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George St Clare (09/06/10)

Expat Experiences: Bulgaria - George St Clare (09/06/10)


Who are you?

British Lion Food Store
British Lion Food Store

My name is George St Clare and I currently live in Balchik on the Northern Black Sea Coast of Bulgaria. Prior to Bulgaria, I have worked in the computer field in the UK and Qatar, computers and real estate in Russia and real estate in Malta. In Bulgaria, I run three companies - GPS systems, real estate and specialised British Food.


Where, when and why did you move abroad?

My move to Bulgaria took place at the end of 2004 from Malta. The real estate market was not really moving there at that time and there appeared to be good opportunities in that area in Bulgaria. Malta is a small island and having driven round the whole island many times in a couple of hours, it was beginning to become a lot less interesting than it had been! I am now married to my fourth Russian/Ukranian wife whom I met in Balchik.

Both the real estate and GPS markets waned with the financial crisis in 2008 and that is when I decided to move into specialised British Food. I run the British Lion Food Store in Balchik. I am pleased to say that we have the largest selection of British food in Bulgaria (around six hundred different food products) and have also branched out into selling DVDs and Books. Having lived in Russia for seven years and speaking fluent Russian, I find that the culture here suits me better than the Middle East or Malta. Virtually all Bulgarians speak Russian or at least understand it, so that is very helpful, although my Bulgarian is very basic. I did actually come out to Sofia in Bulgaria in 1977 as part of my Russian degree course and always felt I would be back!


What challenges did you face during the move?

Bulgaria is a country of challenges! The first challenge was to actually get my personal belongings imported into the country - this took two months and frequent visits to customs posts in three different towns. The mentality here is very different to that in the West and the bureaucracy is particularly stifling. This would be acceptable if the procedures were the same in every area, but each area seems to have different "rules". I had thought things would be simplified after entry into the EU in 2007, but that has proved to be very far from the case.

If you wish to be involved in the "British Community" here, it is very difficult to get any events organised as the British tend to be spread very thinly throughout the whole country and any event is likely to have a low turnout. I am not particularly phased by this as I prefer to integrate into the Bulgarian Community.


Can you tell us something about your property?

George St Clare
George St Clare

I own a large villa in the "Belite Skali" (White Cliffs) villa zone of Balchik. This is ideal for me as it is close to the centre and beaches, but isolated enough to be quiet and peaceful and also very green. We grow our own strawberries, grapes, gooseberries, logan berries and a few other things. Like most of the population here, we used to grow tomatoes and cucumbers, but found that these were just too high maintenance when you are working full-time. Also, is it worth it? At the height of the season, such vegetables are plentiful and cheap in all the markets. Balchik is not a huge place, with a population of just 13,000 or so, so we have to do our major shopping in Varna, which houses supermarkets and hypermarkets such as Kaufland, Piccadilly and Metro.

I also have a real estate office on the Balchik sea front and the food shop in the upper part of Balchik. As I am in real estate, I also have a number of other properties in the North east corner of the country, which are all for resale.


Are you employed or self-employed? What challenges did you face in either finding employment or running your own business?

I am self-employed and run my own businesses. The main challenges in setting up tended to be the bureaucracy. Getting VAT registered was a bit of a nightmare. Having said that, getting the real estate office up and running was not a great problem. Essentially, that was a case of buying the property, which was straightforward, and then equipping and staffing it. Getting the food store opened was an entirely a different kettle of fish. Although buying the property was again straightforward, we had to go through months and months of inspections, obtaining health certificates and a host of other documentation. However, after struggling through that, we find we are having no problems.

It would be nice to have a bigger client base, but as the British community is so widely spread throughout Bulgaria, this has always tended to be something of a problem for any business aimed primarily at the British community


Are there many other expats in your area?

It is impossible to find accurate figures on the number of Expats in Bulgaria, though there are certainly quite a few in Balchik. This is compounded by the fact that many expats own property here, but tend to come out only for the summer months. Those that are here permanently or just for the summer are evenly distributed throughout Bulgaria.

I have heard that there are approximately 3,500 full-time British expats in Bulgaria, but that figure may be wildly off in either direction. Sadly, it is a fact that many British expats are now leaving Bulgaria. The reasons for this are many and varied - some go for health reasons, others cannot adapt to the culture, yet others miss family and friends. However, I would say that the main reason is related to finances - many have tried to start their own businesses and not succeeded, others have not been able to find employment. I do believe, though that the most badly hit are the pensioners who came out with the exchange rate at 2.9 leva to the Pound Sterling. That, however, changed dramatically and dropped to around 2.00 to the Pound, although it is now climbing back up.


What is your relationship like with the locals?

Generally, the Bulgarians are very friendly people and will share whatever they have with you, especially the poorer people in the villages. Because of poverty in some places here, as in other countries, expats can be perceived as very wealthy and resented or even targeted because of that, though this, thankfully, is relatively rare. The attitude tends to be extremely laid back and I am sure the concept of "time" does not exist as such for some Bulgarian people! Whilst in Russia, I found that the populace largely embraced Western ideals very quickly after the fall of Communism. That has proved, to my surprise, not to be the case here - many still adhere to Communist principles and would love to go back to those "golden years"!


What do you like about life where you are?

British Lion Food Store
British Lion Food Store

Sometimes, I melt into the slower pace of life to relax, but I would like to see some more initiative and get up and go amongst some Bulgarians - this may be because I am a type "A" personality and a workaholic! Bulgarians tend to take life a day at a time and not worry about what the future may hold.

The countryside is stunning and varied - there are rolling hills, mountains, beautiful rivers, glorious plains and some of the beaches I consider to rank among the best in the world, particularly north of Shable in the north eastern part of the country, stretching right up to Durankulak on the border with Romania.

The Bulgarians love to eat out, so there are many and varied eateries all around the country. In some ways, it can be like the "pavement cafe" culture in France, which I enjoy a great deal. For those still embracing British food and the British way of life, quite a few British bars and restaurants have sprung up almost everywhere in recent times.
What do you dislike about your expat life?

Bureaucracy, bureaucracy and bureaucracy!

I have lived in a few countries in my time, but I have never known one where a foreigner or expat is treated very much as an outsider after a good few years in the country. This still tends to be the case here in many ways. As I always try to integrate, I am not especially happy with that situation.

I don't believe I suffer culture shock wherever I go, but there are a few home comforts, friends and family that I miss from the UK.


What advice would you give to anyone following in your footsteps?

- Because property is so cheap in Bulgaria, some people tend to buy over the net without actually coming out to see the property at all. This can be a very grave mistake as photographs will not show you everything about the property - it may look good on the website, but could be a complete wreck when you actually see it in real life. Also, it may be in a bad area or one that is not to your liking. Always come out and view different areas and different properties yourself before making any commitment to purchase.
- Bear in mind that it is very difficult to find well-paid employment or even employment in Bulgaria.
- Ensure that you have adequate funds/income to tide you over and to build the life that you want.
- If you are going to set up in business for yourself, do plenty of research to ensure that there is a need for the business you will be setting up and that it is in the right area for what it is. The key is a lot of research beforehand.
- You will miss friends and family, so you must have the character to be able to handle that emotionally. Of course, these days, there is always the net and skype, so you can always be in touch, albeit not face to face.
- It is always helpful to become acquainted, at least, with the language prior to coming out. If you know even a little Bulgarian when you get here, this will go a long way towards acquiring new friends and getting respect for having made the effort. Many Bulgarians, especially the younger generation, do speak English, but by no means all.


What are your plans for the future?

Nothing is ever set in stone. I have not lived in the UK full-time for any lengthy period since 1982. I do like to move around and do not envisage staying in Bulgaria for ever. I believe that once you have successfully set up businesses in more than one country, you can do it just about anywhere despite any language difficulties or any other difficulties which you may and will encounter. I like the possibilities currently presenting themselves in Romania, Croatia and Serbia and one of these countries may well be next on my agenda.




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