What to expect on moving to Bulgaria? It’s not an easy question to answer, though it should be, after all it’s not a big place- at only 135 square KMs bigger than Cuba, it’s barely in the 100 biggest countries in the world. Perhaps our difficult expectations come from the rich and vast histories which have gifted the people of Bulgaria with enough customs to fill a continent, or because its surface is covered by vast mountain ranges that isolate wonders whilst literally enlarging the area of the country far beyond its’ image on a map.
As a Western European who had spent plenty of time outside their home country, I felt ready to experience and integrate into Bulgarian culture before moving here, despite not having much clue about what culture I was moving into. The media I had consumed on the Balkans was fairly vague, outdoubted, wild and simple. Luckily, I’d already been with my Bulgarian partner for a few years so I was privileged to hear stories of Bulgaria from Bulgaria, though out of a sense of bravado or pride in some of the wilder reputations of the country, her stories still focused on the ‘crazy’ end of the culture, leaving me wildly eager to visit but clueless.
In the first few days of entering Bulgaria a few small culture shocks are likely to crop-up as they did for me. The first and possibly the most surface-level shock is likely to be head nodding/shaking; unlike the majority of their neighbouring countries, Bulgarians nod to say no, (“ne”/“не”), and shake their head to mean yes (“da”/“да”), which can lead foreigners from much of the outside world into a spiral of confusion. Greetings don’t seem particularly unique by European standards, with handshakes, hugs or kisses on the cheek being the norm, but communication in general can seem far more direct, with voices often raised- on countless occasions I presumed I was witnessing the start of a fight, yet within seconds I was listening to the laughter of old friends. I am told that this kind of behaviour is because people in Bulgaria are often very honest with their emotions and doing so is considered respectful to others around them. In the UK the exact opposite is often practiced in order to respect the people around you. From living both approaches I see much credit and a few flaws spread among them, but it’s certainly more fun for me to use the Bulgarian way and enlightening to know it.
A few more shocks that may arise; Bulgarian’s love slippers more than any other country I have known- I’d be surprised to find a house that didn’t have three pairs for each person in the household; grandparents make the best food under the sun- my newly adopted grandmother (baba/баба) and grandfather (dyado/дядо) take so much pride in cooking for their guests and it clearly shows, illustrating the importance that Bulgarians often put on hospitality, family and friendship. Eating is not just a meal but an event often demonstrated by one salad lasting for hours and acting as something to talk and drink over- I was told this weekend that I should have a sip of rakia (ракия) for every mouthful of food I eat, otherwise I would be rushing!
All the Bulgarians I have met have been incredibly welcoming, often going further than I have ever experienced to help those around them- don’t be surprised if someone offers to drive you across the country to visit a hidden natural treasure along the coast, or offers to help you integrate. As a foreigner it seems that tolerance and inclusion are very important in Bulgaria, having said that, it’s clear that it’s not yet the whole reality for all genders, sexualities or ethnicities, but it’s a value that most take pride in and one which it’s day-day existence seems to be spreading.
Bulgaria is too rich to introduce in one article. To truly get the most out of your life in the country I strongly suggest you travel the breadth of Bulgaria, see it from its varied peaks and beaches; learn about it’s incredible history (the archaeological museum in Sofia is phenomenal and a great starting point); witness the Kukeri (Кукери) chase away demons; stay with families and small businesses; volunteer far and wide and get to become part of people’s lives; learn the language; buy your food from a market and experience how vegetables should really smell; drink rakia; make banitsa (Баница); join a society and learn to dance like a Bulgarian (traditional or chalga…); and enjoy life!