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Experiences

Abroad in Bulgaria: Week 2

This Week

This past week has been full of nerves about starting classes in a new school in which the topics are completely foreign. Going into these courses about Bulgarian and European Union politics, economy, and language, it seems as if all other students already have a deeper understanding of the topics at hand. Though the courses are all taught in English, in many cases, I am the only student from the States in the class. The grading system at the American University in Bulgaria also is completely different from most state universities: for the majority of courses, the midterms and final exams make up 60 percent of the final grade or more. This has definitely been intimidating and would take some time getting used to if I wasn’t here for only a semester. With that being said, most of the professors here are so excited to teach and are very open about resources to help students which is so encouraging. I’ve found that it is not just the student population that is made up of over 40 countries, but it seems that this applies to professors as well. Of the 5 classes I’m taking, only two professors are Bulgarian. The other three are from Belgium, the U.S., and Australia. This is also a challenge at times, especially when I have to attend classes online once a week, but it is so interesting to experience and hear about different cultures in my day-to-day life. My favorite part of academics so far is learning the Cyrillic alphabet, which at times makes me feel like I’m in kindergarten, but it is far easier than I expected. Even on my last trip to the supermarket, “Kaufland”(quite literally meaning a place to buy), I challenged myself to read the signs for drinks, home appliances, and bakery. Academics are definitely going to be the hardest challenge of studying abroad, but I am so excited to learn content that I likely won’t learn otherwise. 

Culture Shocks

I previously mentioned how many of the culture shocks I’ve experienced have been more inconvenient than shocking, and that has been more true this week than last. I’ve heard from countless people that efficiency is not the main incentive in Bulgaria, which is overwhelmingly apparent with the food industry. Since I’ve arrived, I have not seen anyone write down an order; servers bring out the food plate by plate based on when it is ready rather than all at once; you cannot split checks by person; you also cannot use credit or debit cards at the majority of restaurants. This is quite a bit different than the States and definitely came as a surprise: the first time we asked to split checks, the server seemed completely baffled by what we were asking as if they’d never heard of this before. Coming into this trip, I was aware that Bulgaria has an overwhelming cash economy, but I did not truly understand what that meant until I arrived and attempted to use a card. 

One other thing that is very rare here is tap water at restaurants. In fact, it is difficult to find any water that isn’t bottled in general. The residence halls, academic buildings, and canteen don’t have water fountains, you cannot get tap water at restaurants, and when you ask for still water, it will always come in a bottle. Additionally, there is no recycling in Bulgaria, or at least on campus and in Blagoevgrad, so this has been an ethical challenge as well as a general inconvenience. Luckily, I’ve found two small water coolers in buildings across campus so I’ve been able to reduce the number of plastic bottles that I use, but trekking to get water before bed or after waking up takes an unnecessary amount of effort and time. I haven’t figured out why there is no recycling process here, but I am interested to see if there are any plans to do so in the future.

New Experiences

One of the most surprising experiences I had this week was the social and night life of Bulgaria. At home, the majority of nightlife consists of house parties or going to bars that close around midnight. So far in Blagoevgrad, going out means going to the disco. There are a plethora of clubs in this area: some of which are directly targeted at students, some which play only American music, and many that play pop-chalga which is a twist on traditional Bulgarian folk music. Not only are these discos the most popular places on the weekends, but if you go out before 12:30 am and leave before 4 am, locals are surprised and will be able to tell that you’re American. Clubs also hold specific nights for the AUBG students where the drinks are slightly cheaper and the music is more popular. The only downfall, in my opinion, is that these nights are on Mondays and Thursdays which I still cannot make sense of. Either way, the general social life here is lively, exciting, and you always have the guarantee to meet new people.

One of the strangest things I’ve encountered this week is the laundry at the university. I’m not sure if this is a common thing in European countries, but at least at AUBG, doing laundry consists of dropping off a bag of dirty laundry with the laundry staff, waiting for three or four hours, and picking up a clean bag of folded laundry. To me, it seems completely strange to drop off dirty laundry with strangers for them to clean and fold, but many of the full-time students here don’t think much about it. However, I was honestly impressed that they didn’t lose one of my socks among the piles of laundry. Again, this is just something that I’ll get used to throughout my time here. 

Currently

This upcoming week will be full of homework for my classes: quizzes, one fairly big paper, and an abundance of reading. As I tackle these assignments, my friends and I are planning for our upcoming trip to Sofia. About an hour away from campus, Sofia is the capital of Bulgaria and is filled with history of Eastern Europe. I am looking forward to all Sofia has to offer including beautiful churches and incredible food. We’ll be taking the bus there and back which is a total of about $12, and staying in an Airbnb in Old Town Sofia. This week will be unbelievably busy but I am so excited for all of the new Bulgarian culture I will experience. 

Claire Shaw

U Maine '23

Claire is currently a third-year honors student with a political science major and a legal studies minor attending the University of Maine. Born and raised on Mount Desert Island, Maine, she loves the outdoors as well as being involved in her community. She also enjoys singing, reading, and playing disc golf!
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