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Saturday, 21 May 2016

99. My least favourite thing about Bulgaria

Despite my somewhat sarcastic tone (one reader kindly referred to it as ‘whining’), I like to think I paint a positive picture of Bulgaria. I hope it comes across how much I love, love, love it here. I really hope so.

But nowhere is perfect, right? Like anywhere, Bulgaria has its issues. It’s poor. Wages are disgustingly low. Corruption is a thing (although, the corruption here is obvious, which makes it strangely honest…). The roads are shocking. These things are explainable, though. And they will, over time, get better.

It’s the fucking litter that I don’t understand.

Litter is a huge problem in Bulgaria, at least in the rural areas. Walk by a pretty river, or through a field or forest, and what do you see? Litter. I don’t get it. Bin men come and collect domestic rubbish every week, just like in the UK. There are huge communal bins in every village and town, and along main roads. And there are municipal waste sites. Why drive out of your way to dump your rubbish in the countryside?

Next to the river, just outside our village. 

One time we were driving along and kept seeing little bits of rubble, empty concrete bags, piles of brick dust, etc. at regular intervals. It went all along the main road from our local town and even all along the road in our village. A truck had clearly been driving around, chucking rubbish out along the way, rather than go to the municipal tip just outside the town. Isn’t that the most antisocial thing you’ve ever heard? (Not to mention an enormous waste of time.) It’s not just large-scale fly-tipping either. I’m always picking up coffee cups and food wrappers from the street outside our house.

Taken in Veliko Tarnovo. An empty house becomes a dumping ground.

It’s criminal really, because Bulgaria is a place of ridiculous natural beauty. I think it’s one of the most beautiful places on the planet. I still get flutters whenever I’ve been away and I drive out of Sofia, up, up into the mountains, and I think, wow, I live here. The countryside could easily be Bulgaria’s main selling point. It amazes me that Bulgaria isn’t the go-to place for eco or hiking holidays. They’re sitting on a natural goldmine. And then I see a pile of shite by the side of the road…

Initiatives like ‘Let’s clean Bulgaria in one day’ are helping to raise awareness. And I hope the next generation will be much more protective of the countryside. For now, I’ll keep picking up the wrappers and imagining slow, painful deaths for the litterbugs responsible. Because I’m nice like that.

Friday, 20 May 2016

98. Random conversations with the neighbours


For five years we’ve had morning coffee with the neighbours almost every day. At first I was a bit reluctant because I’m a lazy moo and sometimes I like a lie-in. But then I started to look forward to morning coffee. Now I get outraged when they can’t make it, because I miss them already.

On a practical level, it’s been good for our language skills. But, more than that, I love the random nature of our conversations. Here are just some of our favourite topics:
  • The weather forecast.
  • The weather in England.
  • What just happened on the telly. Svilen likes to tell us what just happened, even though we watched it with him. (The downside of not being fluent: people assume you are a bit thick.)
  • The health of various people’s kidneys. No, I’m not sure why either.
  • ‘Eat that.’ And if you try to object, ‘EAT IT!’
  • Blood pressure. We went through a phase of all checking our blood pressure together but we’ve not done it for a while. I miss it.
  • Gardening. Obviously.
  • Cats. Obviously.
  • The difference between the United Kingdom, Great Britain, England, Wales and Scotland. 
  • 'No, Holland is not in Britain. Yes, I'm sure.'
  • The outrageous price of Nutribullets. These are being advertised heavily on Bulgarian TV at the moment.
  • The outrageous price of memory foam mattresses. Also being heavily advertised right now.
  • Bulgarian Masterchef and this new cooking show called Mama Gotvi Po-dobre (Mum Cooks Better).
  • The fact that we must all go and pay for our water now. I have no idea how everyone in the village knows when to pay for their water. It’s not like the water company sends bills in the post. Everyone just seems to go and pay on one particular day – but never the same date in the month. How do they all know? Who tells them? Why don’t they tell us?

…plus lots of stuff that we still don’t understand. And that’s the real beauty of it – right now we only understand about half of what’s said to us. Just imagine what it’s going to be like when we can understand everything! I can’t wait.

Thursday, 19 May 2016

97. Photos from a chronic gardening bore

Day 4 of the blog challenge, in which I am trying to blog every day for a week. I wouldn’t say I’m running out of words yet. Not really. I just wanted to share some pictures with you, that’s all. Totally not cheating.

The sun has returned!

Fru fru snapdragons. Whenever I see them, I sing Copacabana to myself. 

Carnations starting to flower.

First rose of the summer.

Borage is pleasingly ugly (like a pair of Clarks shoes) and it self-seeds EVERYWHERE
(like here, in the middle of our path). But the bees love it.

Nasturtiums coming up. Planning to use these in salads this summer.

More alliums starting to flower and, so far, surviving Barney's Reign of Terror. 

Verbena seedlings sown about two months ago. They are the slowest growing things ever.
Is this normal? Am I doing something wrong?

Cosmos, beheaded by Barney, The Naughtiest Cat in the World.

Baby grapes.

Obligatory wonky polytunnel shot. Still wonky. Still standing.

Tomato plants doing well and ready for staking. My wrinkly old crone finger included for scale.

KALE!

On a whim, we decided to make a new flower bed for all my seedlings. The picture doesn't do it justice - it's 4m wide!
The bastard cats are thrilled that we've made them such a large litter tray.

Wednesday, 18 May 2016

96. Imagining elaborate deaths for arseholes on public transport


I have a set routine whenever I travel from England to Bulgaria. I am (most of time) too tight to cough up for a taxi to the airport, and I am (always) too tight to pay for a hotel room. So, for a 6am Easyjet flight, I have to get a late train up to Gatwick the night before and loaf around Gatwick from midnight until security opens at 3am. After that I just loaf around the departures area until 6am, trying not to spend money on unnecessary shite from Accessorize. It’s a boring, boring ritual that I did every month for a couple of years. (Back when I had a real job, my employers politely requested that I show my face once every few weeks. I would flounce around the open plan office for a week, generally being a loud nuisance – you know, just so they knew I’d shown up. Then I’d go back to Bulgaria and everyone would get a lot more work done.)   

On my last journey to Gatwick, back in April, I was the *only* sober person on the train. Considering it was a Tuesday, that seemed a bit weird. While there are a few things I genuinely miss about England, listening to arseholes on public transport is not one of them. The highlight was when a group of teenage boys with a case of Desperados (bless) got on, affectionately – and constantly – calling each other ‘cunt’. When one of them went to the toilet (with the toilet door open), the others talked loudly about how many inches they were while ‘floppy’. Floppy. True story. Should people who use the word ‘floppy’ be out after dark without their parents? Half of me found them amusing (I was young once, and I was a hideous, White Lightning-swigging chav). The other half of me wished they would all die of penis ringworm.

To be fair though, the worst people on the train were the adults. First came the slurpy, sex-murmuring kissers. Obviously they deserve to die slowly of syphilis. Then came the inevitable smeghead playing his music out loud. (Gold Digger by Kanye? Really? Out loud?) I spent many happy minutes visualising me puncturing his eardrums with a rusty 12-inch spike. Then there was the scary drunk woman who called some other women ‘fucking chip-eating bitches’ – well, they were eating chips – and launched into a 20-minute tirade about how much she really wanted fucking chips and no she wouldn’t fucking shut up. I just hope she enjoyed her day release.

Anyone who complains about foreigners ruining the country should be forced to spend two hours on a Southern train late at night. The foreign guy who asked me, clearly the only sober adult in the carriage, how to get to Hove looked genuinely afraid for his life.  

Thank goodness we don’t have a rail network in our part of Bulgaria – I’m too traumatised to use it. Instead, we use the brilliant network of coaches and minibuses. We love the Bulgarian bus service. It’s easy to use, cheap as chips, fairly regular, and the passengers are usually harmless. Just to warn you, strangers will probably make conversation with you, they might not be wearing deodorant, and you will definitely have to listen to all manner of awful ringtones. But that’s about the worst of it. Oh, and the driver will smoke like a chimney and take a couple of dozen phone calls while he’s driving. And there will always, always, be one of those calendars with a row of tanned women’s bums in thongs hung up at the front. It’s usually right next to the religious icon or cross. And if there’s a toilet on board (say, if it’s a fancy coach), you won’t be able to use it. It’s for decorative purposes only. But, all things considered, it’s a pretty pleasant experience.

Even when your Bulgarian minibus is so old the person sitting closest to the door has the honour of holding it shut,* it still beats the hell out of being on a Southern train at 11pm on a Tuesday night.

*Yes, this really happened to us.

Tuesday, 17 May 2016

95. Out of touch

This cat pic couldn't be a better metaphor for my life.

What is this Invictus Games that everyone keeps going on about? What did Jay Z do to BeyoncĂ©? What’s going on in Brazil this summer, the Olympics or the World Cup? I have no clue anymore. I am hopelessly, joyfully out of touch. How is Greece doing these days? No idea. Why are junior doctors striking? Haven’t the foggiest. Syria? Nope.

I used to be well informed. I used to read The Economist and have Opinions. Now my main source of news is watching Bulgarian breakfast TV over coffee with the neighbours. And all they ever talk about on Bulgarian breakfast TV is Enrique Iglesias. I still read The Guardian app but, if I’m really honest, these days I skip straight to the food and travel bits. I have disengaged. I have no idea what’s happening in the world, but I know how to make spelt brownies and that it was Enrique Iglesias’s birthday last week.

I think I like it better this way. Take football, for instance. I haven’t had to endure an actual football match in years. It’s like football has disappeared off the face of the earth, and I LOVE it.

Bye, football. Wooooo hooooo.

Other reasons to be cheerful for being out of touch:
  • Instagram celebrities
  • Brexit nonsense
  • Reality TV
  • David Cameron’s shiny pink face

Things I am still very much in touch with:
  • The wonder of kale
  • Lattes
  • Anything Netflix
  • Skinny jeans (These are still a thing, right? Right?)
  • Beards (Admiring, not having. Although I do have this one chin hair…)

Monday, 16 May 2016

94. Yes, you should come on holiday to Bulgaria (no, not to Sunny Beach)

‘Oh, you live in Bulgaria?’ says a random stranger. You can guarantee the next thing they say is, ‘Anywhere near Sunny Beach?’
‘Er, no.’

I’m allowed to slag off Sunny Beach because, unlike most Sun journalists, I’ve actually been there. When we were thinking of buying a house in BG and had no idea which area to focus on, we booked a Club 18–30 holiday for £99 to Sunny Beach. Naturally, as soon as we arrived, we ditched the 18–30 gang, hired a car and headed off to see some of the country, but we did get to experience Sunny Beach for a while. The beach itself is pristine. Unfortunately, almost everything behind the beach is a concrete eyesore: hotels, casinos, bars, strip clubs, etc. There are loads of stories about drunk Brits getting beaten up, robbed, or swindled. As (somewhat) sensible adults who were at the ragged end of the 18–30 demographic, we didn’t have any trouble at all. But we’ve all heard the stories.

I recently got a tattoo* back home in Portsmouth. Even my tattooist, who is from Thailand, was dissing Bulgaria:
‘Why do you want a tattoo of mountains?’ he asked.
‘It’s for the Balkan Mountains in Bulgaria.’
‘Bulgaria? Shit there innit?’
‘Er, no.’
‘You sure? Someone told me it’s shit there.’
Sigh. ‘I’m sure.’

I hate that people who have never been here tar the whole of Bulgaria with the Sunny Beach brush. It’s just the latest cheap-as-shit destination for teenagers, like Faliraki was before it. It’s no more representative of Bulgaria than Faliraki was of the whole of Greece. (I can also legit slag off Faliraki because I passed through there about 16 years ago and it looked vile to me. And I was a right chav back then.) There’s so much more to Bulgaria than Sunny Beach. Even The Guardian says so, so it must be true.

For our anniversary this month, we’re doing a trip to the Troyan Monastery and a heritage village that had a chapel inside a tree trunk. Because that’s the kind of freaky shit that goes down in the real Bulgaria. We’re also planning to explore the Central Balkan National Park, just an hour or two from us, later in the summer. (We might camp, although we probably won’t on account of all the snakes that will want to get into my bed/shoes/hair. But there are plenty of guest houses to stay in.) There’s also the Pirin National Park and Rila National Park to explore – the national parks are full of stunning (and pretty challenging) hiking routes, as well as bears, wolves, vultures, etc. Did you know that Bulgaria is a bird lover’s paradise? We regularly see eagles flying above our house.

Photographic evidence of me in a cave. Being outdoorsy and stuff.

The 'Eyes of God', Prohodna Cave.

If you love a beach holiday, there are still some (relatively) unspoilt parts of the coastline. The trick is to not go where the Brits go – those places are, by and large, awful. Having said that, Nesebar, just a few miles from Sunny Beach, is a lovely place for a day trip. Burgas is a nice city on the coast. And Sozopol is a beautiful historic seaside town. Personally, I’d head down to Sinemorets, down by the Turkish border, where there are only a couple of big hotels and lots of small guesthouses. More adventurous folk can even try a bit of wild camping on the beach.

Me in Nesebar. Back when I was young enough to squeak onto an 18-30 holiday.

Sinemorets

Bulgaria is home to the Horizon festival, which I gather is a HUGE deal among those who like skiing and electronic music. (Not my scene. I’ll be at home by the woodburner, thanks.) And friends of ours are going to some 12-hour drum and bass festival in July, right next to Sofia airport, which sounds brilliantly weird. Hipster types will love Meadows in the Mountains, which basically takes over a village in the Rhodope Mountains each June. It sounds painfully cool, so naturally I want to go so bad, but it’s a bit too pricey. We went to the Spirit of Burgas festival once. It was cheap and good (complete with camping on the beach), but I’m not sure it’s going ahead this year.

Or you should come for a city break. I’ve wanged on before about how much I love Sofia, so I won’t do it again. Let’s just say it’s worth a visit. As is Plovdiv, with its beautiful old town (apparently Europe’s oldest city, although I think the Greeks might beg to differ). We’ve also been to Veliko Tarnovo a couple of times, and I like its bonkers, mashed-into-the-hillside appearance. Varna, out on the coast, is next on our city break to-do list.

Plovdiv

Veliko Tarnovo

There aren’t many motorways in Bulgaria so, if you drive anywhere, chances are you’ll pass through plenty of small towns and villages. Don’t be shy – stop and wander around, being sure to say ‘dobar den’ (‘good day’, the traditional greeting) to people. If you’re lucky, one of the old folks might invite you in for some homemade rakia (fruit brandy), pork fat (yes, really) and pickled vegetables (surprisingly tasty). Then you’re really experiencing Bulgaria.

Our village

*Despite my crippling health anxiety, the tattoo is still not infected.