Exploring Abandonment at the Goat Milk Festival in Bulgaria

Woman with Umbrella

In late May, Carl and I went to the Goat Milk Festival in the small, shrinking village of Bela Rechka, Bulgaria. It was my second time there but Carl’s first. I was very glad Carl could come this year – last year the Bela Rechka magic worked in ways I couldn’t really articulate but had me doing positive things afterwards, such as ask him out.

Again, I’m finding it hard to put the Bela Rechka experience into words after the event. All I find I can talk about is its affects – the feeling of your body giving off a relaxed, satisfied and satiated sigh. The time and openness to listen intently, reflect quietly, discuss around the fire passionately and maybe find some inspiration over a few rakiah’s (“Create drunk, compose sober,” as Sandra often said.)

As I can’t find the words to describe it, I’ll try using someone else’s. Murat Yilman Pomak, Turkish drummer, dancer, teacher of both and socialist, called it a ‘sabbatical for activists’, where they can share, learn and get the reassurance that they’re on the right path before going back and being the strong, creative voices in their communities.

Abandonement Map

One thing I can describe and illustrate is the artistic process Lee and Sandra of Friction Arts with Bulgarian artist Antina Zlatkova put us Brummies (namely Carl, Soesen Edan, Simon Walker and I) and Gita Hashemi through to contribute to the festival and its theme of abandonment.

Friction teamed up with Antina, who had been mapping the many abandoned houses in the village and the stories they contained. We went inside one of these houses, silently carrying out our instructions:

Observe how you move

The Blue House

Gingerly. Not just because of the creaking floorboards and beams, but because the house was so personal to its previous inhabitants – old family photographs on the walls, trinkets on the shelves, clothes in the bedroom and food in the kitchen – an amber jar of peaches being the thing that left an impression on us all.

Find something that is still

Snail shell

Whilst wandering I found an old snail’s shell stuck fast to the wall, its inhabitant long gone. It struck me as being an abandoned house within an abandoned house, so I took a picture of it.

Find something that moves

House beams

The things that I noticed moving were the very things I didn’t expect or want to move – the structure of the house, its floorboards and beams. The night after our first visit we decided to go back and take another look. Most of us sat outside whilst Antina, Lee and Simon went inside. We were horrified to hear a loud CRASH, followed by the fizz of falling rubble. The, “We’re okay!” that followed came as a huge relief. As Soesen said, there was something about the house that said, “Don’t push me, I may break.” The house seemed to shout HANDLE WITH CARE.

Find a sound

I had to search for this a lot more consciously than I did the other things but I finally found it in the bedroom’s wardrobe. It was strangely empty of clothes, which were strewn all over the floor, as if the place had been ransacked between its abandonment and our exploration. The wardrobe hadn’t been opened in a while and was rusty and dusty, resulting in the wood-stuttering sound you can hear in the audioboo above.

Find a smell

Moth in shoe

The smell was with the sound but presented itself a lot more obviously – the dank, musty yet not unpleasant smell of a pile damp clothes. It bought to mind my wayward childhood moments of exploring abandoned sheds and spaces, and the thrill of danger of discovery and the unknown that came with that. I didn’t take a picture of the pile of clothes, but did photograph the old shoe with a dead moth inside that Simon noticed.

Find something that is to come

Jewellery Box

In the bedroom I found an old jewellery box balanced on top of a pile of old clothes. I opened it to find odds and ends within and myself reflected in the mirror glued to the inside of its lid. And it occurred to me that this was what to come for most of these abandoned buildings and spaces – people like me rediscovering, exploring and ultimately changing them, for better or worse.

Sandra at window

I took a photo of myself reflected in the mirror. Then I looked at the items in the box – old costume jewellery, pill packets and a broken pair of spectacles. I arranged some pearls around the mirror and took another picture, almost as if I was wearing them. Then I put on the glasses and took another picture. I was placing myself within someone else’s story and shifting it. I didn’t feel much guilt over this – those that had emptied the wardrobe had done the same before me and those who were due to demolish the house in the next couple of months would so afterwards. This process of people finding, disturbing and re-purposing the abandoned felt inevitable.

Find a pattern

House roof

The pattern I found was one of the structure of the house, a pattern that was unravelling with the house itself – its wooden beams, self-supporting and criss-crossing.

Find anything else!

Simon in bedroom

We all took away different impressions, thoughts and feelings from the house and did not share them until after we had left, eaten lunch and reflected. After lunch we shared our findings – Soesen’s feeling of its fragility, Simon’s looking at it through a child’s eyes, Carl and Gita making us see things from a different angle and Carl’s wondering at seeing me wave at him from the front window – when was the last time a villager had seen someone wave from there?

We discussed our experiences in the house and possible ways and means of sharing this with others without a risky and intrusive mass-invasion. Some of us spoke of the need to bid it farewell in a way its inhabitants mayan’t have done. Gita spoke of the need to give something back to it.

Carl from window

After Gita, Soesen, Carl and I had gone to bed Lee, Sandra and Simon discussed things further, which resulted in an idea they shared with the rest of us the following morning. Sandra and Lee lined us up against a wall, stepped back and paused.

They then walked towards us. Lee caught and held my gaze, came up to me, kissed me on both cheeks and simply said, “Goodbye” before walking away. As the house had known a human abandonment and farewell, so did I. I burst into tears.

Photos in house

Afterwards we gathered our thoughts and discussed ways of doing this in a larger group. Gita spoke of wanting to give something back the house as well saying goodbye, which resulted in a moving, late-night ceremony that Friction Arts have done a much better job of describing than I could.

The Bela Rechka magic worked itself once again this year. Some of it because of the amazing place we were in and the amazing people we met but a lot of it due to the process Friction Arts created to help us connect to an abandoned house in a way I’m sure I’d never have done otherwise and bid it farewell the way we would a close friend.

I unsurprisingly took a lot of photos in Bulgaria, which you can see here.


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