British homes across rural Bulgaria lie empty. Where have all the people gone?
By the dawn of 2002 most Britons’ optimism for the New Millennium was already fading. We began to realise New Labour was just Old Tory with a more sophisticated PR machine. The current economic crisis was beginning to look inevitable and the cost of living was on the increase. As a nation, we hunkered down and turned to our favourite distraction for solace and escape – television.
Programmes like A Place in the Sun and No Going Home held the nation captivated.
We watched as couple after couple said a tearful goodbye to friends and family, squeezed children, pets and garden furniture into shabby Transits and headed for Europe. We willed them to make it (if we deemed them nice), weeping with happiness as they produced their first bottle of Organic Extra Virgin Olive Oil.
But clever editing and the expense of sending film crews on location meant we never actually discovered if they actually managed to sell the 5,000 litres they had personally handpressed or if they had remained living in that decaying farm house with no electricity or running water. But it didn't matter, as across the British nation, the seed was well and truly sown.
The dream of escape, of leaving the sinking ship of economic gloom for blue skies was born.
We laughed at their mistakes and cried at their failures. We watched them navigate bureaucracy and prehistoric plumbing, animal husbandry and homesickness. But the tedious and complex issues like children's integration into schools, serious health issues and foreign doctors, language learning and the wearisome daily grind of earning an income and functioning day-to-day as an immigrant were mysteriously never touched upon.
The idea of sun and escape was enough: we watched solely for distraction and entertainment.
That was until late 2001 and a particular episode of A Place in the Sun aired – at this point I should probably explain the premise of the show. An attractive female presenter, with a tenuous background in property sales/development and an impressive cleavage, takes couples to foreign climes to view homes within their budget.
This episode introduced us to the Smiths, who had the princely sum of five grand. The nation laughed heartily, but as we watched them snap up an entire farm near Burgas for £3,000 the canny Smiths certainly enjoyed the last laugh. It didn't matter that it was located in some bewildering ex-Communist land.
The nation was spellbound.
"Where was this place, Bulgaria?"
"How do we get there?"
"What's the limit on the credit card, Pet?" was the war-cry at Stansted airport the following summer.
Bulgarian real estate agents were only too happy to oblige. Considered successful prior to this if they shifted a few agricultural lots per year, they were now directing coach loads of land-hungry Britons towards isolated villages. As Brits surged through remote hamlets banging on doors and demanding that pensioners named a price, the property lust was visible, literally glinting in their eyes. Considered bonkers by the residents, they threw money where canny Bulgarians would never dream of treading.
"Nice view?" (Never mind there's no water or electricity.) "We'll take it!"
"Near a river? We'll have two!"
"Uranium mine? What's that?"
Some wanted homes for holidays or retirement. Others worked on the assumption that the Bulgarian property market would be similar to that in the UK, where property speculation paid handsome dividends. In Britain prices rise as demand will always outstrip supply. Basically, there are just not enough of the right homes to go around, and probably never will be. In times of crisis, prices fall, but nearly always regain their value. Th is is what gives the English their unshakable and infallible sense of security in property ownership.
Bulgaria, however, is a little diff erent. While much the world experienced urbanisation, behind the Iron Curtain Communism was furiously forcing human existence in the opposite direction by building heavy industry plants in remote areas and paying out bush money to teachers and nurses who were willing to move to remote areas. Once the regime fell, many factories and enterprises went bust and their workers had to move to the cities to make a new living. Collectivised farming ceased to exist, and suddenly Bulgaria discovered it was a nation of peasants without a farm. As a result the countryside now is littered with abandoned homes and, sometimes, entire villages. Bulgaria's ageing and dwindling rural population is only accelerating the decline. Th e rural housing market is not exactly a sector any wise investor would gamble on.
But the Britons who came at this time had never had the fi nancial assets to dabble in UK property, nor any experience of speculation. Obsessed with land ownership and investment potential, the idea of a life in the sun without a mortgage was just too big a dream to pass up. By day, they would wrestle physically on village streets and by night, sedated by the tropical chirping of crickets, cheap alcohol and impossibly attractive waitresses, they would discuss their numerous purchases and renovation plans.
It was basically so damn cheap and easy, the exchange rate was good and the Bulgarians more than willing to ship old baba off to a flat in town, vacating the decaying village home, previously considered worthless. Everything was for sale and everything was within their budget. We felt like Allan Sugar and Donald Trump all rolled into one!
But few actually thought about the implications of a life spent in a rural village. Might not self-suffi ciency be diffi cult, when you have never looked aft er a plant or a pet before? It’s not actually sunny all year round. Winter can be bloody freezing and then there is the complex Bulgarian language.
The British in Britain harp on endlessly about immigrants who can't speak English. They harbour a deep resentment against anyone who would have the audacity to arrive on British soil without being absolutely fl uent in English. Taking up residence here, this irony goes unnoticed as they proceed to shout louder and gesticulate more wildly, in the hope that Bulgarians will understand. Few villagers would really expect you to arrive speaking their small nation's incredibly diffi cult language, but they do appear a little shocked that most have no idea of Russian, French or German, all languages many "simple" rural people can actually use rather well.
Welcome to neo-colonialism on a village scale. My wealth here gives me status and power. If you want a share, speak to me in Enger-lish!
The basic problem is that most Brits are hopeless immigrants. While most of the world is in constant economic motion, we sit idly clutching the remnants of our decaying social security services tight to our chests, while bemoaning the attempts of others to reach our shores. We have high salaries, social security and the NHS. The world's favourite language is our mother tongue and education is free – sort of. We haven't had to sit by candle light listening to the World Service to improve our language skills. We haven't had family risk certain death to board overloaded boats bound for distant shores. We emigrate solely to take our fi nancial benefi ts to somewhere the sun shines and our pound goes further.
History shows we have always been this way, either tramping over entire continents demanding the natives change their language, culture and religion to our superior forms or later actually being invited and paid to go, as in the cases of Australia and South Africa. This has left a lasting impression on the British psyche that we honestly think the world still wants and needs us. We don't understand the world only speaks English because America and India do. We don't make or export anything anymore, even people. Today the British are considered costly and troublesome employees. Companies would rather employ an American for management roles, a South African for tough conditions or an Indian for sheer hard graft.
But what has happened to all these Brits? Where have the initial investment "pioneers" gone? Did they ever make their fortunes?
Some did OK, managing to sell pretty quickly to Brits who followed later, some even turned a small profit. But those who were waiting for the long term gains have lost out on a grand scale.
2009 saw the market nosedive: Brits weren't buying, they could barely cover their mortgage at home thanks to economic disaster across the globe. Many could not aff ord to return to Bulgaria, but if you speak to them, they remain resolutely optimistic that their 3,000-leva home (you only need to ask someone in your village, they all seem to know exactly what was paid and when) is today worth in excess of 30,000 euros. Wow, that's a good fi nancial return – shame it's completely ridiculous!
Now, if these "speculators" operated in a vacuum – their own little crazy world, as it were – we could happily leave them to it. But sadly it doesn't work like that. They have inadvertently created far-reaching eff ects for both themselves and the community as a whole. Unintentionally, they have created the very situation that forces house prices down in the long term. Their greedy frenzy in the early years fi rst drove prices up and then, by refusing to sell, they have eff ectively prohibited any young people who might hope to move back to rural areas from doing so. This is now killing the very village they need inhabited if they are ever to make a profi t. The situation is exacerbated further by those Bulgarians who missed out on the initial "Gold Rush" of the mid-naughties, and who are hanging on to homes in the hope that the coach tours will once again roll into town and they too can move into their luxury flat in town.
The only solace for those fighting to keep the villages alive is, because they don't bother to return, these profi teers are now unaware their "investment property" is currently being rented on a weekly basis to transient Roma workmen or used as a goat shed by the kindly old gentleman whom they entrusted with the keys.
But it's not all bad. Some, who came to live, have managed to stay. Those who fell in love with the lifestyle and didn't see the country as a vast resource ripe for exploitation have been the real winners. As long as they can make some money elsewhere or have a UK pension, they can hang on. They are often the people who could never have hoped to own land in the UK, but maybe should have. They took advantage of the low prices and a big leap of faith, to be rewarded with a rural lifestyle only the wealthy can afford in the UK today. They have spent time, effort and money within their communities. They have attempted to speak the language and understand the culture. These are people who would be successful immigrants in any country. In turn, the villages have been reinvigorated with children or grandchildren, income, ideas and cultural diversity.
But even for the honest majority there have been pitfalls to navigate. Many have fallen foul of unscrupulous British agents and tradesmen who preyed on gullible and frightened newcomers. Naturally distrustful of the foreign and non-English speaking Bulgarians, they turned to their fellow expats for assistance, only to lose everything. Stories of thousands of pounds sent for renovations which were never started, theft s and houses sold several times over are the expat urban myths of rural Bulgaria.
Loneliness, culture shock and alcoholism have also played a signifi cant role, as have unrealistic fi nancial planning or the complete lack of it in some cases. Th ese people, however, have largely returned home, tail between their legs, once again to plug back into our cosy little social security system. Maybe that's the point to all this. We are a spoilt and privileged nation, and with the numerous fi nancial safety nets Brits have to fall back on, we have little need for research or planning prior to making these life-altering decisions. If it all goes "belly up" we can go home and start again, courtesy of the State. We will be OK. A house, an income, healthcare and education, all for free. We can take enormous risks on crazy, un-thought through dreams based on little more than sunshine, and not worry about ending up with nothing, destitute and ruined. Maybe if we had to plan more and actually think about what we could lose, we wouldn't take such insane risks with our families' futures.
But, that said, it's these very same attributes that have brought some Britons to successfully integrate in villages across Bulgaria. This new and vital human influx has given many rural communities a tiny but signifi cant fighting chance, against the mass tide of urbanisation and the possibility of remaining on the world map for a few more decades to come.
Throughout Bulgaria, new societies are emerging who are using shared cultural experiences, improved diversity and a renewed local vigour to build a more optimistic future.
Now who's for Karaoke?