Incidentally, this picture was taken at Sofia’s Dom na Kinoto (Cinema House) and In Bloom is actually the title of one of the films that are screened there as part of this year’s Sofia Film Festival, which is going on until the end of the month. You can catch In Bloom‘s second screening tomorrow, at 9:15pm.
I’ve written about Sofia’s Military Club before, but until recently, I’d never seen this spectacular floor mosaic. Strangely enough, it is located in one of the club’s rarely used service corridors, which connects the formal bathroom and another, smaller hall and leads to the club’s otherwise quite unsightly backstage areas.
I would guess the mosaic was an original feature of the building and dates from the beginning of the 20th century, when the club was constructed (it reminded me of the floor decorations inside the former City Central Bathhouse, which also dates from the same period) – as such, it made for a really interesting contrast with the Club’s terrace tiles, which imitate the old style but were in fact put in quite recently, and the utilitarian tiles (I would guess from the 1970s) that pave much of the service areas backstage. Layer upon layer of history, and all that.
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.
I came across these delightfully retro-looking tiles, embedded at equal intervals into the sidewalk of a tiny street, tucked away in one of Sofia’s oldest, grandest and most aristocratic and charming neighborhoods, which occupies several blocks around the Doctor’s Garden, locked in between the Tsar Osvoboditel, Vassil Levski, Yanko Sakazov and Evlogi and Hristo Georgievi boulevards.
If I had to, I’d guess that these tiles were put in around 50 or 60 years ago, and stepping onto them somehow felt like stepping half a century back in time. The tiles are embossed with the city of Sofia’s coat of arms, which contains (clockwise, from top left): the image of a woman’s head, supposedly taken from an ancient coin and belonging to the Empress Julia Domna, which is meant to symbolize Ulpia Serdica, as Sofia was known in Roman times; the Saint Sofia Church, which is Sofia’s second oldest church (dating back to the sixth century) and which in the fourteenth century gave the city its current name (changing it from Sredets); a baldachin and a statue of Apollo Medicus, which represents all the mineral springs in and around the city; and the Vitosha Mountain, located on Sofia’s outskirts. Written just below the coat of arms is Sofia’s motto, Raste, no ne staree, which translates roughly to “Keeps Growing but Never Aging.”
The coat of arms dates back to 1900 (it was created for the city’s participation in the Paris World Expo), and the motto was added to it in 1911 – this was a great period of modernization for the city and almost all of Sofia’s now iconic buildings date back to it, many of which are actually in or around the Doctor’s Garden neighborhood. The neighborhood itself – as the place where the city’s changing (intellectual and/or political) elite has lived over the last century, captures much of Sofia’s turbulent history in a nutshell, or as the case may be, in a radius of just a few blocks. Like the tiles themselves, the entire neighborhood – although still considered very fashionable, seems to belong to a bygone era and whenever I walk around its cobblestone-covered streets, I feel like I can still smell the old spirit of Sofia in the air.
These so-called Bridges are a couple of pretty impressive natural arches, at 1,450 meters (4,760 ft) above sea level, formed over hundreds of years by the erosive activity of the once larger Erkyupryia River. There are all kinds of legends about the place – one involves shepherds fighting off a dragon who devoured their flocks, but none mention the presence of any Indians. And yet today, when one climbs to the top of one of the bridges and looks down at the rocks, there’s a Native American’s face carved into them.
Every single evening, for the past 17 days, thousands of Bulgarians have been going out on the streets in protest. Their indignation was originally sparked by the newly-elected government’s appointment of a well-known oligarch and media mogul with shady but seemingly well-established links to the mafia as chief of the State Agency for National Security*. After his appointment was quickly retracted, the public outrage did not just end but continued and grew into widespread demands – with nightly and more recently, morning and day-time protests, for the government to resign, which it seems to be ignoring.
Being away from Sofia while all this is taking place has been hard and not a little frustrating, but I’ve been trying to follow these momentous developments from afar, via official reports in the Bulgarian media, as well as friends’ updates on facebook and twitter. (A big thanks goes out to my friend Kati for sending me this post’s picture!) It’s also been quite frustrating to notice the international media’s almost non-existent interest in reporting on the Bulgarian protests (which Petya Kirilova-Grady explains eloquently in this piece), although they seem to be slowly catching on (as this article in the New York Times testifies).
I don’t feel really qualified to analyze the reasons people are protesting, or to predict the possible outcomes of this wave of publicly and unwaveringly demonstrated dissatisfaction, but – as I read and think about all this, I keep being reminded of something my friend Yana wrote about (and I summarized in English here) more than a year ago – about the difficult choice that many Bulgarian have made to stay and live in Bulgaria, while it continues to be a place where “many things have not changed: the mafia guys, the insolent politicians, the absurd outrages (as much as you might fight against them), the sell-out media, the apathy, the baseness, the envy, the hate, the ocean of fools and losers that splashes right under your window.” It now occurs to me that the incidents that sparked the street marches are just symptoms of a situation that not only remains unchanged but seems to be getting worse and that for many of the people on the street, these protests must be the latest and possibly the last attempt to transform Bulgaria into a place where one could live normally and with dignity.
*The Bulgarian abbreviation of the agency’s name is ДАНС – pronounced ‘DANCE’, which gave birth to the clever hash tag #ДАНСwith me, used as a tag for movement not just in social media but also in its overall identity.