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Friday, 24 December 2010

26. Heathrow, snow, woe

This, but for breakfast.

It’s so sad to see people’s Christmas travel plans disrupted by the weather. We had our share of stresses when we went to Bulgaria at the beginning of December, right in the middle of the first heavy lot of snow. But at least we managed to make it.

Our Gatwick flights were cancelled so we booked last-minute BA flights from Heathrow. These were shockingly expensive and would have paid for half a septic tank in Bulgaria! But we didn’t want to delay our plans (and I’m glad we didn’t as the travel chaos has only gotten worse).

The night before we were due to travel to Heathrow it started to snow heavily – and the prediction was it would get much worse overnight. After spending all that money on flights we were worried we wouldn’t even make it to the airport. So we took drastic action, packed our bag and set off for the airport that night - twelve hours before our flight. We made good time too, thanks to our taxi-driving neighbour Paul (who was completely undaunted by a very hairy drive up the M3 – legend). We arrived at Heathrow Terminal 5 about 11pm at night.

Anyone been to T5? It’s a really cool structure, very masculine with all its engineering on display (big struts, girders and nuts everywhere). But comfortable it aint. There is only one place open through the night at the terminal – Costa. Now, I love a Costa, but it can only kill an hour or so of time, even that’s stretching it. There is nothing else to do at T5 in the middle of the night.

But we were not alone. Clearly plenty of other people had the same idea and had travelled to the airport massively early. Everyone just staked out their area on the floor and bedded down for the night. Airport staff were giving out free rollmatts and blankets! It was like being in the blitz, but with neon blankets and Italian coffee.

We managed an hour or two of sleep before the security gates finally opened. This meant we could go through to the departures lounge and experience a new kind of uncomfortable seating/floor.

Still, nothing open in terms of shops or food.

Finally, at 5.30am, Weatherspoons opened. Good old Spoons! Despite the unsociable hour I got straight onto a large glass of wine. Yum, wine and breakfast. Four hours and quite a few rounds later, our flight was ready to board. Slightly delayed, more than slightly trollied, we embarked on our journey feeling very pleased with ourselves for defeating the snow.

I was hoping we were on for a white Christmas this year but it seems not. Never mind - when we eventually move to Bulgaria hopefully every Christmas will be a white one.

Merry Christmas everyone. Bestest wishes for a happy and adventurous 2011!

Thursday, 23 December 2010

25. What a bunch of bankers

Life as a homeowner goes on much the same as before. We can’t afford to do any work on the house for a few months and won’t be going back to Bulgaria until April at the earliest. So, for now, it’s back to business as usual: working, saving, working, saving, Christmas, working, saving.

Fear not, I still have some entertaining stories to tell about our recent house-buying visit. Starting with the tale of how we ended up paying for the house in cash…

We fully expected to pay for the house by bank transfer but by the time we got the Bulgarian bank details my UK bank wouldn’t guarantee that the money would arrive in time. My bank is a very well-known high street bank (beginning with ‘S’ ending in ‘antander’) – you would think they would have some option for an express money transfer (24, maybe 48 hours?), but no. This meant the only way to ensure the money would be in Bulgaria for the day of the purchase was to take it with us. In cash. £12,000! The very thought of carrying our entire savings had me breaking out in a cold sweat – no travel insurance would cover you for that sort of money if you were robbed! But there was no choice.

Neither would my bank allow me to withdraw the money in Euros (all big transactions in Bulgaria are done in Euros, even though their actual currency is the Lev). But I can forgive the bank for that – they don’t do currency, fair enough. So, I had to collect the money from my bank in sterling and take it to a Bureau de Change to get Euros. I was so scared about doing this on my own so my lovely stepdad came with me for protection.

My, oh-so-helpful bank was only too happy to complete the transaction in a completely secure and private way and it all went smoothly…

Sorry, I wandered off into a dream sequence then. In reality, what actually happened is they handed me a huge brown envelope over the counter with “£12k” written on it in nice bold letters. They may as well have sounded an alarm and done a song and dance routine to alert any would-be muggers.
“Hey now what’s that sound
Everybody look
12,000 pounds”

Also, you’d expect them to give the cash in as small a bundle as possible – I was expecting £50 notes and maybe some £20s - but it was all in £20 and even £10 notes!! I had to beg to use one of their offices so I could take the money out of the envelope and stash it away about our persons in private.   

The walk to Intercash was extremely nervy! It was a bit like being in a spy movie: trust no one, suspect everyone.

The guy at Intercash couldn’t have been more helpful, although he was a bit miffed at having to count all those £20 and £10 notes! And the bundle of Euros I came away with was tiny – thanks to it being in 500, 200 and 100 notes.

We travelled out to Bulgaria with the money in one of those belt things that you wear under your clothes. I kept giving it the odd reassuring pat to check it was still there! But it all went fine. Sadly, I think the Bulgarian vendors were a bit disappointed when we handed over the tiny bundle of cash. They may have been expecting a suitcase full of notes!

Monday, 6 December 2010

24. We’re back. And we own a house!

That’s right, it all turned out fine in the end. We managed to make it to Heathrow (that was quite an adventure in itself  - more details to follow), our back-up BA flight went ahead, I had £12k in cash strapped under my top(!), and the house transaction went smoothly.

We’re now the proud owners of a beautiful, shabby Bulgarian village house. Like, we actually own it. Outright!

The transaction all took place in front of a notary – notaries are real local bigwigs in Bulgaria and they oversee any important dealings. So, our agent Max and his assistant Emilia took us to the notary in Etropole. There we met the notary, lawyer (also serving as translator) and the vendors. We were a bit worried about meeting the vendors as we’d heard entire families could turn up and crowd into the notary’s office. But in this case it was just two siblings and their partners. They seemed nice and we communicated through friendly nods and handshakes. We learned the house has been in their family since it was built in 1935! 

We started off in the landing outside the notary’s office while her assistant checked our ID and passports. You’re not actually allowed in to see the notary until her gatekeeper is satisfied with your documents! I started to worry we were going to conduct the whole business out in the hallway. Finally, we went in and presented ourselves to the notary. Documents were read out in English and Bulgarian and there were lots of copies for everyone to sign. There were quite a few open sniggers every time our company name was read out. By way of explanation, the lawyer said “Your company name is very…unusual.” And for emphasis “It is very…original”. 

Then, we handed over our cash and it was all done. Another round of smiles, handshakes and good wishes before saying goodbye. The deeds will now be transferred into our name but the house is legally ours straight away.

Me at the house after the purchase.

It’s not just the house and land that we own: everything in the house is included in the sale. We now own some really cool stuff – nice old tables and chairs, some great communist era china and kitsch pieces on the walls. Check it out!

Wednesday, 1 December 2010

23. We're off to Bulgaria! Maybe.

Some proper Bulgarian snow...

Sorry readers for the lack of updates lately – it’s been a hectic week.

Great news: We have an appointment with the notary in Bulgaria for Friday morning - that’s this Friday 3rd December. This is the formal completion of the purchase – so all parties will be there with the notary, we’ll all have to sign paperwork and then Rob and I pay the money. At which point, the house will be legally ours!

What could possibly go wrong?

Well, for starters, the bank wouldn’t guarantee our money transfer would arrive in time, so we’ll have to do a cash transaction. Scary!

Then, we’re due to fly out at 6.30am on Thursday 2nd. But today (Wednesday) Gatwick closes for the entire day because of the snow. At the time of writing, Easyjet is saying our 6.30am flight will still go ahead tomorrow, yet Gatwick’s twitter feed says they anticipate more heavy snow overnight and for the disruption to continue! We can’t risk our flight being delayed or cancelled.

Where does this leave us? It leaves us paying over the odds for a BA flight out of Heathrow at the last minute! Heathrow, for now, is unaffected by the snow.  

So everyone needs to keep their fingers crossed that a) we even make it to Heathrow, b) Heathrow remains unaffected by snow, c) we arrive in Bulgaria in good time to buy our house, and d) the Easyjet Gatwick flight does get cancelled so we can get our money back! Oh, and we’d also like to make it back home okay on Saturday.

So stressed. My eyes feel about ten times too big for their sockets and I practically have steam coming out of my ears.

More news to follow upon our (hopefully) triumphant return…

Thursday, 18 November 2010

22. Learning to speak the beautiful language of Bulgarian

So we have a Teach Yourself Bulgarian book and CD comprised of 20 units. So far, we’re on unit 2. We have been on unit 2 since September. This is not exactly lightning fast progress on our part. Clearly we’re struggling, which is not helping our motivation.

All I can say in our defence is it’s, like, really hard!

Let me put it this way: imagine you’ve done a hard day at work, it’s dark when you get home, Spooks is coming up, the kettle’s on, so too are the comfy trousers with the elasticated waistband (there’s an exciting glimpse into our home life for you). The lazy evening ahead is panning out beautifully. Except, oh no, wait, you’ve got to learn BULGARIAN! Which would you choose? Cup of tea, feet up and some no-brain-required spy fun? Or learning a language where not one single word - or even the alphabet for that matter - is familiar? 

That’s right, the alphabet is the Cyrillic alphabet, which has a greedy 30 letters. Some letters are totally alien, like Ф for example (it’s an ‘F’ to you and me). Others are just downright sneaky – they look exactly like our Roman letters but mean something totally different. B means V, H means N, P means R, C means S, X means H, and Y is a sort of ‘oo’ sound! Confused? So, the road sign for the town of VARNA would actually read ВАРНА. Thankfully, some of the other letters do look and sound the same as ours, e.g. E, A, T, K, O, M.

We have managed to learn the alphabet and can read things in Bulgarian, so that’s a good start. Except we can only read in capital letters. The lower case letters sometimes differ! A little T is an ‘m’ for instance. And don’t even get me started on letters in their hand-written form – yep, you’ve guessed it, they’re different too.

As for the words themselves, Bulgarian is sort of like Russian, Greek, Serbian and Romanian all mixed together with a dash of Turkish for good measure. There’s nothing intuitive about it for a native English speaker. It’s not like learning French where you can sort of muddle through and catch the general meaning. There’s nothing familiar at all! Oh, except the word ФАКС (FAKS) which does actually mean ‘fax’. But that’s no good because nobody uses faxes anymore. Or maybe they do in Bulgaria.

Pronunciation is (shock) fairly easy to pick up, much more so than English because there’s always a one-to-one correspondence between the written letter and how you say it. Basically, there’s only one way to pronounce it. An ‘A’ for instance is always pronounced ‘ah’. Stress is a little trickier. It’s very important to get the stress right in words of more than one syllable; otherwise you get nothing but blank looks. As yet, I’ve not worked out any rules for where the stress falls in a word – it can fall on any syllable.

They roll their r’s. I have never been able to do that.

When Bulgarians say yes (“da”) they shake their heads. And when they say no (“neh”) they nod. It’s barmy. It’s like they decided to do the opposite to the rest of the world just for giggles.

Okay, so far we can read the alphabet, say hello, goodbye, good morning/evening, please, thank you, I am from England, two large beers etc. The very basic tourist stuff. But our vocabulary is shockingly slim. On our last visit we were in a shop and realised we don’t really know any useful shopping words at all (like cheese, bread, bag). So, we purchased a nice big Bulgarian-English dictionary while we were in Sofia. And we fully intend to open it one day too.     

I know no one is forcing us to move to Bulgaria. It’s completely our choice. And, I may not sound it, but we are serious about learning the language properly. We want to be able to speak it and integrate properly when we live there. In fact, eventually, I want to be able to speak it really well. 

In conclusion, we just need to suck it up and get on with it. In the words of Nike, the Greek goddess of sporting footwear: Just do it.

Unit 3 here we come. Tomorrow. 

21. An update on the house

Boris The Lawyer has confirmed the paperwork is all okay so now we just need to find a date to complete the sale. Simples? Well no, not when you need to find a date that works for us, the lawyer, the estate agent, the notary and the vendors to all get together! We’re trying to fix a date for early December and will keep you posted. Fingers crossed...

Tuesday, 9 November 2010

20. Our company is formed!

A quick update: just had an email from Boris The Lawyer to confirm that our company has been registered! It’s great news. It means that Boris can now start preparing the paperwork for the company to purchase the house. We now have to sign another letter of engagement appointing Boris to do all the various legal checks and paperwork for the purchase. Not sure how long this next stage will take but I’m guessing just a couple of weeks – as I understand it, the company formation is the longest part of the process. Gosh, we might be on a flight back out there before the end of November to complete the purchase!

It's almost as pleasing as that time I was sitting in a field drinking
cider, armed with a pirate sword. Almost.

Monday, 8 November 2010

19. Things we’ll miss about home

Of course the main thing we’ll miss is our family and friends. I hope we’ll have lots of visitors. In fact I’m sure we’ll have lots of visitors – if only to satisfy people’s morbid curiosity at first! But hopefully people will continue to come back after their first visit. Once the outbuilding is finished we will certainly have plenty of room for guests.

I will miss the sea an awful lot. I have grown up living close to the sea and never yet been able to leave Portsmouth (apart from 3 years living in Waterlooville which was a bit of a folly and we don’t talk about that). Our house in Bulgaria is about 5 hours from the Bulgarian cost and about the same from the Greek coast. That will be weird. Instead of being at sea level we’ll be about 500 metres above sea level. That’s so high I might get nosebleeds. I may even weigh less all the way up there.  

We’ll definitely miss our mother tongue. We are struggling so much with the Bulgarian language, I think I’m going to write a whole post about it next. Even a simple trip to the shop will take a lot of brainpower at first.

I will very much miss Costa lattes (okay they have Costa in Sofia but that’s a two-hour round trip for a latte). We’ll also miss cheddar cheese, Albert Road pubs, cider, The Florence Arms, BBC Good Food magazine, cider, sherry, Lidl (although there is a rumour of Lidl in Sofia) and chip-shop-chips. I’m slightly concerned that so much of what we’ll miss is edible stuff. Oh well, at least our visitors will know what to bring with them! I doubt I will miss Slimming World.

As I write this there is an old episode of Grand Designs Abroad on the telly - a couple are restoring a huge old stone building in rural France. They’re struggling with the language and because they’re on such a tight budget they’re doing a lot of work themselves, even plumbing. But they’re completely unfazed, so driven and they are totally loving life abroad. After feeling a bit glum thinking about everything we’ll miss and how hard it will be to leave, I’m feeling inspired again! Just make sure you smuggle me some cheddar past customs. 

Thursday, 4 November 2010

18. Why Bulgaria?

A lazy, list-based post today.

Reasons to move to Bulgaria:
·         Property is very cheap. Seriously, check out property prices on http://www.offbeatbulgaria.eu/.
·         It’s a really beautiful country with the Black Sea coast and dramatic mountains.

·         Less time working and more time for us. We can truly indulge our Good Life fantasies without worrying about money!
·         It’s only 3 hours from home.
·         It’s in the EU but the currency is not the Euro!
·         It borders beautiful Greece and Turkey, so we get a similar climate and food but without the higher property prices (and riots).
·         You can get a train from Sofia to Istanbul, one of our most favourite cities, for less than £20. Or, a 4-5 hour drive from our house and we could be sipping Retsina on the Greek coast.
·         Bulgarian wine is lovely.
·         We will have the time to do all those things we talk about but never actually do: writing, painting, learning a language (erm, compulsory), learning to play a musical instrument.
·         There are no chavs in Bulgaria.
·         No more listening to other people’s music on public transport.
·         Proper hot summers.
·         No more dreaming of white Christmases, we’ll be knee deep in snow!

And the downside is:
·         The language. It’s just not coming easily to us!
·         It’s 3 hours from home. I know ‘it’s only 3 hours from home’ was listed as one of the positives but, on homesick days, that will feel like a long way.

That's it. I’m not brilliant at maths but I'm pretty sure the number of positives outweigh the negatives.

Monday, 1 November 2010

17. The Plan

People are always asking about the plan. What will you do for work out there? Will you live there all year round? What will you do in the winter? Will you get a donkey?

The house sale should go through before Christmas, but we won’t be going out to Bulgaria until August 2011 due to work commitments and the need to save money for renovations. Hopefully, we will be able to get the builder doing some of the important stuff before we go out there – staircase, bathroom and plumbing are at the top of the list of priorities. Then, when we’re out there, we can focus on fitting a kitchen and redecorating everywhere. Being realistic, we expect to run out of money within a few months, but we should have finished the house by then. We can then return to the UK around the end of 2011/early 2012 for another 6 months or so of working to save up money to tackle the garden and turn the outbuilding into a guest cottage and studio. Luckily, I work in publishing, which is a very female dominated field – lots of maternity cover contracts if needed!

So that’s the immediate plan – for the first couple of years we’ll be flitting between the UK and Bulgaria as and when money runs out. In a few years time, when all of the work is done, we’ll be ready to move out there permanently. We do indeed plan to live there all year round. Being up in the mountains, winters are very cold and snowy but I plan to take full advantage and work on my skiing skills! And I’m looking forward to our first white Christmas. Summers are long and very hot so we’ll be spending lots of time working on our 1000m2 garden. We plan to have a nice big vegetable patch and herb garden and will add some more fruit trees to the ones already in the garden. Sadly there isn’t really the room for a swimming pool but there is a small holiday chalet complex about five minutes away and they have a pool. Think I’m going to have to make friends with the manager so we can use their pool…

In terms of work, once we’ve made the permanent move, I will probably do some freelance work. Eventually we want to run a B&B or artist holiday business using the guesthouse. The surrounding area is really beautiful and I’m sure that budding artists will find it a really inspiring place!     

We probably won’t get a donkey; we haven’t really got the room. I would like a goat but Rob is less keen. We do agree on chickens though. In fact, I’ve already named our future chickens: Margot, Jerry, Tom and Barbara!

Sunday, 31 October 2010

16. An update on the house sale

It’s been a while since we posted anything about the house, mainly because not much is happening right now. The lawyer is working on setting up our company and we won’t complete on the house sale until that is done. It usually takes about four weeks to register a company but, at the moment, the process is taking a few weeks longer. This year in Bulgaria all company owners have been required to re-register their companies – not sure why, it’s just one of those fun legal things invented to out-fox people. Anyway, the deadline is the end of the year so every man and his donkey are currently busy re-registering their companies. It’s good timing for us because we won’t have to worry about re-registering, but bad timing because the system is clogged with more applications than usual.

We have had an update from Max (our agent) to say all is going through okay so now it’s just a matter of waiting patiently. This is convenient because waiting patiently is a real skill of mine (NOT). Having said that, now the initial excitement/nervousness/stomach-twisting horror of making an offer has passed, we are actually being quite calm about the whole process. I spent much of the first week convinced that the sellers would pull out at any minute and we would lose our beautiful house. We really loved the village and my concern was that if we lost this house we may have to wait a long time for another house in the village to come up for sale. However, there is nothing we can do from here in England so I’ve learned to relax and leave it to the professionals. Fingers crossed though, sometime in the next month we’ll be making another trip out to Bulgaria to sign the final paperwork and complete the sale.

That process itself sounds like good fun: everyone involved in the sale gathers with the local notary to sign the official contract. In cases where several cousins or siblings are the owners (say, if they inherited the property), they would all be there in the room! Plus lawyers, notary, estate agent and the buyers! In our case, just two brothers own the house so it should be a more manageable affair. I wonder what they’ll make of us.

And once the sale goes through, that’s when the really scary stuff starts. Does anyone know how to go about getting Bulgarian home insurance? No, me neither! That’s another thing to add to my list of Things To Worry About. 

Sunday, 24 October 2010

15. Sightseeing in Sofia

A post about Sofia, the capital city, in case anyone fancies a visit:

As the plane comes in to land at Sofia airport, the city looks ugly indeed – many a crumbly towerblock. But, once you get passed the outskirts, the centre is rather pleasing. Small enough to cover on foot, it feels much more approachable and manageable than other sprawling European capital cities. It’s pretty too, with some imposing architecture and plenty of green space. Café culture is big here – the Bulgarians love a coffee or beer at a pavement or park café. In the summertime it must be a lovely city to pass a few leisurely days. It’s chilly and rainy for a lot of our visit, but we certainly get the picture.

We do a couple of galleries – the National Art Gallery and the Sofia City Gallery. The former is well worth a visit for a taste of traditional Bulgarian art. Another place worth visiting is the Aleksander Nevski church, which reminds us of Aya Sofia in Istanbul. It is stunning inside with beautiful frescoes on the walls and ceilings. It’s free to enter but donations are welcome. The crypt beneath the church is not free but, if you’re into religious icons, then it’s a snip at 6 Lev (about £3) each to get in. We consider buying an official replica icon from the gift shop, until we see the extortionate prices! But the flea market outside sells knock-offs for about a tenner. The stalls also sell other artwork, vintage jewellery and a selection of communist memorabilia like hats and badges.

A couple of funky cafes we found are: The Tea House which has a huge menu of speciality teas (plus beers, wines and a small food menu) and the Sun & Moon Café which is entirely vegetarian (but don’t hold that against them). They mill their own flour and bake all their own breads and cakes etc on the premises. Yummy. For a slightly more fine dining experience, Pri Yafata does good Bulgarian grub, quite cheap, and is very tourist friendly. Philistines can get their MacDonalds and KFC fix easily enough at several locations. Bulgarian beer is super cheap and tasty – just over a pound for a 500ml glass of beer (and that’s in a nice bar with waiter service). Local wine by the glass is also cheap and you can expect to pay about £7 for a bottle in a restaurant.

Shopping is good here – there aren’t many British recognisable chains (except for Mango, hurrah) but there are tons of swanky designer shops. Clothes, as previously posted, are flashy and blingy. Lots of fur at this time of year. The shops catering to a younger crowd are, thankfully, much more tame. Shoe shopping is excellent, if a tad fetishistic.

We check out a supermarket to see if there is any food we would miss. We cannot find coconut milk, but find everything else we would normally want in a regular shop. The only disappointment is parmesan cheese which weighs in at a whopping £8 for a smallish triangle. Think we’ll have to start weaning ourselves off that!

Best of all, in the town centre, we find two branches of Costa Coffee – my nearest and dearest know this is a precious find for me. We hear there are a few other branches too. I feel a satisfied peace in my heart knowing a large latte is only an hour away from our village. The price is only marginally cheaper than at home, making it a real luxury item for out here. It seems very popular with the Bulgarians though – they know a tasty coffee when they sip it.

It feels a safe city, even to wander around after dark. The biggest danger is probably tripping up on dodgy broken paving slabs. Oh, and be vigilant when crossing the road. Even if you have a flashing green man at a crossing, cars turning right can still turn into the road, and they won’t necessarily stop for people crossing. Zebra crossings also do not give pedestrians right of way – as far as I can tell they are just a nice way to use up surplus paint. But it’s not too bad, once you’re out in the road, cars will usually stop to let you continue. Petya, the lawyer, tells us drivers are very bad and won’t even stop to let children cross. This seems a bit of an exaggeration to us but you get the idea. I ask her how little old ladies cross the road and she says “only with the help of the police!”  

So, all in all, Sofia is a lovely city to pass a few days, and very useful for us being within an hour of our village. It is certainly not as vibrant as, say, somewhere like neighbouring Istanbul or Athens. But it is a lovely laid-back capital – quite an antidote to London. Best of all, it’s only three hours from Gatwick and with Easyjet flights from about £60 return, it’s almost as cheap as the train fare to London!

Saturday, 23 October 2010

14. This is a man’s world (but it wouldn’t mean nothing without a good Bulgarian woman)

Socialising in parks, according to gender.

Women’s lib is yet to make its mark in Bulgaria, and I'm mystified by some of the more sexist aspects of Bulgarian society. Men hang out with men. Women hang out with women. Presumably at some point the two kinds meet otherwise there would never be any Bulgarian babies made.

But, for all you see, at bars, cafes, in the park, even by the side of the road, men sit with their buddies for a beer, a smoke, maybe a game of chess and, presumably, the male equivalent of a good old gossip. It is not good form to take your wife down the local pub of an evening. It’s just not cricket.

And young women are seen as sex objects. Advertising is not very PC here. On our first trip to Bulgaria this summer we passed a billboard advertising a musical instrument shop. The advert was just a semi-naked girl with a guitar between her legs, plus the name of the shop. That’s it. Another billboard actually had boobs on it. Boobs. I hate to be a prude but didn’t anyone stop and say ‘hang on chaps, isn’t this a tad sexist?’

So, women are ultra sexual beings. And yet, weirdly, when you finally get to marry one, you leave her at home in favour of sitting outside the local café with your mates. Hmmm.

I suspect, behind closed doors, the matriarchs firmly wear the trousers. Good for them. Now, would it hurt to take the missus out for a hard-earned white wine spritzer every now and then? 

Wednesday, 20 October 2010

13. Food, vkoosno, food (and the importance of cheese)

One morning at the guesthouse, Max’s neighbour, Vassa, brings us up a freshly baked banitsa for breakfast. This is a large round pastry dish - Vassa hand makes her own pastry which is then formed into rolls and wound into a round dish. The rolls are filled with cheese and it is baked in the oven. It is the best, most lovely breakfasty gift ever. Sadly it has goat’s cheese in: Rob doesn’t eat goat’s cheese, so I get to polish off his slice too. Mnogo vkoosno - very delicious - indeed. 

We have fresh homemade bread for breakfast every day and we feast on bread, jam, cheese, honey, tomatoes, muesli, eggs and a traditional cup of PG tips. The occasional homemade smoothie or ‘power juice’ crops up too. A plug for Max’s guesthouse: I highly recommend Little Spring guesthouse (http://www.littlespring.eu/) for the great hospitality. (When he’s not estate-agencing, Max runs mountain biking holidays and has an English bookshop in Yablanitsa).

The best of the food in Bulgaria (delicious pastries aside) is meze style. Main courses tend to be simple – kebabs, meatballs or stews. The meze, salads and soups are more varied and delicious.

Restaurants in Sofia have English menus and English speaking staff. In Yablanitsa, the nearest town to the guesthouse, there are no English facilities. We go to a great place with Max and have a very tasty lunch. He does all the ordering in Bulgarian and we just smile and nod. The food is lovely. The total bill for three meals, two beers and a mineral water comes to less than £6. Another day, Rob and I decide to go back there ourselves, this time alone. We can’t understand the menu and struggle to find words in our pitiful phrasebook. The waiter speaks no English (and why should he). We muddle through and order a couple of salads and a yummy fried cheese dish. We know the word for cheese well! It’s all tasty and we feel some sense of achievement managing to order and pay without speaking English (albeit with a lot of pointing and gesticulating).

Bulgarian beer and wine, by the way, is excellent and we have been taking care to sample many varieties for the purposes of research!

Monday, 18 October 2010

12. Claire dresses native

Clothing in Bulgaria is a funny thing. Something really rather special. For women, there are two main styles of dressing: village style (Crocs, sweats or skirt, jumper, maybe a headscarf) or Russian Footballer’s Wife. The former is simple and makes perfect sense. I certainly won’t be wearing my nicest togs to milk the goat or dig potatoes. It is the latter, the Russian Footballer’s Wife effect that fascinates me.

Mostly found in the big cities, it is the style favoured by any Bulgarian woman worth her shopska. The rules are simple – make it big, make it flashy, make it shiny and, where possible, make it pointy. A typical look would be big hair, ample makeup, clothes which are super-slim fitting, shiny (or with shiny bits on), preferably a few chains or studs, and pointy, very high heels. These are not cheap clothes, nor do they signify a cheap woman. Quite the contrary. We find clothes are expensive here.

On an unseasonably cold day I have to make an emergency clothing purchase – gloves (simple enough) and a fleecy warm top. To be fair, I purchase these from a market stall, not a fine boutique. But I am unimpressed by the choice. There is nothing plain. There is nothing simply. Frankly, to my boring English eyes, there is nothing remotely stylish. Still, when in Rome I think.  Or Yablanitsa as is the case. I settle on a bright yellow zip-up top. Fleece lined and with a fur lined hood. Excellent. Yes, the inside is excellent. The outside, however, has been…embellished.

The hood says ‘BORDER’ in big, black, stitched-on capital letters. The left breast has a black and gold PVC motif stitched on with the words ‘Perfect replet wold’ around it. This is utter nonsense. But the pattern is something else, something very special indeed. It is plastered all over with pictures of various modes of transport. It has cars, bikes, skateboards, even prams and, curiously, shopping trolleys (see picture). I feel very ‘street’ in it. Much to Rob’s horror, I consider purchasing a pair of white PVC sneakers from a neighbouring stall but refrain at the last minute.

I actually wore this out in public.
The cost of this yellow beast? 20 Lev, which is about £10. £10 too much I say. But it is warm and it becomes something of a mascot for our trip. Naturally I will never wear it back home. It will always be a ‘Bulgaria’ top. Nonetheless, I have developed a strange affection for it. Perhaps more items will follow? Rob hopes not.

For now the plan is a twice-yearly pilgrimage to Primark!

11. Our first 'meeting' as company directors

Some cheeky sightseeing.

We are now back in Sofia to set up our business. Boris the lawyer is unfortunately stuck travelling back from Bourgas so we instead deal with his colleague Petya, who looks after us very well.

So we go to their office where a mountain of paperwork has already been prepared. As we suspected, our very silly company name has not already been taken so we get to keep it! It looks just as funny in the Cyrillic alphabet too! There are a number of documents – all written in Bulgarian on one side and English on the other. These include:
- Letter of engagement for the lawyer.
- Power of attorney (scary, but with very restricted terms) for Boris to deal with setting up the company in our absence.
- Affidavits to swear everything is truthful and we are who we say we are.
- (Hilariously) minutes of the first meeting of company directors (i.e. me and Rob). The minutes state that we have agreed the company name, that we are both to be directors and that the total assets of the company at this point are £100.

We then go to the local notary with Petya. Here the notary checks our ID and we sign copies of documents in front of him. Everything gets lots of official stamps on.

Finally, we go to a bank to set up the company bank account – this holds our £100 assets and is necessary to form a company. Petya, thankfully, translates for us the whole time.

The whole process takes about two hours and is fairly straightforward, if a little odd. Afterwards we have a very large beer to celebrate! Boris will now take over and formally register the company with the authorities. This registering process takes about four weeks, after which, the company can become the legal owner of Mush Muli house.

Saturday, 16 October 2010

10. Me man. Me make fire.

What is it about fire that fascinates man? By man I mean specifically the male of the species, not mankind in general. Women want to keep warm but aren’t too fussed on how. For men, tending a good fire is a symbol of their masculinity. In our guesthouse bedroom is a wood-burning stove. On average, Rob thinks about this fire every 60 seconds or so. He’s either starting the fire, poking it, just checking on it, adding logs, thinking about adding more logs, fetching more logs or thinking about fetching more logs.

Even the names of these fires are butch and manly. One has AMIGO in proud capital letters striding across the front. I am your amigo it says. I am your pal. Trust in me to keep your family warm. Rob and the fire are buddies. If he could, he would probably take it out for a beer on a Friday night. They could pat each other on the back and congratulate themselves on their extraordinary man-skills. It is a pure, true love.

I may sound like I’m mocking. The truth is, there really is something quite endearing and manly about a building a fire. And chopping wood. That’s pretty hot too. So maybe the fire and me will learn to be amigos after all. Me. Rob. The Fire. Together we are The Three Amigos.

9. Insect sightings and beastly rumours

I wake up one day about 6am needing a pee. When back at the bed I notice something on the wall about a foot away from where my head had been. I’m a bit sleepy at this stage and not too sure if my eyes deceive me. Is that? Is it? Yes, it is.

It is a scorpion.

Only a baby one, about an inch long and a light brown colour. But a scorpion nonetheless. I am deathly afraid of spiders. They make my legs go to jelly and I whine like a scaredy little girl. But I am pleased to find I am not deathly afraid of scorpions. “Oh”, I say, “that’s a scorpion”. Rob is playing with the wood-burning stove at this point (yes, even at 6am – that fire became something of an obsession for him) but he comes to deal with it in his usual laid-back style. Our agent Max tells us that’s as big as they ever grow here and they’re harmless. We later found another one in the garden and took a picture. It looks mean but it’s only an inch long, honest: 
We found this beast lurking under a plant pot!
Wildlife in this region of Bulgaria is interesting. Bear Grylls would love it here. It’s a very rugged mountainous area and we hear there are bears in the woods. “Oh yes,” Max says, “but I’ve never seen one”. Max, however, has three loud dogs who make lots of noise when walking in the woods, so any bears must him them coming a mile off. Rob and I do not have dogs and we’re pretty quiet folk. We consider carrying a bell when walking to announce our presence to any neighbouring bears.

Does anyone know what to do if you see a bear? I vaguely remember hearing the worse thing you can do is run away. Rob thinks you should make a ton of noise and shout at it to scare it off. I favour the stand-very-still-and-hope-it-doesn’t-see-me approach. Comments welcome!

And wolves, we ask Max? “Certainly there are wolves”, he says. “But you’ll never see a wolf. They’ll see you but you’ll never see them.”

Well that’s me reassured then. Anyone for a stroll in the woods?

Friday, 15 October 2010

8. Claire and Rob name their Bulgarian limited company

Our view, while we deliberated.

So, we have to come up with a name for our Bulgarian company (as foreigners, we have to register a company to purchase the house and its land). We have been advised to make the name pretty obscure to ensure it is not in use already. Frankly, with childish minds like ours, this is just asking for trouble. It’s not like you ever have to actually use the company name, we tell ourselves. We therefore quickly discount some sensible property-related names and get down to the funny ones.

After a couple of beers we come up with the following shortlist:
i.                   Bobert’s Farm
ii.                  Double Rainbow Enterprises (readers, type ‘double rainbow’ into You Tube)

In the end we plump for a different name that we struggle to say with a straight face. Boris the lawyer will now prepare the paperwork ready for us to sign when we are in Sofia. Our company should then be up and running in about four weeks time.

7. The road to hell, part 2 (and an aside on goats)

Excuse me, coming through.

Driving in Bulgaria is a life-affirming experience: that is, you’re always thankful to make it out of the car alive. They drive fast and overtaking is common. There are, to add to the fun, horse and carts sharing the road. There are potholes the size of wardrobes.

To get to our village you drive along a stretch of road that is particularly bad with big, deep, square-cut holes everywhere. Our agent tells us the authorities must be getting ready to fill in the holes if they have squared them off. Rob jokes maybe they just like their holes neat! For now though, you weave your way along, frequently driving in the opposite lane to avoid the real humdingers. Thankfully, in this region, there are actually very few cars on the road so meandering across lanes is no problem at all.

Otherwise, the roads are pretty fun in this region: country lanes winding their way up, down and between mountains. There are no discernable speed limits that people adhere to. You will often see signs stating ‘50’ or ‘80’ but these are usually right next to each other, making it difficult to know which one to believe! No matter, as people tend to drive at an even 80-100km per hour anyway. I get overtaken a lot. You will almost never see a traffic cop out here in the sticks.

As well as sharing the road with horses, there is the occasional goat herd to content with. In the village of Maluk Izvor, where we are staying, a goat herd wanders through twice a day. We get stuck behind it a few times, both morning and late afternoon. The goats are pretty used to cars though and you can edge your way through okay. The shepherd hits them with a big stick if they don’t get out of the way fast enough.

An aside on goats, if you will indulge me:
In Maluk Izvor, the villagers send their goats off with the shepherd in the morning for a day of grazing on the mountain. If you do not do this, they will eat your entire garden. So, you send your goat – let’s call him Gary – off down to the main village street in the morning where the shepherd picks them all up. They then have a hard day’s grazing up the mountain (or Goat School as Rob and I like to call it). Then, at the end of the day, the shepherd brings them all back and sends the goats off to their various homes. Then, we’re told, if you’re not home at the time, Gary the goat will wait for you at the garden gate for you to let him in. I kid you not!

6. The road to hell, part 1

It was very lovely once we got up there...

Before we head back to Sofia to start the paperwork, we spend a couple of days exploring the area around the village.

This afternoon we visited a monastery, perched at the top of a mountain up a long windy track. It is quite beautiful and a real feat of engineering and construction. We enjoy wandering around and taking in the panoramic views. And the monk is excellent value. He is a youngish man with long shaggy hair. His mobile phone plays church bells when it rings. Seriously. He looks like he enjoys a good party. He looks like you may find him in the corner at 2am strumming a guitar and singing ‘No woman, no cry’. Our agent told us he had the monk do a blessing at his house warming party and apparently he was the first to get the dancing started.

So, monastery excellent; monk great. The worst thing about the trip was the drive up there. A long single track road – thankfully tarmaced –winding up the side of the mountain. On one side is a pretty steep drop and there are no crash barriers. At regular intervals we meet oncoming cars coming down (we think we must have accidentally timed our visit with the end of a service). The Bulgarian drivers speed on passed and wave cheerily as I edge on to the verge, literally weeping into my steering wheel. It was a scary drive up, made only more scary by the thought of driving back down. Apparently, the last monk went a bit crazy and threatened to shoot a few people. The police had to bring him down in the end. I’m not surprised he went a bit loony. Imagine negotiating that road every time you need some loo roll or muesli. Do monks use loo roll? Anyway, I sympathise with the poor old dude. I almost needed an armed escort to get me back down that road. But we made it down in one piece in the end.

Hopefully we can tempt the new monk down for a house blessing of our own one day. I’ll have to give him a bell… 

Thursday, 14 October 2010

5. Making an offer on Mush Muli house

After three visits, a full and detailed structural appraisal (!) by Nachko Nachko man, and two days of deliberation, we are ready to make an offer on Mush Muli house.

The asking price is €13,500 – a snip you would think but it is 3000 more than we currently have! We ask our agent Max to make an initial offer of €10,000. Unsurprisingly, this is swiftly rejected.

Another day goes by and we finally agree a price of €11,900. We’re happy enough with this – I just hope the vendors go through with the sale now. If all goes to plan, we could be the owners in about six weeks time. This is much quicker than we thought!

The next stage is going to be very funny. Foreigners are not allowed to own land in Bulgaria but companies can. So, because the house comes with land, we have to register a Bulgarian company. Rob and I will be the company directors, which sounds very grand. It’s just a formality which the agents and lawyers are used to dealing with. To set up this company we have to go see a man called Boris in Sofia who will help us open a Bulgarian bank account. This all sounds immensely dodgy but Boris is president of some Bulgarian law society and, by all accounts is a big cheese. He and max are sporting buddies and Boris does the property related stuff on the side of his regular big jobs. So, that’s our task for the next couple of days – go see Boris, think of a name for our Mickey Mouse company and set up a bank account. Scary!

4. Introducing our village

This is the village that Mush Muli House (the house we have fallen in love with) sits in. We had already taken a brief drive through when first viewing the house but, after seeing off Nachko Nachko man and the-one-who-doesn’t speak, we decide to take a long stroll through the village.

The village is a beautiful traditional village nestled between two mountains. It is surprisingly flat for a mountain village (hurrah, no dodgy steep tracks to drive up) and is quite narrow due to the flanking mountains. A pretty river runs through it which you can hear from the garden of Mush Muli House. It has been raining heavily for three days (no sign of flooding) but today is a lovely sunny day.

As we walk through the village people smile and say “dobar den” which means “good day”. All except one woman who just stares at us as though we are from another planet. There are no English people in the village itself. Our Bulgarian language skills - which currently do not extend much beyond “dobar den” - will have to get better, sharpish.

There are a view small shops, a post office, school and church. It’s the prettiest village we’ve seen by far – the river and flanking mountains give it a certain alpine flavour. It’s a bit like being in a suped-up lake district. Many of the houses are being or have been renovated and it is a popular location with Sofians who want a second home to escape the rat race on a weekend. Fifteen minutes in either direction are the towns of Yablanitsa and Etropole where you can pick up whatever supplies you need. Etropole even has a small ski run in the winter!

The people seem very friendly, if a little bemused by the English couple who have wandered way off the beaten track. Most are older people but we spy a few families in gardens and some younger people at the café.

Opposite Mush Muli house is the local pensioners club which looks deserted by day. Perhaps at night it becomes a thumping hive of activity and we risk rowdy pensioners vomiting in our front garden at chucking out time. I think that is unlikely. I think we have found our village.

3. The builders come to see Mush Muli house


So today we meet Nachko the builder. He speaks no English so our agent’s assistant translates for us. We want Nachko to give the house the once over and particularly look at a couple of cracks in the internal walls before we make an offer.

Nachko is fairly young (30s) and our agent describes him as ‘tame’. I am not sure how to take this. His brooding sidekick says nothing but looks at us in an intensely manly way. They are a reassuringly masculine pair. So, we meet at the office and agree to follow them to the house. Nachko takes off at high speed in his old Golf before we’re even strapped in to our hire car. He drives at an average 100km per hour the whole way, dodging potholes in the road as if he were in a rally car. We struggle to keep up in our hire car. Luckily we know the way if we lose sight of him, which we frequently do.

Once there, Nachko looks at the cracks and seems faintly amused by our worrying. It is an old house which has moved over time, he says. The cracks are not deep, he says. When I ask if the house has finally finished ‘moving’ I think he may actually crack a smile. But no, it must have been wind. He continues to look vaguely amused by all our questions as though we are silly English worrywarts. Everything is either no problem or small problem only. The house is good, he says. The strong silent one stays silent.

This is as close as you get to a structural survey in Bulgaria.

Afterwards, as they speed off down the lane away from the house, I am struck by a song which I think should be Nachko’s personal theme tune. To the tune of ‘Macho macho man, I’ve got to be a macho man’ I start to sing “Nachko Nachko man…”. This amuses us for the rest of the day and still tickles me as I write this. I shall have to work very hard not to sing it in his presence. In fact, I’d better just get it out of my system now. Altogether now: “Hey. Hey. Hey. Hey. Hey. Hey. Nachko Nachko man. He’s got to be a Nachko man…”