After living in Amsterdam for almost 4 years, I came back to my lovely little hometown in southwestern Bulgaria this weekend to attend a wedding of a childhood friend of mine. I had not been home for something like 9-10 months. Every time I come back, I am first overwhelmed by how familiar and cozy everything feels. Then, I am struck by how different things are here. And I used to notice mostly the small things- the bad condition of the roads, the litter on the streets (though the littler situation, at least in my hometown, is rather okay now), the stray dogs, the dark streets at night, the lower prices, etc, etc. Now, apart from these things, I was also pleasantly surprised by how peaceful and quiet it is. No drunk tourists, or late-night party goers, no early morning mosque attendees, no crazy pigeons and seagulls to interrupt my sleep. I sleep like a newborn and I wake up fresh.
Of course, not all is rosy and flawless. One thing bothered me, or let’s say I found it to be an interesting peculiarity about Bulgarian national charater- the neurotic whining, and fussing and complaining. I refrain from making a judgement based on my own family as this has long been a lost cause. But you just go to the hairdresser, for instance, and all the other clients there seem to be rushing for something; rushing not really to go somewhere, but rushing to get things quickly, and in general, making a big fuss about small things. “Oh, how come you cannot meet now, I cannot wait for you 15 minutes.”- and after this lady ended her phone conversation, she engaged everyone around in an elaborate explanation of how many things she needs to do today, and how this particular friend is always late. Not to mention the general complaining about everything– the weather (which is always either too cold, too hot, too rainy but enver good enough), the high prices, the bad politicians (which, mind you, the people themselves chose), the noise, the unemployment, the bad prospects for young people in Bulgaria, how horrible Bulgarians abroad are to each other, and numerous other cliches. Though most of these problems are real issues, complaining about them, and giving me a headache (just because I want to have my hair done) is not the way to solve anything. And in general, people seem to know what is wrong with the country, but either do not know how to fix it, or prefer not to engage in that. But I so get this Economist article from a few years back called “The rich, the poor, and Bulgaria”. It, in a nutshell, was showing that Bulgarians, given their GDP (or maybe they were using other economic measure), show much lower life satisfaction than other countries. In places like Afghanistan and Iraq people were happier than us. I had to go and live miles away to realise how typical, and also how exhausting, this behaviour is.
But, I am digressing again. The thing is, no matter how ridiculous some things are, they will always feel familiar to you. I do not say you will always belong here. Though, cozy and familiar, I hate to admit I have distanced myself from many things. I am not up to date with that is hot and trendy here fashionwise, in the cultural and showbiz worlds. I am no longer familiar with latest Bulgarian music, I do not get some jokes, obvious to everybody. More than a couple of people have told me now that I have a little bit of an accent when speaking the language (sure, because not speaking a single language properly is what I exactly need!). I hate to admit you also distance yourself from people. Unfortunately, over time I have lost contact with quite a few people. Sometimes it’s more my own fault, sometimes it is theirs, other times it is mutual. But unfortunately, every time I come back, there are fewer and fewer people I get to meet. No need to mention, of course, that these very few friends are also your dearest, longest-term ones that are close to your heart and that have known you most of your life. So meeting them is priceless and very rewarding. It kinda restores my hope in friendship. But just because they are so very few, you do feel, overall, estranged from your own home.
At the same time, you try and make your best to get comfortable at the new place. And I am not complaining, Amsterdam is a terrific place. You can never get bored, you can never explore it completely. In short- you can never get enough of it. Plus, despite my love-hate relationship with my job, I am well aware I could not really do that and live in Bulgaria. And I also think I have met some quite nice people there and managed to create a few friendships. However, you can never ever completely shake off the feeling that you are a foreigner. And things, even after quite some time, can feel strange and unfamiliar. And somehow, maybe they don’t do it on purpose or with any special meaning behind it, but local people do want to keep you well aware that you are a foreigner. Maybe if I spoke the language better, this would be less of a problem for me. But then again, you try to practice your Dutch in the shop for instance, and quickly they switch to English because they cannot wait for you to say something properly in Dutch and waste their time. Or, this sometimes hidden, sometimes more manifest prejudice against you as an Eastern European. Of course, it does not come from everybody but you do see it more often than you would like to. So, you end up in this state where you feel accustomed to a new place, but a bit foreign to it, cozy with an old place, but a bit distant to it. This is the price you pay for your own choice. And because you chose this yourself, you have no rights complaining. You just need to suck it up, get yourself together and pull through, hoping that one day you can the best of both worlds. After all, after losing contact with many people in the old place, only the best kind of friendships are preserved and this is something to cherish. And the ignorance of some people should not make me lose hope on it all because there are also those rare, and really special ones that make it all better, and make it all worth it. But home has become more of a state of mind for me than a definite place.