Tue, 07/01/2008 - 15:54

Gypsies and Turks are the usual victims, but Britons don't lag too far behind

"Foreigner” was a dirty word when I was young. It was the label given to immigrants who couldn't speak our language and lived by their own set of rules and customs. Additional names and labels were given to denigrate skin colour or ethnic background - vile words such as “Paki,” “Chink” or “Wog.”

In the UK, racism abounded during the 1960s and 1970s. Disparaging remarks about foreigners who supposedly came to take our jobs and sponge off our social security system were commonplace. In the 1980s, Britain cleaned up its act somewhat. Racism became a hot topic, not to be tolerated in the workplace, education system or within family life. Suddenly we all became equal, although some of us – namely the indigenous white population – were more equal than others, and racist jokes and remarks were quietly conducted in private. In today's Britain, racial prejudice is back on the increase due to the influx of East European immigrants. Once again, these newcomers are condemned for stealing our jobs and setting up their strange businesses on our high streets.

It seems that Britons abroad are now getting a taste of their own racist medicine. For some strange reason we seemed to believe that we could emigrate to all corners of the globe without drawing attention to ourselves. After all, the true British stereotype is of civilised and well mannered folk. Unfortunately, our blatant displays of wealth in economically poor countries such as Bulgaria, along with our we-know-better approach to doing things has not been met with the enthusiasm most expats had expected.

As more and more émigrés settle in Bulgaria, our novelty value is declining and our nuisance factor is on the increase. Our inability to learn the language puts us on a par with those we once derided. How many of us smirked at the Indian patois whilst we tucked into one of their delicious curries and how many of us were enraged when confronted with Polish citizens who spoke only a few words of our language? In spite of that, here in Bulgaria expats fail to pick up the language with excuses like “It's too difficult,” “I haven't the time'” and “Everyone understands English.” Didn't we once proclaim that foreigners who couldn't be bothered to learn our language should go home?

And how many times have we scorned the opening of Pakistani-run newsagents, Chinese takeaways, Indian clothes stores and more recently Polish food stores? Yet here we are in Bulgaria running English bars, shops and restaurants akin to Mr Patel's corner shop whilst our grand villa purchases ghettoise the local villages. What about our strange culture and customs? We dress in skimpy clothes all year round – no matter our shape or size. There's no getting away from it, for most of the year Bulgaria is far warmer than the UK, yet to the locals we dress highly inappropriately. We keep animals in our house, which for many Bulgarians would be tantamount to keeping a pig in your lounge. We cover our gardens in grass when we could be feeding our family with home-grown fruit and veg. Again, to a Bulgarian, such behaviour is insane, yet we pass it off as perfectly acceptable.

The Bulgarians are a nation of racists with a burning hatred towards the Roma population and the Turks. Racism starts at an early age in Bulgaria with kindergarten children making derogatory remarks to those ethnic minorities they name tsigani. My own children, who attend a local Bulgarian school, have fallen foul to this racist banter. I once observed my son arguing with a Bulgarian “friend”, during which he called her a tsiganin, to which she retorted: kupinar! – both names of local Roma tribes. But as the numbers of Britons in Bulgaria grow, racist attitudes have already started developing towards the expats. On some village signs, the Roman script has been blacked out to leave only the Cyrillic name and some expats have found that their business is no longer welcome. A group of English ladies on a girls' day out in Varna attempted to purchase a pair of shoes from a city store only to be told Ne anglichani! Another British lady queued at a Varna fruit and veg market to buy a kilo of potatoes only to receive the same response.

Dual pricing, although illegal in Bulgaria, still goes on. Ian Burchell tells his story: “My Bulgarian friend uses the same hairdresser as me, so when I found out that he pays 2.50 leva to my 7.50 leva, for the same cut, I was gobsmacked.” He goes on to explain that a few months later he was in the process of installing satellite TV from leading national operator Bulsat, “I came off the phone and told my wife that the satellite installation was going to cost more than we had imagined – they wanted 256 leva. On hearing this, a Bulgarian friend said that this was impossible. He phoned the company, spoke to the same person and we had the satellite installed for 25 leva. Since then I have heard of more English people having to pay the inflated price.” Ian feels that generally people here are very friendly but they seem to want to rip off the Brits. Lorraine Banner agrees, “I try to integrate with the Bulgarians and have many friends, but I do resent the way they always make us pay twice the price.

Leighanne Craven feels that the Bulgarians tolerate Westerners, but do not have a high opinion of them. “When I was in the post office I never understood what the lady behind the counter was saying so I phoned my translator and gave the lady my phone.” She said. “The clerk talked to my translator for 30 seconds then ended the call abruptly, pushed me aside and shouted next. I was there 20 minutes without knowing what was going on. Finally a security guard took me to the place I had to go but the lady behind the counter never pointed or tried to explain that I was in the wrong place.”

Nicola Hayes' neighbours are both Bulgarian families; one of which she has become extremely friendly with. Her friendly neighbour offered to plant some vegetables in her garden in return for Nicola's husband doing some painting. “I was sat on my patio out of eyeshot when I heard one neighbour ask the other “why are you working for the English when they should be working for us?” I was horrified because I had always been polite to both neighbours and thought that they accepted me.”

Marco Newell is black and moved to a village close to the Black Sea. He reports that he has never had any verbal harassment from the local Bulgarians but he is aware that his colour makes him stand out, “People do stop and stare and it's quite rude. I was in a shop once and a lady literally stopped in front of me looked me up and down, walked round me, but kept looking over her shoulder as though I was dangerous.”

Whenever people of differing cultures come together, the distinctive way each group lives, looks and conducts themselves can inevitably draw unwelcome attention. In small numbers, foreigners living in another country are seen as a curiosity, they are taken care of and befriended, but as numbers grow and the minority gains more dominance within the indigenous population, the novelty value wears off and the group become labelled. Perhaps it won't be long before the British attract their own label. After all, many Bulgarians now refer to the Brits as the tapi anglichani, or stupid English. How long will it be before the label is shortened and the tapanar becomes the new Gypsy?


The recently established Anti-Discrimination Commission, headed by Kemal Eyup, an ethnic Turk and a member of the DPS, the Movement for Rights and Freedoms, has refused to acknowledge there is discrimination to Western foreigners in general and Britons in particular. Eyup has refused to answer Vagabond's official request, ordering his office to tells us via the phone that racism against non-indigenous, white foreigners is not of interest to the government. The Bulgarian Helsinki Committee, which sometimes takes a stance in instances of racism and discrimination, told Vagabond it was up to Euyp's office to decide whether it wanted to popularise its activities amongst non-indigenous foreigners or not. In a move reminiscent of a notorious statement that natural disasters are not the business of the Ministry of Natural Disasters, Kemal Euyp and his officials prefer not to address the issue at all.


While in the UK it is perfectly OK to call a Gypsy a Gypsy, the word tsigani in Bulgarian has strong negative connotations. The Bulgarian Gypsies prefer being called Roma even though it is technically not correct as Gypsies can be Roma or Sinti. Some of the Bulgarian media do call the Gypsies Roma though during the 1990s they opted for a term used by an MP to describe the Gypsies as “our dark-skinned fellow citizens.”To be on the safe side, do not use the word Gypsy in Bulgaria, especially if you are talking with a Bulgarian or a Roma. Go for Roma instead.

Issue 22 Living in Bulgaria Expat life Bulgaria

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