Sofia, Bulgaria | A Brief City Guide + On Finding Tenderness
1. What is an island?
2. Where can I find tenderness?
Our fatigued limbs were happy for a rest as we lounged on the floor, pencils in hand, flexing our mind muscles to answer these seemingly simple yet complex questions.
1. A place away from the mainstream. Away from fast-paced routine where you can sit with yourself and be with others, completely in peace. Somewhere that may be small but we make space for each other.
2. With my family, husband, friends, dance, and in those little moments of smiles, softness and openness.
French choreographer Kevin Jean asked us these questions, among others, on the last day of our 3 day workshop intensive. These workshops were a part of the 10th Anniversary “romantic edition” of the Antistatic Contemporary Dance Festival in Sofia, Bulgaria.
The questions Kevin asked were not only intended as the first prompts for his own work Des Paradis (Some Other Paradises), but as a way to wrap up all of the somatic, improvisational and deeply exploratory work we had been developing together in the previous days.
The workshop as a whole revealed its own cumulative and embodied answers to these questions and the answer to where can I find tenderness eventually presented itself as everywhere. The more pressing question, for me, became what is tenderness and how can we experience it?
So what is tenderness, really? I felt it, but I don’t know how to put the feeling into words. It is in the soft curves. It’s sensual without any scandal. It is a quiet hum of contentment that emanates from the warm parts. If we can capture that feeling like a murmuring firefly within us, tenderness can be found absolutely everywhere. With my earlier definition in mind, we can make any place our island in that moment.
Sofia is obviously not a literal island and upon first glances and impressions, was not a particularly tender city. It seemed gritty, smoke-filled and chaotic in its clash of cultures and histories. That impression, however, lasted only the first day because as soon as that workshop started, it was like a flimsy veil dropped and suddenly I saw these beautiful people to meet and this wide and mysterious city to explore. Each day, I was taught through dance how to integrate that spirit of tenderness into every minor interaction with the world and with this city.
Suddenly Sofia made me giddy. I don’t know if it was the mood with this romance-themed festival or the work we were doing every day, but I felt a bit like a child, smiling and laughing at the simplest things, the silliest jokes with friends and delighting even in the grittiness and chaos.
So let me answer those questions again.
1. What is an island?
Anywhere you find peace and a deep calm kind of happiness.
2. Where can I find tenderness?
Anywhere you allow yourself to feel it.
And here is where I felt it in the momentary island of Sofia:
Alone in Cafes.
There is a kind of self-tenderness that can be practiced when traveling solo. For this reason I took full advantage of early mornings on my own, using them for one of my favorite travel activities- finding cafes with my kind of vibe.
My first morning I made my way through our ramshackle neighborhood towards the city center and on the way, stopped into Fabrika Daga (Factory Rainbow). The workshops on finding tenderness had not even begun, but as soon as I entered this place I sucked in my breath and knew already that fate was going to help me on this trip, even with things as simple as discovering the perfect cup of coffee in the perfect atmosphere. This cafe became my go-to, with fabulous, filling sandwiches for lunch, and coffee, fresh juice or kombucha at all hours of the day. This place and I had something special.
I probably could have gone to Fabrika Daga every day, but the little adventurer inside my head made me venture further and find new coffee spots. The second morning, I decided to find a place recommended to me by the generous Sianna of the EO Stories blog, who is based in Sofia.
I felt so lucky because Drekka Coffee had only opened about 2 weeks before I arrived and was owned by the sweetest young couple who have a one-year old daughter who is already the best “barista” in the house. Boy, do these people know their coffee. Not only did I have a zingy wake-you-up-instantly espresso, but went home with a couple bags of coffee beans to savor at home. Their decor is minimal, graphic and gorgeous and they have a table spread of magazines to pursue through- all coffee related of course.
My third and final cafe discovery was Chucky’s Coffee House, another impeccably designed little wood-paneled shop where I sipped on a delicious cold-press and tenderly flipped my way through the book I’ve been enjoying lately, glancing up for early morning people watching through the glass panes.
Peace & coffee. That’s all I need for sweetness in the mornings.
With Food & Good Company.
While the beginnings of my days were for alone time, my lunches and evenings were for forming bonds with the lovely and tender-hearted women I met in the workshop. We were quite the group- a Romanian actress, an Egyptian theater manager and actress, a Bulgarian woman seeking her artistic passion and me, the American-turning-Moroccan dancer/foodie/writer. We all came from such different places with different stories, but came together over amazing meals and eye-opening walks through the city.
The first restaurant we tried was the cozy and colorful Tea House- a vegetarian restaurant, specializing in all different kinds of tea. Each dish we tried seemed to be made with so much handmade love and we ended up eating there again specifically for the heavenly 4-cheese pizza. The raw chocolate torte and cherry cake were particularly tempting as well.
Our other favorite place was also recommended to me by Sianna, a quaint and home-like restaurant called The Little Things. With small creaky staircases and many different rooms to choose from, you truly feel like you are dining in someones house and the food lives up to the atmosphere. We had a delicious hummus plate and big, rich dishes of different kinds of pasta.
Following that dinner, a call for ice cream was made (it may have been my suggestion…) so the Bulgarian in our party led us to Gelateria Naturale where we each had a scoop of peanut butter gelato and a scoop of almond praline, topped off with some raw chocolate energy truffles. There’s something about four happy women getting ice cream together that just exudes that kind of tenderness I’ve been seeking.
Finally, Tenderness In the Sights + Moments
Finding shadow-speckled tree-lined streets and breathing in the leaf-y green air.
Majestic cathedrals, mosques and synagogues, all in a 2-block radius from each other, emanating a sense of community from each.
A renewed cultural center, bustling with fresh energy and beginnings.
An afternoon at the lake and in the mountains- a needed break from the industrial, concrete center. A place where every person there visibly exhales.
The hush-hush ups and downs of the Bulgarian language heard on every corner, trying to learn a couple words to say with a smile.
With the right mindset and the right people, tenderness can be found in any city and any place. Sometimes it just takes an experience, like a dance workshop for example, for you to be able to see and feel it.