LIFE AT SEA
Burgas lures Britons with rural life and urban entertainment
A couple of years ago there were only a handful of relocators in Burgas and a few token British families in the surrounding villages. More recently, however, the expat community has mushroomed. Varna witnessed a flood of foreign sun-seekers when the country first came into the limelight, to the dismay of many Burgas natives - the two towns enjoy a longstanding love-hate relationship not unlike that between Glasgow and Auld Reekie. But when prices rose and seaside areas became overbuilt, immigrants headed south for the slightly warmer climate and attractive coastlines near Turkey, causing smug burgazlii to gloat “I told you so”. The most popular areas, apart from the villages directly in the Burgas district, are Sarafovo, Pomorie, Primorsko, Sozopol and Sveti Vlas – not to mention the notorious Sunny Beach resort, perfect for those who want to be in the centre of the action. Expats range from entrepreneurs and young couples escaping the rat race to families seeking healthier lives for their children and pensioners keen on living their twilight years abroad.
Lower prices aren't the only reason expat numbers are increasing around Burgas. Job opportunities are also attractive. As a major port town, industry in Burgas is booming. Thanks to increasing development, the region may soon be overcrowded like the northern coast, but for now, foreign investors are enjoying the ongoing projects in the area, including shopping centres – called “malls” by the locals – aquatic parks and housing developments.
Foreign engineering, environmental and construction experts offer fresh insight to help Burgas-area development avoid the condo clichés dogging the rest of the Black Sea coast. Progressive building strategies such as eco-projects and structures that make use of the area's many natural resources are well under way.
Publicans and restaurateurs noticed the gap in the expat eateries market in Burgas, so now UK-style restaurants such as the London Pub are opening, where expats can meet up to swap stories while savouring a taste of home. Previously, the only option was to travel to Sunny Beach and have a dubious Bulgarian-style “full English breakfast”.
But why did rat race escapees, property moguls and sun-loving pensioners converge on what until just a few years ago was a town with an unpronounceable name in an East European backwater? Meet some colourful characters and check out the reasons that bought them to Burgas.
Tony & Elle
TONY HUSZARIK has Eastern European roots, as his Hungarian surname attests. However, his reason for being on this side of Europe is a matter of the heart rather than heritage. The football-mad Chelsea supporter first met his Bulgarian girlfriend, 22-year-old student Elisaveta, while on holiday in Sunny Beach in the summer of 2007. “I met her the first day – she was working in the hotel as the supervisor of the poolside bar,” he smiles. “After the first day of seeing her I never left the bar for the whole two-week holiday.” A self-confessed ladies' man, Tony, 28, knew Elisaveta was something special, since he only managed to pluck up the courage to ask her out four days before he was due to fly home. “The first few dates we went on, we went out for a few drinks and at the end of the night I never even kissed her – I didn't want to ruin it. The last day we spent the whole day together on the beach, and I knew then that I would be coming back to Bulgaria.”
The family holiday included Tony, his mum and his three sisters: Adele, 11; Keeley, 23; and Elizabeth, 29. In hindsight, the experience was far more than just a summer-romance-turned-serious; unbeknownst to the vacationers, it would be their last family holiday together.
When Tony moved to Bulgaria that August to be with Elisaveta, he had been settled into their new apartment in Burgas for just three weeks when he received terrible news: his mother, whom he was very close to, had suddenly died of a brain aneurysm at the age of 48. “She was an amazing woman. In total, I have five sisters and one brother, and we're all so close and so tight, and they all live at home still. We grew up without a dad around, so all we had ever had was my mum.” Tony flew back to the UK straight away to arrange the funeral and look after his family, then after four weeks returned to Bulgaria. “I knew as soon as I was in the UK there was a 50-50 chance of me staying there, but after long chats with my family I knew they would all be OK. If I thought now that they ever needed me back home I'd be there in a flash, and I'm sure Elisaveta would come, too.”
The young couple had always been open to either staying in Bulgaria or going to the UK to find work. Since Tony is a chef by trade with over 11 years of experience, landing a job in either country would have been easy. But it was by chance, when Tony and Elisaveta visited the London Pub in Burgas one day for a full English breakfast, that he discovered the restaurant needed a chef. “I got on straight away with Tony and Moira, the owners of the pub – they're great people,” he says. Elisaveta – “Babecho,” as Tony calls her, or “Elle” as she is known amongst the expats – now works alongside Tony as a waitress.
Although new to the country, Tony faced the Bulgarian hospital experience sooner than expected when he had to have an emergency appendectomy in November. “They were really efficient,” he says of his stay in the Burgas state hospital. “They even let Elisaveta stay with me in a private room.”
Tony hasn't been in Bulgaria long enough to have formed strong opinions
on the country, but he does love the nightlife in Burgas and is pleased that he can still follow UK football on Sky TV. Despite his rough ride, Tony's attitude remains positive: “You play the hand that life deals you. At the end of the day, life's trials and tribulations are sent to test people. It's just a matter of how you take it.”
Mark and Julie
MARK AND JULIE definitely liven up any room they enter. Hailing from the north of England, they have lived in the remote Park Rosenets villa zone near Rosen since May 2006 – so when they do go out they like to let their hair down. “I still really miss my family,” says Julie, an attractive former painter and decorator. “That's my main issue with being in Bulgaria. The cheaper flights haven't reached Burgas yet either, so it's not easy to just hop on a plane and I'd really love to see my kids more. I still feel a bit up and down some days.”
Mark, who drove from the UK with the couple's two Weimaraners, rolls his eyes and tells Julie, “Don't start all the dramatics!” Mark tells me he loves everything about Bulgaria and hates nothing. Julie concedes that Bulgarian white wine is the best in the world. One of the main negative things Mark and Julie have noted is that there is still a distinct dual pricing system in place. “There's one price for Bulgarians and another for foreigners,” he says. “Particularly when we were getting quotes for windows to be fitted, we were getting much higher prices than when we asked one of our Bulgarian friends to get quotes.”
On the subject of Bulgarian hobbies, Mark tells me he's taking up hunting.
He recently got his Bulgarian hunting licence, which he unfortunately hasn't been able to use yet as he broke his wrist after falling off a wall while tipsy! “It was easy to get the license, which cost about £700, and involved filling a few forms out and taking a shooting test at a clay-pigeon shooting range. I wanted to get involved with the sport, as it's so popular in Bulgaria and I wanted to be a part of that culture. I've been hunting before with my Bulgarian friends to observe. I'll do as they do with the catches – eat them or give them to the dogs. I've even got a Bulgarian hunting dog who we rescued.”
Julie's first choice was to relocate to Spain, but the colossal price hikes made it unrealistic to move there, so the couple decided to try Bulgaria.
“The expense and the constant struggle became too much of a routine in England. I just had an urge to get away from it all.” Julie left her daughters, 18 and 32, as well as her 22-year-old son back in the UK, but has been known to surprise them with unexpected visits.
“Last August we had problems sorting flights out for the kids, so I went to them instead. I got a last minute flight but told Mark to tell the kids I was in bed if they called. I got a taxi to just outside the house and walked straight in. All my kids were sitting around the table and they just froze – I wish I had a photo of their faces!”
Mark and Julie saw a niche in the market in their first few months in Bulgaria: UK-style sausages and bacon. “British people all round Bulgaria miss sausages. At one point we were selling a couple of hundred kilos each week just to Sunny Beach, and we also have customers all round Burgas, as well as in Yambol and Varna.”
So what does the future hold for bangers and Bulgaria? “We're starting to make black pudding in a week or so, so the business will expand,” Mark tells me. “Now that Bulgaria is in the EU, we hope to get one of the grants that they are giving out to developing businesses. We're definitely staying here for good.”
Jo is an independent and smiley 26-year-old who works in real estate. She moved to Bulgaria in October 2007, where she currently lives in an apartment in Chernomorets. “I first came on holiday in August 2007 to visit my mother. She, my step-dad and their terrier Billy had been travelling around Europe in a camper van when they came to a stop in Burgas, where they now live and run a restaurant,” she says. She loved the sunny weather and relaxed feel, so returned again for another two month holiday while she was between jobs. “I found there was none of the fast-paced rush that there always is in the UK. Burgas is an up-and-coming area, but it's still got a chilled-out atmosphere. There is so much to do here, too, and loads of places to go to at night for food and drinks.”
Jo eventually decided to sell her flat in coastal Bognor Regis and move to another seaside town on the other side of Europe, mainly due to the insecurity of UK life today. “I was always so fond of Bognor Regis, but recently the immigration problem has really got out of hand. There were always gangs shouting and causing trouble, glass being smashed outside the flat and things being thrown at the windows. I couldn't imagine bringing up children in an environment like that.”
Overall, Jo thinks the quality of life in Bulgaria is much better. She attributes that to the friendly people, the welcoming attitude toward Britons and the familyoriented culture. “You also know where you are with a Bulgarian; they have a much more direct way of speaking – none of the fake niceties like in the UK. It can be difficult to get used to at first; other people might presume they are being rude.”
She does, however, get annoyed at being followed around by staff in shops.
Jo says she will definitely be staying in Bulgaria, but she does miss her friends back in the UK. She has, however, found a love interest in her new home country: a fellow Brit named David. “There is a 20 year age difference between us,” says Jo “but I feel more looked after now than I ever have before.” So if David hadn't come along, would Jo have dated a Bulgarian man? “Of course, if I met a Bulgarian man I really liked. My Bulgarian friends, however, told me to stay away from Bulgarian men, as they can be very possessive and some hit their wives. I've never been one to prejudge, though, and I've known English men who are just as bad. Luckily, David's not one of them!”
So with her own future secure, what does she predict for Bulgaria?
“There are so many good investment opportunities here. It's definitely all happening – not like Bognor Regis, which is going backwards!”
Ray Cockerill is 69 and has lived in Goritsa near Pomorie for almost three years. “Sorry to say, I'm just another retiree!” jokes Ray. An engineering consultant, he bought the old house five years ago as a “retirement project,” imagining it as a holiday home for his family.
However, following a rather acrimonious divorce, he decided to live in Bulgaria permanently.
“I knew I wasn't quite ready for the pipe and slippers. Having been a keen environmentalist during my working life as well as actively involved in many environmental schemes, I have decided to spend my ‘retirement' in Bulgaria exploring an environmentally sustainable lifestyle,” says Ray.
After much research, Ray is starting an eco-house project in March 2008. So what brought him to the country in the first place?
“Bulgaria is a very beautiful country with enormous potential for tourism due to its vast areas of largely unspoiled mountains, forests, lakes and, of course, the superb Black Sea beaches. There are huge opportunities for environmentally sustainable development due to a moderate climate coupled with the possibilities for geothermal heat extraction in the mountains and elsewhere,” he explains.
Like many guidebooks readers, Ray found that reviews of Burgas were not exactly flattering. “Burgas does not receive good reports in the guidebooks, but I find it quite attractive, with some interesting old buildings, parks and shops. Even the hideous 1960s and 1970s pre-fab housing estates and the terrible roads and pavement seem to add character and realism to the city in a strange sort of way.”
As an active member of the expat community, Ray regularly witnesses Bulgaria-bashing by fellow immigrants, yet he is far from jaded with his life in Bulgaria. He finds the people friendly and helpful and considers young Bulgarians much better behaved and more respectful to elders than kids in the UK. “The Bulgarians I have met seem to be good and willing workers – yet perhaps more ingenious and persevering than competent in some cases!” he says. “The bureaucratic nature of municipal and government departments does demand much of my patience and sense of humour, though!”
Ray's future in Bulgaria holds eco-houses, but what does he foresee for the country as a whole? “Along with most visitors and immigrants to this country I would like to see the government and municipal authorities seriously tackle the rubbish problem,” he says. “Without being prejudicial, it does seem that a certain group of people simply don't care how they dispose of garbage. The rubbish dumped in the fields and in streams and rivers around towns and villages can only become an eventual environmental disaster if not dealt with soon.”
Commenting on www.vagabond.bg