Sofia

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. 

Arabesque & Tango

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The keys of the bandeon pitter and patter. Tones of Spanish text fuelled with passion, tears and blood vocalise through a breath. The dancers fuse and glide. Closer and apart. Streamlined limbs, muscles ripple, curves sculpt. Winding in the beat my breath catches, my veins pulsate. Suspended in beauty, I sit. My last balmy night in Sofia. Summer nights. Piazza nights. Tango nights. The fountain behind me gurgles and sprays it’s dewy mist lightly onto my summer frock. Flanked by the vermilion facade of the Ivan Vazov National Theatre the bronze ballerina positions her arabesque. This is Sofia in all her beauty. I shall miss her.

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WanderLust: Oh, If I had a sea container….

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Interior of NDK- The National Palace of Culture
Interior of NDK- The National Palace of Culture

If I had a sea container- I could fill it.

Next to the gilded orbs of Alexander Nevsky Cathedral I meandered. There is a thrift and artists market. In the square garden you can find anything you never imagined being able to find. In fact you can even find things you never wanted to find (Old Swastika emblazoned Nazi Knives, Postcards scrawled in Cyrillic with Stalin’s big head on the front, the worst model of ushanka you ever thought possible- more on that next time).

Oh, but the things you will find!

I stop at a stall and a woman points at every brooch she has pinned on a square board- “This one from Czechia, lady, this one from Bulgaria, 1950, this silver, this Bohemia and this, ah, I think this Hung-AH-rian.” She insists in calling me lady- possible a direct translation of dama, I don’t know… I peer at the brooches and the skeptic in me wonders if those diamantes really are from France. But how much nicer is it to imagine they are and if so, how much more interesting to ponder, how on earth did they get to Sofia? There’s definitely a story there.

Another stall is filled with vintage cameras, the oldest date from the 1920′s. They sit in rows on a little card table- their concertina forms so beguiling, especially at 30$ Australian, on average. I ask the stall seller hundreds of questions and get to try out some old mechanical Soviet and Czech box cameras.

Lubitel- Soviet Camera
Lubitel– Soviet Camera

The stall seller informs me that the “Flexaret is the BMW of cameras over the Lubitel 2,”  except he says BMV like a good European. As I peer into the cameras and focus, they manipulate the dimensions before me. Oh, I could fill a sea container with these, open a store and sell them for a song.

The coveted Czech Flexaret
The coveted Czech Flexaret

I’ve had the most derogatory comments from people about the fact I live here.

-As if I’ll visit you in Bulgaria…,

-What on earth would you want to do there? ,

-Trust YOU to choose some crazy place like that,

What has suprised me is that many comments have come from people who consider themselves to be artists. This city may have a dysfunctional economy, corrupt politicians, decaying infrastructure, but after living here for 2 years I can’t deny that there is charm. There is architecture. There is history. There is Art. There is a story.

 What happened to Wanderlust?

I think many of my peers are losing a sense of adventure.  Do we all really just want to travel to places that are just as comfortable as our home? If so, perhaps a trip to the shopping mall shall suffice. Can we, in the West, really not find the beauty if a city is built on cracked pavements and worse still, why mock such a place? Why not go there first?

Random chair at Christmas time

When I first moved to Sofia, I thought the city was not so spectacular. Maybe because my head was always inclined to the ground, so as to watch my step. I would gorge myself on paintings over my morning coffee before I left my apartment, in the belief that nothing on the decrepit dusty bus to my destination, nothing in the  streets of Soviet block style apartments and nothing aside from Yellow Paves (the old quarter of downtown Sofia) would inspire me aesthetically. I began to look deeper for the beauty, only to realise, it’s right there. Right at the surface. There is a beauty in Soviet style apartments- the coziest apartments I’ve entered were this style, they usually have old parchetry floors that bear a history like the palm of your own hands, until you’ve seen them, or better, lived in one, don’t assume that because they are ugly on the outside by your standards, they lack charm.  Most likely they are filled with Chekhov, Dostoevsky and Pushkin that has been read and no one watches Master Chef or the Voice there.

History books at the book tables of Graf Ignatieff
History books at the book tables of Graf Ignatieff

If I had a sea container- I could fill it. I’d fill it with treasures found in antique shops: coral brooches, diamante hat pins, old fragrant books in Kirilica trimmed with gold leaf, flowers from old street sellers, the fast moving chatter of the coffee clubs, the slow laboured strides of the old bread seller- who always gives me a smile. I’d fill it with values too. The value for literature and the arts. I’d fill it with knowledge- the knowledge of more than one language, the general knowledge of a tram driver who studied  at least 17 subjects in secondary school and can recite poems, the talent of the actors, the insight of the musicians. Oh I’d fill it. But would you appreciate its contents?

Little Lemonade Entrepreneurs

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I could smell it before I saw it. The air in my neighborhood is infused with lemon. Head down this morning watching for dupki (Sofia’s notorious gaps, wobbles and craters in the footpath) I was moving at a quick pace, with only 1 minute to get to my tram stop. I look up and there they are. Bulgaria’s hope. Juicing lemons to make old school limonada.

I’m hopelessly late, but who could not stop? They each speak a bit of English, enough to make a sale. As they fill my plastic cup with the fresh cool juice and charge me 60 stotinki I ask them what they will do with the money.

“We’ll use it for fun”, the boy replies. I pass them 1 lev and say, “Keep the change,”  but the little girl in the floral dress is adamant that I get my 40 stotinki back. Bless her.

As I sip my limonada and walk briskly on, I ponder what awaits these children. In a nation embroiled in incessant civilian protests against pervasive governmental corruption (today marks the 22nd day of protests), the future is somewhat grim. I hope for a brighter Bulgaria for my little lemonade entrepreneurs. Keep protesting Bulgaria!!!

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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

Chico y Rita and Michel Camilo

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In the depths of Sofia‘s National Palace of Culture there is this basement club. It’s kind of ambient with clusters of bar stools, open booths and good lighting.  As Michel Camilo  thumped the daylights out of the piano last night, albeit musically, I could not contain myself- my body had to move. At other moments sensory bombardment led me to just shut my eyes and get lost in the polyphony- the interspersed dulcet tones, woven harmonies and quirky variations inter-meshed with the tight local big band.

Chico y Rita
Chico y Rita

Imagination is a peculiar thing. A few chords or notes, can for me recall vivid memories and last night I was swept to Havana with nostalgia for a beloved movie- Chico y Rita. I’ve never been to Havana and Camilo is from Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, but imagination I guess is often nonsensical.

Havana- in Chico y Rita
Havana- in Chico y Rita

This bittersweet romance film is animated with such beauty and pathos and boasts an incredible soundtrack  (HOLA!!! Bebo Valdes and Estrella Morente) that when I hear latin jazz now it’s hard not recall Chico and Rita’s story. I’m swooning!

Chico y Rita en Havana
Chico y Rita en Havana

In the riffs I hear Rita’s tears and Chico’s obstinacy. I won’t spill the plot suffice to say the film takes on a tormented bolero framework as sultry singer Rita and young pianist Chico get displaced in limelight, the music and dream chasing: Havana to New York, Paris to Las Vegas. Sometimes I wanna run away from opera and be a jazz or cabaret singer and spin it out like Rita. But then I remember how many jazz scales I’d need to learn and the little time I have as an opera singer to get everything done- so I save my jazz for the shower. One day, someday.

Rita
Rita

The Belly of Sofia- Le Ventre de Sofia

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When I first arrive in a new city, I do everything but what a pragmatist would do. I avoid travel guide books, maps and pre-reading. I like to get lost in the labyrinth. I used to carry maps, but they always receive more damage from an over packed clutch bag than from any navigational purpose.

There are little streets I’ll adjourn into so as to pass the things I find beautiful (Ulitsa Solunska for her trees, the book market). Promenades are extended a few hundred metres, just to see a structure I feel an affinity to (Ekzarh Josif for the beautiful synagogue, the Ivan Vazov National Theatre or anything in the yellow paves area).

Sofia Synagogue
Sofia Synagogue

The only other things that will pull me directionally are food items- the Neo-Byzantine Central Market Hall (that looks more like a train station) for it’s brilliant olive shop; a cute Euro style bakery near the end of Vitosha, with the best quiches I’ve ever had (creamy and buttery pastry, fragrant and just the right size to fit in both hand and belly), the gelati cafe with its bright and tart passionfruit scoops that send me giddy (I’ll walk 800 metres past maybe 10 icecream vendors, just to get that), my bread store that I always lose- is it on Knyazh Boris or Tsar Asen??? I still don’t know, but I’d fly from Melbourne for their ancient grainy sourdoughs and after a few weeks, I’ve found my favourite cherry vendors, I’m uncovering who has the best rosovi (pink) tomatoes- almost the size of my head- in the market….

Mentioned Bread
Mentioned Bread
Olives at the Central Market
Olives at the Central Market

It’s more exciting to navigate by delicacies than coordinates.

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As a teenager, I was blown away by Emile Zola‘s gastronomic novel, The Belly of Paris. I mean, Zola was ingenious. Who else describes a cheese shop as a Cheese Symphony?

“A silence fell at the mention of Gavard. They all looked at each other cautiously. As they were all rather short of breath by this time, it was the camembert they could smell. This cheese, with its gamy odour, had overpowered the milder smells of the marolles and the limbourg; its power was remarkable. Every now and then, however, a slight whiff, a flute-like note, came from the parmesan, while the bries came into play with their soft, musty smell, the gentle sound, so to speak, of a damp tambourine. The livarot launched into an overwhelming reprise, and the géromé kept up the symphony with a sustained high note.”

I recommend it!
I recommend it!

If Sofia were a symphony I can’t decide what is playing. But at the moment I think I hear strains of the most beautiful plump olives sourced from Greece, the tones of robust and gluttonous tomatoes grown in rich Bulgarian soil and definitely the bell song of bright vivid cherries.