Style | Swellboy

Swellboy on… a trip to Sofia

A tricky encounter with the Bulgarian prime minister

Swellboy on… a trip to Sofia

Image: Brijesh Patel

July 01 2010
Nick Foulkes

I was in Sofia to attend the opening of a show by a Chinese artist called Zeng Fanzhi. He is apparently the highest-priced Chinese artist at auction and he had been brought to Bulgaria by my friends, art dealer Fabien Fryns and collector Spas Roussev; and “mine” was not the only jet touching down at Sofia airport that afternoon. It seemed that a good deal of what Ian Fleming used to call the “international set” had flown to Bulgaria as a sort of amuse bouche for the ensuing cultural banquet of Art Basel.

Clearly Bulgaria had never seen anything like it.

I went straight from the airport to the prime ministerial palace – an essay in Cold War Balkan brutalist chic – to attend an awards ceremony hosted by the prime minister and his minister of culture.

Had this been France there would have been much speechifying and puffing out of chests and wiping away of emotional tears; but here in Sofia they take a commendably robust view when dishing out their equivalent of the Légion d’honneur and the whole thing was done in a few minutes. After which there was the traditional post-award mingling, during which time I snatched Tommy Hilfiger’s gold medal, the veteran American designer being among the honoured few (others included Annie Leibowitz) and explained to the prime minister that I thought it would make a sensational belt buckle. He turned away a trifle abruptly.

It did cross my mind that I might have inadvertently incurred prime ministerial displeasure, but happily he returned a few moments later with a red velvet box inside which was another gold medal, albeit without the accompanying paperwork. At a slight loss as to the appropriate reciprocal protocol upon being unofficially awarded a high national honour simply because I perceived its potential as a fashion accessory, I slipped him a large Cohiba and he seemed pleased enough at this exchange of diplomatic gifts. Somehow I cannot see Monsieur Sarkozy taking such suggestions about the medal of the Légion d’honneur or the Palme Académique in quite such a friendly and uninhibited manner; more’s the pity.