Anyone reading the British tabloids in January 2014 could have been forgiven for imagining that the UK was about to be invaded by Romanians and Bulgarians.
If you believed it then Sofia bus station should have resembled the evacuation before the Fall of Saigon in 1975: people fighting over seats, clinging to the top of the bus and even trying to crawl into the baggage compartment – the bus driver having to punch away desperate Bulgarians such was the clamour to get to the UK.
Strange then that our neighbours are still here. Dear Vancho and Mimi have not left. They are as helpful as ever, bearing their poverty with the same saintly forbearance.
Of course, some Bulgarians have left for the UK. But they probably went long before the restrictions came down. Don’t get me wrong. Yes, there are some benefits to be gained in London. If you are willing to work a 16-hour day and sleep four to a room. And, yes, there are the other (social) benefits. Yet the exodus never really happened. Why? The British economy may be a powerhouse. But is that everything? Perhaps some Bulgarians have had negative feedback, dashing those preconceptions they first derived from – usually – old British movies.
The older the film, the greater the danger of a slight delusion. Such movies will have told them that the British capital is brimming with gents in pinstripe suits, doffing their bowler hats to passing ladies. They may form the idea that London is teeming with the likes of David Niven, Patrick MacNee and Roger Moore.
How does one disillusion them? I try to break it to them gently. Watching a little Sky News is a good antidote. Take my wife who harboured a few of these old school ‘Good afternoon, Madam’ type expectations of the UK. She was surprised that several uncouth, loudmouthed people are allowed on a major news channel like Sky News. They would only have well-spoken, articulate commentators, wouldn’t they?
‘Well, you see, educated accents are considered pompous and elitist and…’
Next stop – Jonathan Ross. My wife was appalled. Surely they wouldn’t allow a British chat show host on TV to make such lewd remarks? They’d have an intelligent host, someone interested in his guests, wouldn’t they?
‘Well, you see, this is Friday night viewing and this caters to the laddish community who have just come out of the pub and …’
I’ve now lived in an old housing estate in a suburb of the Bulgarian capital for seven years. You can hear a pin drop at night. One of the reasons is – I grant you – the lack of social mobility. You know your neighbours and the families around you. But the other is the – cough cough – homogeneous nature of the population in Sofia. There’s also more emphasis on the simple things of life, not just dead-end consumerism. People sit outside of an evening in front of their block, sipping coffee or tea. No groups of hoodies abuse them in the street.
So I have mixed feelings when Bulgarian families tell me they plan to go to the UK. Especially one of those big cities.
To paraphrase Nigel Farage I kind of get ‘concerned’ when I think Bulgarians may find themselves living next to some members of the underclass who ‘do’ drugs and play music all night long. Some of them have a reputation for criminality.