Exercises in humility

I’ve had an interesting experience for the last few weeks.

To understand this, you need to know a little about how our finances typically work here. When we get paid, we direct a certain percentage of our paychecks deposited as leva into our Bulgarian bank accounts, and the rest gets deposited automatically as dollars into our American bank account. Normally, we get paid at the end of the month, but we can also opt for salary advances in the middle of the month, and the rest paid out at the end of the month. Typically, I use my Bulgarian bank account to withdraw cash to use here (obviously), but I also use it to withdraw euros and local currency when I travel. I generally use credit cards linked to my U.S. bank account to purchase airline tickets, book accommodations online, etc. I almost never use my American debit card at European ATMs, unless my Bulgarian bank card has been rejected for some reason (it happens sometimes). 

Last year, I never came close to using up the money in my Bulgarian bank account, so I decided this year to decrease the percentage that was deposited locally so that I would be, in theory, saving more in my American account and being less wasteful with my Bulgarian account. Given that I still had a surplus from last year, I had again never come close to using it all up, even with the decreased deposit amount…until this past month. 

Turns out that 10 days in Italy and Malta for Christmas/New Year’s gets pretty expensive. Also, because I was traveling with 2 other people and because of the way that we had divided booking/reservation responsibilities, I ended up owing my traveling companions for some airfare and hotel costs; these expenses, which I normally would’ve booked by card if I’d been traveling alone, I paid back in cash, which contributed even more to the depletion of my Bulgarian bank account.

All this basically amounts to the fact that I had not a lot of money left in my Bulgarian bank account by the time I got back to Sofia at the beginning of this month and settled all my travel debts. I had something like 30 leva left in the bank, but then with the help of my mid-month salary advance, I was able to go on one last big shopping spree for groceries for my Chinese New Year dinner (tofu, for example, is really expensive and hard to find here). After that, though, I  found myself with much less spending money at hand than I normally have. Since Chinese New Year last Monday, I think I spent 10 leva (about $6.70) all week – most of it in the first 2 days – until today, when I finally withdrew the last 20 leva from my Bulgarian bank account to cover the expenses for our trip to Pernik today for the Kukeri festivities (separate entry on that later). And I managed to stay under budget: 7.50 leva on lunch and a beer (an extravagance, but it was so cold I really needed to be inside for a while, not just eating food on a stick outside, which would’ve been much cheaper), 7 leva for my share of gas money, then 4.50 leva for a liter of milk, 6 eggs, and a loaf of bread at the grocery store on the way home – the first new groceries I’d purchased all week.

I now have nothing but change rattling around in my wallet (and not even good change, it’s all like 5- and 2-stotinki coins), and exactly 74 stotinki left in the bank, which basically amounts to 0 because you can’t withdraw 74 stotinki from an ATM. 

While it’s been a bit challenging, it’s also been an eye-opening experience for me. I’ve never made lots of money, but I’ve also never struggled to make ends meet, or lived for a paycheck. Having to go even just a week spending virtually no money at all (because I literally had none – I knew I couldn’t touch the last 20 leva in the bank because I’d need it for Pernik today) showed me how many little expenses I typically rack up over the course of a week, and how much I take for granted my ability to pay for small luxuries and indulgences. Things like buying lunch at school (which isn’t even expensive – you can typically get a decent meal for 2-3 leva), an occasional coffee at Onda (though I’d already been much better this year about not spending so much money there, the coffee shop was a definite no-no during my spendthrift week), the occasional dinner out, and my common habit of stopping at Billa on the way home to pick up some groceries that I don’t actually need, but think I do. 

When you can’t spend any money, you become a lot more intimate with and a lot more accepting of what you have at hand. Instant coffee at school. Eating leftovers every day for lunch and dinner (luckily I had dumplings, tofu, and a huuuuge pot of noodles leftover from my New Year’s Eve dinner) – at first I supplemented the noodles (and tried to maintain some variety in my diet) by buying soup and small side dishes in the cafeteria and once I even splurged and bought dessert because they had my favorite kind, but by midweek I had to stop and eat just what I brought. Actually making use of everything in my cupboards: I have a lot of food that I tend to ignore because I’m not in the mood, but when you can’t buy any more groceries and don’t have any other options, you eat that shit! Meaning: breakfast became IKEA ginger cookies gifted to me, dry granola (because I ran out of milk after Monday or so), dried cranberries from the Christmas care package my family sent me. Midday snacks were also dried cranberries and wasabi peas from the same care package – no need to buy new Bake Rolls or crackers, or run down to Onda for a croissant. Lunch and then dinner – the never-ending bucket of noodles, occasionally supplemented at home by a scrambled egg or a packet of miso soup that I remembered I had from a care package last year.  

I was amazed at the bounty of food I actually had, and my refrigerator and cupboard’s ability to feed me with no reinforcements or supplemental groceries necessary. Even my very small replenishment of the basics today would give me breakfast and some snacks for the next week if I focused on using it and not satisfying minor whims and cravings elsewhere. Everything that I would typically have spent money on during the week was in no way necessary, even if I hadn’t had the benefit of some nice food gifts from friends and family. Similarly to what I observed last year about clothes, I realized how little is truly necessary to get by, versus just being excess/vanity/indulgence. If I shopped smart and then truly used and ate what I had purchased, money and food alike stretched a long way. 

It reinforced something that I have always known, but not always appreciated, something that I could stand to be reminded of far more often than I currently am: I have never known what it is to be hungry, or to be poor, and I still don’t. The American teachers here live at and take for granted a standard well beyond the means of most Bulgarian teachers, quite simply because the international schools wouldn’t be able to hire any American teachers (actual experienced teachers, not volunteers or interns) on a Bulgarian equivalent salary; they’d be laughed out of the job fair. Bulgarian teachers are the lowest-paid teachers in the EU, and it’s not as if other average Bulgarian workers in other professions are paid exponentially higher. Yes, it’s cheaper to live here than in the U.S., but the salaries are that much lower at the same time. Of course there is terrible poverty in the U.S. as well, but living frugally is a reality even for many educated, middle-class Bulgarians in a way that I may never fully be able to und
erstand or experience from my position of privilege both in this country and in my own; after all, should I have really needed money during this past week, I have an American bank account and debit card that would easily have covered any conceivable expense a hundred times over. What was an experiment or a personal challenge for me is daily life for many people, both here and back home. 

I think about something one of my students wrote once: how much he loves and is so grateful to his grandfather (whom he lives with), and how ashamed/angry/guilty/powerless he feels when he sees grandpa just eating cheese some nights for dinner because that’s all they have. For all that we complain about/tease/mock/fail to understand Bulgarians sometimes, it’s important to remember how poor a lot of people here really are, especially compared to average Americans – and absolutely not for the sake of pitying them, but to admire how hard they work for what they have, how resilient they are, and maybe to realize why they sometimes seem so resigned/pessimistic about life in a way that spoiled, entitled Americans simply cannot truly comprehend, but should perhaps try a bit harder to understand. 




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