India – The Children’s Theatre School

It’s the last day of the Children’s Theatre School in Shiroka Luka in the Rhodope Mountains of Bulgaria, after three weeks of workshops in masks, drama, photography, music, mime, dance, martial arts and yoga, and the children are getting ready for this afternoon’s final performance. This year’s theme is India.

The costumes are the best ever, a colourful, though sometimes fragile confection of silks, linens and acetates gathered from India, Oman and London’s Brick Lane. There will be a story, of course, told in Bulgarian, concerning the doings of a large handful of Indian Gods, Princes, Princesses and Devils (the latter role easy to cast from the 90 children who’ve come from schools and children’s homes around the country). Cultural accuracy isn’t our highest goal, but we do our best, and this year we have two dancers from Aurangebad in India to guide us.

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If you’re not here already, it’s probably too late, but in any case the village is full of colleagues, children, teachers, social workers, politicians, artists, musicians, journalists, spectators, and tourists. Talking to some of them last night, I was reassured, as I am every year, that what Elena Panayotova and her artists do through three weeks of hard and difficult work, and through their final presentation, makes a difference to the lives of the children who participate. Many of them come from the more disadvantaged sectors of Bulgarian society (a large number of them are Roma), and through the Theatre School they acquire confidence, openness and reassurance that they matter. If some go back to their classrooms believing that if they work hard they can achieve something for themselves and their families then it is all worthwhile.

But above all it is enormous fun, and for me, immensely rewarding simply to see how much the children enjoy themselves.

 

The Decline of the Village

I first came to the village of Shiroka Luka, high in the Rhodope Mountains of Bulgaria, by accident, on a walking holiday, in 1988. Bulgaria was then a more or less functioning socialist economy, if not the socialist paradise it had set out to become forty years earlier, and the village thrived as an agricultural community and as host to four substantial state institutions – an orphanage for children and teenagers, an orphanage for babies, a specialist folk music school for instrumentalists, singers and dancers, and a primary school for children from the village and the orphanage. There were jobs to be had in these institutions as well as in the fields and woodland that surround the village.

Even so, the population of the village and the surrounding area was lower than it had been a hundred years earlier. Subsistence farming and the simple rural life were even then less tempting than decades earlier, when villagers rarely left the valley, dressed in the local colourful styles and played the bagpipes and flute.

Since my visit in 1988 the population of the village has halved. Farming in the high meadows above the village has all but ceased, and this year, for the first time, not a single cow can be seen ambling in the early morning from the village to the nearby pastures to graze, and back again in the evening. Even fifteen years ago, cattle were housed in stables beneath the villagers’ houses, and in the evening you would see each cow break away from the herd to find her own way home as the cowherd led them through the village square. Villagers, presumably, milked their own cows and made their own cheese and butter.

The orphanage housed nearly 70 children in 1988, and there were 20 babies in the baby home. The primary school taught 100 children and the music school boarded more than 200. That was then. The baby orphanage closed about ten years ago, the children’s orphanage closed this year, the music school boards only around 100 pupils now and the village school teaches only 17 pupils.

You would think, looking at the village, as I have, over the last few days, that it still thrives, albeit in different ways. The village square is lined with restaurants and craft shops, selling Rhodope rugs, slippers and bells. But this occupies the village only for a few months each year. With these four institutions in decline or closed there is nothing to keep young people here, whilst in Plovdiv and Sofia there are jobs, and modern life and a more comfortable way of getting through the winter. However sentimentally we might regard the old way of life, we would be the last to choose to live it.

There’s an idea now that the orphanage might become a special centre for artistically gifted children, or a centre where the arts might be employed to inspire ordinary children – I’m not sure which.  All of this stems from the work that my friend Elena Panayotova and her colleagues have done through the Children’s Theatre School, but I can’t see how this could be enough to keep the village alive, or where the money might come from to finance it. It is a desperate, but a barely plausible hope.

It is, of course, sad to see village life, indeed a way of life, decline. But Shiroka Luka is too far away to serve as a pretty weekend bolt hole for the middle-classes of Plovdiv and Sofia, and, in any, case these are not yet sufficiently prosperous cities. What’s happening here happened fifty years ago in the United Kingdom and most of Europe and no one can stop it happening here. Things change.

Blingless in Sofia

There are large parts of the world where many of those of moderate wealth, and all of those of great wealth, have acquired their possessions questionably. In such places bling abounds. If there are ‘expensive’ restaurants for business visitors or tourists they tend to be decorated brightly, opulently and ostentatiously, with the undiscerning, and undeserving, rich in mind. They are peopled by fat-bellied, swarthy gangsters, shouting into their mobile phones, blowing cigarette smoke with arrogant abandon and largely ignoring their blonde and leggy molls, who look on vacantly, even anxiously, uncertain of their tenure.

Such was Sofia some fifteen years ago, and such is Moscow still, and probably Almaty. If you weren’t wearing Gucci, or Versace, and weren’t dripping with ill-gotten gold, you were consigned to a table in a dimly lit corner of the restaurant, to be served, eventually, by reluctant waiters, and glanced at with sneering pity by more profligate and better-tipping oligarchs.

I feel a great nostalgia for such times. There was an edge to travel in the newly free democracies of Central and Eastern Europe that has been lost to normality. It was an adventure. Now it is merely a pleasure.

I’m in Sofia for two nights on the first leg of a four-country tour of LLP Group’s offices in Bulgaria, Romania, Hungary and Slovakia, before returning to my home city of Prague, and then on to the UK for Christmas with my mother. I’m travelling not on a Santa-style sledge, drawn by flying reindeer decked out in our company’s colours, but by low-cost airlines, which take me through two additional capitals, Belgrade and Berlin. If time permits I might also make a detour to Vienna on Sunday, since I have designs on Demel, the great Viennese café and cake shop, who make the best stollen and gingerbread in the world. I need stocking fillers for Christmas.

The purpose of my tour is unambitious and largely gastronomic. I take my colleagues out to lunch or dinner. I bestow Christmas goodwill, and listen to their woes and joys. Yesterday I took my Bulgarian colleagues to my favourite place in Sofia, the entirely bling-less Made in Home, a restaurant that is the antithesis of gangsterism, ostentation and tastelessness. The blingy rich wouldn’t even be seen dead there, though, aware of it or not, they’re far more likely to be seen dead at the places they do frequent. Its décor comes from grandmothers’ attics, bizarrely juxtaposed with original modern paintings and prints. Its chairs are a mismatched collection from the last ten decades, and your table may well have been made from a door. It’s cosy, friendly, inexpensive, and peopled by people of all kinds, none of them eager for display, and the food is absolutely excellent. It is the kind of place you might find in New York, London, Tel Aviv, or Paris, but that’s not to suggest it’s bland.

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We booked a table for 12.30 and although we set out from the office at 12.15 we were lucky to arrive before losing our table. Traffic in Sofia is appalling, made worse by breakdowns (see my colleague Stoyan removing an overheated car from our path) and by road works. Sofia, one of my favourite cities in Eastern Europe, is still being remade.

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We enjoyed an excellent lunch, choosing from a menu that included Bulgarian as well as ‘international’ dishes. The emphasis is on vegetables, but you can also eat fish and meat. It was so good I returned, alone, for dinner, and ate the zucchini patties with yoghurt all over again.

 

13th Annual Children’s Theatre School – Shiroka Laka

Around a hundred children took part in the final performance of the Children’s Theatre School in the village of Shiroka Laka on Saturday afternoon. Some were from Shiroka Laka, from the ever-diminishing orphanage (children are nowadays fostered instead of being placed in a single large institution), some were from the nearby towns of Smolyan and Devin, and some came from orphanages and schools much further afield. The performance followed nearly three weeks of arts workshops with the children.

An audience of around 300 watched performances that included flamenco dancing, Rhodopean bagpiping, singing and dancing, yoga, music, martial arts and the presentation of two folk tales, one Bulgarian and one African.

The Children’s Theatre School is the main annual activity of the Artists for Children foundation, directed by Bulgarian theatre director Elena Panayotova. Artists for Children provides children at risk (very often Roma children) with extra-curricula educational activities that involve the arts, seeking to build confidence, discipline and skills, as well as to provide fun, and to combat prejudice.

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Elena Panayotova

LLP Group is the main sponsor of the Children’s Theatre School.

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On Shopska Salad

I’ve just returned to Prague after ten days in Bulgaria, most of them spent watching the work of the Children’s Theatre School in Shiroka Luka, a three-week event which LLP Group sponsors.

I’ve consumed my fair share of Shopska Salads in the process, perhaps even a few too many, though I always look forward with a keen appetite to the first of them. A true Shopska Salad is a mound of roughly chopped tomatoes, cucumbers and cooked red peppers, topped with a relatively mild grated white cheese. It never tastes the same at home, but if you can put up with imitation, you can find it on almost any menu from Plymouth, to Prague or Poznan. Bear in mind that it will never taste as good as in the mountains of Bulgaria.

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My first Shopska Salad of the trip was almost as evocative as the madeleine at the start of Proust’s long-haul Remembrance of Things Past, even though I eschewed the traditional accompaniment of a glass of rakiya (the local fruit brandy which tastes as I imagine lighter fuel would taste).

The second Shopska Salad was almost as good, the tenth a chore. But where I stay there isn’t much else on the menu. As with kebabs in Istanbul, goulash on the Great Plain of Hungary, pizza in the alleyways of Naples, fish and chips on the sea front at Bournemouth, cheese fondue in the mountains of St Moritz, and moussaka in the tavernas of Athens, the palate soon tires, and I long for something English and familiar, such as lemon sole with boiled new potatoes and green beans.

Don’t be fooled into thinking the Shopska Salad has an authentic Bulgarian pedigree and that it’s been eaten in Thrace since the days of Orpheus and Euridice. No, it is to Bulgaria what the Ploughman’s Lunch (promoted by the Cheese Bureau) is to the British – an invention. It was devised by Balkanturist, Communist Bulgaria’s tourist agency, in the 1950s, as one of a collection of salads, each supposedly typical of a particular region. The Shopska Salad is the sole survivor, and remains ubiquitous. It’s the only one that is a recognisable brand in Tokyo and Timbuktoo.

That said, it seems no different to me from all the other salads on all the other menus in Bulgaria. There’s Farmer’s Salad, Shepherd’s Salad, Bulgarian Salad, Thracian Salad, and so on, each constructed of tomato, cucumber and peppers, in different quantities, placed on the plate in a different sequence. This reminds me of my own cooking tricks some decades ago, when I was capable of only four main dishes – Winter Casserole, Spring Casserole, Summer Casserole and Autumn Casserole – all exactly the same (braising steak, wine, root vegetables and herbs stewed together for three hours or so).

Even so, I wish the Shopska Salad longevity, and in eleven months’ time I shall be looking forward to it again.

Children’s Theatre School – Tomorrow’s the Day

It’s final rehearsal day for the 13th Children’s Theatre School in Shiroka Luka in the Rhodope Mountains of Bulgaria, an event which LLP Group sponsors.

After two weeks of drama, mask-making, mime, yoga, martial arts, film-making and music workshops it’s time to put the whole lot together for tomorrow’s show. There’s a notional structure, based around an African and a Bulgarian story, separately told, but authenticity here gives way to spectacle and fun and there are a number of incongruous contributions from schools and orphanages in the region that must be fitted into the programme.

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This morning it’s the general rehearsal, and in the spirit of all hands to the plough I’m taking part myself, playing some Hungarian folk music by Bartok on my oboe at the beginning of the African tale (seems authentic to me!). I used to think that it should only be about the children, that only the children should make the costumes and design the backdrops, but I’ve come to see that the children enjoy and gain much from collaborating not only with each other, but also with the artists, and even, dare I say it, with the sponsors. It’s a miraculous form of therapy that works in both directions.

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If you’re anywhere near Shiroka Luka in the Rhodope Mountains, then come. It’s only four hours drive from Sofia. The show starts at 2pm tomorrow afternoon.

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At the Eagle’s Eye

I’m in the village of Shiroka Luka, high in the Rhodope Mountains of South-Central Bulgaria (see blue spot below), for the annual Children’s Theatre School, which LLP Group sponsors.

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I first came to the village, by chance, in the late Spring of 1988 on a walking holiday with a friend. The village hosts one of the two national folk-music schools which the State (then still a Communist state) supported. We heard music, made some enquiries, and then accompanied the students, in a terrible old bus, to a local village for a concert. How we got back to our hotel, some twenty miles distant, is now lost in a haze of rakiya, a poisonous local fruit brandy.

Ten years later, long after the Communist regime had given up the ghost, my friend returned and discovered a folk-music school in grave decline, but worse, an orphanage (which we hadn’t seen on our first visit), in extreme distress, with insufficient money to feed and clothe its 70 children. My friend then started a charity, supported by other friends all over the world, that provided food, clothes and other necessities. Especially in the early years, this made a vital difference to the lives of hundreds of children, though now, seventeen years later, the situation has improved greatly and the distress, if it remains, is less obvious and less acute.

Some years after my friend’s return, and inspired by his work, I persuaded my business partners and a group of actors, musicians and theatre directors from Sofia, to run an annual theatre school for children from this and other orphanages in the region. This year is the thirteenth year. But today, I and two friends, took a day off from the chaos of the children’s rehearsals and drove to the Eagle’s Eye, a vantage point high above a limestone gorge near the Yagodina Cave, almost on the border with Greece. You can reach it only in the back of a hired off-road vehicle, and for the faint-hearted the journey is a strain. However, the view of the meadows, mountains, villages and deep gorges justifies the mild anxiety.

Our guide was Ilie, by chance a ‘graduate’ of the orphanage in Shiroka Luka. Through an interpreter I asked him about his life then and now. His is a typical story. Ilie still doesn’t know where he was born, or even whether he has brothers or sisters, and the law doesn’t permit him to find out. This is an ever present sadness. He remembers the worst times as the mid-1990s when there wasn’t enough food or fuel to heat the orphanage, and, still to his surprise, no one in the village offered help. He confirms that life for ‘orphans’ is incomparably better now. In fact, there are now only a few orphans in large institutions, the social services department having adopted the European norm of fostering children. It’s hard on those, though, whose early life spans the old and the new systems, since, he says, the children find it hard to adapt to family life after the hurly-burly of communal living, and most long to return to the orphanage.

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Ilie is in his thirties, and I asked him about the transition from social care to complete independence. For him this came, as it still does for today’s orphans, abruptly, at the end of secondary school. He tells us it was hard to get a job, and that the stigma of the orphanage hangs over him and his orphanage friends still. There are no jobs in this region, there’s no affordable accommodation, and support from the state is provided only for a few months.

Life may be less hard than it was, but tragedies still occur. During the winter of 2013-2014 a friend of Ilie, penniless and homeless, froze to death on the streets of Smolyan, the regional capital. It is hard to understand how this can happen in Europe. There is much still to do in Bulgaria.