Bulgaria: The Good.The Bad. And What I’ve Learned In Six Months.

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Today, after several stressful days getting ready for classes to begin on Monday, I did what many people do on a Saturday: cleaned up around the house, went to the gym, went grocery shopping, wrote some emails, paid some bills online, watched a movie.  I didn’t even think about where or when our next trip to some Balkan country with a strange name would be. Didn’t study any Bulgarian words. Just putzed around the house with my husband, Mark.  It felt so normal.

For the first time since we moved to Bulgaria last August, I feel like this is my home. I think it happened after almost a month of fun and travels over winter break.  When we arrived back at our apartment in Blagoevgrad earlier this week, it felt surprisingly nice.   Our apartment might not be furnished the way I would like, and it is missing important things like family and friends, but still it feels like we actually live here now.   Even with the bad experience at the airport upon our arrival. Even with the stray dogs.  And even with the polluted (4 x above minimum acceptable standards) air that I am now 100% certain that I am allergic to (special American allergy medicine is solving that problem for now).  This is our home.

Over the past six months, we have learned a lot about this part of the world, which certainly has made life interesting.   I’ve made a list of the good and the not-so-good and I thought I’d share with you.

The good things about Bulgaria:

1) I feel like we live in a time warp.  For one, the cost of living is super cheap for us. A good dinner out for 2 is about $12.  We can pick up a decent bottle of Bulgarian wine in a grocery store (any time of day) for about $3 a bottle and big bottle of beer is about $1.00 (Coca Cola is the same price). Also, there are no chain stores in our town at all.  I take that back. We recently got a Benetton on the main shopping street (a pedestrian only street for several blocks), but no one shops there because it’s too expensive for Bulgarians.  The saleslady told me that they can pay their rent for the month when one person buys a coat, and that person is usually someone from our school (www.aubg.bg).  No McDonalds. No Starbucks. Just local businesses.  Love that.

2) The people are very nice.  Appreciative, attractive and pleasant.  I’ve never heard a Bulgarian person raise their voice since I’ve been here.  They are super sweet to their kids.  And they aren’t texting on their phones all the time like Americans. They like to meet friends for coffee and when they do, they sit for a long time and look you in the eye when talking to you, not down at their phone.

3) Everything is a slower pace, which you get used to …after a while.

4) I have virtually no fear of walking alone anywhere, even at night when no one else is around  (this fact is worthy of a separate post, which I will do another time)

5) Bulgarians care about old-fashioned things like opera, ballet, theater and classical music.  Really care.  I think this comes from the days before “the change” when that was all they had. No TV. No pop culture. Just music and theater and such. Our university is constantly chartering buses to take students to Sofia (1.5 hours away) for performances. Another example I saw of this dedication was during finals week when there were more than a dozen recitals, plays and concerts.  Most were packed with students (who should have been studying for finals, in my opinion) and local residents (some with their kids), even for performances that started at 10pm. Afternoon recitals of french music were seen as opportunities to teach young neighborhood residents about music history. Some faculty even joined in by acting in the plays or playing their instruments in recitals (my new favorite is harp!).  In one week, I saw the play “Art,” “Private Lives,” “The Three Sisters,”  and “Amadeus” with student actors whose  second  language is English (the majority of students here are from non-EU countries like Albania, Russia, Turkmenistan, Moldova, etc).  It was wonderful.

There are also some not-so-good things about Bulgaria.  I already mentioned the stray animals, polluted air and general chaos.   There’s more:

1) Corruption:  There’s quite a bit of corruption still in this country (ie; cash economy). I even heard from some of my students you can buy grades (!) from professors at other schools (apparently there is a list of how much it costs for an A, etc.). The students telling me this didn’t even flinch when explaining the details. It’s a way of life for them.  Just today, a border guard actually got arrested for demanding bribes (read about it here ) after many complaints were filed against him.  And don’t get me started on the cabs in Sofia.  Rip-offs galore. A professor friend of ours was left in the middle of nowhere after he questioned his taxi driver about the meter.  I actually got punched in the face by a cab driver once.  Be careful out there, people.

2) Clothes: they are too tiny for average American body (see previous post about stressful shopping in Bulgaria).  But I did manage to buy some jeans in France—that made me feel better.

3) Bad medical system (the worst in the EU).  Rakia is the solution for everything. And when that doesn’t work, things can get ugly (also stories for another time).

4) Too many papers!  You still need papers for everything.  And you need special seals on official papers with more seals from other very special people.  Seems like you fill out forms just to be able to fill out a form.  Remember “change slips” for dropping and/or adding classes? They still have them at our school and, yes, they are paper, too.

5) Smoking. Everyone here still does it. There are laws against it and no one seems to care. In restaurants, if there is a no-smoking section you feel like an outcast in a tiny corner.   That’s IF there is a no-smoking section at all.

6) Disorganization: The power in the school building goes out sporadically.  Snowstorms cause complete chaos because the snowplows the government thought they had don’t exist (read about it here:  http://www.novinite.com/view_news.php?id=135648).  Aging concrete sidewalk squares all around town are cracked and raised and no one knows who (if anyone) is supposed to fix them.  Paint is peeling on most buildings. Rusty things are everywhere.  Everything takes longer than it should. Example: only one over-worked elderly lady working at post office with a line of people muttering to each other is quite entertaining for people like us, who are not in a hurry anymore, but not so nice for the locals.   Bus drivers who smoke and talk on their cell phones at the same time.   But all of this is better than being under communist rule, so whatever.

Writing all this down reminds me of something that happened when I came for my interview last April.  I went for a walk on the rainy afternoon before the dinner where I was to meet other faculty.  I found the river path  (the one where I often walk now) and I saw a sliding board on a playground with a large rusted hole in it.  It was too rainy for any kids to be playing on it, but I wondered why someone hadn’t put up a notice or some police tape to mark off that hole.  I was certain that some child would surely fall through it while playing there one day, and it bothered me that no one was paying attention to their safety.  I thought to myself, “This is Bulgaria? I don’t know if I can live here.”

Recently, I walked past that rusted out sliding board again and the hole was still there. But this time, there were kids playing on it.   What I observed was that the kids simply played around the hole.  They learned to deal with it. They devised new games that didn’t involve going down the slide. Instead, they went  over the hole or under it while their moms sitting close by virtually ignored them playing so close to the rusty hole.

This time I thought to myself, “How wonderful. Why are we Americans so careful about everything all the time?”  This playground that would never pass inspection in the U.S. was creating clever children who learned on their own how to navigate a problem. And that’s what Bulgarians are like.  I’ve grown to appreciate that so much.  Why worry so much about everything?  It’s not such a big deal. We’ll find a solution.  Have some coffee or Rakia.  It was an eye-opening moment for me, and one that made me realize how much I’ve changed. Now I think it’s better when things aren’t so perfect.

So nowadays, when things don’t work the way we expect them to or we get annoyed with something, we just say to each other,  “It’s Bulgaria. ”  We say it with a smile because, for better or worse, Bulgaria is now our home.

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32 thoughts on “Bulgaria: The Good.The Bad. And What I’ve Learned In Six Months.

  1. Hi Melody (and Mark)

    Thanks for sharing your adventures, and I am glad to her things are going well. I am currently working up the gumption to go for a jog, but it’s snowing.Maybe I’ll go watch a crazy Wollemann bike video to give me courage. Love to you both ~ Euan

  2. Thank you for sharing your thoughts about your life there in Bulgaria. So different, but that does not make it bad. Just different. Hope that you can make it through the smokey winter, to an early spring and clear skies. mom

    • We can see the mountains today so that’s a good sign, I think 🙂 Of course we are looking forward to seeing you guys back in the U.S. this summer and breathing the clean country air in Wisconsin!

  3. Nice honest stories of personal change…always appreciated. It has been a long time since I was in Bulgaria and although I am sure it has changed, sounds like much hasn’t. I can relate to the moment when the new digs became home as we live in a small town north of Dubai and experienced that enlightening moment. It made living here so much easier. A good friend once said to me, “if you want it to be like home, stay home.” I remind myself of that quite often and do my best to enjoy the different things and adapt to change every day. Personally, I think I am a better person because I am often less comfortable in a new land.

  4. I loved this post! It actually made me cry! I am bulgarian but I have lived in London for three years now and I have missed everything there. And this post made me remember. I know Bulgaria has a lot of bad sides and everything but there are so many good things about it too. Thank you for posting this and telling people who we really are. We are not people that move countries to rely on benefits like everyone else beliefs. We are so much more and you showed them that. And I think some of the bad sides of Bulgaria are just funny like the lost chicken and dog chasing you! 🙂 I hope you continue to enjoy your time there and share with us ! 🙂 x

  5. Hello Melody. I am going to be teaching at AUBG this fall semester, 2014. Can we talk? I have specific questions about Blagoevgrad, etc. Please email me at jk543345 at gmail.com Thanks in advance!

  6. Study in Bulgaria
    Study in Bulgaria is to study in European Union, taking advantage of excellent quality of education and life.
    Increasing mobility and links between Bulgarian higher education systems and universities within Bulgaria and all European Union countries,
    amazing available diversity both inside and outside universities in Bulgaria and in all Europe lead to building carrier on good basis.
    Bulgarian universities are well known in many scientific domains such as medicine, mathematics, technical ( computer sciences, engineering), chemistry,
    biology, linguistics etc

  7. Lovely post, just wanted to let you know that Bulgaria has two types of medical care! Clinics and hospitals left from the communist era and private state of the art hospitals!The medical staff is highly trained, so it’s a matter of the facilities! In fact Bulgaria has what we referr to as medical turism! People from Western Europe come there to have exspenive operations done because they can’t afford it at home! We have world renound specialist! Unfortunately because of the transition from socialized medical care to privet medical care, many people just can not afford it! It is funny because in the US you are doing the opposite with the implementation of Obama Care!Stop do’t do it! LOL!!! Bulgarians in general love natural remedies and that is were Rakia comes in to play! It’s funny because I found that American life has a much slower tempo than my life in Bulgaria, i guess it’s a matter of prospective!

  8. Pingback: The Truth | Melody Moves to Bulgaria

  9. I used to think the medical system is the worst in Bulgaria, too…. but then I moved to the UK. Trust me, Bulgaria is like a first world country compared to the UK. Especially in recent 2-3 years.

  10. Great post and thanks for taking the time to write it.

    “Too many papers! You still need papers for everything. And you need special seals on official papers with more seals from other very special people.” This is so in order to boost the first point you have mentioned – corruption. If things are not done by hand then the cash flow will much more difficult and more detectable. Corruption is indeed everywhere and it ruins things that are actually decent or have the potential to be. Why do you think that many of the diplomas from Bulgarian universities are not recognized abroad at all. Same applies to the driving license etc. It’s because people outside Bulgaria know that you can buy these things (and rather cheaply I might add) here.

    The problems with our medical system are more than I can write down in this comment. Corruption (yet again!) is one of the main reasons why things are as they are. Right after it comes the really poor management which is due to lack of skills…Which is yet again because of corruption (buying grades as you have mentioned is not something uncommon in Bulgaria). My father is working as a neurosurgeon and there are days when I have the feeling he wants to either shoot himself or shoot everyone around him. It’s not the extremely low salary. It’s not the fact that a neurosurgeon has to be there to stitch the head (in normal countries such doctors are really expensive to have hence med sisters do that thing instead) of some idiot who got drunk after midnight and fell into a hole while walking on a sidewalk (because someone (usually a gypsy) stole the manhole cover of a sewage hole). It’s not the fact that there are a lot of people who abuse the medical system yet don’t pay a single dime for it. It’s also not the fact that because of this thing called Internet many patients think that after reading a blog post for about 10 minutes gives them the right to lecture someone with over 30 years of experience. It’s the overall disrespect that people of the medical AND teaching profession get from the Bulgarian society.

    Ah, I forgot to mention the private medical facilities that also try to abuse (and succeed quite nicely) the medical system usually with the help of the extremely corrupt board of the directors of a public hospital.

    I have to agree with the comment that mentions natural remedies. In Bulgaria quite a big portion of our cuisine (including beverages such as rakia, various herbal tees etc.) is actually very pure and if taking in decent proportions will work wonders on your health. Many developed countries have the problem where the pharmaceutical industry abuses its power quite a bit and you get antibiotics for just a cold, which is not the right thing to do.

    Education in itself is of poor quality too (exceptions are present of course). There is a joke saying that the native language in Bulgaria is English level A1/2. Many people who stay in Bulgaria know too few foreign languages. I myself know English, German, learning Spanish and will go for Japanese/Arabic after that.

    For years I have been observing how the Bulgarian society is going towards its own demise. Before people were aggressive only towards their own. For many years now Bulgarian hospitality has evaporated. Those who leave, don’t come back to share. Those who stay, don’t leave to learn about other people, cultures etc. This leads to a never seen before deficit in understanding for others, fear of the unknown and so on. I’m quite a positive person and that is one of the main reasons why I have left Bulgaria. It’s not the lack of money or disrespect. It the way one feels while walking on the sidewalk…As if attending a funeral procession…There are nations with much less but live much happier lives than Bulgarians do. A discussion why that is is definitely an interesting topic but the issue is yet to be researched.

    Greetings from a Bulgarian living in Germany 🙂

  11. Thanks so much for your post, Melody. I have a friend who taught a year at AUBG maybe 10 years ago and came back to California with both a street dog AND a cat.

    I have been in love for many years with Bulgarian folk music, and I was in Bulgaria in 1981 for the 1300 year anniversary and the Koprivshtitsa music festival. It sounds like much is still the same in Bulgaria, both the good and the “bad.” Except instead of bus drivers on cell phones, in ’81 you had extremely sober drivers, since a second DUI offense earned them a trip to prison for life. I am looking forward to going back this summer.

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