Hak Pak Sak

Stephen Lewis on Infrastructure, Identity, Communication, and Change

Archive for the ‘Sofia’ Category

HakPakSak Resumed: Four Months, Four Books, Four Subjects, and the Fight for Energy Efficiency

Posted by Stephen Lewis on January 17, 2010

Since late August, I’ve neglected to post to this site and to my alter-ego weblog, Bubkes.Org (which has been offline intermittently while I search for a new server to host it).  The cause : a constitutional inability to take the keyboard equivalent of a “bus-driver’s vacation,” i.e. to write for pleasure while also editing, translating, and re-writing long-copy texts embodying the thoughts, intents, and foibles of others rather than my own. Thus, as a first step towards reviving both weblogs, I’ll mention the publication of two new volumes in the realization of which I played peripheral but work-intensive roles as well as the surprise republication of a third volume and the rediscovery of a fourth. For those who follow the “professional” (i.e. corporate and institutional, consultancy and communications) sides of my work, I should also write that I spent much of October editing and revising the presentation of a major financing agency of the European Commission for the Copenhagen climate change conference. A good part of the presentation focused on opportunities and strategies for cutting energy consumption and improving energy efficiency in urban contexts and the movement of people and goods, matters relevant to other research I am doing while attempting to navigate my way through the present “crisis.”

Meijer de Haan: A Master Revealed


The first of the four volumes alluded to in the title of this entry is Meijer de Haan: A Master Revealed, published by Editions Hazan and edited by Jelka Kröger of the Jewish Historical Museum, Amsterdam. The book gives an illustrated overview of the life and work of De Haan, a minor impressionist painter best remembered, if at all, as a pupil of Paul Gauguin and a friend and correspondent of Theo van Gogh, the brother of the famed painter Vincent. De Haan, born and raised in the Jewish quarter of Amsterdam, was one of the first Jews to enter the mainstream of Dutch art and one of the first Dutch painters to follow Vincent van Gogh into the avant garde of European art. My own role in the project was that of Dutch-to-English translator/editor of most of the essays comprising the volume, a task valued by the better contributors but stubbornly resisted and resented  by authors of contributions in need of serious fixing. More rewarding was the opportunity to recast into English De Haan’s letters to Theo van Gogh and selected correspondence between Theo and Vincent. Most upsetting was to trace the stories of all of De Haan’s Dutch-Jewish associates and pupils up to their deportation and murder by the Germans and their willing Dutch sycophants during the Second World War. In all, it was a pleasure to work with Jelka Kröger and her indefatigable understudy Sara Tas to articulate the story of De Haan and lend background to his work. The volume was compiled and published to accompany the first-ever major exhibition of De Haan’s work. The exhibition has been on view at the Jewish Historical Museum in Amsterdam and will move to the Musee d’Orsay in Paris sometime early in 2010. Selected pages of the book can be seen in Issuu format on the website of the volume’s designers.

Mapping Istanbul


Last October I had the pleasure of joining the staff of Garanti Gallery (an art foundation supported by Turkey’s Garanti Bank) in Istanbul for several days of marathon work sessions evaluating and revising sections of text for the gallery’s latest publication, Mapping Istanbul, a cartographic translation of a range of socio-economic data attempting to give overview, shape, and updated definition to the ever-growing and increasingly amorphous megalopolis that Istanbul has become. The maps themselves embody  the input of a score of contributors including the decade-long research, data-crunching, and mapping  efforts of social geographer Murat Güvenç of Bilgi University, Istanbul (more on Prof. Güvenç and his work, including his upcoming exhibition presenting in cartographic form the demographic, economic, cultural, and physical transformation of Istanbul over the last 100 years in a subsequent entry). Maps for the present volume were designed and produced by the Istanbul-based architectural and design practice Superpool, with whom I am happy to be collaborating on other studies related to urban growth and change. Texts accompanying the maps were written by a host of contributors (me amongst them) and range from the explanatory to the highly subjective. Mapping Istanbul is the third in a series of books portraying and redefining Istanbul conceived and published by Garanti Gallery. The first, Becoming Istanbul, is a sometimes-whimsical, sometimes-serious, and all too often erroneous glossary of things, places, concepts, and impressions that comprise Istanbul– from the rings and tweets of the akbil (electronic bus, ferry, tram, and metro token), to the customs of the hamam (traditional turkish bath), to the one-time cluster of popular film production companies along a street call Yeşilçam, and the long-ago and very brief flight of a Zeppelin over the city’s historical peninsula; the second, Tracing Istanbul, portrays the changing, sprawling, and ever-expanding city through aerial photography.

The End of a Love that Never Began


On a recent visit to Sofia, I discovered that Krayat Na Edna Nezapochnata Lyubov (The End of a Love that Never Began), a volume of autobiographic reflections by Bulgarian acoustical scientist, cinema sound-man, and humorist Georgi “Johnny” Penkov, has been republished. The book first appeared in 2001 and contains amongst its many illustrations masterful photographs of Sofia and its inhabitants taken in the 1920s and 30s by Johnny’s father and a number of somewhat less masterful candid and posed portraits I took of Johnny and associates at Johnny’s 60th birthday celebration in 1993 — a memorable event that Johnny has promised to reprise in 2053 and again in 2113 — and during Bulgaria’s winter crisis of 1996-7. The book also contains a reproduction of a 1950s Bulgarian secret police report on Johnny, obtained years later under what passes as Bulgaria’s version of the U.S. “Freedom of Information Act.”  The report, by the way, concluded that Johnny posed no dangers to the Bulgarian state and society.  Soon after the initial publication of Johnny’s book, a friend, R., skimmed through my autographed copy. R.’s father had entered Bulgaria’s secret police at the top of its hierarchy at the founding of Communist Bulgaria in 1944 but, due in part to his pride in his Jewish identity and his discomfort at obligatory participation in ritual denunciations of Israel and Zionism, later fell through the ranks and out of the police and ended his work life as a porter at the metal smelting plant at Kremikovski just outside of Sofia. (Kremikovski, a relic of the application of Stalinist-style shock industrialization to the traditional agricultural- and food processing-based economy of Bulgaria, now stands idle if I am correct). R. paused when he came to the photo of the secret police report in Johnny’s book . He pointed to the signature at the end of document and said of its author: “Ah, Uncle X., a dear man, he always brought us gifts and helped when my father was in trouble.” Might Johnny’s seeming persecutor really have been his angel?

The Macedonian Dialects of Western Sofia


When in Sofia, I rarely have to phone people. Sofia has more than doubled in population over the last 20 years (from one million to about two and a half) and much of its economic life has moved to its periphery but, nevertheless, the center of the city is sufficiently frequented and sufficiently compact for one inevitably to encounter acquaintances, whether one wants to or not. One long-time acquaintance who I inevitably (and gladly) bump into within days of my arrival  is Angel Angelov, a present-day professor of linguistics at Sofia University and a popular underground folk and protest-singer during the last years of communism and the first chaotic years that followed. Long ago, when I first applied for a Fulbright grant to Bulgaria, Angel went far out on a limb to officially vouch for my competence in spoken Bulgarian. In the late 1990s, Angel published a study on the lingering of linguistic influences of the early-20th century Macedonian refugees who settled at the western edge of Sofia (Pravilata na Ezika v Stolichniya Kvartal) and, for some reason, chose as its cover illustration a photo of an oddly windowless and door-less balcony of an early 20th century Sofia residential building that he had seen at an exhibition of my photographs (Note: The photo is a sufficiently worthy metaphor for Bulgaria that I submitted it — tongue in cheek — to the competition for a new national symbol and coat-of-arms prior to the country’s entry into the European Union. Needless to say, my entry was not accepted. The winning design? A traditional comic-opera imperial lion and shield affair, the stock symbol of 19th-century contrived nation states in search of a pedigree and European identity.).  Coincidentally, I had come across my copy of Angel’s book only days before running into him during my most recent visit to Sofia. Also coincidentally, Angel and I encountered each other in the Sofia University station of the Sofia Metro, which now unites the traditionally disparate eastern and western sides of the city. The very same Metro and its transcendence of a more than century-old invisible barrier between two halves of a city is one of the subjects I have been writing and photographing about in my spare time these last months. An attempt at a humorous precis will appear in an upcoming post here or at Bubkes.Org.

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Posted in Books, Bulgaria, Cities, Environment, Istanbul, Jewish History, Sofia | 8 Comments »