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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.