Autumn and the “S” word

I apologise for producing an almost imageless blog but we have been exceptionally busy.  It is a joy to experience Autumn in Bulgaria.  The days are still sunny and thankfully dry but from 5pm to 9am you feel the cold come creeping around your extremities.  The views from the windows are now framed with bare branches and liberally sprinkled with leaf fall. The metallic hum of chainsaws and the dull thump of axe on wood can be heard from all directions of the village.  The smell of woodsmoke permeates the evening air and activity abroad the village is centred around the walk to the shops for bread and the delivery and collection of ruddy faced, woollen swathed school children to and from the Soviet style school house.  The boxy utilitarian architecture has somewhat incongruously been painted yellow and that awful expression about  sows ears and silk purses springs to mind.

The village centre is as much  a hub as any rural village can be in the morning.  I rather shamefacedly admit to driving the Chelsea tractor to my chosen bread purveyor.  There are two mini markets and one supermarket that in fact is a mini market in a bigger building.  Each morning I wind down the road avoiding the pot holes, navigating square and stern looking Bulgarian Baba’s on crutches and guilt trip myself about the dire state of my Bulgarian.  A trip to the shop means parking and then making what always feels like a grand entrance into the square.  Everybody looks at you!  Not just a discreet under the fringe glance but full blown perusal.  I always meet these stares with a confident “dober den” and stride purposefully past in my work clothes, hair pulled into a quick knobbly knot on my head and a conspicuous lack of wool. The locals are always looking at me and pulling their coats around themselves and saying “studeno” questioningly?  There is much shaking of the heads as I laughingly reply “nai”.  I will also note that I never see a Bulgarian woman, of any age, make the visit to the shops without dressing up.  I wonder what they must think of Terry and I in our humble deshabille’s?

The past 6 months have all worked up to being “winter ready”.  At first it was as simple as replacing the roof on the barn extension of the house.  Then the idea of an upstairs extension came to fruition on top of the renovation required in both the barn extension and the old house and of course a jungle of a garden.  Where we ridiculously over optimistic?  Yes.  Can we do it?  Yes, we can.  The absolute beauty of this country is the pioneer spirit, whilst in communist time  it was eschewed as a young developing country it is wholeheartedly promoted.  For Terry, a child who took toys apart to see how they worked, who, at 10 made a switch to remotely turn off his TV , who makes no apologies for trying anything, this move has unleashed in him his true potential.   The locals have stopped asking if he is capable of undertaking the building work and now meander past the house smiling with encouragement and of course, advice.  It has been frustrating to leave the garden and self sufficiency  on the back burner but I am learning; voracious across the permaculture landscape;  drinking in the agricultural skills displayed in my environs.

The wood and eco brick pile is acceptable enough to stop the constant nagging question  of fuel availability.  The huge wood pile  is still of acceptable girth and height to ensure we are toasty through the cold months.  I check the weather forecast daily looking for the “S” word.  Driving here at night is like dropping into an inky abyss with about 10 metres visibility.  That’s fine if you are not also avoiding pot holes, unlit horse carts and drivers overtaking around bends.  Imagine all that and snow on top?   My hoards of chilli jam are being decimated at a rate of knots as is my tomato passata.  Tomatoes and peppers are still being sold and at 2 leva a kilo they’re not expensive but they are twice as expensive as in the summer.  Cabbages, cauli’s, kohlrabi, turnips, parsnips, broccoli, carrots, onions and onion sets, leeks, apples, satsumas and oranges fill the groaning stalls at the market.  Dried beans and peas, herbs and spices alongside intricate pyramid displays of eggs from hens to geese.  Random sellers set up cheap, wobbly picnic tables laden with raw milk and homemade cheese.  Honey products abound and a huge wodge of honeycomb dripping in honey costs a mere 5-7 leva.

Our friends Catherine and David have both their adult children over from New Zealand and Spain respectively and also Catherines sister and her teenage son from Scotland.  Theirs is a long story that was 6 months in the making, a strict policy of loose lips sink ships and a feat of travel magic they were all reunited at Sofia  airport on the same day.  Catherine was the only person not in on the secret and the unexpected reunion made for a very emotional video clip.  Anyways I offered to take everyone to the Pavlikeni market on Tuesday.  I got a resounding yes to my offer.  So at 10am I arrived to pick up the party.

Pavlikeni is a town that has some rather colonial architecture interspersed with Soviet style blocks.  The square is a tad austere but has splendid fountains.  It is surrounded by the usual premises; cafes, banks, boutiques (term used with local context), chemists, the very austere town hall  and the obligatory sweetcorn seller.  The concrete clad entrance to the Bravo supermarket can be found nestled between The TV Lounge (home to many an expat during extreme heat or cabin fever in the cold) and the ubiquitous pandapolia and hardware store.  I use the greek word pandapolia as the naming convention of the ladies shops that sell everything from stain remover to crockery, to lino for the floor, underwear, cosmetics and decorative items.  And the hardware stores are the male versions of the pandapolia.  No one seems to give a monkey about gender stereotyping.

Anyway I digress, we literally disgorged ourselves from the jeep and sauntered off to the market.  You can tell what type of tourist guests are going to be.  If there is nose wrinkling at the Eastern European vibe then the visit is torturous.  But watching and experiencing their absolute enjoyment of this simple weekly ritual made me see Bulgaria as if with new eyes.  It is easy to become complacent, walking past the veritable treasury of produce, the tables of knives and knuckle dusters alongside nail clippers and American Tan tights without really seeing and experiencing the environment.  As Helen dashed excitedly between stalls delegating the kids to carry bags they darted around and good naturedly joshed each other, I caught myself chatting with Catherine about seeds, produce, flowers and seed potatoes.  It was so natural and I felt a real tingle of pleasure at it being so.

I am not going to disclose what’s happening upstairs because we are moving forward at a tantalisingly smart pace.  After so many images of the construction I think it would be anticlimactic to release anything just yet. It is difficult because I am so excited.  What I will disclose is that we’ve put a deposit on 1 male and 1 female piglet which we will be picking up on the 10th of January.  They will be 10 weeks old when we pick them up and 6-7 months when we slaughter them.  Dependant on how the first experience of pig keeping pans out we might keep the sow for breeding.  That is just a thought.

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And this morning the snow arrived and it’s been steadily wafting down all day.  The garden isn’t quite a winter wonderland because the snow is melting in places.  So the question of being winter ready was answered with alacrity this morning.  No, not really.  The melting snow had puddled under the 150cm eco bricks causing them to melt in a smelly mush.  We had to call our work to a stop whilst we picked up half a ton of the buggers and bought them inside.  We also only have 2 toilet rolls in the house.  This is serious stuff!  So no we’re not quite ready for winter but there are small important things we need to attend to.  Oh winter tyres and snow chains are on the shopping list too.

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