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The bagpipe contest in Gela

My mom, her friend Lidia, Oriana, and I left Sofia early in the morning to go to the Bagpipe Festival in Gela.

The drive is about 3.5 – 4 hours on narrow meandering roads through the Rhodope Mountain, which gave me just enough time to teach Oriana how to read in Bulgarian. I wrote down the Bulgarian alphabet (the Cyrillic alphabet that we share with the other Slavic peoples) and its transliteration in English. Oriana picked it up very quickly because unlike in English, in Bulgarian you pronounce exactly what you read. Her only difficulty were the differences between lowercase and uppercase and the variety of misguiding fonts. Soon, she could read all street signs!

Dancing horo to the music of the bagpipes on a meadow above Gela village

The festival in the village of Gela was in fact on a wide clearing among the hills above Gela. Hundreds of people had set up camping tents for the two-day festival and thousands more had come on foot for the day. As at any village fair, there were open grills with kiyfteta and kebapcheta, stands with souvenirs, jewelry, and toys, and machines for cotton candy and caramelized apples.

We left my mom and Lidia in the line in front of a gigantic barbecue with seven lambs roasting on skewers. Later, we saw the two of them had taken out a Maid of the Mist* raincoat to protect themselves from the pieces of roasted lamb that were flying from under the butcher’s axe. (*My mom still keeps the raincoats from our visit to Niagara Falls ten years ago).

You can't have a festival without the roasted lambs!

Meanwhile, Oriana and I sat down on the ground in front of the main stage of the bagpipe contest, in Bulgarian gaidarsko nadsvirvane. We saw men and women bagpipers, young boys and girls bagpipers, a duet, and even a bagpiper trio, and all contestants were dressed in colorful national garments.

Each time the bagpipers switched to a more upbeat rhythm, the crowd broke out dancing! Oriana didn’t resist and quickly joined the horo! Watch the video and see how fast she picked up the rhythm!

 

We saw a bagpipe maker who explained to us that Scottish bagpipes and Bulgarian gaida are very different: the Scottish instrument has three pipes and produces a solemn sound that makes it suitable for military marches and memorials; the gaida has one long pipe and a more melodious sound that often accompanies folklore singing. The most famous type of Bulgarian bagpipe is the kaba gaida.

With Oriana in Shiroka Laka

After a day of horo dancing, folk songs, and roast lamb misadventures, we went to the nearby Shiroka Laka village for the night. Shiroka Laka, with its  quaint little cobblestone streets and two-storey houses with white stone ground floors and wooden second floors with balconies full of flowerpots, completely charmed Oriana. I think she said she could live there. In Shiroka Laka, we also saw the famous school of Bulgarian folklore music, which most probably is where many of the bagpipe contestants study.

Until late at night we could see happy tipsy people coming back from the festival in Gela. One such happy and tipsy Nordic-looking boy was playing his own kaba gaida and walking down the street. He told us, in broken Bulgarian, that his mother was Norwegian and his father – Bulgarian, and that he had found himself a gaida in Norway and for the past six months had been teaching himself how to play by simply listening to folk music!

The Norwegian-Bulgarian who taught himself how to play the gaida

We stayed at the house of one of my father’s friends who is a famous journalist. The rooms were full of interesting souvenirs from all over the world, and the garden was inhabited by at least four cats. When we continued our journey in the morning, we left several bottles of our family winery Villa Melnik as a sign of gratitude to our host.

Today was a great cultural experience for Oriana. I think she appreciated the legendary Bulgarian folklore and ethnography.

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As surprising as it sounds, studying “double-abroad” for a semester in London, UK, while studying full-time in Boston, USA, has helped me rediscover my connection with Bulgaria and with my family in many new ways.

As I was strolling about South Kensington last week, I happened upon the most beautiful tri-colored flag fluttering above the door, on the side of which there was a golden plaque saying Embassy of the Republic of Bulgaria. What a nice surprise to find out that my Embassy was right next door to me during my stay in London! I wouldn’t have thought about looking for it myself.

Yet the feeling of comfort at the sight of my national flag was nothing compared to the feeling of comfort when I met with my cousin, Petra. Petra bears the name of my father’s mother, and I – that of his grandmother.

Petra just completed her undergraduate degree here in London, and is now looking for a job in the non-profit sector. Because both of us study abroad, we rarely saw each other in the recent years. It was amazing to hear how similar our stories about living and studying abroad sound, and how we both try to popularize the Bulgarian culture and history among our friends. Maybe she too should start a blog.

The highlight of our reunion was when Petra and I went to a folklore dance class at the Embassy.  It is a beautiful building and an arts gallery. We danced in the main hall, surrounded by contemporary Bulgarian paintings, right in front of the grand staircase and a golden Bulgarian Coat of Arms. There were ten-fifteen dancers, both beginners and almost-professionals, and one instructor. We danced to some of the most famous national folk songs. At one point, we were all dancing the horo and singing „Имала майка едно ми чедо, едно ми чедо Никола” (see the video). At this moment, I was sure that everyone felt very patriotic!

The dance classes at the embassy take place every Thursday and Friday from 7:30pm. Usually, both Bulgarians and foreigners of all ages attend. It’s a great way to celebrate the Bulgarian folklore and to get a good work out!

 

Check out the official website of Boiko Andonov, a  Bulgarian folklore dancer and choreographer in London.


To me, meeting Eastern Europeans in Boston is like being thousands of kilometers away from home and seeing my neighbors.

Check out Collage Dance Ensemble's official website for the 2010 show schedule

Although the cultures and peoples of the Balkans are very different, there is also a lot that brings us together when we are far from home. The love for music and fun, the passionate nature, and the respect for our traditions and origin are only some of our collective characteristics.

Collage holds auditions in late-August to early-September in Boston

This summer, I made a new Turkish friend. I was the delighted to learn from him that Boston is already familiar with Eastern European folk dance and music. He is part of Collage Dance Ensemble.

Under director and choreographer Ahmet Lüleci, Collage Dance Ensemble (official website) has been promoting Eastern European rhythms since the late 1980s.

Their mission is to bridge disparate nations, cultures, and religions through the unifying power of dance.

Collage uses traditional folk and modern music and original choreography

The company is a true patchwork of traditional and contemporary dance technique and music from all over the world: the performers are from Turkey, Mexico, the States, Bulgaria, and Ukraine; they are Muslim, Jewish, Catholic, and Orthodox; they perform Egyptian, Israeli, Ukrainian, Uzbek, Roma dances, and this is only part of their story.

Can’t wait to see some of their shows in the fall, and maybe join some of their dance lessons.

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