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Hi, I’m Auntie Bulgaria, aka Claire Ruston. In 2010, my partner and I bought a dilapidated village house in the Balkan Mountains in Bulgaria. This is our story. Find out about my freelance writing and editing services at

Monday, 11 March 2019

Osmi mart and a sunny weekend

Last Friday was International Women’s Day (simply ‘osmi mart’ or ‘8th March’ in Bulgarian). It’s a BIG deal here – easily as big as Mother’s Day in the UK, except it celebrates all women, not just the reproductive ones. Women receive gifts from their loved ones – usually a flower or something small for the home – and are greeted with a cheery ‘chestit praznik’ (‘happy holiday’) wherever they go.

We went into Etropole on the 8th and it was a glorious day. Everyone was enjoying the sunshine. Everyone was carrying flowers. And everyone seemed to be in a jolly mood. It was like Christmas Eve, but warmer and more floral. The shop at the petrol station even gave me a carnation (the pink beauty above). It was all very charming.

What I really like about osmi mart (I have it in my head that months aren’t capitalised in Bulgarian, but I might be wrong) is it’s an excuse for women to celebrate themselves and the other women in their life. So, rather than children taking their mother out for lunch, the local restaurant was full of gangs of ladies having a right merry time with each other. There was lots of kissing, clinking glasses and ‘chestit prazniks’. What’s not to love about that?

The gorgeous weather carried on all weekend and we finally got around to some gardening jobs. Gardening Bore 2019 is officially underway. You have been warned.

So far we’ve sown tomatoes, chillies, coriander and lettuce for the veg garden. We’ve started forcing our dahlias already (and will do the same with our gazillion gladioli soon). And I’ve sown some sweet peas and other seeds for my new cut flower bed. There’s lots more to sow in April, but at least we’ve made a start.

In other Gardening Bore news…

Rhubarb coming up nicely.

Look closely and you'll see the tip of an asparagus spear poking through!
Can't wait for our asparagus crop this year.

Meanwhile, my office is full of pots.

Tuesday, 5 March 2019

An expensive day out

I suspect I might be tight with money. I mean, the list of things I refuse to spend money on is growing longer all the time: new clothes, a better car, furniture, the latest phone (or gadgets in general), haircuts, shampoo, women’s razors (men’s are better), women’s deodorant (men’s is better), lottery tickets/scratch cards, music, satellite TV…

But, on the other hand, I happily spunk money left, right and centre on: second-hand and vintage clothes, plants, eating out, alcohol, avocados, Ikea rugs, good coffee, toilet roll, pointless trips to Sofia…

In other words, I drive a 22-year-old car and wear a coat that cost 6 leva (£3), but I’ll drop 40 leva (£20) on a bottle of Tanqueray No.10 without flinching. I’m not sure if that makes me a fucking legend or an idiot.

Anyway, last Friday was an expensive day – and not of the fun, gin-and-Ikea-rug variety. More of the bill-paying variety.

First we paid our annual house and car tax. Back in England, our council tax on a small basement flat used to be £90 a month – and that’s going back more than 10 years, so it probably seems like a right old bargain to anyone reading this in England today.

The equivalent tax in Bulgaria is – brace yourself – 14 leva a year for our house. That’s about £7. A year. (It’s more expensive for those who live in towns or dirty great mansions, obviously.) To be fair, we don’t get much in the way of municipal services where we live, but who can complain when you pay 14 leva a year? It’s so cheap, I almost skip into the municipal offices to pay it every March.

The car tax is not such a bargain, though. Bulgarian car tax is a mystery to me. Do you pay more on an older, less efficient car, like you would in the UK, or is the tax more expensive the better the car? I’ve no idea. For our 2001 Ford Puma it was 105 leva. And for our 1997 Toyota Rav4 it was 120 leva. That’s obviously cheaper than it would be in the UK, but I don’t know how it compares to other (ahem, better) cars in Bulgaria.

We also paid for our annual Bulgarian company tax return, did the dreaded supermarket shop, and paid all our monthly bills. So much money. So little fun. We didn’t even have a single Ikea rug to show for it.

Thursday, 21 February 2019

Spring tease 2019

We’ve had our afternoon coffee out on the back terrace for the past three days, and it's been heavenly. Sat on the bench, against the sunny back wall of our house, it was baking. I can’t remember ever having coffee breaks outside in short sleeves in February.

A few snowdrops, primroses and crocuses are in flower in the garden. (Hello, Gardening Bore 2019!) All four cats have been enjoying playing around us on the terrace. And our next-door neighbour has started preparing his veg beds.

Miss Pepper basking in the sunshine (and, as usual, not looking best pleased to see me).

So it’s feeling very spring-like this week. Don’t be too jealous of our spring sunshine, though. The weather forecast says it’ll hit -10C this weekend before warming up again next week.

The big question is, when shall we sow our tomato seeds? Our neighbour Stanka has already sown hers – she always sows on the same date in February, whereas we usually sow anytime between mid-February and mid-March, depending on the weather.

I reckon we’ll sow sometime in the next week. You? Isn't it strange to think we’re about to start sowing this year’s veg already? This winter has flown by. It’s like I blinked on Boxing Day and the next second it was spring.

Wednesday, 13 February 2019

The increasing Westernisation of Bulgaria as demonstrated through avocado availability

Kaufland didn’t have any avocados the other day. Just typing that sentence makes me realise how much Bulgaria has changed since we first came here in 2011.

I don’t think I saw an avocado in a local shop until … maybe 2014? 2015, even? I mean, you’d see them on menus in Sofia, of course, but for sale in Etropole? No way.

Then, one local veg shop started occasionally offering some outrageously expensive, puny avocados – which I’d gladly hoover up, regardless of their price and diminutive size. Kaufland would also stock them every now and then, slightly cheaper, too.

Things really changed about a year ago. BOOM! Suddenly it was Avocado Central around here. More than one shop in Etropole had avocados in stock pretty much all the time. Kaufland had avocados permanently on offer. We slipped back into our Waitrose-loving, Guardianista snowflake ways, eating smashed avo on toast every week. Living the Millennial dream, like the horrible clich├ęs we are.

So when there weren’t any avocados in stock at the supermarket last week, I was … confused, bereft. They can’t take my avocados away from me, I fumed. This is an outrage. I demand avocados!

Anyway, I’m sure it was just a temporary blip, but it goes to show how different things are these days. And how we’ve once again got used to having easy access to life’s little luxuries. Rob ordered a burrito in a restaurant in Botevgrad the other week. A burrito! I remember when, outside of Sofia, we’d struggle to find much more than shopska salad and cheesy chips on the menu. (Partly, to be fair, due to our middling language skills, but also because most local restaurants really did only offer the same few dishes.)

And in other food-slash-national-development news, a KFC has just opened up about 10 miles from our house. I’m not sure how I feel about this. On the one hand, it’s a distressing sign of the increasing Westernisation of the mad, unique country that we love. But on the other hand, well, KFC’s Fillet Tower Burger. I mean, it’s a chicken burger with cheese and a hash brown on top. What’s not to love about that?

Tuesday, 5 February 2019

Too many mad people

Well, now, that wasn’t too bad, was it? January, I mean. Not too snowy. Not too cold. We managed to go swimming at the Pravets hotel a few times (our winter treat). Did lots of yoga (om). Ate lots of veggies (if only to offset the entire pack of butter we ate the other day in a homemade quiche lorraine and Nigel Slater's chocolate beetroot cake). January was kind to us.

I get suspicious, though, when the winter isn’t too harsh. Our first winter here was the Great Snowmageddon of 2012, which was so cold (-23C) and snowy (we’re talking thigh-high) that you just had to laugh. There was no other way to cope. But at least that winter was followed by a long, hot, beautiful summer. So when we have a relatively mild winter, I always wonder if it means we’ll have a tepid, wet summer. I want proper seasons dammit – winters so cold you get ice on the inside of the windows, and summers so hot you forget what it’s like to wear socks. The kind of summer where you don’t have to open the curtains and look outside before you get dressed – you just know it’s going to be another gorgeous day.

There’s another downside to the not-so-harsh winter. One of the things I love about winter is how quiet it is in the village. The Sofian second-homers go back to, well, Sofia. Visiting grandchildren go back to their parents. And then it’s just us and the old folks for a few months. But when the winter is mild and the roads are clear, the village seems so busy and noisy. On Sunday a bloody scrambler bike kept roaring up and down the village all day. I mean, it’s February, can you please fuck off until summer?

And the mad people. Oh God, the mad people. When it’s really snowy and icy, at least the mad people stay indoors.

You know what I mean by mad people? Every Bulgarian village has one. (And if your village doesn’t, it’s because we’ve got your share.) In the village where we have our Bulgarian lessons, Rob once saw the local mad guy going around with his penis poking out of his trousers, peeing as he walked along. In another village, a lady grinned at us and squeezed her nipples in nervous delight as we said, ‘Dobar den’.

In our village, the mad guy is a compulsive walker-yeller. He goes up and down the village all day, just walking and yelling, walking and yelling. He yells at strangers. He yells at people he knows. He yells at cars. Sometimes he just yells at nothing. I’ve seen him do it, standing in the road yelling at no one, jabbing his umbrella into the air for emphasis. Occasionally, when the yelling gets a bit much, he gets taken off to hospital for a few months.

Then there’s Mad C, who likes to come and rummage through the communal bin opposite our house, muttering to himself as he does. Last weekend, Mad C and another weird guy who’s recently appeared in the village got into a shouty argument over some cardboard that was in the bin.

So much yelling. Too many mad people. 

Let’s just say I’m hoping that February brings us some cold temperatures, plenty of snow … and some peace and quiet.