Living conditions and volunteer lifestyles in Bulgaria
From Peace Corps Wiki
Few countries in the world offer the level of mail service considered normal in the United States. If you expect U.S. standards for mail service, you will be in for some frustration. Mail sent via airmail takes three to four weeks, and packages sent by surface mail take from two to six months. Some mail may simply not arrive (fortunately, this is not a frequent occurrence, but it does happen). Packages and letters arriving in Bulgaria are often checked by officials for dangerous items and sometimes for money or expensive items as well. The inspectors usually reseal the packages and letters and send them on, but some may never arrive at their destination. Advise your family and friends to number their letters and include “Airmail” on their envelopes. (For letters, we recommend global airmail, available at U.S. post offices.)
It is also advisable to have your mail addressed to you in both Cyrillic and Latin script. While this is not necessary, it does make Bulgarian postal handlers less suspicious of incoming mail. We don’t recommend that your friends and family declare large values for packages sent or insure them, as you may need to pay a tax to release packages of considerable value from customs.
Despite these challenges, we encourage you to write to your family regularly (snail mail or email) and to number your own written letters. It is a good idea to advise family members that mail is sporadic and that they should not worry if they do not receive your letters regularly. Also advise them that in the case of a family emergency, they should contact the Peace Corps’ Office of Special Services in Washington, D.C.
After pre-service training, you will become a Volunteer and move to your site. Mail should then be addressed directly to you at your new residence. You can provide this information to family and friends toward the end of training prior to moving to your site. If your residence does not provide for a secure or private mailbox, it may be better to have your personal mail sent to you at your work address.
Bulgarian postal and customs regulations for packages make it very impractical and expensive to receive anything except letter mail during training. Tell family and friends that they should NOT send packages until after you have completed training and are at your assigned site. At that time, you will be better able to assess what things from home you really need and how best to have them sent.
Your apartment may or may not have a landline telephone— many don’t. For in-country calling, most Volunteers use mobile phones, which they purchase themselves. However, fees associated with mobile phones are high and most Volunteers find that talking for long periods of time on the phone is out of their budget. Instead, Volunteers (and most Bulgarians) generally rely heavily on text messaging from cellphones for a small fee. All of the major Bulgarian cellular service providers also offer free text messaging from the Internet, allowing Volunteers to send quick messages free of charge.
Standard long-distance telephone service is available but expensive. If you are calling on a landline from outside the capital, it may take longer to get a connection. Some calling cards from the United States (e.g., those issued by AT&T, MCI, and Sprint) can be used to call the United States. However, these cards will not give you access to other countries because of a phone block in Bulgaria.
Many Volunteers feel that the best method of calling the
U.S. is to do so at an Internet club. Internet clubs often have phone booths where you can call internationally for mere cents per minute. Another cheap option is to use voice-over Internet protocol programs such as Skype or VOIPStunt from a computer. Even if you do not have a computer or a home Internet connection, most towns have Internet clubs where you can use these programs.
If these options are not available in your town, you can make international calls from a local public telephone or post office. The country code for Bulgaria is 359 for family and friends calling from the U.S.
Computer, Internet, and E-mail Access
Some, but not all, Volunteers have access to computers at their work sites, which may or may not have Internet and e-mail capabilities. Work site equipment is intended to be used primarily for work-related activities, and you should not assume that it can be used for personal purposes. Internet and e-mail access is becoming more widely available throughout Bulgaria, and Internet cafes can be found in most towns, although they are generally not found in the rural villages. While it is likely you will have Internet access not far from your site, you should not assume that you will have constant email access.
If you bring a laptop computer, the Peace Corps does not provide e-mail accounts or technical and repair support. While many Volunteers find computers extremely useful, the Peace Corps does not consider them to be essential and cannot replace them in the case of loss or theft. If you do bring computer equipment, insurance is highly recommended.
Housing and Site Location
Housing is generally provided by a Volunteer’s sponsoring organization. Most Volunteers live in a modest studio or one-bedroom apartment with plumbing, heating, and electricity. The range of available housing may vary greatly between Volunteers and sites. If you live in a town or city, you will likely live in an apartment in a communist-style housing “block,” that, from the exterior, resembles the high-rises in public housing projects in U.S. cities.
Volunteers assigned to smaller communities should be prepared for the possibility that they may live in a private room in the home of a Bulgarian family. This can offer huge advantages in terms of being accepted into a local family and being “taken care of.” Note that Bulgarian standards of privacy differ from those in the U.S. It is also common that landlords may leave some of their personal items in an apartment that they are renting out.
Your heat source could be either one or more portable heaters, central heat, or wood-burning stoves in some rural areas. Heat and electricity are very expensive, and Bulgarians usually only heat the room they are currently in. They usually only turn on their hot water boiler when they are planning to take a shower. Expect for it to be cold inside during the winter, and for it to be very hot during the summer. Indoor climate control concepts differ from what you are likely used to in the U.S.
The Peace Corps staff uses an involved and thorough process to identify Volunteers’ host organizations and towns. Potential host organizations fill out an in-depth application in which they state their reasons for wanting to work with a Volunteer, their organizational goals, how they see a Volunteer fitting into their organization, what specific work the Volunteer will assist with, desired skills, and available resources. Staff visits each site and discusses these items with the potential hosts, and ultimately uses a methodical system of evaluating potential sites based on their strengths and the potential for a Volunteer to be successful at those sites.
Toward the middle of your 11-week pre-service training (PST), the Peace Corps office and training staff match trainees and sites, and trainees learn where they will live and work for the next two years. Education, professional experience, and level of Bulgarian language ability are considered in matching individual Volunteers’ skills with the needs of each site. Volunteers should be prepared to serve in any region of Bulgaria.
Living Allowance and Money Management
You will receive a monthly living allowance that will enable you to maintain a modest lifestyle similar to that of your host community counterpart. This allowance will be deposited in your bank account every month by Peace Corps/Bulgaria. It is intended to cover food, household supplies, local transportation, recreation, entertainment, and incidental expenses such as postage, film, reading material, stationery, and toiletries. In most cases, rent and utilities are paid by the sponsoring organization, but the Peace Corps assists with these expenses in some circumstances.
Most Volunteers in Bulgaria find their living allowance to be sufficient for their needs, as long as they live a frugal lifestyle. The lifestyle you adopt while serving in Bulgaria will determine how far your living allowance goes. These days in Bulgaria, there are many things to spend money on, and if you choose to eat daily in restaurants, travel a significant portion of your weekends, and buy imported food and toiletries, your living allowance likely will not last through each month. You may also have a harder time becoming a part of your community if you live at a higher level than the average Bulgarian. If you adopt a more typical Bulgarian lifestyle, cook frequently, and choose primarily from the ample selections of local goods, your living allowance should be more than adequate. It is important to live at the same economic level as your Bulgarian counterparts.
Food and Diet
It is possible to eat a very healthy and natural diet in Bulgaria, if you prepare many of your own meals and use local foods. Larger towns and cities offer many of the same basic staples that you can find in the United States, with the exception of pre-prepared and instant foods. Volunteers in smaller towns sometimes experience shortages of certain items, especially in the winter, but there is typically an ample food supply if you are flexible about cooking with what is currently available. If you live in a small village, you may choose to occasionally shop in larger towns in your region, to fill in your food supplies and get items unavailable at your site.
Grilled meat and potatoes or salads best capture the essence of Bulgarian cuisine. Meals served in a family setting are heavy, oily, filling, and take hours to finish (after a big Bulgarian meal, you may have to lie down and rest a while!). Many dishes are overly salty by American standards and Bulgarians cook with lots of sunflower oil. Pork and chicken are the most popular meats—served roasted, breaded and fried, or grilled. The selection of seafood is limited, and it is advisable to refrain from eating it unless you know its origin. Seafood from the Danube or the Black Sea should generally not be eaten, while trout from mountain streams and fish raised on farms is generally safe to eat.
Vegetarians may get weary of eating breaded cheese, fried potatoes, or salad every time they go out for a meal or visit Bulgarian friends, but the abundance and low prices of wonderful fresh fruits and vegetables in season make it possible to prepare delicious meals at home. Prices of produce fluctuate greatly according to the season. Peppers, tomatoes, cucumbers, potatoes, cabbages, eggplants, zucchinis, and carrots are almost always available. However, in the winter, depending on your community, you may have to rely mostly on potatoes, cabbages, carrots, dried beans, and canned items. Locally-grown fruits are available from late spring to late fall. During the winter, you may have to make do with canned fruits and fruit juice and imported fruits such as bananas, apples, and oranges.
Cereal and grains are available, although breakfast cereals can be expensive, as Bulgarians typically do not eat cereal for breakfast. The typical Bulgarian breakfast is “banitza” a delicious pastry made from filo dough and cheese—which is made fresh daily in most towns and villages and costs around 35 cents. Bulgarians eat bread with every meal, and even the smallest town has a place where you can buy freshly-baked bread on a daily basis. Rice, pasta, and all-purpose white flour can also be purchased easily, but you will have to search extensively for whole-wheat flour. Various types of beans are widely available, and lentils are widely used. Dried soybean product was used in the past as a cheaper substitute for meat, and is available in specialty stores in the larger towns and cities. Boxed, long-life pasteurized milk is readily available. Milk packaged in plastic bags is not pasteurized and should be boiled before drinking. The two types of local cheese are delicious and always available. Imported cheese is also available but expensive. Bulgarian yogurt, made primarily from cow and sheep milk, is a staple of the Bulgarian, and is well-known world wide.
A cookbook of recipes to help you make the most of products available in Bulgaria will be given to you during training. You will be making a lot of things from scratch here, and if you do not already know how to cook, you will learn. Don’t worry, before long you will be sharing your favorite recipes with other Volunteers.
Bulgaria has a large network of bus and train routes, which makes it possible to travel to practically all destinations by public transportation. Many Volunteers have experienced thefts while traveling, however, so you must be vigilant in protecting your valuables while using public transportation. Traveling on trams in Sofia requires extra vigilance.
When traveling on trains, it is best to travel in a compartment with a baba (grandmother) as a protection against crime. If possible, put your heavier baggage on the shelf above your head (not above someone else’s) so that you will notice if someone tries to take it down. Put smaller luggage underneath your feet. Although people may warn you against this (a Bulgarian superstition says you will lose money), it is a relatively safe option.
Geography and Climate
Bulgaria is located in the Balkan Peninsula in southeastern Europe. The country is bordered by the Black Sea in the east, Turkey and Greece in the south, Macedonia and Serbia in the west, and Romania in the north. Although slightly larger than Tennessee, Bulgaria stands out as a land of great geographic and environmental diversity. The average elevation is 480 meters (1,584 feet) above sea level.
The country has four major geographic regions. The most northerly is the Danube plateau, which rises from the shores of the Danube River to the foothills in the east. Its climate is continental, with hot summers and cold winters. The second region is the Balkan Mountains (or “Old Mountains” to the Bulgarians), which extends across the center of the country and blocks cold winds from the plains of Russia. The third region, the valley drained by the Maritsa River in the south, has a Mediterranean climate with mild, rainy winters and warm, dry summers. South of the Maritsa Valley is the fourth region, the Rhodope Mountains, which forms the border between Bulgaria and Greece.
Bulgaria has a Mediterranean climate with four distinct seasons. As in the United States, weather patterns have been changing in recent years, so it is difficult to describe a “typical” year. Spring generally brings frequent rain. Spring and fall are temperate and feature beautiful flora. Summer temperatures average about 75 degrees Fahrenheit (24 degrees Celsius); but in July and August, they can reach the 90- to 100-degree Fahrenheit range for a two-week period or longer. The highlands in the northeast are cooler than the more Mediterranean climate of the southwest. Bulgaria can get cold and gray in the winter, with temperatures averaging around 32 degrees Fahrenheit (0 degrees Celsius).
There will be times when you get bored and lonely. Available activities sometimes will seem uninteresting or “cheesy.”
There are a multitude of activities you can explore, however, if you are open to trying new activities that you may have not previously thought of as social/recreational activities. You may find out that you enjoy hanging out with the local babas (grandmothers) and learning to can food, that you get used to spending hours on end at a local coffee shop (this is likely to be the most popular social activity in your town!), and that you are not comfortable spending much time at the local disco, as it may be full of your high school students. The trick is to find things that give you satisfaction and enjoyment. It is up to you to make the most of your leisure time, and there is plenty to do if you just go out and look for it.
Bulgaria has museums, concerts, town festivals, theaters, athletic events, hot springs, outdoor markets, historical and ethnographic centers, coffee shops, bars, discos, and cinemas (in bigger towns and cities) for you to enjoy. The most recently released American films are shown in English with Bulgarian subtitles but are usually dubbed by the time they make it to the video rental shops.
Bulgaria boasts some of the most magnificent natural areas in Eastern Europe, with a great diversity of flora and fauna. Opportunities for outdoor recreation include hiking, camping, rock climbing, and birdwatching. Many of the towns in mountain regions have local hiking clubs. During the winter, Bulgarian ski resorts attract skiers from the United Kingdom, Germany, Russia, and the Nordic countries.
Professionalism, Dress, and Behavior
One of the difficulties of finding your place as a Peace Corps Volunteer is fitting into the local culture while maintaining your own cultural identity and acting like a professional all at the same time. It is not an easy thing to do successfully, and we can only provide you with guidelines. As a representative of a Bulgarian organization, you will be expected to dress and behave accordingly. “Business casual” is the catchall term for appropriate professional attire as a Volunteer in Bulgaria.
Bulgarians dress very stylishly and take great pride in their appearance. They commonly, however, only have a few outfits that they wear repeatedly. While there is no hard-and-fast rule, a foreigner who wears ragged or dirty clothing is likely to be considered disrespectful and possibly unreliable. Improper attire creates difficulties in gaining the respect and acceptance of your Bulgarian colleagues. At the same time, Volunteers who outdress the Bulgarians they work with may find they have difficulty fitting in. In general, Volunteers should dress to match their colleagues. Sometimes this can mean nice jeans and a casual, button-up shirt; other times this can mean wearing a tie daily. In an ethnic Bulgarian community, colorful and stylish attire is likely very appropriate, while in some minority communities, more modest dress is important. Keep in mind that you can purchase most clothing you would want for day-to-day use for reasonable prices throughout Bulgaria, so you may want to bring minimal clothing from the U.S.
You will also have semi-regular occasions to dress up for weddings and other special events, so bring some more formal attire in addition to professional clothes for everyday wear in the office or classroom. Casual clothes like jeans, shorts, T-shirts, and tank tops are also appropriate in some situations, but almost always outside of the professional environment.
More detailed information about the Peace Corps’ approach to safety is contained in the Health Care and Safety chapter, but it is an important issue and cannot be overemphasized. As stated in the Volunteer Handbook, becoming a Peace Corps Volunteer entails certain safety risks. Living and traveling in an unfamiliar environment (oftentimes alone), having a limited understanding of local language and culture, and being perceived as well-off are some of the factors that can put a Volunteer at risk. Many Volunteers experience varying degrees of unwanted attention and harassment. Petty thefts and burglaries are not uncommon; Volunteers may be at the highest risk for pickpocketing when they are in cities with other Volunteers and are speaking English on the street. It is obvious then that they are foreigners, and they are less attentive because they are distracted by conversation. Incidents of physical and sexual assault do occur, although most Bulgaria Volunteers complete their two years of service without personal security incidents. The Peace Corps has established procedures and policies designed to help you reduce your risks and enhance your safety and security. These procedures and policies, in addition to safety training, will be provided once you arrive in Bulgaria. At the same time, you are expected to take responsibility for your safety and well being.
Rewards and Frustrations
Volunteers in Bulgaria must demonstrate a great deal of flexibility, patience, and maturity. Counterparts may sometimes feel threatened by your different methods, your energy, and your drive to work. When you first arrive at your site, you will need to focus on building relationships and gaining the trust of your colleagues and community. Then, you will be in a much stronger position to get things done. Many Volunteers find that once they are accepted by a community, they are “in” and are both embraced the their communities and are well-respected. It takes considerable time and effort to get to this point. Although earlier groups of Volunteers in Bulgaria have made the Peace Corps known to many in the community, you may have to explain your role as a development worker. The concept of volunteerism is a bit odd to most Bulgarians. In spite of your modest stipend, you may be perceived as a rich foreigner. You should expect frequent and lengthy delays in almost everything you are engaged in.
All Volunteers are expected to be highly motivated and proactive, flexible, professional, and committed to the Peace Corps’ ideals and goals. The Peace Corps staff and current Volunteers take their commitment to serve the people of Bulgaria seriously. We invite you to join us in this effort, but only if you are confident that you can commit yourself to completing your two-year assignment.
Because of the many economic and political difficulties and changes Bulgaria faces, the atmosphere in the country is one of uncertainty. The changes occurring in Bulgaria today are some of the most significant in its history, and Bulgarians from all walks of life are sacrificing time and comfort to make a new Bulgaria, that is part of the global world. Being a part of this historic moment in Europe should be both fascinating and immensely satisfying to any Volunteer who is willing to work hard and give generously of his or her time.