Happy Sofia Day! | Sofia, Bulgaria

Today is the day of my beloved city of Sofia!

Here’s a longer and more detailed post about it. I’ve written about Sofia’s yellow cobblestones before – here and here, or you can check out this more recent and thoroughly-researched story about them (in Bulgarian).

Finding my feet | Montpellier, France

When I stumbled upon these yellow cobblestones in the center of Montpellier, I was instantly – and predictably, reminded of their larger, brighter and more full-of-history distant cousins, which grace the center of Sofia.

I may not be brilliant at a lot of things, but this is one thing I know I am pretty good at (that, and being humble!): I can travel to and live in different places freely, light-heartedly, without being bogged down by homesickness, nostalgia and the longing for home, without the cumbersome impulse to find and latch on to familiar things, to seek out fellow compatriots or to regularly consume luytenitsa or lukanka. Don’t get me wrong, of course I miss friends and family and places that I love, but that’s a constant that happens all the time and everywhere, regardless of whether I am “at home” or traveling or living abroad.

And still, this time, the spontaneous association with Sofia’s cobblestones snuck up on me in an instant, before I could rationalize and wave it away as some sort of unwarranted signal of a sentimental attachment to my hometown.

I am pretty sure that a term must have been coined for this syndrome – the tendency among travelers and ex-pats to spot and latch onto familiar things when they find themselves in a foreign environment with no recognizable points of reference. When searching for what it might be called, among all the coping-with-life-abroad websites aimed at helping people who face culture shock when living and traveling outside of their home country, strangely, one of the search results was a link to a dictionary definition of the idiom ‘to find one’s feet’. Apparently, it means ‘to become familiar with a new place, situation or experience’.

A crazily fitting coincidence, no?

And, as for the term that describes the tendency to look for the familiar when placed in an unfamiliar environment, I wasn’t able to find it. Any ideas?

Oh so pedestrian | Sofia, Bulgaria

As I walked along Sofia’s main drag – Vitosha Street, which has been closed off to cars for the last few years and now, after trams have been stopped too, it is only accessible by foot, I was reminded of the strange double meaning of the word ‘pedestrian’.

Most commonly, the word is used in reference to a person who goes by foot or to something related to, or designed for, walking, as in a pedestrian street (such as Vitosha), a pedestrian bridge or a pedestrian crossing.

I’m no etymology expert, but this makes sense, because of the Latin root of the word – ped- (foot): same one that gave birth to pedal, pedicure, bipeds, centipedes and even impede and expedition (but not to be confused with words rooted in the Greek ped-, meaning ‘child’ or ‘boy’, and serving as the root of pedagogy, pediatrician and, uhm, pedophilia.)

What I find endlessly curious though, is the second meaning of the word pedestrian, namely – as a synonym for dull, uninspired, banal, ordinary and prosaic. The first time I heard it used in this sense, it struck me as the strangest of parallels, this equating of the act walking to the idea for dullness.

I tried to think of similar usages of the word in other languages. Though my command of German, French and Spanish is pitiful when it comes to nuances and double entendres, a quick check (thank you, Google translate!) shows that the words Fußgänger, piéton and peatón are used only to mean ‘a person who goes by foot’, while the other meaning of the word is rendered through translations of its synonyms: prosaisch, prosaïque and prosaico. [Update: I stand corrected. As a reader pointed out in the comment below, the word pedestre in Spanish carries the word’s dual meaning – both someone who goes on foot and something which is plain, vulgar, uneducated and/or lowly. In French, I am now finding another interesting translation of the adjective pédestre – to mean ‘rambling’ or ‘incoherent’. Any ideas about the German, anyone?]

In Bulgarian, of which I have a semi-decent hold and in which I am sometimes able to play with double meanings, the case is the same: пешеходец – although not containing the Latin root of ‘pedestrian’, means a person going on foot and only that, and прозаичен (‘prosaic’), on the other hand, has nothing to do with feet or walking. (Now, I couldn’t stop myself and I’ve gone and looked up the etymology of ‘prosaic’ too: as suspected, it comes from prose and “having the character of prose” (in contrast to the feeling of poetry), which then got extended to the sense of ‘ordinary’.)

But, as I was trying to translate the two unrelated meanings of the word and thinking of walking, streets and pedestrian crossings, I kept having the nagging feeling that there is another word linked to these concepts that is also used to describe something completely unrelated (and this will be my last sidetrack, I promise). As lexical fate would have it, the word ‘boulevard’ in Bulgarian – in addition to its common meaning (a broad city street) across different languages, is also used as an adjective to describe something, especially literature, which is of low quality, vulgar and trivial. Not much removed, it turns out, from the second meaning of ‘pedestrian’ (one of the translations for ‘pedestrian’ in Spanish and one of the meanings of the Spanish pedestre is vulgar.)

So, back to pedestrianism and dullness. If put in that context, it seems that there is indeed an everyday quality to walking; going by foot is in fact the least exciting mode of getting from one point to another; it doesn’t compare to the dynamics of riding in a car, bus, tram, on a motorcycle or even bicycle, let alone the thrill of flying in a plane. Or, in other words, experiencing the street through your feet is quite boring and mundane when compared with the sense of adventure and excitement provided by, and maybe even inherent in, other modes of transportation.

Turns out I was off on the specifics, but not the concept in general, and only because my thinking doesn’t seem to stretch far enough back to times when there were no cars, buses, trams, motorcycles or planes around. One explanation of the second, and strange, meaning of ‘pedestrian’ that I found is that it was first used in contrast to ‘equestrian’, or going on horseback.

So, ta-da, there you have it!

And that is that. All a bit much, maybe? But don’t you feel smarter after reading it? I know I do, after writing it. Now, excuse me while I go engage in more pedestrian endeavors. But first, I’m going for a walk.

Reunion | Berlin, Germany

Had I been more conscientious, I would have made sure to go and take a picture of this. Instead, I just hung out with my lovely friend Dechen (who came from Bhutan via Copenhagen) and stumbled upon things by chance.

The last time Dechen and I saw each other was exactly three years ago – in a cold November in Berlin, so this was a huge, and hugely pleasant, reunion. The two of us have a connection with and a soft spot for the city – both independently and because of one another, so it wasn’t entirely accidental that we decided to meet there. Once we did, however, it became clear that we could have been anywhere, and Berlin simply provided a pleasant place in which to roam around.

And that we did. We went out to brunch, stayed in for dinner, looked at Christmas stands and browsed through flea markets, sipped Glühwein and afternoon tea, spoke with accents, ducked in underground bars in the middle of parks, crashed hipster parties and art openings, and strolled around Berlin’s streets aimlessly.

During our walks, in what were surely symptoms of the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon, I couldn’t stop noticing and compulsively reading the ‘stumbling stones’ that I had initially discovered during my last visit to Berlin at the beginning of the summer and just recently seen in Budapest, which commemorate individual victims of National socialism.

Among all the others, we found an apparently, and unfortunately, rare one, which commemorated a man who was deported to Auschwitz, but instead of the usual ermordet (‘murdered’) at the end, his plaque read überlebt (‘survived’). That was nice.

Serendipity and Baader-Meinhof | Budapest, Hungary

I’ve mentioned my friend Agnes here before. I’ve also mentioned the fact that, with the two of us, seemingly unconnected events or experiences always manage to somehow come together and become intertwined and coherent.

And so it was this time, when I visited her in Budapest.

The previous time I saw her, at the beginning of the summer, I stayed at her house in Budapest, like I did now. My trip then continued to Berlin, where I first stumbled upon the so-called Stolpersteine (literally – ‘stumbling stones’) – small bronze plates installed in the ground in front of buildings, which documented individual victims of National socialism who lived in those buildings before they were deported to concentration camps. Later, after doing some research, I found out that there were hundreds of these plates all over Germany and Europe, each engraved with the name of the person who had lived in the specific building, their date and place of birth, followed by the year and the place they were deported to and the year of their death.

During my last visit to Agnes, I must have come in and out of her house at least a dozen times, yet I simply did not notice the plate installed into the pavement right in front of her building’s entrance.

Or, rather, I noticed it, but didn’t think much of it. Perhaps because it was in Hungarian, or maybe because it was a single one, making it less conspicuous than the series I later saw in Berlin, I must have thought that it simply indicated when the building was built, or something to that extent.

This, it seems, is a classic case of the so-called Baader-Meinhof phenomenon. There is a rather detailed explanation of it here, but basically it describes the experience of happening upon some obscure piece of information and then encountering the same subject repeatedly, again and again. I’ve experienced this a few times – the strange feeling of becoming aware of something that then appears over and over in different settings, and wondering if it is a coincidence, or if it always there and I simply didn’t notice it because I wasn’t aware it existed. Funny that there is a name for this feeling too.

In the explanation, it says the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon is somewhat related to synchronicity, which is the experience of having a highly meaningful coincidence, which in turn has something to do with serendipity – the propensity for making fortunate discoveries while looking for something unrelated, which I am also quite prone to do.

And speaking of serendipity, remember the yellow cobblestones in the center of Sofia? Considered to be a symbol of Bulgaria’s capital, they were actually cast in Budapest and gifted to Tsar Ferdinand I from the Austro-Hungarian Empire on the occasion of his wedding. I only discovered this after Agnes and I took a picture of our feet standing on them in the spring, when she visited me in Sofia.

So, you can imagine my surprise when, as we drove through Buda, we came upon a small street covered in the exact same yellow cobblestones as the ones gracing Sofia’s center. Agnes indulged my freak-out and stopped so I could take a picture (which turned out to be a pretty horrible idea, as it then took a good part of 20-minutes and the help of a random dude to un-park the car). So, here they are again, the symbol of Sofia: there – polished and shiny, here – a little neglected and worn, covering an obscure street in Budapest.

Tough love | Sofia, Bulgaria

After my recent love confession to the city of Sofia, it is now time for dispensing some tough love.

I have a theory – not scientifically proven, but one I know in my gut is true. According to it, the sorry state of Sofia’s sidewalks and streets is directly correlated to its inhabitants’ general indisposition and gloominess.

They – the city’s seasoned inhabitants, are easy to spot, in contrast to its fresh visitors. The former see their street route as an obstacle course they have to maneuver in order to get from point A to their final destination and the sights along the way as distractions that have to be resisted. The latter, on the other hand, naively take strolls around the city, simply “to get a good feel” for it, their wandering eyes often causing them mishaps, ranging from minor stumbles to major falls.

What I mean is this: In other cities, you can walk around with a light heart, observe passers-by, delight in shops’ windows, admire beautiful buildings’ façades or gaze at the sky, safe in the knowledge that your sight’s diversion will most likely not result in tragic consequences.

In Sofia, on the other hand, any distraction of your eyes away from the sidewalk, strewn with potholes, broken, loose or missing tiles, hidden traps and shaky sewage covers, might – and very likely will, have unpleasant results. If it’s been raining and you step on a loose tile, you might find the entire bottom half of your body soaked in muddy water. At best, you will trip, stumble and humiliate yourself in front of the passers-by you’ve been gawking at.  At worst, you might end up face down, the pain from your bruised nose, scathed palms or broken bone trumping any feelings of embarrassment.

So, in order to avoid both the shame and the health hazard lurking behind the many wobbly or missing tiles on Sofia’s sidewalks and uneven patches on its streets, we – the city’s inhabitants, diligently keep our heads down, eyes firmly fixed on the ground, our feet doing complicated dance-like routines in order to avoid the endless traps lurking underneath them.

This, as you can surely imagine, severely limits the possibility of walking around with a light-heart, a head held high and an upward gaze. It makes for a perpetually gloomy countenance, a severe glare of intense concentration and a generally dark outlook, which are hard to shake off even in the safety of indoor spaces with smooth floor surfaces.

So, next time you’re in Sofia, trying to figure out why people look so unhappy, remember this: It’s not because of the heavy burden of transition from communism, the high levels of unemployment or the skyrocketing real estate prices and high bank loan interest rates. Or at least, not mainly. It is simply the sorry state of the sidewalks and roads that brings people down.

I used to walk around Sofia like a tourist. Now, I know better.  Now, I only avert my eyes from the ground in order to shoot a glance of schadenfreude mixed with a little compassion at those who don’t know any better. Where do you think my obsession with starring down at my feet came from?

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.

Stumbling Stones, Große Hamburger Strasse | Berlin, Germany

We ducked away from the noisy and crowded area of Hackescher Markt into the peaceful Große Hamburger Strasse. The late afternoon, the soft, cool breeze and the unexpected quiet made it feel as if we had stepped not just onto a different street, but into another city and time altogether. “The air is different here,” my friend Eleni, whom I was walking with, said, and I agreed. It smelled like linden trees.

As we walked, the shiny brass squares set between the cobblestones of the sidewalk made me pause. As I looked at the words etched into them, the quietness became daunting and no longer peaceful. Each plaque read “here lived,” followed by the name of a person, their date and place of birth, then the year they were deported (1941 or 1942) and the place where they were murdered (Riga or Lodz).

Later, I found out the miniature memorials, called Stolpersteine (literally – ‘stumbling stones’) were created by artist Gunter Demnig. Believing that a person begins to be forgotten when his name is forgotten, he installed such plates in over 500 places around Germany and Europe, documenting some of the many Jews, Gypsies, political dissidents, homosexuals and other groups of people who fell victim to National socialism. But not collectively – one by one, individually.

Grosse Hamburger Strasse used to be one of the main streets in Berlin’s Jewish quarter before the rise of the Nazi regime and the outbreak of the Second World War. Along it stood a Jewish school for boys, a home for the aged and the city’s oldest Jewish cemetery. The Nazis eventually converted the school and the aged people’s home into internment centers, where they held Jews before deporting them to concentration camps. Today, a memorial tablet and a sculpture depicting a group of Jews being led to their deaths, serve as reminders.

Although I am daunted by those two, as well as Berlin’s other memorials commemorating the victims of the Nazi regime, somehow I find these small stumbling stones more powerful in some way. Maybe because they manage – at least in my mind, to reduce to a single individual the enormous tragedy, usually represented as a whole by large collective monuments. It all becomes more immediate and concrete, as I stumble, literally, into the details.

Saint Stephen’s Square | Budapest, Hungary

Sometimes I am just the worst tourist. I know that not many people like going to a new place and only running from tourist site to tourist site, without pausing to at least try to experience “real life” in that place (the busloads of Japanese tourists excepted). But sometimes I take that dislike to the extreme and become completely negligent. There have been trips, after which I’ve realized I haven’t properly visited or learned about a single tourist site and, instead, spent my entire time going to coffee shops and bars with friends.

Earlier this year, I went to Barcelona for the first time and my mother felt the need to call me and remind me to take a break from all the shopping and bar-hopping and see Park Güell. (My mother being the one who – when I was four and lived with her in Paris, would quiz me about the names of landmarks as we rode around the city on a public transport bus that happened to go past all of them.) So, see Barcelona’s sites I did, but as a more incidental aside rather than a focal activity.

It was the same with Budapest. My friend Aaron and I stumbled onto the spacious square stretching before the Saint Stephen’s Basilica by accident and sat down in a café to wait for our host Agnes (same one from the Yellow Brick Road) to come off work. It’s not that I didn’t notice the building on the other side of the square, it was too enormous to ignore and the whole space seemed designed to highlight it. It’s just that I was more preoccupied with deciding what to drink.

An espresso and a strawberry Bellini later, Agnes came along. We walked around the square, took a picture of our feet and peeked inside. She told us the church houses the mummified fist of Hungary’s first king, Stephen, which is taken out and marched in a procession around the basilica every year on August 20 – Hungary’s national holiday and Saint Stephen’s Day.

Now, I find out that the Basilica is one of the two tallest buildings in Budapest, along with the Hungarian Parliament Building, which was meant to symbolize “the equality of worldly and spiritual thinking.” No structure in the city can be built taller than their 96 meters.

I didn’t know any of that at the time. What I knew was that Saint Stephen’s Basilica was indeed huge. Very Catholic, imposing and impressive with its Neo-Renaissance style.

So, you can imagine the sight of me, standing with my back to it and my camera pointing to the ground, while hordes of Japanese tourists were going nuts taking pictures of themselves in front of the basilica. One of them, apparently quite stunned by what I was doing and not wanting to miss any photo-op, ran up to me and started peeking over my shoulder to see what I was taking a picture of. I could try to describe his expression upon realizing that it was a sewage cover, but no words at my disposal could do it justice.

Earlier, as I sat in the café drinking that Bellini, a scruffy guy with a crazed look in his eyes  walked up to a nearby railing, tied a rubber chicken to it as if it was dead by hanging, lied down on the ground and started taking pictures of it with the basilica in the background. It is comforting to know there are always people who are crazier and even more dismissive of tourist sites than me.

Yellow Brick Road | Sofia, Bulgaria

This was taken in the spring, when my friend Agnes came to visit me in Sofia from Budapest. It was the end of April, but spring hadn’t fully blossomed yet and it rained quite frequently, so this is one of the few moments we actually spent walking around outside in the drizzle.

The yellow cobblestones – here right in front of the Bulgarian Parliament, are a kind of proverbial symbol of central Sofia, as they only pave several connected streets in the very center of the city. “True” Sofianites (as opposed to newcomers from other towns and villages, I suppose) are said to “have been born on the yellow cobblestones.”

Although aware of their symbolic and historic importance, I always get confused about their exact story and how it is they ended up in Sofia. So, every time I run around the center in an ad-hoc tour of the city with friends visiting from abroad, my spiel is usually limited to the scarce information in the above paragraph.

Now, Wikipedia tells me the cobblestones were a gift from the Austro-Hungarian Empire to Tsar Ferdinand I on the occasion of his wedding. They were cast in Budapest and installed in Sofia at the beginning of the 20th century. This gives a whole new meaning to the picture – of Agnes from Budapest, where the cobblestones came from, and me, from Sofia, where they ended up. I wish I knew it when we stood there. But, as Agnes says, our stories always find some serendipitous way to eventually become coherent.

What I knew then, however, was how slippery the ceramic blocks get when it rains or snows, making them a scene for many pedestrian incidents and skidding cars. They are, apparently, also not very durable, having sustained continuous damage in recent years by Sofia’s increasing traffic. As they get replaced by the more traditional, gray cobblestones and the area they cover gets smaller and smaller, I wonder if it’ll eventually disappear entirely, or if somebody will have the sense to keep at least a symbolic spot with them.