x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

In Bulgaria, Perestroika gave way to a permanent party

Protocol Chalga was considered a cheap and vulgar form of entertainment in the past, but chalga clubs offer an experience like no other.

Things can get pretty wild inside of a Bulgarian night club.
Things can get pretty wild inside of a Bulgarian night club.

I wonder if many people in the UAE could point to the tiny European country of Bulgaria on a map. I have found that those who do have a vague idea about its location usually find it hard to talk about my homeland beyond a few clichés - communism, Russia and, from more recent times, the names of a few football players. In the tourism adverts that Bulgaria has been putting out hoping to enrich that view you will see vast rose fields (Bulgaria is one of the world's top producers of rose oil) and singers in folklore costumes (the country's choirs are feted by experts). Yet, most visitors today will not cite the above two as reasons why they choose to come.

Increasingly, Bulgaria has had a much more base appeal - partying. It is becoming such a trend among young Europeans that, to the dismay of some critics, many Black Sea hotels now cater specifically for this carefree audience. This traditionally sombre country is not accustomed to being invaded by party-goers. But having fun today in numerous cafés, restaurants, pubs and clubs, is the new Bulgarian national past-time. In fact, most large clubs work in two shifts. The first one, known as "detska diskoteka" targets teenagers who are allowed in from the late afternoon until about 9pm. After a few hours of supervised fun, the younger patrons leave, making room for their elders who, almost 20 years since communism collapsed, are still working out their definition of freedom.

For the ultimate Bulgarian clubbing experience, head for one of its "chlaga" clubs, where the country's own new genre of music is played. Also known as pop-folk, this is a mixture of eastern and western popular melodies. Born in the early 1990s, it was then considered by national consensus a cheap and vulgar form of entertainment. These days chalga is the mainstream. It is everywhere - there are dedicated TV channels, its hip-enticing rhythms blast from most taxis and performers regularly travel to the US and western Europe to entertain a nostalgic Bulgarian diaspora.

So after going to the Black Sea resorts flooded by hordes of young Scandinavians, or the capital's university students' quarters, known as "Studentski Grad" (it is like Ibiza but more affordable and without the pretense and high expectations), head for the nearest chalga club. It's an experience like no other. A word of caution - this is not going to be the place where you meet the country's most sophisticated or intellectual young specimens. There is still a pool of posh Bulgarians who would not be caught dead there. Being a foreigner, however, you are exonerated from the crime of violating any highbrow standards of taste. You can go about having wild fun, which is what the chalga experience is all about.

The clubs will be loud enough to make any conversation impossible. The lyrics are likely to offend feminists or poetry lovers, but your lack of knowledge of the language will be a clear advantage. The music itself, a mixture of belly-dancing beats, some traditional Bulgarian melodies and a bit of pop or house, is very easy to dance to. And with everyone around you enthusiastically engaged in this activity you will find it impossible to stand still. By this time, if you are a female tourist, you may even have forgotten the fact that your outfit is modest compared to those worn by the local female patrons (a foreign visitor once wondered aloud to me if there were a "fabric shortage" in the country). And male tourists will likely have strained their necks looking in the direction of passing beauties.

For the ultimate chalga experience visit one of the renowned clubs in the country's capital, Sofia, such as Biad, Naj, or Sin City, which are all located downtown. There you can watch Bulgaria's chalga divas perform live. Many of them have explored and exploited the possibilities of plastic surgery to the fullest. And their patronage alone is probably enough to sustain quite a few hair extension salons. You will notice that that look is also catching on among their not-so-famous fans.

Another word of caution - mobile phones, wallets and cameras are not to be placed on tables under any circumstances in case of theft. If you see muscular men in black suits and bodyguards approaching, then move as far away as you can. They are likely to be members of one of Bulgaria's many organised crime groups. While these gangs should not be considered a direct threat to tourists, they are sometimes the targets of a rival's bullets. It is good to stay out of their way just in case.

By the time the party is over, most people will be buying public transport tickets or cramming into taxis, ready to drive to the nearest greasy breakfast joint. Whether you choose to join the party or not, it is at first difficult to understand the levels of flamboyance and excess that goes along with chalga. Perhaps the past offers an explanation. After 45 years of living under ideologically-motivated sobriety, Bulgarians are looking to push moral boundaries. The communist regime educated the country's predominantly peasant population and brought high culture to the masses but it also stifled dialogue so that, for example, jokes about political leaders were to be shared only with close friends. And, as is the case with any form of rebellion, the chalga revolution does not discriminate when it comes to destroying some good aspects of the past along with the bad.

The current political and economic situation also does not help. Despite clear improvements during the past two decades, a large number of young people are unemployed and feel disenfranchised. So living every day as if it is the last has become an attractive option. vtodorova@thenational.ae