Urban Balkan Life

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. 

Nick the Greek / El Griego Nick

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Nick the Greek

Sometimes childhood recollection seems stronger than present experience. I know this sounds all very Proustian, only for me today, it is not the smell of steaming madeleines, but rather the tart astringency of my mother’s yoghurt. Mum learnt it from the Greeks. At 25 she was on a ship to Athens via North Africa. Fortunately she turned down the marriage proposal of Nick, the Greek soccer player she met on her way or else this story, as much as its author, would never have come into fruition.

I learnt how to prepare it, and also how the Greeks prepared it. Apparently, every household had a pot that was left at the front doorstep overnight. In the early hours of the morning the milk man would come past each door and fill the pot. By breakfast time, it would be ready for the family to haul into the kitchen from the hot Mediterranean sun.

I could tell by Mum’s tone that she wished we had a milk man to fill our yoghurt pot, as in Greece. I guess she made her own yoghurt out of a frustration with the gelatinous farce that was 1980’s shop bought Australian yoghurt.

I’d drag one of the wooden chairs, with intricate wood carvings in recession, across the wooden floor to the kitchen bench top that overlooked our jungly garden. Climbing the chair to add to my 5 year old height, I’d soon be by Mum’s side as she prepared the milk. She would boil, mix and finally pour it into her brown earthenware yoghurt pot.

In the scorched summer mornings Mum would place the pot, brimming with milk, out on a wooden chair under the sun, wrapped in a tea-towel, to incubate. By dinner time, after a few hours of refrigeration, we would cup our own cool bowl filled with it, scooping it into our mouths as it swum in the mahogany juice of  home stewed plums.

Today, I echoed my mother’s frustrations for shop bought yoghurt. It’s sitting by my window garden now, waiting to incubate while I write at the library. Though ironically, given the Melbourne weather, it’s started to rain.

Oh! For a Mediterranean sun!

*

El Griego Nick

Se que esto puede sonar muy Prusiano, pero algunas veces los recuerdos de la infancia parecen más fuertes que las experiencias del presente. Para mi, hoy no estuvo presente el aroma de las magdalenas al vapor, pero si la fragancia de la tarta astringente del yogurt de mi madre.  Ella lo aprendio de los griegos  cuando tenia 25 años de edad y mientras viajaba por barco desde Africa del Norte rumbo a Atenas.  Afortunadamente rechazό la propuesta de matrimonio de Nick; el futbolista griego que conocio durante su trayecto, de lo contrario esta historia junto con su autora nunca hubiesen sido posibles.

Aprendi a como prepararlo y tambien como los griegos lo preparaban: Aparentemente cada hogar dejaba un recipiente en la entrada de la casa durante la noche, que luego muy temprano en la mañana, el lechero pasaba de puerta en puerta llenandos. A la hora del desayuno, el Yogurt ya estaba al punto debido al calor mediterraneo, asi que esta vasija podia ser  arrastratrada hacia la cocina para la familia.

Por el tono de mi madre deducì que ella deseaba que nuestro yogurt fuese como en Grecia.   Y creo que apartir de su frustracion por la gelatina artificial disponible en las tiendas de los 80’s que dio origen al yogurt australiano, ella empezo a preparar su propio yogurt.

Yo arrastraba una silla de madera, con grabados intrincados en el espaldar, atravez del piso tambien hecho de madera, para ubicarla junto al meson de la cosina que tenía vista hacia nuestro jardin selvatico, al treparme a esta silla ganaba más altura de la normal a mis 5 años de edad, de esta manera podia estar a su lado mientras preparaba nuestro yogurt.  En el proceso ella hervia, mesclaba y finalmente vaciaba la leche en una olla de terracota oscura destinada para el yogurt.

Durante las mañanas calurosas de verano, mi madre sacaba  al sol este recipiente rebosante de leche, previamente envuelto en un paño y sobre una silla de madera para que se aliñara. A la hora de la cena y despues de algunas horas de refrigeracion, ya podiamos llenar nuestras tazas con el producto final, el cual lo degustabamos al mezclarlo con el jugo caoba de los duraznos guisados en casa.

Hoy repreti la frustracion de mi madre por el yogurt comprado en la tienda. Por eso ahora mi propio producto esta reposando en el jardin de la ventana para que se aliñe, mientras estoy en la biblioteca escriendo. Ironicamente pienso en el clima de Melbourne porque ya empezo a llover.

Opa! Por un sol mediterraneo!

Translated by Fabian Rodriguez

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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Just a little right…Even just a little, would be enough.

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IMG_4275[1] Gelati in hand, for something new, I’m walking briskly down the boulevard today. Then I hear it. The unmistakable sound of someone being taught to read. Regardless of the language, there is something unique in the intonation of a reading session. I turn to my left and there they sit. She with bended head over a picture book. He in a cap and glasses, slowly sounding out. Slowly. I hear her patient tones- dulcet and warm. I don’t slow my pace. I just speed past. 6 metres later however, I turn in hesitation to look back at the duo sitting on the bench. Should I? Inhibition aside I return my steps. Standing in front of them armed with only one big wide smile and my fractured Bulgarian, I tell firstly him, “Bravo. You are reading so well!” Then I turn to her. Her face is all bright with a grandmother’s love and patience. She explains that her 16 year old grandson speaks Spanish and some English but he has relocated to Bulgaria. Now he must learn to read and understand Kirilica. A laboursome process. I know that well. Her wizened index finger points to the little pencil strikes she has placed to mark the accent in each word. Every word, has been painstakingly annotated with the little graphite dashes. She explains her method. It’s a daily ritual often conducted on the main boulevard of Sofia.

I am then asked the regular question… Where are you from? I give the regular answer and tell them a little about myself. Why I am here. What I do in Australia. She nods her head in understanding when I explain my job as  a “logoped” / speech and language pathologist. I then find myself talking with her about opera. Her eyes twinkle. She loves the opera. She asks me who my maestra is and nods her head in recognition at my answer. Indeed, 50 years ago she says that she attended a soiree on Ulica Alabin, in some downstairs basement where Nadia Afeyan, my maestra’s mother had a soiree of arias. My heart jumps a beat at the serendipity. There on Boulevard Vitosha, my two worlds coexist.

Sometimes it is difficult switching between 2 careers- Opera and Speech and Language Pathology. The switch is harder to the latter. I’m about to fly home and hit a lull in inspiration, a lull in cognition, a lull in creation. As much as I enjoy therapy and regard it as a noble profession (only noble in the event that one is efficacious), I lose a part of myself when singing is reduced. But maybe this is the point. Maybe we need to lose more of ourselves. I don’t know.

I was often asked on completion of my Masters why I was going back to singing? Wasn’t I now a speech pathologist? Wasn’t that enough? People were puzzled. I wanted to blurt out- “Why are you breathing?” Same question. Same answer.

I leave Sofia in two days, arriving in Melbourne at 9:30pm, I’ll start work some 11 hours later. There I have therapy rooms full of kids who have had no access to an education. Teenagers who had no civil rights and have fled war regions, moving from rural poverty and persecution to urban poverty in affluent Australia. I have a boy, who also is 16, who wants to learn to read. He can’t follow class work but he wants to be an engineer. He wants to go to University and return to Afghanistan and make things “just a little right there”. “Even just a little, would be enough”, he told me once. I have students who can’t converse with their peers. Who shuffle early into class so they don’t have to walk in to a crowded room and fight the pressure of not knowing who to sit next to. “It’s easier if I’m there early, then they have to choose where to go instead”, they tell me. “If I’m late, I am scared. I don’t know where to go.”

Today was a bridge for me. A glimpse into the working life that is on hold, waiting for my return. After seeing this boy with Down Syndrome and his grandmother, therapist and supporter all in one, I am ready to leave. So if you ask me, why am I going home to Australia for now, I will ask you, “Why are you breathing?” For the answer is the same.

They are waiting. They want to learn, as much as I do. God, may I help them, may I make things just a little right. Even just a little, would be enough.

Sugary Alcove

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Baklava from Vitosha Boulevard
Baklava from Vitosha Boulevard

Beside the tram stop on Vitosha Boulevard there is a little nook in the wall. There, in the alcove trays bend, heavily loaded with syrupy baklava and kadaif (in case you are suprised, the Ottoman Empire did extend to Bulgaria too). There are clouds of fluffy meringues, cedar coloured flat walnut cookies and the sweetest lokum (turkish delight) I’ve ever tried. Everything is sold by the kilogram that the biscuit seller carefully weighs on his retro scale. I ask for a little square of baklava. I choose from the darker tray, from the portions with kanela (cinnamon). As I receive the cube on a plastic plate with fork I muse that only I could know how superfluous it was plating that up. Soon syrup coats my fingers. It’s a good one. Layers of homemade pastry, so fine, yet with a floury grit to them. This is no factory made baklava. The paper thin sheets of pastry symmetrically ooze layers of cinnamon infused sugary goodness. As I eat it I am craving some strong turkish coffee but 2 weeks of insomnia before this singing recording tomorrow eliminate that option. Nevertheless the offering of this little booth leaves me sated. Head spinning with the sugar, I walk onward to my tram.

Bread and Shadows

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Most people think that shadows follow, precede or surround beings or objects. The truth is that they also surround words, ideas, desires, deeds, impulses and memories- Elie Wiesel 

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As I gaze at the painting closely, I can smell the flour. I feel the clay like texture of the dough in my hands- warm and moist from its proving by the open fire. My fingers are sticking to the bench, clumps of moist dough catches. The flour higher on my wrists is drying and cracking like earth that has seen no rain. The yeast is fresh and aromatic, I can’t resist trying the sticky dough. It’s chewy and sweet in my mouth. My cheeks are aglow, the warmth of the oven hits them. I keep moulding, kneading and sprinkling the dough intermittently.

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Where I can say it with words, Svetlin Rusev says it with his textured brushstrokes. But Svetlin Rusev describes alot more than dough in his Retrospective Exhibition. Situated in a marquee directly outside the grand facade of the Ivan Vazov National Theatre, the exhibition features selected paintings spanning from 1953-2013. The Bulgarian Rusev’s works investigate the everyday. The everyday here may not be so close to your everyday however.

The subject in Размисъл /Reflection, 1979 is reminiscent of Whistler’s “Arrangement in Grey and Black No.1” (more famously referred to as “Whistler’s Mother”) in composition. She too sits. Gaze detached from the viewer, hands clasped. In submission? In misfortune? I don’t know.

Размисъл/ Reflection. 1979.
Размисъл/ Reflection. 1979.
Arrangement in Grey and Black No.1. Whistler. 1871.
Arrangement in Grey and Black No.1. Whistler. 1871.
Размисъл/ Reflection (detail)
Размисъл/ Reflection (detail)

I don’t know why the faces of Rusev’s women are imbued with a harrowing resignation. There is a gaze so sorrowful in all of them that sometimes it’s hard to decipher whether it verges between apathy or hysteria.

Маика ми/ My Mother. 2007.
Маика ми/ My Mother. 2007.

Several works are reminiscent of Picasso’s Guernica, not simply in their large mural form but also in their hues, intensity and spatial composition.

Guernica. Picasso. 1937.
Guernica. Picasso. 1937.
Дора моделката/ Dora the Supermodel. 1986.
Дора моделката/ Dora the Supermodel. 1986.

As I meander through the marquee, I feel their soulful eyes haunting me from the canvas. Lost souls.

Detail from Дора Моделката/ Dora the Supermodel
Detail from Дора Моделката/ Dora the Supermodel

I can’t read Svetlin Rusev’s catalogue notes. I won’t offend my readers by translating academic comment out of context as my Bulgarian is far too shoddy. But sometimes words are not needed. The brush can describe bread as much as it can depict Wiesel’s shadows.

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?