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The Netherlands In Bulgaria: Wishing For Betterment - Sophia Echo

Since he started coming to Bulgaria in December 1999, Patrick van Santen has explored a number of different opportunities and seen a number of changes.

Seeking professional opportunities in real estate development and use, the first years of his residency were supported within the framework of his career in the maritime sector – as project leader for maritime projects between Dutch companies, Bulgarian Maritime Administration and Cherno More, mostly in radar manufacturing. Until December 2004, he worked on a series of related maritime safety projects.

With two colleagues he bought several hectares on Yovkovtsi Lake in Elena, central Bulgaria, which he describes as “a beautiful town with history and pure environmental beauty”, a place where, “for Bulgaria, new concept of lifestyle enjoyment is being developed”.

In truth, Van Santen, a native of Rijswijk, a medium-sized independent town almost fully enclosed by The Hague, does not live permanently in Bulgaria. He says that “the social-environmental climate has yet to improve” for him to do so. Yet later on, he intends to reside here, probably at his “recreational leisure park” in Elena.

“I do appreciate the smallness of Rijswijk,” he says to The Sofia Echo. “It is really a cosy town, with a centre that looks like a picture from a fairy-tale.”

In his home country, he studied econometrics at Erasmus University of Rotterdam from 1986 to 1993, a time “when econometrics was the field of study for people who were able to really study and surpass the somewhat massive number of 1500-plus students registered for normal economics”, he says.

This led him to his career – he is the director of several companies, some of which are holding assets, others of which are operational, like MPG Invest and Bulgarian Property Investments, which offer investment advice to foreigners in Bulgaria and on the Romanian coast.

He says that learning to think like a Bulgarian has helped him to better understand Bulgarian responses and behaviour. It is “trying not to pretend that ‘we’ know all and are here to explain to ‘you’”, he says. “Yes, many things can have better results, as in tangible outcome or less input required. However, the ‘how’ to arrange this always carries a large local content.”

This, thus, is realised through mutual respect for each other’s position and capacities to contribute to a solution.

Comparing life in the Netherlands and life in Bulgaria, and the social contexts that have formed both mindsets, Van Santen says that the only real economic challenge that his country has experienced was the 1973 fuel crisis – and he was only five years old at the time. On the other hand, his Bulgarian friends have still very vivid memories of the mere lack of goods and foodstuff in the mid-1990s, following Bulgaria’s economic meltdown.

“Their attitude has been influenced by the lack of having basic security, and sometimes that still shows in behaviour nowadays,” he says.

“Bulgarians have been part of so many hierarchic structures, and mostly not from a dominant position. The Dutch have had colonies worldwide. That difference emphasises the core of the people’s reasonings: pride of their will to survive versus an overarching sense of holding some power to rule and reign. I saw a lot of the world during my maritime career, and in almost all those places, the Dutch had some sort of economic (supported by military) presence. It made me feel proud and sad at the same time: lost moments. Bulgarian history seems much more present in all sorts of events and commemorations. As long as a national conscience does not lead to fanaticism and hollow-heroism, I feel very comfortable with a higher sense of national conscience.”

Apart from that, Van Santen finds that people are just people with basic needs for survival, with how they succeed in getting what they need seeming a complex result of social environment and personal attitude.

As for himself, he says: “I feel alive in Bulgaria, whereas I feel that I am but living in The Netherlands.” He enjoys the culture of dining out, and the warm climate in the summer makes him want to enjoy his green place in Elena.

He does miss much of the modern-day comfort that he has in Holland and some foodstuffs, like healthier pre-packed goods. He misses a “nice, yet intimidating, golf course”, but copes. And this is also because of the hope that he has that all these things will come, over time, as Bulgaria grows based on local consumption and increase of public, along with common, wealth.

Yet, there remains the frustration with the general apathy about the country’s overall well-being. When, a few years back, he suggested to some friends that the unemployed form a street-cleaning team to “at least make the streets look appealing”, they considered it a stupid idea, one that would not solve anything.

“Public care will result in private care,” he says.

He cites Zagreb as a model of how to deal with over-crowded roads and car parks.

Van Santen travels between Bulgaria and the Netherlands frequently, both for business and for his family and friends. “My family misses me, especially when I stay in Bulgaria more than three or four weeks,” he says. “We are a little old-fashioned in that respect; we still use normal landlines or mobile phones to call, no internet-phone or webcam, yet. Recently, we had two deaths in the second generation away from me. One I could attend, one I could not. Somehow my family feels that I live in Bulgaria, although actually it is more like 50-50.”