Rock Stars Like Us
People greet us in public places all of the time, and Sofia was no exception. “Hello! Where are you from? How do you like my country?” They are eager to speak some English and hear if we like their country. We always oblige them and try to greet them back in their language without massacring it too badly or unwittingly insulting their mother. We tell them we are from the USA and, in this case, that we like Bulgaria very much. More often than not, their eyes get big, their smile broadens, they shoot us two thumbs up, and say, “America! Dobre! Dobre!” (Good! Good!) They love us for our freedom. It’s a little weird, but it is fun to be a minor rock star in someone’s eyes every now and then.
The Jazz Festival
In our Sofia Airbnb apartment, we found a small brochure that listed events taking place over the summer. A jazz festival, A to JAZZ, was going on in the park. Cool! There was no mention of where to buy tickets as far as I could tell but, Bulgarian is not my strong suit. I tracked the organizers down on Facebook and sent them a message. “How much are tickets? Where can we buy them? Can we bring a backpack to the venue? Our own food and drinks?” On the off-chance of a positive response: “Can we bring wine?”
A short while later, I received a response, “You can bring everything you want. The entrance is free for all three days.” I gave them two thumbs up, which they obviously couldn’t see, and said, “Dobre! Dobre!” which they obviously didn’t hear.
[Rant — optional reading — It got me thinking about how that wouldn’t fly in the States. You couldn’t bring things into most venues that directly compete with the concession stands, certainly not alcohol. Open containers in a city park would also be a no-no. Maybe there would be a beer garden where you are penned up like cattle while you down a brewski with a spreading ink stamp on your hand. Your backpack, if you are even allowed to bring one, would be searched for contraband which would be confiscated by guards at the entrance, all in the name of safety of course. — End of optional rant]
Can you imagine showing up to a concert in a park in the States with your wine in its actual bottle rather than disguised in a sports bottle? I mean, I’ve heard of people actually doing that sometimes…
The A to JAZZ festival was a really relaxed event [minor rant continuation: despite the number of people and the abundance of wine, two-liter bottles of beer, homemade sandwiches, and un-scrutinized backpack contents]. We went to the last two nights of the three-night event. The early acts were lightly attended but very talented musicians nonetheless. On the last night, the Uvira/Bruno/Hafizi Trio opened. They played an entrancing piano-intensive set. While we listened to the next set, two-thirds of the trio came and sat right next to us. Cool!
The Photo Exhibition
We stopped in at the National Art Gallery for a photo exhibit that was also listed in the summer events brochure. The temporary exhibition was titled “Open-Mouthed” by Cristina García Rodero. A huge banner hung on the outside of the building with a photo of two women about to kiss, and it appeared that it was going to be of the wet-sloppy variety, with a teeth-tapping tongue stud and all. How many of our more conservative cities would allow that to hang? Think of the letters to the editor that would be written urging the museum to take the banner down. For the love of god! Girls might see that and start kissing other girls! My biggest fear is that more people would get those annoying tongue studs and start tap, tap, tapping away on their teeth.
Cristina García Rodero’s photography blew us away. She was a genius. All of the photos were black and white and, as the name of the exhibit suggests, all had one or more people with an open mouth expressing everything from fear to passion to boredom. Some of the photos had to be staged, but if they were staged, how on earth did she decide on the composition? Maybe they were lucky, but if they were lucky, how did she get lucky so often? It was an unforgettable exhibit.
The Museum of Socialist Art
We were feeling happy, having a great time in Sofia, but in the dark corners of my mind, I was annoyed. How can we be from the Land of the Free and be less free than Bulgarians? I set my sights on the Museum of Socialist Art dedicated to the communist era in Bulgaria. Yeah, it wasn’t always free music, free speech, and big beers in public parks.
We jumped onto the metro and like pros, made a change then got off at the correct station. The Google-bitch routed us through the back ends of commercial buildings. Thankfully some guys were at one of the loading docks and, as if they’d seen people wandering around lost before, they asked in English, “Museum?” We nodded. In unison, they pointed at a gap in the fence toward a hinky set of rusty metal stairs. We cautiously made our way down the tetanus fraught gauntlet of metal and like magic, the ugly, communist era, square cement building with absolutely no character appeared. We knew it was the right place because at least half a dozen Lenin statues and a giant red star graced the lawn.
We paid the admission and were told, “You sit and watch movie now.” We did as we were told. The movie was a propaganda film extolling the joys of breaking rocks in the hot sun. Men and women with big smiles whacked away at the rocks. Others picked up the heavy looking chucks, with smiles on their faces of course, and passed them to the next smiling person in line. There was a lot of singing and many parades. Communism looked like a great time indeed!
After the movie, we went to the art gallery. Now the truth came out. There were paintings of interrogations and executions. There were ones of small bands of armed, gaunt figures with hollow eyes. There were scenes of poorly organized but desperate rebels being “dealt with” by uniformed men upon horses. There were no paintings of the smiling people breaking rocks.
Sofia was a “Dobre! Dobre!” experience. We liked it very much. The events and museums we had a chance to visit were top-notch. It is a city in a country which is only a little more than a quarter of a century removed from communism, but it appears to be embracing freedom, especially that for the individual.
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