My husband’s grandfather wrote an immigration guide called “Before You Leave for America.” We could have used one in reverse—for moving to Bulgaria.
Moving to a place where no family of ours had lived for years meant there wasn’t an immediate network of relatives to catch us when we landed. With the Covid vaccine still months away, I spent that fall without work, without a friend group, taking long meandering walks through the city. I felt not just lonely, but isolated: I nearly had a breakdown after not being able to communicate with a green grocer, then listening to her joke in Bulgarian with an elderly baba buying a glass jar of milk.
“Everything is harder in Bulgaria,” Ian’s mom told us many times before we left the States. She was supportive, but puzzled. I imagined Shtilian’s reaction: Would he have been shocked to see his grandson choose to leave the US for Bulgaria? What would he have included in a reverse guide? How would it have aligned with our own encounters?
Before you leave for Bulgaria: Learn the Cyrillic alphabet. Pay attention to the characters that are shared by the Latin alphabet but pronounced differently. The letter p now sounds like an r; h is n.
Plenty of Bulgarians speak English, especially if they’re younger than thirty or work with international colleagues. But plenty of people don’t. Enjoying classic food like banitsa, the phyllo-dough-and-brined-white-cheese breakfast pastry, requires ordering in Bulgarian. In front of our building, a typical Soviet-era bloc apartment building that looks like a concrete loaf, there’s a bright-red banitsa stand. Early in our Sofia time, Ian identified himself as Shtilian’s grandson, and the banitsalady immediately launched into an effusive, familiar story entirely in Bulgarian while we nodded without comprehension. Every day after, she would smile and wave her cigarette at us as we walked by, continuing the one-sided conversation that Ian had unintentionally launched.
Before you leave for Bulgaria: Understand that spending what’s perceived as too much money—even if you get a better product or result—will lead some people to think you don’t understand how to navigate the country, where finding creative ways to get a discount is a national sport.
People are confused by our fumbling second-language Bulgarian—why would we learn a language spoken by only seven million people in one country? But they’re more confused that we pay for language lessons. Our perplexed neighbor has more than once offered her teenage son as a free conversation partner so we can save our money. Ian’s mom once told a ticket cashier at a national historic site that we were siblings to get a family rate, emerged proudly with the four (cheaper) tickets, and sternly warned us not to hold hands.
This attitude toward finding ways to save money is connected in part to a distrust in government, where the communist-era mentality of getting things done based on who you know and who can help you navigate the system is still strong.
Before you leave for Bulgaria: Understand the scale of the bureaucracy. Picking up and sending out mail requires going to two different gisheta, or desks, at a neighborhood post office. Claiming a package that’s come through customs is a four-gisheta process.
Understand when you need to ask for help. We knew exactly two people when we landed in Sofia: twins who are the children of Shtilian’s closest friends. In either a frugal Bulgarian move or simply a very foolish one, we didn’t hire an immigration attorney to help with my long-term residence permit. We asked the twins to help us navigate the migration office.
Over the course of the fall of 2020, we got to know the characters: the military guy in the all-caps MIGRATION baseball cap who patrols the line that runs down the sidewalk and asks which gishe you’re there to see; the woman with the long blond hair who silently staples application packets in specific configurations; the woman with rectangular glasses who yelled at me for not having my documents in the correct order.
When my permit was approved and with my national ID card in hand, I was officially allowed to live in Bulgaria year-round. But beyond the state saying I’m allowed to stay, I still have internal questions about how much of Bulgaria is mine to claim. My connection feels both entirely incidental—the person I fell in love with happens to have a family apartment in the country—and entirely personal; after the isolation of our first fall, I’ve carved out a space for myself that no family network could have created for me.
I’ve carved out a space for myself that no family network could have created for me.
At home, we’re creating our own space out of the family apartment as well. Where there were once bookshelves meticulously crammed with books, glassware, and multiple clocks, we’ve started hanging art from Sofia galleries. We have a kitchen equipped with gadgets we purchased new instead of fashioning them from other objects.
But some things remain the same: From the apartment’s living room window, Mount Vitosha still rises on the city’s southern edge even as new glass buildings steadily spring up around the concrete communist-era blocs. And just like we’ve seen in old family photos, we’ve filled the apartment with people, laughing, drinking, dancing.