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Wednesday, 12 December 2012

65. If you don't like cats, you may want to skip this one

One of our cats, Moona (the mother cat), has been missing since the end of August. We choose to believe she’s gone to live elsewhere in the village rather than departed for cat heaven. To be honest, the kittens have grown up to be quite a handful, so I don’t really blame her. Sometimes I think about escaping them too, but I was here first so I don’t see why I should go anywhere. 

You may remember the kittens used to hate us and act as though we didn’t exist. Well, since Moona left, they’ve become normal cats who purr and sit on our laps and stuff.

Iggy has grown up to be the biggest cat in the universe. Weirdly, he’s got a really baggy back and belly. Is that normal? I keep hoping he’ll grow into his skin but, every time he grows, his skin grows again too - it’s always one step ahead of his body.

Mr Igg Stuff
Having not been outside yet, he’s officially the most pampered cat in the village. His massive white paws have never set foot outside. As a result, I’m not sure he really understands the tomcat job description. Perhaps he doesn’t think he’s a cat. Perhaps he thinks he’s a cushion. I’m sure tomcats are meant to be all rufty-tufty, peeing everywhere, don’t-step-on-my-territory kind of creatures. Not our Iggster. One of next door’s (boy) cats wandered in the other day. Rather than have a fight, Iggy simply sniffed the intruder’s bum and rubbed up against him, purring. It was quite touching really.

"I hate you. Don't touch me. I hate you. Don't touch me"

So, it falls to Pepper to be the mean one. And she doesn’t disappoint. She’s like an evil squirrel. She’s going to be a good tree climber when she goes outside - she’s been practising on our door frames for some time now. She’s rather aloof, bless her. She likes Rob well enough, but not me. The other night she sat on my lap, for the first time EVER. It was obviously a momentary lapse though because now she’s gone back to running away from me. When I do manage to corner her and pick her up, she actually harrumphs. I’d never heard a cat sigh before. She sighs and stares off into space, avoiding all eye contact with me until I give up, broken-hearted, and put her down again. 

But at least she mighty purty. And she's not under any illusions that she is a beanbag.

In addition, our neighbour’s three kittens have been trying to move in with us. One is a friendly, short-haired, white boy cat (Iggy’s little bum pal). I’ve named him Buddy and I want to steal him. One is a noisy, unfriendly, long-haired ginger beast who constantly goes ‘waaa’.  And the last one is a tiny, dirty fluffball of a thing who follows Rob around. They run into our house any opportunity they get, settling in under the table and getting very cosy. The rest of the time, they reside on our outside staircase and occupy themselves with trying to trip us up.

Move along. Nothing to see here.

I’m currently in the process of convincing Rob that Buddy should move in with us. (Just Buddy. Not Dirty and Noisy. Is that mean?). I’ve even pulled the ‘All I want for Christmas is Buddy’ trick but to no avail. I’ve tried explaining that, with Moona gone, we have a cat vacancy. And he can mentor Iggy in the ways of the tomcat. Perhaps he can even teach Pepper to love. Perhaps.

UPDATE: I wrote this post a couple of weeks ago and never got around to posting it at the time. Since then our neighbour, Svilen, has finally found homes for Buddy and Noisy, so they’ve gone to live elsewhere in the village. I’m a bit gutted as I not-so-secretly wanted to keep Buddy for myself.

That just left the tiny, dirty fluffball without a home. Svilen doesn’t think much of this cat and hasn’t found him a home - he calls him “the runt”. And he is a bit of a runt. But now he’s our little runt. He’d been trying to move in with us for weeks anyway, and following Rob around outside like a little puppy. Then we started feeding him. Then one night he came inside and he's been here ever since. Svilen is very amused and thinks we’re crazy cat people. Can’t say I blame him.

Despite his fluffy and feminine exterior, he is a little boy and we wanted to give him a suitably macho-man name. So, readers, meet our newest cat, Binky:

Words simply cannot describe the clinkers this cat gets.

Enough said.

Tuesday, 13 November 2012

64. малко по малко (little by little)

The lovely young Dimana has been giving us Bulgarian lessons for about a year now. That sounds a long time doesn’t it? Surely we must be fluent by now?!

Erm, well, no. In the beginning it was rather sporadic and we pretty much cried off lessons all winter. (What? Snow is a perfectly acceptable excuse to do NOTHING except PLAY IN THE SNOW!) But, since this summer, we’ve got all serious about it and have been having weekly lessons. Our Bulgarian is improving, slowly, but we’re still pretty poor at it.

We’re lazy. We don’t study as hard as we should. We get by just fine in shops and restaurants, and our neighbours go easy on us over the morning coffee, so we can get away with saying remarkably little. And, I’m doing my regular day job which involves speaking in Bulgarian 0% of the time, and regular English 89% of the time. (Plus 4% publishing-isms and 7% swearing.)

However, we have been trying harder over the past few months. Dimana gives us homework exercises and new vocabulary to learn each week. And last week we even had a test. A test! It went okay but it’s clear I really need to work on my Bulgarian spelling! I’m usually such a god speller*, so that was a bit mortifying. 

I really want to be able to have a proper conversation with our neighbours and the villagers. They must have so many amazing stories to tell. And I would love to understand the lyrics from all those folk songs. Plus, currently the neighbours think I’m something of a simpleton and it would be nice to (maybe?) prove otherwise. It’s my own fault - whenever I don’t understand something (which is frequently) I make the mistake of saying “I don’t understand”. At which point they’ll say it a bit louder, I’ll politely wait for them to finish, then say “no, sorry, don’t understand”. Whereas Rob just nods wisely and agrees with everything they say. When I ask him, “what was about?” he’ll merrily say “I’ve no idea!”

It’s a pretty tough language though. We learn a little bit of grammar with each lesson, but it’s a messy web. The more grammar we learn, the less clear the language becomes. Everything changes depending on the gender of the word. There are many different forms of the definite article, depending on gender (and how the word is used in the sentence). They have several ways to make plurals. They have about twenty possessive pronouns. And even when you learn all those rules, there are enough exceptions to make your head explode.

Just a few possessive pronouns to learn then.

And we still haven’t even started on past or future tense yet! Currently we can only speak in the present tense. Imagine speaking for a whole year in nothing but the present tense. It’s exhausting. And it makes you sound like a simpleton. Trust me on that.

*Note: This deliberate mis-spelling is intended as a joke. Oh how I laughed. 

Saturday, 20 October 2012

63. The one where my parents come to stay, I am reunited with my beloved sofa, and we all embark on an epic road trip back to the UK

I start with a confession. These events actually took place at the end of August but I’ve been too traumatised to write about it until now. And busy. I’m a busy, busy, traumatised individual. So don’t give me a hard time about neglecting the blog, okay? I promise to be a better blogger from now on.

The week after we got back from Greece, my folks drove (yes, drove) out to Bulgaria and hauled a trailer containing the last of our stuff from the UK - stuff from our old flat that has been in storage for TWO YEARS - including, most importantly, my sofa. My sofa is the king of all sofas. It’s the sofa boss. The Godfather of sofas, if you will. So, there was no way I was going to leave it behind and trade it in for some Ikea jobby. I’ve not seen a single Bulgarian sofa shop since we moved here, nor have I seen many sofas in actual Bulgarian houses - they seem to prefer beds or benches to sit on.

Imagine a beautiful world without DFS adverts…that’s what Bulgaria is like.

So my folks took two days to drive out. The route took them through France, Germany, Austria, Hungary, Romania and, finally, over the Danube into Bulgaria. After making it all the way across Europe, they were stopped by the police 10 miles from our house! There’s relatively little crime in Bulgaria (except for the organised variety of course) so the police like to focus their attentions on motorists instead. But after a swift check over their documents they were sent on their merry way.  They finally arrived with us about midnight, looking rather dishevelled and pissed off.

They mumbled something about diversions and ending up in a cemetery. It wasn’t exactly clear what happened, but it certainly put the willies up my brother. And apparently the border crossing into Bulgaria was interesting, with my mum being told she had to purchase ‘compulsory’ health insurance for 8 euros each, despite having health insurance already. When we later looked over the ‘compulsory’ insurance documents, it turns out she had purchased one policy in the name of “Sue W” (my mum’s surname is double barrelled and I think the man couldn’t be arsed to write out her full name). More worryingly, the second policy was simply in the name of “Jesus”.
Like an early Christmas....

Anyway, after a good night’s sleep (and the obligatory morning coffee with the neighbours) we unloaded the trailer and were reunited with our prized possessions - paintings/pictures, the Daddy of all sofas, a farmhouse table that was an eBay bargain, and lots and lots of cookbooks.

Soon (too soon) it was time to return to the UK. And this is where it gets a bit traumatic. Rob and I were hitching a ride back in their car - I was due to fly to the US from Heathrow on the Sunday, and Rob was going to see his family in Kent for a few days. So we set off on Thursday morning, expecting to arrive back in the UK late Friday night/early Saturday morning. It didn’t quite go to plan.

We made it as far as the Romanian/Hungarian border before we broke down.

“Everyone’s looking at us,” Mum said, as we sat in huge queues at the border crossing. “There must be something wrong with the car”.
“You’re being paranoid, no one’s looking at us,” we said. (As a car crawled by with the inhabitants staring at us).

Eventually, with smoke wafting from under the bonnet, we piled out of the car. 50 metres from Hungary. Now, you might think that Romania is the last place you would want to break down. But actually, we were towed to a really good all night garage just up the road. (The tow man was amazing - camouflage shorts, socks, sandals and a huge gold chain holding his glasses on his head, he was like a Romanian Mr T). The garage owner spoke good English, gave us coffee, and even let us use his “wiffy” as much as we wanted (that’s wi-fi to you and me). Unfortunately it took a few hours to fix the broken belt as the suppliers weren’t open overnight, so we ended up getting back on the road a good 12 hours behind schedule.

Driving by the Danube - Serbia over the river.

This meant we would miss our Eurotunnel slot. We called them and, because we were towing a trailer and it was the busiest weekend of the year, they couldn’t offer us an alternative booking that weekend. Bearing in mind I was due to be flying out of Heathrow on the Sunday, I was starting to panic a bit. We called ahead to P&O and managed to get a spot on a ferry to Dover for the Saturday evening for a mere £300. 

So the five of us drove across Hungary, Austria, Germany and France - sleeping in the car, eating Burger Kings, and watching my ankles swell up. Good times. 

All was going okay and we were on (the revised) schedule, when we hit huge traffic jams going into the ferry port at Calais. Turns out a ferry had broken down and they were running a massively reduced service. Typical! We just made it on to a ferry at gone 11pm on the Saturday - and we were one of the last cars on the ferry. They nearly didn’t let us on because of the trailer.

We finally arrived home in Portsmouth just before 5am on the Sunday, and a cab was booked to take me to Heathrow at 5.30am. I hadn’t washed in 3 days. I felt disgusting. I hadn’t packed. I hadn’t slept in a bed for 3 nights. I showered and shoved random clothes into my suitcase for the 10-day business trip ahead. I was relieved to find mostly sensible outfits when I unpacked in America. Except for the five pairs of blue tights - they were a bit unnecessary. 

Here is a summary of the road trip in the form of an internal monologue:

Romania: Oh this is nice. Their roads are much better than ours in Bulgaria. Looks quite a bit richer than Bulgaria in fact. It’s pretty here. I want to come on holiday here. Oh look, there’s Serbia over the river, that looks pretty too. I want to go on holiday there. This is fun. ROAD TRIIIIIIP! Aaaaarrrgh, inconvenient mechanical failure. Bummer.

Hungary: Okay, we’re back on track now. Come on, let’s eat those miles. Hmm, this looks a bit like Romania. Quite pretty churches. I’m getting hungry but we can’t stop until Austria. Sigh.

Austria: Burger King, yay! And now for a few hours kip in a car park, yay! Easyjet: all is forgiven.

Germany: I have to pay how much to go to the toilet?? I think my ankles are swelling up.

France: This place is full of English people. I can’t remember when I last saw a French car. And I smell.

The end. 

Monday, 27 August 2012

62. Holidays, driving and Speedos

Being all European and stuff, we can actually drive to lovely holiday destinations now. So last week we trundled off in Uma the Puma for trip to Greece - one night in Thessaloniki and five nights on the lovely island of Thassos. I’ve been to quite a few Greek islands before, admittedly most of the touristy ones (although I did spend a lovely weekend once on Hydra, an island where no cars are allowed and the only mode of transport is donkey!). Thassos is still quite touristic, but not geared so much to Brits - which was a nice change. In fact, everywhere on the road we saw Bulgarian, Serbian and Romanian number plates, and we were just as likely to hear Bulgarian on the beach as Greek. Most of the waiters have picked up a bit of Bulgarian and even the car ferry men (having seen my Bulgarian plates) were directing me on in Bulgarian (“malko, malko, dobre!”). Apparently, we’ve gone so native we unconsciously picked the destination of choice for holidaying Bulgarians. Spooky!

Or, maybe it’s just that it’s the closest Greek island to Bulgaria (just 300 miles away), so not actually that spooky at all. Whatever.

View from our balcony

Anyway, we had a lovely few days lounging around on the beach, the aim being - as my friend Dan would say - “to get fat and brown”.  Ended the week quite brown, but not too much fatter thanks to drinking the Greek tap water! I have a cast iron stomach but it turns out you really shouldn’t drink that stuff. We drank lots of carafes of local wine, ate far too much garlic and feta, read a lot, and slept tons. All vital ingredients for a cracking holiday. The only thing missing was fried courgette balls - possibly my most favourite Greek dish, but I’ve been cooking them all summer at home and really couldn’t face them on hols!

Greece. Sigh.
It’s very cool being able to drive to Greece. The only downside being the, well, driving. The idea of driving to and from Greece is far nicer than the actual doing it. Three hundred miles on Bulgarian roads feels like 3000, thanks to the lack of motorways! The journey down was trouble free but the journey back took us an interesting route through the lakes and mountains. All very pretty, and would have been a lovely drive - if it wasn’t for the 30 mile section that was (I’m not even exaggerating here) the worst road I have ever seen. It took us an hour and a half to cover 30 miles. The potholes were so big it was like navigating the surface of the frigging moon. In total, with stopping for a brief lunch and some cat food at Lidl (glam end to the holiday I know!), it took us nine hours to do 300 miles.

It wasn’t quite as bad as the day I drove to Italy. (Remember that? Where I drove for 14 hours, had a nervous breakdown somewhere around Munich, and Rob had to drip-feed me Haribo and Malboro Lights for the WHOLE of Austria?). But it was almost as bad.

Apparently, after childbirth you sort of forget how horrible the pain was because you’re so pleased to have a baby. It’s a bit like that for me every time I finish a big journey. I almost forget that road trips make me cry, swear and smoke, because I’m so pleased with my achievement. And my tan. And my new Greek rug that never would have fitted in a suitcase. It’s, like, totally the same as childbirth amnesia.

Naturally then, I’m already thinking about where we might go next year. I think I might be up for a drive to Istanbul next! Ahem. Again, sounds a wonderful idea. And after that we’re going to do a proper Balkan road trip: Serbia, Montenegro, Croatia and Slovenia. Why the hell not.

Back to the topic of holidays, and another photo reward for sticking with me. Here’s me dining out one evening with a seemingly naked man in the background. Yep, that’s a man out for dinner in his Speedos. And, yep, I did engineer this photo so it’s mainly the naked dude and a little bit of me in the foreground. Just so it didn’t look like I was obviously taking a picture of him. Which I was. 

Note that I felt the need for a CARDIGAN while this chap dines in nowt but his Speedos.

Tuesday, 7 August 2012

61. A tale of two vegetable patches: Part two

A little while ago I wrote a post comparing our (first ever) veg patch with our (very experienced 64 year-old) neighbour’s veg patch. Needless to say, the comparison wasn’t kind. Svilen’s veg patch is glorious - regimentally organised rows bursting with huge fruits and veg.

(Isn’t there a horror movie with a corn field with crazy killers in it? Anyway, it’s a bit like that in next door’s garden - except with monstrously tall, thick tomato plants. Sometimes when I’m stood in my garden I can feel the eyes of a crazy killer, silently stalking me from between those rows.*)

By comparison, our veg patch is a little haphazard. Success in some areas - courgettes, potatoes, carrots, radishes, tomatoes. But tempered by complete and utter failures in others - leeks, rocket and lettuce seeds that never produced a single item. I guess that’s what you get for just chucking seeds in the ground on the first warm weekend of the year. Next door had planted their seeds indoors while there was still snow on the ground. While I was still wearing three pairs of trousers and continually checking to see if the toilet had unfrozen, they were already thinking ahead to what they would eat come summer.

Not that it’s a competition or anything.

Except, if it was a competition, our courgettes would totally win.

We obviously neglected to pick this one and it turned into a bloody marrow!

The neighbours have been fascinated by our courgettes. We bought the seeds over from England (customs folk look away now!) so it’s a different variety from the typical big, white Bulgarian courgettes. Our crop has been ridonkulous. For starters we planted too many seeds and have ended up with six plants. All six of those plants are very productive. So we’ve been drowning in courgettes for a couple of months now. I’m always sure to give the neighbours a bag. (They kindly reciprocate with a bag of tomatoes, meaning we’re also on the verge of a serious tomato glut!)  So this summer we’ve been eating a lot of courgette pasta, fritters, courgette salad, frittata, and cakes. Chocolate courgette cake (very nice), lemon and poppy seed courgette cake (unmitigated disaster), banana and courgette loaf (so delicious I made two in 24 hours). An entire drawer in our freezer is known as “the ratatouille drawer”. The very thought of still eating rata-bloody-touille in January makes me shudder. And I really like courgettes. I’m just running out of interesting things to do with them.

Sometimes I just want egg and chips, you know?

All things considered though, I’m getting quite into this veg growing business. Obviously I’ll be AMAZING at it next year - proper, organised raised beds; not a weed in sight; planting seeds indoors before the toilet unfreezes, all that shizzle. I’m going to get a pair of ankle wellies. You heard me, ankle wellies! Maybe even one of those nice knee pad things. I’m going to read seed catalogues in my spare time and start listening to that gardening show on that really boring radio station. It’s going to be brillo!

Perhaps, the very fact that I still use words like “brillo” indicates that I’m not yet ready for ankle wellies and Radio 4. But I’ll give it my best shot.

(You may place your bets now that, come next March, I’ll just wander outside and chuck seeds straight in the ground after making Rob hastily dig some trenches. All the while saying “I never did get around to making nice raised beds. Next year…”)

*Mum, this is a joke. Do not be alarmed.

Thursday, 5 July 2012

60. Feline update

I thought I’d follow up my previous pukesome ‘oooh look at my cute house’ post with something a little different. Namely, ‘oooh look at my cute kittens’. They’re 9 weeks old now and very cute indeed:
Truth be told, they are utter bastards who do nothing but fight and poo and ignore us. Even though we’ve been in their lives since day one and lovingly assisted their teenage mum in rearing them, they show us no affection whatsoever. Open hostility, most of the time. Once, Iggy purred when Rob stroked him. Once! In 9 weeks. Mainly, they just want us to go away.
But at least they’re cute.
Pepper, a.k.a. Pepper Pots, Peppster.
Pepper is a princess whose hobbies include sitting on a cushion and being aloof. She is utterly indifferent to humans. 

Iggy is a certified mentalist whose hobbies include growling, climbing legs and biting. He recently chased his own mother into a box. He will, however, tolerate being picked up and cuddled. For ten seconds. And only if he can bite your finger.
Iggy, a.k.a. Iggy Pop, Iggster, Mr Igg Stuff, Chief Iggum,  Iggle Piggle.
I think this is what goes through Iggy’s mind on some sort of maddening loop:

“Oooh a toe, bite it! Oh no, it belongs to one of THEM. Now they want to cuddle me. Quick, run away. Into the cupboard where I can climb all over the plates. Hee hee, I’m so clever. They’ll never catch me in….doh, damn humans. Run up a curtain. Mummy, fight me! I win! Tired. Bored. Into the pantry, where I can sit in the veg rack in peace. Mmmmmm, potatoes, I love sitting in with the potatoes. So comfy! I could sit here all….Bored. Run up a curtain. Pepper, fight me! I win! Run into the bathroom. Take that, toilet roll! Oh, excellent, a freshly cleaned litter tray - I’ve been saving up a nice big poo for that. Oi, human. Meeow. Feed me. Don’t come THAT close, what’s wrong with you? Put the bowl down over there. There, I said! Don’t TOUCH me for Christ’s sake! Grrrrr. Eat. ZZZZZZZZZZ”
Exhausting, isn’t it? Trust me, cats should never outnumber humans in a household.
After making a brief but daring break for sexual freedom, Moona has now been spayed (she ran off with a ginger boy cat for a day, the dirty little minx). So at least we won’t be welcoming any more unfriendly additions to the family! 
Thank goodness they’re cute. 

"We hate you. You're not our real parents"

Thursday, 21 June 2012

59. Renovation, Renovation, Renovation

I’ve not written about the house for ages. Partly because I don’t want to be all ‘blah, blah, curtains’ and other girly awfulness. (I get all of that out of my system on Pinterest.*) But also because it’s been a long, slow process getting the house to its current state and I bore myself going on about it. That’s not to say it isn’t rewarding renovating a house. It is. It’s just the novelty of living in a renovation project wore off sometime around Christmas.
But now, finally, we’re really getting there. Rob has been beavering away on the downstairs and it’s now pretty much finished. It’s like living in an actual house. 
The kitchen is a triumph! It is perhaps very bad form to praise your own kitchen so highly, but I don’t care because I have the best kitchen ever. Rob has built beautiful storage cubes out of lime plaster and topped them with local pine to create worktops. We searched high and low for our terracotta floor tiles, but they were worth the hassle. A rusty old woodburning stove has been painted deep red and topped with wood to create extra worktop space. And an old chest has been turned into a nifty cupboard. We’ve tried to reuse materials that were already here and not buy too much new stuff.
Hooray, a real kitchen!

Couldn't bear to throw away the rusty old woodburner so it's now a worktop!
The dishwasher - just add Rob.

Pots. Cubes.

Check out the mugs hanging on an old coat rack. How very kooky.

Is it a chest? Is it a cupboard? It's twisting my melon.
The lounge is lacking our furniture so you’ll have to use your imagination here! The old beams have been exposed everywhere downstairs and Rob has re-plastered the walls with traditional lime plaster. We’ve used some stone from the garden for the lounge floor, which is lovely and cool in the summer but might not seem such a great idea come winter! We’ve bought another woodburner for here though (even though there is a radiator heated by the big woodburner in the kitchen). And we’ll chuck down a million rugs or dogs or something to cosy it up more.
Shiny new woodburner. Complete with wood.
Some creative plastering going on here.
Off the kitchen is a separate pantry. I’ve always wanted a pantry. My Nan has one, which us kids always called the “cubbyhole”. I used to hide in there and sip the cooking sherry, pretending it was my own tiny, windowless house – which is sort of a depressing game for a child to play. Perhaps it was a premonition of some kind. Or maybe I was just a really weird little person.  Anyway, now I have my own pantry and I haven't once hidden in it.
The bathroom is very clean and grown up and, erm, white. We would have liked some colourful Moroccan-style tiling but this is Bulgaria and you can only have tiles off the 80s so we stuck with plain white. Nice though.
Complete with 'welcome' sign above the toilet.
Upstairs there’s still plenty to do, particularly the study, which needs a lot of work. Currently it’s a room with an earth floor and bare brick, single skin walls that you can see daylight through (for some reason this is the only room in the house with really thin walls). Our bedroom and the guest bedroom are quite liveable after nothing more than a lick of paint, but they will eventually need re-plastering and new flooring.  
And that just leaves the staircase. Yes, this is still on the outside of the house! After the study is done, the staircase (finally) becomes top priority. Downstairs we’re going to brick in around the staircase to make a little hallway with doors out on to the garden and also into the kitchen. The stairs lead to a balcony and a door into the upstairs hallway. We might leave this open as a balcony for now, but eventually we’ll glaze and brick this area too and it will become my ‘knitting landing’. Uh-huh, that’s a landing where I’ll sit in my papasan chair and knit. One day. Assuming we will ever finish this house. 

*As a scrapbooking geek, I ADORE Pinterest. I’ve got tons of projects lined up for Rob thanks to Pinterest! I bet he cannot wait to get started on an arbour made of twigs, a raised flowerbed made from wine bottles, and a DIY patio day bed! 

PS. As a reward for making it this far through my post. Here's a picture of a donkey with a fringe. You're welcome. 


Thursday, 7 June 2012

58. MOT. Easy as one-two-three.

My car MOT was due this month, the first one since we moved to Bulgaria. I was a little apprehensive as, although Uma the Puma has only done 7,000 miles in the last year, they’ve been tough miles. The roads here aren’t too kind to cars. Especially silly, wet, girly cars from England. 

This won’t make sense to those of you with practical, grown-up cars – cars that were built in the last decade, cars that seat more than four tiny people, or any kind of estate car. But I’m an ex Mini owner (olden style) which means I have an inherent fear of MOTs. I used to think of it more as an annual report on how much more of the car had rusted away (the answer was always shed loads).  At best MOTs were a pain in the arse, at worst a thoroughly depressing and expensive experience. Or maybe I just need to buy better cars.

Anyhow, in our nearest town there’s only one place that does MOTs. For a town of 12,000 people that seemed kind of weird. And they only open two days a week. A friend of a friend (an actual Bulgarian) kindly made an appointment for us and we were assured that it is definitely not A Big Deal here. This was only reinforced by the fact that our appointment was for a ten-minute slot. No, really. And a good five minutes of that was spent checking my paperwork.

If you picture a garage crossed with a McDonalds drive-thru, you’ve pretty much got it. They tested the brakes. Tested the exhaust fumes. Turned all the lights and indicators on and off. Had a quick peek under the bonnet. And voila – here’s your shiny new MOT certificate and that’ll be 35 Leva please. See you next year!

I bloody love it here. I might even buy another Mini!

Monday, 21 May 2012

57. The one where everyone comes past our house for a nosey

Rush hour in the village!

We’ve been planning to replace our ropey old concrete path with a stone one. Imagine our delight when Rob started pulling up the concrete this week and discovered an old stone path already there underneath. It was quite uneven and wobbly in places so we spent the weekend repositioning some of the stones.

Working anywhere at the front of the house is a blatant invitation for every man and his donkey to stop and spectate, comment or tout for work. This much I know. One time Rob went out to water the front garden and returned dazed and exhausted 30 minutes later. You think I’m exaggerating? Well here, for your entertainment, is an average Saturday afternoon at ours.

First the binmen rolled up. We gave them a rusty old bit of metal fencing once and they love us forever now. The same binman comes knocking every fortnight to see what exciting crap we’re chucking out. He also always takes the opportunity to offer to do our gardening or re-render the house (for a fee of course), and we always politely decline. This week, he offered to do the path for us. We politely declined. This ritual has been going on since we moved here in August.

Next, an old timer strolled over – he’d been sitting on the bench outside the little shop opposite. Our Bulgarian still isn’t very good and conversation dried up pretty quickly after the basic small talk. Undeterred by this, the guy just resorted to naming places in England that he knew.

“Birmingham,” he’d say triumphantly.
“Hmm, yes” Rob would smile and nod.
*strained pause*
“London. LONDON!”

Eventually the old boy returned to his bench over the road and continued watching from a distance.

Then Benny Hill Shepherd (I never know anyone’s name so I just make them up) came by with his sheep, waving a cheery “Hey Bobbeeeee!” Rob is mostly known throughout the village as Bobby. One guy simply calls him “English”.

Penka’s Sister stood over us while we packed some earth in between stones. She told us we should be using sand. We said the earth was okay (that’s what was already there anyway). She then headed into our back garden to inspect our vegetable patch, merrily plucking beetles off the potato plants and crushing them underfoot. After this, there was some more standing over us before she went home. 

Svilen (from next door) popped round to declare the path was “extra” which Google tells me means cool, slick, or gilt-edged! He reserves such praise for special occasions! Then he told us to use sand between the stones. Then, he went to check on our tomatoes.

(I’m a bit concerned that our vegetable patch is not entirely our own and we’ve inadvertently joined a vegetable farming co-op. Svilen is regularly popping round and adding more stuff or weeding the patch. He came into the kitchen the other day proudly brandishing one of our radishes. Our. First. Ever. Radish. Still, at least he let us eat it.)

Our Brit friends stopped by with Turkish delight fresh from a trip to Istanbul. Yum!

Svilen’s two sons rocked up and told us we should have a “pochifka” (day off), making the universal time out sign with their hands. So did several other people express their shock and horror that we were working on a Saturday. Rob just pulled his usual poor-put-upon-Rob face and declared that he never has time off. Which is sort of true actually, but that doesn’t mean he should say it out loud. 

Tsanni – who has a summer house up behind ours – came by with her husband and said the path looked nice. Tsanni is an architect in Sofia and quick to say when she doesn’t like something, so we’re always ridiculously happy whenever she praises something.

Dungaree Man (again, don’t know his name) stopped and chatted with Rob for a while. He’s also doing up a house in the village and really likes dungarees. I have no idea what they talked about and neither does Rob.

We got a random “bravo” from one passing family on a cart.

Quite a few car drivers slowed down to rubber-neck at us. They really love to stare here, it’s not considered rude at all. It’s very strange being brought up to think that staring is rude and then moving to a country where it’s a national pastime. They’re not singling us out for special staring treatment or anything. They’ll stare at anyone doing anything. On Sunday Svilen’s son was strimming the grass verge opposite our houses while four people stood around and watched!  I’m sure there’s a joke in there somewhere, something about Bulgarians and lightbulbs…

Back to Saturday and, last but not least, Svilen came back around with a block of cheese for us. Then he brought in Stefan The Donkey (who is an actual donkey and not a cruelly nicknamed villager) for a chow on our grass - we have an arrangement whereby Stefan gets to eat all the grass he likes, I get to take endless photos of him, and Rob rarely has to cut the grass. Everyone’s a winner!

That concludes our exhausting Saturday. The one where everyone came by for a nosey. Oh, and we also relaid a path in between all that.

Monday, 14 May 2012

56. A tale of two vegetable patches

On a break from gardening...

Our neighbour’s garden is entirely devoted either to raising animals or growing food. Every inch is maximised  and, in a garden the same size as ours, he has sheep, a donkey, chickens, turkeys, and enough vegetables to feed two households. He is growing tomatoes, garlic, strawberries, onions, beans, peas, potatoes, chillies, gooseberries, blackberries, sweetcorn and a selection of small fruit trees.  There is not a single weed. Weeds just wouldn’t dare grow because he would shout at them in Bulgarian until they cried softly and died.

There’s no table and chairs under a sun umbrella. There are no cheeky gnomes or meerkats. There is simply no space for lazing around in Svilen’s garden. There’s no time for lazing around because, well, his garden is a full-time job. 

I have a full-time job already.

So, it’s no surprise that we are cultivating an impressive patch of weeds. And mint. I hate mint. It’s my least favourite herb, and it’s bloody rampant in the garden. This is our first year growing veg and the results are mixed. The biggest success is our potatoes. The potato plants are doing exceedingly well. But the neighbour planted those, so they don’t count!

Of the stuff we planted, our radishes and courgettes are flourishing. And we’ve got tiny little carrot tops and sprout plants coming up, so that’s exciting. There’s very little activity from the parsnips and leeks. I really hope the parsnips get a move on as it’s very difficult to buy them here and I can’t face another winter rationing parsnips.  But the real disappointment has been the lettuce. We planted one row of rocket and one row of mixed salad but…nothing. Nada. Only some weeds and more poxy mint. 

The tomato plants are coming up now too. They’re much smaller than next door's tomato plants. To be fair though, Svilen was growing his indoors in advance while we just chucked seeds in the ground and said a quick prayer. He obviously feels sorry for us and our inferior tomato plants. He came around today with some of his and planted them in our patch! He does stuff like that. He also thinned out our sprouts while he was at it. Then he bought us round some pork and rice for lunch.

Luckily we’re not looking to be self-sufficient or anything (browsing the local market on a Sunday is the highlight of our social calendar, after all) but we thought it’d be nice to dabble a bit. Rob was weeding the patch today and I heard definite grumbles about not really needing to grow our own veg when the food here is so cheap. I tried explaining that we were doing it for fun but he didn’t seem to be having fun. Probably because he was the one doing all the dirty graft while I pranced around in my slippers going “oooh look, a courgette, yipee!”

At least the garden has some established fruit and nut trees already. No matter what happens we know we can look forward to pears, quince, apples, plums, grapes and walnuts this year! 

Will the parsnips ever grow? Should we try again with the lettuce? Will we even get to keep the potatoes that, erm, we didn't plant? Stay tuned this summer for a gripping tale of two vegetable patches!

Saturday, 5 May 2012

55. One Born Every Minute - Bulgarian Style

Last year we stole a cat.

Not really a cat, a kitten. One of our neighbour’s kittens.

Whaaaat? *innocent face* They had a litter of six. We didn’t think they’d notice mind us stealing adopting one of them.

Oh, shut up. Anyway, Moona (as we renamed her) has lived with us since last September and she’s a joy. She follows Rob around like a puppy and loves being cradled like a baby:

Last week, Moona had kittens of her own.

Look, just shut up. By the time she was old enough to get spayed we were buried under 3 feet of snow and couldn’t drive to the vet. By the time everything had thawed she was up the duff. So, it’s not like we’re irresponsible, lazy parents. Noooo. Not that at all. It’s the weather’s fault.

Cats are only pregnant for around two months so, before we knew it, the kittens were being born. In our bedroom. We’d made a nest for Moona out of a big cardboard box. It was very well designed – a nice big hole at the front for an entrance (but with a lip high enough that the kittens couldn’t escape), big side windows (so we could peek in) and shredded Good Housekeeping magazine on the floor (only the best for our Moona). Not good enough apparently, as Moona cruelly shunned the box, got into our bed and started pushing.

Clearly she thinks she is a Victorian lady and the only appropriate place for her to labour is under the covers.

Anyway, we hastily concocted a new nest of blankets on the floor next to the bed and managed to coax her down onto that. And that’s where they were born.

Obviously birth is a beautiful thing, and stuff. Miracle of nature, etc etc. But, frankly, I’m not sure I can look at Moona the same after seeing a kitten hanging out of her arse. Did you know cats eat the placentas (one for each kitten) when they come out? Yep. I’d read about it in advance, but wasn’t actually prepared for watching it happen. At least she ate it quickly. I went off to the corner of the room for a theatrical gagging session and by the time I returned a few seconds later it was all gone. 

Sadly, out of a litter of three, Kitten No.3 didn’t survive. But we’re left with two gorgeous kittens. They’re ten days old now and just opening their eyes. Iggy, the boy, is black and white; and Pepper, the girl is stripy grey. Say hi:

Cuddles with Moona Mum

Pepper is very good at posing

Iggy is determined to be the first one to walk

Moona has taken to motherhood pretty well, considering she’s a young mum. Every now and then she looks a bit fed up – we’ll catch her stretched out on her side feeding the kittens with this look on her face that says I’m so over this now. I want to go out with my mates. She’s probably the cat equivalent of Vicky Pollard. I know she enjoys my lectures though: well Moona, you’ve got responsibilities now, it’s not just about you anymore

Naturally, we’ll be making an appointment with the vet for Moona’s ‘snip’ as soon as the kittens are weaned. Meanwhile, she is being held prisoner in the house to avoid any more little accidents! We love them loads, but going from zero cats to three cats in the space of nine months makes us borderline crazy cat people. No. More. Cats.

We’ll just have to remember to get the kittens spayed too!