Morceaux de Marseille* | Marseille, France

* I’m well aware of how pretentious it is to use French phrases in lieu (ooops, did it again!) of perfectly good English ones, but “pieces of Marseille” somehow doesn’t have as nice of a ring to it, does it? On second thought, I could have named this post “Morsels of Marseille” but that just sounds weird.

P.S. Isn’t the light in the second part of the photos just magical? Almost as magical as walking on the beach in February, I must say.

The confusion of letters | Montpellier, France

Friends who are studying Bulgarian often complain about how confusing the alphabet can be. At first glance, unlike fundametally different scripts (such as Arabic, Japanese or Chinese), the Cyrillic alphabet is easy:

а б в г д е ж з и й к л м н о п р с т у ф х ц ч ш щ ъ ь ю я

A lot of its letters look like their Latin counterparts; some of them even correspond across the two alphabets: ‘A’ is ‘A’, ‘K’ is ‘K’, ‘M’ is ‘M’, ‘O’ is ‘O’ and ‘T’ is ‘T’.

The confusion, though, sets in when the Bulgarian ‘B’ turns out to be the English ‘V’, the Cyrillic ‘H’ actually corresponds to the Latin ‘N’, the ‘P’ is an ‘R’, and the ‘C’ is in fact an ‘S’. [A common joke is that all eateries in Bulgaria carry the unappealingly sounding name PECTOPAHT (a phonetic transcription of the word ‘restaurant’ in Bulgarian).]

What renders matters even more confusing is that letters from the Cyrillic alphabet sometimes look like slightly modified versions of Latin letters but sound nothing like them: the best example is the mirror image of ‘R’- the Bulgarian “Я”, which contains not a trace of a throaty roar but is rather the sound made of combining ‘i’+’a’ (as in the endings of Sofia or Maria). Another case is the flipped ‘N’ – the Bulgarian ‘И’, pronounced like the ‘i’ in ‘hipster’. Or – as in the picture above, the English ‘V’, which – when turned upside down becomes (in certain fonts) the Bulgarian ‘Л’. [Although, in the interest of full disclosure, the signs pictured were in fact not letters but arrows indicating the direction of traffic on two parallel bike lanes.]

Against all odds, it might turn out that the easiest Cyrillic letters to learn are those that have no Latin counterparts or slightly modified twins. Some of them, in spite of their strange appearance, have direct phonetic equivalents in English: the angular Г (as in the ‘g’ in ‘golf’), the symmetricаlly attractive Ж (which sounds like the ‘g’ in ‘genre’) and Ф ( the ‘f’ in ‘February’). Others – to the delight of those learning Bulgarian as a foreign language, are single letters that unify more than one sound, on the same principle as the Latin ‘X’ (a combination of k+s): the rounded Ю (pronounced exactly like ‘you’); the siblinged Ш and Щ (pronounced ‘sh’ and ‘sht’, respectively); the choppy Ч (which would be the first letter if you transcribe the word ‘choppy’ in Bulgarian); and Ц (the first sound in the word ‘Zeitgeist’ if you pronounce it as Germans do).

But perhaps the strangest and most troubling of all is the letter Ъ (pronounced ‘uh’, or like the second sound in ‘Bulgarian’), which is tricky to use for both native and foreign speakers, stands at the beginning of just one single word in the Bulgarian language and yet, it is indispensable.

***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.***

Blog love: The Migrant Bookclub

I stumbled upon Petya’s blog several years ago and I’ve been a big fan of her writing ever since. Back then, it was called How to Marry a Bulgarian and it documented, in her own words, “the joys {and, sometimes, confusion} of bi-cultural marriage, pan-Slavic eccentricity, and the emotional struggles {and, liberation} of being away from *home* and *family*” – all issues that are particularly close to my heart. Recently, she changed both her blog’s name – to The Migrant Bookclub, as well as its focus, and now shares entertaining, personal and informative stories and images on the topics of literature – particularly by immigrant and Central and Eastern European authors; art; style; and fashion! What has stayed the same and kept me coming back for more is her ability to find exciting topics and continuously offer her own unique spin on them.

I may or may not be a little envious of Petya’s inspired productivity and ceaseless energy (besides The Migrant Bookclub, she’s also the woman behind the blog Openly Feminist [in Bulgarian]). To top it all off, sometimes she even publishes photos of her own feet as illustrations to her stories, which in and of itself is enough to make me love her blog.So, in case you’ve been living in the jungle with no Internet access for the past several years and you’re only hearing about The Migrant Bookclub now, check it out! I know you’ll enjoy it as much as I have.

M is for Montpellier | Montpellier, France

Turns out I’m not only obsessed with words and sentences, but also with individual letters! So, with this post I’m launching the alphabet series category and in it, I’ll put old and new posts about letters from various alphabets – engraved, scribbled, stenciled, embossed or otherwise intentionally or accidentally inscribed on the ground beneath my feet. (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.)

Here the emblematic letter of Montpellier is carved into massive marble slabs, placed around the city’s central square, Place de la Comédie.

Wishful thinking: Colored streets and pavements | Prague, Czech Republic

I just came across the work of Prague-based graffiti artist Jan Kalab (also known as Point or Cakes) and I particularly like two of his projects, through which he transforms ordinary streets and pavements in the Žižkov district of Prague, which he says is “is a sort of ghetto”.

In the first one – Cobbles, he painted loose cobblestones lying on the street in bright colors, to the delight of local children, making them “spontaneously happy.”

It’s such a simple, yet bright idea that takes a mundane, grey aspect of the city and makes it into an unusual sight.

The second project – Colored Pavements, is similar: in it, Kalab painted enormous patches of tarmac that stretched along Prague’s steepest street, named (perhaps aptly?) the Garden of Eden. The “cut up tarmac,” he writes, “has transformed into abstract paintings throughout the years of subterranean repairs. It’s so ugly that it’s almost nice. I just helped a bit.” He did indeed, by painting the patches bright turquoise and pink (for the full story, read here.)

The two projects are unfortunately from a few years ago – Cobbles was made in 2007 and Colored Pavements in 2005, so I imagine little, if anything at all, is left of them now. Like the dressed-up potholes in Paris, which I wrote about here, both of these projects would be ideal (and simple and easy to do) for Sofia’s grey, broken and patched-up streets and pavements. I’m just saying.

In the meantime, though, some of Jan Kalab’s paintings are exhibited at the Czech Cultural Center in Sofia. Go see it! (The exhibition opens today and will be up until March 3. More info about it [in Bulgarian]: here and here.)

All photographs: © Jan Kalab | www.onepoint.cz

The French way | Montpellier, France

No, not that French way. Rather, what I’m referring to is the Camino Francés – the last stretch of the Via Regia and the most popular of the routes of the Way of Saint James, the ancient pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compostela in northwestern Spain, where the remains of Saint James are said to be buried.

The route has existed for over a thousand years: during the Middle Ages, it was one of the three most important Christian pilgrimages – together with those to Rome and Jerusalem, made by penance-seeking Christians; nowadays, it is on UNESCO’s World Heritage list and continues to attract hundreds of thousands of people every year, who walk, bike or even ride a donkey along it for religious, spiritual or recreational reasons. Technically, the Way of Saint James could start anywhere, from a major city or even from one’s front doorstep, as long as it ends at the city of Santiago de Compostela in Galicia. There are, however, several main and popular routes, of which the French Way is one.

Montpellier stands along the French Way and, as a reminder, many of the pavements in the central part of the city are dotted with brass markers, embedded into the ground. A scallop symbol is embossed into the markers, surrounded by the words Camin Roumieu (meaning ‘route of pilgrimage”) and Montpellier.

The scallop shell has become an emblem for the Way of Saint James and there are several interesting explanations for that. A couple of legends trace it to the Saint himself and the actual journey of his remains to Compostela: in a couple of them a body (his or a knight’s, depending on the version) gets lost in the ocean during a storm off the coast of Spain, but washes ashore undamaged, covered in scallops. Other accounts explain that pilgrims on the Saint James Way wore a scallop symbol on their hat or clothes and also carried an actual shell (although how they would be in possession of one before reaching the coast is highly questionable), to be filled with sustenance on their stops at homes and churches along the way. Perhaps the most logical explanation is that, upon reaching Santiago de Compostela, pilgrims would walk even further west, to a place known as Finisterre (that, as its name suggests, was thought to be the end of the Earth) on the shores of Galicia and take a shell from there as a souvenir and testament of their completed pilgrimage.

Either way, the scallop shell now serves as an emblem for the Way of Saint James, its lines and grooves mirroring all of the pilgrimage routes that eventually converge at a single point, the final destination of the pilgrimage.

There seems to be an entire – equally fascinating and foreign, subculture related to making the pilgrimage along the Way of Saint James: from special documents, such as the credencial (the pilgrims’ passport, which gets stamped at different stops along the way) or the compostela (a certificate of completion of the pilgrimage); to the particular hostels, sometimes located in monasteries or run by parishes and churches, that accommodate the pilgrims along the route (and where, accordingly, the tired pilgrims can stay for one night only, expected to be on their way at 8 in the morning).

As fascinating as all this is, in all likelihood (based on 1. my established disdain for walking and 2. the factors that determine how and where I usually choose to spend my holidays), these markers in Montpellier’s center are probably as close as I would ever get to walking along the Way of Saint James, as I make my weekly pilgrimage to my favorite English bookstore/coffeeshop, the corner crêperie, and that little street with all the cute French shops on it. Better than nothing, though, right?