Every day, thousands of people hustle past the Sveti Sedmochislenitsi High School in Sofia, Bulgaria, en route to an Orthodox church of the same name, to nearby metro lines, or to a neighboring shopping district, but few notice the poem stretched across the wall.
On either side of an abstract, winged heart are the flags of Hungary and Bulgaria (both horizontal stripes of green, red, and white, but in differing order) with the words of poet Sándor Petőfi laid overtop in their respective languages.
While the poet has long been seen as a symbol of Hungarian independence (he helped lead the 1848 Hungarian revolution), this creation and the other 27 poems adorning walls throughout Bulgaria’s capital city (and its largest one, as well) are intended to be quiet messages of cooperation.
“European poems on Sofia’s city walls send out a powerful message about Europe to Sofia’s citizens and visitors, that the Europeans Union’s strength is unity in diversity.”
Each of the writings is part of Wall-to-Wall Poetry, a project that saw embassies of European Union-member states or candidate countries decorate a wall of their choosing–ranging from inside a metro station to the facade of City Hall to the underpass in front of the Presidency–with the work of poets and artists from their respective countries.
The project was launched by the Netherlands Embassy in Bulgaria in 2004 (the most recent poem was placed in 2009). At the time, the Dutch held the rotating Presidency of the European Union and wanted to mark the occasion on a grand-scale project. Bulgaria had yet to officially become a member state of the European Union, and wouldn’t until 2007.
“The mission statement, as described by the Dutch Ambassador to Bulgaria at that time, Mr. Willem van Ee, was: European poems on Sofia’s city walls send out a powerful message about Europe to Sofia’s citizens and visitors, that the Europeans Union’s strength is unity in diversity,” said Nikolai Stoyanov, the Press, Culture and Public Diplomacy Advisor for the Netherlands Embassy in Sofia.
“This is the European language we all speak and which unites us.”
Stoyanov added that though there are numerous historical and cultural differences, as well as various languages and alphabets, the various EU members are allied in their shared values and principles, namely, democracy, respect for human rights, equality, and security and prosperity of their citizens.
“This is the European language we all speak and which unites us,” Stoyanov said.
Most of the poems were penned by wordsmiths well known in their home countries. For example, Italy’s contribution includes a collection of lines from Dante Alighieri’s The Divine Comedy and the Dutch participated with a piece by Jan Hanlo titled, So I Believe That Also You Are.
While there were numerous locations that were made available to the embassies, some common themes emerged.
Several countries chose to display their poetry on schools, including Greece’s selection from Constantine Cavafy on the Vasil Aprilov 38th School, Poland’s Czesław Milosz on the Bratya Miladinovi School, Slovenia’s France Preseren on the G.S. Rakovski 22nd School, Spain’s Lope de Vega on the Miguel de Cervantes Spanish High School, Sweden’s Tomas Transtromer on the National Art Academy, and Turkey’s Mazim Hikment on the Alphonse de Lamartine French High School.
Other organizations chose spots on or near prominent tourist attractions: Austria’s Wolf Harrant on the Sofia Public Library, Cyprus’ Pantelis Mechanicos on the Lozenets Municipality, Denmark’s Piet Hein on the Sofia City Art Gallery, Estonia’s Jaan Kaplinski on the Architecture and Urban Planning Directorate, France’s Paul Eluard on the Small City Theatre, Germany’s Friedrich von Schiller on the Vasil Levski National Stadium, Ireland’s Mairtin o Direain on the Mall of Sofia, Lithuania’s Marcelijus Martinaitis on the Sofia Public Library, Luxembourg’s Raymond Schaack on the Sofia City Art Gallery, Malta’s Dun Karm Psaila and Portugals’ Alvaro de Campos Fernando Pessoa both on City Hall, and Romania’s Mihai Eminescu on the 199 Theatre.
The remaining works can be found in transit areas–like Britain’s Liz Lockhead on the Serdica Metro Station (said to be an homage to the well-known Poems on the Underground in London), Belgium’s Hugo Claus and Odilon-Jean Perier in the Sofia University Metro Station, and Finland’s Pentti Saarikoski on the underpass in front of the Presidency–or buildings with special meaning to the hosting embassy, including the Czech Republic’s Jaroslav Steifert on the Czech Cultural Centre, Latvia’s Rudolfs Blaumanis on the Honorary Consulate of Latvia, and Slovakia’s Jan Smrek on their own offices.
The poem that was chosen to represent Bulgaria was Hristo Botev’s Hadzhi Dimitar.
“Hristo Botev is one of the most famous Bulgarian writers and his work is associated with Bulgaria’s revival period in the late 19th century and was always regarded as an inspiration for Bulgarian independence,” explained Tomislav Rashkov, a guide at Free Sofia Tours, a company that takes travelers on free guided walks that include stops at various poems in the city center.
Each of the poems is written in the various countries’ native languages and is accompanied by translations in Bulgarian and English, as well as information about the author, all inscribed on a plaque nearby.
Although some of the poems have faded with time, Stoyanov argues they’re just as relevant today as they were at their unveiling: they still show the beauty found in commonalities and differences.