Moving to Bulgaria - Culture Shock?

more than a year ago
Compared to 20 years ago there really is not much cause for concern about moving to Bulgaria these days. With globalisation there is so much that unites us across the world but every country has its unique customs and attitudes that are worth being aware of to further a better understanding. We have put together some useful tips along those lines.

Nodding the Head
First and foremost remember that shaking your head means ‘yes’ and nodding means ‘no’. It can cause great confusion, especially when you are asking for items in a restaurant or shop. To this day we still get confused and so we always ask "да или не?"(da ili ne). Aparently Bulgaria and India  are among the few countries that diverge from the generally accepted standard nod= yes shake = no

Bulgarians can overwhelm with hospitality. If you are invited to someone’s home, here are a few things to remember that may be different to your own country’s customs.
Do not go empty handed - if you are invited it is customary to take some flowers or wine or other small gesture. With flowers remember they should be an odd number of stems (even numbers are only for funerals).
Many Bulgarian families remove their shoes at the door. Of course they will not allow you as their visitor to do this, but if weather conditions are particularly bad you can always pre-empt any embarrassing situations by bringing along a pair of clean shoes to slip on.
Bulgarians tend to spend a long time over the salad and starters accompanied by rakia or vodka with many a toast thrown in. This part of the meal can last up to an hour so you might need to pace yourself. We have also noticed there is a fine line between eating up all on your plate – signalling that you would like more – and causing offence by not eating everything on your plate.

Bulgaria is a nation of heavy smokers, and locally-produced cigarettes are still a lot cheaper than international brands. Till recently there was very little consideration for the non-smoker. Since 2012, smoking indoors in all public places has been banned i.e. all work places, restaurants, bars, public transport, all hotels, near administrative buildings, day care centres and schools, playgrounds and at outdoor events making it generally much more pleasant and easier to choose a smoke free environment.
However there are still far too many people who believe they are above the law – so don’t be too surprised if you find bus drivers smoking whilst on the job or nursing staff having a quick fag on the hospital balcony. Many restaurants also allow their patrons to smoke after 22:00 when it is assumed all inspectors have clocked off work. This can be quite a shock if you are sat enjoying a meal and all of a sudden everyone around you lights up. Still, compared to a few years ago when you couldn’t enjoy a meal in a restaurant for all the smoke, things for the non-smoker have much improved and if you are really bothered by the smoke you can threaten to report. The fines are quite high.

Tipping is generally expected by the waiting staff in restaurants, cafes and bars. Taxi drivers expect the fare to be rounded up and hairdressers also accept tips. At petrol stations the attendants who fill your tank and clean your windows will hope for some small gratuity. Some restaurants automatically add a service charge especially for larger groups, so check the bill first.

Bulgarians are still quite socially conservative on the subject of homosexuality. Although it is legal couples however do not have the same legal rights as heterosexual couples. 
There has been great progress in  changing attitudes over the last decade largely thanks to being a part of the EU. The very first Sofia Pride was held in June 2008 and attended by some 120 people. Sadly ultra nationalists and skinheads marred the event with violence towards the marchers (thankfully no one was seriously hurt) and the Bulgarian Orthodox Church put out a statement against the march. In 2019 approximately 6000 people marched under the slogan 'Don't give power to hatred!' Supported by celebrities, Embassies and diplomats as well as other NGOs and there was a landmark ruling when a Bulgarian court recognised a same sex marriage performed in France.

Business etiquette
Punctuality -  Bulgarians are not known for their punctuality and you may find people arriving late for meetings, often without even apologising. Obviously your reaction will depend on your relationship to the offending party, but if you have arranged to meet in a cafe or restaurant, it may be worth waiting 15 minutes before deciding to leave.
Formality - Most Bulgarians are on a first name basis amongst their colleagues using the familiar ‘you’, but will address the boss by his/her full name and the polite ‘you’. Women in the workplace are treated fairly equally in Bulgaria, but US citizens and other westerners may find male comments sexist. Bulgarian women tend not to get too bothered about this kind of behaviour, but if it bothers you point it out firmly and politely.

Racism & Tolerance
Bulgarians are generally peace loving and tolerant, living in harmony with their international neighbours. There is very little ethnic or racial tension. However the Roma community making up 3% of the population is still seriously victimised and discriminated against and quite often tensions can escalate.
People of Asian or African origin may also experience some prejudice – usually in the form of derogatory comments - as sadly ( and ashamedly)  was the case last year during a football match against England.
Isolated yet unpleasant incidents.

Recyling & rubbish
There are colourful recycling containers all over the country, most however end up vandalised or are just filled with general household rubbish. There are plenty of initiatives to get people to think green but it is still not very effective. If you want to recycle, there is no shortage of containers with special bins for clothing and textiles making a recent appearance. IKEA has containers for recycling broken electrical items and many stores now have special containers for collecting old batteries. There are regular collections 

Street Dogs
Years of effort, all sorts of campaigns and many thousands of euros, there are still problems regarding stray cats and dogs, mainly because attitudes are so divided on this issue. Although there have been many campaigns for people to adopt street dogs, a certain snobbishness remains and most people prefer to buy expensive pure breed dogs. In the centre of Sofia the stray dog situation is pretty much under control ( most dogs have been tagged and spayed) but this has somehow allowed the stray cat problem to explode. Generally Bulgarians love animals and will feed scraps to the strays and spoil their own pets rotten, but animal cruelty does exist ranging from keeping the dog chained 24/7 to far worse.

In general Sofia is a relatively safe city. The most frequent crimes here are: pick-pocketing; scamming,  mugging and car related theft. Sexually or racially motivated crime is rare. Even so, muggings do happen and you should use your common sense when it comes to walking around the city at dusk or night. Keep to well-lit areas, do not walk across parks in the dark, and avoid lonely areas even in daytime. 
Pickpockets are most active in the city centre and unfortunately they lurk in the places most popular with foreigners, who offer the richest pickings. Beware of leaving your hand bags hanging on the back of your chair in pubs and restaurants. On the streets a group of several well-dressed women (not necessarily Roma) may crowd you at the exact moment when you need to concentrate your attention on some other task, such as crossing the road, entering a shop or public transport, or dealing with a small child. Be aware!

Money exchange used to be the most common scam. Although they have reduced in number in recent years, exchange touts still hang around the resorts in high season. You should NEVER change money with anyone who stops you on the street and offers a better rate! You will always be cheated and it will be your own fault if it happens!
Most banks nowadays give equally good exchange rates with better service and without the risk. Within the EU we have found ATM cash advance charges to be very reasonable.
Beware of youngsters trying to persuade you to make donations to orphanages by showing you postcards of cute babies. We haven’t gotten to the bottom of it yet but it reeks of scam and there are many more reliable charities you can support.
Beware of nightclubs where prices are often much higher than you would expect especially if you agree to buy drinks for the local girls that come and join you at the table. You will not be allowed to leave without settling your bill and we have heard stories where the situation has become quite aggressive and unpleasant.

What at first glance may appear to be a desperate young woman flagging you down for help on the roadside, usually turns out to be a prostitute. Prostitution itself is not illegal, though pimping is, and the authorities tend to turn a blind eye. This, together with the poor wages in the country, might explain why prostitutes so blatantly flaunt their trade, be it on main roads, resort promenades or in hotel lobbies.

As is to be expected Bulgaria also has a drug problem, especially among teenagers with dealers hanging around schools and nightclubs. The law is fairly clear and tough: cannabis is a class A drug (high risk) together with heroin, cocaine, amphetamines etc. Possession, trafficking or dealing is a criminal offence with imprisonment and hefty fines. Should you have teenage children it is worth addressing the topic with them especially as once they are 18 they are legally adults and will be treated as such i.e. they may be locked up for 24 hours if caught in the possession of.... 


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