The waif-like figure has long gone, wrinkles have started to appear all over your face and you suspect that beneath the decades of hair dye your natural colour may now be grey. On top of this, just when you thought you didn't need to try too hard with your maturing looks you suddenly find yourself back in the market for dating. Twenty years ago this was quite an exciting prospect filled with the hope of finding Mr Right or just the feeling of being free. At 40 those feelings have long since died and are replaced by feelings of trepidation and anxiety.

To complicate the problem, you are no longer on home ground, you are now part of the Bulgarian dating market, so now you not only have to contend with the fact that your good looks faded long ago and your confidence diminished the minute you labelled yourself "a bad mother," but you also have to search for a date in a marketplace that doesn't speak your language or understand your culture.

The pleasant surprise to drag you from your despair is that the Bulgarian dating market for 40-somethings is thriving. No matter what sex you are, there is a veritable pot of dates to be had who don't seem to mind that you are spreading round the middle, and the good news is that they are not all after your beach villa or city pad. Announce yourself as being new on the market and offers will come flooding in.

Virtual Partners

If you prefer to get to know a person before you commit to a date, then one of the best places to start is the Internet. There is a host of dating and chat sites where people of all ages go to look for love. Most are free to join and you don't have to give your real name to enroll, just post your profile and a picture and if you want to be adventurous, trawl through the lists of singles in your area and create a hot list of "fanciable" candidates. What may surprise you is that people will actually contact you and tell you how enamoured they are with your profile. My profile was so shallow that I was somewhat suspect when I received an email from 32-year-old Craig who lived in Nigeria and claimed he was in love with me and that I was his soul mate. I doubt that Craig had ever heard of Bulgaria or had any intention of visiting it, as he is one of the Internets serial daters. He joins every dating site going so that he can boast to the lads down at the bush bar about his latest e-conquest. The issue here is that Craig neglects to tell his friend that you are only his virtual girlfriend.

Andy, on the other hand, who was permanently based in the UK but regularly travelled to Varna on business was looking for a different kind of relationship. His profile stated he was looking for a "No bullshit woman, hot, and horny... who can impress!" Intrigued, I answered his email and he asked for some pictures and sent me the address of a porn website to give me some ideas. Andy is one of the Internet's e-sexers; he develops his relationship under the cover of the Internet feeding you with porn and all kinds of horny ideas, and by the time you get to turn your virtual relationship into a real one you've done virtually everything already.

Kindred Spirits

Another source of dates is available within your local expat community, and keeping your private life out of the spotlight is nigh on impossible within this group of people — word soon travels round that you are available. Offers of dates come in via text message, which is probably the new dater's most important tool. Texting has made dating so much easier and faster. It's so much simpler to ask someone out by text and risk rejection in an unanswered SMS than to face someone in a bar. Additionally, if the answer is "yes, I'll see you," you can spice up and speed up the development of the relationship with more suggestive texts and possibly some SMS-sex.

Expats fall into two categories: those in the same position as you, that is, separated and new to the dating market, or from the "my wife/husband doesn't understand me" group. The former are usually abandoned souls who came to Bulgaria with their partner and are now stranded and alone, looking for someone to share their beach towel with. The latter are looking for an affair without the risk of losing their cook and cleaner. If you are looking for something genuine, then the first group is your best option. Like you, these people have decided to stay in Bulgaria rather than return to their homeland and providing your tastes tally, you could find a perfect match. The second group is looking for fun and if you have just released yourself from a troubled marriage, they may be a good bet — only if you're prepared for the flood of threatening texts when you are found out. Whichever you choose, you can be sure that nothing you say will be lost in translation, that you will both be laughing at the same things and nights down at the English bar will be fun again.

Lost in Translation

There are many locals on the market looking for something different and this is where you fit in. Don't be surprised if suddenly the male population of your village starts to pay attention to you, but steer clear of the diadovtsi, those 60-somethings who feel they have nothing to lose in declaring their undying love for you — roughly translated this means, "my wife doesn't sleep with me and I'm looking for sex." This age group is as bold as brass and think nothing of locking you in an unwelcome embrace and switching to their favoured porn channel whilst plying you with rakiya. The good news for lone men is that the female equivalent, the babi, are not in the market for foreign love.

However, men who are looking to date Bulgarian women may find that they are approached by what is dubbed in the expat community as a "meal ticket." These are attractive Bulgarian girls of all ages who are prepared to take on your beer belly and bad habits in exchange for the opportunity to share your enormous villa. Don't snub them, they are likely to be half your age and are prepared to wait on you hand and foot. If you can adapt to banitsa and chips, then this relationship could be very rewarding.

If you want a taste of the exotic, then date a Bulgarian guy. There is nothing sexier than him whispering sweet Bulgarian nothings in your ear whilst you cook his tea. Yes, this is the downside of Bulgarian men: They may be well versed in bedroom activity and constantly flatter you with their compliments in broken English, but put them in the kitchen and they'll sit back smoking their Victory's pondering over why foreign girls are not like their Mum, who dedicated herself to running after the men in her life. Bulgarian men belong to a different era; one that your Grandmother lived in. They feel it is their duty to pay every bill, fix your leaky taps, service your car and treat you like a lady. All they ask in return is for you to cater for their every need both in and out of the bedroom. If you find yourself in a relationship with a Bulgarian guy, don't hand over the spare keys to your villa — it will only triple your housework. Instead, get yourself a good dictionary, and get your name on a list for a liver transplant, as life will be one big party.

Don't Play Games

With so many choices, the prospect of being alone is enjoyable once again and the best things about being "mature, free and single" is that you don't have to play all of the dating games you played when you were 18.

Thankfully, this means there is no waiting for the phone to ring, or trying to second guess whether your new-found partner really likes you, or trying to protect your honour by waiting a suitable length of time before you hop into bed together. Dating in midlife brings a whole new set of rules, with the most important one being that you are expected to put your cards on the table, be upfront, forward and honest, and you can expect the same in return.


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