Sitting in my warm apartment while winter freezes the snot of people on the streets of New York, I can finally begin to decompress from my last trip to the Balkans. I’ve been traveling to Bulgaria, Kosovo, Serbia (yes, I am acknowledging that Kosovo is no longer Serbia,) Bosnia, Macedonia, and Turkey for a few years now. I’ve gone mostly for love, sometimes for circus, sometimes for vacation. Quite a few times I’ve gone for chalga—which can be directly tied into the ‘love’ aspect.
When I was teaching circus camp in Texas years ago, I worked with a Bulgarian couple who had trained some circus colleagues in Bulgaria. Like typical Bulgarians, they liked to drink rakia (which they called ‘schnapps’ in English,) grill meats, make shopska salad (cucumbers, tomatos, onions, and Bulgarian white cheese, ) and dance around to chalga. Once they were drunk enough to turn on the chalga, the nationalistic talk started,
“The Black Sea is the most beautiful sea in the world! I’ve been to California and the coast there cannot even compare to the beauty of the Black Sea!”
“Bulgarian women are the most beautiful women in the world”
“We are the smartest, the strongest, the best acrobats, etc. etc.”
After weeks of this I started to believe them, and since I’d never been there I thought I needed to visit this paradise on earth—even though I couldn’t place it on a map if a gun was held to my head. And the chalga music intrigued me. I’d always wanted to go to Turkey since studying Greek history in high school and this music the Bulgarians played sounded Turkish to me. And that was a good thing. I didn’t find out later that this is exactly the type of thing that makes Bulgarians hate chalga. What makes it “Oriental”.
After the dissolution of my long-term relationship that winter, I decided I needed to pick myself up with a trip to Turkey. (Actually, I kick-started it with a 2 month jaunt around Mexico. . .) And as long as I’m going there, I might as well stop and check out this Bulgaria I’ve heard so much about. I didn’t know anyone there, didn’t know what to do there. I only knew one non-Bulgarian who had been there. And I decided to ask her for advice.
A few days before I had decided to ask my friend, Tammy, about her trip there years before, a man had come into the library and to the Periodicals Department to locate a particular journal. I had been working at that desk and he walked up and in a very congenial manner asked for the “Journal of Heritage Studies”. The database listing the periodicals is in alphabetical order, so when it can’t find a title, it will suggest the next one down, which in this case happened to be the “Journal of Greek Love” or something similar relating to homosexual issues. I asked him with a laugh, “Are you sure you don’t want to just look at the Journal of Greek Love?” Where did that come from? In general you want to avoid being goofy or potentially offending a customer, but he seemed like he had a good sense of humor and would laugh. Which he did. We didn’t have the journal he wanted, and he left. He was Matthew—the man who introduced me to chalga.
A couple of days after that encounter, which I had forgotten, I was at the Odeon in San Francisco where Tammy was in a ‘play’. While I was watching, the man from the library came up to me and said, “Hey, didn’t you help me at the library the other day?” I remembered his face, but didn’t engage him too far because then you inevitably get into the old, “I think librarians are so sexy” conversation that every man feels he is entitled to. So I turned back to the play. Afterwards, I told Tammy I was going to Bulgaria in a few weeks and wanted advice. She said, “Oh, you should meet my friend Matthew who is here, he lives in Sofia!” She guided me back over to the bar where she introduced me to the Journal of Heritage Studies Guy. And so we became friends. And then lovers.
The first night I went to his flat in Sofia, he showed me a chalga video, and I did not leave his apartment for a week. I just sat gaping at the TV and all its trashy glory and could not leave other than to pour more rakia and smoke cigarettes on the porch. It was heaven.
And Matthew told me about the history of Bulgarian chalga, shared with me his favorite stars, translated interviews and lyrics and elucidated many other wonders. I loved how he put all of this in context. Later that summer, when we rented a car and drove around the country, I learned that there are less chalga fans in Sofia. The villages were where it really happens. And many small towns have chalga night clubs where the singers have ‘engagements’. This is how chalga singers make their money—they are paid to sing at parties, weddings, club engagements. There are no CD sales or merchandising and in many cases, the singer pays for the honor of singing by giving outlandish cuts of their salaries to the record label. It’s difficult to see what the attraction is for them, other than the glamour of it all.
So when Julie and I went to the Folk Club Versai in Sofia last week, how much the singer, Andrea was really making from this show was on my mind. The club was, in a word, ‘upholstered’. The large columns in the middle of the room were decorated in white leather diamond-shaped pillows, gathered in the middle by a little silver button. The ceiling was mirrored and accented with circular mouldings of silver and gold. The back wall was of padded gold, the Lucite bars were lit from underneath, and the singer’s runway/dancefloor was pure Studio 54. You can see this club featured as the backdrop for 50% of the current chalga videos. Instead of the Henny and Cristal-swilling patrons that would frequent a place like this in the States, the Versai was full of 17-year old gelled-haired dudes drinking beer, and if they are fancy—Johnny Walker Red.
It all should have been perfect there on that snowy December night, hanging in a chalga club with one of my favorite people, taking in the sights and picking up tips for my own chalga career, but like many episodes in my life these days—the moment was full of the ache of loss and wonder at how I arrived at this place. At 40 shouldn’t I be at home with my children in the house that I own? Shouldn’t I have a loving husband to come home to? Granted, these are not things that I’ve ever wanted for myself, but then I never ‘wanted’ to be hanging out with teenage chalga fans in Bulgaria either—but here I am. And most of these feelings of loss are my own fault. I was the one who ruined things with Matthew, I’m the reason I wound up single traveling to Bulgaria for an obscure musical genre. But that is exactly the problem—I can’t help but travel places, to be intrigued by things that probably take me further away from stable relationships and true love. Once I thought I found someone to share this life with. But he broke my heart. I met him in the Balkans too. I need to stop going there. Even for chalga.