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Learning to Let Go and Dance in Bulgaria

Home in Smolyan, Bulgaria.
Sunrise over my home for 10 months in Smolyan, Bulgaria.

Four months after my college graduation, I was holding hands with Kalinka (Bulgarian for ladybug) as she led me into the cultural-community center in the small center of Smolyan, a city of 30,000 in the Rhodope Mountains of Bulgaria. She was an older woman, a geography teacher at the foreign language high school where I had been placed, and she brought me each week to her folk dance lessons. We were soon joined by other middle-aged women who arrived still clothed in their work outfits and uniforms, which were soon abandoned for tennis shoes and yoga pants. Hand-in-hand with the women, I tried to keep up. Kalinka, speaking very limited English, counted out the steps for me in English as the instructor counted them out in Bulgarian.

The feeling of “trying to keep up” stuck with me those few months in Bulgaria, where every moment was a new, sometimes startling experience. Such is the trauma and blessing of moving to a country off the beaten track. Bulgaria brings few associations beyond Quidditch star Viktor Krum in the American imagination, so in many ways I felt I was learning about this country from scratch.

Bulgaria in Context: 2,500 years of history

Bulgaria is a verdant country of seven million people, bordered by Turkey and Greece to the south, Macedonia and Serbia to the west, Romania to the north, and the Black Sea to the east. The name of this European country may not ring any bells for most Americans, but its history is interwoven with the world history we know it, often under other names.

In antiquity, the area we now know as Bulgaria was called Thrace. An increase in archeology across Bulgaria has uncovered unique relics from the early Roman and Thracian inhabitants. Evidence of this classical past is seen in the Roman amphitheater still used for concerts in Plovdiv and in the ancient chariots found in graves, still pulled by the skeletons of their entombed horses. The Rhodope Mountains of southern Bulgaria are the mythical birthplace of Orpheus, and statues across the small city of Smolyan celebrate the legendary musician and his tragic lost love, Eurydice. Local legend has it that the cave where he descended into the underworld to bargain with Hades for the return of his love is also located in the Rhodopes, in Trigrad Gorge. Tours of Dyavolsko Garlo, or Devil’s Throat cave, are available to the tourists who come to the gorge for hiking, cave exploration, four wheeling, and zip lining.

Roman theater in Plovdiv, Bulgaria.
Roman theater in Plovdiv.

An influx of Slavs and Bulgars led to a Bulgarian empire distinct from its Byzantine neighbors. This is when Eastern Orthodox Christianity gained favor, and it is still the majority religion in Bulgaria today, eleven centuries later. Over the next several centuries, control was wrested from the Bulgarian nobles by the Byzantine Emperor Basil II, and then re-gained by the Asen dynasty who founded the Second Bulgarian Empire with their capital at Tarnovo, now known as Veliko Tarnovo, a beautiful city whose fortress ruins overlook miles of the river below.

By the end of the 14th century, the Ottoman Empire had subsumed Bulgaria, and would remain in control of the population for half a millennium. I could still feel the bitterness of this injustice of sovereignty in my southern city, one of the last places liberated from Ottoman rule. It was present in the tone of voice used to discuss modern day Turkey, in the place names that referred to tales of death and woe at the hands of Ottomans, in the vehement celebrations of Bulgarian victory and independence.

The narrative of Bulgarian independence won from the mighty empire felt omnipresent, and eclipsed the more recent historical drama of communism. Bulgaria feels less a “state in transition” as time passes, but it is clear that capitalism has not cured all socio-economic ills in the country. Often, the older Bulgarians with whom I spoke shared nostalgia for life under communism: “we weren’t allowed to think, but at least we could eat.” Portraits of Lenin still hang in rural auto shops. To a co-teacher I commented on how cute all the small fruit and vegetable gardens were outside homes and on apartment balconies. People need them to eat, she told me. The unemployment rate in our district was 19%, and had been as high as 40% in the past 15 years. I blushed out of foolishness.

Date Palms Outside of Cairo.
Inside Buzludzha, the abandoned monument and meeting place of the Bulgarian Communist Party, mosaics glorifying socialism have fallen into decay. In this mural, the face of Todor Zhivkov, Communist head of state from 1954-1989, has been removed by vandals.

Tradition and Identity Today

Cathedral of Saint Vissarion of Smolyan, Bulgaria.
Cathedral of Saint Vissarion of Smolyan, an Eastern Orthodox church that opened in 2006.

Years of fluctuating borders and sovereignty has made the development of a specifically Bulgarian identity an important national project. Folk music, dance, costumes, and festivals are still popular parts of life, in a way that may appear to conflict with the striving for modernity, yet do not. Archeological finds of the roman city of Serdika are on display inside Sofia’s metro. High school students learn to play the kaba gaida, a Bulgarian style bagpipe, in lessons after school, the way American students may learn the fiddle. The first day of school each year is a celebration ornamented with national costume dance and music, and at my school, a ritualistic bite of bread flavored with salt and honey consecrates steps across the threshold into the building. The 20th century stress on Balkanization created an environment where distilling and distinguishing national culture was of great importance. It is important for travelers to realize the ways that this process is continuing, as Bulgaria continues to define itself as distinct from Turkey, Greece, and the former Yugoslav republics. Comparison across Balkan states is not taken lightly, and disparagement of any aspect of traditional culture is often taken at great offense.

Surva festival in Pernik, Bulgaria.
Participants in the annual Surva festival in Pernik. Kukeri are traditional mummers that scare away evil spirits in festivals around the country between Christmas and Lent.

Bulgarian Language

With that said, Bulgarian language shares much in common with the languages of other Balkan states. Bulgarian, Macedonian, Serbian, Croatian, and Slovene are often mutually intelligible, though they use different dialects and in some cases different alphabets. They are all South Slavic languages, and their immense similarities make traveling between the countries much easier. However, learning the languages in the first place is a bit of a beast.

As an out of the way location, there are few language learning materials for English speakers to learn Bulgarian. Most I initially found were geared towards teaching tourists key travel-related phrases. Only a couple of resources taught grammar and sentence structure, and for some of these it was most helpful to have some background in Russian language. Bulgarian language is obscure enough that it is not available as a course through Rosetta Stone, or through Duolingo (though crowd-sourcing language lessons may help change this in the near future). The closely related South Slavic languages go unrepresented in these programs as well.

One of the most important things to do before moving to Bulgaria is to learn Bulgarian Cyrillic, particularly if you plan to live outside one of the urban centers. One great way to pick up the language simply involves making your own flash cards in order to provide drills on the sounds associated with each letter. This was my favorite part of the process, as I rediscovered the joy of learning to read and sounding out letters to form words for the first time.

Teaching English in Bulgaria

English is not as common in Bulgaria as it is in Western and Central Europe, but that is quickly changing. In urban centers such as Sofia, Burgas, or Varna, English-speaking tourists will fare just fine. Even in these cities, English is primarily spoken by the younger generations, with usage of the Russian language much more common among the middle-aged and older. Even outside the large cities, foreign language high schools are a popular option for high-achieving students.

Tradition in schools in Bulgaria.
Tradition persists though such greeting rituals.

The Fulbright program took me into its fold with no teaching experience at all. My foreign language high school in Smolyan included students ages 13-19, some of whom traveled long distances from their home villages to attend classes. 420 of these students were learning English, and I had contact with each one of them. I co-taught, which meant different things to each teacher. For some, it meant I taught a lesson on current events or literature while they stayed in the room to keep order. For other teachers, it meant I facilitated activities, listening comprehension, or dialogues from the grammar book. In the 12th grade classes, I taught short writing assignments and CV-writing. So much of the language-learning curriculum was directly tied to books and geared towards the school exit exam, which I was valued largely for the informality I brought to the classroom. For one hour with me each week, students would be challenged to hold conversation and discuss, think on their feet, and translate their thoughts into words in real time. Some classes took to this more naturally than others.

In many Bulgarian schools, a class stays together as a cohort through all of its subjects over the five years of secondary school. With such time and cohesion, the classes themselves seemed like organisms, with the students as cells who knew their place and function within the group. As a teacher in a foreign environment with no teaching experience, it was an intimidating dynamic. On my mid-year evaluations, one teacher suggested I shouldn’t always be hugging the white board, physically as far from the students as I could possibly be. A student suggested a shot of rakia, a Bulgarian fruit brandy, before class might make me less nervous. My fear was showing despite my best intentions. I was freezing up. My fear of failure, and my fear in general, were making me tense, physically and emotionally. In teaching, as in dance, tensing up can keep you from succeeding. In these Bulgarian line dances, the body has to be loose, your shoulders bouncing lightly as you match your footwork to the dancers on either side of you. My classroom required no shoulder bouncing, but even so, my students could tell I was far out of step.

Struggle and Change

Many of these students will leave their small towns to become Bulgarian urbanites, moving to attend university and moving back in much smaller numbers. An astounding number will take advantage of Bulgaria’s EU membership to attend university in the UK, Germany, Austria, or Denmark, among others countries Many of the smaller cities and villages around the country are witness to this wave of migration, with a conspicuous lack of 20-somethings.

The demographics are changing, and so are the politics. 2013 saw an unprecedented outburst of protests over rising energy prices and perceived government corruption, which led to the disbanding of Parliament and a vote for new government officials. Even so, there was not much optimism in the teacher’s lounge that day. The negativity grated against my sense of American optimism, but my supervisor explained they had been through this before and seen so little improvement. The years of transition following the fall of communism were characterized by hope, she explained, but corruption persisted, the poor became poorer, and organized crime syndicates flourished. All hope seems like false hope, now.

Protest in downtown Sofia.
Citizens gather for a protest in downtown Sofia.

My students spoke with a different voice, however. In a class discussion about career aspirations, one girl said she wanted to be president. Others in the class challenged her, asking why she would want to do such a thing. The government is corrupt, it does no good. I want to change things, she said. I will make it better. Other students shared dreams of careers in journalism or medicine, wanting to make things better in their own ways.

Preparing for Bulgaria

It’s hard to tell the ways in which Bulgaria’s population, politics, and economics will change in the coming years, but its participation in the European Union ensures the need for foreign language skills in the generations to come. Teachers (or novices like myself) headed to Bulgaria will find an educational market that values and needs native speakers. While English language teachers are welcome, experienced Bulgarian language teachers can be difficult to find outside the capital. As I mentioned, few materials are available, so it’s best to find the Bulgarian language books you want to have online before traveling to Bulgaria, and then set up language dates with a tutor, or lessons with a teacher if you can find one. Teach Yourself Complete Bulgarian by Michael Holman is a good text to bring.

Beyond language, there are other important ways for a Bulgaria-bound expat to prepare. Learn to cook. If you live far from one of the large supermarkets, you may not have many frozen or prepared foods available to you. Produce in Bulgaria is GMO-free, fresh, and often local at the abundant corner markets. Learning to cook Bulgaria’s unique cuisine, a gastronomic representation of their geographic crossroads between Slavic, Turkic, and Mediterranean cultures, is one of the best ways to augment your own experience to make it richer and more flavorful.

Bachkovo monastery near Asenovgrad.
The view from Bachkovo monastery near Asenovgrad

Bulgaria has all four seasons, beautiful beaches, ski resorts, and hiking trails, so clothing layers, outdoor attire, and a very warm winter coat are must-brings. My hiking boots, though far from fashionable, were put to good use on the mountain trails, and in the winter, my pair of Yaktraks, friction devices for the soles of my shoes, were useful on the treacherous city stairs without railings that iced over in the cold.

Finally, Bulgaria is not only a foreign linguistic and physical environment, but a new psychological environment as well. Reading fiction, history, and memoirs from and about Bulgaria were useful for me to understand yet further the nuances of a new socio-cultural milieu. My recommendations are Solo by Rana Dasgupta, Street Without a Name by Kapka Kassabova, East of the West by Mirolsav Penkov, and Bury Me Standing by Isabel Fonseca.

Before I Let [you] Go

On the last day of classes, my school held a closing ritual much like the one I had witnessed at the opening of the year. A student doing well in his German lessons played the kaba gaida into a microphone. I had run into him several times at the cultural-community center as we went to our separate lessons. A line of girls who had been folk dancing for years were adorned in the red, gold, and green plaid dresses unique to the Rhodope mountains, and led the school, including the principal and the custodians in a line dance on the blacktop courtyard. I still felt like a stranger, but I knew this song, and I knew these steps, and I knew these teenagers now. I learned to let go of my dignity, which is perhaps just a fancy package for shame, and risk looking silly in order to participate in a dance and a language and a place into which I wasn’t born. One of the Bulgarian words I heard the most was spokoino, meaning “take it easy.” I was told so when I tensed up about failing lesson plans, or when frantically trying to find a bus, or when I was rigid while dancing, or when I was stressing out about last-minute changes to schedules. Spokoino transformed from an external admonition to an internal mantra, and a month before I left I had it tattooed on my foot as a personal reminder to relax, that I cannot prepare for everything. I am learning to be less scared of the unknown. On one of my final evaluations, a student wrote: Ariel, I will miss your smile.

Students dancing in Smolyan, Bulgaria.
Students and the principal of Smolyan's foreign language high school dance together during the last-day ceremony for graduating seniors.

For More Information

College students interested in studying abroad in Bulgaria should look at the American University in Bulgaria , the only liberal arts institution in Bulgaria.

Information on the English teaching and scholarship opportunities available to U.S. citizens through the Fulbright program .

Other Opportunities to Teach English

American College of Sofia

Dave’s ESL Café

Other Info About Bulgaria

Tourism Portal for Bulgaria

Sofia News Agency

Volunteer in Bulgaria with CADIP (Canadian Alliance for Development Initiatives and Projects )

Participate in Archeology in Bulgaria through Balkan Heritage Field School .

Ariel Bloomer taught English in Bulgaria for a year through the Fulbright program. She graduated from Scripps College in 2012 with a major in creative writing and minors in European studies and religious studies. She is now living in New York City, where she works in residence life at the School of American Ballet while pursuing a M.A. in Higher Education and Student Affairs at New York University.

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