"Girl, We Have to Leave Germany"

This article is part of our series called "The New Europeans." Ahead of the European elections, we are visiting people who don't dream of Europe, but who live European lives. The series focuses on moments of joy and conflict that wouldn't have happened without the EU.

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Waldemar Hackstätter strides across his lawn. He points to the flower bed, a spade still sticking out of the earth, and at the garden swing, positioned under the cherry tree so that the fruit practically grows into your mouth. He shows off two small fountains, a cement Buddha and a gazebo that he built himself. An H and a W are welded into the metal roof. They stand for Hildegard and Waldemar. Or Herzlich Willkommen, Waldemar says, it's up to you. There is also a barbecue, of course, and a baking oven and a small smoker for fish. The only thing that's not quintessentially German about the yard is the fact that it's not in Germany. It is instead located in a small village in northwestern Bulgaria called Sirakovo, home to 60 people and a few donkeys.

The Hackstätters are two of many German pensioners who have moved abroad, mostly due to monetary concerns. Hildegard and Waldemar say they could no longer afford life in Germany, in their hometown of Biberach an der Riss, a town in Baden-Württemberg that looks straight out of a postcard. So they became a different kind of economic refugee: Rather than fleeing poverty in their home country, they fled wealth.

Waldemar's long, white hair flows across his shoulders. He has long sideburns, a moustache and a goatee he only grew because his wife once got him a musketeer costume for Carnival. The look is emblematic for the 77-year-old: If he does something, he's all in. He often says things like, "I want to live, I don't just want to survive.". Or: "In Germany, I was poor. Here, I'm the second-richest man in the village after the farmer."

It's not always easy for Hildegard, 71, to avoid rolling her eyes when her husband says things like that. She speaks in a broad, Swabian accent, likes to tell dirty jokes and has the smile of your favorite grandma. "They're delicious, believe me," she says as she sets a bowl of cream puffs on the table –  frozen ones, from the Lidl supermarket. The German chain has a store just a half-hour away from their village in Bulgaria.

Hildegard Hackstätter worked for 45 years in Germany – as a cinema usher, as a dairy packer and for a shutter company. She was a cleaner in both a retirement home and a thermal bath. She worked as a lifeguard and used to drive people with disabilities through the city. Although she has what might be called a spotty job history, she worked almost her entire life. When she received her pension certificate 12 years ago, she says, it was like a punch in the gut. She says she sat on the floor of her apartment crying until 3 a.m. Not even 500 euros a month after 45 years of work. "Girl, we have to leave Germany," Waldemar told her.

So they left for Bulgaria, the poorest country in the European Union. People here earn average salaries of just over 500 euros per month and almost a quarter of the population is at risk of poverty. In Bulgaria, poor pensioners from Germany are part of the upper-middle class. "Here, I don't have to look in my wallet and wonder if I can afford to eat in a restaurant or not," says Waldemar. "Here, I just go." By moving, the Hackstätters increased their pensions without receiving a single extra cent.

Every couple of weeks, Hildegard and Waldemar head for the Black Sea, a 30-minute drive away. The road leads past fields of lavender and sunflowers, straight as an arrow. Up here in northern Bulgaria, between Varna and the Romanian border, there isn't much reason to build a curve into the road. They pass an oncoming car only every five minutes or so. They love the wide-open spaces and the quiet.

On Durankulak beach, the waves produce foamy bubbles, likely due to algae. It's a bit too cold for a swim anyway. Hildegard has zipped the collar of her jacket closed because of the wind. South of here, at Albena and Gold Beach, the hotel resorts are getting ready for the season, with bulldozers pushing sand back and forth. In the summer, it is a package-holiday zoo, not the kind of thing the Hackstätters are particularly fond of: too full, too expensive and too many souvenir shops. They prefer it here. Just 500 meters down the beach, says Waldemar, it's usually empty in the summers, too. "You can go into the water whenever you want."

They stroll along, arm-in-arm. The climate has been good for them, they say. After all, it's the same latitude as Rome. And Waldemar's shoulder problems have disappeared, he says.

Almost a quarter-million German pensioners live abroad – most of them in Switzerland, the U.S. or Austria. But more and more of them are settling in Eastern Europe. Thanks to the EU, it has become easier to move to a different country in retirement – to places where the cost of living is only half as much. Twice as many German pensioners live in Hungary as just 10 years ago, and the same holds true for Poland. The Czech Republic is also attracting increasing numbers of German retirees. In 2017, the last time official statistics were gathered, there were 652 German pensioners living in Bulgaria. But the Hackstätters believe there are actually far more. And that more will come. Currently, every fifth retiree in Germany is at risk of old-age poverty and a look at demographic trends makes it clear that the problem is likely to get worse: Aging in dignity will become an unattainable dream for many in the country. "The fact that retirees in Germany have to collect deposit bottles is scandalous," says Hildegard.

The Hackstätters say that they would have been forced to survive on 300 euros a month in Germany, which is why they moved to Bulgaria. It's also why Waldemar says things like, "We've lived here for 10 years and haven't regretted it for a single day." And: "Even if I had 5,000 euros per month, I wouldn't go back to Germany." Sometimes, Waldemar Hackstätter sounds like he is trying to drown out the quiet voices of doubt in his head.

Can They Speak Bulgarian?

The Bulgarian population has dropped by almost 2 million people, from 9 million, since 1990. Every hour, nine more people leave the country, a researcher recently noted. Many of them are well-educated, and they generally head for countries in Western Europe. Retirees from the West move into the homes they leave behind. "The land is bleeding to death," says Hildegard. Which also explains why Bulgarians are happy about their new neighbors, she says.

And it's not just poor pensioners who are coming. There is also the retiree who is here because it costs only half as much to play golf. Others come because it's cheaper to get dental work done. In fact, there are almost more dental clinics on the coast than there are hotels. But not everyone here is happy. The Hackstätters say they don't know anybody who has gone back, but they do know a retired German woman who lives in a concrete block building in the coastal city of Varna and isn't particularly pleased with her decision to move here. But she can't afford to go back. Still others are overcome by loneliness in a foreign country where they don't speak the language and can hardly even make out the alphabet. And what about the Hackstätters? How good is their Bulgarian? "It's terrible," says Waldemar.

The Hackstätters had originally intended to move to southern Bulgaria, to Slanchev Bryag (also known as Sunny Beach) or to Burgas or Nessebar. But they didn't really like it there. Then the couple took a look at the 1,650-square-meter (0.4-acre) property, which included a house. Waldemar looked over to his wife, who had already found the cherries hanging from the tree in the garden. When he saw that, he knew: "We'll take it."

There was only one problem: The property and house cost 20,000 euros. Where should they find the money when they had virtually none of their own? The couple had only managed to save up 7,000 euros. So Hildegard and Waldemar returned to Germany and went back to work, she as a cleaning lady and he as a handyman and locksmith. Every month, they sent 3,000 euros to Bulgaria. And after six months, the house was theirs.

On the way back from the beach, they make a stop in a neighboring village. Like many places in the region, Spasovo feels like a ghost town. A couple of children are hunkered down on the side of the road and some dogs trot across the street. In front of the small store, known here as a magazin, there are four men sitting at plastic tables and smoking. The Hackstätters greet them and the locals nod. "I'm known all around these parts," Waldemar says. "They call me the man with the white hair." Maybe because the man with the white hair is also quite friendly. He'll sometimes drive a neighbor to the doctor, or help someone install a spigot in their wine barrel. He's sharpened a rake for one neighbor and trimmed the hooves of a donkey for another. Waldemar has no shortage of time. He even installed a toilet for the mayor.

Waldemar was born in Ukraine, and fled to the West with his mother after World War II. All they brought with them was a box containing two horse blankets, a broom and a shovel. They ended up in Zschopau, a town in Saxony just south of Chemnitz. When he was 12, his mother was imprisoned for being a Jehovah's Witness, which was forbidden in communist East Germany. A farmer saved Waldemar from being put in a home by allowing him to live on the farm if he helped with the work. He would be in the barn every morning at 6 a.m., 365 days a year. Later, Waldemar became a locksmith, got married and raised two children. He then became a butcher and four years later, applied to leave East Germany for West Germany, where he got a job as a meatpacker at a slaughterhouse. On one occasion, he made a bet with his buddies that he could carry the 260-kilogram (585-pound) forequarter of an ox all by himself. Of course, he won the bet.

But there were struggles. His first marriage fell apart and he then had to leave his job at the slaughterhouse because he accidentally cut his finger so deeply he could no longer carry as much as before. So he began selling insurance door-to-door.

At the magazin in Spasovo, Hildegard points to a piece of smoked meat. The shopkeeper wraps it up for her in piece of paper. They also buy bread, water, a bottle of ouzo and Bulgarian whiskey. Waldemar needs a new razor, but he doesn't see one in the shop, so he asks in German for a "Rasierer" and rubs his hand across his cheek and chin. The shopkeeper furrows his brow. How do you say razor in Bulgarian? The shopkeeper grabs his mobile phone and has Waldemar say "razor with blade" into it. A program quickly translates and the shopkeeper nods. Altogether, their purchases cost just 20 lev, not even 10 euros.

The Hackstätters say they don't really miss anything here in Bulgaria, not even German bread. "No," says Hildegard. "If I want black bread, I'll bake a loaf myself." And what about German medical care and hospitals? Three years ago, Hildegard broke her femur and was operated on in Bulgaria. "I have nothing bad to say about it," she says. Waldemar, as always, puts in his two cents: "If I'm lying half dead in the hospital, I don't really care where I am," he says.

Waldemar and Hildegard don't have any children together, but they each have two from previous relationships. Both of the Hackstätters fall silent for a moment, though, when the conversation turns to family. "They weren't excited about us moving to Bulgaria. They wondered: How can you do such a thing?" Hildegard says. She blinks and looks down. "Now, they don't talk about it anymore," she says.

That seems to be part of the price they had to pay. If you don't want to live in a two-room apartment in Swabia, and would rather have a house and a yard, if you want to live rather than just survive, then there are certain things you must be willing to accept: In this case, distance – both physical and emotional. Waldemar told their children at the time that if they could each give their parents 150 euros a month, they could afford to stay. But, he says, they weren't particularly taken by the idea. And anyway, Waldemar had no interest in being a burden for his children – a reality, he says, that they all more or less recognized. Since then, he says, things have been fine.

And so, there the Hackstätters stand, on the lawn in front of their home. They look at each other so full of love, as if they just met last week. They have each other. They have their yard. The garden swing, the cherry tree, the little fountains, the barbecue, the smoker – and the space. When asked how much of that they would have had if they were still in Germany, they answer in unison: "None of it."

Translated by Charles Hawley