We left Istanbul at 6:30am but there were still some smiling faces-what a trooper!
RCS left for Bulgaria bright and early Friday morning after a night of little to no sleep. We arrived at customs around 9:30 a bit crankier than usual, but as soon as we arrived at our destination I found myself wishing that we had left even earlier. Bulgaria is home to some of the kindest, most generous people I have ever encountered. At every moment during our two-day stay in Harmanli there was someone to translate for us, give us food, or even take pictures with us (we’re facebook famous in Bulgaria).
This is part of the Karavanserai in Harmanli, which was where travelers would rest along their trade route to Asia during the Ottoman Empire.
Friday afternoon, we took the bus down the hill from our hotel to Harmanli proper to tour the town center with the help of our guide Molly. We were so fortunate to have volunteers who were willing to follow us around the region and translate for us, including Molly, an American transplant, and three or four men who donated their time and language skills in exchange for little from us except gratitude.
RCSers in front of the Karavanserai.
Friday night we watched the opening ceremonies of the “Harmony” International Choral Festival that we took part in on Saturday. There were choirs present from Israel, Russia, Bulgaria, and we were so excited to represent the United States. Many of the Bulgarian choirs sang traditional folk songs with catchy beats and bright vowels, and the audience was quick to clap along. The first night the energy was high, despite the fact that much of the audience (ahem RCS ahem) hadn’t slept in about 36 hours, but we were certainly glad to get to bed.
RCS rehearsing in a room at the Cultural Center. On the wall behind us was a banner with photos from the last five International Choral Festivals held in Harmanli, and RCS will probably be added and memorialized in this rehearsal room forever. On the wall behind Beth was a picture of the founder of the Cultural center; the people in Harmanli take great pride in their history and sharing their culture, and it was so exciting to rehearse and perform in a space so laden with history!
A monument in the park where we performed outdoors as part of the Choral Festival. The symbol on the top is a nod to the Soviet Union that controlled Bulgaria until 1989, but the monument has since been surrounded by international flags.
The outside of the Cultural Center where RCS performed.
The banner with the symbol of the Harmony International Choral Festival.
Our conductor Beth was featured during the opening ceremonies of the Festival, and received a plaque and a hat!
On Saturday afternoon, we drove a short ways to an outlying village of Hamanli called Dositeevo, where I felt the most welcome I ever have as the townspeople greeted us with their traditional guest-welcoming ceremony of homemade bread dipped in honey as we entered the cultural center. Every town or village in Bulgaria has a cultural center where they hold dances and dinners; here preserving traditions and sharing customs is a norm, and art and performance are an integral part of daily life. Instead of playing soccer or football, children learn traditional step and line dances that are performed at almost every social gathering. We got to join in a few times, and that practice came in handy when we were invited to join in the dances at dinner later that night.
The Cultural Center in Dositeevo. For such a small village, it was a lovely cultural center with internet and a kitchen.
This 70-year old tenor won a silver medal last week in a folk song competition. His smile was infectious. He and the rest of the Dositeevo choir serenaded us for about half an hour, introducing us to the songs of their region.
More of the choir. The accordion player rarely cracked a smile, but could play and talk at the same time! I was impressed.
RCSers were invited to join in the traditional Bulgarian folk dances (the easy ones!) and had a great time.
The women of the village were sad to see us leave, and hugged several RCSers goodbye. They were so sweet and generous to us, and I nearly cried watching this exchange.
We performed in an outdoor hatch shell to open the night’s performances and we received spontaneous applause as soon as we began our Bulgarian folk song “Dilmano, Dilbero”. Later on the main stage, I think we sang one of our best concerts so far on this tour.
The theme of the festival was cultural exchange, and the flags above the stage were an ever-present reminder of the kind of intercultural experience we were fortunate to be part of.
We’ve moved on to Gabrovo, Bulgaria, and the people continue to amaze me with their generosity and kind hearts. We are so lucky to be here.