No matter whether you are here to explore an unknown land, visit a loved one or are equipped with a detailed business plan approved by a team of CFOs you will sooner or later end up at some table with some people where the real talk will begin. Lengthy and quite wet lunches and dinners will follow, and you will have to make your own deductions about who is who, who supports whom, who feels offended by whom, and who really has the final say. After the drinks, women will probably get involved, and you are likely to have a first-hand experience of what it feels like to be under the hot Balkan sun.
Everything in this country, from the very high levels of government to the very low levels of life in a village depends on personal likes and dislikes. You should at all times bear in mind that this is the way business is usually done. So read everyone else's lips and don't let the Rakiya get too far into your head.
The act of some people being nice to and doing things for other people against payment is novel in this neck of the woods. The quality of service roughly falls in two categories. Posher establishments' personnel will be obsequious, cheaper places will be at best nonchalant.
You should realise that tipping is not compulsory but is expected, at least in the more expensive places. You should also realise that the relationship between the quality of service you get and the amount of cash you are supposed to part with is rather vague. Finally, you should know that some service staff will automatically take what they think they have been worth to you.
The people you meet through other people will be exuberantly nice to you. They will go out of their way to show you things and many will invite you into their homes where you will be expected to have an endless meal with plenty of Rakiya and wine. The idea the majority of Bulgarians have about the way their guests will feel attended to is... to attend to them all of the time. Do not expect any personal space whilst you are visiting a Bulgarian family.
After a day or two of treatment like this you will then find the usual interactions with ordinary Bulgarians, especially officials, at best brusque. No one will sir or madam you. No one will even say please. The standard form of greeting folks in Bulgarian offices has become a terse Kazhete!, meaning Speak Up!
When you hear it, do. Bulgarians are treated the same way as well, so don't expect the fact that you are American and don't perhaps speak the language to help.
This will be really shocking. Bulgaria is the only former East bloc country that preserves and in many cases actually maintains its Stalinist-era monuments. This is not Poland, Hungary or Lithuania where all Red Army monstrosities have been consigned to the dustbin of history. In fact, if you are in Sofia, Varna, Burgas or any other larger city, do make a point of visiting at least one such monument. Bear in mind that these are not war cemeteries, but displays of Stalinist power designed to remind the "small" Bulgarians that if they run afoul, Big Brother has the power to rectify.
Even more shockingly, pro-Russian sentiments are unusually high – again, nothing to compare to other former East bloc states. We may all be friends in NATO now, but remember that it was Russia, not America that liberated us from the Turkish yoke, you will hear many Bulgarians say.
The explanation of the complicated relationship Bulgarians have with Russia is not an easy one, but in most cases it comes down to the decades of pro-Soviet propaganda that rewrote history and in a characteristically omniscient way reframed everything to suit the purposes of the Communists at home. Friendship with the Soviet Union and the Russian was a top priority. It was thrust down the throats of millions of Bulgarians so hard and for so many years that its taste is still there, even a quarter of a century after the demise of the USSR.
Bulgarians are history buffs, as opposed to Americans and indeed many other West Europeans who will happily admit complete ignorance. Indeed, after the second or third drink, depending on who you are dining with, the issue of history will come up. Do not despair if you know nothing about the topics being spewed out. You will be told about the Turkish yoke and why it is so important not to use another word for it, you will learn about the magnificent feats committed by mediaeval Bulgarian kings, you will be told that the greatest human inventions and discoveries were made about 30 centuries ago in Bulgaria, and then you will probably be told that Bulgarians are the first Europeans. There are many books about that, some written by no one lesser than Bozhidar Dimitrov, the manager of the National Museum of History.
Listen politely and shake your head (remember not to nod, because a nod in fact means a "no" in Bulgaria).
MONEY AND COSTS
Liquor and cigarettes are dirt cheap. So are restaurants, bus and train tickets. You can buy a ticket to the opera for less than $15. You've read this correctly. Nothing to compare to anywhere in the United States or Europe outside the former Yugoslav republic of Macedonia.
Anything unrelated to food, drink, entertainment and mass transit, especially if you expect Western quality, will be New York prices.
Bulgaria is the place in Europe where you can go out to a liquor store at 3am and buy a bottle of whisky and/or a case of beer.
Drinking alcoholic beverages outdoors is de rigueur, weather permitting.
In Bulgaria you can actually ask an uniformed policeman "What shall we do now?" – and walk away without handcuffs.
If that's not liberty, I don't know what is.
Like elsewhere in Europe, you will see too many signs. Like nowhere else in Europe, some of them wouldn't mean a thing.
No right turns on red, obviously.
Bulgarians forever whine about aggressive drivers. However, an hour on a Bulgarian road will prove a lot safer and perhaps pleasanter than an hour on a road in southern Italy.
The stop sign never really means you have to pull up to a full stop. In fact, if you do, you risk being hit at the back by the car behind. A stop sign means you have to slow down and look to the left more attentively than usual.
Drive defensively and you'll be OK in no time at all.