…continues from Part I
Although Bulgaria is a part of Europe and there aren’t any massive cultural differences compared to other European countries, living in Bulgaria is not like living in Western Europe. It’s not like living in a “developing” country, either. So, what are some major characteristics defining the Bulgarian culture, and how do you digest them in order to fully enjoy your stay in Bulgaria?
If you live in a foreign country for a long time, you supposedly adapt to the surroundings and blend in eventually. The beginning, however, is naturally the hardest.
The most effective way to fit in foreign surroundings as quickly and painlessly as possible is by adopting the correct mindset, according to John Alexander Adam from Scotland, UK, who has been living and working in Bulgaria for 10 years so far.
He first came to Bulgaria in 2001 on a traineeship via the student organization AIESEC, where he taught English for eight months. Apparently, these months spent in Bulgaria turned into a positive delight for him since he returned as a volunteer within the AIESEC the following year. He taught English again to earn money for living expenses. He now owns a website for stock market information. Although the website targets the UK market, his team is based in Sofia, Bulgaria.
Although a little cultural shock is simply inevitable when a foreign person like John moves to Bulgaria, with the right mindset anyone could quickly overcome it. Whether you have chosen to spend your time in Bulgaria in isolation from people, to be engulfed in self-pity and be lost in a constant comparison between Bulgaria and your homeland, or you have chosen to befriend new people, absorb the maximum of positives from the surroundings, and simply enjoy your life to the fullest despite the cultural differences.
“If you want everything to be as you know and like at home, stay at home,” says John.
“There’s a real contrast between the communist legacy, which you can still see in run-down buildings and less-than-perfect infrastructure and communal areas and services, and the modern ‘Western’ country that is growing out of that legacy with shiny new buildings, malls, new infrastructure, etc.
You need to be able to accept large parts of the general infrastructure such as streets, and roads, and buildings which are still shabby and in need of renewal.
At the same time, there are great bars, restaurants, cafes, parks and a young, vibrant educated generation in Sofia and other larger towns. As long as you are not the type that can’t deal with things not being perfect all the time, you’ll be able to get a lot of pleasure from the positives and roll with the rest.
And, don’t judge everything you are not happy with because it’s ‘Bulgarian’. In your own country, you don’t consider everything you are not happy with to be a direct result of the fact that it’s in your country. It’s just a crappy waiter or pothole or whatever else.“
Once you have adjusted your mindset and are ready to embrace the little adventure of living in Bulgaria, let’s look at some cultural characteristics.
At The Workplace
Attitude - Bulgarians are generally quite temperamental and hot-blooded at the work place, at home or in public. If you are coming from a country where people are mostly quiet, following the instructions and orders strictly and without questioning, you may find yourself in awkward situations at the workplace in Bulgaria.
А great number of young Bulgarians is now traveling abroad to study, work or just visit, and many of them have adopted Western models of business behaviour. However, it’s in the Bulgarians’ blood to express their views and ideas more vividly, to have a hard time abiding the rules and the deadlines sometimes, and to be too skeptical or too enthusiastic. As a result, Bulgarians are usually resistant to changes and may meet new ideas with a great deal of skepticism. Once they get fully acquainted with an idea, however, they are likely to grow on it and accept it. It’s best, therefore, to first take some time to get to know the people around you and then decide how to approach them in the future. Don’t take their temperament and rudeness personally. A good conversation should always resolve a debate or an issue.
According to John, “One difference between Bulgarian and British culture is that in the UK people are generally very polite and friendly within a professional setting but it takes longer to become good friends in a social setting. Here it’s the opposite. A lot of people are not very polite or friendly when they are in their professional capacity, but are extremely open and friendly in a social setting and you make closer friendships more quickly.”
Meeting and Greeting - Meetings and greetings are fairly formal at the Bulgarian business environment. Bulgarians greet by a handshake, direct eye contact and the appropriate greeting for the time of day. It’s also best to address people with their titles especially when you are in a process of getting to know them. In most cases, once you get familiar with the workplace and your co-workers, you may simply call them by their first name.
Conversing - Note the nodding. While in most countries nodding means “yes” and shaking your head means “no”, in Bulgaria it’s just the opposite. This little detail may result in serious misunderstandings as you don’t want to agree to something you would rather refuse.
In addition, when Bulgarians feel comfortable at the workplace, they tend to share their personal stories and ask personal questions. If you don’t feel comfortable sharing your private story, you could delicately circumvent direct answers. Keep in mind that such private talks are just a way to shorten the distance between people at or outside the workplace. Still, be alert to what extent you share personal information. Sometimes what you say may be interpreted in the wrong way.
Attire - Depending on your occupation, clothing varies a lot. In general, people dress formally in a corporative setting. In smaller companies and firms, where the working hours are also more flexible, casual attires are often preferred. Again, it largely depends on the specific business setting, so check that prior to your arrival.
Outside the Workplace
Cuisine - Essentially, the Bulgarian cuisine is South Slavic, sharing characteristics with other Balkans cuisines, as well as with the Greek and Middle Eastern cuisines.
Bulgaria is well-known for its: dairy products (feta cheese and yogurt mainly); bread and pastries (such as banitsa, made of filo dough, eggs, feta cheese, and yogurt); alcoholic beverages (such as the home-made rakia and wines); soups (such as the cold soup tarator made of cucumbers and yogurt); salads (such as shopska salad made of tomatoes, cucumbers, onions and feta cheese), and various sausages (such as meze- dry-meat appetisers consisting of various types of dry meat and herbs).
Main courses are typically stews – either vegetable or with chicken, pork, beef, lamb or goat meat. Pork and chicken are common and meat consumption is high.
Yogurt consumption in Bulgaria is the highest compared to the rest of Europe, and it’s been consumed as far back as 3000 BC. And, it’s no wonder since Bulgaria is indeed known for discovering the Lactobacillus Bulgaricus – the bacteria responsible for that dairy product.
In recent years, people in the bigger cities have turned heads to bio production of vegetables, fruits, meat, nuts, seeds, etc. There are now a variety of stores, farmers’ markets and websites selling bio products.
In the major cities you can also enjoy a wide range of international cuisines such as Italian, Spanish, Chinese, Indian, Russian, and many more.
Entertainment – The way people have fun largely depends on the location. Sofia and Plovdiv, for example, offer various events such as educational seminars, art exhibitions, theatres, as well as bars, clubs, underground spaces, etc. that could satisfy almost any music taste. People tend to go out on Friday and Saturday nights, and stay out until early mornings.
The most popular music played at many clubs all over Bulgaria is chalga – it’s a Bulgarian ethno-pop genre influenced by Greek, Turkish, Arabic, Serbian and Gypsy music. Many Bulgarians consider chalga as low-quality and tawdry music though some foreigners find it entertaining.
Vacations – Bulgarians usually spend their vacations and holidays with their families and when possible – outdoors. The country is proud of its nature and the abundance of national parks, mountains, rivers and the seaside (the Black Sea coast). Christmas and New Years are huge holidays, and while Christmas is spent at home with the family, it’s common for Bulgarians to make reservations from August of villas, huts and guest houses in the mountains or smaller towns and villages for New Years. It’s exactly the same during summer time – everyone is planning their summer vacation on the Black Sea coast or in the mountains, so making reservations as early as possible is advised.
Bulgarians celebrate name days often throughout the year. They treat close friends and co-workers with sweets and drinks, and often exchange gifts.
Social life – As mentioned above, Bulgarians are hot-blooded, but quite sociable and warm-hearted. Some foreigners might find them naturally rude and wry-faced as they usually don’t greet and smile at people they don’t know. However, once the initial social barrier is overcome, Bulgarians reveal their warm and hospitable side. Younger people in the bigger cities are very curious and open to foreigners. Most of them know English and look forward to meeting with internationals. In smaller towns and villages, the elderly are also very hospitable – they will always invite you at their home and feed you.
It’s hard to stay objective when talking about cultural characteristics of a country since they often depend on the individual’s encounter with the locals. Truth is cultural barriers are fastly diminishing among the countries, especially in Europe, so how you experience Bulgaria (or any country for that matter) will largely be characterized by your mindset. The best advice then is to try to get to know the environment and the people around you, blend in and enjoy your time.