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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…”

2. Mush Muli House

We know from the outside that we’re going to love this house. We pull up opposite Mush Muli house and our agent, Max, says “Well you said you always wanted a pink house”. And I have. It’s a girly clichĂ© but I don’t care. My dream house would be pink.

Mush Muli house (named after a Bulgarian fruit) is pink. It is an edge of village, detached house with a beautiful, but faded, exterior. Around the windows is some nice plasterwork and we can picture wooden shutters on the downstairs windows. It has a certain French feel to it. The garden is big, with established fruit trees (apples, quince and mush muli) and a walnut tree. There is a ruin of an out-building and a big pile of stone that screams ‘guest rooms’ at us.

Inside is basic and rustic but with a lovely solid feel, and it’s the best condition house we’ve seen so far. It needs work for sure – an internal staircase, internal bathroom and septic tank (external obviously) are all needed. These are not small DIY jobs. But we like the feel and are pleased with the high ceilings, higher than any other village houses we’ve seen.

Downstairs has three rooms – a big room that would make a kitchen/diner, a smaller room that would make a cosy sitting room, and the third room (which gets the least light) could be divided to make a pantry and bathroom. Upstairs has three rooms and a corridor, plus a small balcony with views up to the tree-covered mountains. There is not much in the way of period features but there are some original wooden floors, one lovely stone floor and the third bedroom (for us, a study) has beams on the walls. We get great vibes, only intensified when the neighbour offers us a large bunch of grapes over the fence, freshly picked from the vine. The neighbour has a donkey outside his house!

Needless to say we love the house and, after a second viewing, are considering putting in an offer. But first, we want a third visit with a builder to look at the house (for a general appraisal and to look at some cracks in a couple of internal walls). Plus, we want to get more of a feel for the area and whether it is somewhere we would want to live. 

1. Relocation, relocation, relocation

We have travelled to Bulgaria for 8 days to see some houses. We’ve found a great agent (www.offbeatbulgaria.eu) - Max is an English guy who has been living in Bulgaria for five years. He has bought and renovated his own house and has also converted his barn into a guest house. This is our home for five days in an unseasonably cold October 2010.

We have planned three days of house viewings and a further two days of getting to know the area. The remaining three days will be in Sofia for sightseeing and general time off (drinking coffee and being all European and stuff).

Day one of viewings and we’re already off to a good start. None of the houses take our fancy that day but we know very quickly that we have found the right region for us. An hour from Sofia (the capital city and international airport) is an area of beautiful mountain villages, rivers, caves and monasteries. It is stunning, even in a gloomy October, and we know we’ve made a good choice in our search area.

Selling a house is very different in Bulgaria. There is no concept of ‘dressing’ the house for viewings and not a whiff of fresh coffee brewing or bread baking. Phil and Kirsty would not be popular here. Many of the houses we see are empty, having been left to younger generations after the death of the owner. I say empty – empty in the sense of uninhabited. They are actually FULL of stuff – jam jars, tiles, furniture (hospital beds are a favourite), even old family pictures. Everything you see is included in the purchase! Our personal favourite item is a giant gold-plated Casio wristwatch style clock on a wall.

Day two of viewings is much better – we really love two of the houses. One is close to a really well developed town, but in a quiet hamlet, up a track. It’s a quirky house built into the stone of the mountain. It would be great for us and really gets our creative juices flowing. The up-a-track location is slightly worrying, especially for the harsh winters here. But the views of the surrounding hills are fantastic. Sadly you can see (and hear) in the distance a motorway. We um-and-ah about this for ages, standing in the garden with our eyes closed pretending to be sitting and sipping wine. It eventually takes two viewings and hours of discussion to finally rule it out. We’re quite noise sensitive people and, although the road is in the distance, it’s too big a compromise for us.

The second house that day, Mush Muli house deserves a post all of its own, so read on…