A Bulgarian Holiday, Heaven or Hell?

This weekend we went on a family weekend outing to the Black Sea Coast. By the time we got back I reflected on what was a typical Bulgarian experience. The moments that came and went convinced me totally that for foreign tourist with expectations of a luxury holiday could think again about coming here for one.

It was a Friday afternoon as the whole of Galia's family and a couple of friends made our way to a place called Cherno Morets about 20 kilometres south of Burgas. Earlier that day I had made a 70 kilometre round trip to the Skalitsa Farmhouse to get the big tent and blow up beds that we were going to spend the next two nights in. Yes, it was planned to be a weekend on a budget, the cost of a basic one-room chalet we were going to book originally was 7 leva per person, per night, far too expensive for our Bulgarian family.

Just before we left the camping equipment was stored in the garage, there had been a change of plan, another one room chalet cheaper was available at 6 leva per person per night and this was now reserved.

Three cars, my Lada being oldest and having the most character, took to the road, ten passengers all told. We decided that the low road was to be taken to Cherno Morets, as too many mad Mafia driven cars was a far too dangerous option on the Sofia Burgas main highway. So, with the Lada's one speaker semi-stereo radio blaring out Bulgarian chalga and pop folk we merrily chugged along in convey.

On this minor road, there were two thing to put up with, Mafia idiot drivers who had the same idea as us, to take the low road with less traffic and, shake rattle and roll on the roads that hadn't had yearly repairs done yet. It was very nervy driving but this Bulgarian family are well used to roads like this and not one complaint was made regarding this. It was only the sole English Lada driver commenting on how dangerous this was but the reply was always, 'No problem, just go slow and take it easy.'

After a halfway we stopped for a leak in the woods, a quick drink and a hand and face wash from natural spring water that was source at the bottom of a valley, which only the Bulgarians know about. We got there after a bumpy two-hour drive and were quite relieved at this point to get off the road.

It was found that there was a 3 leva fee for parking so we parked outside the camping grounds, right next to the ticket office. It's funny how the officials just don't care about us doing this as they waved in acknowledgment of our prudence. After all, they would have done exactly the same thing being Bulgarian.

The camping site was heaving with Bulgarians, not one foreigner in sight. Nine out of ten of the cars had Sofia number plates and nine out of ten of those Sofia registered cars were black and white. A further nine out of ten of those black Sofia registered cars were 4 x 4 monsters. One hundred percent of the owners of these cars had shaven heads pot bells and were of course Bulgarians! If they can afford cars like that, I thought, why the hell are they camping here? This thought stayed with me the whole weekend as the secrets of real Bulgarian camping on a one star camping site took a reality check.

In typically Bulgarian style the registration required us to fill in a document and hand over our Lichna Cartes. The details that had to be filled in on these forms were more than comprehensive; it took one hour for the forms to be completed and identities checked. No one complained, this was normal and to be expected. I just kept my own impatience suppressed, if no one else complained why should I? The thoughts about Brits, including myself a couple of years ago, took on another level of thinking; they'd be out of this place by now just with the procedure of booking.

We finally got to see our chalet and this is where the more than interesting Bulgarian holiday adventure started. We were number twenty as the line of chalets was passed it was obvious that these 'chalets' were just knocked up garden sheds but more was in store here.

In the front of the chalet was a seating area; this was filled with an estate car from the residents of the chalet next door. I was the only one angry with this, but when I complained the feedback was, we didn't have a car to park what's the problem? Such a fuss over nothing was the verdict given to me. We weren't going to use the area, so again, what's the problem? I wish I could think like they do and lose anger over situation like this, typical English territorial attitude.

The key fitted the chalet door lock but that was the only thing that worked apart from the beds. The veranda, made from wood panels was quite insecure with three of the wooden panels missing. This meant that you had to step over a gapping hole that reveals the sand based floor one metre below. It was a certain fact that sober Bulgarians as well as drunken ones would fall into this trap at some point during this weekend.

The door only opens to half a metre for two reasons. The fragmented washing line was strung across the face of the door and had to be lifted each time the door was opened and the fact that the door had dropped on its hinges and dragged and scraped itself to a halt after the half metre opening. Not only that, but nails were sticking out of the veranda planks like some torture apparatus. So if the door could opened wider it would be halted a few centimetres further with the door stop protruding nails; say nothing of impaling bare feet! Again a little laughter was made regarding this from the Bulgarian company, no complaints just amusement.

We peered inside after squeezing through the less than half opened door, the was a window at the other end for the room, this didn't shut and the plastic fly screen net that looks like it had had a chair thrown at it. It was ripped through and might as well have not been there with the hole that was gaping at us. The thought of mosquitoes during the night now took hold plus the fact that Bulgarians don't bother with anti-mosquito sprays, they just accept that mosquitoes bite for a living and let them get on with it. The trouble is mystiques faced with the choice of a Bulgarian or me for dinner; it's me that always the first choice on the menu!

Looking back at the door, not only did it not open properly, it didn't close either. The drop was such that the door just slammed against the bottom frame. Fortunately could lock but only because the locking metal block caught on the door frame, not the metal bracket it was designed to slot into! On the other side was a gap of at least 10 cm between the door and the frame. Privacy therefore was at a minimum here as passers by could see through the gap; we were a showcase on view for all passers by, especially with the indoor light on at night!

The four occupants, Galia her son, his girlfriend and I had to change clothes in the one room without any form of cloaking out bodies. All was revealed to everyone as no qualms of showing off our body’s entire incidental to getting changed! This was very different to any thing I had known before as I had been brought up on bodily privacy to others, even family! When I say all is bared that is exactly what I meant! No hiding place for anything but all done like it was normal. After a couple of times it was not even thought about as the frequent changing of clothes for different events, (normal in Bulgaria) took place without any embarrassment. This was a big learning curve for me to accepting this in normal with a grown up adult Bulgarian family.

The were two sets of bunk beds, both home made it was so obvious, no shop, even in Bulgaria would sell these beds and make a sale, besides it's the Bulgarian way to make not buy, especially in a one star camping site.

Next step was the communal toilets and showers, what did we expect to find here? Exactly what we expected a run down shed with geminately wet muddy floors that where skating rinks with flip-flops. The showers did have hot water but only if the sum shone on that day. On Sunday there was only cold water and all morning as it was overcast. There was also an added bonus with no water as the whole camping site was cut off for 6 hours. This might be a conspiracy for shops to sell more bottles water I guess.

Back to campsite toilets, the less said the better a the flushing systems didn't work, they were just sucked clean every morning with an industrial vacuum system, needless to say the best time to go to the toilet is before midday. Sitting down any later than that and you risk 'contact'. Part of the problem is the toilet paper (which naturally you have to supply and pay for so soiled newspapers originally in black and white now in colour spread form were a common sight) this is put down the basin and not in the stained plastic bucket placed by the side for that purpose. The bucket was used as target practice instead. On talking to the women of the party, the women's toilets were in the same or worse state than the men’s what with the extra accessories that women use!

It's quite amazing considering the torrid living conditions on this camp site, yet looking at these Bulgarians, they turn out immaculately presented, especially the women! It is often the case of fierce competition into who can get away with wearing the least material; mind you it was hot this weekend.

The restaurant we went to in the evening, and there were only about three to choose from, was a self-service joint. The owners were friends from Yambol and we got preferential service but it still took one hour to get from ordering after queuing to actually eating at the table. We brought out own home distilled rakia and soft drinks to save on cost, the Yambolian owners even put them in the fridge for us to keep cool as being Bulgarian and friends, they knew where we were coming from.

We ate drunk talked until the early hours of the morning and then moved into the night scene with a beach bar and the drinking and talking carried on but now with dance as part of the activities. All ages here! There were all Bulgarians here, not a foreigner in sight all evening. There are no inhibitions here as actual sex was happening all around the dancing and partying on the sandy floor. It all seemed a normal thing as no comments were or motions of offence made, everyone was just partying the Bulgarian way.

This was all new to me and the inbuilt English self conscious culture I'd been brought up on was of was now beginning to drop as the morning wound on. It was a steep learning curve as the women of the party went to bed to leave the men of the party to drink and dance on for no other reason other than to enjoy ourselves, something that I had apparently was missed until coming to Bulgaria.

Did I have a hangover the next day? Indeed, yes as I went for a shower before the cleaners had got there. And yes the toilets were in filthy state, but unlike old England after a night out there was no sign of sick anywhere to be seen! Much drinking had been made, but not to extremes or for the sake of getting drunk just to fuel the party mood. That was the strangest thing about this morning not seeing or having to smell alcohol-ridden puck.

It is quite uncanny that we knew lots of people here from Yambol, but they weren't on holiday they were here to work. Being Bulgarian they always had tie to talk to us even though they were working. After the season ends they go back to Yambol and work in their home town again or back to school or college. This is their holiday, work. But Bulgarian work isn't like work it is just enduring time for the most. Yes there are busy periods but for the main it is just sitting and talking with other working colleagues. The pay here in the Black Sea Coast is the big bonus, double or triple the money they would earn in Yambol and on the big 'posh' Black Sea resorts four or five times the wages plus tips from mostly foreign based tourists.

The Sunday, as mentioned earlier, there was no water and the only shower to be had was a cold one with no sun that morning. Breakfast was a major problem; well for me it was anyway. There must be two to three thousand Bulgarian holidaymakers here in this campsite and only one shop that sell banitsa, Bulgaria’s favourite breakfast. The queuing started at 10:00 and we got our banitsas at 11:30! What western European would put up with that? Again the comments of 'no problem, 'normal' and 'what's the rush' was made as I showed a slight impatience for what I thought was good reason. Waiting in lines queuing is a national institution that is accepted without quibble here, something I used to have major problems getting used to but because I am in a Bulgarian family now it is becoming much clearer that there is no point in getting frustrated and mad, it just doesn't help.

The worse thing about queuing in Bulgaria is that it is not a queue; the waiting isn't the most frustrating thing but the lack of order in the queue. There is a deep-rooted unfairness in Bulgarian queuing systems. Pushing is not the right way to describe the way Bulgarians queue, it's more of a 'Here's a space I'll fill it up’ factor about it. It's their thought that the space shouldn't be wasted regardless of where they get ahead of others that were there before them. There isn’t even any evil eye look towards the people who do this! These tolerant Bulgarians keep telling me, 'Getting angry because of waiting is bad for your health.' Just take it easy our turn will come eventually, my argument is we'll never get a turn if other step in front of us each time but that's normal here.

Living with Bulgarians is slowly telling me to move down a gear or two. Without doing this, dealing with things here would be hard or near on impossible as things stand. The totally different historical moulding has produced very different ways of dealing with things here the way they are. I can fully understand why so many other Brits come here and fail to deal with systems and attitudes here causing them to live an isolated life in Bulgaria and an external part of the community. I'm lucky to be helped and supported by my adopted Bulgarian family into understanding how they think and react. Also now, they are beginning to understand me in how I think and react as my communication improves with them.

'No problem' was quoted so many times this weekend that the impact from it now is totally lost. In the Black sea swimming and coming across jellyfish, 'No problem!' was the quote. 30 minutes later, the jellyfish stung three out of the five of us, even after the wounds were being tended to; 'No problem!' was the quote! Going for a shower and no water, 'No problem!' Then going for a shower and only cold water, 'No problem!' Noisy boisterous neighbours starting at 4:00 and ending at 6:00 in the morning, at least ten 'No problem!' and 'normal' were the quotes during those sleepless hours. 'No problem!' was continuous quoted when there was a problem!

After a stop at a restaurant in the neighbouring town of Sozopol, which was heaving with foreign holidaymakers, we drove back in the now thunderstorm and torrential downpour of rain. The thought of cold showers this evening on the campsite trickled into my head with many 'No problem!' comments being made throughout.

So the great weekend can to an end but not before reflecting on how many other expatriates would have like what we went through. It was a family occasion accepted and thoroughly enjoyed by Bulgarians because of their 'no problem' attitude and relaxed mentality as they come to terms totally to what happens, happens! That's the difference mentally for the same holiday from hell to many western European holidaymakers here and a holiday from heaven for Bulgarians!