Brits abroad: They come over here...

We've heard all the arguments about immigration from Eastern Europe, but what about the other side of the story? Andrew Osborn visits a Balkan town that has been overrun by the English
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The Independent Online

Ten years ago the sleepy Communist-era alpine resort of Bansko (population: 9,000) was quintessentially Bulgarian.

Horses pulling carts laden with hay plodded through its narrow streets, old women on their front porches trampled on beans barefoot to squeeze them from their pods, there were two hotels, and people struggled to sell their sun-baked land.

But today Bansko is a small corner of Britain in a foreign field and though the "old way of living" still exists, this pretty ski resort is rapidly becoming an East-European Chamonix.

Attracted by cheap land, cheap beer, and first rate skiing and hiking, Britons own more than half of the houses and flats here and "The Lions Pub," an establishment that offers its customers Sky TV, English cider, and English breakfasts, is the centre of a burgeoning British diaspora.

Bansko is an example of modern-day migration where people with money go to places where the locals are relatively poor to enjoy a lifestyle that is harder to find let alone afford in the UK.

Manchester, Liverpool and London accents ring out from the town's streets, menus are in English and Bulgarian, and many shop signs are in English too.

Nor are the Britons who come here just holiday-makers - many are migrant workers and entrepreneurs who are trying to make a new life in a country where a pint of beer costs 40p and you can buy an apartment for £25,000.

The town has become home to British estate agents, interior designers, hoteliers, bar owners, and engineers.

Many Britons are buying retirement homes here, too, and many more are expected to come in the years ahead. The impact they have made has been profound; there are now more than 100 hotels, property prices have increased three-fold in the past three years and this once sleepy town has been transformed into one big building site.

Wherever you look, deeply tanned Bulgarian workers are toiling to erect yet more hotels, holiday flats, and villas for the new kids on the block: the British. Some locals find it hard to swallow.

Sasha Gaichin, 23, who works at the town's Gold Club Casino sounds bitter when asked what he thinks of the influx of Britons.

"I hate them," he spits. "They drink too much, they swear all the time, and they are bad people. It's our country but they have bought up everything." Ironically, Sasha says he might go and work in the UK if he can when his country joins the EU next year.

"Just to earn money you understand" he says, smiling.

Lounging on a bench talking to his grandfather under the hot summer sun, Ivan Popov, a 23-year old student, is also hostile to the newcomers.

"They have turned the town into a building site. There are now too many hotels and the prices are sky high." But on the whole - considering the dramatic scale and nature of the influx - the British invasion has caused surprisingly few waves here.

There have been no lurid headlines in the local newspapers screaming about "hordes" or "floods" of Brits, nationalist sentiment exists but is not common, and when asked most Bulgarians say the town has been transformed for the better by a flow of foreign money and investment that would have been unimaginable 10 years ago.

"I'm glad the Brits have come here," says Nikolai Spasov, a 45-year old cook.

"They've got big money and here ... well we haven't. I work in a restaurant and a restaurant needs customers. My wages have also gone up because of the Brits. I now make 350 lev a month (£120)" Tomas Kopanorov, a barman at The Lions Pub is equally laid back about Bansko's Britification.

"It's simple. They bring a lot of money here. Nobody is worried about them coming here. We are used to going abroad to earn money so why shouldn't they come here. What's the difference?" Those Britons who have made their homes here talk of how unexpectedly warm the welcome has been.

Matt Bradwell who has bought and renovated a ski chalet with his girlfriend Jennie Buxton says he is still amazed by the reception that he was given.

"It's as if they don't realise that they've sold so much of their own town to the English. When we came back from a holiday recently all the neighbours came out to hug us." Stories of locals bringing Brits pears and eggs as gifts and going out of their way to make them feel wanted here despite the fact that most of the newcomers speak not a word of Bulgarian are legion.

Maria Georgieva, Company Director at Bulgarian Dreams, a firm that sells property to Brits throughout the country, says the mentality here is totally different.

"We are a very small country. Bulgaria (population 7.8 million) is smaller than London. We are also very hospitable people. When British people choose to live here for many locals it is a compliment. It means they like mixing with us and want to live alongside us which is what Europe is all about. It's one big family."

Nor do UK newspaper headlines about the Bulgarian mafia and corruption or Bulgarians' alleged desire to sponge off the UK seem to offend.

"If you want to provide this kind of article you can always find the material," says Ms Georgieva. "Of course there is corruption here and of course there is a mafia but crime is in every country and here things are steadily getting better."

It is also a mistake to think that all young Bulgarians are in a hurry to get to the UK. Many of the brightest and the best have already tried it and come back home with new skills and ideas.

James Hughes, a British hotelier, employs several Bulgarians who have worked in the UK.

"Bulgarians are southern Europeans and are used to sitting on the beach whereas the UK is a cold damp place. One of the girls who works for me was earning 10 times more than she does here working in Manchester. But she said it rained too much and she would rather earn less and live here instead."

Phillip Brooks, Interior designer

"We've opened ourselves up to other people doing jobs that we don't want. It's all right saying you don't want immigrants but do you want to drive a bus or mop a floor?" says Phillip of the prospect of Bulgarian workers arriving in the UK. The 41-year-old made the trip in the other direction a year ago leaving behind his job as an inheritance tax adviser. He fell in love with the place after touring the area in a van with his girlfriend. He now spends all his time in Bulgaria, where low prices have allowed him to acquire a mini property empire. He owns a ski apartment in Bansko, a house in a village and two other rural properties. He initially renovated some of his new properties and then set up his own business kitting out foreigners' houses. Phillip sees himself spending up to four years in Bulgaria and would like to train local people so that they can eventually run his business in his absence. He is convinced Bulgaria has allowed him to achieve things that the UK could not. "Setting up this kind of business in the UK for £20,000 would be unimaginable. There's too much competition."

Tom Przedrzymirski. Bar owner

After leaving behind an accountancy job in London, Tom, 28, moved to Bansko in November 2004. He says he was tired of dreaming of an outdoors lifestyle at his desk. He is now co-owner of the Oxygen Bar in Bansko, a favourite with the ski crowd during the winter. He has also bought land with another Englishman which he hopes to turn into a holiday village. Tombelieves that migrant workers from the UK like him have boosted the Bulgarian economy. "There isn't really any resentment. Everyone has done really well. If it wasn't for the English there would be nothing here [in Bansko]." He is unsure though about the prospect of allowing Bulgarian workers to enter the UK if and when the country joins the EU. "It would be bad for Bulgaria which already has huge problems with its working population." He talks enthusiastically of how Bulgaria's low prices allow people like him to live a lifestyle unavailable in the UK. "Here I can do the things that I always wanted to, like going skiing every day."

Debbie Gibbs, Estate agent

Eighteen months ago, Debbie, 39, moved to Bansko and set up her own estate agency, Bower Properties, selling villas to other Britons. She was joined by her business partner Stuart Groves, 43, who moved out from Swansea 14 months ago. Debbie had worked in London for 10 years training beauty consultants while Stuart was a "perpetual student" and landlord. Both say they moved here for the lifestyle and to build a successful business. "I'll be paying myself the same salary as I was on in the UK after just one year, something I never expected," said Debbie. She thinks the Bulgarians can only benefit from migrant workers from the UK like herself. "We have an organised nature, and we're creating opportunities here." Stuart says he came here to renovate old houses and write a book but soon got sucked into estate agency. He has bought a house in a small village near Bansko and says he has received an incredibly warm welcome. "Soon after I moved in people were coming round offering me eggs and tomatoes." He believes Bulgarian migrant workers should receive a similar welcome in the UK but doubts they will. "I don't think they'll be greeted in the same way as I have been here."

James and Vania Hughes, Hoteliers

After giving up backpacking around the world and working as a chef in Bristol, James, 29, moved to Bulgaria. In September 2003, he came to Bansko after his family bought a half-finished hotel in the resort town. His dream was to open a pub in his native Dorset but he opted to renovate and run the three-star Hotel Avalon instead. He married Vania, 32, a local girl, taught himself Bulgarian, and considers himself an honorary Bulgarian. He also owns a house and is planning to open a boutique chalet and a youth hostel. He believes Bulgaria has offered him opportunities that the UK could not. "If you were to do this in England a hotel like this would cost you a couple of million pounds and you would have to pay really high wages. It just wouldn't be viable." He says he can't imagine returning to the UK. "I've got my wife here, my house, my dogs and my favourite restaurants. This is home." James believes the UK can only benefit from Bulgarian migrant workers and argues they are more motivated than their UK counterparts. "They work a standard 12-hour day and if you ask them to work an extra hour they consider it normal. They know how many problems their country has had for the past 50 years and that they have the opportunity to do something special now."

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