While many vacationed here, thousands of Brits have made Bulgaria their full-time home.
By Michael J. Jordan, Special to GlobalPost, August 28, 2009
SHTIPSKO, Bulgaria — Bulgarian villagers Petur and Paunka share a lot with their neighbors Karl and Shirley. Petur taught them how to brew rakia, an intoxicating brandy, from any fruit that falls from his trees. Paunka shared her recipe for the rabbit stew she makes with bunnies bred in her barn.
In return, Karl and Shirley check in on their septuagenarian neighbors, bringing food when they’re sick. Karl, 38, also shovels their snow and drives Paunka to the nearest city for heart check-ups — sparing her the long ride on her donkey-drawn cart.
“They really are like family,” he says.
Yet Karl Wadsworth, chatting away in imperfect, accented Bulgarian, is no ordinary villager. He’s British — one of thousands of his countrymen now living today in this small Balkan country. Brits now own an estimated 42,000 homes in Bulgaria as investments, vacation residences, or full-time homes. For those who have made the move and embraced rural Bulgarian life, adjusting to local rhythms has been key to their successful integration.
Over the past decade, soaring United Kingdom property values, a frenzy of overseas home-buying, and the rise of low-budget flights saw Brits probe ever deeper into ex-Communist Eastern Europe, especially those who could not afford homes in Spain, France, or the U.S.
Bulgaria emerged as the favorite for two main groups: first-time speculators looking to buy, renovate, then sell at a big profit, and those “escaping” what they view as Britain’s deteriorating quality of life. Some homes went for as little as 5,000 British pounds (currently about $8,200). One survey noted that one in 10 Brits who bought abroad in 2007 did so in Bulgaria — the European Union’s poorest member. Now with the global economic crisis and bursting real-estate bubble, many are desperate to sell, even at a loss.
“A majority were poor working-class in England, so came here chasing a dream,” said Welshman Henry Rowlands, senior editor of the English-language Sofia News Agency. “They were told it would be cheap to fix up places, but then ran out of money, or didn’t like the lifestyle.”
But thousands of diehards remain as full-time residents. Local author Sue Seddon describes them as a mix of “oddballs, rugged individualists, opportunists, the brave and the foolhardy.” They are drawn by Bulgaria’s natural beauty, tasty food and drink, and the relentless hospitality of neighbors.
Scattered mostly across villages in the north and east, the Brits are helping to revive regions that were slowly dying as jobless youth fled to bigger cities, leaving behind parents and grandparents.
For Seddon, 57, a cooking teacher from northern England, her mountain town of Malinovo was so captivating she put pen to paper in the shade of her plum tree. She’s now writing the third of a trilogy, having already published “The Big Bulgarian Adventure” and “Bulgaria Bites Back.” Though she still splits her time between here and England, she’s inching toward a permanent move east.
Bulgaria doesn’t feel like Europe, said Seddon — instead, Bulgarians live life their own way.
“When you live in a very structured society, driving your car, it can be hard work just to get to work, or to escape all the people,” she said. “Here, they work to live. Once you have enough to eat, why work anymore?”
The village of Shtipsko is typical. Forty minutes from the sun-baked Black Sea coast, the village of 200 is nestled within lush, rolling hillsides, among seas of sunflowers, corn stalks and wheat fields. A turn off the highway is a step back into the 19th century. Donkeys are more common than cars. Goats lounge in the grass. A stork swoops into its nest atop a telephone pole.
Karl and Shirley Wadsworth live at one end of Shtipsko, Bill and Beverley Platt at the other.
Back in the U.K., Bill was a truck driver stuck in traffic all day, while Beverley commuted two hours to her job as debt collector. With the influx of immigrants into northern England, Bill said, “you get fed up feeling like a foreigner in your own country.”
In Shtipsko, they bought a plot of land, renovated the dilapidated home and sold it. They then built a second home from scratch, Western-style, with shiny tiled floors and fine view of the valley below. They moved there full-time in May 2008. Beverley rises early for garden work, while Bill works on building a fence, a barbecue and other projects.
“I was always a townie, never saw myself living in a village,” said Beverley, whose three grown daughters visit occasionally. “But our neighbors have made us feel so welcome. Eventually, you get to their speed. There’s no rush.”
The Brits are adapting to native ways, especially with another frigid winter on the way. With thick snow sometimes “up to the roof” but warmed by a single wood-burning stove, the dog’s water bowl ices, house plants die, and “One night, I thought my eyelids would freeze to my eyeballs,” says Shirley. This time around, they’ll jar fruit preserves, freeze pork and peas, and store firewood.
The barter economy rules here. While Bill swaps power tools with the neighbor, local women have discovered Beverley’s hair-coloring skills, proffering fresh gherkins and homemade rakia for her services. Language remains a frustrating obstacle. But Beverley learned the colors of hair, and weekly Bulgarian classes help her to “understand bits and pieces of village gossip.”
Meanwhile, Karl and Shirley “putter” around their peasant home, working on various projects, traveling to Varna each weekend to earn cash teaching English in a language school. In England, the two had taught in a high-stress school for emotionally challenged, sometimes violent, teens. They bought their home in Shtipsko in 2005 then moved there full-time in 2007.
Back in the village, Karl is popular with locals thrilled to have “fresh blood” in their hamlet. He had an easy time learning their language, as it has similarities with Czech, which he learned living in the Czech Republic in the 1990s. Over a late-afternoon beer at one of the two watering holes, Todor Petrov seems to be only half-joking when he suggests Wadsworth run for mayor next time around.
“I’m up to here with our politics,” said Petrov. “Karl is smart — and always has a smile on his face.”
Karl admits he has ideas for how he’d fix up the village. However, while he considers Shtipsko “home,” he wouldn’t want to cross a line: “You need to know how much you can do here without stepping on other people’s toes.”