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Thu, 05/01/2008 - 17:40

The first sketch, or maybe portrait, of British expats in Bulgaria reveals a surprising image

When the first British expatriates arrived in Bulgaria, the Bulgarians were kind of surprised. Immigration (as opposed to emigration) was something new for them. Being a nation that lives at the crossroads of civilisations, they were used to foreigners passing through rather than wanting to stay, even though in history many had opted for the latter. Some had been refugees running away from persecution (like the Jews), massacres (like the Armenians) or civil war (like the White Russians). More often than not they had been conquerors (like the Ottomans, Greeks, Serbs, Mongols, Cumans, Tatars and so on).

The British were something different. Amounting to somewhere between 50 and 250,000, they were property owners who bought houses in the very villages that the Bulgarians wanted to get away from. Suspicious, very suspicious.

Some Bulgarians quickly found an explanation for this odd conduct. “The people who come here are poor. They can't manage in the UK and therefore their own country's active policy is to encourage their emigration. Their own country can't deal with them so they pass the problem on to us. We've become a dumping ground - we've gathered here all second-hand cars in Europe and now we're gathering all indigent old people,” said a Bulgarian interviewed by researchers from the Association of Bulgarian Chevening Scholars in the summer of 2007. Supported by the Foreign Office and the British Embassy in Sofia, they conducted the first survey in Bulgaria to try to draw a portrait or at least a reliable sketch of the British expatriates.The research team interviewed 11 Bulgarians and 51 Britons living in Bulgaria in places with a high expatriate concentration.

“We expected that the Bulgarians would discriminate against the British. Nationalist parties, such as Ataka, are on the up, cashing in on the idea that foreigners are buying up Bulgarian land,” says Martin Ivanov, PhD, project leader and historian in the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences. They also expected that the British would be segregated because, like the gypsies, they do not speak the local language and usually, some of them being retired, do not work.

After analysing all the information from the survey entitled Replacing GB for BG, their initial beliefs turned upside down. Not all expatriates are poor pensioners. Nearly 25 percent are young, they go to work and their children attend Bulgarian schools and kindergardens. The Bulgarians, in turn, prefer to direct their xenophobic attitudes at the Gypsies and Turks.

The expatriates think they have chanced upon a sort of earthly paradise. Compared to Bulgaria, Spain, which is its major competitor for “a place in the sun,” looks like an upper circle of hell.

Low property prices and quality of life are only the first in a succession of reasons to choose Bulgaria. What matters for them is the Bulgarian climate, scenery, the chance to mingle in the local community and the quiet. “I wanted a country greener than Spain,” says a man who lives in the area of Ruse. For a Scottish family living near Veliko Tarnovo, “Bulgaria is quite similar to Scotland in terms of the countryside. So, we felt quite comfortable here.” A lady thinks that Spain is “already a very ‘fish and chips country'. Too many Brits there. And all the Brits there stick together. They don't mix with local people”. Like the rest of the Britons, she prefers to be integrated in the community. There are a number of examples of this. A British lady has joined the village choir and sings folk songs, teenagers date Bulgarian teenagers and a girl from the area of Elhovo speaks the local vernacular with stunning fluency.

All this makes the British feel good. “In the UK you do not know your neighbours and your community is fragmented and broken. There is a community in Bulgaria.” Life in Bulgaria is attractively similar to that in Britain before Margaret Thatcher. “It's like we've turned back time in a way. Making things I used to make some 30 years ago. I've made my own pickles, which I haven't done for years.”

“The expatriates find virtues in Bulgaria which the Bulgarians have stopped noticing: the friendly relations in the small towns and villages, the feeling that you can rely on your neighbours, the readiness to help a stranger,” says Petya Kabakchieva, head of the Sociology Department in Sofia University, a reviewer of the survey and chairperson of the board of trustees of the Open Society Institute.

Hospitality, which contrary to what you see in the cities, has not disappeared in the villages, is the greatest merit of the Bulgarians, the expatriates think. The British are usually bowled over by the apples, eggs, cheese, milk and other foods that their Bulgarian neighbours give them without expecting anything in return. Some stories bring tears to your eyes. When the furniture of a Scotsman living near Veliko Tarnovo arrived unexpectedly, six of his neighbours immediately came to his help. “I didn't even know them at the time. They didn't want any money. I only bought them some beer. And they had one each.”

To realise some of the advantages that British expats find in Bulgaria even the staunchest of Bulgarian patriots will have to do some hard thinking. The Britons like the public health system (though they think hospital conditions are bad) and are satisfied with the level of education (apart from schoolchildren's poor discipline). They can leave their houses unlocked. Organised crime does not bother them: “Does a mafia really exist in Bulgaria?” And - oh, yes! The police are great!

A lady from the Balchik area had her house broken into, but the police caught the thief in a couple of days. “They brought him to my house in handcuffs… The police were very, very helpful.” Soon after they moved in, most were paid a visit by the village policeman, who came to check if they had any problems. Even when caught drinking and driving, the traffic police do not ask for a payoff (as they often do from Bulgarians).

The Britons are already used to the sluggish way of work here and petty corruption. Some of them do not worry about greasing the heavy machine of Bulgarian bureaucracy with “50 leva or a bottle of whisky”. For the majority, however, corruption is a myth rather than a reality.

Don't they see the world through rose-coloured glasses? No, not really. The expatriates do find some flaws with living in Bulgaria. Especially where road habits are concerned. “We came from Brighton. I would drive there happily. Here I am frightened to go down the village,” says a woman who lives near Smolyan. A former soldier who has settled in the area of Veliko Tarnovo admits: “I feel safe in Bulgaria except when I am on the road.”

The expatriates refuse to succumb to the age-old tradition of dumping their rubbish a dozen yards past the last house in the village. The savage treatment of animals also worries them. “Dogs being chained and that's their life - a 2 metre long chain. I've not actually been to another country where I've seen such cruelty to dogs, cats and horses,” says a woman living near Smolyan. The same is true of ethnic minorities. The Britons can't fathom why the Bulgarians will not drink beer with the gypsies and pay them lower wages for the same amount of work. Besides, they dislike rakiya and the local food (especially in restaurants) - two of the roots of Bulgarian national pride.

On the whole, the advantages of Bulgaria seem to largely outnumber its drawbacks. Do the local authorities create a special micro environment for the expatriates in an attempt to attract them and the money they bring to the poor rural communities?

“We can suppose that the authorities care for the positive image of Bulgaria,” Martin Ivanov says. The man who broke into the house of the woman living near Balchik, for example, was caught because the village mayor put pressure on the police. But not all of them are so helpful.

Some mayors of villages inhabited by expatriates consider their new neighbours “dregs of their society,” a former governor says. The mayor of a village near Yambol is mad at them: “Our fellow-villagers (the Bulgarians) act as servants in their houses. We do the cleaning, the sweeping, the brushing and the dusting while they only lie back and drink!” A colleague of his from the area of Veliko Tarnovo admits: “I suspect that these people have been sent here with a purpose.”

Those Bulgarians who are not mayors, however, do not mind their new neighbours. “I don't think they regard them as big investors, so they hardly treat them in a special way,” Kabakchieva says. “They are happy that they are there because they are unusual and a status symbol for the village: ‘Look, the British settle here.'”

It is under such circumstances that true friends are made. When a villager's wife living near Elhovo went down with cancer, the person who stayed with her during the course of the illness, till the very end, was the British woman from the neighbouring house.

Issue 20

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