THE UNBULGARIANS: ZOË HOLLIDAY, THE UK
A day after we meet for the UnBulgarians photo shoot, Zoë Holliday leaves the capital to cycle around Sliven.
She is 30 years old, has a degree in philosophy and theology, and worked for eight years in green energy before moving to Sofia.
When did you arrive in Bulgaria and why?
I arrived in June last year, specifically for my deployment at the European Voluntary Service. I work three days a week as a coordinator of a refugee project and another two days a week in a foundation for single mothers.
How did you like Bulgaria in the first place?
I really like Bulgaria. Because the melody of their language is so unusual, my first impression was that the Bulgarians were always angry. But now I love Sofia, I think it is a great city. It is small enough that you can get easily to the countryside, but it is big enough that you have everything you want.
Have you experienced any special treatment because you are a foreigner?
I think Bulgarians in general are very interested by the fact that you are a foreigner here. Sometimes, when I am sitting in a café, people would just come and start a conversation with me. I am very lucky that I've met a lot of Bulgarian friends who have invited me na gosti, or at their homes. I went to my flatmate's house in a village for Christmas. It was very nice, it was special for me to see what is beyond the surface in Bulgaria.
Have you been discriminated against as a woman in Bulgaria?
I don't think so. In the sphere I work in, people are very open about different backgrounds and genders. But when I go cycling, people often say "You're good at cycling for a woman," and I say, "No, I'm just good at cycling, full stop."
Do you have more local or foreign friends in Bulgaria?
I have definitely more Bulgarian friends, which is quite unique. When I arrived, I didn't have any training for six months, so I had to go out and meet people and make friends. At first it looked quite difficult, but it was great in the long run as I managed to see more of the real Bulgaria, outside the bubble of the expat community. It's been very good for my Bulgarian as well, so...
Can you name anything which you consider specific for Bulgarians?
Excessive consumption of yoghurt? I think that compared to the UK, Bulgarians are more family oriented, they look after their families. It feels a lot better, there is a much closer connection. In Bulgaria, it seems a normal thing to have a second house, and in the UK this is not the case.
I also think that Bulgarians are very proud of traditions here, and I think it is really nice that people rave about the countryside, about the places you can go to, that they want to celebrate customs like exchanging Martenitsa and that these traditions are still alive and thriving. I think that's what probably defines a Bulgarian, even when they are abroad. I have a Bulgarian friend in Scotland and she gave me Martenitsa last January.
Do you feel Bulgarian?
I don't feel Bulgarian, but I feel there's some place in my heart for Bulgaria. I definitely feel a connection and I know that even if I go home, I will be coming back, after I've met so many amazing people here, I've seen a lot of the country, especially through cycling, so if I leave, I will definitely miss it.
What's your favourite part of Bulgaria?
I love Sofia, and outside of it, I love the Seven Rila Lakes and Belogradchik. Just absolutely stunning, these places. I haven't been to any place like them, anywhere.
Do you celebrate any Bulgarian feasts?
For Christmas, in the village, I helped with the pig slaughtering. I carried chunks of meat. It was very nice... I gained five kilograms in three days. For Baba Marta, we did a very nice run for the refugee project. Everyone dressed as Pizho and Penda, and run around the Borisova Garden. There was a mix of locals and refugees, and it was great to wish health and happiness to everyone living in Sofia.
Do you plan to stay in Bulgaria for a longer period?
I don't know. My project ends in June and I'll just have to see what opportunities I can find, both in the UK and in Bulgaria. I wouldn't mind staying longer here. I feel there is much more to see and do, and many new people to meet.
The UnBulgarians is a project of the Free Speech International Foundation and the Multi Kulti Collective, sponsored by the NGO Programme in Bulgaria under the Financial Mechanism of the European Economic Area 2009-2014
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