by Anthony Georgieff; photography by Dragomir Ushev

Bulgarian doctors, doors, dogs and more

culture shock bulgaria 2.jpg

OK, you've been to Greece, Turkey, and possibly southern Italy. You've kind of got used to manic drivers, street dogs, piles of litter, and Roma women approaching you with offers to read your palm. You had a dodgy tummy in Athens; you developed aches, pains and allergies in Istanbul; and your purse got nicked in Naples. You think you've seen it all? Bulgaria can still surprise you.

Psychologists explain the term "culture shock" as being a feeling of anxiety produced when a person moves to a completely new environment. Generally, it sets in within a few weeks of coming to a new place, or when the plumbers have done the bathroom, whichever comes first. You don't speak the language, the BBC World Service can only be heard on Short Wave, you don't know how to use the bank machines, and you are desperately trying to simulate personal creativity when dealing with the waiters in your local restaurant.

Feel you want to leave? Don't! Here are my Top 10 characteristically Bulgar events and occurrences likely to induce a bout of culture shock - and my proven ways of dealing successfully with them.


Occurence: Pink, thigh-high boots with fIve-inch stiletto heels worn with a mini-skirt that is barely larger than a belt. Extremely long peroxided locks and about a pound of makeup on the face. Light blue mesh top barely concealing a dark blue pop-up bra, with a crucifix on a golden chain nestling deep in the cleavage. Blue fingernails with pink dots on them. Purple toenails with yellow dots on them. An obligatory ankle chain, solid gold (can be seen once the boots are taken off, but sometimes is worn over them). Not much left to the imagination, eh? No, these girls are not necessarily prostitutes or mutresi (see Guide p xxv for details). They could just as easily be students of medicine or law, or nurses, or school teachers, or just girls going out for a night on the town. They may be very ordinary middle-class young Bulgarian women who work as shop assistants or secretaries. The way they dress reflects their idea of Western luxury. And they like to show off! Go to Plovdiv, walk down the pedestrianised "Main Street" and you will see for yourself.

Explanation: Things in Bulgaria are rarely what they appear to be. You may have thought that that thick-set individual was a gangster going for a jog in the park. It turns out the man is an honest businessman running a couple of small shops in north-eastern Bulgaria. You imagined customs officers were underpaid clerks? Well, in Bulgaria some of them drive brand new German-registered Mercedes and live in palatial country houses. You watch the eight o'clock news on BNT and see MPs amending old laws and discussing new ones. Once the cameras are switched off they produce their mobiles and start discussing business deals, preferably involving hotels on the Black Sea coast.

What to do: Unless you are a sailor, don't ask those girls for favours because more often than not they will be very offended and will call you простак ("simpleton"). Don't take what you see at face value, as you may be in for a real shock. Instead, take the time to investigate, inspect and research thoroughly and ask Bulgarian-speaking friends to explain the context to get the full picture. Steer clear of drawing conclusions from appearances. As the old adage goes "don't judge a book by its cover".


Occurence: With very few exceptions you will find pavements in most Bulgarian cities (notably central Sofia) in dire need of repair. Paving slabs are often wobbly or uneven, kerbs are collapsing, metal manhole covers are missing, and various objects jut out of the ground for no obvious reason. If it rains you will find yourself having to wade through muddy puddles. Pushing a pram requires expert manoeuvring skills, and those with disabilities will face new and unexpected challenges.

Sofia pothole

Explanation: No one cares, although the official explanation will probably touch on city councils being underfunded.

What to do: Bulgarian drivers say: "Water never stays on flat ground." This means that whenever you see a puddle, there is bound to be a hole under it, and you won't know how deep it is until you're in it. The best policy: be vigilant and avoid them at all costs, or run the risk of ending up knee-deep in freezing cold muddy water. If walking the streets of Sofia at night, especially in more remote parts of the city, carry a torch. You will probably need one for the front door as well.


Occurence: These are perhaps the most visible legacy of Communism. Prefab housing estates, or жилищни комплекси, encircle most cities and, in Sofia especially, they are cities in themselves. Prefab housing estates exist in Western Europe as well, but you will be amazed to discover that in Bulgaria they are not ghettoised the way they are in France or Holland. It is pretty normal for university professors and joiners to live in the same block, or for pensioners to share a floor with students. Some areas of the жилищни комплекси have an ethnic flavour (for example, Chinese in the Nadezhda complex), but this is quite rare.

Explanation: The Communist government started building prefabs in the 1960s and 1970s to tackle the increasing demand for housing as a result of urban migration. Even though most of these are now in a state of severe dilapidation, hundreds of thousands of Bulgarians continue to live in them because they have no other choice.

What to do: Visit, if you want to see how the majority of Bulgarians live.


Occurence: You enter a shop and head for the counter. The shopkeeper calls over to you: "Close the door!". You look back and see that the door hasn't closed on its own. You have to step back and shut it yourself. You may sometimes be forewarned by a sign saying Работи климатик!. This means "An air conditioner is in operation", and is supposed to remind you to close the door because otherwise the cold (or warm) will get out.

Explanation: Shop owners economise on door-closing mechanisms.

What to do: Develop an instinct to extend your hand backwards whenever you enter shops and close the door behind you.


Street dogs, Bulgaria

Occurence: Street dogs are common throughout Bulgaria. Most of them will look shaggy and pretty innocuous, but some may turn nasty. There have been cases of pedestrians being bitten by stray dogs, and even of children being mauled. Over the years city councils have promised various measures to place stray dogs in pounds or take them off the streets in some other way, but if the number of pups you see is anything to go by, they have failed. Sofianites even have a joke: "We catch them, but the vets let them go again" (attributed to Mayor of Sofia Boyko Borisov in response to a question about why he had failed to rid the streets of stray canines).

Explanation: When Communism collapsed in 1989, many dog owners found themselves out of a job and unable to feed their pets. So, they let them go in the streets. The dogs bred exponentially. What we now see is fourth or fifth generation pedigree German shepherds interbred with fox terriers and spaniels.

What to do: If stray dogs start barking at you, you may resort to one of the oldest tricks in the book: bend down as if you are picking up a stone. Most dogs will get the message. Alternatively, you can use my personal favourite: water. For reasons that I am unable to explain, dogs are scared of water being splashed on them. I have tried it several times on dogs coming up to restaurant tables in search of food. Just a splash from a glass will make them extremely nervous, and they will immediately retreat to a safe distance. It may be a good idea to carry a toy water gun, loaded and ready to shoot.


Occurence: You order your food in a restaurant. After a quarter of an hour you get your salad, rakiya, pork chops, wine and ice-cream all at the same time.

Explanation: Bulgarians have a distinct culinary running order that is probably very different from what you are used to. It is customary to start the meal with a rakiya or two, and eat a salad. Then you pause (smoking between courses and, often, during courses should not surprise you). Then you have your meat and wine. Then you pause. Then you think about your dessert (which may be preceded by meze of the type Turks, Italians and Spaniards eat for starters). Some deviations from this running order are permissible but are likely to incur astonishment.

What to do: The trick is that, unless you want to end up in the first situation, you should order in at least three rounds - one for the salad and rakiya, one for the main course and wine or beer, one for the meze and so on. I have tried several times to order the "Western way", but regardless of how clear I made myself about what I wanted when, the waiters invariably brought everything at the same time. Note also that it is considered good practice for waiters to remove your plate the second you are fi nished with your food. Some eager waiters may even ask whether you have fi nished yet.


Occurence: In front of some offices, most notably the Central Notary Office and some passport offices, you will see people with typewriters in the streets. These people are waiting for custom.

Mysterious typewriters

Explanation: To get many public services in Bulgaria you will need to fill in a form, and that needs to be done using a typewriter.

What to do: Pay two-five leva per form.


Occurence: The room you are in is airless and stuffy.

Explanation: Bulgarians are very scared of draughts. Over the centuries we have developed an almost neurotic aversion to wafts of cool air coming in through doors, windows and so on. For a Bulgarian, draughts explain many things, from head colds to states of general discomfort. You will hear mums calling after their kids: "Don't stand in the draught!"; women refusing to wash their hair in wintertime for fear of a draught; and middle-aged men wondering why they feel unwell: "I must have been exposed to a draught!"

What to do: Open the window.


Occurence: You need treatment in a state-run hospital, none is forthcoming.

Explanation: The health care system has been the subject of public debate ever since the early 1990s. Some private hospitals are very clean and pleasant, and even have modern equipment, but generally most state hospitals are in a state of decay with even basic things, including medication, lacking.

What to do: Bring plenty of five-, 10- and 20-leva bills as you will be expected to pay your way through your treatment.


Occurence: Someone uses a chain saw at three o'clock on a Sunday afternoon. You happen to live beside a disco and there is ear-splitting noise in the middle of the night. You get into a taxi and the radio is blaring chalga at full blast. You go into a cafe or restaurant where loud electronic music is thumping from the speakers.

Explanation: Most Bulgarians like to listen to music while they eat. Some are so used to being exposed to it that they have become thoroughly immune to noise and won't even notice if the CD skips or the radio station is not properly tuned. It's not unlike the love affair Americans have with their TVs.

What to do: You may try asking to have the chain saw switched off or the music turned down, but your chances of success are limited. Earplugs are probably the best option.


Alright, you've got the old Bulgarian blues, but you stay calm, dress up, and go out to cheer yourself up.

You get a taxi into the centre of Sofia, and you start by taking in an opera or a film. Then you go into one of the capital's better restaurants and order suicidal quantities of food and drink. At around midnight you go into a bar, possibly a chalga bar because you are adventurous. You chat to some of your fellow clubbers to find out for yourself whether what we've told you is accurate. In the wee hours of the morning, you take a cab home.

The biggest shock will come the following morning. You will discover that you have spent about 25 pounds, taxi fares included!


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