Usually around this time of year I start reading one of Rob’s old books on Buddhism in a futile attempt to become more zen and live in the moment. This year I’m screwing that off in favour of looking backwards. Not in a gloomy way, you understand, but a reflective ‘blimey, look how far we’ve come’ sort of way.
A while ago a reader called Elina wrote to me and asked me to do a post on how we’re finding life in Bulgaria a few years down the line, and how it compares to our original expectations. Now, as we head into our fifth Bulgarian winter, it seems like a good time to look back. The Buddha would probably disapprove but let’s do it anyway.
The other day I looked at photos of our first Christmas (2011) in the Bulgarian house. What struck me is how resilient we were in those early days when the house was really just a shell and we had nothing (all our belongings from the UK didn’t arrive until the summer of 2012). Take our kitchen, for example. The first picture is the kitchen as it was when we moved in in August 2011. The second is the kitchen four months later on Christmas Day.
In the second picture we still basically have nothing. Almost no worktop space, no oven (just a woodburner), no cupboards, no flooring, not even any paint on the walls (which had only been plastered the week before). But oh my we were so pleased with it. We put up decorations. We marvelled at our lovely new wooden windows and Rob’s beautiful lime plastering. We cooked a full Christmas dinner using the woodburner and the red gas burner that you can see sitting on the floor. We got a bit drunk. We ate too much food. We binge-watched Breaking Bad on the laptop. It was a great Christmas.
We didn’t have a proper kitchen, with worktops and an electric oven and flooring, until the following Easter. If you’d shown me that second picture before we left the UK in August 2011 and said that would be my ‘kitchen’ on Christmas Day, I might well have done a little cry or a scared, accidental wee. But once you get out here and you’re living it for real, you realise how little you need to get by. We discovered levels of resourcefulness that we never knew we had. I mean, I was a Brownie and a Guide but that was in the 80s and Brownies didn’t do any fun, adventurous stuff back then. I had badges in things like sewing and knitting and first aid. I’m pretty sure I had a badge for washing up in a safe manner. I definitely remember having to demonstrate how to wash up a knife safely. So, anyway, I never really thought of myself as a resourceful person, and definitely not one for roughing it. Rob would, like, run around the woods and get twigs stuck in his eyes, but not me. Thirty years later I can confirm I’m pretty darn good at roughing it. I can also wash up very safely.
This is my roundabout way of saying that it took much longer to complete the house than I ever imagined … and we’ve been okay with that. I didn’t know it before I came here but everything takes longer in Bulgaria – paying the bills, doing a food shop, finding floor tiles that don’t make you want to vomit, renovating a whole house – but it doesn’t matter because time is one thing we’ve always had in abundance out here. Everything is more relaxed, especially schedules, and it’s important to accept that quickly and sink into it resignedly. If you don’t, you really aren’t going to enjoy your first year here. Some things are an obvious priority. Like structural work. And a washing machine (seriously, washing and wringing bed sheets by hand gets old very quickly). And good internet. But flooring? No. Plastered walls? No. A fully working kitchen? Not nearly as much as you think. It’ll get done when it gets done. Also, from a practical point of view, it was great to live in the house while it was basically a shell because we got a much better feel for how we wanted everything to be and where everything would go. The decisions we made in haste (like where to put plug sockets, for instance, chosen without thought in a five-minute run around the house with a builder and a stick of chalk), are the only things we would do differently. But the kitchen, done after living in a bare room for eight months, is pretty much perfect. Eventually I want a big range cooker but that’s the only thing I would change.
So, that’s what I think about practical, housey stuff. But what about everyday life in Bulgaria? The first thing to say, unequivocally, is that it’s just normal life. Yes, it’s a bit weirder and there are definitely more donkeys but it’s still normal life. There’s still dirty laundry and washing up, the car still needs MOTing once a year, lightbulbs need replacing. You get me? You don’t escape boring stuff like that by coming here. Especially once the excitement of renovating a house and learning new things subsides and you settle into more of a regular routine. But we did escape the 9–5 working grind (I work for myself from home) and other things like mortgages and commuting. That’s not to say we never have any money worries. Most things are significantly cheaper out here, which takes a lot of the financial pressure off, but we’re living on a single freelance wage and some months are leaner than others. But the fact that we can live off one single freelance wage and still sleep soundly at night is an enormous blessing.
Right, so it’s normal life with dirty socks, but (generally) less money worries than in the UK. Which is pretty much what I expected. And Bulgarians? Oh my God, they’re brilliant. Bulgarians are a lot like Portsmouth people in that they look a bit grumpy and sound like they’re on the verge of having a fight but they’re not at all. (In Portsmouth, however, they might well be about to have a fight. Best cross the road, just in case.) Bulgarians are the friendliest, most generous and most helpful people I’ve ever met. We’ve read and heard some bad stories – burglaries, getting ripped off, that sort of thing – but we’ve never had any experiences like that. We have wonderful neighbours and we feel really at home and welcome in the village. Any time we’ve needed help a Bulgarian has popped up with a solution – like the many, many times we’ve got lost, like that time we had a four-day power cut and no way of keeping warm that didn’t involve electricity and our neighbour helped us rig up an old woodburner, like that ridiculously long first winter where we almost ran out of wood in March and the mayor gave us a fallen-down tree, or even that time I bought a bike then couldn’t figure out how to fit it in the car and an old man came out of his house and said, ‘look, put it in like this, silly’. They are, as we say back home, good eggs.
One thing I wasn’t expecting though is the huge culture difference between what Brits consider polite and what you can expect in Bulgaria. Maybe it’s different for other Europeans coming here but there’s a big difference between British sensibilities and Bulgarian. I’ve said how friendly and helpful Bulgarians are, right? But weirdly that does not translate to customer service of any kind, such as in a shop or restaurant. Surly, slow service is often the norm. Not in a nasty way, just in a customer-service-isn’t-really-a-thing-here-get-used-to-it kind of way. Lots of places in Sofia and one hotel we stayed in in Sinemorets are notable exceptions. Also, the polite thing. Show a Brit something and, even if they hate it, even if it makes them want to be sick until they dry heave, they will find something nice to say about it. For example, give a Brit a hideous cardigan four sizes too big with a disgusting pattern on it and they’ll say something like, ‘Thank you so much, I LOVE the buttons!’ Do the same thing with a Bulgarian and they’ll say something like, ‘But why is it so BIG?’ and then proceed to demonstrate how it is four sizes bigger than all their other, far superior cardigans. And they’d be right. We’ve lost count of how many times our neighbours have leaned over the fence and said, ‘Why are you doing THAT? No. You want to do this.’ This isn’t a criticism of Bulgarians (I’m British, I can’t criticise anything), it’s just something to get used to if you’re a sensitive Brit. Eventually you do get used to straight-up, no-nonsense, truthiness and learn to love it. Then you have to painfully readjust to being British every time you land at Gatwick Airport – you know, where you queue for 20 minutes for a sandwich in Marks and Spencer, finally get to the checkout and they say ‘Sorry to keep you waiting’ and you want to scream ‘Yes, I’ve been waiting 20 minutes, why are there only TWO of you on the fucking tills?’ but instead you have to say ‘Oh that’s FINE, no problem at all’ then thank them 10 times in the space of a 30-second transaction. Imagine a world where everyone just says what comes into their head. That’s what life in Bulgaria is like.
If I was unrealistic about a reasonable timetable for renovating a whole house, I was even more unrealistic about how long it would take to learn the language. Oh we’ll be fluent in six months, I thought. I was an idiot. We’re fine with the language, we get by no problem and we still have regular lessons, but we are close to fluent like Australia is close to Iceland. What Rob and I need is to separate, both marry Bulgarians, move in with our Bulgarian in-laws, be forced to speak Bulgarian 24/7, then return to each other a year down the line, after becoming fluent. But that’s a bit extreme so we’ll just keep having the lessons, chatting with the neighbours and writing down interesting words that we learn off the news – words like ‘granatomet’, which I recently learned off the news and which means rocket launcher. Hopefully not one I’ll have to use too often but you never know. Bulgarians are very forgiving when we fumble words – they get that it’s a difficult language to learn – but it’s important to try. Seriously, if you aren’t going to learn at least some of the language, stay home.
You need to be adaptable if you’re going to make a go of life here. You can’t do everything the way you would back home (indeed, why would you want to?). Here’s a pretty banal example, but you get the idea. I’m a keen baker, right? But it’s hard to find things like self-raising flour, buttermilk or sour cream in the shops. Our nearest supermarket is a 50-mile roundtrip and I try to haul my arse there as little as possible. Anyway, turns out you don’t really need any of that stuff – I add baking powder to regular white flour to make it rise, add lemon juice to milk to make buttermilk and bung Bulgarian yogurt in anything that requires sour cream. I made my Christmas cake recently and realised I needed candied peel for it, so I had to make that the day before I started the cake. But again, time is one thing we have here. Given enough time and the power of Google, you can always make do. Nice ketchup? We make our own rather than pay over-the-odds for Heinz. Same with baked beans. (Rob would be able to give you better, more manly examples of making do, but he’s not here so you’re stuck with my cooking ones.) Anyone who insists on resolutely sticking to their British ways in Bulgaria is rather missing the point. Having said that, icing sugar is one thing I do bring over from the UK in my suitcase as the stuff here tastes like sherbet, and I also bring Yorkshire Tea and cheddar (which you can find in the supermarkets here but it’s expensive and usually too mild). But that’s it these days. Oh, and Marmite. I’m not fannying around making yeast extract. We don’t have that much time.
As well as time, the next best thing about life here is having loads of space. Specifically a garden, which we never had in the UK. I've become an enthusiastic, if not particularly competent, gardener. We're better at veg but I am finally starting to get into flowers. I even have a pair of ankle wellies. I'm living the dream, man. I seem to obsess about the garden more than ever at this time of year: buying seeds, planning where things will go, drawing up funny little timetables of when to sow stuff (which I then forget to refer to come March or April). I haven't written much about the garden this year or our new summer kitchen, so I'll follow up with a post in January, complete with sunny pictures of summer 2015. That should cheer us all up in deepest winter ... or depress us because it's still deepest winter. We'll see.
Finally, if I could have a word with my 2011 self, I would tell her not to buy a Ford Puma. ‘Claire,’ I would say, ‘you know it’s not really suited to Bulgarian roads. Even with your limited knowledge of Bulgarian roads, you know it’s not suited. Don’t buy a Ford Puma on a whim on the way home from work. Think. Buy a Rav4 instead.’
Finally, finally, here’s our lovely kitchen in 2015. We’ve come a long way baby. Happy Christmas x