Culture shock

ADVANCED BULGARIAN

One thing your Bulgarian instructor will probably not be telling you, possibly because many Bulgarians will be at a loss themselves, is the sometimes intricate details and innuendoes of this country's new Newspeak.

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TOP 10 TENETS OF THE BULGARIAN WAY OF THINKING

Remember: this country never had the Enlightenment. To fathom the overwhelming mixture of the sometimes ostensible controversies of life in Bulgaria, you need to understand how Bulgarians think – and what the main tenets of the mental process that forms psychological associations and models of the world are. Here is a tentative top 10. Peruse sparingly and apply plenty of common sense as well as a little humour.

Conspiracy theories

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IN THE COUNTRY OF ANGRY WAITERS

I have been asked – repeatedly, time and again, over and over in the course of many years – by various visitors and expats why is restaurant and bar service in Bulgaria so bad. Waiters and waitresses, I am being told, are the worst in Europe. They are surly, slow, do not react to customer demands, and do not count out your change when they do not overcharge. They seem to be constantly angry.

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SIGHTS AND SIGNS OF A NATION

Think again! Communism with the highly ritualised rules for social behaviour its omniscient apparatchiks generated may be no more, but the system that followed it, referred by Bulgarians as the ongoing Transition, failed to change the way the former apparatchiks, many of them now businessmen and entrepreneurs, thought.

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MORE TIME OFF IN 2014

One of the more exotic "traditions" in Bulgaria is the propensity of governments during the past 20 years to "combine" bank holidays and then declare existing holidays, typically Saturdays, working days. The official explanation is that such adjustments to the working calendar of Bulgarians will enable them to rest more "comprehensively."

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DRIVING SAFELY IN BULGARIA

Bulgarian drivers, pedestrians, and on-lookers are forever moaning about congestion, haphazardly parked cars, lack of parking facilities, potholes, corrupt cops and so on and so forth. As at some stage you are bound to get yourself involved in the traffic, here is some essential advice on rules, regulations and customs, as well as a a bagful of tips and tricks.

Sofia and the big cities

Local drivers detest what they call "downtown traffic jams," but they’ve never been to Naples or seen the M25.

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BANANA REPUBLIC?

I know this will sound like a bad joke ‒ or "rant" some might say, but I guarantee that every word of this is true. And I want to apologise to all Mexicans for drawing any comparisons between their country and Bulgaria.

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OUT IN THE VILLAGES

Britons buying in rural Bulgaria came here to acquire property and land at rock bottom prices. Considering the language and cultural differences, the time constraints and the plentiful enterprises established primarily to separate them from their money, the vast majority seem to have ended up with more or less exactly what they had hoped for. Whether they were aware of it at the time of purchase or not, they were also committing financially, emotionally and physically to their new, declining rural communities.

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IN EUROPE WITH EUROPEAN THINKING

Many years ago, in the salad days of Bulgaria's English Magazine, we brought out a portfolio of at times exuberantly preposterous signs thought up by Communist Party apparatchiks and manufactured by state-employed artisans. Bulgaria's rulers from 1944 to 1989 surmised that they needed to inform citizens what to do in public toilets, in parks, in their gardens and on the staircases leading to their prefabricated blocks of flats. The deeper purpose was to show the Party's omniscience in all areas of life, as well as its Catch-22 type of vigilance in case anyone strayed.

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HOW TO EAT BULGARIAN FOOD POLITELY

Anyone spending more than a couple of days in Bulgaria will have dined out at least once. That's about enough to discover the Ultimate Bulgarian Dining Experience and its main pitfall: how to survive without offending your hosts – and actually eat something at the same time. In itself, Bulgarian food is very similar to all other Balkan food, so anyone who's been to Tottenham or Kreuzberg will not be very surprised.

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NOT A BUYERS' MARKET

It has become a commonplace that street markets represent the cities they are in and indicate their prevailing cultures. London's famous Camden Lock Market, Acton Market and, of course, Portobello Road Market have long become tourist attractions as well as local hangouts, and so have New York's PS 234, Paris's Rue Cler, Madrid's El Rastro and Istanbul's Kapali Carsi.

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THE BIG BREAD ISSUE

After just a few weeks in Bulgaria, or a few hours of watching Bulgarian TV, you will have noticed that something quite strange is going on with Bulgarian bread. On the one hand, Bulgarians left, right and centre will swear by the quality of their bread, and President Parvanov will be seen partaking of bread dipped in salt from a plate proffered to him by a girl clad in a 19th Century "folk" costume – yes, you've guessed right: he is opening a new cultural centre or meeting dignitaries in the provinces.

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EXTREMELY BAD FOOD

Many Bulgarians are ready to kill anyone who criticises what they perceive as their "national" cuisine, but – sadly – the fact is that Bulgarian food is like President Parvanov: trying to conceal its very obvious deficiencies as well as the ineptitude of those who prepare it by drawing on some distant and often nebulous historical past. Like Parvanov, it is inedible in addition to being... inedible.

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MERRY MOMENTS ON BULGARIAN PAVEMENTS

In their cross concrete eruptions, slabs tilting, rocking, soaking ankles with hidden waters, potholed, jagged, stepped and rooted.

I step I shuffle I trudge I trip I stagger I lurch I shift my gaze to my feet as they chart the three dimensional jigsaw.

I am blocked thwarted diverted by the hulks of deserted cars, black monsters that nose the walls and fences and stretch their arses to the very gutter.

They sleep in my path like bulky panthers fed on elephant, sleek in obese glossiness.

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WHEN OK IS NOT O.K.

I've been an official Bulgarian resident for two weeks now and will bring my American take of the English language to the teenagers of Pazardzhik soon as I become their EFL teacher. I love many things about my new home in Bulgaria, but I also find that it is essential in any transitional time in life to maintain a high level of humour. Quirks about the magical land of Bulgaria that seem quite bizarre, looked at with an eye of absurdity, become quite entertaining.

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CAR CHAUVINISM

For a year I was driving around in my Lada, completely oblivious to how much it was blighting my social status. Then I got my Ford Escort. Granted, it wasn't that much of an upgrade considering the Ford's scratched panels and 1995 birth date, but it ticked over much better than the 1985 Lada Combi with home-made LPG conversion. I noticed a difference right away. I was able to drive in the fast lane without a bigger car driving on my tail just to prove a point. I got cut up less, and people didn't block me in at parking spaces.

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BINGEING IT

Is the expat community full of certified alcoholics who, instead of spending their time in Bulgaria visiting cultural sites and learning the language, sit in English bars watching satellite TV and hitting the bottle? Equally, is the indigenous male population full of alcoholics who on waking at 6 am reach for the nearest rakiya bottle?

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LET'S LIVE LIKE 'WHITE PEOPLE'

"So many black people, unfortunately!" The source of this comment on the Olympic Games is educated, cultured and Bulgarian. Should it make the average UK listener feel smug? I'm not sure. As far as racist attitudes go, Bulgarians have a tendency to shamelessly reveal attitudes that many UK citizens have learnt to conceal.

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