Remote Year Month 3: Bulgaria

Where no means yes

People don’t talk much about Bulgaria. Perhaps because “Bulgaria” sounds like a bad rash or a rogue STD. But I loved it. After being a little bit slapped around by life in Morocco, Bulgaria welcomed me with open arms.

Sofia, the capital, is a quaint, bustling city with a beautiful mountain backdrop. In the center lies Vitosha Street, a long pedestrian road (something I think every town should have) lined with shops, bars, and restaurants. And in the background lies Vitosha Mountain, great for hiking and skiing just outside the city center.

Sofia is home to immense parks and beautiful buildings that tell the tales of its storied past. At the metro station near my apartment, there are ancient ruins of Serdica, a major city in the ancient Roman empire (Bulgaria borders Greece, look at a map).

Bars and restaurants in Sofia are often set in old homes and other crafted and cozy environments. They serve strong drinks, fresh vegetables, and cheese with almost every dish. For nightlife, there are clubs, cocktail bars, and warehouse parties.

I’ve always wanted to be a “regular” somewhere. To have that bar or restaurant where they know me. But I never thought it would happen for the first time in Sofia, Bulgaria.

By the end of the month, the guys at Rainbow Factory, the café near our co-working space, knew me and could anticipate my order. I got the best sandwich and salad combination of my life (grilled focaccia with tandoori chicken and balsamic plus a pear and goat cheese salad) for just $5 USD.

Did I mention how cheap Bulgaria is? The average annual salary in Bulgaria is just $5,800 so even life in the “big city” is incredibly affordable.

Sofia is also a great jumping off place for side trips.

We did an incredible hike to see the 7 Rila lakes, we visited a cabin in the mountains and rode horses with a man who can shoot bow & arrow while standing horseback.

We took a quick trip to Greece where we visited the Acropolis and spent a day renting scooters on a nearby island.

And naturally, 48 of us took what ended up being a 16 hour bus ride to a party at Dracula’s castle in Transylvania for Halloween. It was an aggressively “Remote Year” thing to do, but the party was amazing and Romania had some of the most beautiful countryside I’ve ever seen.

The elephant in the room is Bulgaria’s harrowing communist history. On the “Communist Tour” I learned of the country’s doom & gloom past where every story ends with “….and then they were murdered.”

Having been in the Communist Bloc until the Berlin wall fell in 1989, the aftermath of communism still lingers.

Locals are trying to ditch the dreary reputation. Everything is called “Happy” Café or “Sunshine Restaurant” (See: Rainbow Factory, above) in a very “Hey look, we’re not communist!” kind of way.

But there are still clear signs that you’re not in Kansas. Bulgaria uses the Cyrillic alphabet which was ostensibly designed to confuse English speakers.

And in Bulgaria, nodding means “no” while shaking your head side-to-side means yes. When you’re in a foreign country where you can’t speak the language or read the alphabet, usually gestures are the one thing you can count on. Not here. And no matter how much you “know” that shaking your head means yes, you still end up accidentally agreeing to random things.

Probably the must surprising reminder that you are in Eastern Europe is when you see moms pull their kids’ pants down and hold them over trees, dumpsters or drains so they can pee. It gets me every time.

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