ‘celebrate’ her passing – I received a comment from a shocked Bulgarian friend currently in UK, saying that:

“there certainly was a celebration in London, which sounds quite crude – in Bulgaria we do not celebrate anyone’s death, even the biggest enemy.”

The underlying motif of much of what I’ve read today has been along the lines of ‘Love her, hate her – no one remained indifferent to her’. Along with the frequent observation that her political ethos was invariably divisive, at all levels of UK society.

My own views, for what they are worth?

I was living in South Wales throughout Thatcher’s ‘reign’, and saw at first-hand the effects (good and bad), many of which remain as part of her legacy. [1]

And – no, I have never voted for the Conservative (political right) Party.


I thought the editorial in today’s Guardian was reasonably balanced and comprehensive. [2]

And, for a personal slant on Thatcher (and her husband, Denis) from a former British Ambassador, this article seemed to tackle the problem of ‘personality’ versus ‘political achievement’ in the writer’s usual direct manner. [3]

[1]: BBC Online

[2]: The Guardian

[3]: Craig Murray

Image: BBC


Sofia Sunday snippets: scenes of Serdika


I lived in Cardiff, the capital of Wales, for over 30 years. In that time, the entire city was transformed into a modern, buzzing, cosmopolitan complex which, by and large, was a constant joy to experience.

In the early 70s, the city council mounted an exhibition of drawings and illustrations to show off their ‘grand plan’ for rejuvenating the place (you had to go to the Central Library to see it – no internet, no snazzy animated artist’s impressions in those days!). I was not alone in scoffing at the grandiose concept, but… I was, happily, wrong.

Apart from the fact that almost all the old ‘classic’ pubs have disappeared. Here’s an exception, weirdly preserved outside its social and architectural context.

Te Golden Cross pub, Cardiff, Wales

The Golden Cross, Cardiff

So, it struck me on Friday, as I walked through part of Sofia’s centre, that a similar transformation is underway.

The City Garden, with its devoted chess players, lone musicians, kids in playgrounds, now lives up to its name. It was beautiful: the grass was well-tended and incredibly green, given the summer we’ve had; there were flower beds everywhere; the ornamental pool facing the Ivan Vazov theatre sparkled in the sun; youngsters played on climbing frames that looked more like lovely modern sculptures.

Only one year ago, the place was scruffy, dirty, with broken seats and ugly bins. It was now a pleasure to stop, sit and contemplate for several minutes.

Sofia City Garden

The City Garden, Sofia

There was an even better surprise in store. I made my way to Serdika metro station, crossed by the pedestrian underpass from the Presidency to the Council of Ministers, emerged from walking on Roman-laid paving stones, to discover this area has been reclaimed – for the modern pedestrian.

I mentioned just over a month ago that redevelopment of the area was almost complete, ready to be publicly opened by Boyko ‘Scissorhands’ Borisov.[1]

serdika largo sofia

People take their proper place again! (despite the lamp-posts)

Well, it’s superb! Where multi-laned traffic flowed (or not) throughout the Largo, one is now free to walk, surrounded by more flowers, and – wonderfully – to examine the recently exposed Roman street remains. The entire area, that used to be a claustrophobic series of passages leading to the metro, has been opened up. The tiny C14 Church of St Petka of the Saddlers can now ‘breathe’, even though the industrial staircase and some of the surrounding concrete are rather unsympathetic.

Sveta Petka, Sofia

An historic cameo, free to breathe again

Turn away from the church, look down Maria-Luisa Boulevard, and the sight is even more astonishing. The cluttered car park outside Tsum has gone. Now, you can walk along a wide paved gallery, looking down at more Roman excavations, and watch the archaeologists who are still busily working there.

Maria-Luisa Boulevard, Sofia

They say the Romans invented concrete

There were grand words expressed about making this part “the emblem of our city”. For once, this is truly realistic. Bravo, Sofia! But, please, spend some time and effort on finishing off a pleasing, aesthetic presentation of these historic treasures.

New metro line

The discovery of this Roman street resulted from the excavations required to construct the second metro line in Sofia. Well, that was duly opened at the end of August with a great flourish by – you know who, accompanied by none other than José Manuel Barroso, European Commission President. (The EU funded some 50% of the costs of this development.)

I haven’t yet had the opportunity to take a leisurely trip along the new line, but hope to do so shortly. The price of a single (unlimited) metro journey remains at 1 Lev (about €0.50). To travel from Oxford Circus to Baker Street in London today would cost the equivalent of €5.30. And yet, there’s a new pressure group formed here that wants to see free travel on the metro. They’ll probably also want the five-pointed star returned to the top of the former Party House that looms over the opposite end of the Largo.

The pleasures of motoring

Since the middle of August, drivers in Bulgaria need to keep their car headlights on at all times – day and (obviously) night. The increase in road-user safety this provides is still debated. Here, it’s been quite ridiculous – a summer of non-stop high-intensity sun, and you need to remember to switch your lights on (and to switch them off when you leave your car – a few of our acquaintances have returned to their vehicle, only to find the battery flat!)

One local motoring organisation reckoned that this move would lead to the additional annual consumption of over 31 million litres of fuel…

the price of Bulgarian fuel

Record Bulgarian fuel prices

… which is great news for the likes of Lukoil! The current price of Bulgarian fuel, when compared with salary purchase power, is among the highest in Europe – indeed, worldwide. The same is true of the cost of a normal postage stamp, on that basis. And the postal service is c**p.

Belly aching about Belene

The constant row over Belene, that ambitious but ill-fated nuclear power project Bulgaria embarked upon way back in the 70s and 80s, and that has never come anywhere near completion, is at the centre of multi-interest infighting once again.

The opposition BSP party is making the most of what it calls a purely political decision finally to kill off the project; the ruling party (GERB) retorts that it was the lack of positive action of the previous (Socialist) government that led to this mess.

Meantime, Russia threatens to sue Bulgaria to the tune of $1 billion or more for cancelling; Bulgaria then defiantly lashes out in turn at Russia; the whole thing is referred by the Bulgarian PM to OLAF, the European anti-fraud agency, who reply that they have no jurisdiction in this case, as it does not involve EU money.

So, our national politicians have managed yet again to make a heavy summer over their constant sniping on the subject. It’s probably always been a question of political will and influence, rather than a genuine concern for providing Bulgarian citizens with a cheap (?), reliable (?), safe (?) source of power.

On a domestic level: we had the usage meters on our centrally-supplied central heating radiators changed, a few days ago. Cost? 132 Leva for 4 devices, including labour. Reason? The monopoly heating supplier for the municipality had decided the old meters’ batteries (installed only a few years ago) were worn out, and inaccurate. Choice to consumer? None. Is this 2102, excuse me?

Speaking of Russians

Opposite the Bulgarian National Assembly, there’s a rather grandiloquent equestrian statue of Tsar Alexander II, the Liberator. (This term refers to the Russian role in supporting Bulgaria’s move to liberation and independence [2] in the 1870s.

Russian Tsar Alexander II, the Liberator

Liberator renovated, but not necessarily restored

Well, he’s gone – for the time being, whipped off to the suburbs for a while, back in a few months’ time. The statue, which was officially inaugurated in August 1907, has suffered considerable damage ever since. Cracks began to appear in the bronze statue as early as 1930, and the damage was exacerbated by Allied bombing of Sofia during WWII.

A team of Bulgarian and Russian restorers will make extensive repairs and replacement of damaged parts of the bronze statue. Meanwhile, the base and pedestal, of black granite quarried on Vitosha Mountain, will also be restored, along with the decorative bronze friezes.

Very good, one would think. Not so, not according to one MP, who wants the renovated structure moved to some less central position in the city, and for a new statue of Khan Asparuh, founder of the original Bulgarian Empire in 680/681 AD, to replace the image of the Russian Tsar. Well, he may have a good historical point… whereas Russia supported Bulgarian Independence in 1878, it certainly didn’t feel the same about Unification in 1885.[2] And, let’s not speak about 1944-1989, in that context.[Also 2]

The main thing that struck me was that, whoever/whatever power ruled the country during the last century, nobody, but nobody, could be bothered to repair such a memorial for over 80 years.

Oh, the cost of heritage… and (I promise, forthcoming) the general attitude to maintenance.

So, finally, the weather

The Bulgarian Orthodox calendar is crammed with annual celebrations that are, basically, to do with old superstitions about nature, weather and the seasons.

Friday (14th. September) saw an important event – the Orthodox Day of the Cross. It’s associated with [a] the folklore change from summer to autumn and [b] attendant preparations for harvesting grapes and the production of wine and rakia. Traditionally, producers prepare and repair all equipment needed for these processes, starting on that date.

So, the Orthodox faithful must have been well-pleased to see the weather change dramatically. Yesterday (thankfully, after my stroll around the city centre), it actually rained in Sofia, for the first time since the end of July. What’s more, it’s again rained heavily today, and the temperature has dropped considerably. We’ve had to eat indoors for the past two evenings – I tell you, it’s tough!

Sofia temperatures, September

Oh, so cold – and wet!

(In my forthcoming roundup of the summer weather over here, I’ll include a couple of other examples of this religious assimilation of old, pagan beliefs about the seasonal cycle.)

Finally, finally

Here’s a thought:

“Never look at the trombones… it only encourages them.” (Richard Wagner).

[1]: From Serdica to Sofia

[2]: Bulgarian Day of Independence

Right or left; right or wrong


Question 1: what is different about this pair of scissors?

left-handed scissors

What’s different about these scissors?

Question 2: what do the following people have in common? Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci; Napoleon Bonaparte; Bill Gates: Bobby Fischer: Bill Clinton and President Obama?


The scissors are specifically designed for left-handed use, and all the people listed are / were left-handed. In fact, da Vinci was totally ambidextrous, and could also do mirror-writing with either hand. There have been 8 left-handed US Presidents, including those named above.

Left-Handers’ Day

13th. August is International Left-Handers’ Day, and has been celebrated since 1976. The aim is to promote awareness of the inconveniences facing ‘lefties’ in a predominantly right-handed world.

Between 7-10% of the world’s population are estimated to be natural left-handers. Both my brother and I are (or were) thus inclined when youngsters.

Personal confessions

However, when I began school it was deemed improper, or downright wrong, to write with your left hand, and I was forced to learn to form my letters with my right. My brother, a few years younger, escaped this unnecessary torture, as educational and social attitudes loosened up a little in Wales.

So, while he now writes entirely left-handed, I cannot – I’m purely write-handed (excuse me for that!). But I still catch and throw a ball with my left hand; and kick a football with my left foot. In now-distant school playground  fights, I always led with my left fist (see ‘southpaw’, below), to the extent of once breaking my left wrist in such a bout of fisticuffs.

The bonus I now find, in practical terms, is that I can use all kinds of craft tools (hammers, screwdrivers, handsaws, knives, etc) with either hand – useful when I’m doing a tiring, repetitious job. I haven’t had the opportunity to try left-handed scissors, but am sure it would be no problem.

There’s still a downside to all this ‘sinister’ business, though. In the past, I have worked in the Middle East and India, where cultural norms still widely dictate that the left hand is ‘unclean’, and as such should be kept away from contact with food and drink.

I developed a simple ploy to avoid being caught out in such situations: at a table, I would always discreetly sit on my left hand. Even then, my instincts could still take over. Once, in Syria, at the end of a celebratory meal, the waiter came round with a container of toothpicks. Out shot my left hand! My interpreter leaned over and quietly whispered in my ear: “You should remember that, over here, we don’t use that hand.” Ouch!

Some facts, trivia and preconceptions about the left-hander
(including some dubious claims!)

The world is built for right-handers. Examples are everywhere:

  • In school, have you ever seen a left-handed desk?
  • Many left-handed items cost more than ‘standard’ items.
  • Novelty coffee mugs are made with the picture or text for a right-handed pick-up.
  • Standard scissors are for right-handers. Only a lefty would understand this.
  • The computer mouse you are using as you read this is designed for right-handers.
  • Right-handed people operate in the left side of the brain. Left-handed people use the right side.
  • Sinistrophobia is the fear of left-handedness or things on the left side.
  • While many people are left-handed, very few are 100% left-handed. For example, many left-handers play golf and bat right-handed. On the other hand, there is a high percentage of righties who are 100% right-handed.
  • Lefties are also called “southpaws”. The term was coined in baseball to describe a left-handed pitcher.
  • Tuesdays are lefties’ lucky day.
  • Up to 10% of the population is left-handed.
  • During the 1600’s, people thought left-handers were witches and warlocks.
  • Most left-handers draw figures facing to the right.
  • There is a high tendency in twins for one to be left-handed.
  • Stuttering and dyslexia occur more often in left-handers (particularly if they are forced to change their writing hand as a child).
  • Left-handers excel particularly in tennis, baseball, swimming and fencing.
  • Left-handers usually reach puberty 4 to 5 months after right-handers.
  • 4 of the 5 original designers of the Macintosh computer were left-handed.
  • 1 in 4 Apollo astronauts were left-handed – 250% more than the normal level.
  • It is believed that all polar bears are left-handed.
  • There is a rumour that octopuses have but one right hand. (Scientists are diligently studying this issue!)[1]

The derogatory power of language

Many languages have derogatory or offensive ways to describe lefties; some term that immediately spring to mind are ‘cack-handed’ – I leave you to decipher the full meaning, but it also implies clumsiness. A ‘left-handed compliment’ is actually the opposite, ‘having two left feet’, i.e., again being clumsy, and so on.

Source: Left-Handers’ Day official site

And Bulgaria?

Some instant research across the editorial desk reveals that the Bulgarian noun for ‘left hander’ is ‘levichar’ (Левичар). However, the jargon use of the term ‘levak’ (левак) is derogatory, again being applied to someone who’s a bit clumsy. My source also mentioned that her primary teachers heavily encouraged writing with the right hand.

Anyway, as the Lefthanders’ slogan puts it: “”Everyone is born right-handed. Only the greatest overcome it.” (unknown, left-handed author).


There’s an enjoyable personal article by Gary Nunn on the subject in today’s Independent.[3]

[1]: Holiday Insights

[2]: Left-Handers’ Day official site

[3]: The Independent

Bulgarian ‘dog days’


Traditionally, the start of ‘The Hottest Days’

We’ve endured days of Code Yellow temperatures, then Code Orange and, today Code Red (the most extreme) was declared in 3 Bulgarian regions – Pleven, Ruse and Veliko Tarnovo – with the rest of the country at Orange (only!).

Today was the hottest of the year, with some 30 records being broken. The hottest place was Lovech, at 41.4ºC, one of 8 cities that saw temperatures of 40ºC or more.[1] In Sofia, it was still 36.9ºC at 1800. The current heatwave is forecast to last for another week at least.

Interesting that today’s record temperatures coincide with the first of the three-day period known to Bulgarians as ‘Goreshtnitsi’ (Горещници) – according to tradition, the ‘Hottest Days’ or ‘Dog Days’.

The Hottest Days

The days are related to a number of bans on work in the fields and at home. During the three days, no one goes out in the field to work, or harvests, or threshes, or mows, or washes, or bakes bread, or cooks, or sews because old beliefs warn that fire will come down from the sky to set the sheaves ablaze.

Legend has it that whoever pays no respect to these fiery holidays will end up with his house destroyed by fire.

People also predict the weather for the start of the following year – if it’s hot and sunny in these three days, then the winter days of January and March will be warm, with no snowstorms or blizzards.

According to the legend, if a man washes in hot mineral springs during the Dog Days, he will be healthy in the year to come.

In by-gone times, on the third day of the Goreshtnitsi, called St. Marina of Fire, households should renew the fire in the hearth. The fire in the fireplace is put out and a new one is made in a ritual way – by rubbing two sticks against each other. Housewives take some of the new fire, also called “living fire”, to their home. This ritual is said to symbolise the renewal of life, a fresh new cycle of life.[2]

Orthodox beliefs and others

The Bulgarian Orthodox Church commemorates on 15th, 16th, and 17th. July, the Saintly Martyrs Kirik and Julita, Atinogen and Marina.

There’s a strange link here with Wales. The tiny North Wales town of Capel Curig (Curig’s Chapel) is also associated with the martyrs Kirik and Julita, with the local church known since Norman times as St. Julitta’s.

I only discovered this connection by chance, when my wife asked me as we happened to drive through Capel Curig a few years ago, what the origin of the name might be.

Ironically, too, given the way the Dog days have begun here in Bulgaria this year, Capel Curig is renowned as the wettest place in Wales!

[1]: Focus News Agency

[2]: Plovdiv Guide

[3]: St. Julitta’s Church

Image source: meteoalarm

The Welshman and the City of Roses


As England face France, and Euro 2012 co-host nation Ukraine take on Sweden, a little-known and improbable story links Wales with the city of Donetsk. Even more, there’s also a direct footballing connection.

John Hughes Donetsk

The Welsh founder of Donetsk

Donetsk, in the south-eastern corner of Ukraine, was founded in 1869 and developed in the 1870s by a Welshman. John James Hughes was an iron-master from Merthyr, a south Wales town at the heart of the Industrial Revolution. With an initial squad of about 100 Welsh workers, Hughes built a manufacturing centre, complete with new coal and iron ore mines, brickworks and blast furnaces, to produce metal plating for a Russian naval base.[1,2]

He also constructed an entire, internationally-populated community – from housing to social amenities, some of which (the VelikoBritaniya Hotel, for example, built in 1883) still stand today. They included “a 12 bed hospital as early as 1870 and there were soon schools, churches, a fire brigade and tea houses. The Company also gave money towards the Orthodox church and other religious institutions for the cosmopolitan population. It also paid for the settlement’s police force. There were also five inns,  ten wine-cellars, four beer halls and a vodka wholesale outlet”.[3]


The new community was named Hughesovka (Yuzovka) in honour of its founder. The ambitious industrial enterprise prospered, becoming the largest works in the entire Russian Empire. Following his death in 1889, Hughes’ four sons continued the business, which flourished again and expanded during WWI, only to be closed down in the Bolshevik Revolution of 1919.

The city was renamed Stalino in 1924, before becoming Donetsk in 1961. The legacy of Hughes is still present in the region, with its continued importance as a heavy manufacturing and metal production centre. The core of his pioneering development lives on as the poetically named Donetsk Metallurgical Plant.

And, what of football?

In a Communist propaganda drive in the 1930s, a coal-miner at the works, Aleksei Stakhanove, was publicised as a ‘celebrity’ Russian worker; allegedly, he mined a world record of 227 tons of coal in a single shift. The city of Stalino founded a football team in 1936, named Stakhanovets in his honour. This team gradually metamorphosed into Shaktar Donetsk.[4]

So, Wales may not be represented at Euro 2012; but there remain many historical traces in the city of Donetsk (‘The City of Roses’) and the Donbass region.

Post-script: I was pleased to find some information on the Donetsk official guide site (in English). I was not so happy to read that Hughes was described there as “English”. If I called a Ukrainian a Russian, I’d be out on my ear in no time![5]

John Hughes grave in Donetsk

John Hughes commemorated


I just came across some more information reading the football connection. Plus, an intriguing reference to a Scottish pioneer who beat Hughes to the region (not checked yet).[6]

[1]: BBC online

[2] BBC online audio

[3]:  Hughesovska (with old photos)

[4] Football connection

[5]: Donetsk city guide

[6]: More on football

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