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Our Bulgaria: the view from here

One of the main concerns of those considering buying a property and becoming expats in Bulgaria, is the difference in cultures. A good many dive straight in lock, stock and barrel, some without even visiting the country, underestimating the challenges of living here.

As expats in Bulgaria for five years, we thought we would share some of our experiences of living here. 

Living and working in Bulgaria has certainly meant more than learning another language. It has had its wonderful moments and then others when all we wanted to do was pack up and leave. The processes which you have to go through and the stuggles involved will never occur to you beforehand. 

We experienced many fears of not being understood and even whether we would survive, went through no end of stress trying to find our way in a different culture and wondered why we'd left such a comfortable life behind. However, the most revealing thing of all was the power of language - once we'd grasped the basics, things changed dramatically for the better. At the end of the day, the good moments have outweighed the bad and we love living here.

Here are our retrospective notes about life and living in Bulgaria over the last five years:

Space and freedom: we were immediately ovewhelmed by the space, big skies, space to live your own life, to play your own music. After coming from a "nanny state", so restricted in what you can do, this was bliss.

Culture shock: Bulgaria may be part of the EU but it's not even like mainland western Europe let alone Britain. It is a step back in time.

Bureaucracy: whilst many expats complain relentlessly of the red tape, we have experienced no bureaucracy which is worse than anywhere we've lived. Many a time it just seems like it when you don't speak the language

Build a small circle of trustworthy friends - this is a must. When in a foreign country, you will need advice and assistance on a multitude of things. A lawyer and accountant are on our 'must have' list so that you can turn to them for good financial and legal advice

Shopping: forget big shopping malls with everything in one place. There are a few malls in Sofia, Bourgas and Varna but they are not on a scale or sophistication of the west. Unless you are lucky enough to be close to the new Carrefour, or to Billa/Kaufland/Metro, supermarkets are limited. There are, happily, plans to build more malls. However, food prices are good, particularly if you shop locally for fruit and vegetables. Clothes we found to be of poor quality and not as cheap as one would have thought. There are a lot of Bulgarians who travel to Greece or elsewhere just to do their clothes shopping a couple of times a year for better quality at lower prices. White goods, such as dishwashers, tumble dryers, etc., are also generally expensive.

Prices: Although before the recession there was a huge property boom, property prices still remain incredibly cheap. We were amazed by the low price of council tax and insurances. We also discovered that the vast majority of wages are not declared. So, seeing an official statistic saying that average wage in Bulgaria is 500 leva a month is not to be believed. Whatever, the cost of living here is ridiculously cheap and a family of four can live well on 1400 leva a month.

Lifestyle: the Bulgarians certainly love to celebrate and we were amazed how at any opportunity (evenings, weekends, days off), whole families will gather together talking, eating, drinking and dancing. Some of the food we don't much care for. Neither of us are fans of the cheese 'sirene' but we do like kavarma. Whenever we step out and see so many in Bulgaria who really have a rough life, any inconveniences we are experiencing fade away. Seeing an elderly lady trying to sell a piece of lace, which she has been making all day, for just a few stotinki, puts into sharp perspective that our life is very decent.

Travel: getting around the country is easy with little traffic for the most part (Sofia and Varna excepted). Roads in our part of Bulgaria are exceptionally good, although we cannot say the same for the Bulgarian drivers.

Neighbours: whether it is the town we live in or not, we don't know but we have been shown nothing but kindness, help and generosity. Walking the dog is a pleasure as everyone we know always waves from their garden or stops to chat. Even those we don't know often start talking to us, probably just out of plain curiosity, and every one of them has been amazed that we are here and says 'bravo'. The youths don't hang around on street corners and are polite which likely comes from Bulgarians' stress on family life and values. It has also been great to see their interest in the EU and how much emphasis they place on being part of Europe for their future.

Gypsies in Bulgaria: the Bulgarians overall have nothing good to say about the population of Bulgarian gypsies and indeed many expats say the same. Nearly every city, town and village in Bulgaria has a proportion of Roma living there. In our experience, we have had no problem with the Roma at all. We have found them industrious in our town and will provide labour for any project you are undertaking at cheap rates, whilst working incredibly hard all day. There are no problems in our town with this part of the population: no thefts, no break-ins, no violence. Perhaps it depends upon where you are living but generally behaviour breeds behaviour and if the Bulgarian locals are very anti their Roma neighbours, this sets the scene for potential problems.

Law and order: it seems to be a common theme on many a forum that this is the "wild east" with no laws to protect expats and everyone being ripped off or cheated left, right and centre. Our experience has never been this. We've found the country one of the safest places to live and will happily go out of an evening without worrying about any threat of violence to ourselves. There are plenty of laws here to protect one and all, however, sometimes the problem is the enforcement of such. We have experienced a couple of minor problems. One was obtaining a replacement driving licence after it was stolen: in this instance the local traffic police did not understand EU law, so we involved SOLVIT and the Bulgarian Ombudsman and had the matter resolved. This case has subsequently helped other expats who were seeking replacement licences.

Cultural attitudes: much of the cultural attitudes in Bulgaria stem from the Communist past. Frequently, some attitudes came as a shock and were exasperating. Bulgarians will usually take whatever they can get today rather than wait for tomorrow, even if tomorrow would bring better returns! Sadly the majority work almost solely on a cash basis, which does nothing for the country. They believe that the state should provide but won't make contributions in order that it can. There is inevitably little understanding of the EU and how it works but this is improving, particularly with the availability of internet throughout the country. Outside of the cities, traditions are clung to: it is not unusual to see children with 'whipping sticks' which they tap on the back of adults (see photo above left), funerals with open coffins, the slaughtering of pigs - and the superstition which caught us out, not putting your handbag on the floor (as the money will run out).