My partner and myself moved from urban England to rural Bulgaria early 2012, after considering a move to France, a country we may still move to in a few years
Where are you from, Tracey, and what are you doing nowadays?
I'm originally from England. Together with my partner Paul, we moved over to rural Bulgaria permanently in March 2012, following our initial visit in August/September 2011 and a follow up visit in November 2011. Before that, I was working as a Contracts Director for a Specialist Electrical Engineering company. Our life now is very different. In the UK, both our work commitments meant we saw little of each other. Here, we work together on our home, in our gardens and with our animals.
Why did you choose to expatriate to Bulgaria?
For over 30 years, I had wanted a smallholding and not long after I met Paul, he found out the lifestyle also appealed to him. Land prices and bureaucracy in the UK meant any choices we made for a new life there would involve major compromises, so we started looking at other countries. Paul initially wanted to look at France but as I had been impressed with the culture and people of Eastern Europe during my limited previous interactions with them, he agreed to a month long visit in Bulgaria, so he had some experience to base his decision on.
Two days before we were due to fly home, some Bulgarians in the village we were volunteering in invited us round to one of their friends' houses which they wanted to sell! We declined the offer as our plan was that if Paul liked the country we would return the following year and spend 6 - 12 months touring to find the "right place". Anyway, the Bulgarians insisted and argued they would show us a different type of typical Bulgarian home, so we visited their friends and put a verbal offer in about 30 minutes after arriving. We had drawn up a check list of what we wanted in a property and didn't even think about returning to the UK to check it before making the offer. This property was home.
As an English national, what where the procedures you had to follow to move there?
Moving here was made easier by the fact Bulgaria is a member of the EU. After 3 months, immigrants do need to obtain ID/residency cards, but other than that and changing the vehicles over to Bulgarian plates we have little to do with official proceedings except to open bank accounts and sign a preliminary contract for the property, which involved paying a 10% deposit.
What surprised you the most on your arrival?
It is normal here for the preliminary contract to be written in a way that if the buyer withdraws from the deal they lose their deposit but if the vendor withdraws they have to return double the deposit.
What are the types of accommodation which are available there?
Bulgarian villages have many empty properties, often due to the inheritance laws sharing the property amongst the offspring. Many times, even the Kmet (Mayor, elected village chief) does not know who the owner of a particular property is, although he is often the person to ask about properties for sale. Property rental is not common in villages. I don't know whether that is because of the low rental they could achieve or because of the lack of employment available.
What are the local labor market's features? Is it easy for an expat to find a job there?
Whereas Bulgaria had full employment in pre-democracy days, many of the younger people nowadays are leaving the country to work abroad. Unemployment is a major issue, especially in rural areas, although many laborers do work unofficially cash-in-hand. Bulgarian firms will give work to Bulgarians over immigrants, no matter how good the immigrants language skills are. The working expats I know either been transferred by their companies or have internet based businesses that are not location dependent.
How do you find the Bulgarian lifestyle?
One of the best moves I made after moving here was to put my watch in a drawer and forget about it. From going to making sure I arrived at places on time, if not early, I had to get used to arriving at shops that were still closed 10 minutes after their advertised opening time. Time is more fluid here. But if a Bulgarian neighbor asked us to do something, they normally meant immediately. However, they now accept the fact that we are often busy and give us a days notice when they know they will need our help.
One of the wonderful things about living in a Bulgarian community is that, despite poverty, everyone helps each other when they can. "Payment" is often in the form of produce from the gardens. Now we are asked what we are growing, so we get something different from what we are also harvesting daily.
Have you been able to adapt yourself to the country and to its society?
Before our first visit to Bulgaria, research had shown it is still quite a racist and sexist country. Neither of these traits would I have accepted in England, but I chose to move here. Whilst I will not accept racism/sexism from the youngsters, I turn a blind eye with the older people.
The main exception to this is not long after we moved in we passed some Roma from the village walking back from town (16K). We stopped and gave them a lift which resulted in our Bulgarian neighbors reprimanding us. We'll take the reprimands and continue to pick up people walking whatever their ethnic background.
What does your every day life look like in Bulgaria?
We are slowly renovating our property and our life revolves around that, growing crops and looking after our livestock. We are content in our little community and don't feel the desire to visit the nearby towns or cities. When we do need to go, we try to maximize jobs done so that we can delay a future visit.
Any particular experience in the country you would like to share with us?
Bulgarians have little, in material terms, but they are amazingly generous. 15 months after we moved here, we had a house fire (brooder heat lamp exploded) that meant our home was uninhabitable. We put tents up in the fodder field so that we could be here for the animals and start the rebuild process. Five of our neighbors offered us their hospitality and invited us to share their homes with them, despite their lack of space and the language barrier. Two of those neighbors, both in their 70s, still apologize to us for not being able to give us more assistance and one of them often turns up with hot food for us at midday being convinced we don't stop work to eat.
What is your opinion on the cost of living in Bulgaria? Is it easy for an expat to live there?
Because Bulgaria is a poor country, it is often seen as being cheap to live in, generally with the cost of accommodation, eating out and drinks being given as examples. If you are earning a Western Europe income, whether employment, pension or other, it is cheaper in comparison to the UK. But I look at it in a different way. If you take the cost of basic things, such as common food items, fuel, etc. as a percentage of the average wage, Bulgaria is more expensive than Western Europe.
How do you spend your leisure time?
As we do not live in a city or town, we rarely go out in the evening unless a friend has organized a meal in a restaurant for a birthday or something like that. We are surrounded by the most fantastic scenery, being in the foothills of one of Bulgaria's mountain ranges. One of life's pleasures is sitting in the garden or at the nearby reservoir watching the birds and wildlife.
Your favorite local dishes?
We think Bulgarian cuisine is one of the most under-rated in the world, not necessarily the food served in restaurants, but that cooked with fresh produce from the gardens and shared with love. Simple ingredients are transformed into dishes with complex layers of taste in most homes. For visitors to the country, I would recommend the Shopska Salat and a Kavarma. Banitsa is a very tasty snack-type dish but really needs to be tried fresh, rather than from a shop. Shekembe Chorba (tripe soup) is an acquired taste, which neither of us has acquired despite eating it when served it by Bulgarian friends.
What do you like the most about the country?
Bulgaria is home, despite the terrible road conditions and the abject poverty. It's biggest wealth is its landscape and the people who fill us with a sense of contentment and peace. As I mentioned above, we are living in rural Bulgaria, but we have 3 towns within a 30 minute drive and the cities of Veliko Tarnovo (one of Bulgaria's previous capital cities) and Ruse are both just over an hour away.
One of the fantastic things about living in Bulgaria is that we have four "proper" seasons, with hot summers and cold winters. That was a bit of a shock to the system after living in a country where the weather seems to be constant all year round.
What has motivated you to write your blog "BeeZone in Bulgaria"? How does it help?
Since I moved here, I have visited the UK, for a week, once a year to see family. It takes about 3 days for me to start feeling confined and stressed because of the traffic, people and lack of space. My mother and one of my sisters have visited us in Bulgaria, but our lifestyle is too rural and real for them to have enjoyed the experience. Paul's two youngest children come every summer and love the freedom of their life here.
The blog thus started as a way for our friends and family overseas to be informed of what was happening here, but it has developed into a personal reminder of how far we have come. It's especially useful when something goes not according to plan.
Would you like to give any advice to soon-to-be expatriates in Bulgaria?
It's easy when you first move to Bulgaria to be impressed by the generosity of your new neighbors. That generosity is their way of welcoming you to the community. Accept their welcome by calling round with a homemade cake rather than buying them something and flaunting your relative wealth. English (US version) is taught in Bulgarian schools these days but many older people do not speak it. Moreover, even those Bulgarians who speak English appreciate your efforts to communicate in the language of the country you are living in.
We have drawn little pictures of things we needed and not known the word for. We have also mimed - we get laughed at but we obtain what we need and often the shop staff tell us the Bulgarian word and even make sure we write it down correctly. Us writing in Cyrillic has transformed a few grumpy faces into smiling ones.
What are your plans for the future?
As we have adapted too well to the Bulgarian way of life, our future will comprise of continuing to make small tweaks to our property, increasing our livestock and growing/preserving crops. Ideally, it would be nice if we could reduce our visits to shops for the items we can't produce to a couple of times a year, but that is an unrealistic wish at this stage. Our life here is seen by many as hard work but simple, it satisfies us.