In the Land of No Smiles: Finding Friendliness in Bulgaria

Bulgaria is a confusing place a lot of the time. Here, a shake of your head means yes, and a nod means no. No here is the same word as the Greek yes. They say thank you in French, and goodbye in Italian. And almost every person I’ve encountered here has a serious case of RBF (resting bitch face).

Giving face

RBF doesn’t mean you’re actually a bitch, it’s important to note. It’s just that your default face makes people think that briefly.

But when you’re a bit shy, in a country with a totally unfamiliar language and alphabet, that first impression can be daunting. Encountering a stone-faced woman who replies only “da? (yes)” when you chirp your best Bulgarian hello at her before you’ve had even one sip of coffee can set your knees to knocking.

Faulty first impressions

Nearly everyone I met here has been helpful, curious, and friendly once you talk to them. From the kind-eyed ticket man at the Roman Forum in Plovdiv who snuck me in without a ticket but with a funny pantomime, to the hotel porter who helped me translate to my confused cab driver, to the tiny young waitress who brought me my espresso without me even ordering on my second day in her café.

Solo female travel in Bulgaria

They’re actually much more helpful than most customer service people I met in France, which I’m so thankful for because this is not the easiest country to travel in.

I’m constantly wandering around in a daze, wondering how I get into that attraction or find my bus (which turns out to be a minivan, and the ticket office is totally unmarked and there are no schedules posted). There’s not a lot of info online (thankfully Nomadic Matt has a full guide), and my Bulgarian so far consists of only hello, please, and thank you.

I’m reliant on the helpfulness of strangers, and in turn they’ve been kind and offer me assistance when I am feeling quite bewildered.

So it’s not that they’re unpleasant! Far from it.

Conspicuously cheerful

But the initial impression of the people here? They stare. Hard. And openly. It’s not so bad in Sofia and Plovdiv, but in Veliko Tărnovo it was really intense. I felt very conspicuous of my open face, of my self-conscious smiles, of being alone.

A view of the river in Veliko Tarnovo, Bulgaria in autumn

And they’re not friendly stares, either. I’m realizing how much more Americans smile than the rest of the world, and my default when I feel shy or confused is to smile, which makes me feel more conspicuous. Their default mode here is stoicism.

So when I feel a quiver of trepidation in my stomach as I approach someone who looks like they’d rather do anything else than speak to me, I take a deep breath. I remember all the helpfulness and kindness I’ve found here so far.

And I smile.

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