Freezing Rain Helped Me Draw Demons: witnessing the children’s parade of the Surva Festival in Pernik, Bulgaria
I had a very vague idea of what to expect when our group of strangers left the hostel in Sofia to go to Pernik. Days before, we heard a tour guide speak passionately about the importance of this festival; a cultural event to remember, a “really cool thing”. With interest picked, I did what tourists do and researched. I found the marketing videos and photos pretty to look at, but vague and lacking any real soul. Promotional videos for cultural events often are like that – empty pictures. Didn’t help that the website didn’t give any useful information, such as event locations. Sometimes I like to think that vagueness is deliberate, so the work in finding things out makes it stay in your memory for longer. It felt like they were telling me: Of course you know what the Surva Festival of Masquerade Games is! What are you, a tourist?
A vague website, and excitable locals. Word of mouth will do, when a marketing team cannot tell me where the main event will start.
If someone else has written about how your mind shifts when you travel, I’d like someone to point me in their direction. When you travel, there is a shift in mindset, of course. Suddenly, what you would not ever consider attending back home because an unmissable event. After all, will you ever come back to this part of the world? It is when we operate in this way, that the mystique of the unknown has the most pull. Six years in Wales, and I have yet to attend an Eistedfodd. When you know the event will be there another year, it is not as pressing as when you know you’ve got one week out of your entire lifetime to experience a place. An impossible task, of course, but there’s that phrase about shooting for the moon.
Our quartet set out from the hotel late in the morning. Snow crunched underfoot, the sky was grey and like a mischievous kid during carnival season, threatened to throw water at us. We were four strangers who knew only first names and country of origin about each other; four strangers who had, over a meal, share curiosities about our days in Sofia, and had all decided that this festival sounded like a “really cool thing” and going as a group would make it more enjoyable. So we asked, in broken Bulgarian, how to get to Pernik, followed signs we had to translate slowly, and boarded the train bound to this city nestled by the foot Vitosha and Lyulin mountains. We met an American man on the way, a writer who created a fictional Bulgaria: “I wrote the book set in this part of the world. Thought I should visit at least once.”
Kukeri is the name for those performers who participate in the pre-spring festivals; people who don monstruous masks made of fur, feathers, leather wood and whatever else regional variations allow. They dance and make music with every step, heavy bells attached to their bodies. To banish evil spirits, to bring in good harvests and health, to commemorate the sowing of the soil; this and more, do the kukeri bring. The custom is what survives of the rituals of a Thracian cult of Dionysos, kept alive with support by the European Federation of Carnival Cities.
Down the long boulevard of the city square, awnings and stalls framed the place. The smell of roasting pig and chicken, of fresh flatbread and thick sauces filled the cold, cold air. The snow had mostly melted, but it remained in clumps in a square shared by an Orthodox cathedral, a building sporting an impressive soviet symbol, and a building so bland it could only be local government headquarters.
Mud streets slopping up hill where new houses with walls yet to be rendered stand next to structures of corrugated iron that wouldn’t be out of place in a Metro or Fallout game. A shopkeeper smiles, cigarillo smoke between fingertips impervious to the cold. One one end of the city stands what remains of the medieval fortress of Kraka. In the middle, there is a mining museum inside a mine shaft we couldn’t figure out how to get to. Next to it, a regional museum that tries to summarize thousands of years of history into six rooms. Pernik feels like a place with a sense for its history, a little too aware of its lot in life. It felt familiar and foreign in the best ways. People were friendly, but their eyes followed you as you walked down the street. Makes me sad I couldn’t speak the language and discover other truths to the place.
In this space, children and teenagers dressed like monsters of horn and fur, with gnawing maws and grinning smiles, waited in a long line. The Other had been summoned, made manifest in performance of timeless characters: the crone, the gender transgression of crossdressing, the harkening of traditional dresses juxtaposed against jeans and faux leather jackets, the beast tamer who was inspired by the second Mad Max film, and kukeri both free roaming and in chains.
And then the drums started, and the parade moved forward. The clang of bells that hung from hips and torsos, a heavy brass tolling to the rhythm of jumping feet. Skirts swivelling, laughter, mischief, and proud parents taking photos all around. A sea of people where one character was unique, and yet melded into one another.
The rain started then, a freezing wetness that made drawing painful, exciting, and very quick. In another season, without my companions, I would’ve sat down and done a long study of the Children’s Parade. Something familiar and, in hindsight, a little too much like the festival’s marketing material. To be there, in the moment, on site, modified the drawing; rain smeared, splattered colours, bled the characters into one another on the page. Made each drawing its own thing, and one with the others; thus accuracy is achieved, if not in form, in feeling.
Our group kept together, through wind, rain, cold and an overly-long opening event. We were individuals in a sea of people, in a small city in Bulgaria, perhaps never to witness it again. But for those hours we were part of a really cool thing.
by Ian Cooke-Tapia