John Seman is the fist participant in OPIT program in Bulgaria. OPIT – Overseas Professional and Intercultural Training Program gives students the substantive overseas professional experience and intercultural skills demanded by today’s global market.
Here is what John shares about his personal experience during the 6-week stay in Sofia.
I’m 20 years old, from Ohio, and I somehow managed to be placed in an internship program in Sofia, Bulgaria. I go to Capital University in Bexley, Ohio (about five minutes away from OSU), where I double major in Spanish and International Studies and a minor in Military Science. For my International Studies major I need either a study abroad or internship abroad. My internship here in Sofia fulfills that requirement. The question that I’ve been asked the most since finding out that I would be going to Bulgaria, and since arriving in the country itself, is “why, why Bulgaria?” Well, if I’m being honest, I wanted a Spanish speaking country. However, none of the countries listed spoke Spanish so I was out of luck in that regard. I then asked the people I knew who had been to the Balkans which country they would suggest. Bulgaria was usually the first or second country that was recommended. Even though Bulgaria wasn’t my ideal choice, I’m glad that I’m here. I’ve loved ever moment since landing in Sofia. Knowing what I do now, I wouldn’t change a thing and would recommend Bulgaria to anyone.
Living with a host family
Arguably the best part of the Overseas Professional and Intercultural Training Program (OPIT) is living with a host family. This is a great insight into Bulgarian way of life. Anyone can read about the country. Some people might even travel to Bulgaria and stay in a hotel. However, nothing can beat having the opportunity to live with a host family. This is a once in a life time opportunity. From this you will gain a new perspective and also a deeper understanding and respect for the country you’ve just entered. The host parents have opened their house and hearts to you for six weeks. The parents are some of the kindest people you’ll meet during your stay. My advice to anyone who is considering going on the OPIT program is to seize the chance, if only for the home stay experience. Moreover, if you do decide to join the OPIT program, make sure that you spend as much time with your host family as possible. It might be tempting to stay in your room after the long flight, but you’ll find that your host parents (and all other host family members you might meet) are extremely interested in getting to know you and your way of life. So, as a twenty year old American college student who has traveled abroad before, OPIT stands out from other programs because of the full cultural emersion gained from living side-by-side with a host family. Not to beat a dead horse, but you get out what you put into your stay. The only bad thing about OPIT is that it lasts for a short six weeks. It might not seem like it to the family you leave back home, but the time flies by. The end of the program is bitter sweet because you must say goodbye to your newly adopted family. On the other hand, you leave knowing that you’ve made connections and bonds that will last for a life time!
Sense of adventure
I’ve never been the type who wanted to just walk and see what I might find. I never wanted to wander without a plan and just go with the flow. I never wanted to explore. That recently came to a crashing halt when I landed in Sofia, Bulgaria. I found myself in the largest city of a country where I didn’t, speak the language. I can’t even read their alphabet. Initially this bothered me greatly. I was worried that I would have to use charades any time I tried talking to someone. However, my preconceived notion that no one would speak English was as wrong as it could possibly be. No, the English isn’t perfect, but then again I know some Americans whose English could use some work. I now find myself walking around the city with absolutely no worry if I get lost. I usually have an hour to kill before my internship and during that time I wander aimlessly. I try to find the best cafes or the whole in the wall restaurants. From my point of view, Sofia is a city that was stuck in the early half of the 20th century and suddenly caught up with the rest of the world after 1991. This has created a unique blend of new and old. I’ve walked down streets that have soviet style block apartments next to a McDonald’s. Or a building that is older than that of the United States and a skyscraper across the way. My sense of dumbstruck awe might have something to do with being from rural Ohio, but the sprawling Bulgarian capital has a charm about it that cannot be captured by words or pictures. The streets are narrow and the buildings tall, yet I’ve never felt confined. Regardless of where I am, I always feel a certain comfort and sense of ease. The sites that Sofia is renowned for (i.e. the Alexander Nevski Church, numerous statutes and parks) are well worth taking a tour. But, if you want to truly see this reborn city, leave the maps at home, lace up your Nikes, and just go. Like many of Eastern Europe’s countries, Bulgaria is a diamond in the rough just waiting to shine. Are you going to be the next to find this hidden gem?
What to bring/pack
Being from Ohio, I’m used to all types of weather, possibly in one day. I also run track for my university. Both of these things have taught me to pack every type of clothing for every type of weather imaginable. But, you’re about to go abroad and can’t bring everything that you would like to. You might even be sitting at home on your bed staring at your suitcase and clothes with the hope that they somehow manage to pack themselves. Sadly, this won’t happen. What will happen though is everybody asking if you’ve packed and if you’re ready to go. If you’re like me, then you might lie and say you’ve been ready for days. When in reality all you’ve done is get the suitcase down and consider packing. So, my advice on what to bring to Sofia for the summer months is as follows. Men, collared shirts are reasonable and can fit just about any situation you might find yourself in. I would also recommend a couple of regular t-shirts and shorts as it can become hot and somewhat humid. Any type of pants will work. Finally, the most important items to bring, for both men and women, are a sweater and a rain coat. For women, I’ve seen a mixture of clothing. There are a majority of women who wear dresses and business suits to work. On the other hand, the majority of teenagers and young adults wear a mix of shorts and pants. Again, t-shirts are recommended. Basically have one formal outfit, two of three business casual, and then clothes for ever day use. These would be the things that I would suggest bringing with you on your trip to Bulgaria.
As it is in the states, food is a large part of the people and culture. The food here is incredible and easily accessible. Along the span of 100ft. there might be ten or so small shops, all of which are selling a different type of food. Bulgaria is a great place to expand your culinary pallet. There is the local, traditional meals dating back centuries, and then there are the dishes that were introduced by the Ottoman Turks during their five centuries of occupation. Bulgaria is a strange mix of cultures, but somehow manages to turn it into a culinary masterpiece. A tip to any perspective travelers would be “don’t knock it until you try it.” Admittedly some of the dishes might look strange, but you never know if you’ll like it or not. I’ve found myself wanting to try every different type of food possible. The food is a gateway to Bulgaria and her people. For those people who don’t like spicy food this is the place for you. The majority of meals are lacking in the “heat” department. However, what they lack in fire, they make up with a flavorful combination of herbs and spices. Most of the food that I’ve had here has many different layers of flavor. Every bite is as good as the last and you’ll find yourself a little disappointed that you didn’t order more. Now, for what I consider to be the most important matter: the coffee. The coffee here is without a doubt a change from the U.S. You might be used to your iced mocha macchiato or frapachino, and you can still find those here in any Starbucks or Dunkin’ Donuts. However, if you stop at any local coffee shop you’ll find that they serve espresso in the smallest cups imaginable. This is as strong and bitter as I’ve found anywhere. I love coffee probably more than the next guy, but every now and again I just need an “Americano” style coffee. The espresso has a deep rich flavor that will wake you up better than a bucket of ice water. Just be warned, if you’re the type of person who likes a little bit of coffee with their sugar and cream, I suggest that you get the espresso with milk. On the whole, the food culture here in Bulgaria is on the rise. You’ll find gourmet pizza parlors, KFCs and McDonalds, and the local mom and pop shops that permeate every street of Sofia. If you’re coming on the OPIT program to Bulgaria, prepare to have your taste buds blown away.
The People, Language, and Culture
Like many Eastern European countries, Bulgaria was a Soviet satellite state up until the 1990s. You might have an image of a rough, cold hearted people bent upon bringing the world under the hammer and sickle flag. If this is what you think all Bulgarians are like, you’re wrong. Yes, some people still do support or favor a communistic view. However, this isn’t a majority of the population. Many of the people that you’ll meet are extremely kind and generous. The only thing you might have to worry about is being smothered by the attention that you’ll receive. People are interested in who you are, where you’re from, and your story. Unlike in America, strangers will start having deep and intimate conversations. It’s not unusual to talk with someone you’ve just met about personal problems or issues. In general, Bulgarians, really the rest of the world, are much more open than Americans. This includes the concepts of personal space. Don’t be surprised if people make contact with you while speaking. Since, we’re on the topic of speech, don’t assume that there will be no one who speaks English. While Bulgarian is based upon the Cyrillic alphabet, many people can speak English. At times it might be hard to convey your meaning, but the game of charades that ensues never gets old. Once you’ve gotten used to interpreting their English, and they yours, you might notice that they do the reverse of what Americans do for yes and no. We shake our heads up and down for yes, side to side for no. This isn’t the case in Bulgaria. They do up and down for no, side to side for yes. To be honest, this will feel strange and just plain wrong if you try doing it. However, it does become easier with time and eventually you’ll find yourself doing it without a second thought. I have found Bulgaria to be a country with deep roots dating back centuries ago. Bulgaria was already an old country before America had gained her independence. The history of the country you’re about to step into will, and rightfully so, astound you. In America we consider a building old if it was built around one hundred years ago. Here you can find churches that were built in the 15th century. I’ve even see a church in downtown Sofia that construction started around 300 A.D. Bulgaria is a unique blend of ancient and modern, democratic and communistic, Middle Eastern and European. It might appear a complete mess and the most unlikely of combinations, but the mix doesn’t feel out of place. Bulgaria has seen a lot in its long life, and her people and culture reflect the best parts of every aspect of her long and rich history.
More info about the OPIT program at www.acstudyabroad.org/opit/