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A Local’s Guide to Bulgarian Culture

Bulgaria

No, this is neither a tourist guide, nor an in-depth political analysis. This just one perspective on Bulgarian culture—a country that most Americans (and some Europeans for that matter) will struggle placing on the map. Hint: it’s in Eastern Europe.

What does that tell you?

Well, I am willing to bet that one of these words popped up in your head: mail-order brides, communism, poverty, Roma people (which is another word for gypsies), patriarchy. And you would expect me to dispel those stereotypes. Honestly, there is some truth to all of them. But as is with any culture, you really do not get the full picture until look from the inside. Often, not even foreigners that have been living here for extended periods of time can give you an accurate description of what Eastern Europe and Bulgaria in particular are like.

But hey, lucky you, I’m here to deliver a guide, a comprehensive description of Bulgarian culture, if you will, to one of the least known European countries.

And, unsurprisingly, we start with:

A History of Bulgaria

You did see that one coming, didn’t you?

A brief summary of our past would be this: a great kingdom during the Medieval age, fell under the power of the Ottoman Empire, was liberated at the end of the 19th century, spent half a century of socialism after WWII and is now supposedly in the process of transitioning into capitalism (or has already done so, depends on who you ask).

To be even shorter, there are two very important things – Ottoman Empire and Communism. To say that Bulgarian culture has not been affected by other historical occurrences is, of course, over-simplification. However, these are the two keywords when it comes to influence on Bulgarian

Bulgarian Culture

Bulgarian Culture

In any case, what we perceive as our traditions as a nation comes from the Revival period that took place between 18th and 19th century. Which means that in most ethnographic museums you will see similar things – embroideries, metalwork, room arrangements where you can clearly see the Ottoman tradition intertwined with an Orthodox Christianity. To be honest, it’s not really worth visiting more than one of those museums, and we have plenty since apparently during the socialist regimen they were seen as a way of promoting national values. If you are wondering which is best, my personal favourite is in Plovdiv. It is a gorgeous building, the exposition is rich and well-ordered and there is plenty of information available if you want to read up on the exhibits.

Ottoman Turkish influence is to this day very visible in our culture. It’s weird really, because one thing that preserved us as a nation was our Christian religion. However, plenty of Ottoman customs, including some that can be linked to Islam, are intertwined with our traditions. For instance, café culture. We still meet up our friends for very long coffee drinking sessions. And if you weren’t aware of that already, the whole coffeehouse jazz came to Europe through Ottomans. But also, take a look at our dishes – sarma, börek, boza, baklava… And bargaining is still practiced at markets (but not as much as you think and if you don’t know the language, refrain from it, you will just be seen as an awkward foreigner).

But did we love being under their rule? Of course not. In fact, the period during which we were under Ottoman power are commonly referred to as ‘Turkish subjugation’ with the word subjugation meaning slavery too (in Bulgarian that is). And there was definitely no slavery either, but that is just how we see that time. And then there was a Russo-Turkish war that lead to our Liberation.

So for many Bulgarians, Russia is seen as our liberator. You can say there is a deep, often misunderstood connection there. Truth of the matter is, a lot of Bulgarians are willing to look past some not-so-awesome things about Russia’s current politics.

The other keyword, Communism, deserves a bullet point of it’s own.

Bulgaria, Post-Communism

First things first, there was never communism in Bulgaria. Because, by definition Communism means lack of private property. The way Socialists saw it, Communism was the ultimate goal and Socialism through the lead of the Party (the capitalization is not sporadic). One thing you might not expect though, is that during WWII we were actually on Germany’s side. We never really fought for Hitler, but we did send military to occupied zones such as Macedonia.

All throughout the war, however there was strong guerilla resistance, predominantly communist in ideology. Then the Soviet Army occupied us and long story short, we became socialists. If you take a walk through Sofia you will notice a monument to the Soviet Army. During the socialist regimen their occupation was presented as a liberation from Nazism and Capitalism.

During the Socialist regimen access to Western culture was incredibly limited. At the same time, what was popular in the West would always find it’s way to Bulgaria, one way or another. But we are still not as aware of all complexities of pop culture.

There were a lot of other problems during that time, too. For instance, people could not travel outside the country freely, or live in the capital without a special permit, or buy a lot of the products they needed. Even though wages were decent, there were often ridiculous deficits. My father always tells me how his parents travelled to another city to buy ham for the house party they threw for his high school graduation. In spite of all that, especially among older people there is a certain nostalgia to that time. You could say we have a very much love-hate relationship with our socialist past.

Shortly after the fall of the Iron Curtain in 1989 capitalism came back to Bulgaria. The 90s were a weird, somewhat dark time. A mafia was established and drug use reached a peak. We suffered hyperinflation, poverty, high crime rates and even though there was never war, as was the case of Yugoslavia, it was in no way a smooth transition.

In recent years, especially after we joined the EU in 2004, Bulgaria is a normal, modern European country. We still have issues with corruption and low-income, especially outside the capital. For foreigners that comes with the benefit of relatively low costs and cheap life. Which, consequently, is bullet point number 3.

Bulgaria Is Cheap

I find this is true for other Balkan countries as well (Romania, Serbia etc.).

Prices here, compared to the US or to other European countries, are usually quite low. For instance, a good dinner for two with wine would be around 50 lv (or around 27 USD). Rent around Sofia is around 300 USD per month for a nice two-bedroom flat at a location and it’s even lower outside the capital. That is exactly the reason a lot of foreigners choose Bulgaria for their vacation. Which brought us Sunny Beach, the it-place if you are looking for cheap booze and 24/7 parties by the beach.

Although to me, Sunny Beach is not even that cheap, it basically costs as much as any other European sea resort (well, maybe not the super-exclusive ones). Anyways, it’s a shame if all you see from our country is just one resort, full of other drunken foreigners.

And speaking of that, an easy way to go exploring our country is….

Bulgarian Food

Bulgarian cuisine is all about fresh veggies, white cheese, barbecued meats and yummy pastries.

Also yogurt, but probably not the one you are accustomed to. We hardly ever eat sweetened, fruit-flavour yogurt. Ours is slightly sour (in fact, the Bulgarian word for yogurt literally means ‘sour milk’), with a very smooth, milky taste.

And fun fact: the Lactobacilus bulgaricus bacteria we use in the fermentation process is native only to Bulgaria. In summer, we prepare tarator, which is essentially a cold-soup with cucumber and yogurt. It kind of tastes like the Greek tzatziki.

One of the other mandatory things to try is Shopska salad – cucumbers, tomatoes, cheese and roasted peppers. Speaking of peppers, a spread of choice for Bulgarians is lyutenitsa – a thick tomato, eggplant and pepper paste. One very Bulgarian invention is an actual appliance to roast peppers – chuskopek. Look it up, it’s one of those devices that you never knew you needed.

And then there is banitsa. It’s the first thing your Bulgarian friend will prepare for you, if he decides to introduce you to our Bulgarian culture and cuisine. The traditional banitsa is a pastry filled with white cheese (similar to feta, maybe with a slightly stronger taste). You can buy it as street food – usually very greasy and utterly irresistable, but if you score a homemade one or even if you order it at a restaurant (if they have it) you’ll notice they hardly even taste alike. A cool place to find homemade-quality banitsa in Sofia is the HleBar bakery.

Bulgarian culture

Bulgarian culture dictates that you eat up!

When it comes to main dishes, they are mostly meat-based. Grilled minced meat comes in the form of kebapche (elongated) or kyufte (meatball). Some would say there is a difference in the spices used, but honestly, both are great. They usually come with a side of fries, bean and lyutenitsa salad, or Shopska salad. We also have our very own version of moussaka that doesn’t involve eggplant, unlike the Greek version. Bulgarian moussaka is potatoes, minced meat and a top layer made with eggs. It’s usually (unsurprisingly) served with yogurt. But hey, if you are a vegetarian don’t despair, order mish-mash (a dish based on tomatoes, pepper, eggs and cheese) and be merry. Trust me, even my non-vegetarian friends adore it.

Bulgarian Culture: Drink!

Bulgarian culture

Bulgarian culture also dictates you DRINK up!

Two words: rakia and boza.

Just don’t combine them.

The rakia is a a fruit brandy, usually made of grape, with 40% abv. Your first instinct seeing the tiny glasses it is served in would be to have it as a shot, but that’s not how we actually drink it. Usually we have it as an apperetive before the main dish. A popular combination is Shopska salad and rakia, but you often see people having it with charcuterie, pickled vegetables, milk salad (lovingly called Snow White) etc. It is generally a drink for older people, though. At clubs young Bulgarians have vodka, whiskey, cocktails. More international beverages, to say so.

One alcohol that is not specific to Bulgaria, but impresses and surprises foreigners is mastika. It’s strong (around 47-50%), anise-flavoured, and forms crystals when very cold. Have it as a shot, mix with mint liqueur to prepare the traditional cocktail known as ‘Oblak’ (cloud), or inject it in a watermelon and chill. The mastika is a tasty, summer-y way to get drunk in Bulgaria.
As for the boza, a word of warning. Most foreigners hate it – I’ve heard it tasted like sweet glue. Still, don’t miss it. What it actually is, is a drink with a sour-sweet taste, made of fermented wheat. It has a slight alcohol content of around 1%, due to the fermentation process and in Bulgaria we have it with our greasy banitsa in the morning. Trust me, it might not sound like the best of combinations, but to us it is the best.

So even if you hate it, try not to hate on it.

Bulgarian People

Food is nice and knowing some history helps you understand a culture, but how about the people of Bulgaria? Well, my foreign friends claim we are real sweethearts (like many Eastern European women), always asking about their culture, where they come from, happy to present our country, delighted to help others. If you ask a Bulgarian, we are hateful, bigoted, always looking for a way to cheat the system.

And the truth, in my humble opinion, lies between those two descriptions.

We are indeed very hospitable. In fact, most of us were raised to consider any foreigner a guest, and any guest, as someone who should be well taken care of. Meaning that Bulgarians are usually friendly, proud of their heritage and thrilled to share it with visitors.

At the same time, maybe it’s poverty, or maybe it’s our national character, but we are often inclined not to respect rules and authority, there is still a lot of corruption going on, and a lot of law-breaking. For instance, it is supposedly forbidden to smoke inside restaurants and bars, but you will find that almost everyone does it in nightclubs. In smaller towns, it’s hard to even find a café where you won’t drown in cigarette smoke.

The thing about being closed-minded is also unfortunately true. There is still a lot of homophobia, racism and sexism in our communities, especially outside the capital. Pride is not a happy event that celebrates differences, but rather a controversial demonstration that attracts anti-Pride activists, some of which are almost neo-Nazis. In contrast to this, people you will meet in your day-to-day life are more accepting then expected, but as a society, we have a long way to go.

If you’re a man interested in dating Bulgarian women, see this site.

The Other Side of Bulgarian Culture: The Gypsies

Gypsies, or Roma people, are an ethnic group that lives in Bulgaria, but is different to Bulgarians. The Roma often live in ghettos and there are a lot of issues with crime, drugs and prostitution we associate with them.

There is a lot of racism against them, and while I am far from defending any such views, many of the people have their reasons to be wary of gypsy people. In some towns people link the growth of their gypsy communities to higher crime rates, and that is the main reason for the hatred. At the same time, they have their own very interesting traditions and ways of preserving them.

If you are interested, take a look at Broadly’s short documentary on bride markets in Stara Zagora — it treats the topic with a lot of respect and understanding.

Fun in Bulgaria

Jumping from one complex topic, to another. Ask any Bulgarian, regardless of their music taste, and he’ll tell you to listen to chalga. Some will say it ironically, others genuinely enjoy that music. But chalga (or more accurately pop folk) is more than the reggaeton of the Balkans.

It is more like one of those things you love to hate. So my advice is of you visit Bulgaria, go to a chalga club at least once to experience it. I can’t guarantee you’ll enjoy it, but it is an experience and you will probably not understand the whole Bulgarian culture around those songs until you experience it first hand. If you are looking to have a taste, before you spend the 5lv entrance fee, look up Azis. Even Katy Perry has tweeted about him, so he’s a pretty big deal 🙂

Other than chalga, there is nothing special about Bulgarian clubs. You’ll find girls are not as willing to hook up and that going out is more fun in a big group, since people do not socialize as much at discos. As for bars, they are mostly for hanging out with your friends, and not for finding flings (but that’s not to say it can’t happen!)

Well, that turned longer than expected. Anyways, thanks for being interested in Bulgaria 🙂

Look into it, it is a cool place to visit. We will be waiting!

PS: If you want to speak a little Bulgarian, Benny Lewis’ Fluent in 3 Months program is excellent, it gets you having conversations within a week.

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