Forget white elephants, homemade jam and draughty town halls, the International Women's Club of Sofia is a modern, dynamic force - and they're here to help you settle in
Okay, so maybe the homemade jam isn't so far from the truth - "Of course we do tapestry, of course we do cookery classes, we do all the other things that women's organisations do," says IWC president Marianna Hill, but the difference is that, with members from about 50 different nationalities and a constant influx of newcomers, the IWC is always on the move and has a decidedly cosmopolitan feel.
"Women's groups at home are different because they're the same people all the time and at some point you exhaust the potential for meeting new people and learning more about life, about culture and so on," says Marianna, who is originally from Bulgaria,but has spent time living in the UK. "I'm a member of various clubs in England and there are more division lines somehow, whereas here, because there are people coming and going all the time, the spirit remains constant. For the last 15 years, basically, the spirit has stayed the same."
This spirit is one of friendship and inclusion. Members understand how difficult the transition to living in a different culture can be and are there to offer a supportive network for foreign women coming to live in Bulgaria. But the aims of the club go beyond this.
The IWC started in Bulgaria in 1989 as a club for diplomatic women plus some Bulgarians who were fluent in foreign languages. Later, it was re-registered as a charity organisation, with the objective of combining fun with noble causes such as helping the underprivileged. "Unfortunately, there are a lot of these underprivileged groups in Bulgarian society today," Marianna says.
However, seeing how these groups can develop and become self-supporting keeps her optimistic. "They are very good at grasping the concept of taking care of themselves, with a little bit of support at the beginning, and it is satisfying to see how organisations that were initially supported by the IWC are now thriving and achieving their goals and objectives. They're very successful in doing that, which is very gratifying".
Through its Charity Foundation, the IWC runs many fund-raising projects, working mainly with women, the elderly, children living in orphanages and homes for the mentally and physically disabled and ethnic minorities."Our Charity Foundation is in the hands of a wonderful person, Marie Halbherr. Marie is very energetic, she's a godsend," says Marianna. "She's working with so many orphanages. We're trying to make life a bit easier for children who are deprived of a normal home environment."
An example of the IWC's successful charity work is its recent Breast Health Awareness campaign. "The number of deaths from breast cancer in Bulgaria is still unnecessarily high," says Ann Stewart, the IWC's first vice-president. "Whereas in the rest of the world the number of deaths is going down dramatically, in Bulgaria it's still increasing."
This is largely due to the lack of a screening programme.
In September, Ann and the project coordinator Sonia Petrova, last year's IWC president Medi Al-Jebouri, and Katie Hill, wife of the British ambassador, travelled to Shumen in northeastern Bulgaria to deliver a mammography unit to the hospital there. The purchase of the unit was the culmination of four years' hard work and fund-raising efforts by the IWC and should prove invaluable in the fight against breast cancer in Bulgaria.
This combination of charity work, socialising and fun has attracted many women and at present the IWC has about 260 members. Up to 15 percent of these are Bulgarians, who make up "the core" of the club. "Foreigners come and go, but the Bulgarian ladies are the living history, if you want, of the club. They provide the continuity," says Marianna.Otherwise, the members are "predominantly foreign ladies; they are people who come with their husbands, and they have to accept a new culture, they have to live in a different environment."
"I have experienced it myself," she says. "Finding yourself in a new country where you don't necessarily know anybody, you need some place that is like a home away from home, where you can find friends and kindred spirits and people you like whom you can communicate with. That is very important and we offer this to whoever comes to this country."
So what can newcomers to Bulgaria expect to experience?
"Along with the difficulties that are inherent in moving to a new country such as the language barrier, a different culture, finding friends and a circle of people you can communicate with - common things that are a challenge every time you move home - Bulgaria is a country in transition," says Marianna. "I guess in every country in transition forward planning is a problem; it's difficult to know what will be happening in five years time, or even in three months from now, but in Bulgaria you hardly know what is going to happen to you the next day!"
IWC president Marianna Hill
Nevertheless, she thinks the majority of these changes are for the good. "Being originally a Bulgarian, I can see this country improving by the hour! Yet there are a lot of things to be done and it is difficult not to be able to rely on services for example." She says that this is not because Bulgarian services are inherently poor quality or because Bulgarians don't know the value of service, but it is more to do with an anti-authority attitude that is ingrained in the Bulgarian way of thinking.
"When there are power cuts and there is nobody to come and fix your connection it is frustrating, or else they say 'We'll come tomorrow' and then they don't come. Or maybe they start a job but there is always that 10 percent left unfinished that requires them to come back the day after tomorrow! If you're a housewife and your washing machine starts leaking it can be a disaster, but with Bulgaria's forthcoming EU membership, things are improving."
So what's the secret of dealing with these challenges, staying sane and enjoying life in Bulgaria?
"Take everything with the curiosity of a child. Believe that every cloud has a silver lining and try to be yourself. And humour, humour, humour! Humour is very important," she says with a smile. For her, the most rewarding part of the IWC is the friendships. "This is a once in a lifetime experience. People from countries that are at war, for example, sit together and talk and when you look at them, they are all human beings. They all have the same priorities, the same stresses in their lives, they want to stay healthy and they want their children to grow up happily and have successful careers: basically, they want to be happy," she says. "The human dimension where you learn about cultures and you learn about different approaches to life - this is so enriching."
Through the IWC, she hopes that the experiences of other women living in Bulgaria can enhanced. It may not always be easy, but knowing that you're in good company goes a long way.
Secrets of Survival, according to some IWC members
Take maps in Cyrillic and in Latin letters out with you so you don't get lost.
Always lock your apartment and set your alarm.
Look out for traffic police - they're always after bribes.
Know that when the traffic lights are red, this doesn't necessarily mean "stop" to a Bulgarian.
Visit Chevermeto restaurant for some traditional dancing and food.
Mihaela Hurjui, Romania
Join a club, like the IWC, where you can meet people through doing activities you like - playing Bridge, a film club, volunteering to help with the Christmas bazaar and so on.
Join a fitness centre, like Spartak in Sofia, where you can meet people while you swim and take a sauna.
Take up other sports such as golf.
Niky Hazlewood, Greece
Study some basic words for shopping like mlyako for milk and hlyab for bread, so that you don't end up having to act out charades in your local shop!
Join a yoga class.
Keep an open mind - don't be afraid of meeting new people and making the first move in talking to them.
Ortal Yadin, Israel
It's always a big shock for foreigners coming to Bulgaria, as things are very different, at least on the surface, so come equipped with lots of patience!
People can appear rude, but often this is just due to cultural differences; be understanding about these.
Take a look at Bulgarian art - there really is a lot of talent around.
And bring your own coriander - you can grow it from seed! (It's almost impossible to find it fresh here).
Nadia Maneva, Bulgaria
For more information about the IWC visit www.iwc-sofia.com
Meet the board
Left to right: Amanda Ordman, secretary; Marie Halbherr, charity chairperson; Yvonne Kurtze, treasurer; Arianne Trossel, newsletter editor; Katherine Mary Pinniger, membership coordinator; Ann Stewart, first vice-president