The race to winter, building updates and navigating the health system

I am going to add a preface to this post. A very guilty one.  It was written sometime back when.  Even I have lost the thread.  So in order to post something I’m going to again commit the sin of an imageless entry.  I’m loathe to present my wonderful kitchen half cooked and about every other job on the go is unfinished as yet.  Terrys work commitments, my brief surprise visit to Blighty will all be covered in a later post.  Sheesh does that constitute a written contractual obligation?

It seems as if the jobs that need doing before winter are piling up on us.  Terrys building jobs are magnificent but time consuming so the time we have for our house is limited to small snatches at the weekend.  Terry and team are nearing the end of a complete house extension, there is a smaller extension waiting and a wiring job; all in 3 very distant locations.  They leave home at 7am and don’t often return till after 7pm.  Terry is running all of this and some days he looks so tired but his satisfaction at what the team are doing is evident.  Last year it was January when the snow arrived and the coldest recorded winter in 69 years.  We were building up to the line and this year isn’t going to be any different.  Our house probably isn’t going to get rendered this year.  The unprotected parts have already had a scratch coat of render but there are other more pressing jobs at home.  Terry has begun digging out for the root cellar.  The hole is currently about 3 metres deep at one end and sloping up at the other as the mini digger slews back and forth with its mechanical arm, lifting and shifting dirt.  At points it can be heard but not seen above ground.  The dogs are having an absolute ball, climbing atop the soil mounds, digging through the earth and generally acting like a bunch of kids at a theme park!

Yesterday both Terry and I had an epiphany, he had been stressing about bringing the jobs in before winter and I’d been stressing about getting the land turned and tilled.  But with all stress it is in recognising the 1 thing causing most stress and accept or eliminate it.  For Terry it was the construction of 2 dormer windows, nothing was going as it should so he made the 2 dormers into 1 larger but more structurally sound build.  That released all his other stresses and he was tired but visibly relaxed last night.  For me it was attending Bulgarian lessons with my female friends in the village.  I had not realised how much in need of female company I was.  Miroslav, our new and properly qualified Bulgarian teacher is excellent and the lessons beautifully planned.  So now my week begins with a pre lesson catch up and a post lesson discussion.  We sit, a group of 5-6 women, in Catherines conservatory around a temporary table, drinking various brews and chatting.  Catherines husband Dave, wisely disappears to the village centre and returns after we’ve left.  So for me it was simply recognisisng that I am a very happy introvert but I’m not an island and female company is super important.  We are both on an even keel now.

Did I mention that the temperatures have been up in the mid 70’s to 80’s?  And yes I’m smirking as I say this.  I’m saving seedlings from this years fruit and flowers all over the garden.  Second wave Zinnia, Nasturtium and cherry tomatoes are all growing as if it were spring.  The last of the mature fruiting plants are now trying to ripen their fruit.  I know the neighbours have culled and canned any remaining summer produce but I still want a week for my San Marino tomatoes to ripen for the last  batch of winter store cupboard passata.  There are 4 baby watermelons still fighting to ripen, gurt edible gourds with their host plants dying around them, chillis and peppers heavily laden but not quite ready for picking.  I’ve been instructed by Ilia to leave my leeks a little longer then lay the roots and all in a damp box of sharp sand in the cellar and they’ll keep fresh till January.  I was never a great leek or celery lover but since we’ve been here the difference in the fruit and veg is remarkable.  The leeks have a subtle less brassy taste, the onions are so crisp that when I cut through them it feels and sounds like a firm apple.  Celery is that continental dark green and more a herb than a vegetable.

Amazingly 2 weeks have passed since that last entry.  In that 2 weeks the leaves have turned all the russet colours of autumn and are falling faster than raindrops in a storm.  In that very Bulgarian way, when driving through the countryside, each side of the road tells a different story.  On the Pavlikeni road the fields on one side of the road are verdantly green with winter growing barley and the fields on the other side the rich chocolate brown of freshly tilled fields sprinkled liberally with a veritable eiderdown of autumnal leaves.  The Zinnias are gone, the Canna rhizomes and Dahlia tubers are dug up and drying.  The Hibiscus plants are nursing their frost damaged leaves and any last flowers hang saturated and sad like the tear drops of an overwrought child.  On a positive note my Goji berries bushes are fruiting!  I have never grown Goji berries before and if I’m honest had never had any till coming to Bulgaria.  It is a small crop that I tend to consume during harvesting, hoping that these new super fruits are building my immunity for winter.  These bushes are messy and take quite some room so when I was walking up the lane to dispose of the rubbish I noticed that the whole flipping lane is liberally planted with Goji bushes! And they are big and messy bushes.  The Goji bushes may share the same fate as the dwarf Blueberries, destined for a less visible part of the garden.  The harvest just doesn’t present well against other fruits.

Nelly my neighbour popped around to see my leeks and whilst there shifted her none too dainty weight over the fence and into my leek field and began stripping the outer skin of my army of Alliums!  Last year I’d have freaked out but this year I stood and watched for a few seconds before bending down and helping.  There is a small crop of late onions that probably self seeded.  These juicy green delights are producing spring onions at a time when salads stuff has just about left the stalls of all but the big International supermarkets.  I’m sad that my cabbages were destroyed in the pig rampage but with market stalls heaving with every variety at 35 stotinkies a kilo it’s not too bad.  I shall miss clomping out to the garden to wrench a cabbage out of the soil.  I was just perfecting my single slice stump removal technique too.

The massive extension in the mountains is now water tight for the clients, and work has begun on the internals.  The team is split in two from today with the porch extension of another job picking up again and a third job awaiting materials.  These jobs all took a hit when a cluster of serendipitous events saw all 5 of our group vehicles off the road; 2 broken prop shafts, 2 gear boxes and a clutch. Only 2 of the vehicles were fixed here but LDV spares are almost non existent and Range Rover prohibitively expensive.  So after much angst, tribulation and money we have 2 vehicles on the road and the other 3 awaiting parts.  Alongside this one of the team had to return to the UK for very personal reasons.  There seems to be an ubiquitous and incredibly loud tic toc of time flying by and the weather closing in on building activities.  To allay these fears I consulted Accuweather for a long range forecast.  Seems we might not see snow till mid January; all hail Accuweather!  That took the stress levels down a tad.

At home we are mid way between a number of jobs.  The root cellar is all but dug out but time has run out for the moment on further work.  We have the blocks all stacked outside the house like a peripatetic castle wall.  The paperwork is now finalised for the purchase of the upper plot and I know Terry is absolutely gagging to get started in his converted workshop.  But we need to dig a trench from the well to the workshop for water and electric conduits.  We need to rearrange the water stand pipes in the garden now we have a better idea of the flow and extent of water requirements.

The main house kitchen has come along in leaps and bounds.  It is going to be a minimalist working kitchen.  One range of cabinets at the sink, a large mobile island with space for 3 stools and finally the range.  Everything else will be stored in what was the winter storage room but is being re-purposed into a walk in pantry with the additional fridge/freezers and kitchen machines to be housed there too.

The exposed brick wall is complete, the floor tiled, the plasterboard ceiling and walls are clad leaving 1 portion of wall we are going to rough render.  The solid oak kitchen cabinets I Freecycled in the UK have been a godsend.  The cabinets here are truly atrocious and the doors/ drawer fronts of particularly poor quality unless made of solid wood.  So I’m sanding down the lime wash from the oak doors and drawer fronts.  The Preloved double Belfast butlers sink is installed as is the water, waste and electrics fully functional.  The cast iron solid fuel range is installed and in working condition.  Terry, master of construction that he is, has fashioned the remaining kitchen cabinets into an integrated counter height home for the new fan oven we bought last year.  It failed catastrophically in the summer kitchen but Terry ordered and fitted a new thermostat and it is working now.  The last cabinets he used to make the bones of the mobile island.  The top will be clad in 304L food grade stainless steel sheeting as will the 2 very small bits of counter space each side of the sink.  We had considered polished concrete counter tops but we have evolved to having these in the projected external summer kitchen; next years job list.

I’ve been in a battle whether to clad the large window inset and the walls each side of the sink in encaustic Cuban or Mexican inspired tiles.  I love the idea but the pragmatist in me says in a couple of years it’ll look dated.  This was all bought about when I was searching for some really unusual tiles for the 1.7m x .60m space above the second hallway mantle piece.  It is a small area so we can afford something really unusual to go here.  This hallway will have the spiral staircase to the guest quarters.  Terry is going to try a herringbone brick floor, the spiral staircase which is metal and wood and the design where each step is on the next level is a modernist pop, the mini Inglenook fireplace will be clad in reclaimed oak including a chunky mantle piece.  I carbooted both a cast iron fire basket and a hanging smoking rack which will be cleaned up and installed for working purposes to smoke our bacon.  This second hallway will become our main entrance so it has to be functional for us and the dogs but attractive enough for guests to use.  It will also allow us to close the current front door, isolating what will become the formal living and dining room from the dust, debris but mostly from the dogs.  We will never be caught unaware again, rushing round trying to remove muddy paw prints from the leather sofa, sawdust from the tables and dog hair from everywhere.  We have ascended into adulthood – finally.  On a serious note the whole house has been designed so that it can be used as separate self contained micro living quarters if required.  We know that in later years the stairs are going to be come problematic so our bedroom will come downstairs to the living room and the dining room will become the living room.  We have a downstairs bathroom and 2 upstairs bathrooms, 2 kitchens; we can cover every eventuality.

Of course until the workshop has electric for the security system the projected snug is still a tool room so the flow of the house is somewhat fragmented.  A trip to the kitchen involves a walk through the tool room, and a walk through the kitchen ends in the second hallway, currently the internal wood pile and then the storage room.   We will get there, we will, she said closing here eyes and tapping the heels of her mud encrusted wellies.

Last week I had a request from a close friend to accompany her to the medical Centre in Pavlikeni for a mammography.  It was a particularly poignant request because it was a post cancer, 3 year check up and the first in Bulgaria.  C and D asked me to come and translate for them.  Of course I replied with alacrity but worried myself ragged that my 5 Bulgarian lessons might not cut the mustard!  It is situations like this that friends all gather round and offer whatever they can to the situation.  So on Friday of last week all 3 of us piled into Ivan’s taxi and with a somewhat forced joviality made haste for Pav.  We eventually located the medical centre and left D in the square with a cup of steaming coffee and a face etched in worry.  Thankfully 1 of the receptionists spoke English and in an unbelievable 5 minutes and a payment of 20 leva we were ushered into a small adjoining room.  The radiologist took C in and in minutes she was back out the door.  We took the paperwork and went back to the receptionist who informed us that we were to return on Monday for the results.  By now both C and D were looking strained and I felt for the weekend wait ahead of them.

Monday morning we made the same journey only to be told, in broken Bulgarian that the results were not in and to wait till the afternoon.  They did however hand C a piece of paper with the mammograph plate to bring with her.  We sat and had a coffee and decided to rearrange for the following day.  By which time DW had offered his services as chauffeur so on Tuesday morning we set out again for Pavlikeni.  It was at this point that C told me she’d tried to translate the wording of the paper she’d been given.  The first reading sent shivers of fear through me as the word relapse screamed at me of all other words.  I kept my face immpassive and put on my academic head and began to sift through the Bulgarian and then C’s translation.  I could feel 3 pairs of eyes watching me.  As I read I thanked God for the familiarity of academic syntax and shared vocabulary.  Without thinking I relayed that the words represented the acknowledgement of previous surgery, of small fibroids and the word prolapse was not referring to the word nobody wanted to speak.  D’s face suddenly lifted as if a reprieve had been announced.  I grabbed C’s hand and very firmly told everyone that I was not a doctor, had no experience in diagnosing medical problems and had simply relayed my understanding.  I felt my stomach drop as I felt the weight of speaking before thinking.

All too soon we were in Pav.  It was still early for the appointment so we headed for a cafe and sat huddled over our drinks trying to make small talk.  We finished up and piled back into DW’s car and drove quietly to the location.  DW stayed in the car as D, C and I walked tentatively into the reception area to book in.  In that hyper aware way the 3 of us stood, our heads and eyes scanning everything and everyone, all looking for signs of positivity.  I felt a small but strong core belief that all would be well.  But as I watched the receptionist at her PC it almost looked as if she was arranging and booking hospital visits and C’s paperwork was on her desk.  I forced a smile.  After 10 incredibly tense moments a jovial young doctor emerged and ushered us into his office in very good English.  He took the plates, set them on his light box and studied them intensely.  You could have cut the atmosphere with a knife.  He asked C some pertinent questions and casually announced that he felt there was nothing to be worried about.  If a gun had gone off at that moment it wouldn’t have produced such an effect.  It was like a bolt of electric shot through this small group and then a sudden exhalation of breath and laughs.  D and C’s faces changed as if someone had flicked a switch.  Then the doctor explained he would like a second consultant decision.  No waiting for letters for weeks on end, nope he picked up his personal phone, made a brief phone call and told us Friday at 2pm in one of the University Hospitals outreach centres in the city of Pleven.  He wrote down the details and even sketched out a map.  He took the time again to state that in his opinion there was nothing to worry about.  We left a much happier group and the volume in the car rose considerably as DW drove a very animated group of people back home.

Again friends came to the rescue and G offered to drive us to Pleven on Friday and wait with us.  This reduced the group stress by about 60% and mine by about 90% because I had clearly stated to all that I knew where we were going.  Well I knew it was close to the hospital we attended with Terry.  The trip was surprisingly jovial and G a super relaxed driver.  Good job because when I actually had to find the small clinic we navigated the same 3 side roads 3 times before I stopped to ask at another clinic.  We were literally about 30 seconds from Dr Dikov, have I mentioned that was his name?  Some of the joviality in the automotive can be ascribed to this name.  We were ridiculously early but in our perambulations we happened to notice a very large Kaufland supermarket.  In the inimitable British way we excitedly strutted forth to it’s redolent confines and began a minscule and detailed perusal of the kind of items you can only buy at the big boy supermarkets.  Basmati rice, lemon grass and such like.  We struggled out the supermarket and across the road to a little Mexana (literally dining room) and each ordered a main and a drink.  Bill was something silly like 12 leva.  Still with time to kill we stashed our goodies in the boot of G’s car and sallied forth to a drinks establishment.  We left the menfolk nursing drinks and set of again for Dr Dikov’s office.  It was a small detatched house set in a shaded garden.  We joined one woman under the gazebo  and watched as another 2 came into the garden.  As the current patient evacuated the doctors office a small dapper doctor strolled out himself.  His moustache twitched as he noticied us and he didn’t look too pleased.  Did we come from Pavlikeni?  Yes I replied and he motioned us to remain seated.  He then strolled over and sat amongst the women, casually smoking a cigarette and basking in the obvious adulation he was receiving from the Bulgarian women.  It was the same in Greece, doctors are treated as gods.

The silver fox disappeared back into his office and motioned another woman in.  The 2 remaining ladies began conversing with us.  For some reason these types of meetings don’t faze me.  The brilliant thing about talking to women in a specific environment is that it limits initial conversation topics.  After the initial chat about appointment times, clinics and mamographers the conversation spread to our villages, fellow Brits, mutual acquaintances, the price of wood, everyones kids and the price of pork.   Eventually the silver fox motioned us into his office.  There on the desk were 3 predominant items; a manual typewriter, a Mac book pro and a smart phone; talk about different ends of the technology scales.  But he didn’t speak English, not a word.  We spent almost an hour in his office in an excruciating exchange of information in Bulgarian.  C for the most part had to stand topless, the silver fox massaging her breast whilst looking at the mammograph with a magnifying glass and mumbling.  He asked about a certain part of the breast and asked for information on time sensitive changes.  He took a further mammograph then and there and ushered me with a flip of his hand to the booth where he took the plates.  More massaging, more torturous questions and answers till eventually he asked if we know anyone who could verify our translations.  I mentioned that the doctor in Pavlikeni spoke excellent English and was met with a stony glare and the words, he might speak excellent English but he’s not a consultant.  His ego was visibly ruffled, so much so that he accepted a call from Iveylo, a fellow villager as official translator.  Only in Bulgaria would a builder with one year spent in Manchester qualify better than a doctor as a translator of such sensitive questions.  Bless his cotton socks he didn’t balk at answering or asking questions relating to Cs breast, still by the way in Dikovs hand!  It all turned out well.  The relapse turned out to be a collapse and only of tissue and absolutely free of cancer.  We fair skipped out of the office and rushed to tell D and G the good news.  This whole experience has given us all confidence that we can navigate the healthcare system with the help of good friends.  Overall the service was quick, efficient and a total of 50 leva for the whole medical costs at private clinics.  It makes the UK look very poor by comparison.  It was also a bit of a triumph for my Bulgarian.  I managed and that was good enough.  Onwards and upwards then.

And on a final note the cast iron solid fuel range is heating almost the entire house with the exception of the upstairs guest quarters in the old house.  The oven is going to be a learning curve but as I have a back up electric and indeed a gas oven if I ever need sustained high temperature cooking I’ll default to them.  It’s all about choices and adapting.  The dining room petchka is unlit and for the moment is surplus to requirements.  It is all about good insulation and cast iron over steel for solid fuel burners when heating and cooking.  On that note is adieu from me, sanding awaits.

Credits to my good friend Silviq Popova for the featured photo of a city street in Pleven and for the goofy picture of Rabbie below.  Couldn’t leave you guys with no images at all!

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