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.
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.