20 June 2012

The Year in Review, Part 1: The People

Part 1 in a 3-part retrospective of the year I've spent in Bulgaria.

I'm not entirely sure that this post should be the first in this retrospective series. What I've come to realize is that an outsized part of the way I feel about a given place has to do with the people I meet there - people make experiences; experiences make feelings. I've also come to discover that I'm really more interested in people than most other things in the world. So I sort of feel like this should be the last, culminating chapter in this miniseries - but maybe it's just as well. I've already started; let's talk about the people I've met this year.

When I arrived in Bansko in August, I knew nobody. I was, as you'll recall, brimming with trepidation at the idea of being thrown into a new situation--social, cultural, and geographical--with no contacts and little command of the local language. My experience, having yet to have begun at that point, could have gone in literally any metaphorical direction. I was in for some kind of year, but the scary part was having no guarantee of what kind of year it would be.

FISI proved to be a godsend for how I would make my initial contact with the people of Bulgaria. It worked as those who organized it had conspired: Our first interactions with Bulgarians were with ones that had much in common with us, so the initial bonds developed easily. I made many friends those two weeks, not just with Bulgarians, but with Serbians, Croatians, and many others. Having that early nexus of contact was comforting, and it would prove invaluable to have a rudimentary support system already in place by the time I and my compatriots were finally released into the wilds of this country. More rewardingly, that support system grew into a web of friends, with some of whom I've kept in contact through the entire year. This place has been a lot less scary with them around.

One of the biggest lessons I have learned living in Sofia this year, not coincidentally corresponding to one of the primary aims of the Fulbright Program, has been that of openmindedness, and, more specifically, cultural relativity. The general idea was that, being acculturated to a certain society with its own norms and values, it would take an open mind to accept a different society with different norms than my own and to realize that, no matter how different the behavior of the people in that society might be, it would be as correct in that society as mine had been in my own. As simple and intuitive as that sounds, that consciousness has not always been easy to maintain this year.

Sofians, by habit--that is, by acculturation--do a lot of things that Americans might perceive as rude. Some things that we take for granted in our society, both small--smiling, saying "please," holding the door for people, giving the right of way--and larger--avoiding incursions into personal space, waiting in lines, and even refraining from low levels of public shaming--are not generally facets of the culture here. This is changing somewhat, especially--being subject to the highest degree of exposure to Western European culture in this country--in Sofia, but I have witnessed the breaking of all of the above American morés here. What has been surprisingly difficult to keep in mind is that these actions, performed by Bulgarians in their own society, have violated no social principles.

That's not to say that I haven't witnessed, and even been party to, genuine mistreatment in some instances. Jerks exist in every society, and Bulgaria is no exception. But the concept of cultural relativity is that values and norms in a society are, by definition, right within the context of that society if the social order accepts them, and if they persist, then it means that the social order has indeed accepted them. Every culture's customs, in other words, work in maintaining a functioning society. Even if some of the actions I've witnessed here violate the values of American society, those rules do not simply apply here, just because I'm an American. A society should not be expected to change for my sake. There is no set of universal human norms, save, perhaps, one or two, and so it is unfair when anyone thinks less of another culture because of theirs. Thence has derived my lesson in openmindedness.

I found, this year, that the degree to which I was able to integrate into this society was largely dependent upon my command of its language. Language being people's primary method of communication, this is not surprising. For most of the year I struggled to gain a better understanding of the language so that I could do things like have conversations, and progress was slow, but tangible. By this point, I can go out into the world and not be completely at a loss, which I'll claim as a moral victory. A lot of people speak English in this city, typically depending on their age, and they generally appreciate it if you make a good-faith effort to communicate with them in their language.

The generational divide doesn't just pertain to language use. The fact that many younger Bulgarians speak English while many older Bulgarians speak Russian is but one vestige of this country's fascinating recent past. This divide even extends, I've found, to manner, customs, and outlook. Younger Bulgarians tend to be more receptive to Western culture, and, less predictably, even tend to be more optimistic. If I knew more about the dynamics of this society and the psyches of its people, I could speculate that this has had to do with growing up in a "free" society as opposed to a "censored" one, one that is integrated into Europe and the rest of the world like it hasn't been in generations, one whose inhabitants have greater opportunities for mobility and wealth and individualism than their parents before them, but, sadly, I don't feel that I know these things well enough to make any sort of confident statement about them. What I've observed, to a large extent, is that younger Bulgarians tend to be more trusting and less skeptical than their older counterparts.

One of the things of which I've become acutely aware this year, something which I hadn't really thought about in any depth prior to my arrival here, is the fact that Bulgaria, despite its former membership in the Eastern Bloc, despite its location down in one of the more isolated corners of the continent, despite its proximity to the Middle East and, though less so, to Africa, is still a European country, and its inhabitants are still European people. As such, there are elements of its society that I've perceived to be pan-European. As it has turned out, I like Europe. I like the people's propensity for sitting in the park, drinking beer when the weather is nice. I like how dinner can take hours and hours, the meal and subsequent socialization being a process rather than an event. I like the fact that public transportation exists here, and the quasi-comical culture that accompanies it.

And I love the sociability of the Bulgarian people. This sociability was one of the first things I noticed about their culture when I arrived, in the midst of a heat wave, in the late Sofian August. At a time when the inclination of the average American would be to stay inside and turn on the air conditioning, Sofians refused to be deterred--many of them being without air conditioning in the first place--and came out in force to distract themselves from the heat. This was not just a warm-weather phenomenon, either, though the people of this fine city have come out in greater numbers over the course of the last few beautiful weeks than I have ever seen. Throughout the winter, round about 5 o'clock, the cafés, bars, and restaurants began to fill in identical manners to the ways they have filled on these recent warm summer evenings, only in the winter months, the drinks were hot and the doors were closed, the tables and chairs safely ensconced inside their establishments.

Just down the block from my apartment is a small park, and at the same time that Sofia's plethora of establishments (the sheer number of places to stop in and get a drink or something to eat being something I really love about this city, though we'll get to that in the next post) are getting full, this park--and, as I've discovered, seemingly every public space in the city--is overrun with families, children, adolescents, and adults alike. Babies are especially popular sights, much moreso than in the States, the significance of which I don't know enough about to speculate on. Though this results in a setting that is a bit too loud to be idyllic, it is nevertheless pleasant, and insightful, to boot.

This is representative of something that I always imagined when I pictured my ideal community: a group of people who spend their lives outside their homes, savoring the weather when it's nice, distracting themselves from it when it isn't. This was always my conception of the American dream - a vision of a community that lived its collective life not in isolation, but in the presence of the rest of its collective self. And, at least in this way, the Bulgarian people have not only fulfilled my idealization of community, they have, in some way, redefined it. When the day comes for me to find some place to settle down, to pick a group of strangers amongst whom to live in a place that may or may not be totally alien to me, this is the standard to which I will hold each prospective home. The people of Sofia have shown me that community like this can exist, and it is something I will forever hold a significant desire to be a part of.

It seems almost bizarre, but I have witnessed the realization of many small American dreams in this land so far removed--geographically, historically, politically, culturally--from America: unspeakably perfect, warm summer evenings, what seems like the entire population of the city out to enjoy the weather in all its splendor, ice cream vendors on every corner, adorable children happily frolicking in the glory of air that seems tinged with magic, dogs happily chasing each other, parents attending to their newborns, adolescents in the throes of tweenhood bravely forging ahead in their quest to find their place in this world, a sun that seems like it will refuse to set tonight, a world at contented peace. In its own not-entirely-superficial way, the dream of the white picket fence is thriving tonight, and I am fortunate to be, in this moment, surrounded by it.

If this has resulted in an overly romanticized or idealized account of the residents of this place, then so be it. The evening is beautiful beyond compare, and I am in a peaceful and generous mood I have rarely experienced so overflowingly. I am sitting in the Borisova Gradina with the first golden raisins I have tasted in a year, I have given my spare change to beggar and busker alike, the children are flying kites, smiles ablaze on their faces, so far from quarreling that their attendant father must certainly be as contented--for the moment, at least--as I am. It is difficult to be objective about this place or its people when surrounded by so much pleasantness.

I have had a true myriad of experiences with the people of Bulgaria this year, but overall, that body of experience has been decidedly positive. Fulbright is supposed to serve the purpose of cultural integration, understanding, and experience, and I certainly feel like I've accomplished that. I've had a good time here, and it is mostly attributable to the people who have populated my life in the past year. I will leave this place with positive memories of this society, maybe even having learned a few things. In that respect, my purpose here has been fulfilled.

4 comments:

  1. How would I go about finding a person in Bulgaria?

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  2. Hey Nate! I randomly stumbled across your blog while reaching Bulgaria for my upcoming trip. I only read a couple of your posts, but, I must say, I really appreciate all of your insight. I am traveling to Blagoevgrad in May and I absolutely can't wait to experience Bulgaria for myself! If you have any additional tips please send them my way! :)

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    1. Feel free to drop me a line at natewidelitz (at) gmail.com with any questions you might have. Happy to answer them!

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  3. Thanks, Nate! I'll probably have a lot of questions closer to my departure--I appreciate your willingness to help! Have a great day!

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