Puttin’ On the Ritz

Dear Reader,

I don’t know how it is with you, but the belle epoque at the turn of the 19th century and before the outbreak of WWI, and also the years preceding the outbreak of WWII, is a favourite period of mine, which I associate with joie de vivre, democratisation of luxury, social change, technological innovation improving everyday life, wardrobe sophistication, impeccable tailoring, superior quality fabrics and intense perfumes.

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A shop window from 1930s Sofia, as seen at the Museum of Sofia History.

Authorities still existed, offset by just the right amount of rebellion. The architecture was a symphony, the interior decoration was to die for, and the music was sublime. Genuine ingredients were used in cooking and people ate several-course meals that involved tureens and silver cutlery. Still, everybody was slender, perhaps because of all the horseback riding and walking they engaged in. Shawls, stoles, scarves and fichus were adorning every lady’s neck and shoulders, and cockades, gloves and outrageous hats embellished the monotonous routine held together by tradition and convention. 

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A hatters shop of the late 1920s in Sofia. Good luck finding one today. Costume jewelry, made popular by the inimitable Coco Chanel, is on display too, on top of an exquisite drawn work shawl.

Of course, I realise I am thinking mostly of the lifestyle of the leisure classes and the bourgeoisie, and I realise my association are a horrible potpourri at best. I also realise there was a darker side to all this, as described in the works of Dickens, Balzac, Zola and Elisabeth Gaskell, to name but a few, and also in Edith Wharton’s quite shocking novel The House of Mirth.

Still, I think that things such as manners, city planning, quality of accommodation, clothing and food, the regard for things such as dignity, honour, perseverance and patience, and the role of religion and family as building blocks of society (yes, I said just that), have been going on a downward spiral in Europe since the 1950s.   

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These trays, cups, spoons and saucers were used by a cafe in downtown Sofia, at the corners of Maria Louisa Blvd and Pirotska Street. Beyond chic or what? If a present-day caffeteria serves its drinks like this, guess who its most faithful customer would be. I don’t know how it is with you, but I resent being served coffee in a branded cup. Plain white porcelain, no brands of any kind stamped on it, gets my vote.
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An old-time coffee percolator and tiny bone china cups.

For Bulgaria, the late 19th century and the years up to the bloody advent of communism in 1944, was a halcyon period too, as it was the first in several hundred years, during which the country achieved political, social and economic progress based on its own free will and private initiative.

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In the first decade of the 20th century, sports and tourism became popular with the masses in Bulgaria. Sofians discovered the natural beauties of Vitosha, their city mountain, and the more well-off ones rode such proto-bicycles, which national poet Ivan Vazov skeptically called hellish wheels, or, in rather quaint Bulgarian, дяволски колца. 🙂

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At the downtown kiosks, one could buy several papers, as well as cheap love romances, postcards and, later, lottery tickets. The papers were outrageously biased and the language they used was very politically incorrect compared with today’s standards. Still, the newspapers of yore make a very entertaining read.

Poetic and emotionally charged language was used everywhere at the time. In fact, the efforts for achieving national unity in early 20th-century Bulgaria filled this period with moving and powerful political speeches and in this post, I’ve told you about a tiny book on the Bulgarian geography that uses language the Helsinki Committee, much loved in Bulgaria, would heavily criticise today.  

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Paper called Eastern Times of 1875, published in Bulgarian in Tsarigrad, or Istanbul, or Constantinople. 

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Another specimen of old-time language – the lead of the cover story, for the benefit of Bulgarian speakers… It eloquently compares rough patches in everyone’s personal life – some coming and going like a summer storm, while others leaving indelible traces – to the political destiny of whole nations.  

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Ladies of Bulgaria’s emerging bourgeoisie, with much time on their hands and spouses who were doctors, lawyers or clerks, could be seen pushing baby strollers along Sofia’s newly paved streets. 

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There was considerable discrepancy between rural and urban life in Bulgaria, and the young mother walking her baby could buy foodstuffs from, or employ the daughter of, a man wearing folk clothes like these.

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The traditional women’s clothing of peasants from the villages around Sofia. 

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This is how the streets in the most central parts of the city, around the royal palace, looked. They were paved, still are, with deluxe yellow rectangular pavement blocks imported from Hungary. They are very smooth and were perhaps fine for horse-drawn carriages, but I can assure you there isn’t a driver in Sofia not hating them today. They are slippery in dry weather and are like covered with grease in rain and slush.

A senior American politician, I don’t remember who exactly, was one of these years in Sofia and saw it fit to praise these yellow paves on TV, saying they made him feel like Dorothy walking the Yellow Brick Road in L. Frank Baum’s 1900 book The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. Oh well. He was perhaps at odds about a good thing to say so he came up with this.

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The centre of Sofia was one thing, but the neighbourhoods where the common folks lived, was totally another. Pictured above is Draz Mahala, located in what today stands to the north of where my office is located in downtown Sofia. Irregular planning, mud, dust, stray dogs and cats, lots of manual labour, and poverty. Children played barefoot in the hot dust in summer.

Sofians were unfamiliar with the western, the US specifically, concept of an immaculate front lawn and its function in keeping up appearances. Instead, they had back yards, and these were full of all possible rubbish which was not thrown away lest it might be needed someday. Today, manifestations of the same mentality can be seen in the way some people use their balconies. At one time I thought that was because of lack of space in the tiny flats, but now I think it goes deeper than that. 

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An old-time tram. Sofia’s first tram was a horse-drawn one, but this sample was electricity-powered, so not quite as old as it could have been. This is a second-class carriage with plain wooden, and not padded, seats. 

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No Spitting, plaque says. As I have said at the beginning, I do realise I have an idealised image of those days. 

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A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court.

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A thick round cement pillar for pasting posters of concerts, exhibitions and other popular forms of entertainment. There are several of these still being used in Sofia. I say, the person who first authorised, or failed to properly punish, poster pasting on fences and any other flat surface conceivable instead of on those specially designed places, would have a lot to answer for at the time of the Second Coming. On a happier note, don’t you just love the eye make-up of the man and the look of calculated charm of the woman?  Poster title is There is No Happiness without Love, a true observation perhaps, but rendered quite melodramatic by the couple falling into each other to the weeping strings of a guitar. The guitar makes dreams weep, Spanish poet and playwright Federico Garcia Lorca said.

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After taking a stroll along Sofia’s streets, let’s go home! Pictured is a well-to-do Sofia interior of the early 20th century. Furniture at the time used to be mostly imported from Vienna. Imagine the excitement of your chairs, tables, sofas and curtains arriving all the way from there.

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Another view. I have a similar clock, and am currently after similar two-seater and arm-chairs. I resent slouching and half lying in modern-day super soft sofas. I want furniture in which one one could sit and converse. I have already shared somewhere around the blog that I liked curtains with tassels, but have not yet become eccentric enough to actually get some. Still, indulging in a passion creates its own momentum, so I expect to feel ready for tasseled curtains soon.   

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Another living room. The ornate stove to the left is called a mangal. The flat-woven woolen carpet has a very typical angular Bulgarian pattern.

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A longcase clock, an icon, a gorgeous lamp, a typical Bulgarian carpet and crochet lace tablecloth. The crochet lace table runners which I have and which have frequently appeared in photographs around the blog, were in fact handmade by my spouse’s grandmother, who is about 90 as of today. When she gave them to me about a decade ago, I put them under my bed, where I put things I don’t plan to use, and I thought, who on Earth would want to use these old things? Now I’m very grateful that I have them because if I didn’t, I would have bought them handmade from other grandmas. 

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Remember how I told you Bulgarian women used to allegedly pour their souls into their embroidery, here? Here’s a sample of such embroidery on a table runner. 

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At the other end of the home decor spectrum was this, an oriental interior some people at the turn of the 19th century liked and considered indicative of good social standing and affluence. The chair, table base and paravan are made of exquisitely carved wood. The table tray is made of filigree metal. Bulgarians were masters of filigree, which was used for household items and jewelry.  

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A silver filigree tray given as gift to the Bulgarian tsar Ferdinand from the Sofia municipality. See how nice and delicate it is? I imagine polishing it must have been a pain. My paternal grandmother had a very nice silver filigree bracelet whose ornaments looked very much like these on the tray. I used to wear it occasionally and I remember it darkened after each wear, the way silver does. 

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This living room belonged to one of Bulgaria’s prime ministers, Konstantin Stoilov. 

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A letter-writing desk and chairs. All imported from Vienna, natuerlich

…Blogging time is up for today, dear Reader, so let’s go get some sleep!

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An old-time bedroom. The hand-made rug has a typically Bulgarian pattern. Needless to say, I adore how the porcelain bowl and jug for washing, and the gorgeous night pot, match. 

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A have a hanger very similar to this one in my hall. One of its hooks is broken but otherwise it has been excellently restored and is very stable. The problem with these old pieces of furniture is that sometimes they are so much eaten by wood-eating bugs, and so rickety, that it becomes prohibitively expensive to restore them. So I made do with the stable and not eaten up hanger that I found, and cover its broken hook with a shawl. 

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As I have already shared elsewhere, I do seem to be maturing, as I took to wearing the pearls I’ve had since my 30th birthday, and which I have always thought looked matronly on me. Now I love them. And yes, they are an everyday piece of jewelry, not a special occasion one.

Next time we’ll be sneaking a peak at the royal palace and the private studies of politicians of Bulgaria’s budding early 20th-century democracy. 

In the meantime, have fun and dress up to Fred Astaire’s great song. (A remix, but good quality sound.)

Puttin’ on the Ritz is always a good idea,
Boryana