Meet the Shoppi in Bulgaria

Sofia’s indigenous population prides itself on its inimitable stubbornness and sense of humour.

An English lord visited the Bulgarian king Ferdinand in Sofia at the beginning of the last century. The king showed him around the capital, complaining at the end of the tour:

“Everything is wonderful here – but for this tribe, the Shop pi, which I simply can’t re-educate.” The Englishman used the opportunity to praise the educational methods in use in his own country and offered to take a Shopp to Britain and return him a civilised European in three month’s time. The king agreed, promising to give the lord a brand new Ford if he succeeded in his mission. So the noble and the Shopp went to Britain. A month later, the king received a letter in which the English language had undergone a strange metamorphosis:

Dear Ferdo, Come and take your Shoppo! Don’t want your Fordo. Lordo

Most likely fictional, this anecdote will not be fully appreciated by foreigners who simply cannot grasp how funny the Shopp dialect and its typical -o suffix sounds to the Bulgarian ear. But it best captures the quintessential feature of the ethnic group inhabiting Sofia and the surrounding area for centuries: its contagious, bomb-proof stubbornness and tenacity.

In addition to western Bulgaria, there are Shoppi in eastern Serbia and the northeastern regions of the Republic of Macedonia. Although some of them now identify themselves as Serbs or Macedonians. If you ask them where they are from, many will proudly tell you they are “from the Shopluk region”.

For the Sofia Shoppi, this ‘ancient homeland’ is confined within strictly limited geographical boundaries. Or as their saying goes: “There’s nothing higher than Mount Vitosha, deeper than the Iskar River or bigger than Sofia.” Don’t even think of trying to argue with them on that point – you’ll only end up like the proverbial English lord.

According to the classical Bulgarian poet and writer Ivan Vazov (1850-1921), the Shop pi are “jolly rather than sly, jolly rather than happy, jolly rather than drunk”. Vazov regards this character trait, which is in such stark contrast with the gloomy Bulgarian mentality, as well-nigh a national virtue: “Where there is laughter there is no malice; laughter is incompatible with evil intent or vile motives.”

The Shoppi’s fondness for merriment and drinking is also noted by Anton Strashimirov (1872-1937), another Bulgarian writer and scholar of the national character (in his Kniga za bulgarite/Book about the Bulgarians). In his view, that is how the Shoppi overcome their suspicious mindset and feigned reticence, revealing their true nature.

Strashimirov also points out another ambiguity in the Shopp character: seemingly secretive and ready to resign themselves to anything, the Shoppi won’t hesitate to resist anything that threatens the fate of the nation.

The 1885 Serbo-Bulgarian War provides a vivid example of the Shoppi’s combative spirit. When the Serb army reached the outskirts of Sofia, the city seemed doomed. But then two Shopp divisions were urgently summoned and thrown into battle. Not only did they stop the advance of the Serbs but, furious at being woken up in the middle of the night, the Shop pi pursued them as far as the Serbian city of Nis.

As I don’t want to be suspected of being favourably inclined towards the Shoppi (I’m not even a Shopp myself), let me say that they don’t have the sense of beauty typical of the Bulgarians from the picturesque 19th-Century Revival Period towns. Their houses were – and remain – plain and bare-brick, with potatoes instead of flowers growing in their gardens.

But the contribution of this ethnic group to Bulgarian history and culture is certainly not limited to the Shoppi’s crucial role in the Serbo-Bulgarian War and Bulgarian food (see the famous Shopska salad and sirene po shopski or Shopp-style cheese). The Shoppi also have a unique folklore. The Sofia region boasts the fastest chain dance (horo) on the Balkans, with footwork that is virtually impossible to follow and a specific manner of shaking the upper body (the women deliberately dance braless), which drives observers crazy.

Then there is also the archaic polyphonic singing style of the Shoppi folk group known as the Bistritsa Babi or Bistritsa Grannies, which has made Bulgaria famous worldwide and was proclaimed a Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO in 2005.

Last but not least, there is the Shoppi’s inimitable sense of humour – with which they make fun above all of themselves. How many other ethnic groups can boast as much?

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