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Whenever I hear Bulgarian speech in the street, I stop to meet the person.  This is how I met a Bulgarian hotel receptionist in the Bahamas, an illegal immigrant pizza deliveryman in Boston, and a manager at CityCo, whose accent I recognized on the phone, while calling about a product in his store.

Everyone has their own way of preserving their cultural identity in the foreign country.

My German friend Lena once asked me why I always introduce myself to Bulgarian strangers.  She heard German speech in Boston all the time, but she never stopped to say hello to her fellow countrymen.

I responded that Bulgarians in Boston are not strangers to me. My country is so small and I’m so far away, that I consider it good luck to meet another Bulgarian. I don’t want to walk past my luck, so I say hi. I feel that simply being in the same place, an ocean away from home, is already something in common and is a great reason to strike up a conversation.

That’s why I buy everything labeled “Made in Bulgaria”: yogurt with Lactobacillus Bulgaricus, Bulgarian red wine Tcherga (ordered online by Lena’s wonderful mother), Lalo Jewelry made by an Israeli artist living near Sofia. If I can’t find genuine Bulgarian products, I replace them with our neighbor’s equivalents like Greek feta cheese instead of our white cheese and Serbian Ajvar instead of our Lutenitza.

My culture is so small compared to the American and international surroundings that I feel the need to acknowledge my nationality whenever I encounter a piece of Bulgaria in Boston. I think this is my way of preserving my identity in the foreign environment.

I’m really happy that I finally have an apartment with a kitchen! Down with dining hall food! I feel cleaner, lighter, and more satisfied and independent than ever! So much for kitchen poetry…

At 15 in Bulgaria, I usually chose between 3-4 types of cereal. My peers in the States chose between 30-40 brands.

I was walking in Shaw’s Supermarket the other day, and remembered the first time I came to the States. It was around 2003, and I was about 14-15. My whole family came to the East Coast for a vacation. We started with Disney World in Orlando, then Washington DC, NYC, State College in Pennsylvania, Pittsburg, Boston, and Niagara falls. We visited friends, went to museums, saw shows, sights, etc. We wanted to go shopping just for the fun of it. Honestly, we didn’t think we’d find something completely different from what was available back home or from what we had already seen in Western Europe. But I remember that one thing really struck us.

The supermarkets. We went to a supermarket in State College, PA that was as big as the biggest mall in Sofia at that time (TZUM).   It had an incredible assortment of food that we had never seen before. It had piles of shiny big fruit that were so beautiful they almost looked artificial (today, I know that they indeed taste artificial). It had Italian bread, Turkish delight, Arabic dates, Spanish gazpacho, Russian borsch, Greek olives. Finally, one thing completely blew our minds.

The good old muesli with yogurt will always be my top choice. With fruit and honey, its better than the whole cereal aisle!

The aisle with cereal. I bet this was the longest aisle in the store, and it was packed with boxes of cereal: crisp choco crunch frost flake bran berry buzz blast apple maple raisin banana cinnamon pecan almond wheat rice oat corn honey mini multi squares puffs pebbles clusters bunches Kellog Quaker Newman Mills Kashi Ralston Nestle… Who ate all these things?! How was it possible to have so many combinations? How was it possible to choose from such a variety? At that time in Bulgaria, we had a total of maybe three companies producing breakfast cereal: Nestle’s regular cornflakes, Bulgarian cornflakes, and muesli. We ate cereal with milk and sugar or muesli with yoghurt and honey. I think we were perfectly content with the choices we had.

Now, of course, we have giant malls and giant supermarkets like Americans do. This must be a sign that our standard of living is rising. We have a much larger assortment of Bulgarian and foreign breakfast cereal.

Yet even today, after I’ve been to Shaw’s and Whole Foods in Boston so many times, I still fail to understand why Americans need so many different types of cereal?!


You might also find interesting the rest of my Observations on the American Culture and Behavior, compared to those in my native Bulgaria:

Bureaucracy in America: Iron Policy of No Compromise

Sex and Watermelons in Bulgarian Pop Culture

It Doesn’t Get More Organic Than This

Last week, I shared my frustration with American bureaucracy’s iron policy of no compromise.

For the sake of objectivity, this week, I will share my positive experience with American bureaucracy.

For a long time, I had been postponing getting a social security card (Everyone who wants to work and get paid in the States needs to have a social security number. This number is a blessing and a curse because in theory, it’s supposed to only track people for taxation purposes, but if fact every single document in the States requires it, so it has become something like a record of every single moment of your life, forever and ever. Creepy! But that’s a different topic. )

So I had been postponing getting the social security card because I had terrible previous experience with issuing my Bulgarian ID, my passport, my visa, and my driver’s license… especially with the driver’s license (Bulgarians know what I mean!).

You have to be at the KAT Office (Control of the Automobile Transportation) really early in the morning, an hour before they open, maybe around 6 or 7, and you will still find a bunch of people already waiting in a line.  When they open, you get a number-tickets from a machine. There is always a couple of entrepreneurs (let’s just say, not from the Bulgarian ethnicity), who somehow take a lot of tickets and then try to sell them. And when there is 80 people in front of you in the line, and only 3 working windows with neurotic personnel, you forget all morals and pay 10 leva for ticket #15. When you finally reach the window, you submit 10 documents, argue with the personnel for 10 minutes, then go to the next window, argue some more, come back to the first window, pay some more money for regular of fast service, and at last, you go home completely exhausted but happy that you will hopefully never have to do this again.

By now you understand why I simply did not want to go through something like this again with the social security card. But I was surprised.

I went to the Security Service Office in Boston around 9:30, half an hour after they had opened. I had prepared all my documents and had downloaded and filled out the application form, so I just grabbed a ticket with a number and sat on a chair. There were probably 20 people in front of me and 4 working windows. They were all done in half an hour.  My application was also done in about 5 minutes. Eh, of course the lady that received my documents was as grumpy as the dwarf from Snow White, but I guess this is inherent to all bureaucracy personnel.

I have to accept, when you adhere to the rules and procedures, the American system is very convenient, fast and efficient. We Eastern Europeans could  save ourselves a lot of nerves if we learn to understand the American notion of order.

Today, September 17, Eastern Orthodox Christians commemorate the day of the martyr Sophia and her three daughters Faith, Hope, and Love (in Greek, Pistis, Elpis, and Agape; in Bulgarian, Vyara, Nadezhda, and Lyubov).

Sophia was a pious woman who lived in Rome under Emperor Adrian (Hadrian), in the first century AD. She had named her daughters after the main Christian virtues, faith, hope, and love.

When Emperor Adrian found out that the family openly observed Christianity, he ordered them to offer a sacrifice to the Roman gods. When they refused, the emperor ordered that the young girls, age 12, 10, and 9, be tortured until they rejected Christ.  The girls were killed in the name of their religion and became martyrs. After Sophia buried them, she prayed for three days by their graves and finally died herself, believing she would join them in Heaven.

In our culture, this day is the “name day” of those who bear the names Sofia, Vyara, Nadezhda, or Lyubov, and they receive guests at home.  All Bulgarians celebrate, so that their families are healthy, happy, and filled with love.

Today, we also celebrate the holiday of our capital, Sofia. We have chosen this day to honor our city, although Sofia was not named after the martyr Sophia. In fact, the name of our capital signifies Wisdom. In Greek, Aghia Sophia means the Divine Wisdom of God.

So today, I want to tell my mother, Lyubka, that to me, she signifies All the Love in the World.

Честит празник, мамо!

I would like to join the ongoing in Bulgaria public debate.

In mid-August, the Ministry of Economy presented the video clips for the new advertising campaign for Bulgarian tourism under the slogan “Magic Lives Here”. The campaign aims to change the perception of Bulgaria from a destination for low-cost European youth travel destination, to a more luxurious tourist destination.  The four video clips focus on our Black Sea summer resorts, mountain ski resorts, SPA and wellness centers, eco-tourism and cultural heritage. They are about be broadcasted on four European TV channels: Euronews, Eurosport, Discovery, and National Geographic, in September (read more in Radio Bulgaria’s website).

The project theoretically has a good perspective, but the video clips became notorious because the majority of Bulgarians don’t like them. Newspapers, TV shows, online media, politicians, intellectuals, and celebrities all took a stand in the public debate. The common opinion seems to be that the videos are full of clichés, that they copy other countries’ promo videos from several years ago, are outdated, are executed poorly, have bad quality, and don’t portray Bulgaria accurately.

The most widely discussed aspect, though, is the campaign’s cost. The making and broadcasting of the videos totals at 7.5 million leva (3.7 million euro), which is a significant sum for a country of this size. The campaign is partially funded by the EU. Experts in the field of advertising agree that the production price, almost half a million leva is way too high. Many common people believe that this money would have served better if it were invested in infrastructure.

One is for sure, an ad campaign can always be improved.

Instead of taking part in the blaming and whining, I’d like to take a more productive stand in this debate. Here is my list of the things the next campaign should not omit (in no particular order and without claiming to be exhaustive):

Tourism and Nature:

  • Hikers going to the Seven Rila Lakes
  • White mountain peaks of Rila and Pirin with skiers and snowboarders
  • The wide golden beaches and deep blue of the Black Sea coastline
  • Crowds of people at sea resorts like Sunny Beach and Lozenetz with their luxurious restaurants, clubs and hotels
  • Rafting  in Struma river in September  surrounded by the autumn colors of the forest
  • Small quiet beach camping sites like Smokinia with surfing, windsurfing, and diving
  • Balneotherapy at the mineral hot springs in Velingrad
  • Horseback riding in the Balkan mountain range near the village Skravena
  • Families visiting the Thracian sanctuary at Perperikon
  • Beach festivals (The Spirit of Burgas), concerts in the open, and clubs in Sofia
  • Rock-climbing near the Belogradchik rocks
  • Students exploring the prehistoric paintings at the Magura cave and the Ledenika cave
  • Views from Sofia, Plovdiv, Varna, and Rouse

Cultural  and historical heritage:

  • Thracian golden masks and jewelry
  • Ancient Roman amphitheatre in Plovdiv
  • Typical architecture of 17th-century houses in Veliko Turnovo
  • Houses-museums of Bulgarian revolutionaries in Koprivshtitza
  • Old crafts from the time Bulgaria was in the Ottoman empire in Etura
  • Vast vineyards and wineries in Melnik, the wine capital of the Balkans
  • Scary masks at the Kukeri carnival in Pernik
  • Nestinarki dancing on fire in the village of Bulgari
  • Esoteric Paneurhythmy dance ritual near the Seven Rila Lakes
  • Children hanging martenitsi on blossoming trees
  • Rose-picking and rose-oil production near Kazanluk
  • Singers and bagpipe-players in traditional garments during the folklore festival in Zheravna
  • People dancing the horo during a wedding
  • Merry crowds enjoying the Bulgarian cuisine, lukanka, liutenitza, banitza, in a kruchma (pub) in Bansko
  • Orthodox Christian baptism in the Rozhen monastery and the icons in the Rila monastery

Today is a national holiday celebrating the Unification of Bulgaria. On September 6th, The Principality of Bulgaria (Княжество България) and Eastern Rumelia (Източна Румелия) were unified into а common state.

The Congress of Berlin in 1878 put an end on the Russo-Turkish War and resurrected Bulgaria after almost 500 years of Ottoman yoke. It divided Bulgaria into an independent state, the Principality of Bulgaria, stretching from the Balkan mountain range to the Danube, and an autonomous state within the Ottoman Empire, Eastern Rumelia, an area between Rila, Rhodopi and the Balkan. The third part of Bulgaria, the region Macedonia, remained entirely in the Ottoman Empire. The reason for this separation was that Great Britain and Austria-Hungary feared restoring Bulgaria to its previous huge territories and providing its new ally, Russia, with too much influence.

In bright orange: Principality of Bulgaria; in light orange: Eastern Rumelia

Naturally, the Bulgarians were not happy with the new arrangement. Their strive for unity after the decay of the Ottoman Empire became part of the Eastern Question.

In 1880, the  Bulgarian Secret Central Revolutionary Committee was created, and its main task was to unify the Principality and Eastern Rumelia at first and then to aid the unification with Macedonia. BSCRC’s leader was Zahari Stoyanov. The Bulgarian Kniyaz (prince) Alexander I Battenberg himself was patron of the movement.

September of 1885 was marked with riots in Eastern Rumelia, the most famous of which is the riot in Panagyurishte. On September 6, Rumelia’s militia itself took over the governor’s office in Plovdiv. The governor, being a Bulgarian patriot appointed by the Ottomans, did not resist and surrendered Eastern Rumelia to its Bulgarian brothers. Kniyaz Alexander I signed the unification.

The followed diplomatic pressure from England and Russia, both of which expected the short-lived nature of the separated Bulgarian state, prevented the Ottoman Empire from sending troops to Eastern Rumelia. The Unification was a fact. But this was only the beginning of the Macedonian Question.

I’m back in Boston with mixed feelings.

I’m looking forward to the challenges of my junior year as a business student at Boston University, yet it would be a lie to say that I won’t miss the lazy summer days in Bulgaria.

I finally have the anecdote that perfectly illustrates a cultural shock that every foreigner lives through when it comes to bureaucracy in the States.

Public service in the States is usually at a good level: waiters smile all the time, desk attendants answer all your questions, etc. But behind this seeming politeness lies an iron policy of no compromise.

On Thursday I went to the Office of Housing at 16:20 to rent a vacuum machine to clean my new dorm apartment. I had asked a friend to come help me carry the vacuum to my room.  We were going to clean and go buy new furniture with my roommate. In short, it was a busy move-in day.

And then, the student-employee at the office tells me that I cant rent a vacuum right now. Why not?! They rent out the vacuums only for one hour. They close the office at 17:00 for a break, so they rent them out at 16:15 the latest. I have to come back at 19:00 when they will reopen the office and rent a vacuum them.

I could not believe it. So many rules for just one of the 20 vacuum machines they had there?!

First I told the girl I live next-door and will return the vacuum in only 20 minutes, before 17:00. She said no. Then I told her I will rent it now and give it back at 19:00 when they reopen; they would keep my ID as a guarantee anyways, so I’d surely not steal the vacuum. She said no. I asked her if she could make any compromise for me because I had made so many arrangements and really needed to vacuum. Again, nothing. The girl was a student like me and knew that mine and her tuition had paid for all the vacuum machines on campus, but because she was behind the desk, she thought she had some super-bureaucratic-powers.

The love for rules and restrictions is very typical for the American culture. Not surprisingly, non-Americans call the US a “police state”. The interaction between service staff and clients is polite but very reserved, distant, and even hypocritical.

In contrast, service in the cultures of Southern and Eastern Europe always has a human touch. Most of the time, you can achieve compromise. Rules are more like guidelines that can be tweaked and evaded.

For example, the international restriction for luggage weight is 23 kg, but the ladies at the desks at Sofia airport always allow passengers to check in bags that are 1-2kg more. Americans might be shocked, but we believe that such minor adjustments don’t harm anyone. On the contrary! Why should someone have to throw out their clothes or pay a huge fee for just a few kilograms more?

Of course, my culture’s tendency to use human judgment over rules may result in more serious situations such as paying a cop 20leva instead of paying a 50-leva speeding ticket to the government. I realize that corruption and evading the law are dangerous crimes. Still, on a small scale, when it comes to making a compromise or a gesture for a client, I prefer the Bulgarian little accommodations to the American hypocritical policy of no compromise.


For the sake of objectivity, read about my surprisingly pleasant experience at the Social Security Office (compared to the horrors of the Bulgarian Traffic Control Office).

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September 2010

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