This was the view I had from my apartment in Sofia, Bulgaria. Not quite the same as College Station, eh? This change in scenery was not the only thing different from my life in Aggieland. Before I departed in May, I decided to read a book on cross-cultural living and came across this interesting quote about people who live in another culture: “They must enter a culture as if they were children.”
Interacting with people of different cultures requires deep humility, and I began to learn this right away. On my first day in Sofia, I sat down for lunch at a restaurant, was handed a Bulgarian menu, and realized I could not order without the help of someone translating for me. I didn’t know anything about the food-what it was called, what it would taste like, if it would make me sick, etc. Something I have always been able to do, order food, I suddenly could not do it on my own. “They must enter a culture as if they were children.” I certainly felt like a child that day, but this experience was a beautiful reminder of the humility I would need to adjust to Bulgarian culture. This was the beginning of numerous learning experiences throughout my trip.
Let me provide a brief overview of how my time was spent in Bulgaria. The majority of the trip was spent in Sofia, the capital city. The team I worked with spent three weekends in a row traveling to different parts of Bulgaria, which I will discuss in more detail later. For the purpose of this report, I will break down my time into three categories: trafficking work, language study, and traveling.
My main purpose for coming was to work with a Bulgarian-registered non-profit named Respect, Empower, Encourage, Flourish (REEF), investigating human trafficking in the country. I did this by researching what anti-trafficking work was already going on in order to strategize how REEF could potentially get more involved in the future. Also, I helped put together resources about trafficking for the REEF website. During my time, I was able to meet with five groups already involved with trafficking, including Bulgarian and American non-profits. These meetings were extremely helpful in learning what anti-trafficking efforts already exist in Bulgaria.
I absolutely love studying other languages, so I was thankful for the opportunity to take Bulgarian lessons in Sofia! Since I am studying Russian at A&M, I have some experience with Slavic langauges which defnitely came in handy. By the end of my time, I was able to listen and understand simple conversations. The best part of studying Bulgarian was getting to know my teacher, Galia. Being a proud Bulgarian and wonderful teacher, she not only taught me about the langauge but also taught me a lot of about Bulgarian culture. This was the Bulgarian person I got to know the best during my time here.
Through our lessons, we were able to learn from each other about our respective worldviews. My favorite memory of Galia was when she came over for dinner and I got to serve her a tex-mex meal of home-made enchiladas!
Although I have done work like this at home, it was very different doing it while being in the middle of the country I am researching. It took much more energy, time, and endurance to do the same amount of work I could accomplish at home. Living in the country I am working with means that I could never fully “unplug” from work. So, the amount of breaks and how I would spend my down time became much more important. This was a valuable lesson to learn about myself, especially since I absolutely want to go back to Eastern Europe and continue working with groups preventing human trafficking.
Additionally, I was able to help REEF with teaching English. This was great in having different activities to engage in, and also helpful in allowing me to think about things other than trafficking. This was another wonderful way to get to know Bulgarians!
My favorite part of my trip was the travel I got to do with my colleagues! On three different weekends, we traveled to Vidin in northwest Bulgaria, Kurdjali in the southeast, and to Veliko Turnovo and Varna. The first two trips were work related. Outside of Sofia, REEF works mainly in agriculture. We traveled to meet with nationals REEF is working with in both areas who are helping REEF connect with small farmers in their respective regions.
Our last weekend trip was to Veliko Turnovo and Varna, which are arguably Bulgarians favorite cities. The first is known for its historical importance because it was the capital of the Second Bulgarian Empire, and the second is known for the beach along the Black Sea.
In these two cities, I got to see all the major tourist sites, such as Tsaravets, an old castle in Veliko Tarnovo and the Cathedral of Assumption in Varna, which ended up being my favorite cathedral in the entire country. Also, I got to eat some great Bulgarian food and enjoy time with my summer roommate.
Overall, I truly enjoyed my time in Bulgaria. It was a fantastic learning experience. I loved being in a different culture-the challenges, joys, & frustrations of it taught me so much about myself.
In addition, I am also grateful for the people I got to know this summer, and it was truly a privilege to work with REEF. The staff has already been here for over three years, and in their time, they have been intentional about learning about the Bulgarian culture. They hope to eventually turn over their projects completely to Bulgarians, and they are working towards this goal by already incorporating Bulgarians into their staff. I am so thankful for the Globetrotter Grant for helping to make this trip possible. Many thanks to the Globetrotter Grant board!