Drumroll… Sofia Film Festival | Sofia, Bulgaria

The 16th edition of the Sofia Film Festival Festival opens tomorrow. If you’re in town, pick up one of those paper programs and go see a movie. You can also check out the entire jam-packed program of film screenings, guests, presentations, talks, press conferences and other events online.

{Working for this year’s festival has been keeping me busy as a bee lately, so excuse the sporadic and laconic posting, which is likely to continue through the next 10 days or so.}

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.

À bout de souffle | Shishman Street, Sofia, Bulgaria

The Sofia Breathes initiative, which closed down the city’s most atmospheric street to cars and opened it to art, design and pedestrians for the day was a really good way to end Sofia Design Week, whose motto this year was “Design is All Around.” A good way to end any week, for that matter.

Besides the bars, restaurants and cafés spilling over onto the sidewalks, the children’s chalk drawings on the pavement, the tchotchke stalls and the intentional and spontaneous art installations, my most favorite part of the day was running into all kinds of friends.

In the span of the six-odd hours, I think I bumped into friends from all the distinct and seemingly unconnected periods of my conscious life – from my recently rediscovered first best friend from elementary school who was wearing the exact same outfit as me (Hi, Maia!), my partner in crime starting in middle school (Hi, Maria!), two lovely high school friends I studied with in the Middle East (Hi, Lika! Hi, Annie!), to my wingwoman ever since grad school in London (Hi, Krissy!) and many, many other cool, fun and exciting people I have met since. I think that at some point, I ended up standing together with most of them in one spot, which was a little uncanny.

Speaking of improbable gatherings of unlikely allies, I went to get a look at the nearby Monument to the Soviet Red Army. It usually looks like this, but – thanks to the brilliant recent work of an anonymous graffiti artist, now commemorates the unlikely get-together of Superman (gun in hand, rocking red boots and a cape), Santa Claus (toting binoculars and a Kalashnikov), Ronald McDonald (waving the American flag), the Joker (sporting a purple trench coat) and several other cartoon characters and superheroes I couldn’t exactly identify. If Sofia Design Week had anything to do with this, which I don’t think it did, then what a coup! Design is all around, indeed. The final touch to the monument’s transformation, which I especially appreciated, is the phrase scribbled underneath, roughly translating to “In step with the times.” No kidding.

*Update (Monday): In spite of reports that claimed the graffiti was washed off on Sunday, a friend of mine told me today that the superheroes were still around when she passed by the Soviet Monument in the afternoon – just in time to see a lone, apparently self-motivated older guy show up with some rags and a bucket and start scrubbing away the paint. The organized cleaning, reportedly initiated by the Sofia Municipality but financed by non-governmental organizations, is scheduled to take place early tomorrow morning. Meanwhile, over 1,700 people – in several groups on facebook, have said they are against the washing up of the monument, some of them making plans to create a human shield around it when the cleaners come.

**Update (Tuesday): In efforts to avoid the above-mentioned protests and human chains, “emergency” measures were taken and the monument was washed off in the wee hours of the morning, with only faint traces of colorful paint left as a reminder of what, briefly, was.

This is starting to be alarmingly reminiscent of this… talk about being out of step with the times.

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.

On the threshold, where nothing is permanent | Mahabalipuram and Chennai, Tamil Nadu, India

Here is one place I didn’t have to look hard for beautiful grounds. Every entrance to every home – from the marbled floor at the front doors of apartments in guarded buildings to the pavements and pathways at the entryways of huts on the street, was decorated with ephemeral powder drawings, called kolams.

I was lucky to be in Chennai during Pongal – an important harvest festival celebrated by Tamils, so the kolams, I was told, were more colorful and intricate than usual.

Popular in South India, the kolam is meant to bring prosperity and serve as an invitation into one’s home. I also read somewhere that it is a daily tribute to harmonious co-existence, as the white rice powder with which it is drawn is also an invitation for ants and birds to eat it.

Drawn on a carefully swept ground by the women of the household every single morning, during the day the intricate patterns get walked and driven on, blown around by the wind or washed away by rain, only to be drawn again at dawn the next day.

So, in addition to an invitation, the kolam seem to me to be an exercise in patience, humility and an acknowledgment of transience. Three things I must admit I don’t have much of a grip on or a very good understanding of, for that matter. How very un-Hindu of me, I know. Still, as fleeting as they are, I found kolams a much more enticing way to walk into somebody’s home than being greeted by the permanence of an obnoxious, worn-out doormat.

À la recherche du temps perdu | Izola, Slovenia

As part of the Kino Otok film festival’s program “Open Book: literature in the streets and on the screens,” parts of Marcel Proust’s novel In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower were placed around the town – in the form of writings on the sidewalks, posters, graffiti and coffee house readings.

While trying to understand the texts, since they were in Slovenian, I sometimes cheated by adding a few letters here and there to make new meanings, with varying degrees of success. In this case, “which was swimming” became “ekaterina was swimming.”

Speaking of Proust (as I usually do all the time – over a glass of absinthe and amid clouds of almost impenetrable cigarette smoke), I just found out about an expression, which describes something I have experienced occasionally but never knew what to call.  Stemming from Proust’s novel À la recherche du temps perdu, the so-called “episode of the madeleine,” which is a traditional French sponge cake, is used to refer to the instance when the taste, smell, sight or sound of something brings a memory of the past in a sudden, involuntary flash.

Mellow Music Festival, Borisovata Gradina | Sofia, Bulgaria

This was taken during the first edition of the Mellow Music Festival, which took place in Sofia at the end of May. (If you squint hard enough, you might be able to see the stage lights reflecting off my jeans.) Stretching over three days and nights, the festival had two stages – an open-air one on a big green meadow in the Borisova Garden in the afternoons and evenings, and an indoors one, where performances started just before midnight and went until the early morning hours.

Apart from giving me the chance to see and hear bands that were previously unknown to me (The Phenomenal Handclap Band and Jahcoozi were two favorites), the Mellow Festival was particularly special for me because it marked the moment I felt summer was finally here. It took place at the precise point when my spring-induced euphoria was starting to wear out and I needed a fresh breath of summer.

You see, every year, it goes like this: As soon as the weather starts to warm up in April, Sofia’s young crowds enthusiastically rush out from the indoor smoky bars and into the city’s parks, where they occupy any and all available surfaces suitable for sitting – benches, curbs, postaments of monuments, where they then sit and drink copious amounts of beer. This is interrupted only by quick trips to the nearby bushes (beer, as we all know, has the tendency to quickly go through the body), or – more permanently, by bouts of pouring rain.

While the warmer temperatures and the feeling of spring in the air are enough to sustain the frenzied euphoria for a couple of months, after a while it just gets old. Eventually, you simply want the anticipation to be over and for summer to finally be here.

When it comes to parks, though, the Borisova Garden is one of the best places your spring euphoria could take you. It is one of the city’s biggest, and surely its most pleasant, parks. Walking along its cool alleys, lined with lush old trees, practically makes you forget you are just meters away from Sofia’s busiest intersection – Orlov Most (Eagles’ Bridge), and the main highway out of the city. There are plenty of benches to sit on, and the kids’ playgrounds – complete with miniature house-like structures, are the perfect place to hide from the spring downpours. The Lilies’ Lake, near which the Mellow Festival’s stage was, is also quite popular, and the frogs’ sculpture in its middle is rendered a bizarrely realistic twist by the real frogs’ ribbiting.

So, to return to the Mellow Music Festival, it was that turning point for me this year. It’s not that it didn’t rain during the festival. It’s just that, as I stood in the middle of that big green meadow in the park, I decided that summer – with its long days, melting heat in the city and breezy nights at the seaside, weekends full of open-air concerts, and just hanging out, was finally here.