life in may – from the outside

I’m not a partaker. I’m an observer. When I experience or see something beautiful I don’t sink into it. No, I swim to the surface and then take a look down. I let the water bend the image and then I capture it. With words or photographs.

I don’t want it to be this way. But it is. It is. Even in those rare moments when life unfolds to me in its entire brightness – even then, or maybe right then, I see it from the outside. I see its elaborate structure. The thin fibre it’s weaved from flashes for an instant and then it’s all over. The moment’s gone. And in order to be able to go back to it I have to catch it – like a firefly in a jar.

Just as there’s something wrong about catching fireflies in jars, catching moments acts destructively to the moments themselves. It is as if trying to keep their light for longer, I actually deprive them from their freedom to come, pass and get lost in the darkness forever.

The last weekend of May was filled with moments, more than I probably had the whole month before. For a while I dedicated myself to something I’ve always imagined I wanted to do for the rest of my life – traveling and photographing. In this case however photographing was mainly a job. This is probably the reason why the rest of the time when I wasn’t busy with it I preferred not to take out my camera. Just to be part of what was happening around me. Without capturing it.

Alas… apart from an observer, I am also a collector. I want to capture moments and then look at them. I understand I will never be able to relive them. I understand my collection of moments resembles a collection of dead butterflies. And yet I keep on doing it. Describing, photographing, sharing what happens to me, even if its light must be scattered in the process. Draining it. Locking it up and killing its life with an insect pin to keep its evanescent beauty forever.

This is my gift. And a curse for all the good things that happen to me. (And for the bad, too, for that matter.) It is the (self-)sacrifice that makes my life meaningful. And, if you’re here, then it somehow makes a few minutes of your lives meaningful, too.

Or so I hope. 🙂

*

“Yes, Mum. I’m going to basketball.

But I told you I was going this morning!

I did and you said: “Mhm.”

Yes, I did that, too.

Yes, I told you this in the morning as well.”

I listen to this conversation in tram 11 and it makes me feel both sad and happy because everything around me is full of life. I breathe in Sofia’s dirty air and along with it my lungs fill with the echo of dozens of voices. Recently I’ve been spending the greater part of my days at home and so even the short journey between Konstantin Velichkov metro station and Balkankar tram stop feels emotional to me.

My sister comes and takes my backpack and while we are walking towards her flat I feel light and good. The weather is summer-like and everything looks nice to me even the thing that is supposed to be Sofia’s river. I walk the little streets of the neighbourhood and even the clacking pavement tiles sound like music to me. I see so many photographs but my camera isn’t with me so I just smile at them. On my way back I buy strawberries and cherries from the market and, in an uplifted mood, find the right way to the flat along the metal labyrinth that covers the new metro station construction site. It is only when I walk into the flat that my wonderful mood dies down. Not that it isn’t nice here. Just in days like this staying at home is a sin.

Then a sudden memory of my vegetable garden and of the serenity of home instantly makes me regret I am in Sofia. That’s okay. I am leaving tomorrow anyway.

*

6 am. There’s almost no one in the boulevards. The sun only illuminates the blocks’ highest stories. The graffiti on the metal fences are still in shadows. Sofia smells like morning coolness which promises to turn into heat. I don’t intend to stay and find out if the promise will be kept.

I can’t anyway. For the first time in my life I have a photography-related job. Five photographs from Bulgaria to evoke a feeling of nostalgia in Bulgarians living around the world. It isn’t the project I’ve always dreamed of, I won’t earn almost anything from it but after all it’s my first photography job. One of the best and at the same time rational reasons to grab my backpack and hit the road.

In the bus going to the railway station I see a boy with a backpack and some sort of chemical bond is instantly made between us. An unexplicable feeling which makes backpackers feel like soulmates and smile without knowing each other. Naturally, the same boy will also get off at Central Station and will get on the same train. And unintentionally we’ll end up in the same compartment. He’s traveling alone and I realize he’s going to the mountains. In other circumstances things could unfold in such a way so that eventually we would set off together. Not that I want it. It’s just the feeling that by sheer accident life can turn in the least expected direction fills me with love towards living itself. Something I haven’t felt recently.

I have company and the boy starts talking to another girl anyway, who also “accidentally” enters our compartment and is also headed to the Balkans. I smile even wider when I see them in the street in Karlovo and they’re still together. Perhaps they’re just giving each other directions for two opposite routes. Or maybe their lives just took a joint direction. It doesn’t matter.  At this moment I’m once again filled with love towards life and fortuitousness. Really, nothing is more life-affirming than traveling.

While Nikola and I walk towards the square I begin to think about how and why people fall in love with each other easier when they’re traveling. About how simple and devoid of any expectations a love that started this way could be. I even imagine Lukaš and I see him traveling alone for some reason and then I see him meeting another girl with a backpack and I see him willing to follow her and I see myself unable to do anything about it because I mustn’t – because love should be freedom. Then I stop. I remind myself I am walking the street with another person and I quit analyzing life no matter how comfortable I feel outside of it.

The Rose Festival in Karlovo isn’t exactly what I expected. The light is too sharp and it’s too colourful. In other circumstances I’d never photograph here. However, now I am “at work.” Some things are nice after all: the boys and the girls, dressed in national costumes, dance so fast and fervently that inside I also begin to jump. The rhythm of Bulgarian music must have the same frequency as the one at which the heart beats. The air is soaked with the scent of roses (but you can’t photograph that). However, it is too crowded so Nikola and I quckly leave the square and lose ourselves in the cobbled streets of the old town. Girls put on bright yellow costumes and pink tights in front of a russet wall. My eyes fill with colour. The camera I work with, however, doesn’t see the way I do. I’m filled with uncertainty. I decide the only thing that can make me feel better is setting off towards the next place for shooting.

At national hero Vasil Levski’s house (Karlovo)

Damask roses
traditional rug
Nikola, holding a rose
Horo - traditional dance
traditional dance
festive national costume
festive national costume

Nikola and I are standing, hitch-hiking, by the road to Plovdiv. Workers pick roses in the field in front of us. The Balkans rise gloriously, spring-young and green, to the side. There’s just a speck of white on the very top – a place covered in old snow. For a moment I think about the boy and the girl from the train and I wonder if they’re somewhere up there now. I try to imagine how small they are compared to this painfully huge mountain. I feel so good, it is as if I don’t care that I am standing and waiting and that my journey depends on somebody’s good will. As if what makes me feel good is uncertainty itself.

Before long a car pulls over. Two people. The girl wears a rose wreath on her head and we instantly realize they’re coming from the same place as we. We’re their first hitch-hikers and they’re sincerely happy with the fact they’ve begun to return the good they’ve received during their own hitch-hiking adventures. Having been simply nice, things suddenly turn unbelievable when we find out they were in Karlovo to… take five photographs from Bulgaria which have to evoke a feeling of nostalgia in Bulgarians living around the world…

What are the odds?

We laugh out loud at this amazing fortuity. Really, what are the odds that people headed to one and the same place, having one and the same task, eventually end up in one and the same car? They’re slim. But that’s what’s great about traveling – it teaches you that slim odds are just as probable as high odds.

Plovdiv. We get off near the park. All is sunk in greenery. It’s hot and children bathe in the fountain. A big pool with sky blue water has been built on a square in the park and I dream of jumping into it. We sit on a bench and I take out the ice cream box I’ve been carrying cherries in all day long. Concentrated, we spit out the pits and talk about life. Our stomachs are heavy with cherries but that’s perfectly okay.

We head to Kapana (The Trap) where I haven’t been since the traffic there was stopped. Kapana is a few narrow streets roofed by little multicoloured flags that has an atmosphere of a never-ending afternoon. We sit outside a small cafe. I drink orangeade from a big glass which looks as if it was taken out from a cupboard smelling of old wood. The glass is much lighter than it looks like but I don’t have time to get used to it because the orangeade is too nice and cool in the hot day. I watch the life around me and my whole body fills with peace. I tell Nikola how beautiful it is here and how I wish there was a place like this in Burgas. How maybe there is no other place like this in Bulgaria. While talking and listening, my thoughts once again lead me into another direction – I watch the people at the opposite tables and on the cushions in front of the shops and I try to imagine what their lives are like. The people seem attractive and interesting to me but, in order not to get jealous, I add they also look a bit pretentious.

I put on my bacpack and we head to the old town. There are not so many people but there’s still too much sun. I keep on being uncertain about myself. The fig trees are covered with tiny fruits. The cobbled streets glisten. In a street made of stairs a young couple sits in the shade. Having left my backpack to Nikola next to a fig tree, I photograph quietly next to them and try not to disturb them. To be honest, I would have photographed them instead of fragments of old houses.

Bulgarian Revival house
Bulgarian Revival house
fig tree in Old Plovdiv
fig tree in Old Plovdiv

At the railway station a gypsy woman starts talking to us and, surprisingly, doesn’t beg for money. I think she’s just in a talking mood. She guides us to the right track. The train to Asenovgrad passes by fields and cherry orchards, illuminated by honey-coloured light.

Irena and my sister meet us at the railway station and immediately bring us to the club. The club is home to the paragliders from Asenovgrad. My eyes are satiated with colours and my heart – with experiences – so I fail to examine this new and unknown world in details. I see wings in backpacks, golden cups, arranged in a corner, and many photos on the walls but I don’t linger too much inside the little green-plank building. The descending night is warm and we all sit at the table outside. A fig tree grows in front of the club and there are fireflies blinking amid its leaves. I talk with strangers who emanate peace and acceptance. I have to remind myself most of them are into extreme sports. It gets colder and Mira tells me about the Evening Wind – the local wind that, she says, comes out every evening and doesn’t die out until the morning. The leaves of the fig tree start trembling, the Evening Wind comes and the people put on another layer of clothes.

I spread Lukaš’s sleeping bag on the floor of a room Irena uses as her studio. There are books everywhere and if I weren’t tired I would browse through all of them. We say good night to one another, I open the window and snuggle into the sleeping bag, thinking about how much I miss Lukaš. Then I try to fall asleep but I hear the Evening Wind all night long and, half-asleep, remind myself it is just a wind and not a creature of flesh and blood.

*

5am

I can’t believe it but I get up.

I love having to get up really early during the weekend. This usually means I am traveling and if I’m traveling then I’m spending my time in the best way possible.

The plan is to welcome the sun from Asen’s Fortress which I am also going to photograph. From the very beginning it’s clear we won’t make it. By the time Nikola and I leave Irena’s house to meet my sister (who spent the night elsewhere) an hour has passed by. Outside, the sky is already turning pink, although the Evening Wind hasn’t gone home yet.

The town is quiet. We pass by closed wedding dress shops (over 200 in total!) and churches with murals gradually lightening upon their exterior walls. The way takes us along a cobbled street which before long turns into a little mountain path. Alas, the sun overruns us. The bushes around us are set on fire. We come out of the thin forest and notice a bench with a view to the fortress. Everything around us is honey-coloured. We follow the trajectory of the sun rays and calculate they will never reach the fortress. I lose a photograph done by the rules. We sit down and start eating cherries. The Evening Wind plays with our hairs. The early sun carresses our tired eyes. The cherries are sweet.

We go on towards the fortress because a missed photograph isn’t a good excuse to come back. We enter a thicker forest where thin and tall trees sway in the wind, cracking. The journey is more important than the start or the end. That’s why neither getting up at 5, nor the fact the fortress opens much later and we can’t enter it matters. To some, taking a walk too early in the morning to places that are closed might seem like sheer madness or a waste of time. To me they’re something nice that needs no explanation.

King Asen's Fortress
King Asen’s Fortress

We go back to the town, have breakfast in the park and Nikola and I decide to go to Bachkovo where I’ll try and do some more photography. We go to the bus station and ask about buses and then a man comes out and takes us in his car because he realizes we’re not locals and so we won’t find the way to the bus stop. There’s a woman in the car, too, who sells icons near the Monastery of Bachkovo. We promise to drop by on our way back. The monastery seems smaller than I remembered it but probably it’s just me having grown up. It’s too sunny for pictures. I like the peace of this place although I can’t feel it deep in my heart. Before long we head down, chat with the woman with the icons and then start along the river towards Asenovgrad. We quickly get a ride from an uncomfortable place where an evil dog (thankfully, on a leash) keeps us company.

mural at Bachkovo Monastery
mural at Bachkovo Monastery

We go back to the park where Irena takes part in the town’s holiday fair. I quickly take advantage of the moment, adding a few more “work” pictures. I haven’t really seen her for a long time and I want to spend the entire afternoon with her in the shade of the awning so that we can talk about myriad things. However, this is not what these two warm and sunny May days had in store for me.

After a while my sister comes and announces: “You’re going to fly with a paraglider. Go.” Strange as it may sound, I hesitate. Not that I lack spontaneity. I’d just be happy to give this opportunity to Nikola who’s never flown, so that I could stay and dicuss “family life” with Renka. However, there’s no question of free will here.

Half an hour later I ride in Spas’s car and the mountain shoes and jacket Mira borrowed me are placed into a bag in my feet. Spas and my sister discuss the weather, using weird paragliding terms. The car windows are open and hot air storms inside. We reach the “Big Landing Zone” – a vast field bathed in sharp sunlight. Commotion. I change my shoes. At this moment I take a look at Spas’s T-shirt that has the logo of… the same company I’m photographing for.

Now this just can’t be true!

We can’t believe, we laugh at it and then go because to paragliders good weather seems to be something like a rabbit. You let go of it… and you’ve lost it. We ride up the mountain but the temperature isn’t dropping. At the very top of the Dobrostan area there’s a little wooden house which, surprisingly, has two stories. There are also hung Tibetan flags and even a “free Wi-Fi” sign. I don’t have much time to take a good look at it. There are a few people in the launch zone, discussing the weather or taking a rest. I am immediately impressed by the way all people here talk as if they know one another. Perhaps they do or it’s just they speak a bit more different language. I’m not sure about the language but their eyes are really different because they see shapes in the air. They see conditions. Temperature. To me this is new and incredible.

My sister takes her wing out and prepares for launch. I think I’m more worried about her than about myself. Mira’s father who I’m flying with gives me instructions and it is then when I begin to feel tension in my stomach. Thinking about how my own sister is going to take off, I leave the earth.

I am in a swing up in the air. So high that the trees on the mountain slopes look like moss. The thought that I’m only hanging from a wing terrifies me to such an extent that very soon the terror turns into acqueiscence. If this is the last thing I see before I die… god, it’s worth it. In acquiescence, I listen to Mira’s father explaining the principles of flying to me. Of course, he also possesses that incredible vision because he sees a thermal and tries to “catch it” while I don’t see anything. I only hear the vario producing a signal – beep-beep-beep – and then going silent which means we’re not going up. Mira is also in the sky and at some point draws closer to us. We greet each other, raising a leg.

It turns out the weather is not so good after all so we descend towards the “Little Landing Zone”. Under us, an old man gathers hay and isn’t even slightly impressed by what’s coming. We land into the hot grass which intoxicates me with its summer smell. I have no time to think about the flight – my sister is in the sky and I’ll be watching her until she lands in the neighbouring field.

Everybody goes back to Dobrostan and I sit and wait for them under the shade of a walnut tree, conviniently located by the landing zone. The tree keeps drawing more and more pilots. It’s funny to think I am all alone with all those men around and we’re all sheltered by the thick shade of the walnut tree. Leaning on its trunk, I listen to their conversation, trying to make sense of the terms they’re using. I like to be able, albeit for a short time, to sink into such smaller worlds. I am still an observer, although watching from the inside of the periphery. And yet, let in, I see things differently.

Being a pilot’s sister, I have to be at least slightly interested in this world.

Going back to Asenovgrad in Spas’s car which he drives like mad in the scorching afternoon that is drawing to its end. We listen to loud music, he and my sister talk about flying and his enthusiasm is contagious. While they’re singing along with “Tero-Rero” (popular song) I think about how I would love to be part of such a small community. Not necesserily a flying one. However, I feel no sadness. I am an observer. Observers observe alone. Right?

Asenovgrad. I finally have time for Renka. In the falling evening, we walk the quiet streets of the town which the Evening Wind hasn’t started sweeping yet. We buy the best pizza in town and go to the club by the firefly fig tree. We talk about flying and flying accidents. We go from topic to topic. A famous singer sings live in the nearby bar. We hear fireworks. The Evening Wind comes out.

Night. Irena and I walk towards her home, discussing family life. Finally. Nobody’s listening. Only the wind scatters our words away in the evening streets.

*

Sofia.

Sofia is most beautiful in May. I must have written this before when it was still my home. The fact I don’t live here anymore only does it good. It’s so full of life, people, interesting conversations. I recollect it all on my bike. The city talks back to me with the sound of clacking pavement tiles. I don’t know why but I feel people here are much nicer, much more open, much more talkative.

I know I poeticize everything again but I also know dirty, chaotic and noisy Sofia can be nothing less then poetry. It’s just depending on the district, the weather, the hour or the means of transport the genre changes. Sofia is brimming with life. And that can’t be just bad.

*

Lukaš comes back and I quickly pack my stuff. My little journey ends sweetly in my lover’s arms. Sometimes, when we haven’t seen each other for a while, the hug seems even sweeter than knowing for sure I’m going to wake up next to him the following morning. But… just sometimes.

Although it’s midnight, he decides not to linger in Sofia so we set off into the night. We take the Sub-Balkan line so that we can sleep somewhere by the road. At the first place we find an expensive car pulls over and the men inside, in a most friendly way, advise us not to sleep here because “the least is that we’re going to bother you.” We quickly leave. My first thought is: “Bulgaria” and my second: “Bulgaria 🙂 Only here gangsters can be polite.” We head on and, strange as it may sound, I smile at the thought we have no money and our car is nothing much and even gangsters treat us patronizingly. To them we’re a couple of losers, sleeping under the stars – my definition of “freedom”.

We find another spot, not far from the main road. We lie down and the sky above flashes with lightnings. It’s strangely quiet and I think we just won’t steer clear of the storm. Thinking about it, we bid each other good night, ready to get up at the first drop. Weird, but I have the feeling a lot of time has passed. I feel just half of my conscience is sleeping. The other half wakes at the sound of each car. It counts the passing trains.

When I open my eyes, the sun shines bright and we’re surrounded by tall wild flowers.

Well, we did steer away from it.

*

On the motorway we’re chasing storms. We discuss different things. We plan things that need to be done about the house and the garden. After a weak of “homelessness” taking care of a home feels like such a burden to me. I say it to Lukaš and, of course, he doesn’t like it.

We talk about the wedding invitations Teodora made. Lukaš doesn’t like the fact we’re wearing backpacks in the picture while this is what I like the most. I wait for him to pay at the petrol station and when he goes back to the car he says he’s changed his mind and already likes the picture.

Because, he says, marriage is also a type of journey.

It is.

But right now I wish he weren’t using metaphors.

 

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