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Real Life Experience: Living in Bulgaria

What's it like living in Bulgaria and is Bulgaria what you thought it would be? At this time of year, many expats' thoughts turn to family who are still back home and they are missing; others, who are considering moving to the country, look forward excitedly to buying a property and starting their new life - is life in Bulgaria good or bad for expats? Quest Bulgaria talks in-depth to one British expat couple who have lived in the country for five years to find out their experience.

 

 

Sue and Alan, both in their forties, originally from the north of England, have been living and working in Bulgaria for nearly five years. They own a large three bedroom detached property with a walled courtyard garden in a thriving market town an hour east of Sliven in the south east of the country.

"We do love it in Bulgaria and have a quality of life which is astoundingly good but there have been times when it has been frustrating. The main thing we found when any difficulties set in was to keep a perspective and remind ourselves why we came here. We've seen Brits come and stay and thrive, a few arrive and then leave again, mostly not because of a fault with Bulgaria but because of money and they didn't get their finances right.

Money and Attitude

Many moved here without making any plan about how they were going to be able to afford to live; selling up in the UK and believing the money left over would be enough, even though it was as little as 20,000 euros. We were fortunate, we knew what we wanted to do for work to make sufficient income and set up a business which has gone very well.

I think a lot of expats come to Bulgaria with the wrong attitude. I've seen it before in Spain. They want everything cheaper but with better weather. At the same time though they still want it all to be the same as back at home. Strangely enough, a lot of them don't help or support each other either but seem to have some kind of heirarchy operating, where the longer you are here the higher up you are, tending to look down their noses at those just arriving and we experienced this ourselves when we were "new": although having said that, if you are a new arrival and can speak the language fluently, then you'll be a large number of steps up automatically!

We felt a bit isolated when we first arrived, even with good intentions to make the most and best of everything, no matter what was thrown at us. It took a while to find genuine friends and sort out which people were to be counted on. But now it's great; we don't have a lot of British friends but there are a few whom we know very well and can count on them if we need them. When you find people like that, everything changes and we then started to feel more comfortable in the country.

Life here is totally different from back home. Everything is different and things just don't work the way you are used to. We had to learn to adapt.

We've come across a couple of people wanting to cheat us, trying to charge inflated prices for work we wanted done on the house but nothing serious. Mostly it's just because they think we are "rich westerners" and those kind of people exist anywhere in the world.

Language, Expats and How You Think

Learning the language is the most important thing we did. It has taken us a long time to get to grips with cyrillic but it's really worth it.

We can at last communicate with our neighbours - not fluently but sufficiently - and this means we get more insight into the culture. The Bulgarians also treat us differently when they find out we can speak. The first year or two we were totally dependent upon translators. Apart from being expensive it was also always their interpretation of what was being said so it was like looking at Bulgaria through a slight haze. When you can speak you can then really become part of the life here.

I think there was definitely a point in time when our thinking took on a big shift, I can still remember what happened... it was a day when one of our British compatriots said to me about Bulgarians "Why are they all so damn thick". It doesn't sound much but it made me quite angry that someone living in another's country could label everyone in that country in such a way. There are plenty of foreigners who live here and do nothing other than complain and moan about Bulgaria. I also wondered if we'd been like that too and, yes, we had moaned about Bulgaria that's for sure. But that day, reflecting on what that he had said, made me really cross and it changed my way of thinking.

It's easy to end up like that expat though. We've noticed that a lot of the expats group together, especially when they first arrive in Bulgaria. The old expats who don't like the country tell the newcomers about only the bad things and they can then take hold of this idea and become like it themselves. In no time at all you have a whole band of "co complainers" being cynical and critical of Bulgaria. We made a conscious effort not to become part of that and immersed ourselves with predominantly Bulgarians, which we had to do anyway for our business. Yes, we still get a bit fed up at some things in Bulgaria but we are not stuck in a mindset of constant criticism against the country and that's important.

One of the remarkable things has been the rapid rate of change in our town. There have been enormous changes. This year alone we've had a new small Technopolis store, a SuperOne office store and a hotel with casino all open. There are also two more small hotels being built. We have a market in town twice a week which makes it feel very bustling on those days. Shopping has improved greatly in the country and we have good supermarkets now with nearly all western brand goods if you want them. Sliven, our nearest city is a lovely place. Lots of pedestrianised areas with pavement cafes and plenty of shops, it feels very 'western'.

Quirks

There are plenty of quirks and pros and cons to living in Bulgaria. The drivers are shocking, I'm always grateful when we get back home safely after a trip out in the car. Although some of the roads are in bad condition we are very lucky in our area as the roads are excellent, well maintained and are kept open all year even if we have loads of snow.

The cost of living in Bulgaria is a real bonus. Cheap prices - food, cigs, wine and beer, council tax and so on, so it means even with what most would consider a very extravagent lifestyle, we still get by on 1100 euros a month including food, house and car insurance, health care, holidays, in fact everything: from which we also put away 300 as savings every month.

One of the aspects we don't like is the "throw me a few leva and I'll sort it out for you" attitude. The petty bribery. It's not that we come across it very often but it always leaves you with a bad taste in your mouth. Another is the lack of service in all walks of life. I suppose it stems from the old communist days when all you had to do was turn up at 9 and go home at 5 and you still got the same pay whether you did any work or not. Customer care really hasn't kicked in here yet - but it will and whichever company gets into it first, they'll sew up the market.

We've had a couple of problems with the healthcare system, mostly just old, dirty and run down hospitals. So now, we are more selective about which doctor or hospital we go to if needed.


 

Neighbours

On the other hand we have had overwhelming kindness from our neighbours, many of whom have been generous with their time and assisting us in anything from how to order our logs to filling out forms for a new driving licence.

In fact a couple of them have moaned to us that the Brits living in Bulgaria don't ask for their help often enough and would like them to ask more. One of the things we did notice when we were first here is that neighbours still chat over the garden fence; it makes for a lovely community feel. There is no violence and the youngsters in town are polite - mind you, that probably comes from the fact that the teachers and parents here will give their kids a sharp smack if needs be.

The Bulgarians can sometimes be a strange bunch to us as they always seem to think they know best. Despite numerous conversations with one of our elderly neighbours he still thinks that a 200 pound a week pension means you can live like a millionaire in Britain. Even though we've explained time and time again how much food, utilities and other items cost in the UK, he tells us we are wrong!

We've also given up serving our Bulgarian guests food which is properly hot or cold as they like everything to be at room temperature but that's ok, it makes serving meals and doing parties much easier. I had to laugh the other day when a neighbour was telling my husband how bad it was to serve such cold beer and that it should be lukewarm.

It's Different and the Highs outweigh the Lows

All in all, the highs outweigh the lows. It has been extraordinarily rewarding moving and living here.

The country is staggeringly beautiful and we are only just over an hour from the coast if we want a day trip to the seaside. We own our home without a mortgage, we run our business working from home on a fast wifi connection and we live well, eat out when we want and generally have a top notch lifestyle which all our friends back in the UK envy. We look back at Britain and wonder if we would have had this quality of life and the answer comes back the same every time - no!

Our advice to expats coming to Bulgaria would be go slowly, take your time. Don't rush to make friends but take it easy. The Brits are too quick to rush in: mainland Europeans take things steadier. Work out how much money you will have to live on. Check things out for yourself and ask your neighbours, as they are a mine of information. Most of all, learn as much of the language as you can. Appreciate the differences rather than criticise them and always remember why you moved here.

Most Brits and Americans living in Bulgaria make their to bulgaria because it's cheap to buy property, an amazingly low cost of living, a much slower pace of life and better weather. We would say that when you are in an ex-communist country where it is so cheap to live, then you are bound to find that some things are missing - but there are other things which are better and make up for it. Life is what you make it!"

If you are considering a move to Bulgaria, choosing the right estate agent is crucial in order to avoid disappointment. We recommend Bulgaria's largest and most respected property agents, Bulgarian Properties.

See our other articles about living in Bulgaria here moving to Bulgaria, Cost of living Bulgaria