I had a totally incredible experience. In a land where people rarely smile as they pass you on the street - it's more of an extended stare of disdain and distrust - there were moments of laughter, hilarity, new friendship, happiness, giggles, and play. I loved my time in Bulgaria and am considering a return this fall for another tour.
For now, I'd like to capture my observations of the country. These are not hard facts but just the "welp, that's different" moments I noticed.
Very Pretty - This country has tall, snow capped mountains and miles and miles of farmers' fields and green valleys. It's not a wreck of strip-malls and big box stores, at least, not yet. So, the eye gets a lot of rest and enjoyment when driving through beautiful Bulgaria.
The Stare - I understand that I come from a culture of smiling (less so since the advent of smartphone addiction), friendly efforts to connect, and optimism. So, I can say without judgment, Bulgaria does not offer these social graces. Instead, as I stood in the priority line for my Ryanair flight from London to Sofia, the word that emanated off my fellow passengers was "gruff." This was my subjective read, not the truth. It was just so hard to induce any smiling or chatting at all.
Tiny Windows - There are vestiges of times gone by when people would open a small, sliding window, serve their customers things like baked goods or postage stamps, then shut the tiny window again until the next client came along. It felt at times like a humorous remake of a scene from a movie about Eastern Bloc countries but it was absolutely real. I'm used to store clerks feeling obligated to chat with me and make me feel welcome into the store where they're standing. Again, there is no judgment. I simply encountered minimal efforts at what we call customer service in the U.S. I don't believe it matters widely, yet, in Bulgaria.
Family Matters - I was in Bulgaria for one religious holiday and one Sunday. I saw lots of parents and kids spending time together on these days. I loved seeing how much family matters to the people of Bulgaria. Children were dressed up and holding their parents' hands as they walked through the town square to play at the many children's play areas available. Other adults could sit on a bench and relax and keep a community eye on the kids. Sometimes, in the U.S., I feel like children are meant to disappear or stay separate from everyday adult life. In Bulgaria, as I often felt in other countries I've visited like Peru and Mexico, everyone appreciates and loves children and their existence in wider society. They're adapted to and included without shame or extra efforts to control or distract them. They're kids. They live. And, they're gonna want to play and spend time with their parents.
Muscle-Bound Men - In terms of what is considered good-looking in any culture, there are wide variations. I think of the extra-skinny punks in London and the extra-curvy women of Latin America. All honored. All beautiful. Just not the same everywhere you go. In Bulgaria, the men love to bulk up and look extremely strong. So many were fit and muscular. I saw almost no young men who weren't at least lean. A lot of the young guys shave their heads, which I would consider a very masculine look. And, my favorite, was the shaved head with the long, bushy, squared-off beard. You'll find Bulgarian heroes on their currency and in statues with that look. Buzzed on top and then the most hairy, rad, massive beard on their chin. The owner of the gym I worked out at had this look and he looked fantastic. Just saying...
Coffee - Lavazza vending machines keep this country moving. For about 30 cents USD you can get a delicious, dark espresso shot in a paper cup any hour of the day outside multiple buildings in most towns. Bulgarians may not have a Starbucks on every corner, but they're serving themselves plenty of delicious coffee all day long. I got into the groove. I never managed to use a vending machine but I had a lot of espresso at small shops and gas stations on our long drives around the country. I love a country that loves espresso because it's so delicious and strong and yummy.
Mix of Flash and Rural - Bulgaria is a country with a mix of very modern shops, like a Land Rover dealership along a major road in Sofia, and then mostly small stores that carry local products and seeds for growing tomatoes. The country still has plenty of farming going on in the house-by-house sense. Sofia, the capital, is the only major city I saw. In it, I didn't see many gardens because people live mostly in apartments. But, the moment you get out of Sofia, you see that most people live in single-family homes with gardens and chickens. There is subsistence farming going on everywhere you turn. I awoke to the sound of a cock crowing dozens of times at our neighbor's place, every morning starting around 5 am. Plus, our neighbors had beautiful rows of veggies starting to pop up for springtime. There are plenty of fruit trees throughout the countryside - looked to include apple, plum, pear, and fig. The "food not lawns" movement is alive and well in Bulgaria. They just never had the lawns. I saw almost no lawn mowers. Instead, I saw tractors and shovels.
Under Construction - This country has so many improvements going on. Roads being resurfaced, new bridges half-completed, dirt piled up to make way for new highways, and taller buildings coming up in the capital. You can get a delicious chicken-and-mash dinner at a high-end restaurant for about seven dollars. So, this country and its GDP are not at the same level of wealth as many of its Western European neighbors. But, it seems strongly oriented toward growth and leveling up the quality of life of its inhabitants.
Cracked and Peeling - Again, I mention this as an observation and not a judgment. This country is dotted with buildings - homes and apartment buildings especially - with cracked and peeling paint. The homes are stucco on the outside and big, by any country's standards, but they are often in need of painting. Many of the apartment buildings have an almost multi-colored coat vibe. I take this as a pragmatic focus on putting money where it matters. Food, kids, and based on my observations, cigarettes. I get it. It just differs from so many communities in the U.S. We would mark many of these structures as urban blight but in Bulgaria they're active, typical, and full of people.