Looking back

The fair in Popovo (BG) at the beginning of June

It is now a bit more than a year since I started living here in Bulgaria, after having left Belgium a bit discouraged. Or maybe also a bit disgusted by that country and its citizens. The acidification of society, the corruption of politics, the almost non-existent justice (except for the rich), the disproportional taxes.. All these factors, and then some, made me decide to leave that country and look for peace and rest in a corner of the European Union. Not that politicians are not corrupt here, but at least I don’t have to spend more than half of my income sponsoring their secret schemes anymore.

But today I started asking myself if this was a good decision I made, if Bulgaria really gave me what I expected from it. And I think I can say I’m still happy with my decision. Of course nothing is black or white, but adding everything together I found what I was looking for. Some things I really do miss, some I really don’t. Maybe the big difference with other people is that I never really grew up in Belgium, nor have I lived long in the same country nor region. I moved over 20 times in my life, and most of the moves were to completely different regions or countries, sometimes separated by hundreds of miles. So I didn’t grow those roots most people seem to have, nor do I have an allegiance to death with any country, despite having served the Belgian armed forces dutifully during seven years of my life.

Waterfall along the eco-trail near Emen (BG)

Bulgaria has been very welcoming for me. In the beginning I was surrounded by wrong people, luring expats into their money-making maffia-practices, but once I managed to get rid of those people I got submerged in the Bulgarian culture. Most credits should be given to Emo, my neighbour who offered his services as builder once I threw out the whole maffia-gang. As we grew closer by working together, we became friends and he became my window on Bulgaria. Of course there is also Yoana, the woman who works on the administrative side for expats who hire her for her outstanding services, and whom I also befriended. Someone like her is invaluable in a country which not only speaks a difficult language, but also writes in a different alphabet.

Since the very first day the language has been the biggest obstacle to surmount, and it still is hampering my efforts to build an extensive social life here. People mastering the English (or French, German, Spanish) language are rare over here, but maybe that is an advantage pushing me to learn the language faster. Now I manage to express my wants, but I’m still a long way of being able to have an intimate conversation about feelings, and that makes me sometimes a bit sad as this is the main (and only I guess) way to really connect with people. After a long search I found someone to teach me Bulgarian (and does speak the English language well), but it is not an easy language to learn.

My neighbor playing on my guitar in front of my trailer :)
My neighbor playing guitar.

What provides me the most happiness is the peace and the silence. No cars racing by, no planes flying overhead, no trains thundering by. Just the sounds of people walking on the street, the voices of people sitting on a bench beside the wall at the gate of my property under the shade of a big tree, the animals grazing around between the houses, the occasional cart with horse passing by, and sometimes the Bulgarian or Turkish music from a stereo a few houses away when the people are happy. Of course there is a car passing my house once in a while, but no more than 4 on a busy day, and in the season there is an old Russian biplane with a star engine making a deep growling noise maneuvering over the village to spray the crops in the huge fields, but this sound is rather welcoming as it is rather seldom. Nature over here is uplifting for me, and the notion I can go anywhere, without fences, private properties or prohibited areas and knowing that whomever I shall meet will be friendly and hospitable is heartwarming. On the premise I can make myself understandable of course ?

Slowly I start to attune to the rhythm of nature, and though I never had green fingers, I start to work in my garden more often, reaping the fruits trees and plants freely offer me. I prune trees and vines as if I was a semi-pro, and harvest the strawberries and cherries that are waiting to be picked this month. These I cook and then dry the jam-like substance in my dehydrator to preserve the abundant quantities for later on in the year. I try to keep on schedule for once the cherries and strawberries are gone the raspberries, apples, pears, plums, apricots, grapes and peaches will grow ripe and then I fear I will have to work day and night to process the vast quantities nature freely offers me.

A very old cemetery.. (BG)

My decision to buy a motorcycle with off-road capabilities was a good one. It enables me to recon the area, and reach places I never would have visited with my car. Just driving around in a car with no specific goal, turning around when something catches my attention, engaging a dirt road trough the fields and woods, is no thing I would have done, but the motorcycle lets me do all that when I drive around at leisure with no specific goal other than enjoying myself and discovering new places. My motorcycle reinforces my feeling of uninhibited freedom this country offers me.

The downside is I did not manage to convince my family and friends to move over here ?. So I do miss them, and being able to see them from time to time via FaceTime or Skype is reassuring. And of course I travel to Belgium regularly, as the people I do love with all of my heart are living there. Often someone drops by on a visit, and the last weeks my neighbor and his son-in-law were busy rebuilding my guesthouse next to my house. That will eliminate the need to shelter my guests in my trailer, as luxurious as it is, but a house feels more comfortable and cosy. Once ready it will have its own toilet and shower, a little kitchen and a living room. And the two houses are connected via the half-basement which functions as my huge living room, so even on cold or rainy days there is no need to go outside to meet. Due to the thick walls in sandstone and clay the temperatures are reasonable indoors during the hot summers. Down in the half-basement the temperature is always pleasing: warm in winter, fresh during summer. That is why I made it my living room, with a soon-to-be built rocket mass heater for heating the house in the cold winter days.

Storks are omnipresent (BG)

Most of all I miss my partner. She is a courageous and superb woman, often having to handle the problems she encounters by herself due to my frequent absence. Sometimes that makes me feel guilty. And of course lots of people do not understand the symbiosis between us, as we are not living the ‘standard’ life a couple is supposed to live by general standards. But we are happy, and we manage, and there is no ‘standard’ way a couple should behave, it is all about agreement between two people. Some have an open marriage, some have a conservative relationship, some live apart together, some cannot spend a minute without each other.. Whatever works and makes these two people happy, and it is no one else’s business. But I do miss her ? And we often travel to see each other. She likes it here, and I try to like it in Belgium.

Church in a little monastery near Veliko Tarnovo (BG)

Little by little I get to know more and more local people, I get invited to parties and celebrations, and so my horizon is expanding and I get immersed in the Bulgarian culture. I have no doubts about staying here, just the evolution of civilization worries me a bit, and I fear it will catch up with the Bulgarian countryside in a few decades. But I might not be in this world any more by then, so there is no reason to worry about that yet. And if it happens and starts to bother me, I just might move on to a further place.

Love ❤️, yann.

Belgian Maffia in Bulgaria

Bulgaria is a fabulous country. A bit more than a year ago this country was totally unknown territory for me. I never could have imagined it being like this..

Horses grazing freely in my street ©yannbastiaans

One thing the communists got right was to strictly regulate the partition of the land in building areas, agricultural zones, and nature. In contrast to Belgium where houses were built everywhere, this gives plenty of places where one can find himself only surrounded by fields and forests. Outside the villages and cities fences are never used, shepherds roam the countryside with their flocks, and every place is freely accessible for all.

So when I first visited the country I bought a house over here within my first week.. Prices for estate are unrealistically low. Unemployment is soaring, wages are a disgrace, and young people flee the countryside for the cities or for – what they hope – a better future abroad.

Unfortunately, when there is misery, there are always opportunists on the prowl. It seems like every region has it’s foreigners who take advantage of the low bargaining position of the locals, and of the ignorance of foreigners wanting to buy property here. Same goes for my village, Lomtsi, where a Belgian couple promotes real estate to fellow Belgians, and they assured themselves of a quasi-monopoly in the 9 years they run their unofficial business here.

Bulgarians who want to sell their house have almost no other option than to go to this couple, named Jo and Ronnie, to find people interested in buying  their property. This couple just impose their price on the owners, and conclude an agreement about their share of the sale. That could be up to 50% of the selling price. Despite the low estate prices that can mean a gain of three to twenty thousand euro’s per sold property. In hard cash, no questions asked, no records made.

My house in the rebuilding phase ©yannbastiaans

Their trick is simple: maintain a website about their ‘wonderful’ life in Bulgaria, and show some photos of available properties (stating clearly that they have no part in selling these houses) at prices that are ridiculously low for Western Europeans. They manage to keep up a façade of: “we are doing this to help the poor people”, and “we just want to help fellow countrymen to find cheap houses”. Overly friendly, seemingly altruistic, they lure other Belgians into their scheme. Of course the prices for the properties are attractive to ignorant Westerners! What they just don’t know is that 30 to 50% of the sale disappears into the banking account of this fraudulent couple.

Once the property sold, the new owners are told that building companies are not to be trusted in the region. They cheat, they over price, they rip the clients off, etc.. Fortunately, they have a solution: there is one company which can be trusted… In comes ‘New Bulgarian Land’ (NBL). A true Bulgarian company, they made some business arrangements with Jo and Ronnie.

Jo and Ronnie bring in a steady flow of new customers, and in exchange for the honor, they rebuild the properties Jo and Ronnie buy in their own name (via their non-active firm) for free. Only the cost of the building materials is billed to them. That way Jo and Ronnie can not only offer to ignorant prospectors houses to be rebuilt, but also completely finished – and even furnished – houses. In that case the gains soar high, over 100% of the investment.

Not many buyers are needed. Ten to twenty a year are more than sufficient to realize earnings between 60 and 100.000€ per year. All unofficial, all not accounted for, all below the radar of the Belgian or Bulgarian tax authorities (they have both official residence in Belgium as in Bulgaria – another fact that is unknown to authorities). Not bad, if you know that Jo receives a monthly allocation by the Belgian health insurance act (she is supposedly ill), and Ronnie is on early retirement. His former company had no way to get rid of him except by putting him on early retirement, but that status is linked to certain rules, including being available for the labour market, and not having another income.

When a deal is closed with new buyers, and they have succeeded into pushing the new customers into the arms of that building company, all contact is broken. Where they were very friendly and helpful before the deal went trough, they leave the new arrivals on their own from then on. Which is a very stressful situation for most people – the majority of them older, retired people who were looking for a cheap holiday house – because the new language combined with the cyrillic writing is a huge barrier. On top of that not many Bulgarians in the countryside speak English, German nor French. So every support is cut off despite the good feeling they had when seduced into buying a property.

But it goes further.. People who dare to question these practises are threatened, verbally and physically. In the first case by Jo and Ronnie, and if those warnings don’t seem to impress the new arrivals too much, NBL enters the stage with a demonstration of brute force. Going to the authorities is not an option for many of the new owners – they cannot speak the language – and in almost every case they were convinced by Jo and Ronnie they should buy their new house under a newly formed but dormant firm. Just to evade taxes at home in Belgium. Or they bought the property with ‘black money’ they earned running a business at home without declaring it for taxes. So these people find themselves in a vulnerable situation, where filing a complaint with authorities would certainly mean getting into trouble themselves.

Burglary is very uncommon in my village. But it happened a few times that houses owned by Belgians were broken into, and some valuables like a TV-set were stolen. Those burglaries coincided with conflicts the owners had with Jo and Ronnie and/or NBL. Nothing can be proved as yet, but I am not a strong believer in coincidences.

Unfortunately some of the foreign house-owners do not want to come on holiday in their nice property. The maintenance is performed by locals, but the owners got scared and prefer to collect their losses and avoid the potential trouble caused by this couple.

In the end it is just a game of two parties holding each other’s bollocks, and saying: “we are not going to hurt each other…”

The Belgian Ambassador is aware of the problems with this couple, and has pledged all possible support in this case. Unfortunately there is not much the Embassy can do, for it is a matter between private persons, and the Embassy has no legal jurisdiction inside a foreign territory. Other than monitoring the situation, warning newcomers who are so smart to contact the Embassy before buying a house, and eventually pointing those practices out to the official Belgian tax, pension and health insurance authorities.

I am here one of the few permanently residing expats, and I had no part in illegal constructions. For Jo and Ronnie, their is no leverage to extort me, and my local neighbours know about the situation, the threats and the possible burglary that may be my share one day. First they will have to avoid those neighbours, then they will have to pass my three dogs. Since the schemes of these people are well documented (and now partly published on this blog – there is more ?), and I already filed complaint with the police for the threats I received, it would not be so hard to follow the lead whenever something happens. I feel safe, I feel at peace. But I will only rest when Jo and Ronnie will have disappeared from Bulgaria, and all other similar criminals have stopped exploiting the poor locals, and are halted extorting clueless expats.

The locals rightfully call Jo and Ronnie “the Belgian Maffia”.

Jo and Ronnie as they present themselves on their website http://nieuwbulgarije.123website.be/

p.s. Jo and Ronnie probably start to feel the heat of all the combined forces trying to put them out of ‘business’. They changed the language on their website, and stipulate they provide a ‘service’ to newcomers (as opposed to: we do it out of love and friendship). The original text where they stated that “foreigners can set up a company here and buy properties because the Belgian authorities never will be aware of that” has disappeared. But the original website is still in my possession…

As for me I started a new website on the same server as they use for getting more customer to rip off, to warn those people about the criminal practices of this ‘altruistic’ couple ?: http://nieuwerbulgarije.123website.be (in Dutch)

18th of March 2015: the website stated above is offline. Jo and Ronnie managed to block it, probably by filing a complaint with the server of which I have not been notified. But no harm done, there is more info to be found on: http://nieuwbulgarije.wordpress.com (in Dutch)