Postcard from… Sofia

Until adverts for cheap real estate flooded the British press, I suspect that I was not alone in associating Bulgaria with umbrellas. I’m told that Waterloo Bridge remains on the itinerary of many Bulgarians visiting London.

Postcard from... SofiaUntil advertisements for cheap real estate flooded the British press, I suspect that I was not alone in associating Bulgaria with umbrellas. I’m told that Waterloo Bridge remains on the itinerary of many Bulgarians visiting London.

Quite apart from the significant formal milestones that have passed since I began working in the country in 2002, such as the joining of NATO and the EU, Bulgaria has experienced a rapid rise in the living standards of many people, the entry of international companies, and the opening of hundreds of small businesses.

One of the many enjoyable aspects of living here is experiencing the entrepreneurial nature of its people. Sometimes it seems that everyone has a new scheme, idea or solution to make or save money. In Sofia, this is shown off in a confident display of expensive cars, bold architecture and fashionable bars and nightclubs.

Whilst Sofia and the large cities are benefiting from economic growth, elsewhere there’s still a long road that needs to be travelled – and in some cases, built. Standing as a testament to this journey are the Trakia and Hemus highways which were intended in to cross North and South Bulgaria, but which despite beginning construction in 1976, remain uncompleted.

My father worked in Eastern Europe and Russia over many years and, growing up, I listened to his descriptions about life under Communism which crafted my impression of the region. For Bulgarians, any modern conversation about social history begins at the latest with the Thracian period around 5th century BC. Yet, it is the more recent impact of Socialism that continues to have a noticeable and profound effect on many people.

With the changes in 1989, the sense of security that Socialism provided disappeared overnight, leaving many of the older generations disenfranchised. When I joined the executive management team of Bulgaria Telecom shortly after its privatization, I was privileged to meet several generations of the same family working in a switch site and to meet teams who had worked together for decades on remote mountain top transmission stations. I was also acutely aware of their nervousness about the future under private ownership.

As with the Trakia and Hemus highways, there is much development still to be made in the country, particularly in utilities and infrastructure.

Outside of the largest cities and the Black Sea and ski resorts, life can seem little changed from how it might have been generations ago: Horsedrawn carts carry vegetables for domestic cooking, farmed by hand; the elderly collect water from the nearest well or stream; and the smell of wood from stoves and open fires fills the air. In the summer the villages are an idyllic rest for the Sofiantsi escaping the city. But in the winter, when temperatures fall below -20c and the snow is several meters deep, it is a harsh life.

At the moment a wry smile passes the faces of many in Bulgaria about the financial crisis. ‘What crisis? We’ve been in a constant crisis for the last twenty years’.

There is a warmth and stoicism in people when dealing with difficulties. Bulgaria receives 100% of its gas from Russia, and as you will have read in the news, gas supplies were completely shut off for over a week in January. Yet there was little shouting about the problems, only help and concern. Even in Sofia neighbours popped in to see whether they could help with wood and fuel.

It is this strong social warmth of people that makes living in Bulgaria most enjoyable. Clients have become friends over home-cooked Sunday lunches; hand picked flowers are regularly presented by a retired neighbour; and in my wife’s family village the selection and preparation of local dishes begins days ahead in anticipation of a visit.

On this last point, I should perhaps note that, before he would agree to my marrying his daughter, my Bulgarian father-in-law presented me with a rifle and instructed me to shoot a firework. Luckily (very luckily) I hit and extinguished it with the first shot. Being able to feed the family in a crisis is an important condition of Bulgarian marriage!

Heading Wolf Theiss’ 17-strong office in Bulgaria and working in the country is a privilege, and the confidence of the current generation of Bulgarian lawyers with good contacts in business and politics and who want to work internationally has been a key part of our success here.

Bulgaria has a strong history of technical expertise and international trade. As one of the leading law firms in Eastern Europe, the Bulgarian team at Wolf Theiss regularly leads transactions in Bulgaria, Macedonia and elsewhere in the region, acting both for international firms and Bulgarian companies.

I had always anticipated that one day I would live internationally and I am fortunate to have been presented with the circumstances that have allowed me to do it. When I left London a number of people asked me how I could move from such a vibrant city. As I made my way to Heathrow past Waterloo Bridge on a mild and light snowy Monday morning a couple of weeks ago, I remember thinking that I had never seen Sofia being quite as deserted and quiet.

Richard Clegg is head of Wolf Theiss’ Sofia office.