Street art @ Saint Roch Square | Montpellier, France

Those painted concrete posts, used to obstruct the passage of cars bollards on Saint Roch Square were one of the first things I saw in Montpellier that I wanted to photograph and put on this blog. They used to be much brighter a couple of years ago, apparently, though I kind of like their current faded colors.

I am a big fan of street art, especially the kind that injects some color into otherwise drab and grey city environments and/or transforms purely utilitarian and mundane urban structures into ornamental and whimsical objects. Even the unattractive word ‘bollard’ is given a slightly more appealing ring to it by the application of a little bit of color and creativity, no?

This reminds me of this, also in France, and – in a less direct way, of the transformation of the Soviet Army monument in Sofia this past summer.

Year in Review: 2011 | Here, there, everywhere… and even from Mars

Before jumping into 2012 with both feet, I thought I’d do my annual Year in Review post. This time, thought, I am doing things a little differently and instead of making a list of all of my favorite posts, like I did last year, I have picked just one post from each month of 2011. Some of the posts I chose are more informative, while others are more fun to look at than to read (and vice versa), but I enjoyed browsing through all of them and hope you will like the trip down memory lane too. Good times!

In the spirit of reflection that unavoidably comes with a retrospective post like this, I have to admit that looking through my archives has made me realize the continuous fortune I’ve had in the past year of being surrounded, reunited, encountered with, hosted, welcomed and accompanied by wonderful, fun, lovely, inspiring and gracious people, some of whom are mentioned in the posts below. Without them none of my travels would not be what they are, if they were to be at all. So this review is also a big THANK YOU to all of them, for making 2011 a great year for me.

So, here goes. My highlights of 2011, month by month, were:

January 2011:

On the threshold, where nothing is permanent | Mahabalipuram and Chennai, Tamil Nadu, India
My whole trip to India was nothing short of amazing for many reasons, one of which was that it coincided with the Pongal harvest festival, which meant there were beautiful, colorful hand-drawn decorations on the ground to be seen everywhere.

February 2011:

Blue Valentine | Kuwait

March 2011:

Oh so pedestrian | Sofia, Bulgaria
Not really much of a choice here, since I only posted once in March, but actually one of the texts that was the most fun to write this year.

April 2011:

Nobody puts Baby in a corner | Sofia, Bulgaria
A clear example of my belief that anything is worth writing (ok, blogging) about.

May 2011:

Eat Pray Love | Sofia, Bulgaria
Doing some of my favorite things with my favorite twins.

June 2011:

In the Palace | Balchik, Bulgaria
Not just because I was at the seaside, nor just because I was at a pretty fun and exciting film festival, but also because I was with one of my favorite friends at the most beautiful place on the Bulgarian Black Sea coast.

July 2011:

La belleza de las letr¡ah!s | Madrid, Spain
I have been pining to go back to Madrid and this year, ever since I saw the Letras neighbourhood, whose streets are beautifully engraved with literature several years ago. Cute guys lying down on the ground for my photo-taking pleasure were not part of the plan, but are always welcome.

August 2011:

Bits and pieces, in pairs | Barcelona, Spain
Probably the happiest, most carefree trip of the year. Luckily for me, though that was neither the first nor the last time I went to enchanting Barcelona and got to hang out with my friend Slavka.

September 2011:

The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree | Moscow, Russia
I didn’t get to go to Moscow myself, but the photo comes from my beloved jet-setter dad, with a short text from me, whose writing led to the discovery of the idea of Kilometer Zero markings, which I had been unaware of until now, despite previous sightings.

October 2011:

Off-season girls | Bodrum, Turkey and elsewhere
My trip to Bodrum was a real joy, not just because of the treat of swimming in the Adriatic in the beginning of October, but mostly for the chance it gave me to meet and spend time with a group of wonderful, amazing and inspiring women, some of which contributed to this post, and all of whom left a lasting trace in my heart.

November 2011:

Finding my feet | Montpellier, France
A bit of a nostalgic post, but a real pleasure to write.

December 2011:

Martian, like the planet | Lake Salagou, Languedoc Roussillon, France
…and, as promised, finishing off the year with a post from another planet!

Mad riddles | Madrid, Spain

Madrid’s streets surfaces were not just a visual feast for the eyes, but also an excellent way to brush up on my rusty Spanish vocabulary.

Even the most mundane of maintenance shaft covers were educational and beautiful to look at.

Firefighters!

Public lighting! (maintenance hole cover boasts Madrid’s coat of arms, featuring the city’s symbol – the bear with madroño tree)

Telephone systems! (Alright, I didn’t actually have to look this one up.)

Covers of canals, named after former Spanish monarchs!

And my all-time favorite design – natural gas!

Some other street markings were more ornamental than functional, like the gratitude plaques installed by the municipality in front of some businesses:

Here, the one in front of Casa Mira, a cake shop specializing in turrón (Spanish nougat) since 1855.

…. and the one at the Lhardy restaurant, established in 1839.

Others yet, perhaps most perplexingly, called for a quick gender self-identification:

La belleza de las letr¡ah!s | Madrid, Spain

As somebody who is obsessed fascinated with writing and words, on the one hand, and interesting ground surfaces, on the other, I know too well how rarely the two actually overlap. So, I was enthralled when I realized that we are staying in Madrid’s Barrio de Las Letras (Neighborhood of the Writers). The area used to house some of the great authors of Madrid’s 16th-century Golden Age of letters — Cervantes, Lope de Vega, Quevedo, and its pedestrian streets are now covered in brass-lettered poems, quotations and literary passages written by them and other Spanish writers.

¡Ah!, indeed.

I vaguely remembered walking in the area and being very charmed by the literature-paved streets the first time I was in the city over six years ago and, although I had no idea which part of Madrid they were in, I intended to find them again this time around. So, you can imagine my rapture when, on my first night out, while running around the city, I gazed down to find myself standing atop one such a brass-lettered passage. Adding to the glee was the charmingly obliging Spaniard who surprised me by throwing himself onto the ground and into the frame as I took a picture.

As I walked around the neighborhood the next day, I realized the poems and passages were everywhere, they were too numerous to read carefully, even if a better grasp of Spanish on my part could make that possible.

Some of the writing and writers were easily recognizable nonetheless.

But mostly, I enjoyed spotting interesting words (whose meaning I had to look up later). I especially loved ¡the inverted exclamation marks!

Here, la belleza = the beauty, made more beautiful when squeezed between ¡ and !.

Others, even without much punctuation, just looked beautiful, even though I had no idea what they meant:

(Turns out this is the first stanza from the poem “The dark swallows will return” by Gustavo Adolfo Bécquer.)

For a while, I could not get enough! But eventually, I stopped snapping photos every few meters, put my camera away and just enjoyed walking on top of literature, literary.

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.

A magic vantage point | Sofia, Bulgaria

After a slightly panicky trip to the stadium, frantically trying to get a hold of and meet some friends in the crowds in front, finicking with the tickets, worrying about whether it was going to rain, some stressful waiting in line, a nerve-wrecking show of passes and bag check (we all had spots in different sections and some of is were carrying umbrellas in their bags!), some minor claustrophobia attacks while pushing through the crowds into the arena and being annoyed at not being able to see the beginning of the concert properly, my friend Maria and I finally spotted the perfect place from which to watch Sting perform, together with the Sofia Philharmonic Orchestra.

Just where the two rows of chemical toilets met, before the wire fence separating the stadium from the restricted access area began, there was a small corner of space – enough to fit three or four people comfortably, which afforded a great, unobstructed view of the stage. Finally, we could really enjoy the concert and get mesmerized by Sting without interruptions – there was no need to push or try to peek over people’s shoulders to see, nobody was stepping on our toes and being obnoxious.

The slight whiffs of powerful disinfectant chemicals were a small price to pay for the great vantage point and the easy access to the loos, which also meant we could drink all the beer in the world without having to worry about making our way through hoards of people. Also, it never rained.

It was magic, I tell you. Maybe not exactly the kind Sting sang about, but magic nevertheless.

Grounds under repair | Ravno Pole, Bulgaria

On Thursday afternoon, my dad called me up with the strangest, least expected proposal I had had all week: to go play golf with him. And so, being a fan both of my dad and of unusual things to do, go play golf I did.

Golf, it turns out, isn’t really my thing: too much heavy equipment to lug around, too much hand-eye coordination required when operating said heavy equipment and too few successful shots (hits? strokes?), therefore not much excitement, resulting from the lack of said eye-hand coordination.

It was still fun, though, to spend some time together with my dad.

Besides, as it turns out, golf course turfs* and their surroundings provide very photogenic surfaces.

*I have waited over a decade to use the word turf in a proper sentence, since I learned it in college when my favorite and most frequented bar was called the Turf Club (Hi, Phillipe, Dylan, Adam, Rino, Kelly and Dechen!).

Summer in the City | Sofia, Bulgaria

One of the reasons I love Sofia in the summer much more than during any other time of the year is that only then, it is possible to go out without having a plan, change plans four times in as many hours, ride in taxis, take a tram, walk around, borrow someone’s bike, run into friends on the street, lose some in a bar and find others on a park bench, get a crush, drink menta with sprite in front of the National Theater, go dancing and watch the sun rise on the way home. All in one night, effortlessly, and not necessarily in that order.

*Picture taken on Orlov Most (Eagles’ Bridge) by Iskren, who knows the importance of being earnest and has a way of taking pictures from above his head.

Where Everybody Knows Your Name | Sofia, Bulgaria

I have a thing for having a regular bar. Lately, that bar has been Butcher’s, located on Sheynovo Street in one of my favorite neighborhoods of Sofia. In the past year or so, it has been the place where I pop in, through the heavy velvet curtains at the door, for a drink after dinner in the next-door restaurant (of the same name and owners); the place where I go to meet friends for an early evening quick drink; or where I end up as a last stop on a long night of running around other parties in the city. During Sofia Design Week, I was bound to stumble into it almost nightly after the open-air party in the nearby Academy of Fine Arts’ courtyard had shut down, too early for the taste of the party-goers-turned-design-aficionados.

Even just over a year ago, Butcher’s was one of a handful of cool bars on Sofia’s otherwise lively nightlife scene. Though it has since been joined by several more – thus complicating the previously non-existent dilemma of where to go, it remains one of the coolest. It stays open late, the music is almost always good, the crowd without fail has familiar faces in it, and the bartenders are just the right mix of attentive and not-in-your-face. It’s a good place to go for a quiet chat with someone or to stumble in with a rowdy group.

But what really sets it apart is its interior – paradoxically the most minimalist Sofia’s bar scene has seen. In the smoky, just dark enough space, the polished concrete bar top stretches along its entire length, the old tables and chairs are pushed against the roughly finished walls, across from the hand-assembled bar stools that are so precarious that I vowed to not judge anyone falling off of them.

Down to its bathrooms (in the picture above*), which are unisex – to the confusion to those more prudishly inclined, Butcher’s has perfected the mix of shabby simplicity and good taste that so evades most of Sofia’s other watering holes.

Butcher’s, however, is probably just a temporary sidetrack from my usual regular bar, Hambara. With an interior that is also quite minimalist, but in a very different way and with very different results – wooden bar tops and high chairs and candles everywhere, it has held a special place in my heart for the past six-odd years, when it was really the only place where I always felt like stopping by. To this day, the bartender pours me my usual drink without waiting for me to order. As a result, Hambara has been the scene of all kinds of important events and celebrations for me – birthdays and name days, New Year’s nights, first and last dates, welcome back parties, post-wedding drinks and pre-departure gatherings. It’s now lost its underground feel to an extent – to get in before, one had to have a key or knock on the unmarked door, but it is still one of Sofia’s most special places. Without fail, it always arises fire hazard concerns among foreigners who visit it.

One place I don’t particularly like and where everybody most definitely does not know my name, is another recent newcomer to Sofia’s nightlife – the Culture Beat club. Its interior is too busy, too pretentious and trying too hard and its crowds are too self-consciously hip for me, but lately I have been ending up there quite frequently, because of friends (thanks a lot, Victor!).

Truth be told, though, I have actually kind of started to enjoy observing the vanity fair’s procession. And besides, watching the sunrise from its terrace almost makes me forget the annoying hipsters inside.

*Apologies to the guy who had to wait outside the bathroom while I took forever trying to get a good photo.