Tom Hodgkinson discovers an idler-friendly lifestyle trend in Bulgaria’s second city
Over the past few years we’ve seen a number of books on the various European approaches to doing nothing. We’ve read about hygge, the Danish art of doing nothing; niksen, the Dutch art of doing nothing, and of course lykke, the Norwegian art of doing nothing. Now, not to be outdone, the Balkans are getting in on the act. The latest trend is aylyak, the Bulgarian art of doing nothing.
I was alerted to aylyak earlier this week by my correspondent Bernard Marszalek of Berkeley, California. He says that aylyak is a tradition associated with the Bulgarian city of Plovdiv. The word is derived from a Turkish word meaning “idleness” but its meaning today is a little closer to “unhurried conviviality”. And while hygge, lykke and niksen are about staying in with a blanket and a wood-burning stove, aylyak is all about hanging out in the city.
BBC reporter Will Buckingham reckons the concept is something like the French notion of the flâneur, the city-wanderer. While wandering round Plovdiv this month, he asked Bulgarian actor, director and mime artist Plamen Radev Georgiev to define the concept.
“It was tied in with social status,” reports Will, “with a kind of dandyish wandering the streets with nothing to do. And, on a deeper level – Georgiev called this ‘Zen aylyak’ – it was to do with freedom of the soul. ‘Aylyak means that you can be engaged with the difficulties of life, but you remain safe from all life’s problems,’ Georgiev said.”
Buckingham also quotes this charming 1906 description of an evening in Plovdiv – then called Philippopolis – by travel writer John Foster Fraser:
“Picture the scene. A garden, lit with many lamps. Beneath the trees innumerable tables. At the tables sat ‘all Philippopolis’ sipping coffee, drinking beer, toasting one another in litres of wine. At one end of the garden was a little stage. There was a Hungarian band which played rhapsodically… It was Sunday night and Philippopolis was enjoying itself.”
I’m not sure what the British equivalent would be. Perhaps we could call it the art of sitting around doing nothing in particular – or sitten.
These comments were mailed to us after the above piece was sent as a newsletter. We like to publish a selection and reserve the right to edit them for clarity. Feel free to drop us a line with your thoughts.
When my daughter was eight she christened lying on the grass in the park “bumfangling”. No idea where she heard the word. I was shocked somewhat later in life to find that bumfangling means “making a calculated attack on a stranger by poking them in the bottom” (“I hid in the bush waiting to bumfangle him”). The word is a running joke in my family and I think it’s the ideal term for British idling!
I forwarded your newsletter to my friend Nina who lives down the road from me. She’s from Sofia, Bulgaria, and said that “to really enjoy idling, you need someone else to be idle with!”.