Back in 2011, when I attended WFAE in Corfu, Greece, I remember talking to one of the attendees about her research. It had something to do with cultural constructions of embodiment related to the built environment, which of course always reflects the ideology of time and that particular society. E.g. I remember her saying that in Germany, the quest for minimalism and order with very flat surfaces, glossy materials and rectangular edges create a very particular type of upright embodiment – posture, specifically. In contrast, Mediterranean cultures tend to be characterised by uneven surfaces, different road materials and tiles, hills, more embellished architectural details and built structures. In Bulgaria this time I’ve really noticed how the roads require a lot more effort to walk on, it’s a bit of a full-body experience because you have to dodge holes in the ground, unevenly laid-out tiles, exposed concrete blocks, duck parked cars, mud dried up in weird shapes and mounds, steps and curbs of different height, to say nothing of crossing the road. You would literally be hard-pressed to find even and consistent materials, even road pavements, symmetry or clean proportions. It’s like the physical world is in various forms of decay and either it was never quite proper to begin with, or being in various forms of decay has become the normalized state of things. New things are built, no doubt, and better than I ever have seen before, with specially-ordered European tiles and blocks and wood, and marble. Actually old marble, quite popular in certain periods of time, has really stood the test of time and remained one of the lesser decayed objects in space.
Basically much of walking in Varna is like hiking, and my guess is that people’s posture and embodiment has evolved and developed around navigating this environment of parkour lite – physical obstacles, weeds, garbage, parked vehicles, trees and bushes. And this isn’t in the outskirts of town – this is right around the corner from very central neighbourhoods including the Centre. If I were to speculate – though I admit I am having a hard time noticing such subtle differences, the posture of Bulgarians is a bit hunched-over, possibly due to engaging the whole body in walking through and over and around material structures. Unrelated to embodiment, but somehow related to this discussion of physical space and how it is culturally configured and experienced (at a less than conscious level no doubt) is just the general visual surroundings. Similarly to the roads, I think of the visualscape as the opposite of German minimalism, but also the opposite of European baroque. There is a nary a thing in place or in coherent style with each other in the general cityscape. You’d be hard-pressed to find a row of cars that are parked in relative right angles to each other. Even buildings are perched on weird angles and corners, architectural styles not really matching anything in the vicinity. It’s kind of a collage of mismatched objects, colours and materials, like one of those roadside restaurants you walk into where the owners have the singing fish on the wall and knick-knacks from all their years (and eras) of travel and operations. Since the ‘beautifying of the environment’ initiatives that so characterized the period of Communism went off the rails in the early 1990s, the ‘unclaimed’ spaces of cityscape, the publicly-owned bits of road and land, have remained utterly uncared for and barely maintained, in complete disarray. I remember initiatives in my childhood when we got together as neighbourhood teams and performed ‘actions’ to clean up, beautify and generally maintain our shared spaces in between residential apartment buildings. Communism was generally responsible for a clean look and feel, sensible modernist realism. Aristotelian in ideology, the motto was – order in the environment is order in society – and by extension, emotional and psychic order inside each individual.
Public space, unclaimed as it is, is in this way sharply delineated from private space, where individual tastes and material resources shine in the careful, stylish designs of private homes, cafes, restaurants and other commercial establishments. There is a great variety of materials again, in contrast to the fairly standard materials featured in the sensible design of North America (the West coast in particular): custom marble and tiles, planks, chairs, decorations, accessories, art and designer artistic furniture. In the same cafe/bar, across a broken down underpass, right by my grandparents’ place, one can see at least four different types of entire designer ecosystems, developed and complete with requisite materials, ambience, down to the last detail including patio furniture outside; and inside – private booths with red leather couches, matching tables and private television sets. Even the ashtrays on every table are unique and stylish – never seen two of the same kind at any of the establishments I’ve been in. In Varna there is almost a kind of competition for cafe/bars to outdo each other in the absolutely ridiculous, pompous seating and decoration design. Incredible harmony of style, really an art experience more than a culinary one. Special mention goes to these two – Bar de Rouge at the gates of the Marine Garden (right) with its giant multicolour plastic thrones; and one of the new establishments by Horisont (Akacii) next to a brand new centre for sport and cultural events. But there are many others, beautiful gems scattered in an ocean of dust and dirt, and finding them is like an escape from reality that maybe people here need more than the more advanced western nations.