Grey is Not the Color of the Balkans | Sofia, Bulgaria

One of my favorite places to walk through in Sofia is the staircase that links Dondukov Boulevard to Moskovska Street, which starts right after Budapest Street stops in a dead end.

The two flights of stairs are a convenient shortcut for pedestrians, but whenever I’m in the neighborhood, I always make it a point to go and climb them even if they’re a bit out of my way, just for fun. There’s something whimsical, quite unusual and surprising about this open-air staircase right in the middle of the city, surrounded by greenery (or dried foliage, depending on the season) and built into the slope that separates the two streets – to me the stairs seem kind of like Harry Potter‘s Platform 9¾ and whenever I climb them, I half expect to come up not to one of Sofia’s central streets, but into some fairytale world. Once, I even saw a baby hedgehog on the landing between the two flights, as if it had fallen out of some Brothers Grimm story and ended up on the landing.

I was in the area recently, after having spent a few months away from Sofia, and decided to go by the stairs. This time, they looked even more whimsical than usual, as I found them painted in all the colors of the rainbow. When I got up to the landing between the two flights, I noticed a stencil that read, “Grey is Not the Color of the Balkans.” The colorful intervention apparently dates back to the beginning of September and was done to show solidarity with the “quiet protest” and wave of stairways-painting in Istanbul (where, unlike Sofia, such pedestrian stairways don’t seem to be a rarity) and the rest of Turkey. Also unlike Istanbul, it seems that the Sofia Municipality didn’t bother to paint the stairway back to grey – a feat worth celebrating, especially considering its proven record of speedily wiping away all traces of such colorful (and political) transformations of public space. So, although it’s a little faded by now, the rainbow is still there today. To me, it was a good reminder of a year marked by protests, not just in Bulgaria but in many other places around the world, as well as a welcome burst of color on a drab and grey January day.

In the Footsteps of the Romans and Van Gogh | Arles, France

arles_manhole_coverThe small town of Arles, located on the banks of the Rhône River in the South of France, has two major claims to fame.

The first is the town’s Antique history, testified by the Roman architectural remains, including: the humongous Arena, where – in addition to plays and concerts, corridas are still being held; a smaller open-air theater, which is currently undergoing restoration; the Alyscamps (Roman necropolis); and the Obelisk, located on the Place de la République.

arles_antiqueThe second is the relatively short period that Vincent Van Gogh spent living and working in and around the town between 1888 and 1890, during which he produced over 300 paintings. All over Arles, there are plaques embedded into the pavements, which take visitors on a walking tour of the spots, where Van Gogh set up his easel to paint some of his best known canvases, such as Starry Night Over the Rhône, The Café Terrace on the Place du Forum, Arles, at Night, and The Yellow House. arles_van_goghInitially I thought the image on the plaques, somewhat inexplicably, represented a hiker with a backpack (oops!), though it turns out that apparently it is based on one of Van Gogh’s self-portraits The Painter on His Way to Work, which showed the artist walking on the road to Montmajour. (The painting used to be part of the collection of the Kaiser-Friedrich-Museum in Magdeburg, but is unfortunately believed to have been destroyed by a fire in World War II.)

arles_tilesArles was very much a delight to walk around in, not just on, but also off the tourist paths, over grey cobblestones and faded mosaics. We went to the enormous Saturday market; visited the Salon international des santonniers (the makers of the simultaneously very weird and strangely fascinating traditional “little saints” nativity scene figurines), which was housed in Arles’ former Hospital (where Van Gogh was admitted, following the infamous ear-severing incident and whose internal courtyard he captured in one of his paintings); wandered around La Roquette neighborhood, where our gracious hosts live and which – with its narrow, winding and deserted streets and colorful doors and windows, looked like a film set; and spent almost an hour in the shop&studio of Léon – the jeweler and international man of mystery, who was probably one of the most eccentric people I’ve ever met (though that’s a whole different story!).

Before I die… | Plovdiv, Bulgaria

During this year’s edition of the Night of the museums and galleries in Plovdiv, I happened upon the “Before I die” project of artist Candy Chang, in which people can write down one thing they want to do, see and/or experience before they die – they do this in chalk on a large wall, which periodically gets wiped clean, so that the blanks can be filled by new people all over again.

This was all pretty exciting, especially as I had come across some of her other projects before and have been meaning to write about them for some time now.

I was especially fascinated with and loved her “You Make Me Feel So Mahtava” project, in which – just before she leaves Helsinki, she leaves stenciled notes to all her friends in front of the doors of their homes, on the streets and their favorite cafes, as “something they would see only after [she] was up in the clouds.”

Subway map floating on a NYC sidewalk | New York, USA

For a short description of what this is, click and zoom in on the photo.

A longer, and quite interesting explanation, is published here. A short excerpt from that text reads:

The origin of the “human rights in the subways” project was [Françoise Schein’s] first urban map entitled Subway Map Floating on a NY Sidewalk completed in 1985. The relationship between underground trains and the rights of man is explained on the INSCRIRE website: “For her [Schein], the subway appeared to be the most democratic place into which engrave philosophical concepts to address to the people”. Subway Map was awarded the New York City Design Commission’s Award for Excellence in Design, although the project is rather ungraciously listed under street furniture on the Commission’s website.

Advice to sink in slowly*

*The name of this post and the inspiration behind the image is borrowed from the “advice to sink in slowly” project – an ongoing series of posters, designed by graduates for the purpose of passing on advice and inspiration to first year students. [Note: The advice I am offering above is credited to Theodore Roosevelt, and – although it is slightly too lofty and motivational for my taste, I like the idea and literal image behind it.]

But, to come back to the “advice to sink in slowly” project: Most – if not all, of the quirky, wise, practical, theoretical, humorous, serious, unexpected or common-sense, sometimes conflicting but never patronizing advice that the project offers can – and does – apply to life way beyond one’s first year in university and is worth always keeping in mind. Some of my favorite words to the wise from the project include:

| “Look lively” | “Find your own way” | “Trust your gut instincts” | “Try everything” | “Take time” | “Do what you love” | “Be free” | “Eat breakfast” | “Take more chances” | “Finish what you start” | “Get carried away” | “Take a camera everywhere” | “Collaborate” | “Travel & Network” | “Let go” | “Use your library… you’ll miss it when you leave” | “Don’t be afraid” | “Face your fears, smile and live dangerously” | “Words are not enough” | “Avoid thinking in straight lines” | “Don’t forget to call your mum” |

Besides the sound advice and the inspiring design of the posters, the other great thing about the project is that the posters are normally available for free to all first year students across the UK (although it seems that they have run out of printed posters temporarily). In the meantime, though, you can keep it in mind and let it sink in slowly.