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.

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.

In between | Istanbul, Turkey

As September turned into October, in the span of 20 hours, I traveled from the East to the West and then back to the East: across seasons, months, continents and languages. Flew over Sofia twice. Passed through Istanbul once. Waited and exited. Waited and entered. And now I am here.

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.

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.

Berlin Wall | Sofia, Bulgaria

During the visit of the fine2meline to Sofia, on one of our many extensive and exhausting walks around the city (I’m not complaining!), we happened upon a fragment of the Berlin Wall. A gift from the municipality of Berlin to the citizens of Sofia, it stands, somewhat awkwardly, in the park of the National Palace of Culture, next to the memorial to the victims of totalitarianism. I was surprised to see it here, but apparently there are dozens of large wall fragments now on public display around the world. (Here is a map.)

It’s strange to think of these fragments, now scattered around the globe, but actually so closely connected and forever tied to a single place. On the other hand though, the wall obviously meant something enormous, something that deeply affected even those corners of the world faraway from it and, today, still stands for something that split not just Berlin but the entire globe in two and which is now, thankfully, in the past. So, in a way, it seems that these remnants do belong to the world and not just to Berlin.

This year marks 40 years since the start of the wall’s constructions and 22 years since its fall. We are a part of the last generation that was born and started growing up behind the Iron Curtain.

***On a lighter, but connected note and just so we keep up with the culinary flavor of the twins’ visit, go read my guest post about Berliner doughnuts on fine2meline.***

CBB*: friday after lunch walk with a friend | ljubljana, slovenia

A new post and two beautiful photos from the fine2meline, as part of our on-going Cross Balkan Blogging project*. My latest guest posts, both from India, are here – on drinking Bulgarian wine, and here – on a typical Tamil breakfast. Happy viewing!

on this nice day in ljubljana, a friend
invited us for a lunch. very good pumpkin soup
followed by rice and salad. all really healthy and tasty.
and as she is living next to the pond,
we made a little walk after.

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

Night(s) [and day] of museums and galleries | Plovdiv, Bulgaria

Last weekend, I went to Plovdiv for the 2010 edition of the Night of the museums and galleries. Unlike previous years, when the event took place over a single evening at the end of September or the beginning of October, this time the packed program stretched over two nights and encompassed an entire day.

Sometimes, distracted by the buzz of the crowds or my indecision of where to head next, I got disoriented in the darkness of the town’s old part or around the winding streets of its center.

I didn’t know whether to head East or South.

Every once in a while, I had to pause and consult the map.

But, even without it, the pavement was full of signs, and the patters on the streets and sidewalks always pointed to something else to see or somebody else to meet.

Some of the art I saw was intentional and some of it – accidental… but at all times, there were places to go, shows to see, friends to run into, strangers to observe.

Amid all the roaming around, the bathroom breaks proved almost as enlightening as the exhibitions. Some shared my obsession with pictures of feet on the ground, served as clichés to entertain the masses, while others made for contemporary works of art and confirmed stereotypes in a way that would have made David Černý smug.