British expats spill the beans on life on the Black Sea coast
It is estimated that around 50,000 foreigners live in Bulgaria now and the number is set to increase as more and more people adopt the country as their home. Virtually every village in Bulgaria has its token Brit family and some are overrun with them. British expats it seems are discontent with life in damp and drizzly Blighty. The cost of living is too high and property prices are astronomical. Life there has become competitive, stressful and threatening. They feel trapped in the rat race and it's no longer a nice place to end your days or bring up your kids.
The majority of expats have decided to emigrate before they choose to move to Bulgaria. Most shop around for a new country, just as they would for a new car, comparing costs, performance and looks. Dreaming of owning a Mercedes, they realise that they must scale down or make do and just as they would opt for a second-hand family saloon car because it is cheap and reliable, they choose Bulgaria for the same reasons.
Yet few regret their choice. The benefits of a Bulgarian life - the climate, the relaxed lifestyle, low cost of living and safety aspect far outweigh the disadvantages - it is corrupt, they are ripped off and the infrastructure needs massive investment.
GRIT, COURAGE AND AMBITION
NicolaHays' move to Bulgaria from Portsmouth is an unusual story and not only because she's just 19. Nicola moved to Kichevo, near Varna in July this year. She had been married for just 24 hours when she arrived. "I didn't want to honeymoon anywhere else in the world other than my new house in Kichevo. I was so excited about having a place of my own. Alan and I had been living in his tiny studio flat."
The couple had wanted to marry for some time, but had delayed because they could not afford to buy a property. "We were thinking of buying our own studio flat, but it was in a rough area of Portsmouth. We needed to take on a 35-year mortgage for £73,500. Looking back it seems a bit depressing; the apartment was only 20 ft x 9 ft."
Then Nicola noticed that prices in Bulgaria were phenomenally low. "I asked Alan if he would ever consider emigrating and I was surprised at how enthusiastic he was." Alan confessed he was sick of working 12-hour days as a builder with Travers and Perkins. Nicola's parents were so surprised by her initiative that they agreed to finance her property in Bulgaria as a wedding present.
She finds Bulgaria exceptionally quiet and under-populated and the shops rather basic. She misses English milk and sometimes gets homesick. "I feel a bit disorientated," she admits.
Nicola is learning Bulgarian and setting up a business for herself. "I have an hour's Bulgarian lesson everyday. I've also started to market my business teaching English to Bulgarian children." Husband Alan has already found that there is plenty of work for builders here and he found a job very quickly.
Does Nicola have an opinion of the EU and Bulgaria?
"Not really, I don't think it has made any difference yet and all that will happen is that it will end up like the UK with lots of high taxes. I love Bulgaria. It's relaxed and sunny and so cheap to live. We can manage on Alan's wage, whereas in the UK we struggled."
Nicola's get up and go is admirable and a compliment to her generation. She is determined to make her stay here work and at the moment she's enjoying the novelty of her new, married, expat life.
FROM END OF TERRACE TO A VILLAGE MANSION
Jayne Cockram, 45, is a bouncy lady from Rotherham, who moved to Bulgaria over three years ago with her husband and mother. "I hated the competitiveness that's developed in the UK," she says.
Ian Birhall (left) and Jane Cochram
She dismissed Spain and Cyprus as being "too British". An Internet search opened up Bulgaria as a possibility. "We'd been slaving away with our own catering business in England and my husband, Michael, was due to receive his first private pension payment. We realised Michael wouldn't have to work in Bulgaria. His pension goes a long way here."
When the Cockrams moved to Bulgaria in 2004 the real estate boom was just starting. They had just purchased a luxury villa with 450 sq m of living space, a swimming pool and landscaped gardens in an upmarket coastal village 20 kilometres from Varna. They were struck by the slow bureaucracy - for example in banks. "Staff didn't seem to know how to process our requests. They had computers, but they never used them."
Jayne is now thrilled with village life and its proximity to the Black Sea.
Is there anything she dislikes? "Every summer we are without water for a couple of weeks, it drives us mad!" She lists other familiar grievances: poor customer service, bad manners, incessant smoking, barking dogs and higher prices for foreigners.
Will Bulgaria benefit from EU membership? "Yes, OAP's got pension rises this year, more companies are relocating and they're building shopping malls!"
Will the Cockrams stay in Bulgaria? "Definitely, I just hope that young people don't have to struggle the way the old people here have," she says.
THREE GENERATIONS UNDER ONE ROOF
Ian and Barbara Birchall, 40, moved in May this year. They arrived with their three teenage children, Barbara's parents, eight dogs and three cats.
Why did three generations move en masse to a sleepy backwater in Bulgaria?
Ian explains, "We couldn't bear the thought of our kids spending their adult lives toiling away, just to pay the bills. We would never have considered a non-EU country," he adds. They discounted Spain because it's too touristy. They were impressed with Poland but ruled it out because it didn't have a homely feel.
Nicola Hayes (left) and Barbara Birchall
Their disillusionment with the UK had been gradual, but their eventual decision to move here happened at a lightning pace. In January Barbara saw a hotel advertised for sale in Rogachevo, five kilometres from Albena. On 9 February, the adults arrived and bought the dilapidated property. By 21 May, they had moved out and started completely renovating it. Before the end of August, the place was habitable and by the end of October, they were ready for business.
"We'd never visited Bulgaria before the viewing trip," Ian said. "But after we had seen the property and we were sitting on the beach in the February sunshine, we just felt so comfortable." Barbara continues, "We went for a late night meal in Varna and it felt so safe. That was a clincher for us. People seem happier here, whereas in the UK they're moaning all the time."
They may have settled well, but they miss those mouth-watering staple "Brit-foods": Cheddar cheese, English bread, pork sausages and decent bacon. "We brought lots of food over with us; we couldn't do without gravy granules, tea bags and Marmite," Barbara adds.
The Birchalls were surprised at the way Bulgarians abided by EU health and hygiene stipulations for the food industry. Ian comments, "We want to set up a bar and restaurant service in addition to the hotel and we have had to change the whole layout of the kitchen areas to meet regulations."
What are their hopes for the future? "That we can make a success of the business and that the kids settle. There are some marvelous opportunities out here for the kids."
Bernie Blezard, 57, has just got engaged to his Bulgarian girlfriend, Radka. Radka has changed his life and his outlook. She has given him a greater insight into real Bulgarian life and whilst he claims this is the best country he has ever lived in he's not too complimentary about it. He feels that Bulgarians are very stubborn people who believe their way is the only way.
"Good Bulgarians are very, very good, but there's not many of them."
He feels Bulgaria is very corrupt and works on the principle of "it's not what you know, it's who you know".
"I dislike the mentality of the average Bulgarian - not all. They don't look to the future, they look to today; they rip you off today, and they don't care about tomorrow." He puts it down to the old Communist mentality.
Since meeting Radka, Bernie has concluded that without the Bulgarians on your side, running a business is extremely difficult.
Radka changed Bernie's bar business. "More Bulgarians come here now and she has helped me recruit some reliable people. She's well connected." He doesn't explain what well connected means and taking a sip of his Bacardi and coke, he tells me how he came to live here.
Bernie has a touch of gypsy blood in him. He has lived all over the world and moved to Bulgaria from Spain in December 2005. "Spain got too expensive for me and I couldn't hack a move back to the UK - it's finished," he says. "In the end I chose Bulgaria because it was nearer to family."
He also reckoned on becoming a property developer, buying houses for 10,000 euros, renovating them and reselling at a profit.
The reality was that the houses available in this price range were "absolute sheds in the back of beyond".
Bernie has spent his working life in the pub and restaurant business. One day he spotted a roadside property in Alen Mak.
He approached the landlord and set up an English pub cum restaurant. His customer base is mainly expats who miss the comforts of home. His only regret is the tendency of some British people to indulge in petty feuds: "We have enough problems here without stabbing each other in the back," he says.
Bernie sees a strong similarity between Bulgaria and Spain 20 years ago. He feels Bulgaria will go down the same route as Spain and become over-developed, and that greedy businesses are already pricing themselves out of the tourist market by charging high prices. He cites the case of tour operators First Choice and Thomson pulling out of the northern Black Sea coast because prices are too high.
Bernie was in Spain when it joined the EU and saw first hand many of the problems Bulgaria is set to face. He recalls the time his staff asked for the EU minimum wage. "I said that yes, they could have the wage increase, but two members of staff would have to leave. They opted to keep their salaries."
His hopes for the future? The EU needs to invest a lot here. There's no infrastructure and little middle class. Ninety percent of the wealth in Bulgaria is owned by 10 percent of the population."