Proverbs and sayings are the experience of generations distilled by time until they become pure wisdom offering guidance in life. They also reflect the particular values of the community that has created them.
Bulgarians are no exception. Throughout the centuries, they have produced their share of common sense maxims covering all aspects of life, including many virtues. Hard work is endorsed ("The vineyard doesn't need a prayer but a hoe" and "He who doesn't work shouldn't eat") as are hospitality and generosity ("Treat your guest, and forgive your enemy"), and humbleness ("Take a big bite of food, but don't say a big word"). Proverbs elaborate on the peculiarities of family ties ("The brother doesn't feed the brother, but woe to the one who lacks a brother") and community ones ("Tie up the priest if you want the village in peace"). They offer advice on business matters ("Don't buy a lamb in a sack"), promote resilience and resourcefulness ("Need is the best teacher") and offer witty observations on social hierarchy ("The fish rots from the head").
However, a significant number of the 5,000-odd recorded Bulgarian proverbs and sayings reveal a darker side of the national character. These pearls of dubious wisdom promote the benefits of laziness, lack of entrepreneurship and a willingness to break the rules to one's advantage. Fatalism and the feeling of impotence are also common themes. Here is a selection.
THE SWORD WON'T CHOP A BENT HEAD Obey. Don't talk against those in power. Protest is futile and will only bring trouble to you and your family. If you are wondering how the Bulgarians spent five centuries under Ottoman rule with relatively few rebellions and why they were the most loyal Soviet ally for 45 years, this is the answer.
TOO GOOD IS NO GOOD Bulgarians overeat and overdrink when they can, but at the same time they are afraid of having too much of a good time. They have lived in hardship for so long that they don't believe in long-lasting happiness. You have a nice job? Then be prepared for an economic crisis that will make both you and your profession (mechanical engineer in the 1990s, journalist in the 2010s) redundant. Your child is beautiful and talented? Don't rejoice. She will either get sick or marry bad. You have won the national lottery? Woe to you! Thugs and friends will both come after your money. And so on and so forth. On the same basis, Bulgarians are afraid that if they reveal to the world they have been lucky and happy the envy of others will curse them and will eventually ruin everything. That explains why, when you ask a Bulgarian "How are you?" the most optimistic answer you can hope for is "Well, we’ll manage somehow."
PIGS EAT THE GOOD APPLES This is usually said about the beautiful daughter of a relative or friend and means that if a woman is beautiful, she will end up marrying a man who is bad or ugly, or both. Why? Because too good is not good. Period.
THE LIGHT IN THE TUNNEL IS FROM THE ONCOMING TRAIN You're stuck in a seemingly hopeless situation but finally a silver lining appears. You are a fool if you believe in it. No ray of hope here, only a train coming towards you at full speed.
WE HAVE HIT THE BOTTOM AND WE KEEP ON DIGGING Bulgarians say this when they talk about the time since the collapse of Communism in 1989. While a significant part of their dim view of the past quarter century is justified - there were economic crises, unemployment and many ruined lives - people tend to overlook improvements like freedom of speech, free travel and the actual opportunity to make money. Many genuinely believe that life under Communism was fine. Ironically, this saying is quite to the point when applied to the muddled political life of modern Bulgaria. Just think of the candidates for the presidential election in November, and "we have hit the bottom and we keep on digging" comes naturally.
A MUSICIAN DOESN'T FEED A HOUSEHOLD From Azis and other Chalga stars to the septuagenarian pop diva Lili Ivanova, in Bulgaria many musicians do manage to feed their families. This proverb, however, covers a wider aspect, referring to all the arts and liberal sciences. Bulgarians are extremely sceptical of anyone who is into the arts or philosophy, and would much prefer their children to pursue a career in IT, law or organised crime. Judging by the situation of the labour market, it is hard to blame them.
GIVE ME MONEY NOT ADVICE Bulgarians don't believe that ideas matter. You have the dream of producing and supplying organic yoghurt? You are spending years developing an on-line shopping site or an amazing new game? Nah, why bother inventing something if you just can copy a working model and make tons of money from it. After someone else has provided the initial investment, of course. This proverb explains pretty clearly why the nation still lacks its Elon Musk, Steve Jobs and so on, and many of its successful businesses are either based on scheming, nepotism or VAT fraud, or are copy-cats of others' ideas. Jews have exactly the opposite saying: Give me advice, not money - I will make the money myself.
ONE BIRD DOESN'T BRING SPRING This one is not uniquely Bulgarian: the earliest recorded version belongs to Aristotle. Bulgarians don't read Aristotle, but draw heavily on the single bird metaphor to explain their propensity for inactivity on any matter of public interest. The new antiterrorism law is a grotesque abuse of basic human rights? Public money is being siphoned off to companies with close links to the government? Open lies are broadcast in the media? No, we won't protest and only voice our disagreement on Facebook, because, you know, one bird doesn't bring spring. That is why it is hardly surprising that this August an activist was convicted by a Bulgarian court and fined 5,000 leva because, on his personal Facebook page, he called an oligarch "an oligarch."
IN THE KINGDOM OF THE BLIND THE ONE-EYED IS KING This one holds some water: Bulgaria is relatively small and definitely lags behind the wider world, and anyone who stands out from the crowd without threatening its feeing of self-confidence is hailed as a genius, no less. This proverb, however, is used not to slander these false prophets, but to bring down anyone who makes a sincere effort to achieve something new and worthy. Don't fly that high, it says, as you are only slightly better from the rest of us.
This brings us to one of the darkest Bulgarian proverbs:
IN HELL, NO ONE ESCAPES THE BULGARIAN CAULDRON You are in Hell, and there are numerous cauldrons full of boiling water and devils with pitchforks who stab anyone who tries to escape. Only the cauldron with the Bulgarians has no devils around it, because they are not needed. When the Bulgarians see someone trying to escape from the cauldron, they grab them and pull them back into the boiling tar. The moral: Bulgarians hate to witness the success of others and do all they can to ruin it. This proverb is used against anyone who dares to criticise something achieved by a one-eyed man in the kingdom of the blind. You say the Bulgaria's Eurovision song is not that good? Or that Irina Bokova doesn't deserve to be the next secretary general of the United Nations? Or that the new highway is crumbling just a few weeks after Boyko Borisov cut the ribbon? Well well, the wise Bulgarians say, if you don't like the song, Bokova or the highway, you are one of those who prevent others escaping the Bulgarian cauldron in Hell.
STUDY SO YOU DON'T HAVE TO WORK Until the mid-20th century, Bulgarians craved education as it helped them to build businesses, break away from their native villages and become engineers, physicians and people of letters in the emerging modern Bulgaria. When Communism came, however, a schizophrenic situation unfolded. On the one hand, workers and farmers were the darlings of the regime, and were often better paid than physicians and scientists. On the other hand, their jobs were considered unprestigious. This is when many people began to dream about having a "desk job," and for that they needed some proper education. This was when the proverb was born.
After 1989, the situation deteriorated and the proverb was interpreted quite literally.As engineers, philologists, teachers and others were increasingly made redundant, those who had studied discovered that they indeed could not work anymore. Today the proverb is returning to its roots. Many young Bulgarians enrol in the growing number of universities only to postpone for four years their entry into the labour market and, when they graduate, they are reluctant to work for less than 2,000 leva per month, because they have education and they have all been told repeatedly to study if they want to avoid to work in later life.
IF YOU SAT QUIETLY, YOU WOULDN'T BE SUFFERING NOW In the Bulgarian mindset, suffering is the inevitable consequence of each act of assertiveness or individualism. From a child running too fast and falling down to someone who tries out a new business idea and fails, or a journalist or an activist doing their job and then being publicly slandered by the government-controlled media, the answer is the same: if you had sat quietly, you wouldn't be suffering now.
WORK WITHOUT PAY, BUT DON'T STAY WITHOUT WORK Bulgarians' proverbial (pun intended) love of hard work can be taken to extremes, as is evident by this saying and by the regular reports of miners/seamstresses/actors/hacks and so on who work for months on end without being paid out of fear that if they protest, they will lose even their (unpaid) jobs.
This proverb is in direct contradiction to a whole group of others that advocate the contrary: working is for fools.
THE FOOL DIGS THE VINEYARD, THE HERO DRINKS THE WINE A note: this proverb includes the untranslatable Bulgarian word, Yunak, that transcends the meaning of "hero". Yunaks are the protagonists of Bulgarian epics who fight against dragons and invaders, but are also prone to drinking and womanising. In short, Yunaks epitomise good living in the Balkan way: no work, lots of fun and the occasional heroic deed.
In its modern meaning, the proverb means that only fools do the hard work, especially if it is for the common good, as the really smart guys just reap the benefits. Now you know why the corridors and staircases in apartment blocks are usually in a despicable condition: only fools will clean them.
IF WORK WAS GOOD, THE BISHOP WOULD DO IT The comparison with a bishop is understandable: in olden times the high clergy was among the few who had enough to eat and their intellectual work was incomprehensible to the common folk. So, they were deemed to have an ideal life with few obligations and plenty of good food and drink.
HUNCHBACK IS THE ONLY PROFIT OF WORK Working honestly won't cut it if you want a comfortable life. To become rich, you need to be deep into schemes, and to apply the following four proverbs:
THE LAW IS A DOOR IN A FIELD We all know that thinking outside of the box is good but, in the Bulgarian mindset, this generally means to break, bend or avoid the law whenever possible. The often pointless local laws, rules and regulations don't help, either.
WOLVES WILL EAT WHAT PARTNERSHIPS HAVE ACHIEVED Bulgarian businessmen hate partners. They are constantly scared that their partner is cheating or stealing from them, and often they are right. The number of business partnerships that have fallen apart due to foul play from one, or all, of the parties is staggering.
DIE, BUT DON'T LET YOURSELF GET SCREWED To be screwed by a business partner, a competitor or that guy selling cheap iPhones on Alibaba.com is one of the greatest fears of Bulgarians. Another proverb expressing the same fear is "If you don't open your eyes, others will open them."
IMPUDENCE BRINGS PROGRESS An obvious creation of the late 20th century, it not only explains but justifies why someone jumps the queue, lies and butters his way up the career ladder, parks on a pedestrian crossing or the pavement, or joins GERB with the only notion of profiting from membership. The saddest thing here is the meaning of the word "progress" in the Bulgarian mindset.
The helplessness of those Bulgarians who, because of their character or moral standards, are unable to act by the rules stipulated above, is best expressed in the following proverb:
GOD IS ON HIGH, AND THE KING IS FAR AWAY There is no one you can complain to. You are alone. Get used to it. Because one bird doesn't bring spring, the light in the tunnel is from the oncoming train and the sword won't cut a bent head. And because
WHEN THE HORSES FIGHT, THE DONKEYS SUFFER Once you have found yourself in a subservient position, you can be pretty sure that in the event of a conflict among your bosses, it will all come down on you, somehow (more work for the same money, more public projects siphoned off to suspicious companies).
But what can a donkey do?
Considering these Bulgarian proverbs and the mindset they create, you will hardly be surprised by this one:
WE LIVE ONLY TO KEEP THE WORLD POPULATED If you have been searching for the epitome of Bulgarian nihilism, lack of purpose in life, pessimism and ultimate depression, here it is.