Roma (Gypsies)


Three gardens in the town of Kıyıköy on the Black Sea coast of Turkish Thrace.

Kıyıköy — literally: “coastal settlement” — is the all-too-obvious modern Turkish name for the ancient Greek Black Sea port and walled settlement of Medea.  By late-Ottoman times, the town, eventually known as Midye — Turkish for “mussel” — was populated in large part by Greeks, whose lives and livelihoods (fishing and coastal shipping) faced seaward, and by Bulgarians, whose lives and livelihoods (dairy production and garden farming) faced inland.  Bulgarians left Midye during and after the Balkan Wars of the 1910s, and Greeks in the forced population exchanges that followed Turkey’s war of independence in the 1920s.  Demographics have changed — today’s Kıyıköy appears to be populated by Turks and Roma — but the part-Byzantine and part-Ottoman walls of the town still stand and still mark its periphery, and Kıyıköy’s rarely-frequented harbor still provides safe haven from the capricious currents of the Black Sea.

The three gardens portrayed herein are set in the expanse between Kıyıköy’s formerly-Greek town center and its still-extant town walls.  At the top: the front garden of the home of a Roma family.  Middle: A backyard vegetable garden.  Last: A solitary pupil in the playground of a private kindergarten awaiting the imminent start of the school year.  All three photos were taken in 2013. The camera: My usual Fuji X100 with and without a wide-angle conversion lens.




Roma blacksmith, Stoliponovo quarter, Plovdiv (Filibe), Bulgaria, 1997. Nikon F3, 35mm f2.0 lens, b/w negative, scan of print. Click on image to enlarge.

Friday was International Roma Day, the annual celebration of the survival of the Romani (Gypsy) people and the commemoration of the Europe-wide persecution and mass murder of Roma by the Germans and their fellows during the Second World War.

In honor of my Roma friends, neighbors, and acquaintances, and of Roma throughout Europe, I’ve posted the photo above.  The choice of the photo is intentional.  The face and tools of the subject show energy, openness, pride, and mastery of craft.  But, on another level, the photo tells a darker tale.  In Eastern Europe, Roma are still relegated fringes of society.  Spatial segregation, exile to the urban edge, and segregated schools block mobility.  The need for traditional crafts and labor as once practiced by Roma declined to near naught over the past half-century as tool-wielding and agricultural village economies faded and the age of mass-produced and disposable goods arose.  Entree to successive waves of “new economies” — precision manufacturing, financial, service,  high-tech, etc. — has been barred to Roma by the vicious circle of educational and residential apartheid compounded by the outspoken racism that is still run-of-the-mill in the ideologically mono-ethnic “new democracies” of Eastern Europe — including Bulgaria, where I took the photo above a full twenty years ago and write these words today.

No reason to be too bleak however, Roma work hard, improvise as best they can, and try to enjoy life in the process.  So, even if it is a couple of days too late, why join me in a rousing chorus of the Romani anthem, Djelem, Djelem (English-language translation of lyrics, here).


A Long-Vanished Nightspot: A patch of pavement, a corrugated metal fence, and a rundown cottage on a main thoroughfare in Sofia, Bulgaria –  the likely location of a nightclub once owned and run by  Keva, a legendary Romani (Gypsy) vocalist in the years preceding the Second World War.  In its day, Cafe Keva was a popular gathering-place for Sofia residents of diverse ethnicities and walks of life.  Fuji X100, 2014. Click on image to enlarge.

The probable site of a 1930s nightspot, Cafe Keva, owned and run by a popular Romani singer of the time, Sofia, Bularia, 2014. Fuji X100. Click on image to enlarge.

A Tentative Return

After a six-month hiatus, I’ve decided to reactivate this site, in part due to the encouragement of a small circle of readers in New York, Luxembourg, Vienna, Sofia, and Istanbul.  We’ll see how it goes…

A Long-Vanished Nightspot

A patch of pavement, a graffiti covered corrugated metal fence, and a rundown cottage from a past age on a main thoroughfare in Sofia, Bulgaria – the likely location of a nightclub once owned and run by Keva, a legendary Romani (Gypsy) vocalist in the years between the two world wars. In its day, Cafe Keva was a popular gathering-place for Sofia residents of diverse ethnicity and walks of life.

The prosaic stretch of sidewalk portrayed in the photo above is one of many subtle, non-monumental reminders of the presence, history, labor, and  social and cultural contributions of the Roma (Gypsy) population of Sofia, Bulgaria’s capital.  Over the past century, processes of nation-forming and of economic change, coupled with social and spatial segregation, have solidified and sustained the marginalization Roma.  In parallel, the official historiography and anti-minority sentiments of Bulgaria’s self-styled mono-ethnic society and the pretensions of its post-communist monied classes have booted Roma out of their rightful places in urban consciousness and mainstream memory.

Monuments Spatial Rather Than Physical

As mentioned in a previous post, a decade ago, at the behest of an obscure US congressional commission, I conducted an extensive survey of architectural monuments across present-day Bulgaria germain to the histories, lives, and identities of a number of “minority” religious and ethnic groups, Roma amongst them.  Output included databases, background monographs, and a shortlist of sites worthy of conservation or restoration.

My recommendations for sites relevant to Roma history focused as much on spatiality as on edifices.  For Sofia, my recommendations included a program of markers, urban walks, and print- and/or computer-based mapping that would identify relevant locations but also chart the progressive displacement of Roma from the interactivity of Sofia’s urban core to the isolation and apartheid of its urban – and, along with it, social and economic – periphery.  I now debate implementing the project on my own.  (Note: Some years previously, I had begun to map the outward displacement of the Jewish population of Sofia during the late-19th and early-twentieth centuries. Indeed, in the aftermath the selection of Sofia as the capital of newly-independent Bulgaria nearly a century and a half ago, neither Gypsies nor Jews were considered welcome in the city’s redeveloped, self-consciously “European”-style inner core and were exiled to its furthest-most reaches.)

Afterword …

A test for Sofiotes: Anyone who’d like to hazard a guess as to the exact location of the patch of sidewalk in the photo above is welcome to post a comment, as is anyone who would like to share more about Cafe Keva or any other markers of Romani life in Sofia, past or present.  I should mention that the location portrayed above was pointed out to me years ago by Dimitar “Mitko” Georgiev, a resident of the Roma quarter of “Fakulteto”  whose family has lived in Sofia for generations.  If the location of Cafe Keva as portrayed in the photo is correct, he gets the credit; if it is wrong, I’ll take the blame.

Late-19th-century "çarșı"-style row house, Pirotska St., Sofia, Bulgaria, 2014. (Fuji x100). Click on image to enlarge.

Late-19th-century “çarșı”-style row house, Pirotska St., Sofia, Bulgaria, 2014. Note the neo-classical decorative elements and prim domesticity of the curtained windows on the second story and the presence of an Apteka (pharmacy) on the ground floor. (Fuji x100). Click on image to enlarge.

After the founding of an independent Bulgarian kingdom in the aftermath the Russo-Turkish War of the 1870s, the city of Sofia was chosen as the capital of the new nation-state.  The choice of Sofia comprises a tale unto itself.  True to the nation-state model, from day-one newly independent Bulgaria was giddy with dreams of expansion, northward, westward, and southward (to the east, expansion was blocked by the waters the Black Sea).  Sofia, located near Bulgaria’s western border, would be at the country’s epicenter if Bulgaria would succeed in realizing its revanchist “manifest destiny” by expanding westward to the Lake Ohrid and annexing all of Macedonia.

At the time, Sofia had not fully recovered from a heavy earthquake and ensuing epidemics during the first quarter of the nineteenth century.  The city boasted the palatial residence of the former Ottoman governor — soon to be re-purposed as the palace of a monarch recruited from a family of minor German “nobility”– and a main thoroughfare paved with ocher-colored bricks imported from abroad.  For the rest, however, Sofia’s streets were warrens of winding lanes centered around Friday mosques, neighborhood mesjids for daily prayer, churches, wells and fountains.

The first step in creating a self-styled European capital was to sweep away the old Ottoman neighborhood structure and cut a street plan in the western model.  The adopted plan combined a rectilinear street grid with a circular ring road and curving boulevards ala Hausmann’s plan for Paris.  The next step was true to the model of mono-ethnic nation state that Bulgaria was striving to become: “ethnic cleansing.  Gypsies and Jews, the latter comprising a full one-third of Sofia’s population of 10,000 at the time, were forcibly expelled from the city center; Jews to the newly cut parallel streets of  Üç Bunar (“Three Wells)” to the west of downtown Sofia, and Gypsies further outward to the far bank of the Vladaya river, one of several seasonally flooding streams that together formed a moat surrounding the city.

Amongst the new grid of streets cut from Sofia’s main north-south boulevard through the old Ottoman quarter of Sungur and out to Üç Bunar was Pirot, today Pirotska.  The downtown end of Pirotska eventually was lined with European-style apartment houses.  At the Üç Bunar end of Pirotska an older form of architecture still dominates: Two-to-three-story row-houses built in çarʂı (Turkish for “arcade” and “market”) style, with commercial space for shops and craftsmen’s ateliers on the ground floors and family dwellings on the floor(s) above.  Such çarʂı dwellings contributed to the re-shaping of Sofia by spatially integrating the functions of residential streets and  market quarters.  By doing so, they contributed to a culture of urban street life and the emergence of an urban middle- and lower-middle-class and paths to class mobility, both essential elements of democratic nation-building, an imperfect process in Bulgaria to this very day.

Broom sellers,

Roma broom sellers, Women’s Market, Sofia, Bulgaria, 1997. (Rolleiflex Tessar 𝘧3.5, Tri-X 400ASA, scan of print.) Click on image to enlarge.

Due to the length of this posting, I’ll invert the usual order and begin, rather than end, with a somewhat dry “footnote” on photographic technique; some reflections on the content of the photo — the Women’s Market, Sofia, Bulgaria — follow thereafter …

The Virtues of Slow Lenses

A good number of photographic sites I skim through on the internet betray an out-sized preoccupation with the virtues of fast, wide aperture lenses and their ability to create  narrow planes of focus and patterns of background blur.  As a counter to such, the photo above shows the virtues of slow, narrow-aperture lenses, in this case the 75mm Tessar f3.5, the built-in lens in a second-hand twin-lens Rolleiflex that I bought used more than three decades ago.  The Tessar is one of the simplest designed and lightest weight lenses ever produced but when used properly it is second to none in sharpness, detail, and contrast. The Tessar’s 75mm focal length is a tad wider than 80mm,  the usual “normal” focal length on 6x6cm medium-format film cameras.  This 5mm difference enables the Tessar to deliver slightly wider coverage when used up-close, an advantage in environmental portraiture. The extra 5mm also provides a tad more depth of field and a slight exaggeration in perspective.  The depth of field provided by the Tessar’s maximum aperture of f3.5 reduces the likeliness of focusing errors and keeps background details recognizable.  In the photo above, thus, the main subject is in crisp focus while his wares and female colleague and the pedestrian traffic and architectural features of the market street behind him are sufficiently out of focus so as not to detract from the main subject but still clear enough to provide meaning and context.

Now, on to the subject at hand: the urban dynamics and historical tales the photo reveals …

The Women’s Market, Sofia, Bulgaria

The Women’s Market — located on broad curved street, following the course of a one-time riverbed, just west of the present-day center of Sofia, Bulgaria — has a history that stretches back to the centuries when what is now Bulgaria was part of the Ottoman Empire.  Following Bulgaria’s independence from Ottoman rule in the aftermath of the Russo-Turkish War of the 1870s, the Women’s Market was Sofia’s main retail produce outlet.  Nearly a century later, during the final years of the communist period, the Women’s Market provided a buffer of private enterprise and a reliable source of seasonal produce. Following the collapse of the Soviet bloc in 1989, the Women’s Market remained a chief source of fresh fruit and vegetables in a city in which old distribution systems had collapsed and new ones had not yet formed.  Over the last decade, however, the Market has been in a state of decline.  Supermarkets and shopping malls have taken root throughout Sofia, tastes have changed, and those of the city’s inhabitants with disposable cash and pretensions to mobility have moved from the urban core to the urban periphery taking their purchasing power with them.

In recent years, a large percentage of the Women’s Market’s street stalls have been removed by the municipality. At the moment, new modern multistory stall complexes wishfully described as being built for “tourists” and “artists” are under construction.  What they will look like upon completion and the exact functions they will serve is anyone’s guess.  What remains for now are rows of small enclosed kiosks selling local cheese, cured meats, and fish, plus scores of open fruit and vegetable stands under large brightly painted utilitarian canopies. Each stand is manned by vendors, some morose and silent, others vigorously or halfheartedly hawking their wares.

The endurance of the 19th century

In a lifetime of working in and observing cities in many places throughout the world, I’ve noticed that late-nineteenth century neighborhoods are amongst the last to be regenerated.  This is due in part to the resilient endurance of their economic and social functions during the twentieth century and into the early-twenty-first.  In such neighborhoods, cheap rents and high vacancy rates in storefront occupancy enabled the provision of inexpensive goods to those whose budgets constricted their choices.

The same interstice of factors offers opportunities for marginal entrepreneurship and a shot at mobility to those who might otherwise fall outside of the economy.  The low profit-margins inherent to such entrepreneurship, however, can also make for dubious goods and equally dubious practices.  Thus, shopping in the Women’s Market calls for a taste for sharp-tongued banter and a quick eye ever on the lookout for rigged scales and for good looking produce on display but underweight and damaged goods placed in one’s shopping bag.  Still, where else can one buy, for example, persimmons or grapes, albeit on the last legs of their shelf-lives, for a third of the price of elsewhere and serviceable tomatoes for even far less?

Layers of unwarranted blame

There is a fine ethnic division of work and functions at the Women’s Market.  Meat, cheese, and fish  kiosks and stands offering wild herbs and mushrooms are run by ethnic Bulgarians. Fruit and vegetable stands and peripatetic bootleg cigarette operations are run by Roma (Gypsies).  Storefronts in adjacent streets include honey and bee keeping supply stores run by Bulgarians and rows of “Arab” shops — halal butchers, spice stores, barbers, and low-cost international telephone services — run by and catering to increasing numbers of legal and illegal immigrants from Syria, Iraq, Palestine, Turkey, Central Asia, and Afghanistan. Many Bulgarians, their weak self esteem shakily bolstered by contempt for “others,” blame the shoddier commercial practices of this wonderfully vibrant marginal neighborhood on the presence and “inferiority” of such outsiders.

Several years ago, I attended an open town meeting on the future of the Women’s Market and its surroundings.  The meeting degenerated into hysterical, racist tirades against the presence and practices of Roma stand-holders and market laborers, this despite their being hardworking people trying to extract a semblance of a living from admittedly marginal trade and low-value added labor.  Banish the Gypsies, the sense of the meeting implied, keep the neighborhood “white” and Christian, and the market area with magically become upscale and all will be well.  Not a thought was given to viewing the attempts at entrepreneurship on the part of Roma as social and economic assets to be incubated, this whether out of commitment to equal opportunity or to the  insights of developmental  economists such as Albert O. Hirschman.  The neighborhood’s “Arabs” were denounced with equal rage.

Bulgarians complain that Roma do not work, but when Roma do work and commence to gain economic stability, the majority population reacts vengefully.  Rage and blame have deep roots at the Women’s Market.  On a symbolic level, blame even muddies the market’s name.  During the communist period, the market had been renamed after Georgi Kirkov, an early Bulgarian left-wing trade unionist who died soon after the First World War.  Following the collapse of Soviet-bloc communism, Kirkov’s name was expunged and Kirkov himself anachronistically assigned a share of blame for the mistakes and misdeeds of a neo-Stalist regime that came to power almost three decades after his death.  Today, only a unkempt bust of Kirkov remains, mounted on graffiti-daubed pedestal in a small triangular park in which idle market day-laborers, elderly Roma mostly, congregate to smoke cigarettes, drink cheap alcohol from half-pint bottles, and while away the hours.

Festering blame that has never been resolved

There is another level of blame and contempt, however, that festers under the surface of debates pertaining to the Market.  During the Second World War, the Bulgarian army rounded-up and deported to their death 18,000 Jews from Macedonia and northeastern Greece, areas ceded to Bulgaria by Nazi Germany in reward for favorable trade terms and a lion’s share of Bulgaria’s gold reserves.  At the same time, within the boundaries of the Kingdom of Bulgaria proper, 50,000+ Jews were socially and economically disenfranchised and legally robbed of their real and movable property.  Tens of thousands of Jews were deported from Sofia to the countryside; the younger and fitter male deportees were sent to work as slave laborers on road crews and the rest were left to fend for themselves without means of support in isolated villages. As a boon to ethnic Bulgarians living in Sofia, the deportation freed up hundreds of businesses (most of them marginal), thousands of dwellings in a city short of housing stock, and tens of thousands of places in the workforce.

From the post-war period on, Bulgarians called the seizure of Jewish property and the deportation of Jews from Sofia “The Saving of the Jews,” giving a self-congratulatory spin to the large percentage of Jews in Bulgaria that came through the war alive, something that can be more accurately ascribed to Bulgaria’s being knocked out of the war by the Soviet Union in mid-1944. The reaction of more than 90% of the Jews in the Bulgaria to such a “saving,” was clear enough: emigrate en masse, mostly to Israel, not long after the war ended.  Prior to the war, Sofia’s Jews had formed the bulk of the residents of the market quarter.  Their  deportation and post-war emigration created a vacuum in the midst of the city’s center and led to discontinuities and dislocations from which the streets surrounding the Women’s Market have yet to recover.

Rag-sellers, “çıfıtcı,” and voting with my wallet

Today, in a country almost without Jews, Jews remain an obsession for many Bulgarians and a target of their hostility and condescension.  This especially holds true for populist agitators and amongst Bulgarians with higher incomes and social standing, whether real or self-ascribed.  In such circles, Jews are blamed for communism and for capitalism and for imagined secret cabals that subvert Bulgaria and steer the world.  The poisonous, fraudulent “Protocols of the Elders of Zion” remains a best-seller at outdoor book stalls in Sofia, as do conspiracy theory books involving Israel’s Mossad.  Walls are daubed with antisemitic (and anti-Roma and anti-Turkish) slogans, the work of bands of neo-fascist football (soccer) supporters.  Few social gatherings of upper-income or self-styledly cultured Bulgarians are complete without the telling of “yevreiski vitsovi” (“Jewish jokes”) — jokes about Jews rather than by them, usually with story lines about rich but stupid Jews outsmarting themselves in avaricious schemes.

In truth, prior to the Second World War, most Jews in Bulgaria were marginal shopkeepers and low-income craftsmen, laborers, and peddlers. Like today’s Roma, Jews were blamed for the inherent defects of the economic niches in which they labored and the social niches in which they lived.  Early in the twentieth century, many Sofia Jews were old-clothes and rag vendors, literally, thus, members of the “lumpenproletariat.” To this day, in Bulgaria, Jews — be they doctors, scholars, merchants, or ordinary folks like this writer — are contemptuously referred to as “chifuti,” a Bulgarian-language bastardization of the Turkish term “çıfıtcı” or old-clothes- and rag-seller.  Personally, as someone who has worked for others since my 13th year, and whose roots are in a world not dissimilar to the that of the Women’s Market, I am quite willing to wear the label of “çıfıtcı“with pride.  For this reason, when in Sofia, I happily continue to  do my shopping in and around the Women’s Market and loyally patronize its Roma vendors …  this regardless of any and all bruised and overripe fruit or real or imagined thumbs on scales!  As to antisemitic, anti-Roma , anti-worker “cultured” Bulgarians, as we used to say in the Yiddish-English patois of my native Lower East Side of Manhattan: “Geh’n’d’r’ert!” (“Sink into the ground”).  After years of listening to their racist hatefulness  and class-condescension of , I’m always available to lend a helpful push.

In the center, in one of his signature Hell's Angel-style caps, polymath and newly-minted octogenarian and maker of his own documentary films, Georgi "Johnny" Penkov, December, 2013. (Fuji X100, 1600ASA, "in camera" JPEG.)  Click on photo to enlarge.

In the center, in one of his signature Hell’s Angel-style caps, polymath and newly-minted octogenarian and maker of his own documentary films, Georgi “Johnny” Penkov, December, 2013. (Fuji X100, 1600ASA, “in camera” JPEG.) Click on photo to enlarge.

Wednesday evening I attended the premiere of two films in Sofia, Bulgaria, timed to honor the 80th birthday of Georgi “Johnny” Penkov — acoustical scientist, film sound man, humorist and raconteur, and, more recently, documentary film maker in his own right.

“My ‘Mahalla'” and a “Filibeli” guitarist

The first film was one Johnny shot, edited, and produced solo: “My Mahalla,” a characteristically humorous and touching, commentary-free sketch of details, rhythms, and sounds in the street in which he has lived his entire life (Mahalla being Turkish and colloquial Bulgarian for neighborhood).  The second film was one in which Johnny had served as sound man: “One Rainy Day,” an emotional and delicately shot  portrait of the brilliant, energetic, but, in recent years, reclusive, Bulgarian guitarist Ognian Videv, an autodidact and eternal “Filibeli” (after the Turkish word for a denizen of the city of Filibe — Plovidiv as it is now called — in Bulgarian Thrace).

Legendary guitar Virtuoso and life-long "Filibeli" (see body text for definition), Ognian Videv, wearing an English-style Kangol and holding, in lieu of his signature guitar, a signature glass of bear, December, 2013.  (Fuji X100, specs as per above.) Click on photo to enlarge.

Legendary guitar virtuoso and life-long “Filibeli” (see body text for definition), Ognian Videv, wearing an English-style Kangol and holding, in lieu of his signature guitar, a signature glass of beer, December, 2013. (Fuji X100, specs as per above.) Click on photo to enlarge.

“Tvortsi” and polymaths

The premiere drew an older audience of past-generation Bulgarian “tvortsi” (“creatives,” as they were called during the communist period).  Some had been self-indulgent hacks and pretend former- dissidents in days gone by, contemptuous of ordinary people who work but incapable of working themselves. Others, however — like Johnny, Ognian, and the great Bulgarian-Jewish comic and dramatic actor Itzko Finzi (whose photo I unfortunately neglected to take) — were and remain hardworking, productive, world-class talents. They are also people from whom I learned much.  It was  Johnny, for example, who taught me that being a polymath is a specialization as worthy as any other (!) and who gave me the courage to continue on the path towards becoming one.  Not least, Johnny also honed my search for humor and insight in the small details.


In the days when many attending the premiere were far younger, hats were de rigeur for Soviet bloc “creatives” and were worn by some as a signature sign of their talents and by others as surrogates for real personae of their own.  Thus, five hats, each representative of people in the first category, are featured in the accompanying photos.

One-time cineast and eternal charmeur Doncho Papasov earned his eternal right to a "Greek fisherman's" hat by actually having once sailed solo around the world.  The faux-fur "kalpak" atop the head of blonde hair in the foreground added a "Ninotchka"-like touch of nostalgia and elegance. (FujiX100, specs as per above.) Click in photo to enlarge.

One-time cineaste and eternal charmeur Doncho Papasov earned his right to a “Greek fisherman’s” hat by actually having once sailed solo around the world. The faux-fur “kalpak” atop the head of blonde hair in the foreground added to the evening a “Ninotchka”-like touch of nostalgia and elegance. (FujiX100, specs as per above.) Click on photo to enlarge.

Photographic footnote: A confession of photographic laziness …

It was either laziness — or preoccupation with conversation with dancing, conversation, and decent wine at the reception following the screening — but the photos posted herein represent some uncharacteristic cutting of corners on my part.

First, my photo of Johnny is blurred and with no recognizable plane of focus.  Johnny would quite likely excuse this by saying that this actually makes  the photo more accurate, life itself being blurred and with no recognizable focus!  Second, instead of falling prey to my usual foible of thinking that the most complicated solution is the most worthy, I took an embarrassing post-processing short cut. Rather than converting my RAW files to b/w in Lightroom and carefully manipulating color sliders to achieve the look I desired, I converted them from RAW to monochrome JPEGS in-camera, using the raw conversion feature of the X100’s firmware.  The results, by the way, were far better than I had expected, especially considering that the files were shot at ISO1600.  All that was needed was some slight shifting of brightness, contrast, etc. in Lightroom,  plus a tad of added clarity and a drop of vignetting, the latter to draw the eye to the main subjects.  Luminance noise was — to borrow an adjective from internet photography pontificators — not unpleasantly “film-like.”

Music at the premiere was provided by a high-spirited, virtuoso Roma (Gypsy) accordionist, with the very non-Bulgarian, non-Roma name of "Jimmy."  Jimmy reinforces his seemingly American moniker with a seemingly American cowboy hate.  Johnny invited Jimmy to the premiere after hearing him play on the street nearby.  It was Jimmy's fault that I danced rather than photographed! (Fuji X100, specs as per above). Click on image to enlarge.

Music at the premiere was provided by Jesus Kotsev, a high-spirited, virtuoso Roma (Gypsy) accordionist, who goes by the very non-Bulgarian, non-Roma stage name of “Jimmy Accordeon.” Jimmy reinforces his seemingly American moniker with a seemingly American cowboy hat. Johnny invited Jimmy to the premiere after hearing him play on the street nearby. Blame it on Jimmy that I danced more than I photographed! (Fuji X100, specs as per above). Click on image to enlarge.

Galata Bridge, Istanbul Turkey, 2012. (Fuji X100) Click to enlarge.

Flower Vendor, Galata Bridge, Istanbul Turkey, December, 2011. In the background to the right: a few of the ubiquitous amateur anglers who line railings of the bridge year-round in expectation of an evening’s meal. (Fuji X100.) Click to enlarge.

The red flowers are kokina çiçeği. Kokina is a Turkish loan word from the Greek kokinos, meaning “red.”  In Istanbul kokina çiçeği are sold as New Years decorations, a custom borrowed from the city’s once-large and vibrant ethnic Greek population.  Botany is not my strong suit, but to me kokina çiçeği resemble a variety of mistletoe — not only in their appearance but also in their function as mid-winter talismans. In many ancient cultures, mistletoe varieties — especially those parasitic to oak — were associated with virility, fertility, and regeneration, part of the reason why, in the Anglo-Saxon world, men and women who pass together under Christmas-season mistletoe traditionally were compelled to kiss. Mistletoe may also have been the “golden bough” that Aeneas took with him as a placating gift on his trip to the underworld and, thus, the inspiration from which Sir James George Frazer’s took the name for his famed late-19th- early-20th-century study of myth land legend.  The flower seller, by the way, is an Istanbul Rom (Gypsy).  In much of southeast Europe, urban Roma labor long hours in the ornamental flower trade, as street vendors and, less visible to the casual stroller, as wholesalers as well.  Central and Eastern Europeans who accuse Roma of willful unemployment are blind to the those who labor at the base of the pyramid of urban economic activities.

Technical footnote…

When processing the raw file of this photo in Lightroom, I couldn’t resist the temptation to nudge the red-saturation slider slightly rightwards!

Shine Osman's "Looking Glass Shine" shoeshine stand, Kasım Paşa, Istanbul, 2013. Note the minimal footprint, functional design, recycled materials, and curious Donald Duck, Goofy, and Mickey Mouse themed curtains. (Fuji X100) Click to enlarge.

“Shine” Osman’s “Looking Glass Shine” shoeshine stand, Kasım Paşa, Istanbul, 2013. Note the modest footprint, functional design, recycled materials, and curious Donald Duck, Goofy, and Mickey Mouse themed curtains. (Fuji X100) Click to enlarge.

The ideal real estate “development”project: A sidewalk shoeshine stand on one the main streets of Kasım Paşa, the mostly religious, mostly working class quarter of Istanbul that numbers amongst its better known sons Turkey’s present prime minister, Recıp Tayip Erdoğan.  The structure comprises a minimal intrusion into public space.  Its form is dictated by its function and by the materials at hand.  The business itself is geared to the needs and flows of the pedestrians traffic that passes it.  The Romany origins of the proprietor point to a wealth of lessons about urban sustainability that remain to be learned from the past and present roles of urban Roma.  More on this in a future post …

Ivo Papasov, Sofia, Bulgaria, 1996. Nikon F2, Tri-X 800ASA.

From the Archives: Bulgarian-Turkish-Roma Clarinet Virtuoso Ivo Papasov, Sofia,1996. Nikon F2, 105mm f2.5, Tri-X 800ASA.

Over the past months, several friends and former colleagues have suggested that I resurrect one or more of my old weblogs.  I’ve chosen to begin with Bubkes.Org, in part because of its emphasis on images and in part because, as its name implies, it allows me to concentrate on the minor and the peripheral rather than on real-time events or definitive pronouncements, things beyond the ken and resources of a part-timer blogger.

As a talisman of sorts, I’ve prefaced this first entry with a photo that appeared in one of the first entries of the original Bubkes.Org: Balkan clarinet legend Ivo Papasov, as I photographed him in a Sofia night club in 1996 (more photos, taken in 1992 at a wedding in Novi Pazar, Bulgaria, follow after the break below).  A chance meeting with Papasov and his orchestra a quarter of a century ago set me off on an odyssey that, indirectly, propelled me into a trajectory of events, some of which I intend to treat in subsequent posts.


Below, Papasov, then-sidemen Yuri Yunakov and (rear) Neshko Neshev, followed by bride, groom, and others, on the first day of a three-day-long wedding celebration, complete with attendant drama), Novi Pazar, Bulgaria, 1992.





(Photos copyright Stephen Lewis. Nikon F3, 24mm f2.8 and 105mm f2.5, Tri-X 800ASA, scans from color xeroxes of of 8″x10″ b/w prints)