A few cultural notes

One of the hardest things that I’ve had to get used to here in Bulgaria is simple gestures. In the rest of the world, shaking your head means “no” and nodding means “yes”. But Bulgaria is the only country in the world where it’s the opposite. And it can be maddening (at least at first). When I first got here, I was completely thrown off. I had no idea what people met. And in smaller towns, such as Rila, they do a head bobble. It was very frustrating. I thought “why do they have to go against the grain on this? Why be so different on such a simple and universal thing. This is silly”. But that was when I didn’t know the history. Bulgaria has been the crossroads of history and is the gateway to the Middle East and Central Asia. All of the Crusades had to go through Bulgaria. So you can imagine, Bulgaria has been occupied by several empires and has been an important battleground of European history. For over 500 years, Bulgaria was under the Ottoman Empire, a period of history they refer to as “Turkish Yoke” They have only been independent of Turkey for just over 150 years, after being freed with the help of Tsarist Russia. Animosity towards the Turks is still high and during the final years of Communism, the Turkish minority was subject to a program to “Bulgarianize” them in an effort to assimilate them into Bulgarian society. This involved the suppression of Turkish traditions, language, Bulgarianization of Turkish names and sometimes, forced relocation. The Bulgarians, during the Ottoman rule, had what can be described as a mutual understanding. When they were ordered to do something by the Ottomans, they would nod, appearing to agree to their Turkish master. But it was universally understood amongst the Bulgarians that they were actually saying “no”; a silent defiance. After they were freed in the mid-19th Century, what they actually meant stuck and nodding became “no” and shaking became “yes”. It’s starting to become a habit now with me and it can be really confusing when I get together with other PCVs. “Wait…is that a Bulgarian “yes” or an American “no”?” As time goes by it’s slowly becoming “yes”. I’m sure things will get interesting when I travel to another country and when I move back to America in two years.

The superstitions are still playing a role here in my life. I finished dance practice last night and I was unusually sweaty. But it was hot and I didn’t put my sweater on. It was someone’s birthday and there was plenty of food and drink. As it got late, I decided to leave. I hadn’t put on my jacket when I several of my classmates, including the teacher, callout to me to put my jacket on. They were all very concerned since I was told I’ll be performing with them on the 18th. They didn’t want to lose one of the few guys by catching a cold and dying!

My site mate had a frustrating time when she was in Sofia (the capital) over the weekend. She was with her Bulgarian boyfriend and was planning on spending the night at his cousin’s apartment. His cousin was so excited that they were coming to visit, that he called his family in the small town where he is from (roughly 1,000 people). Unbeknownst to him (and my site mate for that matter), she and her boyfriend had gravely offended the family and were forbidden to pay his cousin and his wife a visit. They didn’t attend the wedding of a distant relative of her boyfriend; someone she had met nor heard of and was completely unaware of the event. She told me it was frustrating having to deal with the “protocol” of a small town. Hopefully this fo paux will blow over quickly.

Side notes:

I’ve been asked by the office I work for to hold off on writing the grant for the medical center until after my In Service Training where I will get more information on how to apply for this particular grant. It’s ok since it’s not due until late February and the office is on top of things. The whole project will cost a little more than 27,000 leva or about $19,000. The grant is for a maximum of $5,000. The Municipality will cover the difference.

I will be meeting with the “Sports Minister” tomorrow (the nickname given to him by his colleagues in the Obshtina because he loves sports and setting up games) about setting up a charity football (soccer) tournament in the spring (late March, early April). For the PCVs out there, stay posted for the details! I hope to form a few PCV teams.

I’m starting to get some Christmas packages from home as well as a few letters. Thanks so much! It’s great to hear how everyone in the US is doing.

It’s supposed to snow tonight. Not sure how I feel about that.

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