Stara Zagora (24/05 – 36.36) Scores of young Roma women have been paraded before potential suitors at a Bulgarian ‘bride market’ where poor families are given the chance to arrange financially beneficial marriages for their children.
Here the potential brides are provocatively dressed, donning gobs of mascara and wearing flashy jewellery, towering heels and mini-skirts.
And surrounding them in the car boot-like sale event are young men whose family hope to find them a wife at a good cost.
The families gathered in Stara Zagora are part of a community of about 18,000 Roma known as Kalaidzhi, who traditionally make a living as coppersmiths.
They are among the most poverty-stricken people in a deeply impoverished region and seek to forge mutually beneficial unions that will help them weather Bulgaria’s economic downturn.
The ‘bride market’ – held four times a year on various religious holidays during the spring and summer – is a chance for the Roma’s nomadic tinkers to meet and not only catch up on gossip, but also play matchmaker for their adolescent sons and daughters.
Boys and girls dance side-by-side on the cars in a rare opportunity that flouts the community’s conservative values, in which youths are rarely allowed to mingle with the opposite sex.
Kalaidzhi, who are almost all devout Orthodox Christians, are known to remove girls from school at 15 or even earlier to keep them safe from temptation.
It starts, like a high school dance, with groups of boys and girls in separate clumps, occasionally shaking hands and checking each other out – while mothers and fathers stay discreetly in the background.
Apart from these twice-a-year bridal fairs, boys and girls only have contact in Internet chats.
The event’s reputation as a ‘bridal market’ goes back generations. It used to take place in a muddy open field next to a horse-trading market in a small village, where brides-to-be stood on stage with suitors competing for their hand.
But police last year moved it into a city to avoid tension with the horse traders. Still, the flirtations which occur can lead to negotiations and a possible union a few months down the road.
If the youths warm to each other, the fair can trigger complex financial negotiations about the price a young man’s family must pay to a woman’s parents if they are to be married.
The cost of a bride – between 5,000 and 10,000 lev (£2,200 to £4,300) – has dropped in recent years as jobs have dried up. And wedding festivities are much more modest with cash so tight.
But prices are said to still rise for a ‘very beautiful’ young woman with many suitors.