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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

Thursday, 13 December 2018

178. Sightseeing in December

I really enjoy winter in Bulgaria. It’s cold and crisp. I get to wear woolly hats every day. It rarely rains. And, best of all, everywhere seems so quiet.

We’ve had family staying for the past week, so, in between some epic Trivial Pursuit battles and eating mince pies, we’ve been indulging in a bit of gentle December sightseeing. Nothing strenuous, like. It is nearly Christmas, after all.

Embracing Etropole
We so rarely wander around Etropole. We usually just pay our bills, do some shopping and go for pizza at the excellent log cabin pizzeria. But it’s a lovely town, really. This week we spotted a monument that we’d never noticed before, high up on the hill by the Everest hotel (that’s another great thing about winter – with no leaves on the trees, new things are revealed that were previously shrouded in greenery). The views up there were great.

From up here, I was struck by how Etropole looks like a glacier,
sliding down from the mountains.

As our visitor is more of a city-lover than a tramping-around-the-mountains-lover, we went for a day out in Lovech. It’s been years since we last went, but nothing much changes here in Bulgaria and it was just as we remembered. It’s a nice place to stroll around an old town and have lunch by the river, without having to schlep all the way to VT.

The covered bridge.

Walking up through the old town to pay our respects to Levski.

There he is!

Another monument.

Overlooking the river Osam.

Fishing in the river.

In an effort to stock up for Christmas and winter, we’ve also dragged our poor guest around Kaufland and Lidl in the space of one week. The less said about that the better.

Friday, 30 November 2018

177. Snow day, the Bulgarian way

How’s this for a short post? Yesterday we had breakfast wine and pork fat with the neighbour, and went for a walk in the snow. Oh, and a hawk flew over our heads.

And now, snow pictures…

I love it when it's so cold (-9C yesterday morning) that the snow
sticks to the trees like icing sugar.

Village river starting to ice up.

That's our house poking through the trees!

In the spirit of our usually mild autumns, I've been flat-out refusing to wear a coat until December 1st.
My bodywarmer just about staved off hypothermia yesterday.

Majestic walnut tree.

Snow, snow, snow.

Did I mention the snow?

Friday, 23 November 2018

176. Bad food

Not bad food of the ‘bad for you but utterly delicious’ variety, like a bacon double cheeseburger or a Cornish pasty so dirty you smell it on your face (and scarf and coat) for the rest of the day. No, I mean food that turns out to be bad or off or, as seems to happen to us regularly, has bugs in it.

I remember one time, when I was a kid, my mum opened a tin of new potatoes (hey, it was the 80s) and there was a big piece of wire in with the potatoes. It was a scandal! I think we got a letter of apology and a £5 food voucher from the company. (Innocent times, jumpers for goalposts, etc.) Another time I found a strange little insect in my chicken sandwich on the Isle of Wight ferry. I *think* we got a replacement sandwich for that, but memory is a tricky thing and I could equally have been told by my family to stop being awkward and eat the bloody thing. Anyhow, those two incidences are the only bad food experiences I can really remember from life in the UK.

Then we came to Bulgaria and found shit in our food all the time. Like moths’ eggs in the brand new bag of flour (multiple times, honestly, from different shops). Or that time I tipped a packet of pasta into a pan of boiling water and hundreds of fucking weevils floated to the surface. Or that time I bought a bag of mushrooms and by the time I got home they were crawling with tiny worms. Bleurgh.

So last weekend we decide to make a curry feast. I tip some coriander seeds and cardamom pods into a pan to dry toast them, wander off, la la la, come back 30 seconds later and there are bugs – ACTUAL FUCKING BUGS – crawling all over the contents of the pan. So we check our jar of coriander seeds, having only topped up the jar with a fresh packet of seeds the day before, and sure enough there are bugs living in and eating the coriander. We had to chuck the whole lot away and spend ages checking every other spice we’d bought from that shop (one of the spice shops in the Women’s Market area, where we regularly buy our spices).

Within an hour of chucking away our bug-filled spices, I opened a (not cheap) bottle of wine and thought, ‘huh, weird, this smells like wet sponge.’ Yep, the wine was off too. By this point, it really felt like the universe was trying to tell us something – namely, that we should stop trying to have a boozy curry day and, I don’t know, eat celery and go for a run or something.

(On the subject of bad drinks, we once had this weird experience with really watery beer. We’d bought a bottle of Shumensko from the garage and when we got home and poured it into our glasses, it was oddly pale. Took a sip and it was easily 50% water. The bottle seal looked fine, so we’ve no idea why it was like that. IS NOTHING SACRED?! TRUST NO ONE.)

Why, Bulgaria, why? Why do you put up with this shit? I guess I should say at this point that fresh produce from the market is generally excellent, and the big supermarkets seem to be okay. Our bad food experiences usually stem from stuff bought at smaller shops. I’ve no idea why that is. Aren’t they generally sourcing from the same sorts of suppliers? Do smaller shops get the rejects that no one else wants? I JUST WANT BUG-FREE FOOD. IS THAT TOO MUCH TO ASK?

Anyway, back to the curry day and we struggled on making our curry feast, minus the coriander and unexpected protein. Rob even made some poppadoms, which we enjoyed with homemade mango chutney. (In your face, universe, we refuse to eat celery and go for a run. Your cruel games only make us stronger.) And it was all delicious. The end.

In other news, we had our first snow of the winter earlier this week. Quite a good showing for November…

Also, the kittens have discovered the useful basket on the kitchen counter where we keep our phones, small change etc. It’s unbearably cute.

Tuesday, 13 November 2018

175. Christmas conflict

When we first came to Bulgaria, Christmas definitely wasn’t a thing. In our village at least, Christmas Day was a bit of a non-event. The shop over the road still opened, the bus service ran as normal, and we were still expected next door for our customary morning coffee (drastically cutting into my alcohol-drinking time). Most houses went undecorated. Wandering around the local town in December, you’d be hard-pressed to notice many signs of Christmas.  

Things might be changing, though. There are advent calendars on the shelves in the supermarket (having taken over from the Halloween crap – which also wasn’t a thing a few years ago). And the Metro catalogue is already flogging an extensive selection of ‘Christmas’ gifts (sets of body washes, whiskey with a matching glass, and so on). 

I’m not sure how I feel about this. Christmas in the UK is an overly sentimental, disgustingly commercial exercise and, personally, I think it’d be a shame if Bulgaria went the same way. But … I bloody love Christmas. Even though it’s overly sentimental and disgustingly commercial, I love it. At Christmas it’s acceptable to drink sherry at 10am, and no one emails me for days on end. It’s absolute bliss. And if the increasing commercialisation of Christmas in Bulgaria means it's easier to buy a good-quality panettone and some marzipan, is that really such a bad thing? So. Conflicted. Argh.

Anyhow, I’ve been thinking such deep-and-meaningfuls because we made our Christmas cake last night and it’s got me all a-flutter about the season of goodwill/cocktails/watching Home Alone.

In other Christmas-related news, debate rages on about whether we should get a Christmas tree this year. We always have done before, but this year we’ve got these arseholes to contend with…

Get down from there, you little git!

And you can get down, too, you little git!

Aw, they're so cute, I love them so much. Oh wait...

Get off my plants, you git!

What do you say, should we get a tree knowing full well we’ll have to pick it up off the floor each morning? Vote ‘hell yes’ or ‘bah humbug’ now…

Friday, 19 October 2018

174. Kittens with dirty bums, and other stories

You’ll have to forgive the slightly sporadic posting of late. Work is busy busy to an almost oh-dear-I’ve-slightly-overcommitted-myself level. Which, as someone who has zero problem saying ‘no’, is unusual for me. Still, I’m not complaining. Work is what keeps us in cake, kittens and Ikea rugs, after all.

Speaking of cake, kittens and Ikea rugs…

We’re still diligently catching up on Bake Off every week and baking something inspired by the programme most weekends. Last week was vegan week, which isn’t really our bag. But based on a vegan mocha cake that Briony made, I baked a (non-vegan) coffee and walnut cake, made with walnuts from our garden and coffee from … well, Lidl, obviously.

I always enjoy sharing our cakes with the neighbours. You never know what their reaction is going to be. Bulgarian cakes in the shops tend to be glossy, heavily decorated concoctions that, to my mind, don’t really taste of anything (which, as my style and life icon Prue Leith would agree, means they’re not worth the calories). So my homely English cakes must look really plain in comparison. Then there’s the issue of our neighbours’ incredibly sweet tooths (tooths? teeth? There’s no way to say it in this context that doesn’t sound weird). One time I made this delicious Nigella lemon meringue cake that was achingly sweet. But because it had lemon curd in it, they complained it was too sour. So, anyway, coffee in a cake was a risk. But they demanded I made another one for the next day (I didn’t), so I think that means they liked it.

We have so many walnuts this year. We’re lucky enough to have two trees in our garden and one just outside our boundary that drops half its payload in our garden. This has probably been our best walnut year ever and I reckon the crop will easily last us two or three years. Looks like I’ll be baking a lot of walnut cakes, walnut bread and walnut pie (if that’s even a thing?) this winter.

Walnuts drying off in the spare room. This isn't even half of our haul.

Merlin and Baxter, our new kittens, are settling in well. They’re a nightmare with food. (Baxter has even eaten some shelled walnuts that Rob left on the table for two fucking minutes while he went to the loo. That can’t be normal.) And they get really manic around 9pm at night. And they keep trying to sit on top of our precious house plants. But look how cute they are.

They still enjoy stacking on top of each other. Merlin (The Grey) has filled out a
bit since I took this picture, but he's still a weird-looking dude.

Baxter claiming this plate as his own. Look at him, he's practically
daring me to do something about it.

You know what’s a brilliant thing to do when you’ve got new kittens? Totally redecorate your lounge, so that you can’t use it for a month while concrete and new flooring is laid, have four cats living in the kitchen in the meantime, and then, when the upheaval is over, let manic kittens loose on your lovely new things. Great idea. Highly recommended.

Mad boho lounge. There's *just about* enough colour and pattern going on
here to satisfy me. I like to think Prue would approve.

Gone is our dangerously bumpy old floor in favour of actual nice tiles. (The selection of tiles used to be awful in Bulgaria – really nasty, shiny things that Del Trotter circa 1985 would have loved – but it’s got so much better. Amazingly, we didn’t even have to travel to the big smoke of Sofia to get these lovely tiles; we found them in Botevgrad.) The tattered (but good quality, so I’m not getting rid of it) sofa has been covered with second-hand throws and blankets, and cheap cushion covers from Ikea. The pictures are drawings of Sofia that we picked up in a second-hand bookshop last winter for 15 leva. And we’ve splashed out on a gorgeous yellow rug to finish everything off, but it’s not going anywhere near that floor until the kittens stop being arseholes and learn to clean their bums properly. #LifestyleGuru