Every culture has a different level of "kindness." In the States, the kindness is skin-deep: the barista will smile and nod, maybe ask about your day, even as they internally curse your complicated order. In Ukraine, the barista will ask you what you want in a straight-forward, no nonsense manner, and only smile if it's actually warranted.
In Bulgaria, the barista will look at you like they can't believe you had the audacity to come into their shop.
Don't misunderstand me: most of the people I've met in Sofia are amazingly warm. I'm just not used to the specific brand of customer care here, and it's been something of a rough transition. I dread ordering at a restaurant or asking for help in self-checkout because I'm not sure what kind of response I'm going to get; I'm always sure to have the exact change and clear answers ready for whatever transaction is coming up. It's stressful.
But a new sandwich shop opened up next to my apartment last month, and it feels like home. It's owned by a woman who puts her black hair in a ponytail and is always taking croissants out of the oven when I walk in. She smiles with her teeth and had my order memorized by our third visit. I order in Bulgarian, and she kindly and gently corrects my pronunciation, and she teaches me the names of the vegetables. She tells me to have a good day, to come again soon, and it feels like she means it.
I don't want to be treated with extra care every time I walk into a situation. I'm aware my desire for a friendly face is intrinsically cultural. But her simple humanity is a breath of fresh air, something that I find myself looking forward to; it feels like I'm going to visit a neighbour instead of just picking up lunch.
I know that my family, friends and coworkers will be kind to me every day. But it's the kindness from strangers that stands out. I still remember a complement I got at a nail salon a few years ago, and the guy in downtown Kyiv who took the time to give me detailed directions. Last weekend I saw someone pay for someone else's bus ticket because they were a euro short; the gesture wasn't even aimed at me but I was still affected by it.
In general, my life has stabilized. I have a job I enjoy, a family I love, and a roof over my head. But the stresses sometimes boil over (the uncertainty of the war, the homesickness, etc.) and those negative moments can push them nearer to the surface. A smile from the person behind the counter, someone pointing out your dropped change, an apology for bumping into you on the street? Those little kindnesses add up. I need them more than ever.