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Expat Advice: Culture Shock in Veliko Tarnovo, Bulgaria

Jun 08, 2016

Veliko Tarnovo, Bulgaria

An expat in Veliko Tarnovo, one of Bulgaria's oldest cities, describes the challenges he faced adjusting to life in Bulgaria. He explains that the Bulgarians may not seem to smile and be happy at first, but once you get to know them they're very hospitable.

What is the name of the city or town that you are reporting on?

Veliko Tarnovo

Did you receive any cross-cultural training for your move abroad? If yes, was it before or after the move?

Apart from reading up on customs and forums, no.

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If they speak another language in your new country, do you speak the language? If yes, did you learn the language before you moved or while abroad? If no, are you planning to learn the language?

No I have been trying to learn the lingo two words a day. Also trying to combine them into sentences! I am hoping to learn more over time.

Were you worried or concerned about culture shock before you moved abroad?

Yes I was worried. A new language, a new culture and a new place. All a bit stressful but also exciting.

How significant was the culture shock you experienced when you moved abroad?

Not too bad actually. I make a habit of going to the local village bar and sitting with the people there. No English is spoken. They kindly put up with me and I nod and shake my head not knowing what I am agreeing to. I recently had a long conversation with an elderly Bulgarian for a good ten minutes. I did not understand a word and my English speaking friends were in stitches as I was nodding and shaking my head vigorously.

Expats often talk about going through the "stages of culture shock." Examples include the honeymoon phase, the irritation-to-anger stage, the rejection of the culture stage, and the cultural adjustment phase. Do you feel like you went through these or any other stages as you settled into the new culture?

So far still settling in. I forgot that in Bulgaria shaking ones head from side to side is YES and up and down is NO. I ordered some drawers to fit under a bed and when they did not arrive found that I had nodded (NO) when asked if I wanted them! You live and learn. Lucky for me I was not looking at expensive cars!

What, if any, were some of the changes you noticed in yourself that might have been caused by culture shock? These might include things such as anger, depression, anxiety, increased eating or drinking, frustration, homesickness, etc.

I felt a certain freedom. Also I was unique, to a certain extent. No homesickness as such. BUT I did feel relieved when, after several hours sitting listening to the local banter and not understanding anything, to hear a voice say "Hey there, how are you?" It was a light in the dark.

What are some things you appreciate most about the new culture?

I do love the nature that surrounds us all. Green and fertile land. Birds and rivers... I also enjoy greeting the numerous locals who ply back and forth on various errands with their wheel barrow of weeds, bags of shopping and time spent weeding and planting along the narrow lanes. They welcome me in as an outsider. There is always a seat for me at the bar. One has taken upon himself to teach me Bulgarian and he far exceeds the two words I know I can master in a day.

What are the most challenging aspects of the new culture?

Initially the Bulgarians do not smile much. They may not have a lot to smile about! But once you get to know them they are very hospitable. A lovely elderly woman who lives across the lane knew I was leaving to go back to the UK. She turned up with salty fried bread, cooked chicken bits in a tray, a glass jar of noodle soup and a small sealed jar of something that had been expertly, I am sure, canned several years before. The written words on the label have escaped translation. I went to wash up a plate in the outside sink only to find that the local cat had eaten the chicken. So it was bread and soup it was! Delicious. The small jar still remains to be eaten, if that is what it is for!

Did you "commit" any embarrassing or humorous cultural blunders? If you did and you'd like to share them, please do tell!

Well they are all humorous blunders as above. That's what makes it fun. Like the time I called our neighbour Ivan and he had to tell me his father was Ivan and he was Kerill!

Do you have any advice or thoughts about culture shock you would like to share?

If you go to Bulgaria make sure you know which way to shake you head for yes and no. Learn a few choice words and phrases. Shouting louder does not help in translating! Enjoy the food and drink and mix with the locals.

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