Britons buying in rural Bulgaria came here to acquire property and land at rock bottom prices. Considering the language and cultural differences, the time constraints and the plentiful enterprises established primarily to separate them from their money, the vast majority seem to have ended up with more or less exactly what they had hoped for. Whether they were aware of it at the time of purchase or not, they were also committing financially, emotionally and physically to their new, declining rural communities.
Bulgarian villagers know each house in the community intimately. They know the depth of the well, the strength of the walls and the fertility of the soil. They were there when it was constructed and were often actually involved in the process. However, this vital knowledge is not available to the newly arrived Briton, who has neither the language ability nor the opportunity to chat with the locals as they are rushed from property to property by an agent determined to make a sale. Usually, this information only becomes apparent years later, after they have learnt some Bulgarian and spent time with their neighbours, but by then, of course, it is too late.
There is, however, another aspect to this. Many people do not actually want to know the unvarnished truth: they don't want to "look a gift horse in the mouth" in case the spell is broken. They don't want to know that something hideous is lurking behind the walls or that the structure is entirely devoid of foundations. They fall in love with their idea of it, and in their mind's eye they already see it beautified and envisage their future life within. Few who commit to buying seem prepared to give up the dream of owning outright a property in the sun.
At the back of most people's minds there was a voice whispering, "At this price, how can I go wrong?" To hesitate would be to miss out on your own personalised Bulgarian vision. This feeling spurred on the buyers, and many agents I've met certainly did nothing to dispel the dream. In the mid 2000's, the rural Bulgarian property market seemed to be entirely driven by panic. Panic that prices would rise, panic that someone would get in before you, and the panic that you wouldn't find anything during your two-week trip.
Most people are not stupid; they didn't just turn up and buy on the spot. The majority did a good deal of research via the Internet which, even today, remains the primary driving force behind the Bulgarian property boom. Britons trawled Bulgarian forums with the help of new virtual friends, and spent weeks pouring over vast caches of photos. The images of small, damp, spartan rooms crammed with the simple essentials for a lifetime of self sufficiency flooded into suburban homes up and down the UK, but the reality of village life didn't seem to register. All we asked was: "Is that a traditional door/wooden ceiling/open fireplace behind that old baba?" There were endless images of gardens, snapped in a cold, bleak January or a June jungle, but once again, we only wanted to know if we could fit a pony in there or whether there was a water supply for a swimming pool. The deprivation and hardships endured by so many in rural Bulgaria were evident in each image, and yet we completely overlooked them in our haste to fulfil our shortlist based on aesthetics and trivia.
Once actually in Bulgaria, everything changed. Houses that had appeared so perfect on the screen turned out to be located in deserted villages or on dreadful roads. All that time spent imagining period features and pools would have been better spent googleing the villages in which the houses were situated, if only the agents had mentioned the location. Suddenly, all previous research became irrelevant, as the parameters had changed. Buyers realised it was more about the village itself, its proximity to towns, winter access, good roads and honest neighbours.
The problem was that, after months or even years spent researching and planning, the thought of returning home from a two-week viewing trip with nothing to show for it was inconceivable.
The intangible factors we Britons deem so important such as the feel of the property, the light, the space and the view were unknown concepts in the villages prior to our arrival. Our dogmatic quest for these indefinable, unmeasurable and frankly superficial factors was nothing more than a reflection of our relatively luxurious lives back in the UK. For those selling, however, life had always been about survival. A property was valued solely for its efficiency and production potential. The rural population gasped as these ambiguous factors resulted in unimaginable offers for houses previously deemed worthless.
The cultural discrepancies didn't stop there. What we Britons crave – large plots of land, regardless of quality and gradient, spacious houses and rooms, internal staircases, period features, exposed beams and open fireplaces – would make a villager recoil in horror at the needlessly expensive upkeep, wasteful heating and utter pointlessness.
However, there are things we can all agree on, such as accessibility to water, as supplies regularly dwindle to a trickle in the summer months, the neighbours and their particular "employment," the potential for flooding, the likelihood of wild fires and the frequency and magnitude of earthquakes. Sadly, most Britons take no account of these factors, as they are not something we come across in the UK, and many canny agents are not going to jeopardise a sale by mentioning anything negative.
Adrift in a country with no cultural compass, most new buyers are at the mercy of the agent they choose. These people become not only their "home finder" but also their interpreter of Bulgarian culture. Good agents help with more than just house hunting, ultimately assisting with the successful transition, renovation and assimilation, but this has not always been the case, and many just exploited both innocent rural seller and nervous foreign buyer.
On the whole, considering how many of us bought with so little knowledge of the country, language, village life, land quality and how to cultivate it, we have been extremely lucky. Yes, most of us have had minor mishaps along the way and we have all heard of the few for whom it all went hideously wrong, but the vast majority have been extremely fortunate. We have new homes and have achieved our rural idyll at a fraction of the cost that would have been incurred in any other European country.
The successful purchase and renovation of a property and the positive integration into local life depends not only on the agent but also on the individual's capacity to adapt. Bulgaria is not the UK, but that's why we came here. Cheap property is part of a larger rural economic climate, where poverty is prevalent, wages are low, unemployment high, petty theft can be common, services are often poor, and urbanisation, emigration and depopulation have deprived the countryside of its young people. It is just not possible to have the good aspects of rural life without the bad.
Today, amid predictions of a Bulgarian population of a mere 5.4 million by 2050, our job is to try to support and strengthen the communities in which we have chosen to make our new home. If we don't, the decline of village life will not only be Bulgaria's loss but also ours – financially, emotionally and culturally. If you consider your village has poor services today, what do you suppose they will be like with only half the present population?
It has already been decided that Post Offices will be phased out in smaller communities by the end of this decade. Unprofitable bus services are being reduced, regardless of the lifeline they provide. With rising oil prices, how long before village shop suppliers stop delivering to less lucrative outlets, and vets and other rural specialists drop essential mobile services? Today, many villages appear to be precariously balanced, possibly only requiring a small, seemingly insignificant service loss to start a decline which they cannot possibly reverse.
We need to keep abreast of rural developments, initiate dialogue with our mayors and become familiar with accessing those who make decisions at municipal level. We are part of these communities and it is our responsibility to our investments, ourselves and our neighbours that we do our utmost to ensure their survival. We need to monitor and be vigilant about changes in policy that have an impact on rural areas. We need to support our local shops and businesses whenever we can. We need to help our neighbours; even little things count, such as collecting prescriptions, car sharing, and offering employment when we can.
The communities in which Bulgaria's some of Bulgaria's ethnic groups – Bulgarian, Roma and expat – work together, accepting that all groups are valid, active members of the community, can build a cohesive and positive local civil society which will likely have a stronger chance of survival in the future.
In addition, we need to try and engage with the young diaspora when they visit their rural family members. Many speak good English as a result of working in cities, resorts and abroad. They have lived lives much like ours and understand our culture, yet also know village life intimately. They are surely some of the best guides we could hope to meet in our quest to understand each other on a deeper level.
The good news, though, is that the rural people we have chosen to live amongst are resilient, inventive and resourceful. They have an innate knowledge of and respect for the natural world that other nations lost long ago. They are a population of survivors and doers, makers and creators, who have lived lives of simple yet successful self-sufficiency. They are role models not only for us, but for the wider world.
Today, as we witness significant negative changes across the planet, we can either choose to disregard them as isolated cases, or we can acknowledge that we are moving into more uncertain times. Change is all around us – oil prices are rising, food security is falling, populations are increasing exponentially, and water scarcity is an issue. GMO crops are contaminating ancient seeds, and climate change is forcing entire nations to rethink their agricultural methods. We can wholeheartedly thank our rural neighbours for their custodianship of this productive land, and the knowledge they so openly share with us.
As we enjoy our rural homes, maybe we should be thankful that not only did we purchase our land and property without great expense, but also that we are sharing our boundaries with such a strong and resourceful people. Although the future for many villages is not looking too bright, maybe it will not all be bleak, if we actively initiate the protection and defence of the natural and human resources already here.