Photo Essay

Penka y Giorgi

Penka y Giorgi

Tourists and folks passing by might stop and listen for a few moments, perhaps even a few minutes, but then usually move on to another destination within Madrid. The first time I met Penka and Giorgi was a Sunday in June, the day of the famous Rastro, an open flea market stretching across the La Latina and Lavapies neighborhoods full of tapas bars, hordes of visitors and inhabitants, antique dealers, and other sorts of sellers.

I stood listening from a distance to the rhythm of the accordion and the harmonious unity of their voices; raspy, loud, and so perfect. It reminded me of some of my childhood music. While my early years were full of a broad range of tunes, from rock to jazz to even reggae, the accordion always has had a special place in my heart. Even my aunt is a professional accordionist! It is a fascinating creature spanning various cultures, inserted in so many compositions.

Little did I know that Penka and Giorgi, an older Bulgarian couple, also spoke Russian! I made my way closer to the two and placed myself on the street corner right in front of them, waving with my hands a bit to the beat of their playing as if I were orchestrating.

"And Rumanian style!" yelled Giorgi to me in Russian. The tempo shifted and once again he yelled. "And now Polish!" And so on and so forth we laughed as Giorgi played the same music, but in different modes pretending as though we were criss-crossing Europe with his accordion, conforming to the sounds of each country and location he called out.

Penka, 54, and Giorgi, 53, married 17 years, have both been living in España for some time now. Giorgi arrived six years ago and later Penka followed him to Madrid.

But unlike homeless I have worked with before, they didn't actually mention anything about their living situation until I met them right at the Palacio Real gardens some hours later where they sleep.

"How has living in Madrid been for you?" I asked them after their final set up near the Latina area some hours earlier.

Penka smirked at me.

"What can I say? It's not that great."

Penka's two sons still live in Bulgaria and her daughter in Madrid with a husband. I wondered why Penka and Giorgi were not shacked up with her daughter and her dentist husband. Penka told me she feels bad and doesn't want to take up space in their one-room apartment.

"How would we all fit?" Penka pointed out to me.

She moved on telling me her story with more of an upbeat sounding voice.

"Every Thursday we see each other though. She comes by and we go to have a lunch. Also when it gets really hot here in the city, Giorgi and I take a bus to the coast to rest.

"Every Thursday", she went on. "This Thursday she is coming over and I will see her."

I still didn't understand how a daughter could not help put her mother and stepfather somewhere under a roof. Perhaps Penka was leaving something out. Maybe there was more to the story.

When I first arrived to the garden near the Palacio I found Penka sitting on a pillow under a large shaded area. Giorgi was fast asleep.

"He is taking his siesta," says Penka.

She laughs and tells me about how tired he gets with all the heat in the city during summer. Giorgi cuddles a piece of cardboard to try and escape the heat while Penka's arm is enlaced with his. When Giorgi finally gets up he smiles and giggles, accepting a plastic cup full of coca-cola from a fellow Bulgarian homeless man. He offers me one as well.

"Today is a special day. My son has had a child born. We celebrate."

While Giorgi goes to stretch his legs after having taken his afternoon nap, Penka and I sit and chat. She tells me quite a bit about her life story, not hesitating to answer my questions.

"Do you think we could talk some more one day? I would love to hear more," I ask Penka.

"Well, you are here right now. Why don't you just ask now?" Penka grins at me.

It is impossible to find work in Bulgaria she says. At one point in time she worked as a cook for three years, a truck driver, and even as a ticket booth salesperson for a circus. Then, nothing, no work.

Her gentleness and her kind heart is so apparent. As she is speaking to me she is also involved in an argument with a much younger homeless couple that dresses in various costumes and poses for tourists all over the city. Today the topic of discussion: money. They yell and scream as tourists nearby watch the craziness unfold, perhaps a bit taken aback by the noise level and ferocity of their debate. According to Penka, the couple owes them money leant and now they don't want to pay her back. They continue to yell in Bulgarian, but each time there is a break of discussion Penka turns to me and switches once again to Russian and begins to speak to me in a quiet, low voice. Her calmness is mighty, influential almost.

Penka tells me about how she has written a 100-page book and is trying to get it published in Spanish, but still is waiting for the translator to tell her how much it will cost. Unfortunately she already knows how not very cost-effective her project idea is. She shows me her journal and even for a good while sits in silence and reads a bit. Then she begins to write. She flips a few pages and takes out a little photograph protected by the inner folds of her book. It is an image of Jesus. She hands it over to me. I look at it for a few moments and hand it right back. Her writing is about religion, and as she explains to me - a reflection on humankind and the nature of evil. Penka is pessimistic in that sense and has written about how evil works. She then points to the young couple.

"They are evil. They take and take, then do not give back."

Giorgi overhears and starts hissing from laughter and puts his finger to his head as to make fun of Penka.

"She is crazy," he jokes. He has a sense of humor. Penka simply dismisses him.

Penka and Giorgi don't earn a lot. Tourists do not leave very much on top of the backpack they put out. So they strategize. They play a small set and then take a rest. Apart from the furious Madrid summer sun, Penka and Giorgi want to keep their voices as fresh as possible. They need to conserve � for playing music is the only way they know how to survive. As their set ends I pull out a coin and drop it on their bag. They look at me and wave their finger asking me not to leave anything. They don't want me to have to spend my money on them. They are already grateful for my presence. I too am grateful. I am grateful for their gentle way with me. I stand up and so does Giorgi. He wraps his arm around mine and I do the same.

"Spaseeba Marco. Spaseeba". He thanks me in Russian and smiles.

For what I don't really know. But maybe I'll understand one day.

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thought you might like this story!

—The JPG team

1 response

  • Ilana Laps

    Ilana Laps gave props (29 Jul 2009):

    Markuna, this is beautiful. Thank you. You will understand one day. We all will.

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