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Tuesday, 13 December 2011

50. Neighbours. Everybody needs good neeeeeeeighbours



Being in a village (as opposed to the middle of a field) we have actual neighbours. Obviously this is marvellous, especially when they are as lovely and helpful as Svilen and Penka. They are in their sixties and, as their sons no longer live at home, they have sort of adopted us - whether we like it or not.

We have coffee at their house two or three mornings a week. Usually this is initiated by Svilen wandering into our kitchen (he always just lets himself in) and asking ‘café?’ If for some reason we haven’t yet unlocked our front gate - thus denying him immediate entry - he will simply stand outside and yell ‘Bobbyyyyyyyyy’ (their name for Rob is Bobby) until we emerge. Duly summoned, we head next door for a small, stiff black coffee. I never drank black coffee before moving to Bulgaria, but asking for milk, or - gasp! - a latte is simply unthinkable. Once I took around a cup of tea (that I was half-way through drinking) but I got such strange looks I’ve never dared do it since. Often the coffee is accompanied by biscuits, swiss roll, maybe a yummy banitsa (cheese pastry) or, erm, pork ribs. One morning we had turkey for breakfast.

Once a week or so we get invited round for dinner. Imagine a movie called my Big Fat Bulgarian Dinner Party and you get the idea. At least a dozen people crammed in to one room. We’re never really sure who anyone is but they’re all very friendly. And loud. Very, very loud. There will be at least two phonecalls made or received - always taken on speaker phone thus allowing further opportunity for shouting. One time we saw Penka conduct an entire phone conversation while someone else held the phone a few feet away. There is an abundance of whisky and rakia (grape brandy) or, if I’m really lucky, delicious home-made red wine. Everyone seems to be called Maria or Niky.  Dinner is most definitely meaty and hearty. And you never get given a knife. I used to find eating turkey with just a fork quite awkward but now I’ll happily dive in with my fingers. Good job, as you MUST eat the equivalent of your own body weight in food.

They have just about accepted the fact that I don’t eat fish. But they’re not happy about it.

Obviously they’re total feeders, like any parents. They’re always giving us stuff to make sure we don’t starve. Recently they gave us four giant pumpkins (four! Pumpkin recipes welcomed!). Yesterday we got given a random bag of crisps. At breakfast time. And, upon my refusal of another biscuit, Svilen appeared to be saying (through some very clear gesticulation) that I should eat a lot more biscuits to get nice and big, like his wife. Now that was an awkward conversation.

And that brings me on to language difficulties. We still can’t really communicate with our neighbours. We can speak a bit of Bulgarian, and our vocabulary is slowing expanding but we’re not up to full-blown conversations yet. So we mainly smile and nod a lot, or we all watch something on TV together - there’s a cookery programme on each morning that we particularly enjoy, or we settle on Folk TV (which is as brilliant as the name suggests). Often Penka will tell us a jolly good joke - we can tell it’s a joke because she gets more and more worked up as she talks and ends with a big laugh. We laugh along manically even though we have no idea what the joke is.

It’s okay, they know we can’t understand them yet. They would have liked us to learn more Bulgarian by now but they’re not angry...just disappointed.  

Thursday, 17 November 2011

49. Progress update - November 2011

Rob has been lime plastering downstairs for what feels like forever - I’m amazed at his patience in what is a really dirty and time-consuming job. The bathroom is all plastered now and the beams have been painted. It’s beautiful and rustic, a bit like washing in a cave! All that’s left is some finishing touches - well, pretty big finishing touches actually, like fitting the bath (next week, apparently, the builders are finally coming to fit it) and an actual bathroom door.  That’s right, we have no bathroom door. It may sound bad but it’s quite nice being able to maintain a conversation while in the loo. I’m all for multitasking!

Bathroom ceiling all tarted up
The pantry/utility room has also been plastered, we just need to get a nice worktop and some shelves fitted and it’s done. Good job too, because I have been hoarding food like the apocalypse is coming. We have enough beans, lentils, pasta, flour and fabric softener to last until Easter! What can I say, it’s a sickness. A chronic case of snow-fear-itis.

Stocking up for the end of the world...or maybe just a cold winter.
Next up, plastering the kitchen! The kitchen is the biggest room in the house so it may well take about 20 years to finish at our pace. The whole room needs plastering and we want to take the ceiling down to expose the wooden beams. All very messy, very disruptive work. At least I can escape upstairs to my day job!

We’ve got new windows in everywhere downstairs and they’re gorgeous - all handmade wooden frames which we’ve stained dark. The glass is only single glazing - brrr! - but we’re going rustic and eventually we’ll make some wooden shutters to keep the cold out. They’re certainly a lot better than the rotten, draughty windows we had before. New upstairs windows will follow very soon...

Our bedroom is painted and finished, except for a wardrobe (we’re going to build our own). It’s very cosy and a lovely room to escape to at the end of the day. And did I mention we’ve got an actual bed now? So long airbed, thanks for all the backache!

We’ve also managed to turn the yellow room into a passable guest room - and just in time as our first visitor from home arrives tomorrow.  It looks okay, providing you don’t peek too carefully at the detail (no skirting boards, the mattress is an airbed, an improvised rug made from a throw...). 
The Yellow Room
I’m curious to see how the place will look to our friend that’s visiting from home. We’re so used to the unfinished state of the house and all its little quirks we hardly notice anymore. Having to walk outside to go upstairs or downstairs? Perfectly normal. Boiler ‘farting’ every time we run the cold tap? What’s up with that? No bathroom door? No problem! 

Tuesday, 8 November 2011

48. Autumn in Bulgaria

Okay, so we had a freak snowstorm in October. Yes, October. Thankfully it happened a few days after we got our heating fitted so we stayed nice and warm. Apparently it’s pretty unusual for the temperature to drop so much in October. Although, saying that, we were house hunting here last October and I remember being effing freezing then too. November, so far, has been gorgeous. Lovely bright, sunny days and about 15°C, but feeling warmer in the sun. The nights and early mornings are getting very cold. It’s not pleasant if, like me, you have the World’s Smallest Bladder and have to get up for a wee in the night. I shudder to think about what it will be like in January - perhaps we’ll keep the woodburner going all night.

Ah, the woodburner. My new best friend, light of my life, replacement for television, and source of hot food. How I love thee.

We're going to need considerably bigger logs...
The woodburning beast is doing a darn good job. It heats the downstairs to a roasting 20-25° no problem. It feeds radiators in the rest of the house and heats our hot water too. Upstairs is definitely colder than downstairs - radiators just don’t kick out as much heat as the beast downstairs - but it’s still comfortable. The woodburner has a good size oven too, so we’ve been able to have roast dinners again! I’ve missed baking and roasting. Our little electric hotplate still gets its fair share of use but it’s nice to cook something other than one-pot wonders.

We’ve been enjoying some home-grown autumn produce lately. We made a couple of crumbles with apples from the garden. Last night we made our first batch of quince jelly - we’ve got two quince trees in the garden and they’ve produced more quince than I know what to do with. Think we’ll definitely have to make some more quince jelly, as the first batch seems to have gone okay. And I’ve got some poaching in the oven as I write, ready to make a quince and walnut cake tomorrow.

Our first efforts at quince jelly.
Walnuts. We’ve got them coming out of our ears. We collected them up from the garden a couple of weeks ago with the help of our 63 year-old neighbour. His technique is amazing. I don’t know if you can tell from the picture, but this is our (again, 63 year-old) neighbour climbing to the top of one of our walnut trees (which is easily as tall as our house or more) and jumping on the branches to make the walnuts fall out. Just to make sure he got them all, he returned later with a ruddy great stick and climbed it again, hitting the very top branches with said ruddy great stick. I don’t know how to say “please be careful” in Bulgarian so I just stood mutely. Then, obviously, I went to get my camera!

Just bonkers.
I didn’t know that walnuts don’t actually look like walnuts on the tree. They grow covered in this strange green fruit-like casing. They look a little like round limes. By the time they fall to the ground, the fruit should be soft enough to scrape off, revealing the walnut inside. WARNING the fruity stuff seriously stains your hands black, and it lasts for weeks. We wore surgical gloves when peeling ours (like the little English Jessies we are) and Rob still ended up with a black thumb. You can spot the Bulgarians with walnut trees, because they’ve got totally black hands at this time of year.

Autumn is lovely here. Weekends we go to the market or for a nice long walk up in the mountains. The mountains are all covered in trees so you can really see the change in colours at this time of year. When the trees were covered in snow, it was amazingly pretty.  Roll on December baby, because I’m dreaming of a white Christmas.

Our Sunday walk...

Friday, 21 October 2011

47. Claire & Rob get registered...eventually

BG plates!

Today was an exciting week in the Auntie Bulgaria household - we went to Sofia to apply for long-term residency and get our Bulgarian ID cards. We first tried to do this a month ago but were turned away because the notary act for our house doesn’t list the actual address of the property (as it’s a rural property the notary act is for a plot of land with a dwelling on it). Anyway, they got mighty huffy in the immigration office last month and said we needed something from our local mayor to prove we live where we say we do.

We’ve had to jump through a number of bureaucratic hoops over the past week or so to get this sorted. First we had to present ourselves at the local police station, tell them we’ve moved to the area and get a form signed and stamped. We then had to get a declaration from our mayor. This incredibly crucial piece of mayoral documentation is just a paragraph of text typed up by his secretary saying (I’m paraphrasing obviously) blah blah, Claire and Robert live at so and so address in my village, honest guvnor, blah blah, please grant them bloody residency on this basis. This paragraph is then duly signed and stamped to make it all official.

So, this week we presented ourselves back at the immigration office with all the various pieces of paper from the police, mayor, village shopkeeper, local librarian and my driving instructor from 1997 (I get sarcastic when I’m angry, can you tell?). Thankfully, throughout this whole process we’ve had the lovely Emilia assisting us - she’s our estate agent’s assistant and an actual Bulgarian. We stood around awkwardly as Emilia filled in several forms on our behalf and presented our various documents. Then we went down to a different floor to pay for our application. We received a number of stamped receipts (5!). Then we went back upstairs where they told us they’d forgotten to give us all the forms, and duly presented another couple of forms for Emilia to fill in. Then, all forms submitted, they told us to come back in one hour. We had coffee, went back an hour later. This time we had our pictures taken and were told to come back in one hour. We went for lunch. We went back and were given a document with my personal ID number on it (we needed this for the next stage - registering the car) and we were told our ID cards would be ready in three days. Job done.

Next we had to tackle re-registering our English car. First we had to sort out Bulgarian insurance (hence, I needed a Bulgarian personal ID number for this). Buying car insurance in Bulgaria is brilliant. Not once was I asked how long I have been driving, how much no-claims bonus I have or whether I have been involved in an accident in the last five years (regardless of blame). We sat down, gave them my ID number, they typed the car details into the computer and basically said “220 Lev please”. That’s just over £100. For a year’s car insurance. After I’d finished laughing, we paid up and got our temporary insurance certificate. Temporary because we then had to register the car, get a new Bulgarian number plate then get a final insurance certificate with the new details. Is your head hurting yet? It should be. Mine nearly exploded with frustration.

So, we went back to the immigration office - which is also the police HQ and car inspection place - and filled in more forms. We then had to go to a different desk and pay an admin fee. Then we went outside to the car with an Official Bulgarian who verified the car was as stated on the form. Then we went back inside to a new desk to fill in new forms. Obviously this resulted in another payment back at the cash desk and numerous additional stamped receipts. Then, we went back out to the car where a different Official Bulgarian replaced our number plates with the Bulgarian plates we’d been assigned. Then we had to go back, to a different desk, hand in the old British plates and collect our new Bulgarian registration certificates. As my MOT is still quite new, they switched me straight over to the Bulgarian equivalent for the same amount of time - thankfully no need for a technical inspection until next June.

Finally, we had to go back to the insurance company and get the final insurance certificate with the new number plate on it.

And that was it. Seven hours of administrative hell. Thank God for Emilia. And rum. Lots and lots of rum.  

But, we now have shiny new Bulgarian ID cards and have been granted 5 years long-term residency. And Uma the Puma looks all native with her new Bulgarian number plates. From henceforth she shall be known as...Ooma.   

Friday, 14 October 2011

46. Better best forgotten

Yes, I still have the CD.

One of the downsides to living in Bulgaria is missing out on important cultural events back at home. Imagine my horror this week when I discovered (three days later than everyone else it seems) that Steps are going on a reunion tour. And I’m going to miss it.

This is sad news indeed. And there is not a trace of sarcasm in that sentence - or the ones that follow. It’s a bit of a dirty secret but, in my late teens, I was a huge Steps fan. Surprising of course since I am usually a beacon of such excellent taste. I’ve been hit by a wave of nostalgia and some great memories of a young Auntie Bulgaria, circa 1998. (Come to think of it, I probably didn’t know Bulgaria existed back then. I’d never been abroad, except for a couple of school trips to France. And the only flight I’d ever been on was to Belfast. Once.)

I can still remember playing the Step One album in my ancient orange fiesta (with the speedometer that never worked and the rear-view mirror that fell down in hot weather). Eagerly flipping the cassette over at the end each side...

...that one roadtrip with an ex-boyfriend where I insisted on playing the album over and over and over again. In his car. And singing along. And occasionally doing a few dance moves from the passenger seat. Strangely that romance didn’t last...

... me enthusiastically throwing those ‘Tragedy’ shapes in my platform trainers (a la Baby Spice) at Route 66 on a Thursday night - a tequila and Red Bull in one hand, cigar in the other....

(Probably a bit of a fire hazard now I come to think of it)

....the bar staff would get up on the bar and do the moves every time the DJ played it...

...my aunties line dancing to 5-6-7-8 at family discos...

...coveting Faye’s mini-dreadlocks and wishing I could get away with dreadlocks in the office...

Good times.

Fast forward 13 years and somehow they all look the bloody same (except one got a bit fat) and I’m 31. 31! Jeez-hous. Anyway, as I’ll miss the reunion tour, I guess I shall have to console myself with the CD and DVD. And maybe a new pair of platform trainers.

Thursday, 22 September 2011

45. Progress update

This is a bit of a mammoth post but I’m aware I haven’t spoken about the house much lately. So, here’s a tour of the house in its current state and a report on our progress...

Upstairs we’ve got three bedrooms. One will eventually be my study but it needs tons of work, so we’ve just closed the door and are ignoring that room! For now I’m working in the guest bedroom (the ‘yellow room’ I call it after its fresh coat of paint). The guest bed is only a sofa bed that came with the house but I like its retro London-underground-style fabric! I think it’s a keeper, although I can’t vouch for how comfortable it is to sleep on. Apologies in advance to our future guests. My temporary desk is a garden table (until we ship our furniture over) but I insisted on a new office swivel chair!

The Yellow Room...check out the retro sofa.
Garden furniture inside the house...surely the next big thing in interior fashion.
The hallway upstairs


The hall is also finished - just needed a lick of paint in here. Then we move into our bedroom, which is pretty much untouched. All we’ve done is fill in (a LOT of) cracks and make it ready for painting. That’s my next job. We’re sleeping on an old metal bed that came with the house and our blow-up mattress on top. It’s so uncomfortable; I can’t wait to get a proper bed. We don’t have much else in the way of furniture. A clothes rail serves as a temporary wardrobe and the rest of our clothes are in suitcases on the floor. We don’t have any curtains yet so we’re improvising with blankets up at the windows! All the windows in the house need replacing actually - most have cracked panes, rotten frames and don’t close properly. We’ve had a window man come to measure up and they should be fitted in October hopefully.

Not a scary bedsit, but in fact our bedroom. It's next on the list...
We’ve still got an outdoor staircase, and we’ve pretty much resigned ourselves to having to live with that for our first winter. Funds don’t allow us to enclose the staircase yet - it’s an expensive job because it means glazing a large area on the balcony upstairs, and knocking through a supporting wall into the kitchen downstairs. So, for now, every time we go downstairs we have to go around to the side of the house and let ourselves in the front door. Interesting when you’re in your PJs!

Downstairs we’ve fashioned a kitchen worktop from a plank of wood balanced on two chairs. On this we have an electric hotplate, a kettle and a toaster. We also have a big gas camping stove. We’ve got no oven yet but you’d be amazed how much food can be cooked on just two hobs! Last night’s dinner was homemade onion soup and giant croutons, the night before was aubergine and pepper pasta. We’ve splashed out on a new fridge, and we have a new sink (with hot running water!) so it’s a very workable kitchen. It still has a bare concrete floor and bare (crumbly) plaster walls, so it’s not exactly cosy, but it is workable.
This is where the culinary magic happens.
The bathroom is not finished but, again, very liveable. We have a new toilet, shower, window, and it’s all newly tiled. The sink and bath are lying on the floor in another room, but they’ll be fitted in the next couple of weeks I hope! Rob has plastered the walls above the tiles and he’s plastering the ceiling as I write. We’re using traditional lime plaster which is fairly easy to work with and super cheap. Rob’s a natural - here’s a picture of his beautiful plasterwork around the window.

Rob's lovely plasterwork around the top of the bathroom window.
Sadly the living room is another room that we just shut the door on and ignore - for now. It needs completely re-plastering and new flooring. It’s pretty low down on the list of priorities but that’s okay. We’re kitchen dwellers anyway.

We chose our woodburner yesterday so hopefully that will be fitted in the next few weeks. It has a large section at the bottom for burning logs and a small oven above it - the woodburner will go in the kitchen and will be our main oven until we splash out on an electric one. I can’t wait to be able to cook with an oven. I dream of roast potatoes or toad-in-the-hole!  Pipes will connect the woodburner to radiators in the rest of the house to make wood-fired central heating! The woodburner will also heat our running water in the winter, and our electric boiler provides hot water in the summer.

Sometimes it’s challenging living in a not-even-half-finished house, but mainly we love being here. I’ve been lucky enough to keep my full-time job and work from Bulgaria most of the time (I return to the UK for one week per month), so I work in the office upstairs while Rob beavers away on the house. We have a leisurely breakfast together each morning then I wander upstairs for a day of work, cup of tea in hand. A few hours later Rob bangs on the ceiling downstairs to tell me that lunch is ready! Evenings are spent working on the house (it’s my painting time) or watching something on the laptop. We don’t have a TV yet so thank goodness for the internet. We don’t have a lot of time off - we’re usually doing something on the house - but we’re enjoying it.

We’ve come a long way from that first night spent in the house in May - both of us huddled in a sleeping bag in near darkness (no electricity) swigging from a giant bottle of beer like two tramps, muttering “Are we mad? What are we doing here?” Well, I guess we’re still a little mad. And we’ve got a long way to go. But at least now when things get bad we can drink beer from an actual glass and under the light of an electric bulb!

Friday, 9 September 2011

44. Spirit of Burgas Festival

In August we sampled our first Bulgarian music festival, Spirit of Burgas. It takes place in a beautiful part of Bulgaria - right on the Black Sea coast. As festival experiences go, it was high up there. It was pretty special partying on the beach in the height of summer...and not having to pack wellies. 

Spirit of Burgas...makes a change from a muddy field.

We missed the first day. Having only arrived in Bulgaria on the Thursday, we were too tired to make the six-hour trek out to the coast on Friday. So we set off early Saturday morning, driving down to Sofia where we left the car and took a coach out to Burgas. I couldn’t face another mammoth drive so soon after our cross-Europe trip, that’s why we took the bus. Six hours on a Bulgarian coach is...well, cheap. The best thing was watching the Sex and the City movie double bill, dubbed in Bulgarian on a tiny TV screen. No wait, that was the worst thing - that and the lack of toilet on board. That’s right, six hours on a coach and only one toilet stop on the way! Now, I have the World’s Smallest Bladder, so naturally I had to limit my water intake to 2 millilitres of water per hour. Not even exaggerating. The best thing, however, was being able to look out of the window and take in the beautiful scenery and let someone else do the driving.

So, we arrived at the festival Saturday afternoon, worried that we might not find a space to pitch the tent. We were amazed to find, for a festival of 40,000 people, hardly anyone was actually camping on-site. Most people with tickets were either locals or staying in town. We reckon there were less than 200 tents there. This was brilliant as during the day the festival grounds are closed to everyone but campers - so we had the beach all to ourselves, and spankingly clean toilets to ourselves. You literally camp right on the sand and wander down to the water for a dip. The town itself is five minutes from the festival site so plenty of things to do there during the day. Burgas itself is lovely. Originally we would have liked to base our house search in Burgas, but we had to discount it because it’s too far from the capital and the cheap year-round flights at Sofia airport. It’s got a cool, faded laid-back vibe. Nice buildings, pretty sea gardens and a big, sandy beach - although being a busy port I can’t vouch for the quality of the sea water!

Sleeping off the night before...
Young Bulgarians do like to party. They like their late nights. And Bulgarian authorities have no concept of noise regulations. So the music didn’t kick off until about 9pm each night and it went on until 5am each morning - at ear-splitting volume! Camping at the site, we got basically no sleep for both nights. It was so different to a UK festival where the main stage shuts down by midnight to keep the neighbours happy. In Burgas, the main acts didn’t even come on until midnight. But then, as daytimes were just spent lazing on the beach, a lack of sleep wasn’t an issue. Speaking of the acts, we saw Moby, Skunk Anansie, Leftfield, Deftones and Scratch Perverts. Skunk Anansie were my favourite, but Moby was also brilliant.

A great spot for camping, but note the proximity to the main stage! Noise ahoy.
It was strangely lacking in food and drink facilities in the arena/campsite area. There were loads of bars, but the only beer on sale was Becks (but at £1.50 a pint for a festival beer I didn’t complain). And the only food option was hot dogs. That was it. If you’re a hot dog and Becks fan, you’ll be in your element at Spirit of Burgas. We preferred to head outside the festival grounds for food. It was certainly refreshing to go to a festival that wasn’t trying to fleece you of your money at every opportunity. But - and this sounds really bad - I’d just like to be able to get a latte in the morning without straying far from my tent. There, I said it. I’m a horribly spoilt festival-goer. Lack of lattes aside, it was a brilliant weekend and we’re already looking forward to going back next year.  

Saturday, 27 August 2011

43. The long way round

Uma the Puma loaded up with our possessions
First, I have a confession to make. We broke down. In France! Well, sort of. We had a major overheating episode after driving off the ferry in Dunkirk. How embarrassing, just one kilometre from the ferry port! I called out the breakdown people and a nice young French mechanic came out. Rather unhelpfully he told us my head gasket was about to go. Big dislike, major problemo! But, after towing us to a garage, his colleagues couldn’t find anything wrong. By this time naughty Uma the Puma had totally cooled down and was acting all normal. So, after much reassurance that the head gasket was in fact fine, we drove off - warily. We never had another problem with the car for the rest of the trip; it was just one of those weird occurrences. We decided Uma’s probably never been on a ferry before and just got a bit seasick.

Us leaving Dover...blissfully unaware of the drama awaiting us in Dunkirk
The Dunkirk Episode set us back a few hours so we arrived in Germany (our first overnight stop) later than expected - but still in time for a hearty dinner and well-earned beer. The next day we set off first thing for Venice. Now, this was the part of the trip I dreaded the most - a nine-hour slog through Germany, Austria and into Italy. Nine hours, my arse. In fact, that leg of the journey took a whopping 14 hours. For some reason, everyone in Germany had taken to the roads and there were major delays, traffic jams and road works everywhere.  It took us eight hours just to get out of Germany. Thank goodness for Bruce (I named our sat nav voice Bruce) who helped us to avoid some of the worst congested areas. It was a total nightmare though. I thought we’d never make it out of Germany. At one point, driving bang through the centre of Munich (another detour!), I was literally sobbing at the wheel. Munich really broke my spirits! We finally crossed the border into Austria four hours later than expected. We’d been on the road eight hours by that point and still had at least five hours of driving ahead. I’m not going to lie; I resorted to Coca Cola, Haribo and cigarettes to get me through those final five hours. And I haven’t had a single cigarette in years. I blame Munich... all those traffic lights, all those cyclists! Austria was beautiful though - if we ever do the drive again we’d totally stop and explore Austria. We arrived in Venice at gone 10pm at night. I was completely exhausted, offensively smelly and had cried all my makeup off somewhere around Munich. Frightful!


Us in Venice, freed from behind the wheel!

We had the whole of Sunday exploring Venice. It’s an amazing place to visit - such a feat to build a beautiful city like that on water. I’d recommend going off-season though because Venice in August is PACKED. Not too smelly mind you, just wall-to-wall rammed with eager tourists. Our hotel was gorgeous too, a real peaceful haven 15 minutes outside Venice.

Our next adventure was 25 hours on a ferry from Venice to Igoumenitsa in Greece. Actually this was good fun and another welcome break from driving. Clearly, the memories of Munich still lingered. We hadn’t booked a cabin (way too expensive in August) and all the good camping spaces on deck had been taken. So we paid an extra 40 Euros to get some ‘aeroplane’ seats on the top deck. These were cool - massive, comfy and with loads of legroom. We were able to blow up our airbed on the floor in front of us and really spread out. Quite comfortable, thank you. And the food on board was surprisingly yummy.

The Europa Palace: It may sound like a dodgy nightclub but it was a jolly nice Greek ferry. 
We were a little nervous driving off the ferry in Greece that Uma would get up to her naughty tricks again, but she was fine. So we entered Greece about 8pm at night and embarked on a lovely cross-mountain drive to Thessaloniki, our base for the night. This mountain drive was the highest point of our journey I think - about 1000 metres above sea level. Poor loaded up Uma struggled a bit at the really high points. We got a little lost driving around Thessaloniki at midnight. Bruce The Sat Nav Man did his best but it’s a really busy city - even at midnight! We finally made it, exhausted again, but unscathed. I love Thessaloniki so we decided to stop for two nights instead of one, giving us a whole day to soak up some lovely Greek sun, food and retsina. This meant we set off for Bulgaria a day later than planned but it was worth it for the deep fried courgette balls and cheese pie! I’m a woman ruled by my stomach.

Our final leg was up from Greece to our home in Bulgaria. This is kind of a slow drive (five hours to do 250 miles) because it’s the only part of the whole trip not on a proper motorway. But it was a lovely drive, and it felt so good to be back in Bulgaria.

So that’s it - the story of our 1200 mile roadtrip. It took seven days in total, including all the rest stops and sightseeing. It cost around £200 in fuel (four tanks of fuel) and £250 for the ferries. Tolls were probably another £40 on top. Definitely not the quickest or cheapest route to Bulgaria, but it made for a fab holiday. Flying seems a bit boring now.

And don’t worry folks, the ciggy packet went in the bin unfinished...

Wednesday, 24 August 2011

42. A brief update on our adventures

Gosh, it’s been a while since I was last in touch. Sorry.

Three weeks ago we drove from the UK out to Bulgaria with a car full of stuff, breezing through France, Belgium, Germany, Austria, Italy, Greece and finally Bulgaria. We stopped along the way – one night in Germany, two nights in Venice, 24 hours on a Greek ferry and two nights in Greece. A blow-by-blow account of the journey will follow in good time but here’s a brief rundown in numbers to whet your appetite:
1200 miles
7 days
2 ferries
One brief trip on a towtruck L
5,000 calories in Haribo
4 full tanks of fuel
3 cigarettes!

The builders have been busy at the house. We now have plumbing and a septic tank, a bathroom (well, a toilet and shower – bath and sink to follow soon I hope), new electrics, a hot water boiler, a fixed roof, all the pipework for a central heating system, one new ceiling (replacing a water damaged ceiling in the upstairs hallway) and two new windows. It’s much more comfortable and liveable than when we were last there. Hot water and toilet/shower facilities make all the difference. There’s still an awful lot to do, some particularly big jobs before the winter. We need to choose and fit the radiators and woodburner, we’ve still only got an outdoor staircase and we have no kitchen to speak of. Currently our kitchen consists of a kettle and camping stove on a wooden plank! Oh, and we’ve got a new fridge – our first major purchase for the house. It looks a little out of place in all its shiny white glory, but never mind. We had a lovely week just chilling at the house, spending time in the village and nearby town, getting to know folk, and doing lots and lots of cleaning! And now the hard work on the rest of the house starts...

So happy to see this when we arrived at our house!

And the Spirit of Burgas festival was freaking brilliant, a lovely weekend on the beach with fab music and cheap beer! I’m sure we’ll be going back next year. I think it deserves a post of its own, so watch this space.

Sunday, 31 July 2011

41. And we’re off…

Our car is not this small. But almost.

In a few days we’re loading up the car and driving to Bulgaria!

We’ve packed some essentials to take with us: two boxes of kitchen gear; two suitcases of clothes; computer; bedding and towels; some books (Bulgarian and DIY books!); and our trusty satnav. It’s going to be a squeeze fitting it all in our not-so-roomy Ford Puma, and I’m a bit worried about weight. But fingers crossed we, and our possessions, will make it there fine. The rest of our stuff, which is still in storage, will follow in a few months once the house is in a fitter state.

Now for the fun stuff: our route. We’re heading off from Dover early Friday morning and spending Friday night in Germany with family. Then we leave Germany early on Saturday morning and make the 9-hour trek down to Venice. We’re spending two nights in Venice - which is very exciting as we’ve never been to Italy before. Then, on Monday evening we get the ferry from Venice to Igoumnitsa in Greece – a full 24-hour ferry ride! Tuesday night will be spent in Thessaloniki in Northern Greece. Finally, on Wednesday we’ll make the 4-hour drive up into Bulgaria and to our house. 

We’re certainly taking the scenic route but it should be a fun trip. Speak to you when we get there!

Friday, 8 July 2011

40. The road to Hell...again

I mean, beautiful, but also pretty terrifying.

Early readers will remember that, sometimes, Bulgarian roads can be a little scary. I preface this story by saying that most of the roads in our area are perfectly fine. Just not this one....

One day we’d been to a nearby town and we decided to take a different route home. Now, this looked on the map to be a more direct way to get home – perhaps not any quicker as it wasn’t a big main road, but we thought it would be a nice opportunity to see new places. The road would take us to Yamna, a village close to our home.

Everything started out fine, and we nipped along quite happily for about 20 minutes. But then we started coming across a few rocks strewn across the road. Then a few more rocks. Then I had to drive around a partial landslide covering our lane. Meanwhile we’d seen no other cars on this road and I was starting to get nervous.

Then the potholes started. Holes that wouldn’t look out of place on the surface of the moon. We picked our way along slowly and kept going – partly too stubborn but mainly too scared to drive back through the landslide area.

And then we reached a fork in the road. This was puzzling as, according to our map, there was no fork in the road.

We sat for a few minutes debating whether to take the left road or right. To top it off, a heavy mist was coming in, adding to the creeping sense of impending doom. At that precise moment – and pretty miraculously, bearing in mind we had not seen any other cars – a knight in shining armour rounded the corner behind us. The shining armour was actually a Lada Niva jeep but damsels in distress cannot afford to be fussy. I leapt out of the car and flagged the Lada down. This HUGE Bulgarian guy got out, clearly a little surprised at finding a gibbering foreigner on this particular road. Between my faltering Bulgarian and his faltering English, I understood I was to follow him to Yamna (go left, not right). Then, after we got through Yamna village, he would stop and point out the side-track that would take us straight to our village. Brilliant.

Except he promptly took off at Bulgarian (i.e. high) speed in his sturdy old Lada.  Our rental Suzuki Liana struggled to keep up. You may remember the Suzuki Liana as a previous Top Gear Reasonably Priced Car. Oh the glamour. Needless to say we kept losing sight of him as I slowed for the giant craters in the road. But then, amazingly, after we’d finally made our way through Yamna village, there he was, waiting patiently by the side of a little track. I stopped to thank him and he kept saying something about a nearby restaurant – either it was his restaurant or he was asking me out on a date. Anyway, he gave up trying to get me to understand. He pointed at the track leading to our village with one parting instruction: “Bavno!” “Slowly!” Chilling words indeed from a Bulgarian driver.  But actually the track was not that bad - a few massive holes but nowhere near as bad as the Yamna road.

We learned two lessons that day. First: we must never, ever, EVER drive the Yamna road again. Second: we must get ourselves a Lada Niva. 

Saturday, 2 July 2011

39. A quote from the builders

Some basic plumbing going in.

We got Natchko and his sidekick in to quote for the renovations. We asked them to quote for absolutely everything with a view to prioritising key jobs once we got the quote. Boy did they quote for everything: taking all plaster off the walls and re-plastering, taking down all ceilings and putting up new ones, flooring, bathroom, septic tank, central heating, windows, indoor staircase, even a whole new roof. The quote came in at about £18k. Not bad at all, but a lot more than we have available.

So, we’ve got them doing key jobs only for now. These include: septic tank, fitting a whole bathroom and making ready for tiling, building a wall to make a pantry, fitting a new kitchen sink, reinstating the bricked up window in the kitchen, levelling the kitchen floor ready for tiling, fixing the leaky part of the roof and repairing a damaged bedroom ceiling, installing central heating (we’re going for a big wood burner in the kitchen feeding radiators in the rest of the house), and sorting electricity supply for each room. All for less than £6k.

You’ll notice that list doesn’t include an indoor staircase. Sadly, the staircase will have to wait a couple of months, but we’ll get it done as soon as we can afford to. Our plan is to brick in the outdoor staircase at the back of the house. At least we have a staircase for now. I’m not good on ladders. And this way I can get plenty of fresh air while going up and down our al-fresco stairs.

Aside from the staircase, there are lots of jobs for us to get on with. We’ve got to fit a kitchen, there is lots of tiling and plastering to do, one of the upstairs bedrooms still has an earth floor and needs covering with actual floor boards (who has an earth floor upstairs?), the windows frames need some serious TLC (until we can afford nice double glazed wooden windows), some window panes need replacing, the attic needs insulating, oh and we need to decorate and furnish every room. Rob is going to be a busy boy indeed. I’m not sure years of living in rented flats has really prepared us for this.

Saturday, 11 June 2011

38. Bob The Builder (can he fix it?)


In our ‘kitchen’ (I use the term loosely) was this weird little wall built around the sink area. We were going to get the builder to remove it but, well, we got a little carried away and decided to knock it down ourselves. We had a few tools left in the house, including an ancient sledgehammer, how hard can it be? So Rob got tooled up, donned his most sturdy flip-flops and got to work. Halfway through, the ancient sledgehammer broke, but we found the wall was not actually fixed to anything, so we just pushed the rest of it over! It was an amazing moment, when east met west. There was hugging and crying and the event inspired at least one soft rock anthem. Okay fine, that was the Berlin wall. But our wall coming down was cool too. 

Before...


...during (note the health and safety footwear)...



















And then, our full ‘kitchen’ was revealed in all its, er, glory. The knocking down took no time at all, but sadly the clearing up the bricks, rubble and dust took most of the next day! We lost a windowpane during ‘the fall’ – stray flying bricks will do that to glass. Whoops. Oh well, collateral damage. We’ll just add it to the list of windows that need replacing. Given the lack of appropriate footwear, we’re lucky no one broke a toe!

...and after!
 
We also had to clear the downstairs room that will become our bathroom. It was being used as a storeroom and was full of junk. Some of it good junk – spare roof tiles, cooking pots, tools - but a lot of it was rubbish. Rob was in charge of that lovely task; I wouldn’t go in there on account of the large spider population. We dumped what we didn’t want in the garden. Our neighbour, Svilen then spent the next few days trying to move everything back into our house! He probably thinks we’re really wasteful, but honestly we couldn’t find a use for the stuff. 
 
And we cleared a bit of the garden (again, with Svilen’s help) and trimmed the grape vines. Didn’t get around to trimming the enormous apple tree – that’s job number one when we go back in August!

As for the title of this post, Rob has decided his Bulgarian name should be Bob. When we met the neighbours, they misheard him and started calling him Bob. Then later, after a few whiskeys, he became Bobby. He must have liked it, since he took to introducing himself as Bob for the rest of the trip.

Saturday, 4 June 2011

37. Village Life, Part 2


Word must have spread around the village that the English had arrived. On our last evening, a local guy and his son stop by touting for work. The son speaks a bit of English and explains that his dad is a “maestro with wood”. It’s a big old village, a few kilometres long and with hundreds of houses – very funny to think the news had spread throughout! The guy and his son invite us for a drink and to see their house. We politely decline (last-minute chores were calling) but we’ll look them up in August and if his handiwork is any good we might put some work his way.

Despite being a big village, it has a really sleepy feel during the week. It comes to life more on the weekend, I guess with city folk escaping to their weekend houses. The one restaurant only opens on a weekend; otherwise it’s a very quiet existence. A few herds pass through the village every day, the usual goats and sheep, but also cows. The clatter of goat bells is a nice way to wake up in the morning. The cows are a bit scary though, huge! I’m such a city dweller, usually the closest I get to a cow is a carton of Cravendale! 

The daily commute...
The villagers were really friendly and helpful. Our neighbour Svilen spent an entire Sunday helping us in the house, he lent us tools (and even hand cream), and fed us several times. I think people are genuinely pleased to see younger people move to the village. The average age of villagers must be 50+, but there’s more of a variety of residents on a weekend.  

And guess what? We’re not the only English folk there! Max had found an English couple up in the hills beyond the village. They stopped by our house one day to say hello, bringing homemade scones, jam and a giant bottle of beer with them. John and Kimberley are about our age and have been in Bulgaria for a couple of years. Their house is about a 30 minute walk beyond the end of the village, up a hill - a gorgeous spot. They’ve been lovingly renovating the house themselves. You can only get there on foot; the car won’t get all the way up the track! Imagine renovating a house and carrying all the materials uphill on foot, and you get an idea of their devotion. We all went out for dinner one night with some friends they had visiting from England (by the way, their friends still think they’re bonkers two years on, so I don’t know what hope there is for our friends and family). Together we discovered – another tip-off from Max – the most amazing restaurant just outside our village. You’d easily miss it from the road, it’s basically just someone’s house on the river with tables and chairs outside. Inside is just one room overlooking the kitchen, with big fur coverings everywhere (a bit like dining in a Mongolian yurt). The owner, Katya, is this great Bulgarian blonde who sits you down, tells you firmly what she’ll be cooking that night (pointing out things from a recipe book) and you decide from what’s on offer. She doesn’t speak English but, between the recipe book and her very expressive body language, we understand each other perfectly well. She has her curlers in when we arrive. I love her. 
The English invade Katya's restaurant
We ended up with a hearty banquet of homemade bread, salads, stuffed vine leaves, homemade cheese, beef stew, bean soup, beer and (randomly) crème caramel. All for £5 each. I’m getting hungry just thinking about it. Can’t wait to go back and see what she feels like cooking us next time.

Friday, 27 May 2011

36. Village Life, Part 1

A day or so after arriving, we had our first exchange with a real life villager – in Bulgarian. We’d been out and returned to the house to find an old man letting himself out of our gate.
“Er, hello. This my house.” I say in broken Bulgarian.
“Ah” the man says slapping his head in a comedy Doh! style.
He then jabbers away in Bulgarian gesturing at our house and ignoring our pleas of “We speak only little Bulgarian” or “We don’t understand”. Eventually we follow him into our garden and find he was talking about his donkey, happily grazing on our grass. Our next-door neighbour has a donkey and we’d previously agreed that it could graze in our garden (good for the donkey and keeps our grass down). But this was a different man, different donkey! They must have worked out some sort of timeshare. Anyway, we say it’s fine and then the old man, Vassil, says something we finally understand.
“Rakia?”

Five minutes later we’re sat at his kitchen table (4 houses away) drinking cherryade while he’s loading us up with various treats; a bottle of rakia, a huge block of cheese and, curiously, a bag of animal fat. Vassil indicates the fat should be eaten raw alongside a glass of rakia. We smile, nod, say many thankyous and leave with our goodies. We never did eat that fat but it seemed rude to turn it down. Vassil shows us a picture of his wife and talks sadly – about what we don’t know, we can only really understand the words “wife” and “work”. So, either his wife is dead but she was a good worker (Rob’s guess) or she is alive and kicking but just at work (my hopeful guess). Two days later the matter was solved when we walked past and saw Mrs Vassil watering the flowerpots. Hurrah, she’s not dead! She was just at work!

Vassil's donkey chowing down. I want to keep him!

We’re lucky to have a lovely next-door neighbour, Svilen. A couple of nights after arriving, Svilen calls us over and we sit outside with him and his friends on his front porch, eating fried pork and drinking whiskey. In Bulgaria you must chink glasses with everyone at the table before you take a sip, looking each person in the eye and say “Nazdraveh” as you chink. This can only be done with alcohol – very bad luck with water or other soft drinks apparently. Again, we can’t speak or understand much of what they’re saying, but it’s all very friendly and they seem to find us mildly amusing. Svilen lives with a woman – we can’t yet tell how they’re related, but related they are. They might be married; it’s difficult to tell. Anyway, the woman’s style of communicating with us is to SHOUT VERY LOUDLY hoping we’ll understand through sheer willpower and VOLUME.

That baba sure can cook though. Her and Svilen take us in and feed us several meals over the next week, always delicious and always accompanied by whiskey or rakia and Bulgarian folk music on the TV. At the end of the week we take Svilen a bottle of whiskey and give Vassil a bagful of food to say ‘thanks for the fat’. The last night, after just returning from a lovely big dinner at a nearby pizzeria, Svilen invites us over for yet more food. I tried to explain we’d already eaten but I haven’t yet mastered how to speak in the past tense in Bulgarian, so either they don’t understand or just won’t take no for an answer. So, we end up eating a second meal at their house. Later, when I pop in to see Vassil and his wife, they also offer me yet more food and rakia. This time I manage to politely decline (the food) for fear of it descending into a Vicar of Dibley Christmas sketch.

We made another friend in the village – the local shopkeeper. She’s a lovely, smiley, grey-haired lady who puts up with our faltering ordering in Bulgarian. It’s a funny little shop that sells a surprising amount of stuff and even has a couple of tables where you can have a drink in front of the TV if you like (providing you don’t mind more of the Bulgarian folk channel). We stop and drink our beers there and we find out the shopkeeper is originally from Russia. While we enjoy Folk TV, she scoops up her little yappy dog and starts to howl at it. “Okay crazy lady” we think, edging away. But then, lo, the dog starts to howl back – quiet at first but then louder until the two of them are singing together. Very strange. This is what happens when you can’t communicate with people using actual language – they do very strange things to avoid silence…

There are a couple of other bars in the village. Another coop-turned-bar kind of place that seems to open and close whenever the owner feels like, contrary to the opening times on the door. I managed to buy a broom in there one time, that’s all. Another bar is a very small, seemingly men-only place, and seems a little intimidating – somewhere to venture when we know a few more people I think, and can communicate a bit better. There is also a proper restaurant/bar right on the river that only opens on Saturday nights. Sadly, when we went there, for reasons we couldn’t understand, they were not serving a lot of food (either no oven or no cook, couldn’t work it out). So we ate chips and cheese (a Bulgarian favourite) and listened to blaring Bulgarian pop music for an hour. The place had a glitter ball. Another weird village experience, but we sort of liked it. Last but not least, about 15 minutes walk beyond the end of the village is a little tiny holiday complex nestled between the mountains consisting of a few chalets, a pool and a lovely bar/restaurant. Again, at this time of year, they open and close as it suits them, but they’ll be open more in the summer. The bar is lovely, right on the river with plenty of seating outside. And – bonus – for a small fee I’ll be able to use their pool! 

Curious place for a holiday village. Nice pool though!

Sunday, 22 May 2011

35. Camping out at our house

For all you naysayers who thought I’d only make it a night or two without my creature comforts: I am delighted to inform you we did the full 8 nights at our house. In your face, naysayers! That’s right, 8 days and nights peeing in a bucket, washing in a bucket (different bucket) and living without hot water. Here’s how it went down…

For various reasons we arrived at the house later than expected, about 8pm at night. The light was fading as we lugged our cases through the mud – dodging the donkey pats – and into the house. The electricity wasn’t on, nor was the water and we couldn’t find the stopcock in the dark. (As for the electricity, we later found out the ancient fusebox just needed a couple of ancient fuses screwed back in – but again, difficult to attempt in the dark. Not to mention scary when the fusebox looks older than your parents). So we braved that first night without power and water, setting up camp in the smallest, warmest bedroom with just a wind-up lantern and 4 litres of Bulgarian beer for comfort. I confess, for a few minutes, I had my first  “oh my god, what have we done” moment.

“Are we mad?” I asked Rob.

His resounding “Yes” was little comfort. But then the beer kicked in, and everything felt just groovy. Besides, everything looks more romantic by wind-up lantern light. Even cracks in plaster. Even that cute little 1980s radio with the doily on top. The house definitely looked more crumbly and decrepit than it did in December – a product of a slight leak in the upstairs hallway combined with the surgical removal of rose tinted spectacles. But to be honest, it soon felt like home. The house has a lovely feel and we happily passed that first night sipping beer, winding our lantern and listening to the river rush past. We slept for about 12 hours, rising at lunchtime the next day – having only been disturbed by tinkle of goat bells first thing in the morning as the herd passed by the house. It was a good first night.

Rob on our balcony
Pretty in pink, and with the grape vines starting to show green shoots....


We spent the whole 8 days just bedding in really, pottering around the village, going to the shops, meeting the neighbours, practicing our Bulgarian, checking out the local towns. We never did get around to sightseeing any further afield, we just wanted to be at our house. But it was productive nonetheless. We embarked on a little light demolition work and got a full estimate for the renovation – more details to follow. We found the best restaurant in Bulgaria. And the worst road in Bulgaria. Unfortunately, the best restaurant in Bulgaria is located on the worst road in Bulgaria, but that’s Bulgaria for you.

As for the bucket thing, it was okay. Totally, totally fine. Really. No problem. Well, at least for the first few days. The novelty did wear off by about day 5. Actually the worst thing was not being able to have a shower or wash in hot water. We had cold running water in the house and more wet wipes than a maternity ward, but after a few days we just couldn’t shake that dirty feeling. Before flying home we’d booked an apartment in Sofia, with the wantonly luxurious intention of just washing, sitting on an actual toilet and sleeping in a proper bed for a couple of nights. As we drove away, sad as we were to leave our lovely house and village, we so needed a shower. As soon as we checked in, we flew into the shower, repeatedly soaping and rubbing like a Lady Macbeth/Crying Game montage. The water collecting on the floor had a weird, oily, dirty sheen to it that I’m not keen to replicate any time soon. It was definitely one of my top 3 showers of all time (the others being after music festivals). The next day I showered twice, just because I could.

Lots more posts to follow soon featuring the villagers, Nachko the builder, a smattering of other crazy English folk, goats, donkeys and a Russian shopkeeper and her singing dog.