Something a little different this week. I asked my Instagram friends (follow me here) what they really wanted to know about moving abroad (in our case, to Bulgaria). And these are the questions they sent. Let’s get into it…
Did you consider other countries?
Not seriously. Rob had a vague thing for France and I’d always wanted to live in Greece but we didn’t explore those countries seriously. Just a cursory look online told us we couldn’t afford either.
Bulgaria is next door to Greece – similar weather, similar way of life – and has a much more affordable housing market (certainly back in 2010, when we were house-hunting). So we thought we’d come for a visit and see if we liked it.
I remember flying out for our first holiday in Bulgaria – this was after we’d confidently told our family and friends that we’d be moving to Bulgaria one day – and saying to Rob at the airport, ‘What are we going to do if we don’t like it? We don’t have a plan B!’ Lucky, then, that we did like it.
How did you decide where to put down roots?
Trial and error and a lot of mileage. Like most people, our first trip to Bulgaria was to the Black Sea coast, which we liked (we still holiday there often), but we couldn’t really see ourselves living there all year round. Back then, I wasn’t sure what my work situation was going to be, and I wanted relatively easy, year-round access to EasyJet flights. That ruled out the coast, and made us focus within two/three hours of Sofia.
We briefly explored the Stara Zagora region – just on a whim because I knew some people who had a second home there – but, again, it didn’t feel right to us. We chose not to explore the Veliko Tarnovo region, which is a popular region for ex-pats, because (no offence to my fellow Brits) we didn’t want to live in British enclave.
So, I guess we were making decisions based on a mixture of practicalities (proximity to Sofia and year-round flights), gut feeling, visualisation, and my terrible snobbery about other ex-pats!
For our second trip, we found an estate agent who specialised in village properties on the boundary of the Sofia/Lovech regions. (By ‘region’ I mean county, basically. So we’re talking about an hour from the city of Sofia, and about the same from the city of Lovech.) In terms of practicalities, it seemed ideal.
We explored a few villages and knew straight away this was the right area for us. Stunning scenery, quiet, charming villages, easy access to city amenities… But our village was the only one that we could fully visualise ourselves living in. Something about it spoke to us. It seemed more alive than some of the other villages we’d seen. A friendly neighbour came out and offered us a bunch of grapes. There was a river (I think a river really ‘grounds’ a village, if that makes sense). There were donkeys and sheep everywhere. And we liked the nearby town, which seemed friendlier and a bit more prosperous than some of the moody Bulgarian towns we’d seen.
I was madly in lust with another house that we’d visited, about 30 minutes away near another town, but Rob loved our house (the one we ended up buying). In the end, it was the village that swayed our decision.
Did you learn the language before you went?
We did quite a bit of self-learning before we came, using the Teach Yourself books and CDs. We were nowhere near fluent, or even intermediate level, but we had enough Bulgarian to get by comfortably in shops and restaurants, and to get to know our neighbours. We used a translator for all official paperwork stuff.
English isn’t widely spoken in our area – certainly not in our village, and not really in the local town. So we knew we’d have to come armed with a basic understanding of the language and Cyrillic alphabet, and I’m glad we put that work in before we moved here. Once we moved, we were too busy with renovations and settling in to make time for (self-directed) study.
We did, however, find a local Bulgarian teacher and had ad hoc lessons with her for several years. We stopped having lessons at the start of the pandemic (she had a baby at the same time), and I can feel the backslide in my Bulgarian since then. I’d love to resume lessons and feel like I’m actually making progress with the language again.
For anyone thinking of moving abroad, start learning the language before you go. You think you’ll have endless time for learning once you move, but you really won’t. And find a local teacher as soon as you can. That will force you to make time for learning each week.
How long before you felt like it was home?
On one level, we felt like we were home the first morning we woke up in our house. We’d never owned a home before and it felt ‘ours’ in a way that no other place had. Plus, the neighbours were extremely bossy and immediately folded us into their lives, like we’d been here all along!
And on another level, Bulgaria still has the capacity to absolutely baffle me at times, in a way the UK never will. (I can roll my eyes at the UK’s antics and grumble about it until I’m blue in the face, but the UK makes sense to me in a way that Bulgaria sometimes doesn’t.)
So, on the one hand, my roots run deep into the Bulgarian soil, and I can’t see me living anywhere else. But I also think I’ll forever feel like an amused bystander. I’m alright with that.
Was Bulgaria a big culture shock or less so than expected?
Yes and no. Outside of Bulgaria, most people don’t have any idea what Bulgaria is like. We moved here with a better idea than most – having spent some time here already – but Bulgaria is very different from my home country.
For the most part, I mean that in a good way. The things that are different about Bulgaria are what make it special. Life is slower here and you’ll rarely hear people talking about how ‘busy’ they are, which is a big culture difference from the UK. (All I hear back home is how busy everyone is. Like it’s something to be proud of.) Bulgarians are rarely in a rush – unless they’re driving, of course. And I like that even young Bulgarians seem deeply connected to their culture and folklore. Everyone knows the same folk dances. Traditional dress is still worn at concerts. Bulgarian revolutionaries from 150 years ago are still revered. Traditions seem alive here.
Maybe I just have a romantic outsider’s perspective, but I think Bulgarians have a strong sense of what really matters in life: time and relationships. Yes, there is also poverty and corruption and a vague feeling of apathy, but overall, I think Bulgaria gets a lot of things right. It’s different from what I grew up with, but in a good way.
One thing that I constantly have to adjust to is how LOUD Bulgarians are. Music is only played at one volume (ear-splitting), conversations are held at a distance of 20 metres with both parties yelling at each other across the divide, car engines must be revved to death. Even the shepherd escorts the sheep out of the village by constantly beeping his car horn. You’d think I’d be used to it by now, but I’m not.
Most unpleasant surprise?
The attitude to animals has been a hard adjustment, especially coming from the UK, where we’re all soppy for animals.
Here, it’s different. Dogs in villages are routinely chained up, and unwanted puppies and kittens are abandoned for someone else to deal with (many older Bulgarians believe spaying animals goes against nature). It’s getting better, slowly. We see more people walking their dog on a lead in recent years, even in our village. But you still see a lot of grim treatment of animals here.
That and boza. Boza was a dreadful surprise. Don’t do it.
Feel free to add your own questions, or your experiences of life abroad, in the comments below.