MY BIG FAT BULGARIAN PROM

by Dimana Trankova; photography by 24 Chasa

Bulgarian high school graduates enter the adult world inebriated, wearing strange clothes and heavily in debt

bulgarian proms 3.jpg

"This day will never come again. So I will spare no expense or effort on it,” says a middle-aged woman while her daughter is trying on dresses that cost as much as the annual income of an average Bulgarian family. An hour earlier the two bought gold jewellery and expensive shoes and argued whether it would be better to hire a limousine or a second generation Porsche Cayenne. The mother is wearing an old raincoat and cheap shoes that have been to the cobbler's more than once.

Nothing is, however, too expensive for her daughter's prom, or Abiturientski bal. “When she grows up, she may get married two or three times and so have different wedding receptions. But the prom happens just once in a lifetime,” the woman says.

She is no exception, but a rule. For Bulgarians, the completion of secondary education is a costly obsession. Even outside observers are not spared from it. Between 20 and 31 May, the period when final-year students finish school, you can only avoid the young people celebrating their graduations if you go to a monastery or on a long holiday abroad.

A modest prom costs at least 1,500 leva per head

A modest prom costs at least 1,500 leva per head

They shout in the streets “Twelve! Eleven!” and so on until they come to “One!”, thus counting backwards the school years with such hysterical joy as if they were just released after 12 years in jail. Before the benevolent eyes of their parents and teachers, they get into the cars at least tipsy. Some ride hanging out of the windows waist high. Every year the traffic police warn that they will administer traffic fines, but every year they do nothing. Perhaps, sinisterly, this is why for some young people “the most important day in their lifetime” becomes the last day in their life.

This hysteria has a logical explanation as well. The school graduates are happy that the long and nerve-racking preparation for the ball is finally over.

It usually has three stages.

Preparation

Its beginning depends on the mercy of the banks. Most parents can't afford an expensive dress or a Porsche on their salaries. This is why they take out a loan. Some of it is spent on new wallpaper, tiles or even furniture and the home undergoes partial decoration or complete overhaul. This is done for the relatives and family friends. The graduate's parents would invite them to a feast on the day of the ball. “My cousins from Vratsa will be coming, I mustn't show myself up!” the graduate's father says.

The ideal prom requires a sexy dress, an expensive car and plenty of music

The ideal prom requires a sexy dress, an expensive car and plenty of music

Nothing can, however, compare to the tears and hopes accompanying the choice of attire. It is relatively easy for the boys. Most buy an expensive suit which they ruin with wine stains before midnight. For the girls, the drama may reach histrionic dimensions. No matter if it suits them or not, most of them opt for a style heavily influenced by pop folk. It is so tight around the body that they have to don it with a shoehorn. Then they put on footwear with impossibly high heels and crown their heads with a huge beehive which does not allow them to turn around. To their credit, not only do they manage to balance their accessories, but they also dance all night wearing them.

Some young ladies have to balance other things too. This year, as the 24 Chasa daily reports, some parents were wheedled into giving their daughters silicone breasts as a present for their graduation.

The most critical part of the preparation is finding a car. For some reason, the graduates refuse to go to the ball in their parents' 15-year-old cars. If the parents happen to have a friend with a new Audi A8 who does not object to lending it for the night, then everything is fine. Otherwise, they have to hire something showy.

​​Bulgarian graduates

It seems absurd to you? Not for the Bulgarians. The car is an essential part of Stage Two of Operation Ball, namely:

Impressing the Neighbours

The neighbours are compulsory figures that come into play when the graduate leaves the table with his relatives and goes to the school yard to get together with his classmates. They follow events from their windows and balconies and then discuss it among themselves. There is even more to it in small country towns. The graduates don't meet in the school yard but in the central square, where half the town is already waiting to inspect and comment on their appearance, clothes and cars.

The graduates are not, however, worried about the eyes of strangers. By this time they have already entered Stage Three,

Mixing With the Crowd

Once they become part of the herd of other graduates, they openly ignore the authority of their parents and teachers. They have already had a drink, so when they head for the hotel or restaurant booked for their dinner, they shout at the top of their voices: “Twelve! Eleven…!” The following morning, very few of them can remember what the ball they have been preparing for for six months was like.

Dressed or undressed?

Dressed or undressed?

Believe it or not, but the tradition of sumptuous graduation balls dates from Communist times. Formally living in a system of “complete equality,” the Bulgarians had few opportunities to show off their lucre. The graduation ball - as well as the wedding party and the farewell party given before young men joined the army for their compulsory service - were part of them.

The Democratic Changes brought on significant changes. The Bulgarians discovered that they would be allowed to parade their prosperity without any feeling of shame. But they also discovered they had an unexpected rival. “I don't want my son to feel embarrassed that we can't afford a new car at least for a day,” a mother says in a limo rental office.

Bulgarian graduates

Not everyone hires a limo

Below the surface, this competition with rented confidence is a psychological life belt. During the last year at school graduates and their parents are faced with a range of serious concerns. Private lessons, without which they can't pass the entrance examination for a Bulgarian university, are expensive. Parents have to decide whether they can provide financial support for a student abroad or in Sofia. Those who do not want to go on with their studies face another challenge. They have to find a job.

Pressed by these problems, it is easier for the Bulgarians to worry about “the most important day in life”. It is their only chance to live - for a few hours and at a huge price - the dream of people from poor countries, which certainly involves expensive cars and clothes.

Of course, the rule has its exceptions. There are grads who prefer to spend their money on an education that will guarantee them a well-paid job, instead of on a ball. The question is when will they become a majority.

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