Elena Stoycheva ’00: Your Granny Has Something To Tell You!

July 5, 2016 by American College of Sofia

Interview by Petia Ivanova ’97

We are so thankful to gifted ACS alumna and published author Dena Popova ’06 for alerting us to the fascinating projects her fellow alumna Elena Stoycheva has been busy with lately here in Bulgaria. We got in touch with Elena in early spring, and as soon as her busy schedule between the Dryanovski Babi[1] audio recording and her participation in One Design Week in Plovdiv allowed for it, we managed to talk a little bit about living in a village and the importance of preserving culture and traditions.

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Baba Rossa dresses Elena in her traditional costume as a sign of hospitality – Photo by Velina Tsankova ’05

Elena, what have you been up to since you graduated from the College in 2000? 

I studied architecture in Berlin, and afterwards I did a postgraduate master’s in urbanism at the Bauhaus University in Weimar. Presently, I live in Vienna and work at Thomas Sturm Architecture Office.

What provoked your interest in architecture?

I am actually a third-generation architect. My grandfather Boris Kamilarov was a talented architect who, together with his two partners, planned emblematic buildings like the opera house in Burgas and the university in Veliko Tarnovo. I myself have discovered my special interests in the conceptual part of architecture on a broader scale, as well as in social interaction processes and the interrelationship between the city and its surrounding landscapes. This includes themes like food production and independence, or regional development in rural areas.

During my university years I was in China for a project concerning low-scale, low-cost housing in a village and emigration from rural areas. Last year, as soon as I heard about the project Baba Residence (Резиденция Баба), which addresses the very serious problems of depopulating villages in Bulgaria in a nice and free-spirited way, I knew I wanted to participate.

What did you expect to find in Dryanovo? Were there any surprises?

Dryanovo is a remote village in the Rhodope Mountains. I lived in granny Sofka’s house together with two other “residents” for a whole month. And yes, there were many surprises!

Pic. 1 Preparations for weaving in Dryanovo. The grannies always gather together to assist eachother (Elena Stoycheva)

Preparations for weaving in Dryanovo: The grannies always gather together to assisst each other – Photo by Elena Stoycheva ’00

The first surprise was to feel how difficult it was to be accepted by the local community when you come from the outside. Dryanovo was quite isolated in the past, not only because of a lack of roads, but mostly as a Bulgarian-Muslim village. People here tend to be suspicious about visitors from elsewhere while trying to preserve their vulnerable identity. Many times in history, outside policies were imposed here and people were forced to change religion, or even to change their names. In communist times, the mosque was displaced by a big school, and nowadays this building has lost its function because young families have left. Nevertheless, the positive effect is that old people still preserve their local culture, dialect, stories, and songs. This cultural richness is what we at the Baba Residence try to collect and pass on, so it is not lost forever.

So, there comes the next surprise! As granny Sofka took us to the Pensioners’ Club one evening, we were all of a sudden immersed in the music of the mountains! The local granny folk singing group, which we didn’t know existed, had a rehearsal. We fell in love with the old songs, which carry old stories about love and hard times and are sung in the local, gradually disappearing dialect. Dressed in their colorful traditional costumes inherited from previous generations, the old women often win medals at folk festivals.

My spontaneous reaction was: Wow, we need a recording of these songs! With the assistance of the Ideas Factory (Фабрика за идеи), I made a crowdfunding campaign; it was successful and enabled a professional music recording in Sofia. Presently, we are producing the first CD of the Dryanovski Babi! And now, one year later, after quite a lot of work and many trips between Vienna and Dryanovo, the grannies want to make me a Dryanovo citizen!

Pic. 2 Dryanovski babi preserve their original costumes and beautiful songs (Elena Stoycheva)

Dryanovski babi preserve their original costumes and beautiful songs – Photo by Elena Stoycheva ’00

You have volunteer experience on an Austrian organic farm. How is life in an Austrian village different than in a Bulgarian one?

Luckily, volunteer work is getting more acknowledgements lately, because it is important to have a society of social interaction, openness, and assistance. Thanks to volunteers, many cultural events can happen. A good example of this is One Design Week in Plovdiv, where I was invited to create an exhibition this year. In a small gallery in the Kapana district, I presented the project I am currently working on together with the grannies of Dryanovo. It is called Chergodeiki![2] and it aims to revive weaving, which is a disappearing handicraft in Bulgaria. I am searching for ways to make it more attractive through new design interpretations based on the traditional techniques and knowledge.

Volunteers, mostly schoolgirls in higher grades, were responsible for looking after the exhibition and explaining the concept to visitors, which is in my opinion a great way to engage young people in different fields. And I was very happy to see how interested they were to learn about and understand the topics.

In Dryanovo weaving had not been practiced since 30 years and everybody is happy about my interest for it (Elena Stoycheva)

In Dryanovo village weaving had not been practiced since 30 years and everybody was happy with Elena’s interest in it

The comparison between Austria and Bulgaria is very interesting because the two countries have similarities in many ways. Austria is also an agriculturally-oriented country and faces the same problem with depopulation of villages in some mountain regions. But in Austria there are a lot of functional programs and subsidies for landscape preservation, for promoting local products from small farmers, or for vacations at farms. The standard of life in rural areas is therefore much higher than in Bulgaria. At the beginning, I was very surprised by how well preserved old farmhouses appear on the outside, but how city-like they look on the interior. At the same time, people in the Rhodope villages still use donkeys for agriculture, still have a family cow, or just a small path leading to their house. Even though this makes life harder, it still makes up a lot of the charm of Bulgarian villages.

Tell us more about the Baba Residence project. I have a feeling I know people that would be interested in joining.

Baba Residence is a project by the NGO Ideas Factory based in Sofia. It connects the potential of young city people with the knowledge of the elderly persons in depopulating villages. It allows for communication between generations and, in this way, strives against the feeling of loneliness and uselessness among the elderly. “Residents” apply ethnological techniques to collect information from locals. They are assisted by the ethnological organization Ongal, who bring in their year-long experience from field work and also sort the material scientifically.

The village Dryanovo in the Rhodopes has now 200 inhabitants, instead of 2000 in the past (Elena Stoycheva)

Dryanovo village in the Rhodopes has now 200 inhabitants, instead of 2000 as was the case in the past – Photo by Elena Stoycheva ’00

This year, Baba Residence will happen for the second time from September to October, but we are still searching for financing! We think this is a more suitable time of the year, since we discovered that summer is a very busy period for the grannies that have to work hard in the fields. We are probably heading towards the mountains in the very Northwest of Bulgaria, which is an underprivileged region and still has not been ethnologically researched in-depth.

Applications are open for students, the unemployed, and freelancers up to 35 years of age. They apply with their own idea of how to bring new life to the village. But over the course of the month they spend in the village, this idea might thoroughly change with respect to the specific problems and potentials on site, and may even develop in the form of social entrepreneurship. After all, every village is a small universe with its own culture and traditions, endless stories, and interesting characters.

Pic. 3 Elena at One Design Week in Plovdiv decorating public space in front of the gallery (Dessislava Bankova)

Elena at One Design Week in Plovdiv decorating public space in front of the gallery – Photo by Dessislava Bankova

What is the most interesting place in the villages you have visited?

One of the most interesting places is in Yugovo, another village from the Baba Residence program with only 50 inhabitants. In one of the houses, in a dim space, there is a shrine called Zdravichkite.[3] People here believe that these are good ghosts of young girls, who inhabit the house and streets. The house owners put candles on the shrine and sacred bread to care for the good ghosts. This place not only feels somehow magical, but also connects to the beliefs which formed people’s philosophy of life in the past.

Sofia, Berlin, Weimar, Vienna or Dryanovo?

I have my parents in Sofia, my boyfriend in Vienna, my sister in Berlin, and my newly-won grannies in Dryanovo. I would rather not choose one of the places, but work on projects that connect places and people.

Share with us your most precious ACS memory.

At ACS, I had four best friends – we were a clique of five girls and some classmates even called us The Agents. We were all artistically-oriented: we wrote poems, drew pictures on the glass of the canteen entrance, and even made an exhibition of our creations in Sanders Hall. Together we developed a comic-like style and drew funny sketches of animals and people, but most often of sheep. And so we called ourselves ‘Sheepophiles,’ which was very funny. The thing is that I still like sheep! It turns out that now the sheep theme is also a part of my work, because in a broader way they are responsible for the maintenance of the cultural landscape, as well as for wool production, which in the end goes into the manufacturing of rugs. I find it so helpful to keep my sense of humor, even when working with serious topics!

I also have very nice memories of our ESL teacher in prep year, Mrs. Kelly Corcoran. I enjoyed her classes very much. And it was quite amusing when she taught us to bake chocolate chip cookies.

What inspires you?

Sometimes when I hold a transparent glass of water in my hand – I stop to admire it…. It is something so ordinary that we barely notice. But it is so pure and beautiful in its simplicity. At the same time, it has a complexity we cannot see – water crystals are sensible to music and have memory. So beauty inspires me, and so does the ability to contemplate and notice fine details.

Pic. 4 Two ACS-Alumni, Elena and Velina, together at the Sofia Session Studio (Boris Bonchev)

Two ACS alumnae, Elena and Velina, together at the Sofia Session Studio – Photo by Boris Bonchev

What makes you happy these days?

Conversations make me happy – deep, concentrated conversations. When I meet somebody and we start speaking and discover that we have common interests and ideas, and we are able to connect on an emotional level – this is very touching for me. Since I started working together with the people at Ideas Factory, I have been lucky to have had even more enriching encounters – with elderly people as well as young ones. Among them is another ACS alumna, Velina Tsankova ’05, who is dedicated to the cause of promoting social change and networks in the Ideas Factory. I am thankful to Ina for being such a good partner.

Any exciting future plans you want to share with our readers?

I am very motivated to continue my work on the design and weaving project together with the grannies, and I want to involve more young people through workshops or films. I plan to be a mentor to the new residents of the Baba Residence this year.

Tell us your biggest dream.

My dream is that more people would start caring and sharing! Everybody needs to take responsibility, now that we know how human activities influence the environment. I think that we do not need to own so much; we can use things again and share, instead. We can invest more in experience and togetherness. We should be more sensitive toward the environment and each other, and we should care about beauty.

Do you have a message to other ACS alumni?

Even if you live abroad, studying or working, it is possible to engage in positive social change for Bulgaria. It might be on a very small scale; it might be that you help only a single child or an elderly person. In my opinion, these are the projects that will give you the most back, because you can experience a deep, personal relationship.

And don’t forget to call your granny – she has something to tell you!


Pic. 5 Dryanovski babi at Sofia Session Studio (Velina Tsankova)

Dryanovski babi at Sofia Session Studio – Photo by Velina Tsankova ’05

 You can support the Baba Residence project by following this link.

[1]              Grannies of Dryanovo

[2]              Rug weavers – word play with „чародейки“ or „enchantresses“

[3]              The little healthy ones


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