Our Life in Bulgaria – by Labour International member Peter Cartwright
My name is Peter Cartwright and I am 58 years old. I moved here to Bulgaria along with my wife Jane in September 2005, when we were both 48 years old. We have two daughters who are both married, have jobs and are settled in the UK. Our first grandson was born just before we moved here and subsequently we now have a granddaughter.
I joined the Army in 1972 at age 15, becoming a Physical Training Instructor, as I was more oriented towards sports than academia at school. I spent 12 years in the Army, serving in Northern Ireland for two tours in 1976 and 1978. I spent 5 years serving in Germany in the British Army of the Rhine from 1975 until 1980 under the NATO umbrella during the ‘cold war’. I also served a six month tour in Belize in 1980, the year the country was given independence. I finished off my Army career training recruits in PT at the Prince of Wales Depot in Whittington near Lichfield. I left the Army in 1984 and joined the Prison Service in 1985. I started at Birmingham prison, which has now been privatised and is being run by G4S. I moved to Full Sutton maximum security prison in 1987 where I took a great interest in trade union issues. I was elected to the branch committee of the Prison Officers’ Association (POA) there and subsequently was elected as Branch Secretary. I was elected to the National Executive Committee of the POA in 1998 and served two terms of office until I stepped down in 2004. During my time living in East Yorkshire, I also got involved with local politics through the Labour Party and was elected to Driffield Town Council, serving as Town Mayor from 1997 until 1998. I have held various positions in the Labour Party such as Branch Chair, CLP Secretary, CLP vice chair and County Party Secretary. I got disillusioned with the Labour Party in the run up to and subsequent invasion of Iraq and with the policies being pursued by the Blair Government and felt I could no longer stay in the Party for principled reasons, so I gave up my membership. I have subsequently re-joined since the election of Jeremy Corbyn as leader. I must say, I did not become a 3GBP supporter before re-joining as a full member.
Our reasons for moving away from the UK are varied, but mostly it was because I wasn’t that happy with my work and felt it was time to move on to pastures new before it became too late. We had spent a couple of holidays in Bulgaria and we both found it a pleasant and interesting country, so I started to look into the opportunities available to us. At that time, Bulgaria was not a member of the European Union, but was a candidate country with Romania to join in January 2007 if it met the criteria. House prices were a quarter of the average prices in the UK at the time and it seemed you could get a lot for your money, especially buying in an inland rural village, so the search began. We sold up everything in the UK and we bought a house in a village, 10km from Veliko Tarnovo, the old Bulgarian Capital. At that time, Bulgarian law didn’t allow non Bulgarian citizens to own land, so we had to set up a company with both of us as directors and the company could buy the house and land. Since joining the European Union, citizens of member states can own land in Bulgaria, but the Bulgarian Government didn’t change their laws for EU citizens until 2013. We bought a house with enough land that we could build guestrooms and run a small bed and breakfast business. We moved here in 2005 and the guestrooms were started in 2006, being finished in 2007. I must say, the bureaucracy to have the building built and the business to get up and running was daunting to say the least. The legacy of communist bureaucracy takes time to change obviously. Bulgaria joined the European Union on 1stJanuary 2007 and it was obvious most Bulgarian people were hoping for a more prosperous future, especially being the poorest State in the now, enlarged EU. They were also hoping to have the opportunity of working in other EU countries under the rules of ‘free movement’, but their hopes were dashed when some countries, including the UK, applied a derogation for the maximum seven years. The way hard working Bulgarians were perceived in the British tabloid press was, quite frankly, disgusting. I remember Farage saying that Britain would be invaded by tens of millions of Bulgarian migrants if the derogation wasn’t extended after the seven years (which it couldn’t have been under European law). It would have been quite impossible, as there are only seven million people living in the whole of the country! This was a sad episode, the way the UK and other EU member states treated their European partners.
Our business was started in the 2007 summer season and we had quite a good year, seeing as it was our first. I must say though that the Bulgarian authorities don’t make it easy for small business start up and there are no incentives such as a tax holiday in the first years, such as they have in say, Croatia. I think the Bulgarian Government could do more in respect of support for MSE start-ups.
Living in a small village of around 600 people, English was not widely used, so we had to learn the language pretty quickly. We never had formal lessons and my main source of learning was sitting in one of the village pubs listening and attempting to talk with the locals. I remember saying to them after I thought I had enough of a grasp of the language “след една годинар ас ще говория много добре Бългаски” (“after one year i will speak very good Bulgarian”) and they replied “не Питър, след шест месетс” (“no Peter, after six months”). I realised then, my efforts to learn the language were working and now after ten years we can have a good conversation with our Bulgarian friends and we don’t have to think about translating from English in our heads. It is funny that sometimes I forget what something is in English when I haven’t used it for a while! It is also nice when we visit other places in Bulgaria and often people will comment on how well we speak their language, especially on the coast, where waiters and waitresses automatically think that because we are British, we are tourists on holiday. Also, we have many young people of school age living in the village who are taught English classes and they like to practice their English on us. We are only too glad to help and often help our neighbour’s grandson with his English homework. In lieu of helping me clean our pool though!
What is really nice about living where we do is that the long held traditions are still performed, whereas in the large towns and cities, sometimes they get forgotten. They are usually traditions which have their roots in the Orthodox Christianity practiced over here. I am not religious myself, but do like to take part in these traditions and integrate into my adopted community. The most recent tradition, which is one of our favourites is ‘Трефън Тзаразан’ (Trefun Tsarazan) which is held on 14th February each year. It is the ceremonial cutting and blessing of the grape vines to ask for a good crop for the coming season. Lots of village folk gather for this ceremony and there is music and traditional dancing in the street. Later, everyone goes back to the ‘Читалищте’ (Chitalishtie – cultural village hall) where everybody shares their food, usually home grown and preserved and their homemade wine and rakia (homemade spirit) and continue with the traditional music and dance. There is also a competition for the best homemade white wine, red wine and rakia, which villagers can enter. For the past four years, I have been given the task of judge, along with another two volunteers from the village. They obviously think I have a good nose and pallet! The strange thing is, unlike the UK, where things are judged 1-10, we have to judge them and give them a score between 1 and 6, 6 being the best. I haven’t quite found out the reason for this as when I ask, they say “well it’s always been that way”! Very often you will hear people say “Всичко шест” (“everything is 6”) meaning everything is great.
Another one of our favourite traditions is giving out and receiving Martinitsa’s on 1st March each year to and from family and friends. These are red and white adornments such as bracelets, brooches etc to wear or hang in the car or off bags. We have even seen people adorn their dogs. Traditionally you wear these martinitsa’s until you see the first stork or swallow return from their wintering in Africa and then you hang the martinitsa on a tree, usually a fruit tree to ask for a good harvest for the season to come.
Most of the villagers have gardens where they grow fruit and vegetables. The reason they do is that they need to utilise the ground to produce food throughout the summer and they grow enough so they can preserve food for the winter months. Most preserve using glass jars called “бъркани” (Burkans) as freezers are not widely used in the village. We just usually grow enough tomatoes, beans and chillis for both of us and freeze or dry any excess. We have a lot of fruit bushes and trees in our garden, from which we make jam and freeze for pies during the winter. Many locals also raise sheep, goats, turkeys and chickens for milk, eggs and meat. It is nice to see every morning, the sheep and goats being taken out to pasture and being brought back in the evening. I have always found it quite funny that these sheep and goats know their own way home after a long day grazing in the local hillsides. We do have a local lamb killed for ourselves every Spring (apologies to the vegetarians and vegans out there, but we both are partial to a nice bit of lamb, especially home reared) as it helps towards the local economy. Some residents own cattle and when we first came to live here, they kept them in their barns at their properties, but EU regulations stipulate they have to be kept at night in a purpose built facility outside of the village. In the village where we live, they utilised the old ‘collective’ and the cattle are kept there now. There are a lot of pensioners living in the village and their pension is only around 200BGN (around 80GBP) per month, so you can see why they need to utilise what they have to sustain themselves throughout the year. I know the cost of living is low here, but not that low. Basic necessary expenditure is low here, such as council tax. I have just paid our council tax for 2016 and it cost 26BGN (just over 10GBP for the year and you get a 5% discount by paying it before 1stApril!). We have two bedrooms, the house for our cousin, swimming pool and 1000sqm garden. Water rates are very low, but electricity is quite expensive relative to Bulgarian wages.
It is interesting to talk to local people about the differences between when Bulgaria was a part of the Soviet Bloc, subsequently becoming a democracy in 1989 and joining the European Union in 2007. I find that most of the older generation think that it was better during the communist (they usually refer to it as “socialist”) times and feel that they haven’t benefitted from democratisation or joining the European Union. Prices have increased, but pensions and other benefits haven’t to keep up. I remember saying to one of my older friends in the village, “but don’t you think it is better now you have more freedom?” and he replied “yes, I have more freedom, but not enough money to enjoy that freedom!” I must say, I sympathised with his point of view. I remember also when I was talking to one of my younger friends, in his late 30’s and I said “but you have the freedom to travel now” and he replied, “in socialist times, I did travel. I travelled to Russia, East Germany, Hungary, Czechoslovakia (as it was then) Romania and had work. Now I have work, but can’t afford to travel!” Again, I must say, I sympathise with his point.
On the other hand, Jane and I go into Veliko Tarnovo, 10km away regularly. It is a cosmopolitan university city with modern shops, restaurants and bars and have talked to young people who are studying at the city’s universities. These students, in the main, didn’t experience life under communism, or socialist times, so they tend to have a different outlook. They are very enthusiastic about their futures post studies, but many are planning to go elsewhere within the European Union in search of careers, as a lot of them say that there are not the opportunities in Bulgaria otherwise they would stay. This is not true for all and we have talked to students who are studying subjects which can be used in Bulgaria, such as tourism and eco forestry because they want to stay in their home country.
Moving on to the political issues, one of the things I think is wrong here is the tax system. Bulgaria has a flat 10% tax rate with no allowance before tax. So, for every 100BGN a Bulgarian earns, they pay 10BGN tax, whilst the top earners also pay the flat 10% tax. I understand why this policy is in place because the Government believes it will attract inward investment and no doubt it does, but a more progressive tax system with an allowance before paying tax would be a better option in my mind, being fairer to the low earners, which there are many, and forcing the top earners to pay their fair level of tax.
Since living here, Bulgaria has had its fair share of political upheavals, with not being able to form a Government after General Elections and some dubious bedfellows to form coalitions, but the most contentious is the lack of will to tackle corruption and review of the judiciary. All Governments have said that it is a priority and indeed the European Union have had to remind Bulgaria of its obligations under the accession agreement to tackle these important issues. So far, no Government has been able to move these issues forward after almost 10 years as a member of the EU. Recently two tranches of around 30km each to extend the motorway between Varna and Sofia (Hemus Highway) were put out to tender and awarded, only to be cancelled by the Prime Minister because of suspected wrongdoings in the tendering process. Remembering that a lot of the money for this project comes from Europe and the EU had expressed concern over the issue of Government contracts, even holding back some 200m Euros, some years ago, I think the Prime Minister was right to exercise caution. Another issue which the Government are struggling to get to grips with is their obligations on the environment and recycling targets. Again, they say to Europe that they have plans in place, but little seems to come to fruition. Bulgaria has some of the best natural woodland in Europe and had a thriving forestry industry when they were being run by the state. Many people were employed in this business and Bulgaria provided excellent wood for building to Europe and beyond. Also many furniture manufacturers employed locals to service the market. Unfortunately, these forestry enterprises have now been privatised and the new owners have been reluctant to invest in up to date machinery to service the furniture industry with quality wood. Instead they have chosen to cut the trees down to service the household fuel market, as many people in rural areas and small towns still use wood as their main source of heating. They are cutting down oak trees which could be used in the quality furniture industries, only to put it into the household fuel market because it is a quick turn on profit, rather than investing in technology to make this quality wood ready for the furniture and building market, therefore creating jobs. I know of some small wood processing businesses which have invested in machinery, but have to buy their wood in from other countries because these newly privatised companies can’t provide it. I think it is about time the Government stepped in and regulated this important Bulgarian industry more closely.
Well we hope you found this article interesting and would like to thank Labour International for the opportunity to write it. I hope you may be a little more enlightened about Bulgaria, the poorest nation state in the EU now and hope you can visit one day to see at first hand. We are moving into spring here and the apricots, plums and peaches are starting to blossom. We look forward to a good crop for the long hot summer ahead. Enjoy yourselves, wherever you are.
Pete & Jane Cartwright