House prices in London are outrageous. YouGov predicts a braindrain, artists commandeer billboards to discuss an exodus, and one mad professional shows its cheaper to commute to the City from Barcelona than West Hampstead.
Two Pine Palace is an art commune in rural Bulgaria that shows how ambition can lead you elsewhere than the Big Smoke. It was set up by Tom, a 24-yr-old London artist who saved £10,000 from working in a restaurant and construction labour over the course of two years, then bought a house.
Confused about how to make art in a city where he couldn’t afford a home, let alone a studio to work in, Tom went to the cheapest corner of the EU in the hope of finding the head space to finally get some art done.
In a village of around 700 people, with a house of five bedrooms, two stables and an outdoor toilet, Tom is creating an international art refuge for wandering creatives looking for a space to work.
He expected his new village to give him a few strange looks and make a couple attempts to rip him off, what he didn’t expect was daily advice on how to grow his vegetables, nightly offers to drink home-made Rakia with gypsies, and to earn a reputation for being the local bad boy that ended up getting one of his guests arrested.
And all this after living there for just one month.
This is the story of how a poor British art graduate is sticking two fingers to the work-life balance paradigm, trying to make his art his life and his life his art, and hoping he can instigate some valuable cross-cultural exchange in the process. But what he’s realising is that if he wants to prosper in his vision, he’s got to shake the image of being an arrogant Western outsider who makes up his own rules.
Two Pine Palace, so-called for the two towering pines that shade his half-acre plot, is Tom’s imagined art community come to life. After purchasing the property for just under £10,000 in February this year, Tom spent a cold winter week in the farmhouse planning what he’d need to do to get it ready for full-time residence this summer. At the start of May he returned with two friends and got to work ripping up damp floorboards and dismantling rat-piss-stained ceilings.
Brits buying cheap houses in Bulgaria is no new feat. All through the last decade local British media has spread tales of the easy life waiting at the end of a £50 EasyJet flight. Usually, these expats are looking for a sleepy haven where they can wave goodbye to £4 pints and parking tickets, and pretend they’re no longer part of the Big Bad System.
Tom’s is a different story. He wants to use his expat paradise to bring an international community of artists into contact with each other and the local Bulgarian gypsy community who populate the village. At first, it was just about the artists and the art – but Tom could never have expected the interest the locals would take in him, and how tricky it might be to keep them on his side.
On his first morning in May, both his neighbours came round to introduce themselves, but before he could get his name out, they were thrusting their hands into the earth and scolding him for not watering his tomato plants. Days and days went by with more impromptu visits and more advice given in hand gestures, the odd English word and the help of a Bulgarian phrase book. Tom wasn’t sure if he should pay them, and being a classic Brit decided it’d be awkward to offer them money. In fact, he was wrong, and they had expected to be paid.
One day he woke up to find rain and a thousand giant snails crawling over his crops. Feeling more surprised than concerned, Tom ignored them. He only realised his error when he heard a weird shaking sound coming from next door, like someone playing a tambourine with a pneumatic drill.
As one does in the village he invited himself round only to find his neighbour covered in cracked snail shells, and standing in front of an industrial sized, home-made sieve that was sorting the big snails from the little ones. It turned out that today was Snail Day, a lucrative opportunity in the village where all home owners brought their snail harvest to Tom’s neighbour, who paid them, counted the gross domestic snail haul, and sold the molluscs on to expensive restaurants in the city. Once again, Tom had missed a trick.
During his first month Tom was conscientiously practicing the Cyrillic alphabet and learning the local ways, but things changed when he invited his first set of artist guests. I arrived with five other curious creative types in June and turned Tom’s calm household of three into a Brits Abroad party of eight. Feeling the desire to entertain, Tom made sure we had plenty of booze each evening, and we didn’t make a secret of having a good time.
Three or four days into the trip, the guests and I were in love with Two Pine Palace. The deal was that we had to spend three or four hours each day working on the house and garden in lieu of rent. Because much of the grunt work had been done, we were tasked with decorating, and because we were allowed to choose our own colours and designs, these handful of hours never felt like a chore.
But something was amiss. Tom couldn’t understand why his normally friendly-cum-imposing neighbours hadn’t come round to say hello. Usually a big part of his day was spent drinking coffee and failing to speak Bulgarian. He began to feel that his being left alone this week was something of an omen.
The intimacy of the house was starting to get to all of us. Despite its beauty, cabin-fever set in, and led to the spontaneous decision from four of us to ditch the rest of the group and spend Sunday afternoon sat outside the local shop drinking £1 bottles of 2-litre beer. We didn’t feel wrong doing this, as it seemed like the local custom was to while away the day in the shade of this one communal meeting place. But apparently Sundays are different. By 4pm we’d already sung Champagne Supernova, and Wonderwall was but another swig away. A small heard of cows crept its way up the sun-blasted street, and no other human stirred.
The next day three of us were out for a stroll when a police car stopped beside us and asked us for our passports. We didn’t have them, and after acting important and grumpy, the cops told us to meet us at Tom’s house. We didn’t need to tell them where he lived.
We entered the house and felt the tension immediately. One of Tom’s guests had freaked out when he saw police at the front door and had ran to hide to his weed. The police smelt a rat, quickly discovered the stash, and arrested the man. Five hours, two translators, one narcotics expert and a paperwork guru later, the guy was told he’d have to pay a £400 fine, and was escorted to the police station.
The next day, on our way back from another hike, the local barman pulled over and offered Tom and I a lift home. In the car he asked who’d been smoking ‘bad cigarettes’ at Two Pine Palace, and made it clear that he’d defended Tom when the police questioned him on Tom’s ‘character’. It turns out our Sunday drinking session had been more than uncouth, and what with the cannabis arrest Tom was starting to get quite a reputation.
Tom is on the edge of two worlds, in one he could become another indifferent expat who makes no effort to exchange ideas and friendship with the local community; in the other he can learn to respect the local customs and allow them to encourage his art work. If he wants to continue to invite international creatives to enrich his art residence, he’ll need to learn what’s acceptable, and what he’ll be demonised for. This task might sound futile considering there’s rarely a community of artists who don’t like to dance around and get smashed, but it’s essential to the health and longevity of a beautiful project such as Two Pine Palace.
By stepping away from the stress and protocol of the modern Western city, Tom has the potential to create an easier space for artists to realise their longer, more detailed projects. But just because you want to break-down the corrupted paradigm of ‘work-life balance’ doesn’t mean you can avoid some hard labour, and only time will tell whether risking it all in the wilds of Bulgaria will bear the fruit this young artist can be proud of.