Travel guides first print and now Internet often provide travelers, real and armchair, with information about the cultural differences they can expect to encounter. Undoubtedly the most common one noted for Bulgaria is the head nodding for no and shaking for yes. There are others and I remember feeling pretty well armed with Bulgarian cultural knowledge when we went to live there 1995-1997. I had visited in 1987 and then my future in-laws had visited us on two occasions. I intended to learn to speak Bulgarian, or at least to get a good start, during our two-year stay. My Bulgarian husband and I had jobs secured in a local advertising agency that was an affiliate of an international company. For reasons now obscure, I did not anticipate any cultural misunderstandings barring a smooth transition to life in what was now a former Communist country.
I should have had a bit more trepidation.
Setting up in my mother-in-law’s living room, shopping for food daily, learning the public transportation system, learning how to communicate in a foreign language—all these were relatively straightforward. We created or adapted advertising for local and international clients selling chocolate, beer, tires, and computers, among other things.
I remember being astounded at the stupidity of the American campaign for the computer company that the agency’s worldwide affiliates were expected to translate into the local languages. “Get the monkey off your back,” was the slogan and the image was of chimpanzees sitting in front of computer terminals looking confounded. The idea was to convince companies—remember this was the 1990s—to switch from room-sized mainframe computers to minicomputers. My Bulgarian colleagues were themselves confounded and I explained the English idiom. It took a lot of correspondence with the main office before we were allowed to use another campaign that more easily lent itself to non-American use.
Then came the campaign for an American oil company that was establishing its branded gas stations throughout Bulgaria. The gas stations were a bit more expensive than the longstanding local ones, but offered faster service and the mini-marts Americans take in stride. The oil company wanted us to emphasize that “time is money.” The faster service and convenient mini-marts saved time and so Bulgarians would find it worth it to pay the higher price.
Time is money. It was so basic, I thought, and perfectly reasonable. My Bulgarian colleagues told me it would never work. Now I was confounded.
“No,” they insisted, “time is not money. Only money is money.”
It’s worth it to spend the day hiking in the woods or in the mountains all day to pick mushrooms for free rather than walk ten minutes to the market to pay for them. “Мошеници (Mooshenitzi / Swindlers)!” It’s worth it to make your own pair of pants, despite the time and effort expended to find the cloth, the zipper, the thread, and the after work hours rather than buy the pants ready-made for more money than the cost of the supplies. It’s worth it to spend the hours under the hood of your long-suffering vehicle figuring out how to make the repairs yourself with only the conflicting guidance of all the neighboring men peering behind or leaning out of their balcony windows.
I had a hard time with this cultural divide. I had a hard time because it wasn’t about untranslatable idioms, differing body language, local food or table customs. It was instead about a core cultural value. And while it would be easy to ascribe “only money is money” to a country long experienced in poverty and how to subsist on the barely enough, this is not the whole story. There are plenty of people with enough means in Bulgaria, then and now, to choose goods and services based on the convenience they offer rather than solely on price. For them, there is some calculation of their time.
But I think the larger story is that the value of time is truly incalculable. There is no per diem in life, there is no hourly rate. And if you believe this, then you will not look at your watch at dinner with your friends. And you will not equate time finding your spiritual equilibrium in mountain hikes with the hourly rate you might have earned had you spent the same time at your job. And you will not eat lunch at your desk, you will take a walk and have a well-rounded meal out of the workplace. And you will use weekend afternoons for the all-important следобедна почивка (sledobedna pochivka / afternoon nap) during which time you are confident the telephone will not ring because everyone knows this is valuable time.
I now truly believe that only money is money and that the value of time is incalculable. I have managed to overcome my American cultural education and reorient myself, even in the U.S., to live by this Bulgarian cultural value that is, whatever its basis may be, admirable and entirely worthy of adoption.