I am really concentrating this article on my experience in Bulgaria, but have used the same approach in Tanzania, and other countries whose first language is not English. Obviously if you have emigrated to a country where you have a good command of the first language this makes integration a lot easier.
I live in the centre of a small village consisting of no more than 300 residents. As with small villages throughout the world everybody knows everybody. Compared to my time in a flat in London where for the six months I was there I did not know the first names of my next door neighbours, this is just the way large cities operate, there is a general feeling of mistrust. It is easier to be lonely in city of millions than it is in small village of a couple of hundred. I could never be lonely in Samodiva, even if I tried.
After two days of moving in my next door neighbours started to trickle in to introduce themselves, and ask if there was anything they could help with. Armed with just a lonely planet phrase book, and Bulgarian/English dictionary we managed to explain that we had not just brought a holiday home and were intending on living here full time. The invitations of food and drink, fresh fruit and vegetables from their gardens and a general inquisitive nature from all our neighbours soon put us at ease, and we felt lucky to have found such a welcoming village.
Rural life in Bulgaria is very family centralised, one of the first questions we were asked by nearly every inquisitive neighbour was in regards to our family. I think they were to quite shocked to learn that Annie and I, although having lived together for 10 years were not actually married. Now, this may be common in the westernised cities such as Sofia, Plovdiv, and the beach resorts of Burgas and Varna, but for the muslim village of Samodiva, we were definitely a first. They accepted this, although they do keep asking when we will get married.
I should take a moment to explain my thoughts on religion, I am a Maths and Physics graduate, my family going back three generations have only ever gone to religious ceremonies for christenings, weddings and funerals. Both my grandfather and father had humanist cremations. I understand some peoples need for religion, and I certainly don’t preach (excuse the pun) my beliefs to anyone else. Although I have tried to explain big bang theory to my fellow villagers in the pub when asked where I think everyone came from. They thought they had caught me out and asked, yes, but before big bang where was everything. Which thanks to my Gravitational Physics lecturer, Dr Carlos Nunez of Swansea University I was able to explain. Or at least, tell them my ‘belief’, in that if Einstein was correct, and time and space are intrinsically linked, if there is no space, there is no time and therefore there is no before. You try doing that in a foreign language, after several beers, to an audience of believers!
We certainly respect the views, beliefs and opinions of all our neighbours, and in return I think they do the same for us. During Korban Bairam, each year that I have been here I have been invited to a neighbours house to take part in the festivities. They have explained to me the significance of the festivity, and the traditions they follow. Which for me is one the main attractions of living in a different culture, learning how they live.