Bulgaria is one of those countries with a hospitality culture that guidebooks and Sunday newspaper sections rave about.
This means that you will be cared for in a way that can be both warm and oppressively overbearing, welcoming and kind of weird. Spend any time here and make friends with any locals, and you will end up invited На Гости (Na Gosti). The literal translation of na gosti is “as guest,” which makes gosti the rare Bulgarian word that sounds remotely like its English counterpart. Na Gosti isn’t just going over for dinner—it’s more like participating in a local folk dance, where everyone knows the steps except you. Here’s the choreography for surviving Na Gosti:
First, there are 3 things you need to know:
- You need to eat and drink slower than you ever thought possible, because
- It is your host’s duty to force-feed you, and
- You will be there for at least 5 hours.
Na gosti is a battle between host and guest: the host must make you eat, and you must avoid excruciating gut pain.
To drink, you’ll get beer or—if you’re fancy—wine, or Derby Cola or—if you’re fancy—Coke. The night starts with salad. You get a plateful of salad, of which you take a bite and don’t touch again for at least 20 minutes. You hosts will have three bites of salad in the first half-hour Na Gosti, try to shoot for similar numbers.
My first Na Gosti, I ate salad as slowly as I thought was humanly possible. By the time I’d been given my third plate, my hosts had each taken 3 bites.
Eating patterns work out to an exponential growth curve. For the first half of the curve, things will be eaten so slowly that your plates are mostly decorative. As time goes on and rakiyas are downed, plates get cleaned in minutes.
Eventually, you will move on to the main course. Here is where the dance begins in earnest. Tradition holds that your host feed you as much as possible, but the limits of the human frame prevent you from eating as much as they want.
You can’t put away three or more plates of meat and root vegetables like you did salad, so here’s where you have to be really careful. It helps if you think of your plate as made up of three sections:
- Safe Zone: You can eat from the safe zone without getting another ladleful. Enjoy! (Careful, though. I once got a second serving before taking a single bite. I stripped the meat off a bone first, and the plate looked too empty.)
- Danger Zone: Once you’re in the danger zone, be careful. If you only want three more bites, those might be the bites that earn you another full plate, which you must then finish.
After I was full, I ate an olive when I thought no one was watching. That olive got me pressured into eating a carrot and half a rabbit’s leg.
Paradoxically, the dictates of na gosti often mean you are forced to go a little hungry, rather than leave painfully overstuffed.
- Never Empty: enjoy that next serving.
After dessert, you will eventually want to leave. However, a guest leaving at a time at their choosing is a sign of poor hosting. The longer you’re at the table, the better the host. Budget between 15 minutes and another hour or more, depending on how assertive you are and how much you actually want to go home.
As far as leaving, there will be a lot of back-and-forth. You will most likely be very tired, since it’s going to be long after midnight. If all else fails, just remember to how you got there: put your coat on and walk right out the front door.
If you’ve done everything right, or even if you haven’t, you most likely won’t leave empty-handed. To last you the long trip back home, you’ll end up with leftovers, homemade alcohol, things from the garden, and vaguely pagan holiday creations.
Like they say here, Домашно е най-хубаво—homemade is best!