The unbearable lightness to being in Shumen with FOR YOU

Some weeks ago we went to Shumen to attend three days of training courses organized by FOR YOU association. Exception made for a short stay in Sofia, it was the first time I visited a place outside the urban surroundings of Varna. None of us had huge expectations about the hotel or the city. During our trip by train, jokes have been made about eventual sinister hotel managers devoted to kidnapping unaware volunteers and to selling their organs to Thailand. Luckily the reality was definitely different.Not only the hotel was clean, well kept and finely furnished, but Andrea – the other Italian of the group – and I found out that our room had a bathtub (in case you were wondering, the hotel’s marketing office is paying us big money to write this). After a modest but tasty bulgarian lunch, the workshop sessions started. Our Menthors and supervisors made us sit in circle in a vast hall and invited each of us to create our imaginary facebook page on a sheet of paper, supplied with a selfportrait, personal informations, qualities and flaws. The instructions were basic and the available time very little, so we could be extremely free to be creative and original in our self introduction. The result was a series of over the top gags, some of which were funny, some grotesque and some embaracing.  

To follow, collective role playing games with abstruse and obscure rules that no one was able to understand so that the entire group soon fell into an escalation of anarchy and awkwardness. To stop us from degenerating to a “Lord of the Flies” degree, we skipped to the most interesting part of the evening: a curious social experiment that involved an exercise of identification and conflict management. We were split in groups of 4-5 people and asked to imagine and react borderline situations in regards of problematic areas of the EVS experience. Someone impersonated the role with acting skills worthy of the Stanislavski, especially when the context concerned the problems arising from the cohabitation. It’s hard to understand if it was due to an innate acting talent or to real experiences regarding actual people in the room.Anyway, at the end of the workshop, the familiarity between colleagues and acquaintances increased drastically and the atmosphere was relaxed and friendly. Enjoing the night life together around the pubs just helped solidify it.


At 10 o clock Saturday morning we had a meeting scheduled with the guide and other volunteers for a tour of the city. First we walked down the long tree-lined boulevard that cuts in two parts the city center until we reached a concrete enclosure wall with some sculptures, with a design very reminding of the sovietic cubism, standed tall.While the guide explained us that they are gryphons, a symbol of immortality, I admired a huge and sinister monument, surrounded by a dim light on a hill that overlooked the entire valley. A titanic monster that towered us with the weight of his dark presages. After few minutes, a giant concrete tower, left to decay, materialized on the side of the road. Probably a skeletal ruin of the communist Leviathan, stick inside the main artery of the city, like a poisonous thorn. We took a break a few steps away, in the anteroom of a beautiful court with a garden, built in memory of the composer and pedagogue Pancho Vladigerov. The turf was scattered of emerald green hedges, pines with pointy tips and solemn statues covered with a mantle of yellowy leaves. It would have been a breathtaking autumn mosaic if it wasn’t for the lumbering presence of the sovietic monolite, able to project a patina of anxiety on all my thoughts.


On the backside wall of a bare and decrepit building, surrounded by ruins, i saw an amazing sculpture portraying the god Hermes/Mercury, recognizable by the wings at his feet and by the distinctive cane with two interwining snakes. Seeing something so exceptional in such an unexpected place restored my relief.  

The last step of the tour was a babelic library structured on several floors. The first was dedicated to a modest exposition of police articles coming from the entire world. Maybe not my perfect idea of touristic attraction, but I felt pleasantly surprised by the section dedicated to the special ninja division of the security force: two showcases absolutely empty. In the first two underground floors we wandered through dozen of shelves containing every kind of scriptures of every kind of origin, from the Italian esoterism to the Russian narrative.  As we went down in the depths, the atmosphere seemed to be suspended in a mysterious dimension beyond time and space. The last basement level was crowded by ancient bits and pieces, scarce editions of shriveled books and piles of faded journals coming from the century before. A dusty historic warehouse shielded in bowels made by earth and concrete. Actually the real surprises were still to begin. In the early afternoon we went to visit the Tombul mosque, the greatest in Bulgaria and the second greatest in the whole balkan peninsula. Despite it was surrounded by awful rusted scaffoldings, it was impossible not to remain fascinated by the arcane majesty of the dome and by the very high minaret which pierced the redden sky. Inside the building, walking around barefoot on the floor upholstered with elegant Persian carpets, I felt touched and almost hypnotized because of the meticulous disposition and the perfect symmetry of the ornamental arabesques.


However The highlight of the entire day was the pilgrimage to the communist memorial monument “1300 years of Bulgaria”, the same panoramical wonder which disturbed me that morning. The ascending path from the city center to the bottom of the colossal structure is paved by hundreds of rungs. According to the most widespread notion, they are approximately 1400, even though a valiant member of our expedition claimed they weren’t more than 1350. The climbing is terribly strenuos, nearly a calvary toward an astonishing Golgotha whose recall we cannot escape. To get our destination without stops means to feel a lump to the throar and the lungs in flames, but what you might admire from the peak is amply worth of every struggle. Entering the huge inner open space, enclosed by gigantic concrete pillars, it’s like traversing a portal connected to an occult scenic design worthy of the Lord of the Rings. The entrance is safeguarded by gargantuan guardians representing emperors, bishops, warlords and poets. It seems that nothing in the world is able to scratch those adamant and silent creatures, yet there is something in their poses and in their grave and pointy expressions which make them inexplicably living. Unconcerned of their threatening appearance i walked through one of the steep lateral walls to the top, just in time to enjoy the sun diving into the other side of the horizon. Arriving there, on the world’s roof, i’ve suddenly understood why the name “Shumen” means “noisy”. For several minutes i’ve experienced the euphoria to feel myself as a twig at the mercy of the most savage and impetuous gusts of wind of my life. Despite in the beginning i was shackened by a sensation of vertigo and dizziness, the fear to fall down soon became an injection of pure adrenaline when my gaze embraced dozen of kilometers of hills covered by majestic autumnal forests. At the moment in which i rejoined the other guys it was wonderful to see clearly a boundless pride in the pleased expressions of the bulgarians and a sense of inebriating amazement in everybody else. We were exahusted but passionate.


The day after we went to the Madara knight’s site, a sculpture shaped in the middle of a calcareous rock wall. The represented figure shows a military triumph through a regal character who sticks a spear inside a lion’s body. In addition to the fiery hero’s mount, taking a closer look it’s possible to distinguish an eagle and a dog. It is said that the monument – which is part of Unesco’s world heritage – was sculpted on the orders of the Khan of a nomadic tribe composed by breeders and warriors which was settled in the northern Bulgaria at the beginning of the VII century. This ancient population melted with the native slavics giving life to the original lineage of the modern bulgarians. Toward such fascinating and magnificently preserved cultural statements it was impossible not to wonder about things like: are there other wonderful remains of ancient civilizations like  the one that became a legend by being erased from history? What genetic characteristics of the actual bulgarian people have been acquired from those nomads which wisely decided to remain here after centuries of wandering? Above all, are the bulgarian people the unique and real descendents of Dothrakis?With those answers in mind we clambered for dozen of meters on an amazing rock cliff overhanging the valley. Hanging in the balance of the precipite lie idle the ruins of a medioeval fortress. Me and some other fearless guys exploited the incredible scenario to practicing acrobatic parkour. Over our heads darted colourful paraglider aircrafts pushed by the lashes of a wind which didn’t have nothing to envy to the Shumen’s one. We took just the time for a brief lunch and after we come down again in the womb of the mountain, between mastodontic primordial caves and rugged coves covered by a really thick vegetation. The woods around us burned up of all the wonderful autumnal chromaticisms. At the end of the trip we stayed at the feet of a centennial sequoia raised over the forest as a monumental giant falling asleep. Embracing it i rediscovered the pleasure to feel myself tiny and i was touched lightly by hundreds of desiccated leaves.


As i wrote before, i didn’t have great expectations about Bulgaria. Now i have to say i’m totally captured by this historical crossroads of cultures, religions and civilizations. Staying for one year in this magical outpost between East and Orient, Europe and Asia, antiquity and modernity, could be one of the most exciting adventures to experience for all of us.

Michele G.