Tom with Elephant

4 Months Living in Bulgaria

A Foreigner’s Story

As a digital nomad, I rarely spend more than a month in any given location, so it might come as a surprise to hear that I decided to “settle” in Bulgaria for four whole months! So, why did I choose Bulgaria and what has living in Sofia for an extended period been like? Hopefully, what I share next will reveal a little about my decision and even inspire you to visit this beautiful country. 

 

The Lonely Life of a Traveler 

When most people visit a foreign country, it’s usually within the framework of a holiday with their friends or family. But for me, travelling is a lifestyle choice. For the past three years, I’ve been hopping from country to country on my own (for the most part) looking for new adventures. While this might sound like fun, there have been some drawbacks.

 

Arriving at a new destination where there are no friends or connections awaiting you easily leads to overwhelm. An uncomfortable sense of loneliness starts to creep in when real, genuine connections and deep conversation are missing for weeks on end. After all, we humans crave community and connection because in times long gone, community meant survival. 

 

Even though I’ve made many great friends on my journey over the years, it’s often been difficult to locate a thriving community of like-minded individuals and establish myself in their midst. It’s great having friends all over the world, but when it comes to building deep connections, it takes time, especially for me, to open up and really get to know someone.

 

This lack of human connection made me pause and rethink my needs. So, after a particularly hectic travel schedule over the first half of 2019, I decided to look for a place to live for at least three months. The type of place that would meet my needs for adventure and air sports, while also offering a low cost-of-living. Sofia, the capital city of Bulgaria, seemed to meet my criteria.

tom with luggage
Me trying to fit into the elevator with ALL the luggage!

 

A Hidden Gem in the Balkans

Have you ever visited a local and been immediately impressed by the “vibe” of the place? Well, after landing in Sofia and arriving at my Airbnb, I was overcome with a really positive feeling that this could be an interesting place for me to explore. Little did I know what was to come! 

 

Even from the city, I could see the delightful promise of the Balkan mountains surrounding the heart of Bulgaria. It was these magnificent mountains that drew me to visit the area in the first place. There is a little village, called Sopot, just a couple of hours drive east of Sofia, that offers world-class paragliding conditions almost all year round! As a budding pilot, this was, initially, my main attraction to this area.  

 

Not only is Sofia located close to some of the best paragliding sites in Europe, but it’s also the home of Skydive Sofia. As you can guess from the name of the company, they have a plane you can jump from! Skydiving is something I’ve been wanting to start doing again, so this was a great opportunity to keep learning and growing in the sport. 

Paragliding in Sopot
My view from around 1500m over the mountains in Sopot

Making New Friends 

It’s inevitable that at some point, usually after the first week or so, the sense of novelty you feel when experiencing a new place for the first time wears off. This experience, however, felt different, and I quickly made the decision that Sofia was going to be my home, at least for the next few months. 

 

Finding a place to stay was the next objective. In my situation, signing a 12-month lease would not be economically practical, because my intention was not to stay in the area for that long. But, on the other hand, living in an Airbnb would mean paying 3-4 times more than the average short-term accommodation rates. Luckily, there’s a facebook group dedicated to finding apartments for foreigners.

 

This is when I met Pavlen, a young, curious real-estate agent whom I immediately hit it off with. From our initial conversation, it was clear we had many similar interests, and as a self-proclaimed “connector,” he ended up being the catalyst for my meeting a host of other like-minded and interesting people in Sofia. 

 

For me, this was a positive sign that I had made the right decision in making Sofia my extended-stay home. Honestly, I was a little anxious that I might have trouble meeting people with whom I could engage in deep conversation about everything from consciousness to psychedelics. I realize now that this type of human connection is one of my deepest needs. 

Tom with Skydiving friends
Big smiles after a nice skydive with new friends from 14,000ft at Skydive Sofia.

What About The Food? 

One of the things that most people associate with the culture of a country is their food. Bulgaria has quite a reputation for its local cuisine, but unfortunately, most of it is meat- and dairy-heavy. Because I eat a mostly plant-based diet, I had to get creative in finding food I could eat. I did, on occasion, allow some dairy which meant I could eat BANITSA! For those of you who have never tried banitsa, you are missing out on a delicious layered pastry.

 

One of my favourite food places has to be Sun and Moon, which started as a Sofia bakery with a long history of using natural, organic ingredients. Now they have a handful of cafes, restaurants and bakeries all serving vegetarian and vegan food. Their vegan “Emperor” banitsa is crazy good, with mushrooms cooked in soy sauce, wrapped in a thin sheet of whole-grain pastry, and then fried. Usually, they have cheese inside, but these vegan versions are in a class by themselves. They even do a sweet pumpkin banitsa, which I ration myself to eating just once per week! 

 

I would love to list off all the amazing vegan and vegetarian food I’ve had in restaurants cafes here, but honestly, I cook for myself 90% of the time. There’s plenty of fresh produce available at the supermarkets and small shops. I was also really surprised at the quality of the health food stores here. Anything I can’t find in the supermarket, I can usually pick up at one of the many health food stores, such as Zoya

Vegan food
One of my own delicious vegan creations!

Summertime in the Park

Another of my favourite things about Sofia is the abundance of parks. In summer, you’ll find the central parks like NDK filled with all sorts of people, young and old, relaxing on a bench or patch of grass with a can of beer and some friends. This makes it easy to get out into nature without leaving the city! 

 

The People 

After visiting a handful of Eastern European countries, such as Poland and Hungary, I have noticed the people are similar in some ways. Usually, most of the people I meet here are super-friendly, once you engage them in conversation  You may find, however, that some of the men have an intimidating look about them, which can make you feel hesitant to approach them. Generally, the locals I’ve met, such as my landlord, people at my seminar, the staff at restaurants, and bus drivers all seem to be super-helpful even if they can’t understand much English.

 

The Language 

We Brits often try to get away with speaking English wherever we travel. As a result, learning to speak multiple languages is something I’ve not yet devoted sufficient time to practicing.  Here, the complexity of the Bulgarian language has held me back from diving in. But, if I do decide to stay here longer, I will definitely make a commitment to learning the basics and progress from there. 

 

On the plus side, most of the younger people I meet all speak excellent English, so there’s no communication barrier. On the other hand, my landlord, who is probably in his 50’s, hardly speaks a word of English. We still manage to communicate the basics through body language and Google translate!

The Location

One of the cool things about Sofia is its location in Europe. You’re just a short flight away from places like Italy, Hungary, Greece, Turkey, Croatia, and Austria. I took a flight to Milan, Italy and back for around 50 euros. You can even hop on a 4-hour bus to Belgrade, Serbia! So if you want to travel around Europe, Sofia is a great transportation hub with multiple modes of travel and plenty of cheap flights.

My New Home? 

To wrap up, I’d like to circle back to my original comments about the lonely life of a traveller. Sofia has truly exceeded all my expectations in regard to meeting interesting new people within the first week or two of arriving. Developing these relationships, even over a brief time, has given me a sense of community that has been lacking in many of the places I’ve been on my digital nomad’s journey. It’s the reason I’m considering making Sofia my home, at least for a little longer.

 

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