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  • On Beauty and Distance
  • Garth Greenwell (bio)

The ugliest monument in Sofia stands at the northern end of the park at the National Palace of Culture (NDK), to the left as one enters the promenade from Patriarh Evtimii Boulevard. Hulking and abstract, immobile in its modernist geometry, it was raised in 1981 and began disintegrating almost immediately thereafter—though more slowly, it should be said, than the communist government that erected it. Bundled now in scaffolding, hidden in part by massive advertisements wrapped around it like so much gauze, the Monument to the Bulgarian State, which Sofians refer to fondly as the seven-angled thing with five pricks, is a reminder of the past at once imposing and somehow fairly easy to ignore. Fleeing away from it, the long central plaza leading to the palace is lined with cafés, along with, in the summer, ice-cream stands, balloon vendors, and artists of all types—as well as, of course, the beggars unavoidable here, whatever the season. Young couples push strollers to and from the long fountains (banked, in summer, with huge beds of red flowers) that are the park’s chief attraction; in winter, when the concrete basins are dry, the strollers come cocooned in plastic sheeting, antiseptic and alarming, like alien pods entering a hostile atmosphere. Nearer the palace itself, young men ride their tricked-out bicycles or skateboards or in-line skates at ever-greater velocities over a short flight of stairs, performing tribal acrobatics for the men who watch them, waiting their turn. Sometimes, because of some misjudgment, some failure or surfeit of nerve, they send their unmarred bodies wheeling in what seem agonizing catastrophes, from which nevertheless (as though really they were impervious to ruin) they rise up again still whole. The nicest cafés cluster nearest the palace itself, where the [End Page 47] broad walkway branches to join with Fridtjof Nansen Street on the left and, on the right, with Vitosha Boulevard, where the latest European fashions are displayed obscenely over Roma boys begging on flattened cardboard boxes. These fashions make their way to the palace only in the evening, where they can be glimpsed sliding into one of the concert halls I’ve never seen, having entered the building itself only once, and briefly, for the Christmas Fair, when it was packed with tables and booths selling candied fruits and trinkets and homemade garments of every sort.

Instead of entering the palace, I turn, as I nearly always do, toward a long flight of stairs leading beneath the main plaza. The stairway gives out onto a subterranean plaza, the center of it (another fountain, the wall behind it an elaborate mosaic) uncovered, so that looking up one can see pedestrians pacing the main level above, or leaning over the railing to gaze down at the fountain and its pool. From here branches out an elaborate network of podlezi, walkways leading under the busy streets that frame the park. These corridors are crowded with clothing stores, pizza stands, little shops for alcohol and tobacco, and often enough more impromptu merchants unfold their tables to offer flowers, tomatoes, homemade wines sold in liter Pepsi bottles, carved implements of wood or little woven things the precise nature of which is hard to discern in passing. A few steps to the left are doors to the palace basement, where the hallways are filled with shops that can afford a higher rent. There’s a café inside, huge, not meant for tourists, the floors and walls carpeted with a patterned green fabric, the air unbreatheable with smoke. Two mounted televisions alternate between Balkan soccer matches and music videos, the latter lurid pageants of heavily breasted women singing chalga, the pulsing and highly ornamented pop-folk music that is Bulgaria’s primary cultural export. My students have told me that in more conservative countries these little films are consumed as porn. My first time in this café, sipping a painfully bitter cappuccino, I found myself unable to stop watching the strange dramas flashing so vividly on the screen, full of violence and sex, even as I listened to a middle-aged man tell me of his exhilaration 20...


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