As a student at the National Academy of Arts in Sofia in the 1950s, Christo was confined to the canons of socialist realism and classical studies of form. There wasn’t a way to say or show anything beyond what had to be said and shown. In the summer, art students were sent away to the countryside on ‘beautifying missions’ along the route of the Orient Express, arranging machinery and bales of hay, doing large-scale industrial-themed drawings on the facades of factories, and erecting neat fences, so tourists could look out onto curated scenes of socialist life. This artifice was his first brush with environmental art and Nouveau réalisme.
To supplement my freelance writing income, I started working as a waitress in the staff restaurant of the News Building in London Bridge a few months after it was renamed by Rupert Murdoch (it used to be known as the Baby Shard) and inaugurated by Boris Johnson. If I managed to ignore the curry-stained newspapers with their anti-immigration front pages while clearing the lunch, I could finish a shift with my dignity largely intact. We had a half-hour break, more than the twenty minutes required by law. Most people were nice – including, I suppose, the writers of anti-immigration copy. Nearly everyone employed in the restaurant was foreign, and most of us were European (there was one Londoner on what must have been the most boring gap year in history). My manager was Italian. The hospitality industry is the largest employer of EU-born workers in Britain; 94 per cent of them would fail to meet the visa requirements for non-EU nationals.
In one of the oldest playgrounds in Sofia, where I grew up, there are some new toddler attractions among the old rusting ones, but the potholes in the tarmac haven’t been repaired. For the last six years, flowers have been appearing in them, as part of an ongoing project devised by the artist Veronika Tzekova. She calls it WUMAMPAROI (‘When you make a mistake put a rose on it’). We are a long way from the Soviet cult of childhood, in which the playground played a key role, shifting children’s emotional focus away from home and setting them on the road to the Party.
The only travel agencies open in İzmir on a Sunday are in Basmane. A neighbourhood of former imperial splendour, it is now known as Little Syria. I was there on 20 March, the day that the deal between the EU and Turkey to deport ‘all new irregular migrants crossing from Turkey to the Greek islands’ came into effect. There’d been a suicide bombing in Istanbul the day before, and another in Ankara a week earlier. Basmane was the only part of İzmir where the streets were crowded.
Djaved says he has learned that you can haggle with a policeman for anything in Sofia. At 10.15 on the morning we met it was already over 30ºC, but we went for a walk anyway. I grew up wandering these streets after school. Yuch Bunar, as the area near the Central Market Hall was once called, has traditionally been the home of migrants, Jews, traders, musicians. It is the most culturally and historically dense part of the city, and the buildings haven’t changed much since the late 19th century. They haven’t been intentionally preserved – just left undisturbed. The area has a synagogue, a mosque, one Catholic and two Orthodox churches, all working, all in one square mile, all peeling stucco in different shades of ochre, just minutes away from Parliament Square, where the buildings are in pale grey stone: the council of ministers, the presidential palace, the national bank.