Fri. 17 May
Arrive at 8 pm as dusk settles over the small, neat and very new airport at Plovdiv, the air smells hot and a chain of mountains crouch in the distance. P. greets me, she is keen and smiling, she hugs me and holds my hand and pulls me towards a big black car and our driver.
In town we head to a restaurant chattering all the way. We go upstairs and the darkness is interrupted by dull lamps and large leaved trees. We are upstairs but still outside. Wooden tables and benches are set out on the dark covered terrace and a cool breeze disrupts the heavy odours of cooking – olive oil, herbs, seared meat. It feels a bit like a holiday, the anticipation and new sensations and the normality of outdoor eating – slowly and with pleasure
It is good to meet again artist friends from previous projects and new friends – from Norway, Czech Republic and Poland. The atmosphere is genial and hopeful and everyone is eating, drinking, smoking, talking in an incessant flow. A waiter in an embroidered waistcoat and full-bottomed breeches brings a huge shopshka salad with fried potatoes and beer which quickly fills a hungry gap, but everyone is tired from travel and ready to sleep. At the hostel I choose the big attic room with heavy wooden beams, and share it with 3 others, the other rooms are much smaller with bunk beds.
Sat. 18 May
Today we explore the town, we have a tight schedule and M patiently guides us round the city, galleries, second hand shops, the ice cream parlour and the singing fountain – which is empty and silent. We visit a contemporary art gallery housed in a former tobacco factory. The work is interesting, modest and not overly slick; antagonism to decades of soviet rule and subsequent moves towards hi-octane capitalism seeps into much of it. On the way out, we pass a room of people listening to and making movements to a quartet, the audience looks well heeled yet those who are performing look pale and threadbare. Then we head to Tsar Simeon’s Garden and sit in shady cool by one of many sparkling fountains for an hour, watching the fountain, talking, planning – getting to know each other.
At six all 17 of us gather to walk in dribs and drabs to an opening event on the steps of the Church of the Holy Mother of God. We find a bronze woman cradling a male body, their faces very close and and thinly veiled, a modern pieta in a nineteenth century style. The artist, Oda Jaune, mourns her lost son and harks back to the sensibility of another century. We stand around looking, pondering and being photographed. A curator makes a speech, I look around hopefully for a glass of something but there is none. The artist’s name means ‘yellow’ and several artists and passersby are wearing yellow so they are hastily assembled to pose for a photo in front of the lugubrious bronze.
We then enter the courtyard of a rather grand hotel, tables are laid quite formally with white linen and sparkling glass and there is a kind of hush as the sun goes down behind us.
I think of Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard but am not sure why. We are quite informal, perhaps a little loud, dressed in jeans and trainers, t shirts and shorts. Our sponsor Mr.B, expensively casual, is hosting a meal for the artists and greets us with generous speeches and open armed gestures. We are well regarded as artists, which feels surprising. We eat and drink and listen to more speeches, the rakia and wine making everything soft and amenable.