"We don't care about anything! We don't care about anyone. We sing and laugh through life because we want to live long!" A dozen seniors sing the lively verses while raising their legs in the air one after another during the "exercises for grannies" at the cultural center in Asenovgrad. For 90 minutes, this is where arms are extended, legs are stretched and backs are strengthened. "Exercise keeps us fit and healthy. And most importantly, it makes as forget about our money worries," said the sports instructor Maria Ivanova (above) smilingly.
The agile pensioner just turned 80 two days ago. For months, she saved money for her birthday party. "Meatballs, cake, wine and liquor – I got it all myself," she says proudly. She spent half of her pension on it. "So what! You only live once," she says quickly, perhaps hoping that nobody would notice how hard it actually was for her.
Beyond 'normal' life
Maria receives the equivalent of 110 euros from the Bulgarian state after having worked in a textile factory for 35 years. Because of her cancer surgery, she receives an extra 35 euros, which is a sort of disability supplement for the widow. All in all, she receives 145 euros a month. Actually, you need double that amount – around 290 euros- "to lead a normal life" according to the Confederation of Independent Trade Unions of Bulgaria (KNSB).
But most Bulgarian pensioners can only dream of such a pension. Sixty percent receive less than 150 euros, which means they live below the poverty line, like Maria. A quarter of pensioners only receive the minimum pension of 80 euros – no one else in the European Union gets less. Even with an average pension of 165 euros a month, Bulgaria is the worst in Europe. In neighboring Romania, the average pension is 198 euros; in Poland, 469 euros, and in crisis-ridden Greece, 663 euros.
Milk in Bulgaria is more expensive than in Germany
How can someone live with so little money in Bulgaria, where groceries cost even more than in wealthy Germany? "We are world champions in abstinence," says Maria. After exercising, she always makes lunch at home. She usually cooks beans, lentils or potatoes. Fish and meat are rarely on the menu as they are too expensive. She barely drinks any milk because a liter costs one euro.
But Maria does not want to talk about money, so she gets a bunch of medals out of her drawer. She won four gold medals and three silver medals in past years at the seniors' sports championships. "I am unbeatable at the 100-meter sprint on the beach," says the proud 80-year-old. "Exercise makes me happy. I don't want to be like other seniors who complain about everyday hardship in our country." That is why she only looks for "positive girlfriends" like Stanka Atanassova, who is also one of the best senior athletes in Asenovgrad. "Stanka is rich," says the sports instructor appreciatively on the way to her place.
The "wealthy" 66-year-old worked as a nurse for 30 years. Now she receives a pension of 160 euros. She occasionally makes house calls as a freelance nurse, thereby adding around 100 euros to her monthly income. Together with her husband's pension, they have 460 euros, which is an average monthly salary in Bulgaria. When she pays for cake and coffee, she uses the money she earns off the two attic rooms she rents out to young people.
Stanka and her husband built their house in the communist era. Now it is her salvation. According to Eurostat, 84 % of Bulgarians live in their own homes. In Germany, it is only every second person.
Stanka gives a large part of her money to her daughters and grandchildren. "In Bulgaria, young people have very few opportunities, which is why we have to help them. Otherwise they will flee abroad, like many others have."
The third member in the group of sprightly grandmas is 70-year-old Neli Argirova. Her two friends take a taxi to her place. It is a hint of luxury they can afford for the equivalent of one euro. Neli greets everyone with a glass of home-made peach nectar. "We have a field with fruit trees and vegetables," says the pensioner. Mini-tomatoes grow in yoghurt cups on her balcony.
Coffin or furniture?
Neli also worked as a nurse and now only receives 80 euros each month – half of Stanka's pension. During the conversation, the extent of the old women's financial constraints becomes clear. "We have a roof over our head but please don't ask when we last renovated or refurnished our house," says Neli, garnering her friends' laughter, which also makes her laugh. There's not enough money for clothes, let alone movie or theater tickets. "I don't have three euros for a ticket," she says, not being able to hide her sadness this time.
Neli and Maria say their last clothing purchase was years ago. They bought themselves lovely black suits. Those are the clothes they want to be buried in. "Actually, I need a new oven but then the children would be lacking money for my coffin – I can't do that to them," says Neli and gets a bottle of moonshine from the kitchen.
"Enough of money worries and funerals," she says when toasting with her friends. "We are not poor, for our souls are rich."
*Bulgaria's currency is the lev. It is worth 0.51 euros.