Thu, 05/01/2008 - 14:04

One-day-a-man-will-come-and-fix-everything is the best answer an expat can hope for in many situations in Bulgaria

Passing comment on workmen as they botched things together or attempted to lift heavy loads used to be a light-hearted joke. Tongue firmly in cheek, I would turn to my companion and jibe; “How many workmen does it take to dig a hole?” The answer - eight: one to dig; three telling him how not to dig; three, with folded arms, watching him dig; and one to keep the barbeque/fire going.

To elaborate though, it's not just houses and other constructions; it's an overall lapse in making and keeping things pretty. The fact is Bulgaria is a beautiful country. Its geographical position and wealth of topographical features make for some of the most attractive lakes, mountains, wetlands, beaches and caves in Europe. However, it's difficult to take in the beauty without noticing fly-tipped piles of rubbish, half-derelict ruins, and defunct power lines lay across fields. If an alien landed in the country, from its first glimpse of the flora and fauna of planet earth he would think there was a species of tree exclusive to Bulgaria that fruited plastic bags on each branch.

Once you begin to notice this lackadaisical way of life and work, you can't help but spot careless actions and notable blunders all over the place: a live cable hanging here, a doorway to nowhere there, a heavy load tied onto a work-Lada with frayed string, a dusty, disordered shop display. What's worse is I can feel myself slipping from time to time and getting sucked into this trap of apathetic responses to problems, tasks and issues. Fence broken? Just thread it up with bits of string; that'll do. Draughts from the window? A bit of expanding foam in the crack (and all around) will do the trick. My house and garden will look more and more like Frankenstein's castle if I don't nip this behaviour in the bud.

Here's another thing: Why won't my mechanic fix my car? It backfires, and there is clearly a problem with the way the fuel is feeding through to the engine. But it goes, says Vasi, even if it does jump like a kangaroo, so let it be. I can understand to an extent why the “If it ain't broke, don't try and fix it” mentality would be favoured in a country that was once predominantly poor, but surely ignoring a problem, particularly a mechanical one, will just make it worse in the long run?

There have been reports recently that have shown seemingly harmless instances of slap-dashery rearing their ugly heads some time later. In September 2006, part of a building fell down, killing two women who were driving by, then the following September, part of the wall of the National Art School in Ruse fell down just hours before local children passed it on their school route. So far this year, there have been three other reports of building collapses around Bulgaria, one of which resulted in the death of a 22-year-old student in Varna. There are also daily news reports on the latest unfinished or badly repaired road causing accidents, open manhole covers leading to horrible falls, and twisted ankles from wonky paving slabs.

Putting safety aside for a moment, what about aesthetics? In the UK, attractive and functional are qualities of equal importance. In Bulgaria, a house is a house; a place to live. Not a work of art. Families who have found their disposable income increasing in recent years have chosen not to have their outside walls rendered or leaky roof replaced. They would rather have a huge satellite dish mounted on a haphazard exterior wall, or a cinema system installed in the flaky living room.

Plus, there are times when a job not well done doesn't actually perform its function. My partner and I have a favourite restaurant that ticks almost all the boxes. The food is good, the service comes with a gratifying smile, the interior is nicely done, and there are even separate toilets for men and women. However, whereas I found my respective restroom satisfactory, bar the odd cracked tile or interesting pipework, my other half came back from one lavatory interval with some rather perturbing feedback. It turned out, that the little boy's room was fully functional if you were standing for the visit, but for any seated stops, the toilet was planted so close to the door that on sitting down, the door couldn't close past the knees.

After spending enough to have a carpenter build a decent bespoke wooden fence for our renovated property, we were still in need of driveway doors. We asked our Bulgarian friend where we might find a nice, classy gate and he took us to the friend of an uncle of a friend, who also happened to be a maystor (expert). The fellow in question owned a scrap metal yard and showed us an ancient, rusted door, heavy on the hinges, and told us that with a lick of paint it would be mnogo krasiva (very pretty). Try telling that to Charlie Dimmock.

Of course, this need for faultlessness is often seen as a western flaw. The no-nonsense Brits want everything “just so” and the Americans need everything to be the “best of the best”. The Germans are so rigid in their desire for precision in a structured and ordered life that they are either poked fun at, or feared for their social and professional demarcation.

The further south and east you travel, what classes something as “correct” becomes increasingly vague and a laissez-faire attitude prevails. My father-in- law, a seasoned expat, spent six years teaching in the, at times, rather unyielding society of Vietnam. He moved from there to a country quite, quite different, where mañana prevails and signs with opening hours hold no more truth than the average British tabloid. In his new home of Spain, problems are regularly put off until the next day, workmen are often found kipping on the job and shops simply shut at an allotted time no matter what. Even if you're stood at the door, cash in hand, about to enter and make your purchases, when the clock strikes siesta time, the vendor will lock the door in your face and lope off for a snooze. Other countries such as Croatia and Greece also value their siestas highly, and post-lunch they will nap away, regardless of any tasks in hand or business to attend to.

To sum up, I think the attitude that “it'll do” is mainly harmless; it's just a little harsh on the eye. However, if the recently reported injuries and fatalities through botched building and repairs continue to increase, it will be a more serious matter than just the way things look.

Issue 20 Culture shock Living in Bulgaria

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