1. Getting frustrated with language barriers.
When someone is in your home country, speaking a broken, tense imperfect, thickly accented version of your language, it can be daunting and even frustrating. Whenever I feel myself getting flustered, I think back to what it felt like to be in Bulgaria. I was so thrilled and thankful to be in such a fascinating place, but I was also often scared, alone, and underprepared.
I learned I had been awarded a Fulbright in February and arrived in Ruse just a few months later, which was of course not enough time to master an entirely unfamiliar language. Many people were very kind to me and happy when I could speak even a little bit of Bulgarian, but I remember every instance where my lack of skill was used as a means of ridicule or scorn. When I’m speaking with someone who is just learning English, I try to be kind and sensitive in a way I might not have been before.
2. Being offended by line jumpers.
Want to see some angry USAers? Jump in front of them in a line. It doesn’t matter how long or short or what the line is for, waiting your turn in the US is sacred. I was raised in a culture that understands giving cuts and saving places to be social sins. I assumed that this was the case everywhere in the world.
I didn’t realize my mistake until I went to a hardware store in Ruse where purchases were made at a large, open counter. Again I had mistaken a local custom for a worldwide rule. Lines are not just relative in Bulgaria, but in other parts of the world as well. I traveled extensively on the weekends and on holidays while living abroad and consistently witnessed confusion over lines, how they worked, and if they were a rule or just a suggestion. I’m still a stickler for lines wherever I go, but I no longer automatically assume malice when someone else doesn’t feel the same way.
3. Depending on fall-back restaurants.
Nearly everyone in US has a list of fast food restaurants that they frequent when they’re too tired, busy, or lazy to cook; I’m no exception. However, I didn’t realize how much I used this list as a crutch until I spent a year teaching English in Ruse.
The absence of these restaurants not only meant I had to prepare more of my own meals, but also that I had to figure out the menus of some local places if I wanted a break from the stove. This wasn’t easy, because upon arriving to the country I didn’t speak or read any Bulgarian. At first I ignored this issue, but after about two weeks of eating apples for breakfast, yoghurt for lunch, and spaghetti for dinner, I ate my anxiety instead and decided to try a bakery downtown where the food was on display behind glass on the counter and I could point to what I wanted.
My 8th graders recommended banitsa, and my love affair with Bulgarian food began. After this positive experience, I was more willing to try new restaurants and venture further into the supermarket even if it sometimes meant embarrassment or buying something I couldn’t eat. I’m glad I did because I almost missed out on Mekitsi, Shopska, Lyutenica, kashkaval, and baked pumpkin.
4. Believing that body language means the same thing in all countries.
I’ve honestly never nodded that much for whatever reason, but I used to shake my head quite a lot. Not anymore. Why? Because the rules in Bulgaria are different. Shaking means yes and nodding means no. All the Fulbright’s had been forewarned about this difference, but rewiring my brain or should I say my head proved to be a real challenge. This was never really a problem with my students, but for adults this caused confusion.
I went to the pharmacy with a horrible migraine once and was so proud that I was able to stumble and butcher my way through enough Bulgarian to communicate what I wanted, but when the pharmacists showed me the box and asked if this was what I wanted I made the mistake of nodding, she put it back and offered a different brand. In my migraine stupor, I wasn’t able to understand what I’d done wrong and took the medicine, but the next day I realized my mistake.
5. Driving everywhere.
I grew up in rural West Virginia where school buses are the closest thing to public transport and stores are clustered together miles away from any residence. When I went off to college, it was to a small, liberal arts campus where I could walk from my dorm to any building in about ten minutes. If I wanted to get around Ruse there were two options, the bus and walking. Applying for a driver’s license wasn’t worth the hassle, and renting a car on and off just wasn’t feasible. There wasn’t really a bus stop near my apartment building, so I ended up walking.
Because I had never walked to work or the store or the theater or really anywhere before, this caused a number of issues. How much time did I need to get to work? How was I supposed to get my groceries back to my apartment? Relying on my body to get where I needed to be turned out to be exceptionally rewarding though. I built muscle, but I also learned to listen to my body and know how much was too much to carry, or how much time was too little time to get from one place to another. I also found that I took better care of myself, because if I was too sick to walk, it was the equivalent of my car being in the shop.
6. Always relying on the dryer.
Your clothes just came out of the washer… where do they go? The dryer of course! Well, maybe not ‘of course’. When you walk down any residential street in Ruse, it’s not uncommon to see laundry on lines so long as it’s not snowing or raining, and when it does indoor drying racks are used.
Although I was fortunate enough to have a combination machine in my apartment, I quickly discovered that although it dried my clothes, it dried them a little too well and I began to see air drying my clothes as a better option. I can only speculate why the denizens of Ruse dry their clothes, but I know that my students’ parents and my fellow teachers simply did so because they believed it was more economical and that it preserved clothing.
They were right.
I am still somewhat of a procrastinator and often end up drying clothes that I need to wear the following morning. However, because I live in an apartment with a shared laundry room and very old, very unpredictable driers, I’ve found that just letting my clothes air dry saves on quarters, but also saves me from shrunken surprises, fraying rugs, destroyed delicates, and the occasional melted button.
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