If you are visiting Bulgaria in the second half of May, do not be alarmed by the excited hoards of heavily made-up, eccentrically-dressed teenagers roaming the streets and frantically screaming out something (more on this later) at the top of their voices.
Despite appearances, they are not members of some mysterious sect – they are simply celebrating their graduation from high school. Rites of passage are, of course, important, although the ways they are marked around the world vary widely: from the Quinceañera, the celebration of a girl's turning 15 years of age in Spanish-speaking America, to the Bar and Bat Mitzvah ceremonies that commemorate Jewish children's entry into adolescence, to the sacrificial rites Australian Aborigines and New Guinean tribes perform to mark puberty.
Bulgaria is no exception, with its own set of rite-of-passage rituals to commemorate its children's entrance into adulthood. Although they are similar to those that take place in the rest of the Balkans, Europe and even North America, the celebrations connected with graduation from high school manage to embroil the entire society in a frenzy that is unique to Bulgaria. While the graduation ceremonies and formal dances in other places tend to concern only the graduates and their immediate families and friends, in Bulgaria the entire population is swept up – often against its will – into the festivities.
In the months leading up to the Big Day, which traditionally takes place in the last two weeks of May, it is impossible for any female to enter a shop for cosmetics, shoes, or clothes without being asked whether she is looking for something for "the ball," as the high school prom is known in Bulgaria.
If the woman in question is anywhere under 40 or is particularly youthful looking, sales people always assume she is on the lookout for make-up, shoes, or a dress for the big night. Older women who could not by any stretch of the imagination fit into this category are immediately taken for mothers, aunts, cousins, or grandmothers helping their young relative with the search.
Even if you manage to slip through without being accosted by the staff, you'll find the fitting rooms bulging at the seams with youngsters frantically trying on dresses, shirts, and trousers, while entire families stand by nodding their (dis)approval. Formal shoes in the most popular sizes are often sold out, while items of jewellery on display cannot be purchased, as they have been reserved by some future prom queen who needs to check whether they coordinate with her dress.
Local designers and seamstresses do not accept any ordinary orders between March and May, swamped as they are with endless fittings as they make the graduates' dresses and suits. Hair and manicure appointments are impossible to come by, having been fully booked-out by 18-year olds trying countless "test" hair styles and "practice manicures" for the entire month of April, before getting the real deal at the end of May.
Just when you think it's all over – the perfect dress and shoes picked out, the make-up and hair all done – that's when the real frenzy begins. The graduates spill out of the malls, hairdressers, and nail salons and into the streets.
Generally, the proceedings follow a more or less set pattern of established stages.
The Send-Off. The graduate's family and friends attend an afternoon farewell party. This is the time for mothers to fuss about and cry, while aunts look on enviously and older sisters straighten neckties or fix peeping bra straps. Fathers issue words of advice on how to behave in the next few hours (usually summed up with the brief instruction to "be smart!"), despite, or perhaps because of their knowledge that a night of debauchery is in store for their precious child.
The Gathering. The graduate leaves the familial party and is driven to their high school in a car as fancy or as quirky as their family has been able to get its hands on. Accompanied by friends and family, the members of the entire graduating class then gather in their respective schools' courtyards. Flowers are given to teachers. Photographs are taken, forever capturing friendships that will soon fade, crushes that were never acted upon, and fashion statements that will eventually but inevitably be regretted.
Then the screaming begins. In unison, these people – no longer children but not yet adults – start shouting, as loudly as possible, the numbers from one to twelve, symbolically counting the years they spent in school, ending up on this very day. Usually initiated by a small group of three or four, gradually more and more excited graduates join in, and the counting builds up to a deafening crescendo, which causes the whole school courtyard, neighbourhood, and city to reverberate by the time they reach twelve. And then they start all over again, as though this fervent ad nauseam repetition is the only guarantee they will not be sent back to redo first grade. Sometimes during the second half of May, it feels as though all of the county's waking and much of its sleeping hours are measured out in twelve-count increments.
On the Way to the Ball. As evening begins to fall, the graduates – by this point sufficiently merry from the alcohol surreptitiously consumed at their family parties and the sips from bottles nonchalantly exchanged in-between the picture-taking and the teary embraces – jump into the fancy cars and head to the main event, usually held in a local hotel.
Emboldened by the alcohol and the group hysteria, they make their way there hanging out of the car windows and sunroofs (convertibles are highly desirable at this time of year) and screaming over and over again, to their heart's content. The counting is interrupted by occasional screeching yelps of "Wooo-Hooo!" and accompanied by constant honking of horns.
Ordinary citizens are subjected to this racket regardless of whether they are out in the streets or in the supposed privacy of their own homes. Sometimes the noise is so ear-splitting that closing the windows does not even help.
The Ball Itself: It is not hard to imagine what goes on at the actual event. For a change, though, these proceedings are experienced by the graduates alone, and thankfully do not involve the country's entire population.
After the ball, the graduates usually move on from the formal venue to a dance club. As if afraid this relocation might otherwise go unnoticed, they fill the time it takes them to make their way from the hotel to the club by, you guessed it, screaming the numbers from one to twelve, with even more volume and passion fuelled by the copious amounts of alcohol they have already consumed and magnified by the quiet of the night.
In the clubs, the belles and beaux of the ball cause annoyance to the populace once more. In addition to dealing with the usual nuisances and sweaty crowds typical of a Friday or Saturday night, regular club-goers now have to face large groups of disoriented, giggling 18-year olds getting their feet tangled in flowing hoop-skirts, and witness the results of more than eight straight hours of drinking by people whose alcohol tolerance is usually low and made lower still by the festive occasion.
Finally, at the crack of dawn, they all stumble back to their homes, a different sight altogether from the start of the evening: smudged make-up, flat hair, torturously high-heeled shoes and undone ties in hand, the sorry sight of ripped taffeta, lost earrings, and missing buttons.
In the morning, they take off the fancy clothes (to be worn again when their friends start getting married in a few years), remove their make-up, and take precautions against a budding hangover, before beginning their new lives as adults.
Everything finally goes quiet, at least until the following spring, when Bulgaria's next graduating class goes crazy and puts the entire nation into a frenzy.