FIRST IMPRESSIONS DON'T LAST!

by Nadia Damon

In the year since I first entered Bulgaria, a lot has changed, mainly me

My first brush with Bulgarian bureaucracy was at the Bulgarian consulate in Greece. My partner and I happened to see different consuls and were each told we needed a different set of paperwork for our Bulgarian visas. What! Surely there must be one set of criteria that everyone must follow?

Apparently not. When it comes to importing a car, arranging said car's insurance, applying for identity cards, registering with the police and so on, there is no hard and fast rule in Bulgaria. Used to a more rigid system in Britain, I found this ludicrous. One year on, though, I will happily whip out a host of unlikely documents that will satisfy the whim of any bureaucrat. I'm delighted to report that this ultra-cool approach has done wonders for my blood pressure.

Upon arrival in Bulgaria, I quickly discovered the covert approach I had adopted when banking in London (closed doors, whispered withdrawal requests and written notes to the cashier) wasn't the order of the day. Hearing my withdrawal request bellowed across the assembled queues, I stood in stunned silence as my fellow customers digested the details of the sum and its collection.

I was equally thrown by the five men sent by BTK to connect the telephone line. After an afternoon filled with "Mnogo problemi!" "Big problems", everyone was all smiles and I was suddenly connected to the outside world.

Nowadays, I remember my first months here with fond amusement. After almost flooring a queue-jumping woman as I angrily passed a large chicken over her head in the butcher's, I realised that blood-pressure raising arguments over whose way was the right way could only lead to cultural disaster.

Now, as I weave my way along dusty paths, avoiding the parked cars that unashamedly take up the entire pavement, I realise that I am doing so as a matter of course, forgetting that this inconvenience used to really get my blood pumping. English newcomers that I have met in recent months have continually commented on the absurdities of Bulgarian rules, but I've realised that to a Bulgarian, I'm sometimes equally unfathomable.

Take my terribly English way of never getting to the point, for instance. "I wonder if you would... Could I perhaps..." and similar phrases have confused lots of people here. Often they interrupt me with a "What do you want?" This happens a lot on the telephone. While I'm observing the social niceties of "How are you?", I will be cut short with a "Speak!" or "I'm listening!", which never fails to throw me. Initially, I'll admit I was a bit offended, but nowadays I just cut to the chase. I've realised that Bulgarians just like to get to the point a bit quicker than I do and there's nothing wrong with that.

I'm delighted to say though, that some of my other cultural idiosyncrasies have gone down a treat. Take the owner of the aforementioned butcher's shop. Only the other day, he complimented me on my "nice manners" - in particular my attention to the word "please" and my regular door-holding. Thankfully, he seems to have forgotten about the chicken incident. Perhaps that's a cultural thing too.

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