Sarajevo

The old box

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Sofia, Bulgaria
Sofia, Bulgaria

In the vibrant metro of Paris, you hear her. Mumbled notes are suspended in the stairwell as you descend closer to the platform until finally, you perceive each note just as distinctly as you see her player who sways and squeezes in that same old dance.

In Sarajevo, she arrived at my table, anchored by the pluck of contrabass, and echoing the tears of the singer weeping Sevdalinka.*

Her sound has bombarded passengers on many rusted trams in Sofia. Clasped in an old man’s hand, he maneuvers her and teases her, summoning the old folk modes and beckoning for a coin or two. You’re saddened if the player alights before you reach the centre . It’s a shame for the show to end before your destination is reached. Needless to say, you step into the main boulevard with an extra buoyancy and the barista is as baffled by your jocund conversation as much as your quirky attempts to order an espresso in Bulgarian.

She’s followed me, all over the world. In my travels she weaves in and out and in a pitter patter of fingers on keys I’m transported immediately, on wings of sentiment, pathos and romance.

That old box of acoustic wonders squeezes, tugs and begs you to waltz like the Bohemians, tarantella like the Italians and tango like the Argentinians. Play on accordion, play on. Dance on my friends. Dance on. 

*A traditional genre of music developed in Bosnia Herzegovina that is known for it’s slow, lilting melodies set to poetic text that is typically of a sombre, mournful or poetic nature and rendered with a passionate and emotive vocal tone. 

Балкан Балкон – Balkan Balkon

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Austro-Hungarian Balcony on Vitosha Boulevard
Austro-Hungarian Balcony on Vitosha Boulevard

Balconies are like little theaters and every morning, in Sofia, a similar play occurs on most. Not that I’m staring.
I sit on mine to write in the warmer weather. The sun streams in at the perfect angle at about 7:30am, hitting my shoulders instead of my eyes.

As I gaze out, I see another sea of balconies. From time to time a protagonist will stroll out, maybe stretch a little, but never too much in case the neighbors see. Indefinitely they will sidle onto their balkon, with coffee cup and cigarette balanced and poised in the one hand. It’s a ritual.

As they smoke their cigarette and sip the undoubtedly strong sweet espresso they survey the other balconies, but never too much in case the neighbors see.

My balcony gives me away. Never in town too long to plant flowers it’s pretty naked in comparison to some. I glance at a geranium filled balcony superior, not just to my left.

When I first moved into my apartment, friends would ask “Does it have a balkon?” On hearing the affirmative, they would nod their heads approvingly. To me it was a bit of a novelty.

Austro-Hungarian Balconies in the Yellow Paves Quarter
Austro-Hungarian Balconies in the Yellow Paves Quarter

I’ve mostly lived in apartments around the world- an old Austro-Hungarian one with winding marble clad staircase in Sarajevo with direct views of the Katedrala followed by the garish yellow apartment in a famous building called Papagajke (The Parrot) that had views to the skinny brown river Miljacka and an old Ashkenazi Synagogue. I’ve lived in apartments that reminded me of paper houses in Seoul with sliding shutter doors on my windows and oriental furniture, an apartment in the leafy suburbs of Melbourne overlooking a grand plane tree and oh, there was a small attic apartment in East Germany that overlooked a clear meadow with the flattest terrain I’ve ever seen and a vaporous overlay of light ebbed by cloudy weather.

Some had balconies, others didn’t.
I’ve often wondered did it matter? But now, instead I ask a different question- what does the balcony do in the Balkans? In a city modeled on the socialist block (I mean in terms of apartment style) one sees that the balcony is an indispensable part of urban Balkan life and no, the words do not share etymological roots (Balkan is said to have come from the Turkish which means “a chain of wooded mountains”, whereas, balcony has its roots in the latin, balco)

Balconies on Grafa (Graf Ignatiev)
Balconies on Grafa (Graf Ignatiev)

We have seen the city; it is the gibbous mirrored eye of an insect. All things happen on the balcony and are resumed within, But the action is the cold, syrupy flow of a pageant-  John Ashbury

I interpret the Balkans as theatre. Interactions are dramatic, life is colorful and you exist in a paradigm where expression is seldom filtered. One minute someone is screaming at you and calling you a villager (one of the most offensive things you can be called) the next they are pushing in front of you, not even subtly, in a line and you are calling them a villager. Taxi drivers are volatile, the roads neurotic, the theatre completely brilliant with raw aching cameos, the market a pantomime.

Downtown Sofia
Downtown Sofia

But on the other hand many friends and colleagues would literally give you the coat off their back if you needed it or try push you some Leva even if they themselves are in a worse situation, so it all balances out in the end.

Streetview
Streetview

It’s on the balcony that you begin the day, inhale that nicotine in long deep streams between sips of bittersweet black coffee. You gradually absorb the interplay beneath you out of the corner of your eye, glance to a pretty view, if you have it (if I peer out the corner of mine I can see Vitosha mountain). I think the balcony is the vestibule leading to the public sphere. It’s why in the morning when you wake up, you have your coffee there so as to ease yourself into the drama awaiting. It is also the place where you find your urban gardens filled with chuski (bright red peppers) and tomatoes. It’s where you hang your washing to absorb the fresh air of the mountain and where, from time to time when your doting dog has the fortitude to leave your company, you find him sitting in a stream of sunlight, taking it in, just as you do.

Backstreets downtown Sofia
Backstreets downtown Sofia