The things most Kiwis know about Bulgaria are that its weightlifters and wrestlers are huge and impressive and its yoghurt extremely tasty.
But where you least expect it in Auckland there are little pockets of international culture being kept alive, and at Glenfield Intermediate School each Sunday 25 young Bulgarians gather to learn the language and history of their homeland.
The school is named after St Cyril and St Methodius, brothers who devised the Bulgarian alphabet in the 9th century. The school began in 2003 and is one of 104 in the world funded by the Bulgarian Government.
Panmure resident Sonya Arabadzhieva, 47, teaches primary pupils at the school. It was founded by Bulgarian parents Elena Modkova and Elena Uzunova, who wanted their children to read and write Bulgarian.
During the week, Ms Arabadzhieva, a qualified teacher, works as a teacher aide at Kohimarama School and as a childcare assistant at the Meadowbank Community Centre. But on Sundays she teaches Bulgarian culture and language, drawing from 20 years' experience in her homeland.
At 5pm on Sunday, after their lessons, the pupils move to a hall at Glenfield's Marlborough Park where they learn folklore, singing and dancing.
Their cultural performance group, Bulgarian Roses, performs twice a month at events around Auckland. Ms Arabadzhieva is the founder and artistic director and Lidiya Andreeva the singing and music teacher.
Ms Arabadzhieva's husband, Tsvetan, 49, is president of the Bulgarian Society. The couple emigrated to New Zealand six years ago with their children Vladimir, 24, and Tsvetina, 20.
"We chose New Zealand because it is a beautiful country with a good reputation," Ms Arabadzhieva says.
When communism ended in Europe, Bulgarians started to discover what lay outside their borders.
"It is now a big village and I think it is great when we can live where we like." But leaving relatives, homes and careers wasn't easy, "especially when you start learning English in your 40s".
About 2000 Bulgarians live in Auckland, mainly on the North Shore, Pakuranga and Howick. They often get together for events like Bulgarian National Day on March 3, Bulgarian Alphabet and Culture Day on May 24, Bulgarian National Leaders Day on November 1 and New Year's Eve.
"Many secrets of the oldest history of mankind are hidden in Bulgaria's bosom," says Ms Arabadzhieva proudly. "Our culture is so rich, our folklore is so beautiful. We keep alive our customs and traditions no matter where we live."
Ms Arabadzhieva says many families come to rehearsals just to socialise.
Photo: Nikolay Kabzamalov
Parents once had to pay for the school's expenses but three years ago the Bulgarian Government started a programme to promote its language and culture to Bulgarians living abroad. The school applied, under strict criteria, and was granted funding for all expenses. Auckland Council provides funding for the use of the hall.
Ms Arabadzhieva says Bulgarians are a brave and proud people - and they have more tender talents than weightlifting.
"They know how to make the best yoghurt and feta cheese and produce 60 per cent of the world's rose attar, used to enhance the bouquet of all perfumes."
*The final of Bulgarian Talents in New Zealand is being held at the Rose Centre in Belmont on Saturday, June 16, from 6.30pm. Tickets $5. For bookings call 021 175 69 86.
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