I’m currently in Bulgaria to visit my husband’s family and I’m struck by how low the gross domestic product is here, a mere $45.9 billion for a population of 7.5 million. As the poorest country in the European Union, many things look rundown compared to more developed countries, but I don’t see the extreme poverty here that I have in other countries. Like most industrializing nations, the people are incredibly resourceful, thus boosting their standard of living, often with little environmental impact.
I took my daughter to the doctor yesterday because of a persistent rash and it was recommended to treat it with a certain herb. On the drive home, my mother-in-law asked us to put pull over right away. She spotted the herb while we were traveling 60 miles per hour, saving us a visit to the pharmacy. Herbal medicine is still widely utilized here, although the older generation possesses the greatest knowledge. Many natural methods are used across the board, because it saves money and they are trusted.
My husband’s family cultivates enough food to feed a small army, as do many in their village of 1,200. Although my in-laws no longer have cows, they purchase unpasteurized milk from the neighbor, which they make into yogurt. They raise most of their own meat on their land or by hunting and fishing.
A majority of the houses in the village are heated with wood and constructed by their inhabitants, with help from neighbors and friends. When my brother-in-law needed to tap into the sewer that runs under his street when adding a bathroom to his house, he did the whole job himself. With no permits, he closed the street, tore up the asphalt, and ran the pipes that connect to the sewer. When he was done, he neatly paved the gaps in the street. The only person who complained was a taxi driver from the capital. No money switched hands except to purchase materials.
Such a self-sufficient lifestyle requires each person to posses a great amount of general knowledge, so they can fix their own car, cut their son’s hair, or effectively medicate a sick dog. Although many aspects of this lifestyle may sound glamorous, some of them are hard work, such as constructing a house of brick, mortar and concrete. It might be cheaper to build a house with voluntary help from friends, but they are likely to ask for favors in return. A dream house can take years if not decades to build without professional help, thus many houses in the village are not fully complete.
Resourcefulness has been encouraged by the political and economic climate in the country. The communist government (which was not part of the Soviet block) controlled production and employment. All the basic needs were met, although personal liberties were more limited. After the fall of communism, most production became privatized by a wealthy few. Extreme inflation followed and hurt those with saving and pensioners the most. With the changing times, people became more reliant on themselves and those around them, and less reliant on the government. Unfortunately, despite having joined the European Union in 2007, such an environment has also encouraged widespread corruption, which limits the possibilities available to many for the profit of a few.
In numerous ways, my visit to Bulgaria is like stepping back in the past, where many deals happen under the table or with no monetary exchange at all. This is changing–like much of the globe, the country is slowly getting hooked on high definition television, cellular phones, owning a personal car, and living the “good life,” which all help feed the gross domestic product.