Firstly Happy New Year readers may it be full of health, happiness and love. We celebrated at Phillips house in the village with Alex, Paul, Dave, Catherine and Veska, Phillips Italian speaking housekeeper. It was a lovely mellow evening. People at home have finally stopped asking if we like it here. We love it here in Bulgaria and each day is still an adventure. Winter was one of our biggest worries and as it turns out it is eminently doable. When it snows, as it has over the past couple of days, it is cold outside. As long as we dress appropriately it is only the extremities that cool and freeze in minutes. There is none of the damp wet cold I associate with English winters. Blazing blue skies are the rule with overcast skies the exception. We now keep the pechka going 24/7, leaving it to tick over through the night. It saves having to fiddle with kindling and find paper in the morning. 07:00 on 1st January and it’s -15 outside but Wednesday and Thursday we should go above freezing to 6 degrees. Happy days!!
I can only say yet again that paying for and fitting the insulation and installing double glazing has paid off each and every day. We fitted the small German enamel pechka in the living room and moved the larger Greek cast iron pechka into the dining room. We began by stoking the small living room pechka and then the bigger dining room pechka leaving the doors to these rooms and the hallway door open. We hoped that the warm air emitted by the combination of pechkas would heat the downstairs hallway, stairs and the landing, bathroom, bedroom and walk in wardrobe. We were delighted to find out that we can manage with just the dining room pechka alight. We no longer sit stewing like dumplings in a casserole but can remain clothed and comfortably warm throughout the house. The few Bulgarian neighbours who have been in the house and seen the that we are using just 1 pechka are amazed at the temperature in the house.
The language barrier is there but I try and relax into the language. I listen to Bulgarian radio, interact in daily Bulgarian life as best I can. My reading and pronunciation isn’t bad which often means people assume I’m fluent and spit out dialogue like the spray from an AK47 leaving me fazed. I can write at a push but with mistakes. Terry is still at that stage that the minute someone speaks to him in Bulgarian his ears shut down and he panics; all except with Ilia with whom their shared love of making and fixing transcends language. I know he’s understanding more and that he’s able to recognise the signs and place names. It hasn’t stopped him renovating a house though.
I am a natural networker of information, especially online. Social media is taking such a bashing by those who don’t, predominantly interact with it, in a meaningful manner. As with all media platforms it is how you use it. An autodidact is an arrogant and ignorant man; it is essential to air ideas on a public platform to receive feedback. Social media provides a pan cosmic platform and transcends race, age, ability, gender, sexuality and religion if used responsibly. This platform has allowed us, both before we arrived and since we’ve arrived, to garner and propagate useful information and collate a varied and for the most part excellent body of research. I’m a member of Pastured Pigs, Living in Bulgaria, Seed Swap Bulgaria, Small Farm, Sustainability & Homestead Living, Backyard Chickens and all manner of sites not to mention ex pat forums. If I learn something new I immediately network it to others. We both found that in the chaotic first months and with so many new experiences we would blindly go out to buy materials not knowing what to pay or expect. For us it is Facebooks The Pavlikeni Post as a first stop. Where could we get our UK gas bottles filled? We hadn’t realised that BG adaptors are different from UK adapters. Was there a local translator for completing the Lichna Karta (residency) process? What is lard called? The replies come back in the shed loads and it is always the ‘newbies’ that are grateful. We have also become ‘-Ekont-ers’. Ekont is a courier franchise that will deliver just about anything, anywhere in Bulgaria and is quick, efficient and cheap. BG Buy, Sell or Swap and BG Bay are other national Facebook sites that we’ve used to buy second hand goods and get delivered via Ekont. Payment for the goods and the delivery charges are paid by the receiver on receipt of the goods.
Is there anything we don’t like or worse still hate? No, there isn’t. There are frustrations but the choice is to fight the frustrations or work around them. The latter saves time, temper and money. Rearing pigs for slaughter will allow us to butcher the pork for cuts we miss. The pork here is magnificent but finding pork with skin on is impossible and bacon is fine but different. Gammon is a cut that is not used and hams are of the boned and smoked variety, again very tasty but we want to make our own hams and bacon. We have not caved and started buying British bacon via Uk food suppliers at exorbitant prices, we’ve done what the Bulgarians would do; buy the animal and butcher it how you like it. Occasionally we have to buy supermarket eggs when the source in the village is low and the difference is marked. Chickens, both layers and table birds will follow the pigs in January. We do have to work harder to source certain foods. I can read labels but I have no idea what it might be. Eventually identifying Self Raising flour triggered a Facebook post that received over 100 replies from other very grateful newbies. I managed to find a link to the Sofiya Bakeries website, in English, with pictures of their products and an explanation. I’m a visual learner in part, so pictures work well for me. Locating a good woodyard saved us an enormous amount of money and stress despite it being 45 minute drive away. There is a back road to said Samovodene wood yard that circumvents the hectic Veliko Tarnovo main road, it turns and twists through pretty villages and rolling hills lending the drive an almost holiday ambience. The Veliko Tarnovo road is fraught with wannabe Schumakers and by the time I hit the city my palms are so wet I drive wiping one hand at a time on whatever I’m wearing. Also finding best fit solutions are so much easier to accommodate when the pressures of work, time and commitments aren’t major considerations. It matters not if a journey to pick up timber takes half a day, we see it as an opportunity to eat some lunch somewhere, pop into any shop along the way, navigate new environs. There is no time limit to our days.
Bureaucracy is rampant and anything official takes seemingly forever. It is wise to make friends with a red tape groupie who can sycophantically worm his/her way into the icy heart of the government employee. Otherwise we pack a lunch and take a flask with us. Any transaction from bank teller, to car washers, from doctors to shoe repair men takes an extended period of time and there is no point in fighting something as ingrained to Bulgarians as queueing is to the Brits.
If any of you readers are thinking of escaping your own rat race for an alternate life style then we’d suggest being sure of what you want to do but be flexible enough to allow your vision to evolve. Match your wants with the geography, geology, topology and communities that will compliment your dream. Other peoples opinions should help and not hinder you and mostly importantly if you are chasing a dream remember that other people may not share your vision. Do not let them put you off chasing your dream. One of my young Afro Caribbean students once told me he was driven to go to university because he would never know if he was capable of attaining a degree unless he tried. He was the first person in his large and extended family to go to University. Both Terry and I feel the same passion and enthusiasm to test ourselves. We have learned so much, mastered new skills and are finally understanding that we are living our dream.
Do as much research as you can. Many things that we had researched and felt we were prepared for left us side swiped because we had no understanding of the cultural context of the situation. You get that as you live here. When I’d read that people quite literally stayed in for much of the winter I assumed it was because they were snowed in or roads were not passable. Not so. The effort of having to tackle external elements in sub freezing weather is negated by the laying of stores and supplies from the Spring through to the Autumn. This is particularly pertinent for village living where the local mini markets and hardware shops support the villagers basic daily requirements but store cupboards and freezers hold the bulk of food culled during the previous seasons.
Sadly at this time of year the church bells tolling to announce a death, 3 peals for a man and 2 for woman, and are an all too frequent occurrence. Bodies are buried within 24 hours so the bells not only announce a death but rally the ladies that embalm and ready the body for burial. It is all rather efficient in a morbid fashion. I have added this last nugget because the Church bell has just tolled 3 times.
Do we miss family? We are in contact with family as much as we ever have been but it is hard when you can’t just “pop round” this is especially so with William at 5 years of age. I suppose it is that ability to just pop round that is missing. Fortunately Whats App, Facebook and Skype all help ameliorate the situation. It’s great to pick up my phone and find a message or email from a family member. Williams next stay is being booked shortly and that of the kids too. Dani is booked and is coming with her Uni buddy Tiernach to make a start on her house. We have developed both friends and acquaintances who fit in to our somewhat isolated and self contained lifestyle. I suppose it is fair to say we are on the workaholic spectrum and that can be hard work for other people.
Do we get homesick? No, not so far. Driving around the towns and cities surrounding Gradishte has become second nature. I no longer notice the abandoned houses but see those being lived in. The emerald sea of fields pull my eyes from the crumbling tarmac and the tantalising piles of market produce from the Eastern Block style shops. It feels like home here. When we’ve been out for supplies or off to the capital that last part of the journey when we turn off the main Ruse Road towards Asparahovo, through Malchika, Levski and finally Gradishte I feel that ‘I can’t wait to get home feeling’. We always turn to ourselves and say “We’re on the home straight now”. Talk of hot drinks, of Bodies’ horrific but terribly touching smile that bares all her teeth, Ted’s attempts to hijack our progress by attacking our feet or the sight of Vinnies helicopter tail as he near levitates in joy at our return fill our conversation. Even if it’s been a pig of a journey this is where it all lightens up again.
Do we regret the move. Catagorically no! We are looking forward to next year and our new challenges. We are looking forward to further exploring this new way of life and of better assimilating into our community. Would we recommend the lifestyle to others? We were originally very evangelical about our life here. Half a year later and having met or networked with a reasonable number of people it seems that those who come for that alternative or off grid lifestyle fare slightly better than those for whom Bulgaria is an economic migration. Yes, property prices, taxation, health care contributions and the cost of living here are markedly lower if you have a UK income but the lifestyle is very different. We think the main qualification for success in any foreign country is the want to be there, enthusiasm, flexibility and the ability to hit the ground running. And on a final note I do realise the irony of the post considering we’ve only been here 6 months!