Sense of direction | Byala, Bulgaria

“Disorientation is loss of the East. Ask any navigator: the east is what you sail by. Lose the east and you lose your bearings, your certainties, your knowledge of what is and what may be, perhaps even your life. Where was that star you followed to the manger? That’s right. The east orients.”

I love this quote from Salman Rushdie’s The Ground Beneath Her Feet, the book that gave the name to this blog (for the full passage, see this post).

***This post is part of the alphabet series, which contains photos and stories about letters from various alphabets. For a more systematic and organized run-down of all the letters in the English alphabet, also check out the Woman of Letters page, which is updated continuously with new letters as I stumble upon them.***

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In the Palace | Balchik, Bulgaria

I just got to spend four days at the northern Black Sea town of Balchik, courtesy of the In the Palace Short Film Festival.

The festival itself was a pleasure to be a part of. Its atmosphere was friendly and relaxed  – surely helped by the location, but also by the very international group of filmmakers, volunteers, journalists, organizers and other film people who attended. They were numerous enough to make the town buzz with excitement, but not too many, as to overwhelm it. The fact that only short films were shown, in this case, also assured that much of the pomp that sometimes comes with bigger festivals was missing.

The town of Balchik itself is, at first glance, plagued by many of the ever-present annoyances of other Black Sea resort towns – the crappy pop music constantly blasting from every possible eating establishment, the hoards of loud Russian tourists and the services industry’s general attitude towards visitors, ranging from negligible (at best) to aggressively appalling (at worst). The town also boasts many communist-era hotels, which would have had a certain kind of old-school appeal if they weren’t so hopelessly decrepit.

In spite of all that, Balchik is one of the most charming towns on the Bulgarian coast. This charm is owed entirely to the so-called Palace, located in the southern end of the town, which is in fact an enchanting complex of small buildings scattered around a lush and beautifully arranged botanical garden. The complex was built in the 1920’s by Queen Marie of Romania, who established her summer residence there.

The queen was the first royal to declare herself a follower of Baha’i faith.  Her belief in the unity of religions is apparent throughout the complex in the unlikely combination of symbols: from the minaret topping the main residence to the Roman-Arab bathhouse, the traditional Bulgarian-style verandas, a Moorish courtyard, the huge earthenware pots from Morocco, a Hellenistic marble throne from Florence, the giant inscribed stone crosses from monasteries in Moldova and the Muslim gravestones. The whimsical garden has a slightly overgrown feel to it, although the thousands of flower, tree and plant species it boasts are in fact all meticulously labeled and diligently looked after. The sea can be seen from everywhere, as the whole complex is built on a steep hill overlooking the water.

While best viewed (and photographed) in the daytime, I discovered a special kind of pleasure of walking around the Palace’s grounds at night, when they are at their most peaceful and quiet and one can hear the leaves of the old trees rustle, the frogs croak and the waves breaking against the nearby shore. In addition to running into other festival guests along its alleys, walking around the garden at night also made for other memorable meetings. Although it almost gave me a heart attack when it happened, one evening we had the rare pleasure of running into two stocky badgers, which – in retrospect, were probably much more startled by the encounter than we were.

The other image that I am definitely keeping from this visit to Balchik is the dozens and dozens of flying paper lanterns, which the guests released from the beach on the closing night of the festival and which twinkled and drifted slowly over the sea in a display that obnoxiously tacky and exploding fireworks have nothing on.

CBB*: isolacinema 7 | Izola, Slovenia

I was sad to miss this year’s edition of Kino Otok/Isola Cinema film festival on Slovenia’s Adriatic Coast. Happily, one of the fine2meline was there again and brought back some memories from last September, as part of our Cross Balkan Blogging Project.* (Coincidentally, in the last couple of days, I have been constantly reminded of Izola, where I was for last year’s Kino Otok, as I am now at another film festival taking place on the coast of another sea. But more on that coming up later.)

from 8th till 12th of june -isolacinema- film festival was the place to be.

here we were drawing an animation. it was a part of the film workshop.

* More about the Cross Balkan Blogging project and all posts from it.

À bout de souffle | Shishman Street, Sofia, Bulgaria

The Sofia Breathes initiative, which closed down the city’s most atmospheric street to cars and opened it to art, design and pedestrians for the day was a really good way to end Sofia Design Week, whose motto this year was “Design is All Around.” A good way to end any week, for that matter.

Besides the bars, restaurants and cafés spilling over onto the sidewalks, the children’s chalk drawings on the pavement, the tchotchke stalls and the intentional and spontaneous art installations, my most favorite part of the day was running into all kinds of friends.

In the span of the six-odd hours, I think I bumped into friends from all the distinct and seemingly unconnected periods of my conscious life – from my recently rediscovered first best friend from elementary school who was wearing the exact same outfit as me (Hi, Maia!), my partner in crime starting in middle school (Hi, Maria!), two lovely high school friends I studied with in the Middle East (Hi, Lika! Hi, Annie!), to my wingwoman ever since grad school in London (Hi, Krissy!) and many, many other cool, fun and exciting people I have met since. I think that at some point, I ended up standing together with most of them in one spot, which was a little uncanny.

Speaking of improbable gatherings of unlikely allies, I went to get a look at the nearby Monument to the Soviet Red Army. It usually looks like this, but – thanks to the brilliant recent work of an anonymous graffiti artist, now commemorates the unlikely get-together of Superman (gun in hand, rocking red boots and a cape), Santa Claus (toting binoculars and a Kalashnikov), Ronald McDonald (waving the American flag), the Joker (sporting a purple trench coat) and several other cartoon characters and superheroes I couldn’t exactly identify. If Sofia Design Week had anything to do with this, which I don’t think it did, then what a coup! Design is all around, indeed. The final touch to the monument’s transformation, which I especially appreciated, is the phrase scribbled underneath, roughly translating to “In step with the times.” No kidding.

*Update (Monday): In spite of reports that claimed the graffiti was washed off on Sunday, a friend of mine told me today that the superheroes were still around when she passed by the Soviet Monument in the afternoon – just in time to see a lone, apparently self-motivated older guy show up with some rags and a bucket and start scrubbing away the paint. The organized cleaning, reportedly initiated by the Sofia Municipality but financed by non-governmental organizations, is scheduled to take place early tomorrow morning. Meanwhile, over 1,700 people – in several groups on facebook, have said they are against the washing up of the monument, some of them making plans to create a human shield around it when the cleaners come.

**Update (Tuesday): In efforts to avoid the above-mentioned protests and human chains, “emergency” measures were taken and the monument was washed off in the wee hours of the morning, with only faint traces of colorful paint left as a reminder of what, briefly, was.

This is starting to be alarmingly reminiscent of this… talk about being out of step with the times.

So fresh and so clean, Sofia Design Week | Sofia, Bulgaria

The third edition of Sofia Design Week is in full swing this week, with dozens of exhibitions, workshops, lectures, presentations and screenings taking place at exactly 50 sites around the city.

I appreciate the initiative because of the multitude of cool events that it brings to the city, even though my interest in design is that of a layman. But more importantly, I’m a fan of Sofia Design Week because, in the brief period over which it takes place, the festival somehow manages to change the entire city’s atmosphere and how it feels as a whole. I have come to associate the event with the beginning of summer when people cannot wait to go sit and hang out outside and Sofia Design Week gives them a reason to do it. It spills over from the standard places that usually contain things related to art and design – the galleries and museums, and goes into public space – onto the streets, the squares and the courtyards. And makes the whole city breathe just a little bit more excitedly.

Initially, I was disappointed to find out that this year the courtyard of the Art Academy wasn’t going to be used as extensively as it had been in the last couple of editions. Back then, it acted as a kind of focal point throughout the week – with outdoor parties, exhibitions and presentations constantly taking place there, and I loved passing by it almost every night. But it turns out that one of the new sites and a kind of focal point this year might even be better.

The City’s Central Bathhouse now hosts several exhibitions as part of SDW. Each night, the beautiful square in front of it – overlooking a fountain and the Banya Bashi mosque, gets filled with crowds of people hanging out, drinking beer and watching screenings.

Also, I couldn’t help but notice – though that’s probably just me, that the square is covered in different-colored cobblestones, creating an intricate pattern that references water, while the pathway right in front of the bathhouse is paved with the Sofia’s iconic yellow cobblestones.

The building itself, which I now had the chance to enter for the first time, is kind of wonderful too. Built at the beginning of the twentieth century to make use of the natural thermal water springs at the site and to take care of the hygiene needs of Sofia’s inhabitants, it served its purpose as a public bathhouse until the late 1980s. At that time, it was deemed no longer necessary and shut down, presumably because the citizens were now expected to have their own private bathrooms in their homes. In the next two decades, the beautiful building fell into dismal disrepair while debates raged on whether to turn it into a spa or a museum.

As far as I’ve heard, it has been decided to do both – a part of the bathhouse will become the Museum of Sofia, while another will be made into a spa center that would presumably use the natural hot water springs. When this will actually be realized remains unclear.

The building’s façade has now been completely renovated. Its high domes have also been recently whitewashed on the inside, but parts of the interior are still somewhat ruined – walls and ceiling are peeling here and there, wires stick out of corners and parts of the staircase’s railing have gone amiss. The old, beautifully tiled floors, cracked here and there, are still there though.

There was something weirdly melancholic about walking through the cool, crumbling corridors of the bathhouse. I was thinking that it would be sad and a waste if this feeling – of a time long gone, gets lost in the building’s renovation. And I really hope they keep the tiles.

A magic vantage point | Sofia, Bulgaria

After a slightly panicky trip to the stadium, frantically trying to get a hold of and meet some friends in the crowds in front, finicking with the tickets, worrying about whether it was going to rain, some stressful waiting in line, a nerve-wrecking show of passes and bag check (we all had spots in different sections and some of is were carrying umbrellas in their bags!), some minor claustrophobia attacks while pushing through the crowds into the arena and being annoyed at not being able to see the beginning of the concert properly, my friend Maria and I finally spotted the perfect place from which to watch Sting perform, together with the Sofia Philharmonic Orchestra.

Just where the two rows of chemical toilets met, before the wire fence separating the stadium from the restricted access area began, there was a small corner of space – enough to fit three or four people comfortably, which afforded a great, unobstructed view of the stage. Finally, we could really enjoy the concert and get mesmerized by Sting without interruptions – there was no need to push or try to peek over people’s shoulders to see, nobody was stepping on our toes and being obnoxious.

The slight whiffs of powerful disinfectant chemicals were a small price to pay for the great vantage point and the easy access to the loos, which also meant we could drink all the beer in the world without having to worry about making our way through hoards of people. Also, it never rained.

It was magic, I tell you. Maybe not exactly the kind Sting sang about, but magic nevertheless.

La vie en rose: big in Japan | Kazanlak, Bulgaria

The region of Kazanlak is among the world’s biggest producers of rose oil, which in turn is one of Bulgaria’s several unfortunately packaged symbols/sources of pride/claims to fame around the world (for more, see here). As my random fact of the day, I’ll have you know that rose oil, per kilogram, is apparently three times more expensive than gold.

My adorable friends Keith and Juan sent me this picture from their visit to the area, where they went for the yearly Rose Festival and where anything and everything rose-related is celebrated. A high point of the festival is the election of the Queen Rose – something I first heard about from a woman from Japan, where it apparently enjoys a high profile. Together with yogurt and Bulgarian-born and bred sumo wrestler Kotoōshū Katsunori.

“rad assemblage of color” | Macalester College, St. Paul, MN, US of A

This photo is from my awesome friend Ji Sun, whose cool and inspiring sense of style I used to admire, mostly from afar, while we were both in college (Hi, Ji Sun!). She was a year above me and this picture was just taken at our alma mater, during Ji Sun’s class reunion. It just occurred to me that our big one is coming up next year (where does the time go??!?!). At it, I promise to try and rock some equally crazy and inspiring footwear, if nothing else.

And here is another one from Ji Sun, titled “little feet, big feet”:

It’s crazy how even a quick look at those surfaces, so recognizably Macalester’s, was enough to make me nostalgic.

Grounds under repair | Ravno Pole, Bulgaria

On Thursday afternoon, my dad called me up with the strangest, least expected proposal I had had all week: to go play golf with him. And so, being a fan both of my dad and of unusual things to do, go play golf I did.

Golf, it turns out, isn’t really my thing: too much heavy equipment to lug around, too much hand-eye coordination required when operating said heavy equipment and too few successful shots (hits? strokes?), therefore not much excitement, resulting from the lack of said eye-hand coordination.

It was still fun, though, to spend some time together with my dad.

Besides, as it turns out, golf course turfs* and their surroundings provide very photogenic surfaces.

*I have waited over a decade to use the word turf in a proper sentence, since I learned it in college when my favorite and most frequented bar was called the Turf Club (Hi, Phillipe, Dylan, Adam, Rino, Kelly and Dechen!).