Our son, now home for almost 5 years, was born in a small Eastern European country called Bulgaria. At the beginning of our process, when our social worker presented Bulgaria as a possible country that met a lot of our needs, we were thrilled! But we were also equally stumped. We had no idea what continent Bulgaria was on, let alone anything about the culture or the people who lived there. We have grown in cultural awareness since our trip there, and are so thankful we had the opportunity to take our entire family there
Bulgaria, a Hague Accredited country, requires two trips for each adoption. The first, prior to the official acceptance of a file, is one week long and is more like a “meet and greet” opportunity for the parents and child. Once Trip #1 is complete, the family’s non-governmental organization (NGO) goes to court on the family’s behalf, and then the child becomes a legal dependent of the family. About one month after passing court, the family is then required to travel for pickup. Bulgaria’s pickup trip is about 2 weeks long, filled with lots of waiting, embassy visits, passport pictures, and paperwork meetings. Although you do have multiple appointments throughout those two weeks, there are many days when you are just waiting.
Since my husband had to travel alone for Trip #1 (because we had our second biological child 3 weeks prior to the trip), Trip #2 was a full family event. My husband and I, our 2-year-old and 6-month-old biological children, and both of my parents traveled to Bulgaria to pick up our new 3-year-old son. It was a whirlwind traveling with multiple young children internationally for the first time and dealing with the addition of a child along with jetlagged toddlers.
Bulgaria’s language is Bulgarian, which consists of Cyrillic letters. It was unlike anything I had personally experienced—not being able to sound out words phonetically made it difficult for me to traverse places like the airport. But my husband is a talented linguist, so he picked it up quickly. He managed to read important signs that helped us navigate the busy capital city.
Our son was in an orphanage in a tiny village about three hours from the capital of Bulgaria, so once we had found our rental van (equipped with appropriately rented car seats for all the littles and my father’s international driver’s license), we headed to our hotel for one night. Then, we were up the next morning to head east to the small town near the Black Sea. Once we were there, we managed to find the extremely small hotel with our reserved rooms and stayed there for the night.
Navigating a small town proved to be more difficult than the big city. The smaller towns didn’t accept credit cards and no one spoke any English. Many of the streets were lined with goats instead of signs, and the restaurants were all mom-and-pop shops instead of larger chains. We were able to find a small walk-up pizza bar for dinner, which pleased the 2-year-old. We were all suffering greatly from nerves and jet lag, so we attempted to go to sleep early (though the 6-month-old rarely allowed these things!).
The next morning was our pickup appointment. We walked up to the doors of the concrete block down the street. The playground and grass looked like they had never been touched. As we walked through the corridors to the director’s room, there was a poster that stuck out to me. It was a large poster, taking up most of a wall, promoting breastfeeding in infants. I found this odd, and sad—a large reminder that the children living within these walls would most likely never experience intimacy with a mother in that way. It shook me a bit, but we kept going.
Once we arrived, we sat on an old plaid couch and waited. After a few minutes of interpreted conversation with the director, the orphanage psychologist carried our son in. I had seen pictures, and my husband had traveled to meet him 6 months prior, but it was shocking how small he was. My 2-year-old, who was almost exactly a year younger, towered over him. The 6-month-old was a closer size match, though what our new son lacked in weight, our baby made up for in thigh rolls. I held him and he was as light as a feather. He didn’t speak, and it was clear he had checked out. We were finally able to head back to our car, and we drove back to the capital city.
We had rented an apartment through Airbnb, which was a much better financial decision than staying in the hotel we used on the first night. It had 2 bedrooms, a living room, a bathroom, a kitchen, and a decent entryway. It was inside a locked door, then up an extremely small (and rickety) elevator and down the hall. It was safe, but very different from what we were used to in terms of accommodations. There was no air conditioning, but it had plenty of windows with beautiful city views. We had a washer/dryer combo unit in the kitchen that we were able to use for emergencies. The shower was unique, but it was just enough for what we needed. There was plenty of space to sleep, and the owners provided us with multiple pack ‘n plays to help our little ones sleep as soundly as possible. It was within walking distance of multiple restaurants, pharmacies, and the mall. But, even if we weren’t able to walk somewhere, our NGO agent was extremely helpful and would quickly call us a taxi to come pick us up and take us where we needed to go.
There were many days in Bulgaria when we had nothing to do but pick up baby food (our new son couldn’t chew) and entertain. I kept a blog about our daily adventures with 3 under 3, and one day, I included this excerpt:
“We went for a mile walk down to the “Mall of Sofia” to get some things for the kids (since we’re going to be here a while!). We packed up buddy’s lunch, and he ate in the food court there, which we thought was a huge win! We ordered a KFC 10 piece bucket, which included 2 “normal” sized chicken pieces and 8 teeny-tiny-sized pieces. It was so odd. So, we got McDonald’s instead. Silly Americans.”
Getting used to finding food that would suit us all was proving to be a difficult task. My dad got very good at walking up the Subway on the next street and ordering for all of us. The 2-year-old enjoyed the turkey sandwich, and we were able to stockpile baby food from a nearby pharmacy for the 3-year-old. We ended up finding two restaurants we all enjoyed, so we often ate outside at either of those for dinner. The meals were so cheap compared to our typical American bills, and it was the rule of thumb not to tip while we were there.
From my day 7 in-country trip journal entry:
“After everyone woke up, we headed out to a souvenir shop. We took the more scenic route, which was lovely! We saw a center of tons of faucets where people go to fill up jugs and jugs of water to drink—it was so cool! We also saw tons of water fountains and a really awesome museum. The cobblestone streets make the baby feel like he’s on a roller coaster if he’s in the stroller, but he seems to like it.
“When we got to the walking boulevard, we found the most awesome tiny souvenir shop! I wanted to get things to show our new boy when he got older, because who knows when we will be back. After we were done shopping there, we got a “Cup O’ Corn” (corn is a big deal here!) and then hopped into the local pharmacy to get some more baby food for the 3-year-old. The pharmacies sell a lot more baby food and baby products than grocery stores, so we’re having to go there to get the foods he likes.
“Then, on our way back, we found a great Italian restaurant. My dad has not been loving the food, so we finally found one place that he really liked! Food is cheaper here, so we are able to get nice meals for even less than expected. Our new son is comfortable eating out, which is absolutely amazing—we had prepared ourselves for not being able to go out much at all. But, we just bring his food with us, mix it up there, and he eats it while we’re all waiting for our food. Since he loves to just be cuddled, he just hangs out with one of us while we all eat.
“The cheeses here are so strong and intense… Bulgaria obviously takes great pride in its cheese. Then we ordered some apple pie and cheesecake. The 2-year-old wanted to try a small bite of each—she ate the cheesecake but didn’t love it. Then she took one bite of the apple pie and started spitting everywhere, screaming, “I don’t like it! I don’t like it!” It was hilarious—she obviously doesn’t love Bulgarian apple pie.
“We then walked back to our apartment and did our bedtime thing. Everyone fell asleep pretty well, though the baby had the same horrible wake-up schedule he always does.”
Food and sleep quickly became our main concerns all day—when would we eat and when would we nap. Embassy appointments, tuberculosis tests, and passport pictures scattered throughout the weeks made for a nice break from the monotony, but we really did enjoy our time around the city. One of our favorite places to visit was a local park. They had two huge slides that were flanked with flower beds and a nice playground in the center. We actually met up with another family adopting at the same time, and the mom has since become one of my best friends. Though our relationship is online only (since we live so far apart), it was one of the best experiences to meet her and her husband there as we were both going through such huge life changes.
We also saw a walking tour of the city happening multiple times as we made our daily rounds along the cobblestone streets, but we never got a chance to jump in on the fun. Although we wanted to, we weren’t sure how well three little ones would do for a few hours following in a line, listening to someone talk. One day, we did follow the tour a bit to a famous church and we stopped to take a look inside. I couldn’t bear to leave our son’s birth country without visiting it, so we took a little stroll through. It was beautiful, and something I think we’ll always remember. There were lots of memories like that—ones I hope we always hold onto in case our son is ever able to inquire about it.
We flew home with all three kids after our 14-day stay in Bulgaria, and we all made it in one piece. Our flights went better than expected, and everyone else on the planes was very gracious with us and our jetlagged babies.
We had a wonderful experience in our son’s birth country, even though we have many reasons to be angry with the circumstances of his past. Everyone in Bulgaria treated us very well, and we enjoyed our time there. We took lots of photos to make sure to remind all of our children of where our guy was born—we want to make sure we create an atmosphere in our home where we treasure each of our pasts and validate the experiences we’ve all had. Our NGO was a huge resource to us while in the country, and we could never thank my parents enough for joining us on our wild adventure.