British homes across rural Bulgaria lie empty. Where have all the people gone?
Issue 66, March 2012
by Curstaidh Hoppe By the dawn of 2002 most Britons’ optimism for the New Millennium was already fading. We began to realise New Labour was just Old Tory with a more sophisticated PR machine. The current economic crisis was beginning to look inevitable and the cost of living was on the increase. As a nation, we hunkered down and turned to our favourite distraction for solace and escape – television.
Programmes like A Place in the Sun and No Going Home held the nation captivated.
We watched as couple after couple said a tearful goodbye to friends and family, squeezed children, pets and garden furniture into shabby Transits and headed for Europe. We willed them to make it (if we deemed them nice), weeping with happiness as they produced their first bottle of Organic Extra Virgin Olive Oil.
But clever editing and the expense of sending film crews on location meant we never actually discovered if they actually managed to sell the 5,000 litres they had personally handpressed or if they had remained living in that decaying farm house with no electricity or running water. But it didn't matter, as across the British nation, the seed was well and truly sown.
The dream of escape, of leaving the sinking ship of economic gloom for blue skies was born.
We laughed at their mistakes and cried at their failures. We watched them navigate bureaucracy and prehistoric plumbing, animal husbandry and homesickness. But the tedious and complex issues like children's integration into schools, serious health issues and foreign doctors, language learning and the wearisome daily grind of earning an income and functioning day-to-day as an immigrant were mysteriously never touched upon.
The idea of sun and escape was enough: we watched solely for distraction and entertainment.
That was until late 2001 and a particular episode of A Place in the Sun aired – at this point I should probably explain the premise of the show. An attractive female presenter, with a tenuous background in property sales/development and an impressive cleavage, takes couples to foreign climes to view homes within their budget.
This episode introduced us to the Smiths, who had the princely sum of five grand. The nation laughed heartily, but as we watched them snap up an entire farm near Burgas for £3,000 the canny Smiths certainly enjoyed the last laugh. It didn't matter that it was located in some bewildering ex-Communist land.
The nation was spellbound.
"Where was this place, Bulgaria?"
"How do we get there?"
"What's the limit on the credit card, Pet?" was the war-cry at Stansted airport the following summer.
Bulgarian real estate agents were only too happy to oblige. Considered successful prior to this if they shifted a few agricultural lots per year, they were now directing coach loads of land-hungry Britons towards isolated villages. As Brits surged through remote hamlets banging on doors and demanding that pensioners named a price, the property lust was visible, literally glinting in their eyes. Considered bonkers by the residents, they threw money where canny Bulgarians would never dream of treading.
"Nice view?" (Never mind there's no water or electricity.) "We'll take it!"
70 years ago, on 10 March 1943, Bulgaria's pro-Nazi government decided to defy Berlin and halt the deportation of Bulgaria's 50.000 Jews. This was down to the actions of one man - Dimitar Peshev. Just two years later he faced Communist justice and found himself on trial for his life. His niece Kaluda Kiradjieva remembers