British Expats in Bulgaria: We Came Here "Just To Live Our Dream"
The British press moans and groans about a vast influx of foreigners, including Bulgarians, while the steady stream of UK emigrants goes almost unnoticed.
Some 30 000 or more UK nationals leave the country permanently every year, according to official statistics. Where do they go?
One of the prime destinations is Bulgaria. The British Embassy in Sofia estimates there are at least 8 000 – 9 000 Brits currently living here, perhaps many more. Who are they? Why choose Bulgaria? What is life like in their adopted land?
Beyond the Clichés
The stereotyped “Brit expat” is old, retired, cannot speak Bulgarian, and doesn’t integrate well. Many expats spread right across Bulgaria would vehemently disagree. There seems to be no simple profile that adequately describes the variety of Britons who have made Bulgaria their home. There are, however, some definitive trends: British expats tend to be from UK inner-city areas, with the majority moving to areas in rural Bulgaria. A favored region is that of Veliko Tarnovo, which has attracted some 3 000 immigrants in recent years.
On the negative side, many of these expats are unemployed and, since the onset of the financial crisis, are finding it difficult to live off their savings – for example, the value of a UK pension has dropped dramatically since the slide of the pound sterling, and interest rates on investments are at record lows – with an upsurge of Brits now forced to compete for work in an already difficult Bulgarian labor market.
One should draw a distinction between those who have bought property as an investment, those who own a holiday home and visit Bulgaria on a regular basis, and those who have settled permanently in Bulgaria.
Many short-term investors over the past few years who bought Bulgarian properties have been stung by a combination of the global financial crisis and the related local problems of economic slowdown and the “property bubble”.
Apartments on the Black Sea coast, and in, for example, the larger ski resorts of Bansko and Pamporovo, have not yielded the cash returns that were both promised and expected in the short term. Owners are now trapped in a dilemma: with little or no return on their investments and a collapse in market prices, they have a simple choice: lose money, or hope for better days, if they can afford to ride out the recession. (Novinite.com plans to publish a feature devoted to this hot topic very soon.)
Regular holidaymakers are not so badly affected. The Brits continue to visit their Bulgarian second homes, mostly close to the Black Sea and some mountain resorts. The expansion of low-cost flights between the UK and Bulgaria supports this. It is true that the overall number of holiday visitors to Bulgaria is down this year, but those who can afford it continue to enjoy a regular vacation here.
However, it is one thing to invest in Bulgaria or to take vacations. It is an entirely different situation when it comes to making a permanent move, to find a new home for yourself and your family, to leave behind your homeland, to plunge into an unmapped future. So, what motivates so many Brits to commit themselves to a complete change of lifestyle?
Q: Where Do You Find a Brit Expat in Bulgaria? A: Everywhere You Look!
There may not be statistical evidence of exactly how many expats live in Bulgaria, nor where they live. But it seems one meets a Brit expat almost anywhere in the country.
As one would expect, there is a concentration of expats in the capital, Sofia, an international mix of about 5 000 top managers and executives, including the British contingent, and probably several thousand more professionals.
Indeed, there are some choice neighborhoods where one cannot avoid them: according to a recent survey, Tsarigradsko Shose Blvd., Istok quarter, Sofia business park, Mladost 4 and Monastery Lawns quarter are typically occupied by businessmen, long-term consultants, diplomats and other professionals, of several nationalities. The trend here is that expats are based in Sofia for career reasons, staying here for a few years before moving on elsewhere, and living in rented accommodation.
But, look further afield, and you find that many Brit expats have settled permanently in other cities, in villages, and even in the most remote rural areas. They have established their homes for all sorts of different reasons, from the emotional (“I just fell in love with the place”) to the strategic (“a good centre for business opportunities”).
One can find small communities from Bankya to Veliko Tarnovo, from the banks of the Danube to Zlatograd. At last, we have discovered the hard core of British expatriates, those who have fully committed themselves to a life in Bulgaria – with all its ups and downs.
The "Monastery Lawns" Quarter is a Sofia suburb at the foot of Vitosha Mountain where many UK professionals, among other foreign executives, have made their homes.
The Life and Times of the Committed Expat
It’s a sad fact that life is not a bed of roses, and this applies to the Brits living in Bulgaria. Dramatic news stories appear regularly in the national press of incidents involving corruption, intimidation, criminality, and even violent deaths among the expat community.
Recently, there was the case of the couple in the village of Elhovo, who were besieged by their neighbor’s vicious bees. As well as suffering constant attacks by these insects, they cannot even consider moving house to avoid the problem, as no-one would want to buy under these circumstances.
Then, the case of Klimentovo, a village near Albena, where a small group of expats have suffered a spate of break-ins and thefts, and none of the perpetrators have been caught. In their frustration at the alleged lack of official action, they ended up in a brawl with the local police. (Novinite.com is currently investigating this story.)
This week, shockingly, there is the tragic report of the suicide of a 52-year old expat in the village of Saraya, near Pazardzhik.
Sad and tragic as these cases may be, one should keep a proper perspective on these events. Look at crime and suicide figures in Britain, or any other country, for that matter. One significant factor in the first three Bulgarian incidents cited, though, is a reported lack of action and initiative on the part of the authorities – more on this common allegation later.
Despite these disturbing events, many of the range of expats Novinite.com (Sofia News Agency) contacted gave a balanced account of their lives here in Bulgaria.
The International Professional
Bankya is a spa city of about 30 000 inhabitants, on the western outskirts of Sofia. An estimate of house sales over the past year indicates that up to 20% of clients are non-Bulgarians. Most of these are Greek or Italian, but there is a minority of Britons.
John Brewer, now in his 50s, moved here from London and married a Bulgarian lady some years ago. He has lived in Bankya for about four years, although he travels professionally throughout Eastern Europe.
His overall assessment of life as an expat is positive, but he also has some criticisms. Being married to a Bulgarian, he has of course learned the language to an advanced level. He had to deal with the familiar problems in purchasing and setting up his new house – the bureaucracy, the need to constantly supervise builders and decorators, connecting to energy services. Having overcome those common hurdles, he says he has no other major problems.
As for integration into the local community – he admits this is rather difficult, as he travels extensively, sometimes for long periods; but when at home in Bankya, he has a circle of friends, Bulgarian and international, with whom he enjoys a good and varied social life.
The picturesque city of Veliko Tarnovo, one of Bulgaria's medieval capitals, has proved attractive to many UK expats.
The Young Retired Family Man
A family man (who does not wish to be identified), retired from the UK in his mid-40s, has settled in the town of Sevlievo. He is frank about his reasons for moving to Bulgaria – it is cheaper than Spain or France.
He chose Sevlievo for its geographic position in the Balkan Mountains, and for convenient access to Veliko Tarnovo and neighboring cities. According to him, there is a local community of about a dozen Brits, but he prefers to mix with Bulgarians.
”Once you’ve mastered the language, it’s easy!” he replies, when asked about any problems he has encountered. Although he admits to being exposed to the financial crisis, it’s not a major problem. He is positive about his life here, and would not hesitate to recommend it to his friends. We have to wait for more details, including his name, as he is currently writing a book about his expat experiences!
The Young Professional Family
Veliko Tarnovo was the choice of the Patstone family. They arrived four years ago, and have two young sons, born in Bulgaria. They have opened a property management business, finding that Veliko Tarnovo is a good base for “growth in all areas”.
Because of their work, they are deeply immersed in the community, mixing with locals and with the 20 or so expats there. They find, as one would expect, that the more one speaks Bulgarian, the easier life becomes.
As client-oriented professionals, they have noticed a general lack of customer service, which they ascribe to a lack of job training, rather than deliberate obstruction or hostility. They add that they find that regulations and views can be “very old school, and it can be difficult to believe [Bulgaria] is in the EU”.
The village of Kraishte, General Toshevo Municipality, on the Bulgaria-Romania land border, is one of the farthest places from the capital Sofia within the country.
The Farming Pioneers
From the UK Midlands to the extreme end of Bulgaria – Paul and Carol retired to Kraishte, a ghost village with only a handful of residents, right on Bulgaria’s land border with Romania, in the General Toshevo Municipality.
They met each other eight years ago, and, last year, made this bold move. Their daughter, whose family is moving to Preselentsi, another village in the region, came across the property, and they bought it without even seeing it. Their reason for moving was, simply, that they were “fed up with England.
“Everything, government and that, they just want more from you”, says Paul. They run a small farm, and are busy renovating their property. They are on good terms with the few local inhabitants, and are particularly friendly with the mayor and her family.
As for mixing with expats, they admit to meeting a few, but are so isolated, this does not happen often, nor do they care. They say they love the countryside, and above all the solitude. Having sold up in England, they have their clear long-term plan. “We are not here to do nothing. We are here to live a self-sufficient lifestyle.” They have no desire to return to England; in fact they don’t even like leaving the village!
Paul with one of his playful dogs in his family's house in rural Bulgaria.
These accounts are not, of course, a scientific survey of expats, nor should one draw too many conclusions from them. However, they serve to illustrate the variety of people clustered under the umbrella of “Brit expats in Bulgaria”.
Each one of the people interviewed was making a success of their time in Bulgaria, whatever their chosen circumstances. While well aware of daily frustrations and difficulties, they cope in their own ways, and seem positively motivated in their lives, and by the lifestyle they have chosen.
The Wider Perspective
The phenomenon of the British expat in Bulgaria, widely circulated by the press and informal anecdote, has not yet been thoroughly investigated in a more methodical manner.
However, "Replacing GB with BG", a report published by ABCScholars, an organization supported by the British Embassy, that provides a general survey of attitudes of both the expats and of Bulgarian citizens. It also highlights the common problems expats encounter, some of which are being addressed by the authorities, others not so. Published two years ago, it remains highly relevant in its presentation of first-hand evidence.
Moving beyond the universal condemnation of the state of the roads and the ‘bent’ traffic cop late at night, the mad drivers, corruption at all levels, the mafia, trash, animal welfare and the rude shop assistant (though these are all issues that need to be addressed), and instead review some that directly affect expats in particular as they settle in their adopted homeland.
One of the biggest gripes by expats is the slow and cumbrous nature of official bureaucracy initially encountered in Bulgaria. Everyone has a horror story about the business of applying for residency, a situation now exacerbated by the information (not) included on the identity card.
For example, one of our readers recently wanted a bank loan: although he was financially sound, he was initially refused, purely because the only recognized ID he could present was his lichna carta, with its insufficient information. As Novinite.com (Sofia News Agency) already reported, the fact that EU citizens do not receive a fully functioning ID card (no photograph on the card, for example) is both discriminatory and, frankly, it becomes merely a useless piece of plastic.
Another current topic is that of obtaining a Bulgarian driving license – does one really have to submit to a mandatory and expensive course of driving lessons, and sit a theory test, when one has a clean driving record elsewhere for more than 20 years? True, one can now find a driving school in Sofia with English-language tuition, and sit the test in English, but the entire procedure is still confused. And what if you live in Kraishte?
For those expats with children, the education system proves problematic, again for official reasons. One dilemma for parents is whether to enroll their children at the local school, or in a private international institution (if one exists in their area and is affordable).
To cite a recent example: the 13-year old daughter of an expat (she, by law, must attend school in Bulgaria) is being refused entry because she cannot provide paperwork to show that she has (until now) attended state school in the UK, where, of course, education is equally compulsory. Such formal paperwork does not exist. This particular family situation remains unresolved.
Then – here we go! – the pitfalls of buying property. All too many Brits (and other foreigners, of course) have fallen foul of Bulgarian laws and regulations. Even with a trusted local agency service, the procedure can be drawn out (the same is true in UK, too). Those who have ignored advice, gone it alone, or been simply careless, can find themselves in big trouble (not to mention being considerably out of pocket).
If you want to live in Bankya, for example, you need to know that certain areas are prone to land subsidence before you build your dream house. Planning permission regulations are being increasingly enforced by municipal authorities, a positive move that until recently was conspicuous by its absence; but the dramatic measures sometimes taken if one has flouted these regulations may lead to the sudden arrival of a bulldozer.
The medical quality of healthcare in Bulgaria is, rightly, to be praised. But deficiencies and corruption remain. National shortages of blood for transfusion, doctors demanding payment before treating patients – these are critical problems for expats and Bulgarians, alike.
Readers have mentioned the two-tier payment system, applied to all manner of services: from an Internet subscription to the cost of a hotel room. Recently adopted laws make this discrimination an offense in certain sectors – but it still happens, even though at a diminished level. And, all too often, don’t expect an official receipt for services rendered!
One could continue in this vein. But it is only fair to point out that many of these kinds of procedures that the expat encounters are endured by native Bulgarians, too. One needs to remember, when faced with some nonsensical demand, that the system here is slowly changing, adapting to international standards – and again without forgetting the huge burden of bureaucracy and inefficiency one still experiences in the UK.
The Bulgarian View of The Expat
So far, the focus has been on the expat perspective of Bulgaria and its people. But there are always at least two sides to any story. The “Brits abroad” have a poor reputation worldwide – deservedly, in too many cases. Think of the invasion of the Costa Brava in Spain, the Ibiza “lager louts”, the exclusive groups in the south of France who form a tight clique, never integrating with the local population.
In Bulgaria, however, it seems to be different. Many make positive efforts to integrate, through learning the language (of course), making friends with their neighbors, contributing to the community (the man who formed a kids’ football team and went to the municipality to help provide a soccer pitch; the expats who work for local or international charities, or even form their own), and in learning all aspects of the local traditions and customs, from folk dancing to pickling vegetables.
It seems – quite objectively, and from many sources, including personal experience – that most Bulgarians show a welcoming, positive attitude towards those Brit expats they encounter. They could have several reasons for giving the cold-shoulder: foreigners taking over our property, flashing their wealth, not speaking Bulgarian, and so on.
But, in general, from the sources cited here, that is not a typical attitude. Further, almost all our contributors praised their local neighbors and friends for being positive and helpful. There seems to be, in most cases, a genuine reciprocal friendship and respect. As already cited, some of the expats said they prefer the company of locals to that of their fellow-nationals.
There is a general two-tier Bulgarian attitude towards the “new neighbors”. Local officials (see the cited report) may be critical of the expats, for a variety of reasons.
A mayor in the district of Yambol regarded the class of local immigrants as “scum, rubbish – the decent ones are not coming here [to Bulgaria]”. Some local officials resent the laid-back attitude of the Brits they have encountered, while they do all the work. Others are puzzled by the fact that Brits even want to come to Bulgaria, when they are desperate to “go west”. Others query what the expat contribution to the local economy may be.
Once one comes to the level of personal interaction between Brit and Bulgarian, attitudes frequently soften and become more positive. It seems there’s an admiration for expats’ correct business ethics and conduct, for hard work and persistence, for the fact that the Brit will “muck in” with work to be done; and, most important, there is a widespread appreciation of the humanity of expats – not so much for caring for the plight of stray cats – but for considerate, warm-hearted human interaction. Several Bulgarians mentioned that their new neighbors were intensely interested in local crafts, music and other traditions.
There is one cultural warning, though. All the good work of communication, cooperation and friendship can be undone by one simple thing – drink! Alcohol consumption in Bulgaria is, statistically and consistently, on the higher levels, internationally. Many expats remark that they don’t drink local rakia, as it is too strong.
That misses the Bulgarian point: they may drink, but not to get drunk for its own sake – they always accompany drinks with some food, even just salads and simple appetizers. This is not a personal crusade; excessive drinking by expats is included in official reports as a critical problem in the Veliko Tarnovo region – and, one suspects, elsewhere.
The Road Ahead
Bulgaria continues to attract the Brit expat, even in these difficult financial times. The person who arrives here needs, above all, to be patient yet tenacious, to be self-motivated, and to be prepared to make significant efforts to integrate into the community. There are, happily, many examples of this, all around the territory of Bulgaria.
It is undeniable that there might also be the “trailer trash” (in the words of some of the expats themselves) seeking to escape an unsatisfactory life in the UK, only to replace it with the same over here, failing, or not even trying, to make a positive life for themselves and for their local neighbors. Let’s hope they are a minority.
The Bulgarian authorities above all have a crucial role to play in these matters. There’s an urgent need to extend availability of official information in English – purely as an international language. The introduction of online commercial services (paying bills, accessing personal bank details) has been made, but the entire country is not yet well served in terms of broadband access. It’s a long time to wait until 2013!
At the inter-personal level, a culture of customer orientation is all too often lacking in Bulgaria (as already noted). This can quickly be remedied by a realization of the importance of basic training and staff development.
Comparing the condition of Bulgaria 10 years ago with today, there has undoubtedly been some progress in these areas. But, with more and more Brits and other nationalities arriving in Bulgaria to settle permanently, a positive attitude on the part of all parties is vital.
The new government states it is intent on a root and branch overhauling of the entire political, administrative, legislative and social situation of Bulgaria. Somewhere in this bold ambition, it needs to encourage and realize a harmonious and committed approach to the integration of a significant and growing population of expatriates.
Then, and only then, can one speak of true European Union.
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