by Libby Andrews

Using a life in the sun as a sticking plaster to repair a crumbling relationship has its pros and cons

Remember that initial move to Bulgaria: the excitement of a new life in the sun, that fresh lease of life, the endless round of lounging on the beach, drinking rakiya, making friends and living in permanent holiday mode? Many expats claim their move to Bulgaria is to get away from the drab British climate or to escape rising prices, crime rates and increasing debt, yet few will admit that the underlying reason is the hope that a new start will resolve fundamental marital problems. Indeed, for many it is a last ditch attempt to avoid a break up.

With a host of new adventures and experiences most couples are kept busy during the first year of expat life as they dedicate themselves to finding a way through the endless red tape of Bulgarian bureaucracy, as well as renovating or building a dream home. But when the sun sets on the novelty of relocation and reality strikes, age-old problems, which dogged relationships back home, slowly begin to resurface and are often exacerbated by the fact that expat couples are together 24/7 for the first time in their lives. Many couples find that after the initial upheaval of moving here, there is little left to talk about, others find that there are differences of opinions where one partner loves the new life and the other pines for the one they left behind.

As savings start to dwindle, financial problems place a greater strain on a shaky marriage. Arguments about spending arise. The struggle to find suitable work to pay bills adds even more pressure and the endless free time creates yet more difficulties. Some expats find it hard to switch from the holiday mood of continuous parties and drinking sessions into real life. By now quarrels are frequent; the emigration bubble is deflating rapidly and those with a roving eye look for solace elsewhere, whilst others simply pack their bags and leave.

Expat communities in Bulgaria are small and rife with gossip. The deeper into the community you get, the more tales about marital woes become commonplace fuelled with stories of the man who left his wife of 20 years for a Bulgarian beauty young enough to be his daughter, or the woman who was caught having an affair with a fellow expat, also married and allegedly living the dream.

When a “Bon Voyage” Becomes a Bad Idea

Jill Cleary, 45, swapped her life in Huddersfield for one in Bulgaria four years ago when she moved to Kranevo with her husband Patrick Cousin. Jill felt that her life in the UK was in a rut. She had reached the top of the career ladder and lost both her parents within the space of a year. Jill and Patrick had been together for 15 years and had been having relationship problems for some time, to the point where Jill had actually considered leaving him. In the end, Jill explains, “It was easier to come here with him than on my own. He was there as a sort of back up, but it ended up being no different than it was in England.”

Chinks in the relationship began to show again, when Patrick refused to work. The couple ran a jet-ski business in Albena, but Patrick never turned up for work and consequently the couple ended up losing a lot of money through his lethargy. Resentment set in and Jill felt that Patrick was sponging away at her inheritance and hard-earned cash. Eventually Jill's sister and husband visited her and broke the news that the husband had a terminal illness, yet he wanted to go out to work every day. “This opened my eyes and I thought to myself, if a dying man can work, why can't Patrick?” With that she packed his bags and bought him a coach ticket back to England. “He didn't even put up a fight as he knew that when I say something I mean it.”

Jill soldiered on alone and a year ago she met Teodor Ivanov in a local bar. “He came up to me and it was love at first sight, neither of us was looking for it, it just happened.” Five years her junior the couple now share a house together in Kranevo. Jill extols the benefits of a relationship with a Bulgarian man. “They are more like a gentleman than English men. They open doors and carry your bags. Teodor won't go out unless he has money as he feels it is his duty to pay for me.” A mixed race relationship does have its disadvantages though. Jill finds the language barrier frustrating because Teodor doesn't speak English and her command of Bulgarian is limited. “I think we tend to argue more as I can't say what I want to say and I get extremely frustrated,” she adds. She also made it clear to Teodor that she would not act in the subservient manner she perceives Bulgarian women to behave. “From the first date I made it clear that I am an English, and not a Bulgarian, woman, so I have my own mind and refuse to ask for permission to do something. I told him he could like it or lump it.” Jill does find it culturally enriching learning about the country's customs and traditions, though. When she wanted to celebrate Teodor's 40th birthday, he told her that it was impossible because in Bulgaria reaching this middle-age milestone is in some way linked to death. It is things like this that make the relationship interesting.

The couple has no plans to formalise their relationship and indeed, Jill intends to move to another country because she is dissatisfied with the bureaucratic regime here. She is unsure whether Teodor will follow her and explains, “We have not been together long and he is very family orientated. Teodor wants to go to England, but I don't want to as I don't like the place.”

A State of Independence

Lovely Louise Baker and Toby Pugh lived happily together in Cheltenham. They had been dating for 10 years when Toby popped the question. Three years ago, they moved to Bulgaria to help Louise's father run a guesthouse in Albena. Louise explains, “My dad wanted to retire and this was the only country he could afford to live in. Toby and I decided to move with him because we needed an income.” Nevertheless, Louise reveals that this was not the only reason they emigrated here. “Toby and I had been having problems with our relationship for around two years before setting up home in Albena. We kept this private for a long time and looking back I guess routine and force of habit kept us together.” Rather than improve their relationship, the move took its toll on Toby. “Things went from bad to worse; he became abusive, mean and nasty. Being out here away from his family and friends made him homesick and resentful, and eventually he cracked.” Distressed by the unfortunate turn of events, Louise soon found her attention turning to young Mitko Dimitrov (he is 10 years her junior), who came to the guesthouse to do some building work with his father. Louise continues, “Mitko was labouring in the sweltering heat and when he took off his T-shirt we flirted outrageously.” On Louise's 30th birthday, Toby found a birthday card from Mitko asking her if she would go on a date, but Louise had not responded for fear of Toby finding out. A row ensued and Louise packed her bags and left. Knowing that reconciliation was out of the question and yearning to return to the life he had in England, Toby left Bulgaria and didn't return. Louise accepted the date with Mitko confessing, “I was dreaming of a date with Mitko for a long time. He is tall, handsome and extremely charming, plus he has a big wallet!” Louise was introduced to Mitko's family soon after and found them to be completely different to English families. “They don't analyse you, they just welcome you into their family with open arms.” Louise finds dating a Bulgarian has provided her with everything she looks for in a man. “Mitko is charming, a real gentleman, he opens doors, carries my bag and he is great in bed!”

They live for the moment and have no future plans for marriage. Differences are also starting to arise as Mitko would like a family and Louise would not. “He thinks he can talk me round, so I may have to dump him before it gets too serious. At the moment the relationship is just casual and is ideal for me, as I have come out of a long-term relationship and want some fun.”

Love Without Barriers

Not all expats move to Bulgaria to patch up relationship issues. Indeed some are drawn to the country by a long-distance love affair. Michael Watson, 40, from Morpeth, Northumberland, was a regular commuter to Bulgaria because he owned a property business and had decided to invest in Bulgaria. Two years ago he met Galina Georgieva, a beautiful girl 10 years his junior. “I was visiting Varna on business and Galina was there visiting her family. She was studying at the University of Sofia and had lived there for 10 years.” Had Michael not met Galina, he would have continued to commute between the two countries, but as their love blossomed he decided to move here permanently.

Michael has had previous cross-border relationships predominantly with Russian girls. In fact, Galina is the first Bulgarian girl that he has dated and he believes there are many benefits mainly due to their great family orientation. “Bulgarian women seem less materialistic than English girls.” For Galina the relationships works very well - before Michael she had never had a relationship with a Brit and she thinks the advantages are great. “Englishmen are not so aggressive and they give women more freedom.” Michael does not identify any great cultural differences. He speaks a little Bulgarian and can get by, but Galina is fluent in English and he relies a little too much on her skills as his interpreter.

Whilst the couple is expecting their first child in June, marriage is something they may consider in the future. At the moment, they are too busy making plans to return to the UK for the birth because they want the child to have dual nationality. Choosing a name for the baby is also proving something of a dilemma. Originally, they were told they were having a daughter, but recently found out that they are expecting a son and have no ideas for a name other than it must be pronounceable and acceptable in both languages. Their child will be brought up on Bulgarian soil because both agree that life here is much less stressful and happier than the rat race back in the UK.

There is a lesson here for us all to consider. Hopeful expats can easily become ex-husbands and ex-wives. The transition from a rocky relationship to stability in the sun is seldom easy and for many, the harsh reality is that sun cream and golden tans can rarely hide the cracks in a failing marriage.


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