Auntie Bulgaria is me, Claire Ruston. Not, in fact, a Bulgarian, but a Brit who has made a home in Bulgaria, with my long-suffering partner, Rob. (Or, ‘Poor Rob’, as my actual friends and relatives call him.)
In 2010, we bought a dilapidated village house in the Stara Planina (Balkan) mountains, around 80km from the capital, Sofia. Eight months later, we packed up our tiny Ford Puma with as much stuff as we could fit and drove across Europe to a new life.
Since then we’ve been renovating our house, making a garden from scratch, learning how to grow our own food, grappling with the Bulgarian language (and bureaucracy), and accumulating cats like there’s no tomorrow. All while trying to maintain a healthy relationship and our sanity. Since 2010, I’ve been documenting it all here, at Auntie Bulgaria – from the initial house-hunting experience, to the joys of buying and renovating, to the everyday reality of, ahem, ‘living the dream’.
Oh boy. The number of times people have asked us this question. People back home mostly, but also a few Bulgarians. (‘But why would you move here?’)
The answer we give now is a long list of Bulgaria’s many charms. Stunning nature, amazing fresh produce, long hot summers, short(ish) snowy winters. Great beaches, mountains, hiking. Historic cities, spa towns, heritage villages. The slower pace of life. And some of the most helpful, warm, delightfully bossy people you could ever meet. People who wear dungarees and own donkeys. These are my kind of people. I mean, who couldn’t love a country where they shake their heads to say yes and nod for no? It’s bonkers. You’ll love it here.
That’s what we tell people now.
But the answer we gave back in 2010 – the absolute honest answer – was this: because it’s the only place we can afford to buy a house. With relatively low-income, arty-farty careers (me in publishing, him in photography), we had little hope of getting on the post-credit-crunch UK property ladder. And, frankly, no interest in doing so.
I’d always wanted to live abroad (which, as a child, meant the Isle of Wight). As an adult, I longed to live on a Greek island. I daydreamed about nurturing a garden and wafting around in kaftans in the sunshine. And we could have afforded a place in Greece … if we were prepared to save up for years and retire there. That didn’t work for us. We wanted the ‘good life’ now, not in 30 years’ time, when we’d be too decrepit to dig.
That’s when we hit upon Bulgaria, where, famously (in those days), you could buy a house for £5,000 on your credit card off eBay. We couldn’t get the idea out of our heads. A mortgage-free home within our grasp with just a couple of years’ savings? And in a country that’s next door to Greece? ‘That’ll do!’ we said. So we came on holiday, fell in love with the scenery and returned a few months later for a house-hunting trip.
Six weeks later we were homeowners.
We had no clue what we were letting ourselves in for. How we’d scrape a living. How we’d pay for the many renovations that were needed. Or even how we’d cope with life in Bulgaria.
But we dived in anyway, full of blissful ignorance confidence. Because we knew it was our best chance of living life our way. A healthy, low-stress, commute-free, mortgage-free, adventure-friendly life. In a gorgeous, slightly batshit place.