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.