by Libby Andrews; photography by Nina Lokmadzhieva

Tackiness, provincialism and the impenetrable language don't stop British teenagers enjoying life in Bulgaria

Holly Verity 2.jpg

Our teenage years are those when we rebel against our parents, explore who we are and what we stand for, and take comfort in a close circle of friends to help us through life's trials and tribulations. Important examinations loom on the horizon, we start to date and think vaguely about the future. But what happens to those teens who are wrenched from British society by parents chasing their own dreams of life in the sun? Expat teens remember vividly the day their parents sprung the unexpected, life-changing fait accompli upon them with those classic words of insurgency, “We're moving abroad.”

Breaking the Language Barrier

Neil Floyd is a lively 14-year-old lad, who left his native Portsmouth just over six months ago, but embraces his move to Bulgaria with great enthusiasm. Portsmouth, he says, is a busy, dynamic town. “It felt homely, I knew everything about it; where the shops were, where to go, who everyone was.” He feels disorientated in Bulgaria, but with the optimism of the young he brushes this off as being only temporary and says, “I think life will be better here.”

Neil enjoys the climate, his new friends and the unexpected freedom

Neil enjoys the climate, his new friends and the unexpected freedom

He recalls the day his parents announced that the family was moving to Bulgaria. “They picked me up from school and said, ‘We're moving'. I asked where to and they answered, ‘Bulgaria'. I was speechless. It was such a shock. I'd lived all my life in Portsmouth and I'd never even been to Bulgaria.” Again with a buoyant take on life, Neil embraced the move, although it took him a while to get used to the idea of leaving his friends behind. “I've got to move on in life, I'm growing up and England's got nothing for me.” Indoctrinated by his parents' reasons for leaving he tells me that there is too much taxation and house prices are extortionate.

His initial impression of Bulgaria was that it was amazing. In his mind he had anticipated the worst; a dirty country with decaying houses and nothing to do. He was bowled over by Varna and the surrounding countryside, but most of all the climate was the biggest bonus. “In Portsmouth the skies are always grey other than the odd day and you have to go out in a jumper, scarf and hat, but here I can go round in a T-shirt in November.”

He loves Bulgarian life; the friendliness of the people is something he never anticipated. “In England if you went up to someone and said hello they would blank you, but here everyone says hello, and they stop and talk to you.” He loves the views from his new home, where his bedroom looks out onto the beach and a small forest.

Possibly the greatest advantage for Neil is the freedom suddenly bestowed upon him: “I can go hunting here; in restaurants I can wander around without getting told off; we don't have to plan everything like in England and it's just more relaxed.”

Neil attends a local state school and is picking up the language. He still feels that school in England was better, although his reasons tend to hark back to the fact that he hasn't mastered enough of the language yet. He would love to share his football fanaticism with his Bulgarian peers, but his language skills just aren't up to that level of conversation and sometimes that's frustrating. Exasperated, he explains that communication is the hardest thing about moving out here. In class he sits at the back and listens, but finds the speech very fast and only picks up a few words. He is confident, however, that with his daily Bulgarian lessons he will get there in the end and has already built up a group of Bulgarian friends in his village who visit every day and play pool with him.

Neil is vague about what the future holds for him and what he intends to do in terms of employment. He envisages that he will leave school, marry a Bulgarian girl and become a chef, (although he really dreams of becoming a professional footballer). Bulgarian girls, he tells me, are “much prettier than English girls”. The only way he would move back to England is if his family moved too. It seems that once Neil has broken the language barrier the sky will be the limit for this young man.

Revelling in Personal Freedom

Holly Verity is a pretty, softly-spoken 15-year old, who came to Bulgaria when she was 13 and is now fluent and fully integrated into Bulgarian life. A native of Bridlington she exchanged the North Sea for the Black Sea when her impulsive father bought a house on eBay and announced to the family that they would be moving to Bulgaria. The shock of the news was immense, she tried to resist and when her father finally gave in and said they were prepared to wait until she had finished secondary education, she changed her mind and decided it would be easier to move with her parents.

To Holly, Black Sea summers, going to school and shopping in Varna outweigh disadvatanges like harsh winters and the lack of British foods

To Holly, Black Sea summers, going to school and shopping in Varna outweigh disadvatanges like harsh winters and the lack of British foods

Her initial idea was that Bulgaria would be a poor country and she was horrified when she made her first visit in winter to find that it was colder than home. On this first trip her parents drove from Sofia to Varna. Holly was appalled as she surveyed the countryside, which she describes as “full of ‘manky' villages”. However on reaching the coast, her opinion changed and she adores Black Sea summers.

Her overall impression of the country, though, is that it is backward in comparison to the UK. “Hardly anything is the same. I think it will take a long time for them to catch up with us.” She has some very strong dislikes about the country, which include “the winter (particularly in her village), the Gypsies, the thieves (her parents' house has been burgled several times) and Maths, which is much harder in Bulgarian schools than in English)”.

She is positive about the freedom she now has. “I like the fact that I can go to discos and it doesn't matter how old I am. In England you could never get away with going out. I also love motorbike riding and you can do that in my village because there are no police to question your age.” She also loves the fact that clothes are much cheaper than back home and spends a lot of time shopping in Varna, her favourite city.

She speaks with longing as she reels off all the British food she misses: Sunday lunches, Cadbury's chocolate and Skips crisps, but a five day trip back to Bridlington last year soon satisfied her cravings and opened her eyes. “My school in Bulgaria is a lot better than the one in England. The kids are better behaved and classes are smaller. The Maths we do is the sort of thing they do at A level in England.”

Holly attends a private school in the city. She started school three weeks after moving here and now has a mixed circle of friends; her class is made up of expatriate children from all over the world with Bulgarians in the minority, but she is quick to add that everyone there speaks fluent Bulgarian. She is proud of her accomplishment, having worked hard to achieve it. Her school arranged for three months of intensive one-to-one lessons. “It started to come to me slowly, but once I started to read it was a lot easier because I could remember it better. The real thing that did it for me was when I made loads of Bulgarian friends and started speaking to them.”

Holly says she gives little thought to the future. She acknowledges that living abroad has opened more doors for her because she is now bilingual, but secretly her sights are set on studying in America and she's not really sure that her future lies in Bulgaria.

Isolated and Alone

Nathan Gillmore is a reserved 17-year old. He came to Bulgaria in July 2007 from Cardiff with his father and stepmother, who had been discussing a possible move to Bulgaria for two years. However, the eventual move came about rather unexpectedly; a sudden decision to move and within days they left leaving Nathan with very little time to say his goodbyes. However, he did have a choice in the decision and was given the option of staying with his mother, but he chose to embrace the fact that he would be moving to a country with a better climate. “I wanted to stay with my dad even though my real mum was still living in Cardiff. I'd been to Bulgaria for two weeks the year before and stayed at our holiday home in Kranevo. It was alright, so I decided to live here.” Nathan's family now lives in a small village 15 km from the Black Sea, but he finds it isolating. “Because I don't speak the language, it's hard and I don't like village life. I stick with the English community because it's what I know.” In his spare time he says there is little to do other than play football and watch movies.

Nathan misses his old friends and has failed to make new ones

Nathan misses his old friends and has failed to make new ones

What does he think of Bulgaria generally? “Tacky. It's very ‘villagey' and when I drive through all the little villages I think, ‘Oh God what have I done?'” He thinks it's much better on the coast because it's more built up, but feels that in 10 years time it will be too developed. “I know that's good for the economy and Bulgaria needs the money, but I think it will be spoiled.” He also thinks that the government is corrupt and that this has contributed towards the lack of infrastructure. “There's too many backhanders going on and that's why nothing ever gets done.”

Is there anything he likes about the country? “The weather, and the people are better, they have more respect. It's healthier here because people grow all of their own food; you don't get that now in England. It's an easier life here, less complicated.”

His future here is somewhat unpredictable. He doesn't attend school and spends his time helping his dad do up the house. Ideally he would like to go to school. It was something he enjoyed in the UK, but his parents feel that it would be a waste of time because the school day last only half of the day. Nathan sees school as an ideal place to make friends, but feels that his time here isn't wasted because he is always occupied with the renovation project. In spite of his being kept busy, he does not enjoy his work or being in such close daily contact with his father. “We get on fine when we're not working together, but at work we have one of these bad father son relationships and we just don't get on.” Whilst he hasn't thought of finding employment of his own, he does think that if he stays in Bulgaria he will work in the beach and ski resorts when he gets older. But the question of staying weighs heavy on his mind and he's not really sure what he will do five years down the line. He still misses his friends and British food, going shopping and playing in a football team. He acknowledges that at the moment his feelings are balanced on a knife edge and that all of this could change if he were to meet a pretty Bulgarian girl, who presumably spoke English.

Confident and Looking Forward to a Bulgarian Future

James Traynor has been in Bulgaria for four years. He's a confident 15-year old with some mixed opinions about the country and its people. He traded city life in Manchester when his parents bribed him to follow their dream of living on the Black Sea coast. He was shocked when they broke the news of an impending emigration to him because he didn't want to leave his friends behind, but the promise of a swimming pool, a dog, a cat, the biggest room in the house and a pool table was enough to pacify resistance. Originally his extended family had planned to move en masse, but in the end only he and his parents came because his grandparents got cold feet about such a big move. The news that only he and his parents would move over shocked him, but his first visit left him with a good impression fuelled by the glitz of the beach resort Golden Sands.

James finds life here easier and freer

James finds life here easier and freer

Bulgaria has brought James on academically, he confesses. “My school marks were no good in England and I made a lot of trouble at school, but here, I'm not only fluent in Bulgarian, I'm not doing too badly at school. My marks have improved a lot.” He attends a private school in Varna, which specialises in languages and IT. He is proud of his linguistic achievement; it took him a year to become fully conversant in the language. Originally he had some private lessons, but he also picked it up as he went along. For many months he just sat in class wondering what on earth was going on.

Once he'd moved here, he began to ask himself, “What the hell am I doing here?” A few months in though he began to settle down and found the people much nicer and less aggressive than in England. “At home you can't go out without someone trying to have a fight or sell you drugs or something illegal, whereas out here I can go to the disco in Kranevo, stay out all night and come home without a problem. It's a different type of life.” He now has a wider circle of friends than he had at home and finds there is more to do with a freer environment in which to do it. His friends are a mixed bunch of international expats. “They come from Ukraine, Russia, Greece and some are Bulgarians.” He spends a lot of time socialising in Varna and laughs at the thought that it would have been possible to do the same in Manchester at his age. It's safer, a lot better and the people are much nicer; there are no problems.” In England his social life revolved around hours of television.

He is outspoken in his opinions about the country and its people; He finds Bulgaria lags behind the UK, but it is aesthetically more pleasing. He also echoes sentiments instilled in him by his parents, as he tells me that Bulgarians are “less intelligent” and that they “have no logic”. In a manner predating his age, he explains, “If you tell people to do something here they race on and do it the hard way round instead of thinking of the easy way to do it and it takes them 10 times longer to get anything done.”

He thinks that some Bulgarians make life harder for expats because they don't want to be told of better ways to do things. He also thinks that many Bulgarians are “really lazy” and dawdle over their jobs. Yet other than his best friend and Galaxy chocolate, there is little else he misses about the UK.

James is one of the few expat teens who have started to consider the future. Encouraged by his parents, he is considering a career in business management so that eventually he will be able to start his own company, possibly a nightclub or a bar. Living in Kranevo, a small seaside resort, he sees great opportunities for his business here. “Every year a lot of Russian kids come over for months on end. They go out to the discos and bars and spend loads of money. It's a money bank that people use all the time.” And with such a forceful personality and excellent command of the language I'm sure his plans are destined to succeed.

All in all, expat teens who move to Bulgaria expect the worst of the country. Yet they soon find that life here is freer and indeed superior to their UK existence despite the fact that the country to them seems light years behind. It would also appear that those teens who participate in the Bulgarian education system benefit from broader life experiences, which forces them to learn another language, adapt and integrate with a culture far different from their own. However, others, often those who opt out of education the minute they leave England, become isolated, fraught with feelings of not belonging and like ships cast adrift they have little idea of where life is taking them.

The future is still much of a mystery to our teenage expats; there is more at stake for these young people than for those who stay in the UK. Expat teens find that future choices of whether to stay in Bulgaria with their family or leave to pursue their own dreams, possibly on another continent, are too burdensome to consider. Rather than make fixed plans, they enjoy the personal freedom and safety that life in Bulgaria offers.


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