Did you know that [counter] people have been having a skeg at my little autonomous region?

  

The Old Man and the Sea

I became a sexagenarian today. As it’s a special birthday I hoped for something special. I wanted the last ten years back. But not all of the last ten years. I’m not greedy. I didn’t want all those wet Monday mornings when I had to go to work, or that day I had a bit of a hangover, or the day I became aware of the existence of Theresa May, or the day I had to eat boiled cabbage, or the day I had to go to Swindon. No, they can keep all those days, so it’s really only nine and a bit years that I was asking to have returned to me.

I also wanted there to be no fuss about this milestone and I’m pleased to say that I achieved that much. I don’t mind being a year older every November, or even being a decade older every ten Novembers, but the world’s determination to celebrate the anniversary of my transition from foetus to infant really makes my amniotic fluid boil. I don’t think it’s a reason for celebration at all as I really enjoyed my gestation period. It was one of the happiest times of my life; not having to worry about setting the alarm clock, paying the gas bill, feeding myself or the problems of war, famine and pestilence in the Third World. I was even oblivious to the football results so for forty consecutive weeks the news of Leeds United’s sad plight didn’t get me down at ten to five on Saturday afternoon.

Down the years, many of my birthdays have been uneventful and easily forgotten, which is fine by me. However, here are a few that I remember well:

1957: I was unable to support myself and I spent the day in hospital with my poor mother. I couldn’t walk or talk, things got a bit messy as I was unable to use a toilet and I vomited several times. Thankfully, I haven’t spent any subsequent birthdays in hospital despite occasional repetition of these symptoms.

1962: All the other children at my chimney sweeping job let me have a go with the new flue brush.

1967: The big one-oh. I went with my parents and my sister to see the newly released film The Jungle Book at a cinema in Belfast. Convinced that this was a fly-on-the-wall documentary about life in India, and having enjoyed it so much, I resolved to travel at the earliest opportunity. Ten minutes after the film had finished I found myself in the back of my dad’s Morris 1000 van travelling back to our home in Ballymoney. In anticipation of the 1968 Olympic Games to be held in Mexico City, Cadbury’s had just launched their new Aztec chocolate bar and my sister and I were each bought one for the first time to take the sting out of the monotonous forty-seven-mile, three-hour journey along the bog road in the dark. A taste of Southern Asia and Central America in the same day … how much more exotic could life get?

1972: Along with 31,599 other people (the best turn-out ever for my birthday) I went to watch Leeds United beat Sheffield United two-one at Elland Road. Allan Clarke scored both goals. I was glad that I was too young to go to the pub after the match as my earnings from my evening paper round were too meagre for me to be able to afford to buy everyone a pint.

1977: It was a custom at my student lodgings in Barry Island for birthday people to be taken down to the beach after the pub had closed and then to be thrown into the sea. As it was a wild November night and fellow students were concerned about the possibility of manslaughter charges, I was told I would be let off lightly and instead be thrown into the Celtic harp-shaped boating lake in the nearby park. I suppose I’ve always had this lucky streak in me.

1978: My twenty-first birthday was spent on a ship in the Gulf of Oman, en route from Japan to Bahrain. As we had been travelling due west, longitudinal changes made it necessary for us to adjust our clocks by thirty minutes every other night. The Captain thought it was a good idea to save two of these adjustments and use them in one go to extend my birthday by an hour. The day after my birthday he thought it was a good idea to fine me a day’s pay because I had been too hungover to do my job properly which made me a hazard to shipping. I’m sure I’d have been fine if it hadn’t been for that extra hour spent in the bar. The day after that he thought it was a good idea to scream at me when he heard me using quite uncomplimentary words to relate my opinion of him to some members of the Chinese crew, who didn’t speak English anyway. What a waste of bad language that was.

1982: I went with a load of my mates to see Frankie Miller, the Scottish singer-songwriter legend, performing live at the Fforde Greene pub in Leeds. He was brilliant and I shook his hand as he left the small stage at the end of the night.

1987: From the day I turned twenty-one I was aware that the next big birthday on the horizon would be my thirtieth. Thirty years sounded too old for a lad of my age to be so I decided that I would shoot myself when I got to my last day as a twenty-nine-year-old. I lived in Gillingham in Kent at the time where guns weren’t as easy to get hold of as they are now, which is strange because these days there are far fewer post offices for people to rob. In the world of micro economics this would be explained by the law of supply and demand. So I didn’t shoot myself. Instead, I started a new job two hundred and forty miles away in Harrogate in Yorkshire only a few days before my big event, feeling quite confident that nobody there would be aware of my advance into my twilight years, or possibly even of my presence. However, I had made the mistake of finding a job in the Pensions Department where the staff were sticklers for documentation to the extent that you couldn’t even have a Viennese Whirl with your mid-morning cuppa if you weren’t able to produce your birth certificate. Consequently, I had to endure the discomfort of opening a ‘Happy Thirtieth Birthday’ card and buying sticky buns all round on my first Friday in my new post. I drove back to Gillingham that evening to be with my dear wife and young toddler daughter as I celebrated not only my birthday, but also my success on the football pools. The £25 cheque from Littlewoods that landed on my doormat that very day enabled me and the missus to go out the following evening to a local restaurant and enjoy a slap up serving of the finest food in the district.

1997: I was ten years older than I had been on my thirtieth birthday and I was working in an office in Swindon. My colleagues were very kind to me.

2007: I was twenty years older than I had been on my thirtieth birthday and I was plying my trade as a Foot Health Practitioner, sorting out the muckiest and sweatiest of pedal extremities that rural Wiltshire had to offer. Dear old Betty in the village of Sutton Benger felt sorry for me. She gave me a packet of Rowntree’s Jelly wrapped in kitchen foil and told me to make sure I did something better on 6th November 2017.

So I took Betty’s advice and went to the seaside. I booked myself into a holiday apartment for four nights and here I am in the quaint little fishing town of Balchik on Bulgaria’s Black Sea coast. Hardly anyone in Bulgaria knew that it was to be my sixtieth birthday so I was sure that not a soul in this place 260 kilometres from my home would have any idea and that I would be able to enjoy today, my so-called ‘special’ day, in my own secret way.

This morning I was woken early by the sun shining through the finest East European, Socialist era blinds that money could buy so I got dressed and wandered down to the beach. There was nobody about and none of the shops or cafés were open. Many places had closed down for the winter so the town was pretty quiet anyway, but at this time of the day it was completely deserted. I walked for an hour along the front, enjoying the calmness of the sea and the warmth of the sun’s rays … on my birthday! I had never known the likes before on this day of the year. It was beautiful and it made me think that the Barry Island students from forty years ago would have been able to chuck people into the briny from the beach safely (well, almost safely) if they had lived here and the bad-tempered sea captain could have shouted at me all he liked because I hadn’t a care in the world.

I stopped and had a chat with Kristyan, an old man who collects things from the shore to make into pictures to sell to people who come here from Birmingham and Croydon in the summer. He arranged some of his stones on a bench to show me how they would become a sailing boat and a lighthouse. He said he felt sorry for the people of Birmingham and Croydon because they didn’t have real sailing boats and lighthouses where they lived and he laughed when I suggested that those places could do with a lighthouse to warn people not to go too close. He asked me if I would like to go for a cup of coffee. I said I would and then he told me I couldn’t because there was nowhere open yet. Kristyan became the first person in the world to make me laugh since I had turned sixty. Chuckling away to himself, he went back to his beachcombing and I walked back towards the town, determined to prove him wrong, which I managed to do as I tucked into my full Bulgarian breakfast on the terrace of a harbourside café … an hour and a half later.

It seemed as though anybody who was in Balchik today, for reasons of either business or pleasure, had nothing much to do and welcomed a stranger in town to have a chat with. Whilst the waiter took my order, brought the cutlery, chased away the stray cats and probably cooked my breakfast too, another man who I suspected was the owner of the restaurant sat and talked to me. I got all the usual questions like where was I from, why was I living in Bulgaria, were the police looking for me, more seriously was my wife looking for me and what would I do when the Brexit palaver was all done and dusted? The latter question is always easily answered. I just show interrogators the bit on my Bulgarian I.D. card where it says that my nationality is Irish which makes them smile and say ‘ah, no problem!’ But today there were further questions leading on from this. Todor (by then I had asked him a question too and learned his name) wanted to know if I missed having Guinness to drink and why I wasn’t in the Irish Rover pub just down the other end of the Balchik seafront. My responses were ‘yes’ and ‘because it’s shut for the winter’, though I was pleased that it was shut for the winter because from the outside it looked terrible and it was probably terrible on the inside too. Irish pubs in any country other than Ireland always are. My breakfast arrived and Todor left saying ‘Do skoro’ (see you later) as he walked back into his restaurant. He sounded quite sincere too, probably because of the lack of customers so I said the same back to him and he smiled and waved. For the next twenty minutes I spoke to no one as I concentrated on what I had calculated to be my 21,915th breakfast.

 

The view from the table where I ate my 21,915th breakfast.

The view from the table where I ate my 21,915th breakfast.

 

Balchik is a lovely place, largely because of its lack of a long sandy beach making it less of an attraction for the hordes of cheap beer, crap rap music and sun-seeking holidaymakers from Western Europe that blight the other Black Sea resorts every summer. It has been a popular place for well over a century and during the period between the World Wars, when it was briefly Romanian territory, it was also a favourite destination for Romanian avant-garde painters, lending its name to an informal school of post-impressionist painters, the Balchik School of Painting. Queen Marie of Romania had her country residence here in the 1930s. She was a granddaughter of Queen Victoria of Britain but she really upset the British royal family by turning down a proposal of marriage from her cousin, who eventually became King George V of Britain, and instead marrying King Ferdinand over here. This relatively modest palace, set in lovely botanical gardens on terraces cascading down the cliffs to the sea is only five hundred metres from where I am staying and is a really nice place to visit, even though I’m not a huge fan of regal abodes. This being the back end of the year the plants in the gardens are all dead, just like the members of the Romanian royal family, but luckily the plants are mostly perennials so, according to the lady in the palace café who poured me my birthday lunchtime glass of Kamenitsa (Queen Marie’s favourite), there would be much more sign of life if I were to make a return visit next summer. I told her I would do that and she said ‘Do skoro’, smiling and waving at me as I walked away.

In the afternoon I found the local long sandy beach at another resort called Albena, about fifteen kilometres south of Balchik. On the map it looks like a proper little town but in reality, it is a concrete maze of huge seaside hotels, restaurants, mini-supermarkets, tennis courts, crazy golf courses and kiss-me-quick hat shops surrounded by a big barbed wire fence and with security barriers at the solitary entrance. These barriers were the automatic sort that you’d normally find at a car park where you press a button, take a ticket, drive through and then pay at a machine to get out again hours later. This made me suspect that the place would be busy and I wondered if I would find an available parking space but luckily there were two or three thousand of them. I parked up and went for a walk along the beautiful white sands which stretched as far as my eye could see in both directions. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky and there was no evidence of human life, though I’m sure that in the summer months the place would have been heaving. The only other people I saw during my couple of hours there were a pair of security guards, a man jogging and the lady who served me a coffee in the only café that was open. She came to my table by the window and talked to me for a couple of minutes but then disappeared back behind the counter, explaining apologetically that she was a bit busy. She didn’t even have time to say ‘Do skoro’. I had come here for seclusion on the day of my sixtieth birthday but I had never expected seclusion on such a grand scale. It was perfect! As I retraced my footprints along the beach to where I had left my car, I found a note nailed to an abandoned deckchair. It was from Robinson Crusoe. It said, ‘Gone home. Too quiet. Sod this for a lark!’

So I went home too, to my dear little Balchik. It was dark by the time I rolled into town so I went straight to Todor’s harbourside restaurant. In one corner of the room there was a party of about forty Bulgarian people who appeared to be celebrating a birthday. Surely not mine! I sat a few metres away from them just to be on the safe side. Despite the abundance of other customers, Todor still came over to chat to me while the waiter took my order. As the waiter walked away, Todor went after him and whispered something in his ear. I had ordered an ordinary beer to have with my meal but my new friend the restaurateur appeared from behind the bar with a bottle of Guinness which he poured lovingly into a glass and placed it in front of me on my table. I laughed, thanked him and asked him where he had got it. ‘Dublin’ he replied, which I think must be Bulgarian for ‘the big new Lidl out on the ring road’.

As I savoured my glass of stout the Bulgarian party people became more boisterous when a troupe of three local musicians arrived to play traditional Bulgarian music on their traditional Bulgarian musical instruments. They stood up, clapped, sang and shouted as the music got louder and faster. It seemed to me that the local people had known that today was my birthday and they were out to have a good time on account of it. But how did they know? Thinking back, I lay the blame on the old lady in the corner shop who asked me for I.D. when I bought a bottle of wine there on my first night in the town. Next year I’ll buy her a bottle too.

Romania

I went to Romania today. I popped over the border just for the day, like you do. Well I’ve been having a wee break in a Black Sea seaside town for a few days and the E87 Pan-European trunk road passes by where I’ve been staying, going all the way up the coast to the top of Bulgaria and beyond to the city of Constanța. A journey of just over an hour and a half, plus stops for cups of coffee, taking photographs, checking forty-three times that I had all the necessary travel documentation in my trusty faux PVC travel document wallet and, eventually, the frontier post bureaucratic red tape.

It's a strange thing really. Before emigrating eighteen months ago, I was obsessed with foreign travel and always endeavoured to visit two or three new countries each year. Coming to live permanently in Bulgaria was the cherry on my wander-lusting cake but since I arrived here I haven’t really been anywhere I hadn’t been before, apart from exploring my lovely new country. In that time my only international trips have been to Ireland, the Netherlands, Italy and England, none of which could really be classed as uncharted territory. I have, of course, peered over borders into neighbouring Macedonia and Serbia but I was too shy to go in. I needed an excuse. Would it be bold of me to ask them if I could borrow a cup of sugar?

The last time I took a trip to a country I had never previously set foot in was on my first tentative toe-dipping foray into Bulgaria in April 2015 and I ended up moving here lock, stock and tea chest. Consequently, I had to be careful wandering northwards up the coast today, ensuring that I avoided glitzy estate agents’ offices and signs offering sunshine and cheap beer. I’ve been through all that before and I simply haven’t the energy to cope with another international house move. However, the intrepid traveller-type excitement had returned to my veins and this morning I grinned as I sped off brandishing my passport, even though I didn’t really need it as I am permitted to travel freely through the European Union member states using the identity card issued to me by the Government of the Republic of Bulgaria. I took it because I have felt more confident crossing borders with a passport since that unfortunate incident at Pisa airport where, instead of presenting my I.D. card, I handed the immigration officer my Tesco Club card. It was a bit embarrassing but, looking on the bright side, it earned me a 20p off voucher for my next visit to Italy.

Judging by the number of official military looking buildings that marked my crossing point, the place had seen quite a lot of activity down the years, especially during the Socialist era, I imagined. But this morning entering Romania from the south was pretty straightforward as only one building was in use and there was no sign of a Kalashnikov rifle, a ferocious German Shepherd dog or even a furry hat with a big red star stitched to the front of it. In the solitary booth Bulgarian and Romanian border officials sat side-by-side at adjacent windows. I stopped my car, handed my documents to Officer Bulgaria, drove forwards one metre to have them returned by Officer Romania and then drove another three or four metres to the window where I bought my vignette, (which is not a salad dressing but a permit to allow foreign motorists to drive on toll roads in Romania). The vignette lady looked far too old to be selling vignettes and I wondered if, as a girl on the first day in her job, she had issued vignettes to stick on mules and goats as their owners passed through, and later in life on the odd tank or two. Although obviously very experienced, she expressed her confusion when it came to light that I was born in England, had an Irish passport and a car with Bulgarian registration plates. I was itching to tell her about my Korean fridge and the packet of Belgian waffles in its freezer compartment but thought better of it, just in case she did have a Kalashnikov tucked away in her handbag. Smiling, she asked me a number of questions about where I lived, if I was enjoying my life on Europe’s eastern flank and how I was going to spend my day in her country. Finally, she asked me if I knew any words of Romanian. I confessed that I didn’t so she taught me how to say ‘hello’, ‘thank you’ and ‘can I borrow a cup of sugar?’ I thanked her in her own tongue but said goodbye in Bulgarian because she hadn’t taught me that but I wanted to show that I was willing and able to converse in more than just English.

The only aspect of the frontier post experience that I wasn’t happy with was that I didn’t get a stamp on a page in my passport. Even though I was travelling between two E.U. nations, I had convinced myself that as there was a proper control point and a barrier there might also be a bit of over-zealous officialdom and rubber stamp wielding. But that was not the case and my beautiful passport that I have had since May 2016 remains pure and virginal. This is particularly disappointing when I consider that the weight of the stamps and visas in my old passport made it so heavy that I was required to pay an excess baggage fee on it before boarding aeroplanes.

Within five kilometres of crossing the frontier, the lovely red cliffs and sandy beaches of Bulgaria’s bit of the Black Sea coast give way to heavy industry as the colossal cranes of the ship building yards around the town of Mangalia dominate the horizon to create a scene which, by comparison, makes Scunthorpe look like Disneyland. Along the main road I saw very few vehicles and in the seaside villages that I passed through there was little sign of life; just the occasional stray dog and a deckchair attendant who didn’t know that the summer was over. The already cloudy sky darkened and light rain began to fall, which did little to brighten up such a dreary place. My meeting with the vignette lady had been, by far, the cheeriest part of the journey and as the windscreen wipers on my car smeared away the dusty, drizzly deposits in a not very helpful way I began to wish that I had brought her with me. At least she could have taught me the Romania words for ‘chin up chuck!’ Contemplating breakfast, I stopped in Mangalia and had a quick look in my guide book to see what I could expect to find there to entertain me. It said that half a day was probably enough to see everything that the town had to offer but I think that was based on the assumption that the vignette lady would be sitting in her Mangalia home waiting for me with the kettle on and a packet of custard creams at the ready. But I knew she wasn’t, so I drove on.

The landscape improved marginally just north of the town as the road passed stretches of almost open countryside, skirted large sea inlets, crossed a shipping channel by means of a massive Socialist era concrete bridge and had laybys populated by pretty ladies who I had never seen before but who were waving at me as if we were old mates. Even though it was only mid-morning, I suspected that these ladies might be what are known as ladies of the night. They certainly seemed keen. I didn’t stop. It was still raining.

With a population of a quarter of a million and boasting that it is the biggest port on the whole of the Black Sea, I was prepared for Constanța not being a quaint fishing village. I wasn’t even all that surprised to see kilometre after kilometre of gloomy old concrete apartment blocks as I entered the city. I can’t remember seeing a picturesque industrial centre anywhere in the world so, undeterred, I drove on aiming for the ‘old town’ district which I had read was the oldest continually inhabited part of Romania.

I parked my car by the marina (that’s a place where people leave their yachts, not a 1970s model of a Morris motor vehicle) and walked a few hundred metres through strangely deserted streets to the main square, which was also strangely void of anything that might be described as a crowd. A couple of old mosques, a big Roman Catholic church and the National History Museum along with dozens of buildings from the early twentieth century and more recent reminders of a troubled past were interesting to look at though all in great need of a lick of paint and, somewhat typical of my end of Europe, there were a number of structures that looked like they might have been very governmental and imposing thirty or so years ago but were now little more than homes for pigeons and some of the country’s most extensive collections of empty plastic beer bottles.

Already feeling a bit sad that this city which had obviously in the past been a majestic coastal playground should now appear in such a state of neglect I chanced upon a magnificent but derelict white building right on the sea front to deepen my sadness. In an Art Nouveau style it was originally commissioned by King Carol I and built around the year 1900, opening to the public as a casino in 1910, apparently. Until it was closed to the public in 1990 it was considered to be the most magnificent building in the country; Romania’s pearl on the shore of the Black Sea and a place where wealthy travellers and the elite flocked from all over Europe to play and dance the night away. With a feeling of awe, I had an urge to recreate those decadent days of champagne and swinging jazz so in my head I switched on the music of greats like Teodora Enache and Johnny Răducanu and, in the absence of bubbly, I went in search of beer. Sad old building or no sad old building, I was going to go for a beer anyway.

 

Cazinoul din Constanța, Romania's former pearl of the Black Sea.

Cazinoul din Constanța, Romania's former pearl of the Black Sea.

 

I was surprised and a little disappointed that so many things that I had expected to find in Constanța were missing. There was no Romanian beer in the bars and cafés. I saw adverts for unpronounceable brands of their beer in convenience shop windows but I didn’t feel thirsty enough to be drawn by the offer of three litres for five Leu (about a Euro). I wanted to sit by the quayside and enjoy something a bit less vast but they only had Tuborg and Heineken, so I settled for a big bottle of local lemon-flavoured non-alcoholic stuff. Similarly, there was no Romanian food to be had. There was nothing traditional, nothing Bulgarian or East European of any persuasion, and not even any American junk food, which seemed very strange. The only sustenance I could find was Italian. There were literally dozens of Italian restaurants all over the place so I thought ‘when in Rome’ and had a tasty big plate of seafood pasta, which was very nice but not what I had expected when I left my lodgings this morning.

At the other end of the old town bit of town I found a Roman ruin. Actually, someone else had found it long before me so when I say ‘found’ I mean I saw it without previously having known it was there. It was impressive in a Roman ruin way i.e. quite big with sufficient columns and carvings to keep me interested for twenty minutes but by then I’d had enough and I didn’t really care which emperor had built it as once you’ve read a dodgy translation about one emperor you’ve read them all and I don’t much go for empires anyway. But it did make me wonder if all the Italian restaurants had been established there during the Roman occupation and if subsequent Danish and Dutch military conquests had been responsible for the unusual range of beer that was on offer in Constanța’s watering holes.

I tried to walk along the sea front and I tried to be enthusiastic about the town and its history but the cold wind, the grey skies and the lack of a shop where I could buy a fridge magnet or a ‘Greetings from Constanța’ fish slice made me long to be back in my lovely Bulgaria, so towards the back end of the afternoon I said ‘la revedere’ (a nice lady in a café had extended my vocabulary to include ‘goodbye’), hopped into my car and set off for home.

The return journey was along the same roads that I had driven this morning, but obviously in the opposite direction. If I had continued northwards on the E87 I would have ended up in Galaţi, where the borders of Romania, Moldova and Ukraine meet. I thought they might sell fridge magnets there. On all the previous occasions when I had not got a stamp in my passport I consoled myself with a new fridge magnet as a record of my worldly wanderings. But today I had achieved neither. I mulled over the draw of Moldova but decided against it because it would have added another five hundred kilometres and two more elderly vignette ladies to the journey, and it was already starting to get dark. Instead I called into a corner shop and bought a big bottle of local beer for my neglected fridge. It was called Ciuc (pronounced ‘chook’, not ‘sick’). Later in the evening, when my day’s driving was complete, I drank my Ciuc. It was pleasant enough but nothing special. A bit like Tuborg or Heineken I suppose.

As I headed southwards, the sky again darkened and the rain set in so I was unable to admire the shipyard cranes and factory chimneys that had made this morning’s journey such a spectacle. The layby ladies of the night don’t work nights so they’d packed up and gone home, and although the Christmas lights had been put up in Mangalia, the local council hadn’t yet got around to hiring a former member of the cast of Emmerdale to come and switch them on.

All in all, a dull journey so I was glad to see the dim lights of the border crossing post and the even more dimly lit board bearing the words ‘Добре дошли в България’ (welcome to Bulgaria). The documentation-checking palaver was completed swiftly and soon I was clear of the formalities (or so I thought) and gathering speed in my car. Then, as I hurtled past it, I spotted another kiosk with a light on inside and a border guard sitting at the window. Painted on the road before it, in bold red and white, was a stop sign. This came as a total surprise as there had been no second checkpoint when leaving the country only eight hours earlier. Perhaps the Bulgarian authorities monitored incoming traffic more stringently than their northerly neighbours. Fearful of looking like a desperate refugee, I slammed on the brakes and looked out of my back window to see if anybody was shooting at me, but they weren’t. Suddenly relieved that I had not caused an international incident, my racing heart slowed to an almost normal rate for a split second, but only until the car’s passenger door opened and, as quickly as it had stopped, the racing recommenced as a stranger emerged from the murky darkness to ask me where I was going. ‘Prison’ was my first thought until it turned out that the stranger was a bloke called Oliver from Peru who had spent the last ten months backpacking his way around almost every country in Eastern Europe. Now he was heading down the Black Sea coast towards Turkey for some winter warmth. He thanked me profusely for giving him a lift for the part of his journey that coincided with mine as at that time on a cold and wet November evening he had decided it unlikely that anyone would pick him up. I confessed that I hadn’t really stopped for him and explained why, adding that I was happy to take him the next sixty kilometres but not as happy as I was to be still alive. I love it when I make foreign people laugh.

Although south east Romania isn’t particularly nice, I’m glad I went there today. It was an interesting experience and I like to think that on my travels I don’t just go to the fabulously glamourous spots. Every destination enriches a wanderer’s catalogue of tales. The big chunks of my life that I spent in Barking and Swindon surely prove this. I think for a lot of people a day in Constanța might put them off Romania forever, but I know there are many beautiful places and friendly faces there, so I can’t wait to go back. Even if only to meet more smiling elderly vignette ladies. 

Winter Draws On

I was told that the clocks were going to change at two o’clock this morning. I waited up and watched them intently but nothing happened. Not a sausage. My kitchen clock did move on by a minute but it does that at two o’clock every morning. I have been studying this for some time and I have recorded the results in an exercise book, which I will publish in a future instalment of my blog if anybody’s interested. I found this morning’s non-event to be the biggest anti-climax since I turned up at the starting line of the 2002 Whitbread Round the World Race without realising that I’d need a yacht. A minor detail that was overlooked today was the fact that clocks had to have knobs and buttons physically twiddled and pressed and this change didn’t just happen automatically, except on Orwellian-type gadgets like mobile phones, laptops and digital pop-up toasters. The good news that emerged from this strange phenomenon was that we all got an ‘extra hour’. I spent my extra hour manually adjusting all my clocks.

The point of this, apparently, is to provide working people with an extra hour of daylight at the beginning of each day. Well that’s all well and good for those people who lead normal lives and leave their houses early in the morning, but for me it’s just a cause for concern. I’ve just bought some new curtains and I’m worried that an extra hour of daylight will make them fade.

There may well be an extra hour of daylight in the mornings, at least for three weeks, but it also means that we have an extra hour of darkness in the evenings. When I did used to lead a normal life, this put me in the depressing situation of having to leave my house for work before it had got light and return home after darkness had fallen; all in a country where even the light bits of the days tended to be dark.

Now that I am living in the sunny Republic of Bulgaria, I don’t get depressed about this clock change nonsense anymore because my life here is such that I don’t need to go to work, so I never get up in the dark (except to go for a wee and then return swiftly to bed) and the winters here are quite exciting. When it’s not dark it’s usually sunny, sometimes it’s sunny and there’s half a metre of snow on the ground, sometimes the weather is grey and wet but never for very long and always at the end of all the Arcticness there is a long hot summer to look forward to. For the first time in my life I really don’t mind the end of the daylight-saving thing. I think we should do the timepiece adjustment every Sunday for twenty-four weeks during the darker months, then over the course of time there’d be no need to change the clocks at all and we’d have regular extra hours to do special things in.

Three days ago, we had Saint Dimitar’s Day, which apparently heralds the beginning of winter. The word on the mythological street is that Saint Dimitar, "master of frost and snow", rides a red horse and the year's first snowflakes fall from his white beard. I have yet to see a red horse or a snowflake here in Malki Chiflik, but I find the day a useful reminder that the time when we have to change our clocks is almost upon us, just in case 99% of the people who have nothing better to say on Facebook forget to remind me.

Hallowe’en isn’t part of the Christian Orthodox calendar so we don’t have it here in the Republic of Bulgaria. Or at least we didn’t until the fall of Communism in 1989 and the subsequent wave of western consumerism that came along to erode our country’s beautiful old culture. There’s not much sign of it really. Just a few pathetic plastic pumpkins with smiley faces and blood stained severed limbs on hooks at the ends of supermarket aisles near the fruit and veg and the fresh meat counters, which causes quite a bit of confusion amongst shoppers. I heard Mrs Ivanova the other day asking a young lady assistant what veg goes best with a zombie’s foetid hand. Parsnips, apparently!

The kids in my village don’t bother with this at all, probably on account of so many of them being of the Muslim faith. I’m a little disappointed about this lack of enthusiasm for the observance of All Hallows’ Evening. When I lived in England I used to buy a big bag of those Miniature Heroes chocolatey things to hand out to trick or treat callers and the bag was always far too big to ever be exhausted by their meagre demands, which meant that I didn’t need to cook anything for my tea on Hallowe’en e’en. Since my move to Eastern Europe I have more time on my hands so I thought I’d put a bit more effort into joining in the festivities. Last week I even went to the lengths of buying a chainsaw to entertain, in a horror sort of way, the miniature heroes who might knock on my door in hope of a treat, convinced that a mad foreigner bearing a lethal power tool would be the high point of their evening. I can’t understand why no one turned up. The chainsaw serves a dual purpose as I also use it for cutting up the piles of dead wood that have accumulated in my barn down the years which I can now use as winter fuel. I only wish I had invested in such a powerful device back in the days when I used to earn a crust from hacking away at grotesquely thick fungal toenails. In the world of the Foot Health Practitioner, every day is Hallowe’en.

Like it or not, Saint Dimitar has been and gone and the evenings are lengthening rapidly. This, however, gives me more time to make plans for winter, the most crucial part being the stocking up of the cupboards. Mistakes have been made in the past. Last year I stocked myself up and then ate all the stock before winter had properly kicked off, so I need to remember to keep on stocking. I’ve learned that filling the larder with stock entails much more than buying a big box of Oxo cubes and that, due to the fact that they are not food items, toilet rolls and personal grooming products can easily be missed off the shopping list. I hate to think that when mountain rescue people come to dig me out of my snow-stricken home, my hair might be flopping about in my eyes or I haven’t been able to floss.

Last winter was a bit of a life changing experience for me. I am told that it was the hardest winter in Bulgaria since 1947 so I picked a fine time to take the icy plunge. Call me a fool for making assumptions but I’ve convinced myself that this winter won’t be as bad and, as it is my second winter, I will be better prepared. I’ve done some serious insulating and draft-proofing work around the place, some new doors are coming next week to make the downstairs part of the house a bit less open-plan, I’ve invested in a bigger and more efficient petchka (wood burning stove) to supplement the smart and tarty electrical heating system that costs me so much money, I’ve built up extra layers of body fat during the summer which I can use to keep me warm and possibly even rend down to spread on toast during the bitterest depths of the season and I have acquired two cats which I can send out hunting for fresh meat but more likely use as natural hot water bottles when I put my feet up with a book of an evening and they sit on my knee and snore and fart.

During an almighty blizzard it takes more than food and drink to ensure survival. The mind needs to be stimulated too. Last winter my mind didn’t stop churning over the numerous ways in which I might die in the big freeze. Would the ton of snow on the roof make it cave in and crush me to death, would I be eaten alive by yetis or rats, would I drown in my vast store of rakia or would my bum stick to the frozen toilet seat? The possibilities were endless so my brain was kept permanently active to the point that I didn’t even have time to do the crossword in the Veliko Tarnovo Advertiser, not even when my bum was frozen to the toilet seat. This year I am much more relaxed about my relaxation time as I will be trying to make a dent in the shelves full of music CDs and unread books that I brought here with me from Britain. I write a lot more of this blog nonsense when it’s too cold to go outside, I have a small but perfectly formed musical instrument tucked away that I’m not going to tell anybody about until I can get a tune out of it, I’m going to have a crack at some painting (possibly a couple of works of art but at the bare minimum the downstairs toilet) and there’s the belly dancing lessons with my Turkish neighbours, though I’m surprised no one has taught them how to do this before now.

 

Keeping myself amused during the long dark nights of a Bulgarian winter.

Keeping myself amused during the long dark nights of

a Bulgarian winter.

 

I’m even prepared for the winter battle against wildlife. The insect aspect of the struggle has mostly died down now and, although the rodent battle rages on, I feel I constantly have the upper hand. However, I have a new problem in that a woodpecker has discovered that the eaves above my back door are particularly tasty and he pecks away like a woodpecker possessed if I don’t go out there regularly and threaten to make cider out of him. I know he’s a him because he’s so brightly coloured. Lady woodpeckers tend to be a bit drab, which makes me think they might have migrated here from Berkshire. My home-destroying woodpecker is such a gorgeous creature that I’m tempted to invite him inside the house and give him some proper food, like millet and cuttlefish or possibly even throw a wine and cheese and oak party. I have it from a reliable source that the woodpecker is not really the problem. The problem is that the wood he pecks at is probably a little bit rotten (although it looks quite sound to me) and my hard-nosed friend is just pointing out that I need to do something about it at the same time as filling his brightly coloured fat belly with the family of grubs that dwell within my timbers. This is another aspect of living with nature in a foreign land that I hadn’t envisaged and I can’t help but wonder what is next. I haven’t yet been attacked in any way by a fish.

The big improvement in my situation since last winter is that I now know more of the people in my village, so should climatic extremes put my life in danger, or should I run out of things to wipe my bottom with, I know they will always be there to help. My dear friend Abdullah who lives over the road from me always has half a cigarette behind his ear and I’m sure that if all else failed he would gladly light it to keep us warm. 

Sofia Airport

Down the years I had already done a fair few of these ‘group activity’ trips with the adventure holiday company Exodus Travels, taking me to far flung corners of the world including such mesmerising destinations as Peru, Madagascar and Iran. So I had known from the moment that I booked it that this trip would be a bit different as the far-flung corner of the moment was going to be Bulgaria, the country in which I just happened to be living.

It had been a long time since I had last been excited about going away on holiday in my ‘home’ country. A month in mesmerising Ramsgate with my parents, younger sister and dog in 1971 was probably the previous such occasion. It had been a great adventure though, travelling down from Yorkshire to London and beyond. I had wondered if, because of their proximity to France, the people of East Kent would speak a strange language and have strange customs. My moments of wonder manifested themselves as we met people who spoke like the cast from the classic television drama On the Buses (EastEnders hadn’t been invented back then) and supported Arsenal. I had never known the like so this, my first taste of culture shock, left me dumbstruck. Later in life I looked back and recognised that it had prepared me well for other similar adventures in the likes of Peru, Madagascar and Iran.

Although I was very excited about this latest trip, its proximity to my home generated strange emotions in my constantly swirling mind. It was a bit like living in Leeds and going on an international overland trekking adventure in Scarborough. I was leaving the comfort of my house to explore a wild and mysterious region where few people ever dared to venture but I was doing a large chunk of the journey in my own car. I had even considered going there on the bus.

The plan was to commence a walking holiday in Bulgaria’s remote and beautiful Rodopi Mountains by meeting my new travelling companions and the Exodus local guide in the arrivals hall at Sofia Airport’s Terminal Two; a place I had been many times before to meet family and friends coming out from Western Europe to visit me, or to wave them off as they flew home again and I had even flown in and out of the place myself on several occasions. I drove there and deposited my car at a nearby ‘secure’ off-site airport car park. I can never understand why they are advertised as being secure. It’s as if some people might prefer an insecure car park in which to leave their vehicle for a week or two. Not that it needed to be all that secure anyway, as I don’t recall ever hearing of a theft of a fifteen-year-old Daihatsu Sirion and if mine was to go adrift in my absence then surely it would be a first, I would have made history and I would be famous.

Such is my fear of being late for the start of a trip (or anything else that I’m ever invited to attend) and my nervousness about how long the three-hour journey through the dramatic Balkan Range of mountains from my dwelling place to Sofia might take, I set off far too early and arrived ridiculously far too early. I’m pretty sure that I had sat myself down in the airport café with a strong local coffee and hot banitsa long before the wheels of Bulgaria Air flight FB852 carrying my soon-to-be new friends had even parted with the English runway. ‘Better far too early than never’ has always been my philosophy, though from this it’s clear to see why I never got a job as an airline pilot. Had I been the third Wright Brother, the flying machine would have been up and running before anyone had even had time to invent wheels to put on it.

As far as I was aware, I was the only member of our holiday group who wasn’t flying in to Sofia from London so I was already the strange one before I even met the rest of them, but I took comfort from the knowledge that I was sitting there alone for hours because everyone else was on the flight and not just because I was a bit strange. The Bulgarian word for strange is ‘Странно’ (pronounced ‘strannoh’) and I’m pleased to say that I’ve never heard anybody use it whilst talking to or about me. Though I suspect it often comes up in the minutes of the meetings of the Secret We Hate Terry Club, held in church halls on the evening of the third Tuesday of every month.

So I sat alone for a couple of hours in the airport terminal building with my camera hung round my neck and my travel bag by my side. I even had my passport in my trusty and well-worn document wallet clutched in my hand. I must have looked every bit the seasoned jet-setter but one thing was missing, that being an airline ticket. Oh I felt so cheap as I looked around at the other ‘real’ travellers and wondered if the words ‘poser, fraud and cheapskate’ might have been going through their minds as they looked back at me.

On the plus side of being in an airport but not actually flying anywhere, I didn’t suffer the inconvenience of having to empty my pockets, take off my boots and some of my clothes, be frisked by a man wearing latex gloves or dispose of my fluids, as I had often had to do at this stage of previous adventures.

Being eternally imaginative, I found a number of things to do to pass the time.

I walked from one end of the arrivals hall to the other end of the departures hall and back again six or eight times. This was my training for the seven consecutive days of gruelling mountain trekking that lay ahead of me. You can’t say I don’t prepare for these trips.

I chatted to a Bulgarian taxi driver who was wearing a full Manchester City replica kit. The taxi man’s contribution to the conversation was partly based on Rahim Sterling’s fitness level but mostly on whether or not I needed a ride into the city centre and the ‘special price’ he was offering me. I told him tales of the great names that had lined up for Leeds United in my time as a football fan and that I wanted to go to the village of Yagodina in the Rodopi Mountains with a crowd of people I had never met before. He was utterly delighted to have gained such knowledge of legends such as Billy Bremner, Johnny Giles and Pontus Jansson, and pleased with the new English phrase ‘I don’t take Millwall fans’ that I had taught him, but disappointed that his Opel Astra wouldn’t be big enough to accommodate an Exodus Travels party of walkers. However, he said he would have been able to provide a crowd of people I had never met before, offering me this at a special price.

 

The crowd of people I had never met before.

The crowd of people I had never met before.

 

I went to the toilet. Then a bit later I went to the toilet again even though I didn’t need to but I remembered the words I used to say to my kids when they were little about preparing for a long bus ride, and I wanted to neither appear hypocritical in my own mind nor get caught short on the motorway. On my second visit to the Terminal Two loo the place was full of armed officers of the Border Police. Terrified of the consequences of splashing their shiny black stormtrooper boots I just stood there motionless and pretended until they’d all gone off for a nice cuppa or to shoot a terrorist. By the time they had disappeared I really did need to use the toilet.

It was a little disappointing that our escapade should be kicking off from Terminal Two rather than the more ‘traditional’ Terminal One building which was built in the 1930s and upgraded a bit in the 1960s in a combination of Communist concrete and art sort of style. To me it is more representative of the country with its great marble clad walls and huge tiled mosaic maps of Bulgaria and Europe bearing city names still as they were during the Socialist era, its slightly shabby back room bits and its recent attempts at modernisation. It is the only airport building I have ever seen in the world to have a dedicated post office within it (I go there every Tuesday to collect my pension) and it is also the only one in which I have seen stray dogs asleep in the arrivals hall. But at least it has character, unlike Terminal Two which could be any medium sized international airport in Europe. But for the absence of a branch of Gregg’s it would be easy to fool yourself into thinking you had just landed in Bristol. Not many flights go to the original terminal these days and I suspect that eventually it will close, which I think would be a great shame.

As the time of the group rendezvous approached I found myself staring at other people’s luggage tags to see if any of them belonged to fellow Exodus travellers who had arrived early like me. None fitted the criteria but every luggage tag tells a story and every story, I’m sure, must contain the thoughts, ‘Is that adequate and will I ever see my bag again?’ as the pre-flight labelling procedure got underway. This was another thing that I had no need to worry about as my bag didn’t have to be checked in or picked up from a baggage carousel an anxious half hour after the belt had started to move.

The only time I have ever in all my life seen my bag emerge first in the baggage collection area was when I went on a short, self-organised trip to Marrakech. I packed all my stuff in an Exodus kitbag that I had acquired on a previous Exodus trip and as it had the company logo all over it in big bold lettering it was easy to spot. As I picked it up and started to walk away with it in my hand and a delighted grin on my face I was apprehended by a lady who accused me of stealing her bag. How was I to know that a real Exodus group had flown out from Gatwick for a real holiday on the same plane that I had been on? Being labelled a thief in any foreign airport is something that is best avoided so I quickly let go and she wandered off with it, grumbling as she went. The appearance of several more identical bags convinced me that I had made a terrible mistake and eventually my own bag appeared from the bowels of the terminal building long after everyone had gone home, just as I should have expected it to do.

Meanwhile, back in Sofia on this trip, my wait at last came to an end as a very nice holiday guide lady holding an Exodus Travels clipboard appeared and a crowd of people wearing walking boots and bearing apprehensive smiles gathered around her. We all introduced ourselves, knowing full well that we would have forgotten all those new names within ten minutes, and then we were on a minibus heading for the mountains, the adventure of a lifetime and a week of aching joints and various other sore bits.

I will tell you more about the trip in the not too distant future but currently I have a journalistic embargo hovering over me while the people at Hello magazine decide what they are going to do with my story and / or me. So don’t go away because I’ll be back with tales of remote mountain folklore, superstition, incredible scenery, friendly local people, fine traditional cuisine, the aforementioned sore bits and cross-dressing.

Stress Relief

I haven’t had a proper holiday for absolutely ages. Admittedly I’ve recently had very nice trips to England, Ireland, the Netherlands and Italy to do lovely family and friends things but I haven’t been away on a proper big adventure in a place I’ve never seen before since the spring of 2015 when I first set foot in Bulgaria. I suppose it’s for the best that I no longer go on great intrepid journeys as the last one turned out to be a life changing moment, culminating in a house move over a distance of 3,000 kilometres and having to part with my much-loved mobile chiropody business, and I don’t fancy going through that rigmarole again. I’m quite happy here thank you very much.

On the other hand, I haven’t done any work for a year and a half and having a holiday has become less of a necessity now that I no longer have a diary filled with appointments from before dawn each day until after dusk. Also my mobile phone no longer buzzes every fifteen minutes, day and night, seven days a week. Back in the day I felt a bit like Batman at times, springing into action the second a problem arose. All that was missing was a big light in the shape of a fungal toenail shining in the night sky to alert me. It was hard work and in the final two years I was exhausted but nevertheless, I still miss all my lovely customers (from the ankle up). Just thinking about how my life used to be makes me tired now. This is probably the most draining paragraph I have ever written so before I type more I am going for a brisk lie down, because these days I can.

Not going to work isn’t as easy as it sounds, especially after moving to another country where the culture, climate and language are all so totally different to what I am accustomed to. My new diary in my new environment is still pretty full, though I never have to set the alarm clock (I’ve forgotten how to) and if I can’t be bothered doing the things I have scheduled for any particular day I just leave them until another day without any fear of an elderly lady client turning up on my doorstep brandishing a rolling pin or some old bloke threatening to set his dentures on me.

Acclimatising is such a time-consuming activity, I have discovered, and there are many aspects of it to consider. Fitting in to new surroundings means meeting new people and having conversations with them, which go much more smoothly over a meal of Bulgarian ingredients and proportions and a glass or two of Bolyarka (Bulgarian beer), Mavrud (Bulgarian red wine), rakia (Bulgarian fruit brandy), mastika (Bulgarian ouzo), menta (Bulgarian crème de menthe), etc. It’s impossible to try all these new things to eat and drink in one session so forming new friendships requires several meetings (and a couple of packets of Anadin for the recovery process) and where the friendships are with Bulgarian people then additional time has to be allowed to take into account language differences and their expert knowledge of the local food and drink which always unearths another food or drink item that I have never tried before.  Sometimes I put so much effort into making new friends that I can’t remember what I have had to eat or drink or even who my new friends are when I wake up the next day, so the whole exercise has to be repeated. What a nuisance!

I spend a lot of time doing things that I could never find the time to do when I was a self-employed foot hacker in England. Things like reading books, attempting to write a book, sleeping, taking exercise, wandering aimlessly about the place where I live, taking photographs, cutting my own toenails instead of other people’s and buying, cooking and eating the right kind of food. A trip to the supermarket takes up a huge amount of my time as each shopping expedition turns into a lesson in language, culture, cuisine and geography. Hours and hours of looking up Bulgarian words in Google Translate have worn a hole in the screen on my mobile phone as I go that extra step to ensure that I am not putting shoe polish on my pasta, washing up liquid on my muesli or drinking disinfectant instead of rakia, though on a couple of occasions I’ve still not been convinced about the latter. Additionally there are so many different types of fruits and vegetables, cuts of meat, dairy products, pastry products, preserved products and so on, that each shopping aisle demands a big chunk of quality time to itself. The geography bit of all this is just me doing my bit to support a weak local economy. I won’t buy anything that isn’t produced in this country so I read every label. A few months ago I failed slightly as I could only find Greek olive oil on the shelf in the shop. I told a Bulgarian friend who asked me why I would buy foreign olive oil when the finest sunflower oil in the world is produced right here on my doorstep. Well not quite on my doorstep but in the fields around me. If it was really on my doorstep I wouldn’t be able to get out to buy oil at all. I’m pleased to say that as my head slowly fills with the words of my newfound second language, the time spent on my weekly shop is getting progressively shorter. However, I must admit I would still be a very poor contestant if ever I was invited to appear on the Supermarket Sweep telly programme here.

 

On my doorstep.

On my doorstep.

 

I also spend a lot of time trying to not do things. I try not to think about the political situation that I left behind in England when I moved here on the day after the announcement of the Brexit result and the shambles that has evolved since. I have no need to concern myself as I don’t live there anymore and I have only an Irish passport and a Bulgarian identity card to show where I come from, so really it’s not even any of my business. I try to get my head round the things that I see every day here being normal rather than novel in comparison to my past experiences. Forgetting the rampant consumerism, the inflated prices, the constant need to dash about, the air pollution, the deteriorating health service, the choked-up road system and the awful weather, which collectively almost suffocated me before I emigrated, takes up a few minutes of each month too.

Some activities that I hadn’t expected also help me fill my days. Things like my on-going household rodent extermination programme, yoga classes, yoghurt classes (you wouldn’t believe how many different types of natural yoghurt we have here), staring open-mouthed at the beautiful view from the back door of my house, taking cats to the vet (they are part of the rodent extermination programme but they require occasional servicing), studying a profusion of wild birds (which I can do without having to get up from my settee), collecting my mail from the mayor’s office in the village, tending to my own personal bountiful crop of sunflowers whilst trying not to look like Vincent van Gogh, gathering fruit and berries, removing venomous insects from my epidermis and a million and one different things that you can do with the big succulent watermelons that are found here in mighty abundance.

My list adds up to me feeling like I need to get away from all of this for a while.  The intensity of the relaxation is proving to be quite stressful. I need excitement and adventure. I need culture shock and a totally different environment to the humdrum (albeit a blissful humdrum) of my everyday life. So I’m going to … the other side of Bulgaria.

I’ve booked up to go on a walking holiday in the beautiful Rhodope Mountains and it’s organised by my old friends at Exodus Travels. They form a wonderful travel company with whom I have done seven previous trips so I know what I am letting myself in for. They operate a policy of ‘responsible tourism’ which means that absolutely everything on the trip will be locally sourced, so I can expect to be confronted by traditional Bulgarian food, drink, music, history, architecture, wildlife, the country’s gorgeous scenery and succulent watermelons. It’s as if the last fifteen months have been a dummy run for my forthcoming seven-day holiday.

I have already visited another bit of the Rhodopes so I know how beautiful it is up there in the accessible-to-novices region, but this trip takes us to some very remote areas which are difficult to see properly without a local guide. Very close to the border with Greece, it’s an area of great mystery and superstition inhabited by eerie monsters from a rich folklore, wolves, bears and a few humans. I’m really looking forward to it but I’m slightly concerned that the guide might think I’m a bit of a clever clogs because I know so much about the country already. Perhaps I could be his or her assistant and have some of his or her wages and/or rakia for being so knowledgeable and enthusiastic.

This thought reminds me of how I love going into the shops and restaurants in the touristy bit of Veliko Tarnovo where I live and speaking to the staff with my limited grasp of the Bulgarian tongue. They think I’m a real tourist and they’re really impressed by the number of words I’ve picked up in just a few days. I never let on that I live just up the road and I have been having lessons for over a year and in truth I’m rubbish at it. It has come to my attention that there are two sorts of Bulgarian people … those who think I’m a smartarse and those who think I’m a moron.

What I’m really looking forward to is dinner on the first night in the mountains when group members are being very polite and not saying words like ‘poo’ and ‘fart’ because they haven’t got to know each other properly yet. At this stage of one of these expeditions a question that always comes up in conversation is ‘And how did you travel here?’ The answer is often something akin to ‘Oh I flew in from Auckland via Seattle’, but I will be able to say that I came on the bus. And at the end of the trip I’m going to invite them all back to my house for a coffee.

I could tell you a lot more about what I have to look forward to but I’m not going to as it will form the basis for many more future blog pieces, provided that I can find enough spare time for writing when I return to the blissful humdrum.

Once Bitten

If the term ‘once bitten, twice shy’ was anything to go by then I would be Eastern Europe’s biggest introvert. Here at the height of my second Bulgarian summer I feel I have become the main course for the country’s entire insect population. Each morning as I rise from my protective lead-lined coffin (the only place where I can safely sleep) I hear the little monsters tucking their napkins into their collars and brandishing their knives and forks as they drool a little at the thought of feasting on my tender, Western European climate flesh.

Really, it’s not just insects that have me on their specials board. Other classes from the animal kingdom are available, but insects are the main culprits, particularly the mosquitos. I don’t know if it’s a legacy from Soviet nuclear testing during the Socialist era but the blood sucking little bastards that hover around me baring their fangs seem to be of an industrial strength and totally indestructible. I have tried smearing and squirting stuff on myself but they just consider the likes of vinegar, garlic, citron oil and even 100% DEET as a marinade to render me an even tastier repast. I have tried a variety of electronic bug deterrent devices that plug into the wall, all of which seem pretty useless, especially when I am walking round the village.

There are a lot of quite big mozzies and millions and millions of tiny ones. The big ones can sometimes be caught in the act of banqueting and when I swat their engorged bodies at least one millilitre of blood oozes from the carnage, and I strongly suspect that it has been acquired from me. I have become an involuntary blood donor and I don’t even get a cup of tea and a biscuit at the end of it. The tiny ones are even more infuriating because I can hear them but I can’t see them. I don’t know they’ve been until they’ve gone and then I’m scratching at myself for a week as my spine chilling screams of itchy agony act as a siren to attract yet more mosquitos. I think the only answer to this problem would be to find someone even tastier than I am to live with me and accompany me everywhere, or for me to stay permanently in the lead-lined coffin. My only consolation is the knowledge that each and every one of them will die in the autumn and I will still be here, provided I survive the summer.

I have two cats now. The prime reason for inviting felines into my home was to keep down the rodent population and after only three months there has already been a positive result. A few days ago, nine-month old Cat One caught a rat and I was thoroughly delighted. She dined on Whiskas with caviar that night to celebrate. In fact we both did. Cat Two isn’t quite two months old yet and still very small so I wouldn’t expect him to be able to exterminate pests of such a size just yet, but I wonder if I could train him to kill mosquitos. If successful, perhaps I could extend my range of moggies from Cat One, Cat Two, etc. right up to Cat Five, a bit like Thunderbirds, and each with their own specialist killing job. F.A.B. Tiddles!

Unfortunately, Cat Two didn’t get off to a good start. He was a rescue cat of the most extreme kind. My neighbour, Abdullah, had commented a few times whilst sitting in my garden drinking my wine, that I was kinder than most in our village when it came to cats. He’s a nice bloke who I often try to chat to in Bulgarian. He offered me some of his wine but it was absolutely rank so, rather than offend him by not drinking wine with him, I opened a bottle of my own that I had bought in the supermarket. Abdullah now realises that I am kinder than most in our village when it comes to people who drink a lot of wine so he visits me regularly and always brings something to repay me with … things like plums (even though I have five plum trees of my own), leaves for making herbal tea that he has picked from bushes up our lane, wild mushrooms from the forest and kittens far too young to be taken away from their mother.

One lovely sunny morning about three weeks ago, Abdullah brought Cat Two in a sack as I sat in my garden with a cup of coffee. At first I thought the sack contained more plums. Then I saw that there was something moving inside it which I assumed to be a snake. Then he held the sack open to reveal about a hundred grams of the tiniest cat I had ever seen, ninety grams of which were its please-save-me eyes. I took it out and held it for a while. It was a gorgeous little creature, purring away like mad and shivering in the hot July sunshine. Then I told him that although it was very cute I didn’t really want another cat. His response in Bulgarian was ‘smurt’ (смърт). I typed the Cyrillic letters into the Google Translate facility on my mobile phone to discover that the English word was ‘death’. A little shocked, I wondered if he meant death for the kitten, or for me or for both of us if I didn’t take the poor little bugger in. Better safe than sorry has always been my motto so I kept the cat and gave Abdullah a large glass of Villa Yambol Mavrud 2013, which is spectacularly good by the way.

But Cat Two didn’t come alone. He brought his own little colony of fleas whose bites make mosquitos look like cissies. I had no shirt on when Cat Two and I first met. I held him against my chest for a couple of minutes and for the following week my skin was red raw. We went to the vet later that first day. Cat Two came home decontaminated and happy but the vet had nothing for my problem except convulsions of laughter.

Ten hours later I found myself in the emergency department at the hospital in Veliko Tarnovo needing treatment for an attack by another creepy crawly but this time an arachnid rather than an insect. Earlier in the day some new British immigrant friends came to visit me so I showed them round my house and took them out to the derelict barn and wilderness part of my garden for a look. Despite my hard work in the autumn and spring, the wilderness is all overgrown again but, knowing that a couple of hours with the strimmer will put it right eventually, I don’t despair like I did a year ago. However, overgrown is the perfect environment for ticks.

So when I returned with my friends to the coolness of my kitchen and the greater coolness of a glass of wine on that incredibly hot day, the crack at the back of my knee was a bit itchy. So I scratched it. By the time my visitors had gone it was even itchier so I scratched it even more. A couple of hours later it was extremely itchy and really tender too so, thankful that I had been a contortionist during my working life, I twisted my leg round to have a look. Lo and behold, buried in my flesh were the head and front legs of a tick, the body having been broken off by my scratching. According to the teachings of the World Wide Web, all the little gimmicky methods for removing ticks only ever work in laboratory conditions and if the tick is complete. The symptoms of what is technically known as Lyme Disease often passed on by a tick can include blood poisoning, convulsions, heart attacks and insanity. Call me a wimp but I really didn’t fancy insanity (well, not after last time) so, cursing the wonderful world of nature, I toddled off to the insect transmitted disease clinic on the other side of town.

Sadly, my plan to spend the remainder of the beautiful warm evening sitting out on the terrace with the remainder of the bottle of wine and my friends the mosquitos was shot down in flames due to my having ventured for the first time into a Bulgarian hospital to have my first ever Bulgarian injections and my first course of Bulgarian antibiotics. The remainder of the wine went down the plug hole the following day because of my five day course of medication. This made me think that perhaps I preferred insects to arachnids.

And then along came the mother of all arthropods! It happened on the night of the fifth. I had enjoyed a good dinner and I was sitting on the settee reading a book. Cat One was asleep close beside me. Cat Two was in another room studying his ‘Mosquito Catching for Dummies’ textbook. Wearing only shorts I felt something wriggle against my leg and, a little disturbed, I assumed that Cat One had brought yet another semi-live lizard in from the garden. But the cat was deep in slumber and totally oblivious to this. As I scrutinised the scene I became significantly more than a little disturbed as I discovered a leathery backed centipede approximately twelve centimetres (five inches, but I said centimetres to keep things metric as centipedes sound so metric).

I can’t remember exactly how I reacted but I may have screamed. I know I definitely said words that I wouldn’t repeat in front of the Orthodox Patriarch. The cat jumped up and tried to kill the beast, but I knew that beasts such as this in this part of the world can be quite venomous, so I was worried that the beast would kill the cat. Then, armed with green plastic dustpan and brush, I fought off the feline and swept up the centipede. Normally when I find an interesting lifeform in my house I put it in the dustpan and take a photograph of it, but this serpent-like devil wouldn’t stay in the dustpan. Twice it leapt to the floor, so I scooped it up for a third and final time, ran outside with it and threw it over the garden wall into the forest. Later I wished I’d put it into a bucket so that I could have got that oh-so-important picture to show off so that people would believe me. What makes me sure that it was twelve centimetres long is that when the excitement had died down I measured the bit of the dustpan that it had momentarily occupied. I can cope with any horrific creature as long as there is space between me and it, but when something with a bit of a reputation for being predatory is touching me I turn into a shrieking girlie whirling dervish.

So this is why I love scorpions. They do have a tendency to breed in my house but then they seem to either leave to find alternative accommodation under a stone in the garden or crawl into a corner of a room to go crispy and die. I see very few live ones in my living quarters and although their name suggests venom and danger of death, they are no trouble at all and they have the same birth sign as me so they must be nice. However, the very first time I saw a live one it was running towards me across the floor of my downstairs toilet whilst I was sitting on the throne with my shorts round my ankles … a scary incident indeed but at least I was in the best place for dealing with the shock.

 

Unable to provide a photograph of my beasts that bite, I give you ... Cat Two.

 Unable to provide a photograph of my beasts that bite,

I give you ... Cat Two.

 

Благодаря

Аз съм роден в Северна Англия. Имам ирландски паспорт, защото моят баща беше от Ирландия. Пътувам по целия свят. Но сега живея в България и съм много щастлив тук.

Живея в тази страна от една година. Моята къща е в Малки Чифлик, село в близост до старата част на Велико Търново. Пътувал съм от София до Черно Море и от река Дунав до Родопа планина. Навсякъде видях красиви пейзажи и много приветливи хора.

Срещнах само двама българи, които не ми харесаха. Те работят в компания за коли под наем до летище София. Поискаха ми твърде много пари, за да ми дадат навигационна система. Бяха първите хора, които срещнах в България. Един час след моето пристигане си мислех, аз никога повече няма да дойда в България. Но когато минах през планините с колата, видях, че е много красива страна. Спрях за кафе в село Български Извор и приятните хора, които работят там ме накараха да се усмихна. Бързо се влюбих в България.

Обичам планините, реките и езерата. Обичам историята, старинните сгради и музиката. Слънцето, ракията и хората ме правят още по-щастлив. Аз съм горд да имам българска лична карта. Но имам два малки проблема. Първият е, че българският език е труден и го уча бавно. Вторият е храната, защото тя прави моите панталони много стегнати.

През първата си година тук се почувствах много добре дошъл и сега имам много добри български приятели. Всички помогнаха на самотния чужденец и аз съм много благодарен за това. И сега знам, че ще остана тук до края на живота си.

И благодаря много на България.

 

Veliko Tarnovo, the city of my dreams.

 

And for those dear readers who are not blessed with the gift of the Bulgarski tongue, here it is in English ... 

I was born in the north of England . I have an Irish passport because my father was from Ireland. I have travelled all over the world. But now I live in Bulgaria and I am very happy here.

I have been living in this country for a year. My house is in Malki Chiflik, a village near the old part of Veliko Tarnovo. I have travelled from Sofia to the Black Sea and from the Danube River to the Rhodope Mountains. Everywhere I saw beautiful landscapes and very friendly people.

I met only two Bulgarians who I did not like. They work in a car rental company at Sofia Airport. They charged me too much money for a navigation system. They were the first people I met in Bulgaria. One hour after my arrival I thought, I will never come to Bulgaria again. But when I went through the mountains with the car I saw it was a very beautiful country. I stopped for coffee in the village of Balgarski Izvor and the nice people working there made me smile. I quickly fell in love with Bulgaria.

I love the mountains, the rivers and the lakes. I love the history, the old buildings and the music. The sun, the rakia and the people make me even happier. I am proud to have a Bulgarian identity card. But I have two small problems. The first is that the Bulgarian language is hard and I learn slowly. The second is the food because it makes my trousers very tight.

In my first year here I have felt very welcome and now I have some very good Bulgarian friends. Everybody helped this poor foreigner and I am very grateful for that. And now I know I'll stay here for the rest of my life.

So thank you very much Bulgaria.

Shaz the Kotka

You may have read in an earlier instalment of my Balkan saga that round about the time of last year’s mid-winter festival I was cursed by the presence of an unwanted visitor in my home, it being a rat. I’m normally a hospitable sort of bloke but this particular visitor was eating my water pipes, pooing in places where one shouldn’t poo and just not adding to the festive spirit at all. I invited it to leave a number of times but it was a rat that just couldn’t take a hint. I adopted several approaches in an attempt to persuade it to go home such as laying poison, setting traps, saying please, displaying signs that said ‘no rats’, repeatedly looking at my watch and yawning, blanket bombing with napalm canisters and spinning my long-playing record Golden Hour of the Speeches of Margaret Thatcher on the gramophone. The latter of these seemed to do the trick and it eventually packed its bags and scarpered, but it posted a letter of complaint to the Bulgarian RSPCA before it left the village.

Friends in Bulgaria told me that attack would be the best form of defence if repetition of this tiresome rodent-based incident was to be avoided, but I should employ the services of a big hard cat rather than go out attacking rats myself. So I put an advertisement on a card in the post office window. It said something like:

Cat required. Must be a mild-mannered psychopath and non-smoker with genitals removed and good sense of humour.

A few days later I had a reply from a she-cat that was living in a biscuit tin in a petrol station forecourt in the nearby town of Dryanovo. The cat had no form of transport so I drove there to collect her. I bought some fuel and when I went to pay, the man who ran the petrol station handed her over to me with my change and receipt. A much better reward system than Nectar points or Green Shield Stamps, I thought. He told me her name was Sharenka which in Bulgarian meant ‘colourful’ to describe her unusual markings. Although a nice name, this sounded a bit poncy and pretentious so I immediately added a bit of Leeds culture to her Balkan background and renamed her Shaz.

On the front seat of the car on the journey to her new life, Shaz was shaking and howling with fear, stinking of petrol and scratching vigorously, but delighted in the knowledge that with her new name she would be made to feel quite welcome if ever she fancied a pint in Seacroft Working Men’s Club on the fashionable eastern side of the great city of Leeds; an exclusive establishment where people are often found howling with fear, smelling of solvents and scratching themselves. So we bonded immediately.

I was a little bit concerned about my new mate introducing parasites to my home and the possibility of underage pregnancy, especially as she was now called Shaz. I imagined that after three halfalagers and a bowl of new meaty Whiskas with rat Shaz might be anybody’s. I was quite happy to take on a new friend in my life but I didn’t want her bringing a whole load of baggage, particularly in the form of kittens, with her too. So before going home we paid a precautionary visit to a vet in Veliko Tarnovo for a health check. I passed with flying colours (almost), but Shaz had ear mites. I got a bit confused here muddling up ear mites with ear worms. Mistakenly I felt so sorry for the poor little creature thinking that she might have spent most of her life so far with something like Boney M’s Rivers of Babylon rattling around in her little head. But the vet squirted some stuff on the back of her neck and sang a couple of David Bowie songs to get her back on track, and we all knew that from that point everything would be alright. He refused to neuter her though as she appeared to be only six months old. He said we should return when she had been in season at least once.

So we went home and I tried to show her around the place (demonstrating how to control the central heating, where the towels are kept, etc.) but she immediately went and hid down the back of the settee for an hour, humming Life on Mars? When she eventually and nervously emerged she came to sit beside me, purring loudly. She seemed a nice cat but I wondered how I would stop her from getting pregnant. We discussed various methods of contraception and she purred even more loudly. She seemed to be over-affectionate, not very active and quite fat for her tender age. I went and did a bit of rooting around on Google where the symptoms suggested that she might already be with kitten. Apparently cats can conceive from the age of four months. My immediate reaction was to go round to the father’s house and loosen a few of his teeth but then I calmed down and considered the possibility of raising the babies as my own so that the mother could pursue her lifetime’s ambitions unhindered by the need to provide child care.

I contacted my new friend Emma, who is incredibly wise in the ways of abandoned animals in this part of the world, and who had put me in contact with the petrol station owner a couple of days earlier. She suggested that I take young Shaz back to Dryanovo the following day to see a street vet that she worked with who would do the neutering and terminate any embryonic kittens at the same time, which would have been a shame but probably for the best for all concerned, especially the mother and babies.

The following morning the cat was put back into the carrying basket and taken out to the car to embark upon another stressful road trip. She had that ‘Oh what now? I was just starting to like it here.’ look on her face. Forty minutes later we met Dimitar who was a good vet with a very practical and enthusiastic approach to dealing with Bulgaria’s big problem of street cats and dogs. He agreed to do the necessary there and then, so while the poor little thing was under the knife I went away to have a coffee with Emma, who turned out to be from near Leeds and consequently delighted with Shaz’s name. 

On my return to the surgery Dimitar told me that my cat hadn’t been pregnant at all. She was just fat, probably because she had been overfed by the kind people who had been looking after her in the petrol station. I imagined her stuffing her face with Ginster’s pasties, Scotch eggs and cans of Coke. A fat street cat in Bulgaria is pretty rare so whatever she’d been fed on it was better than not being fed at all and being able to call her Fat Shaz made her sound even more Leeds Council Estate, so I warmed to her even more.

If cats could speak, Shaz would have said ‘I’ve bloody well had enough of all this’ as I carried her in her basket back to the car. She slept throughout the return journey and when we got home and I let her out in the kitchen her gait was wobbly as if she’d had a drop too much of the rakia. But apart from a bit of oozing from her wound and the embarrassment of having had some over-the-top trimming of her bikini line, she was the same old Shaz that I had known for all these hours. Once again she settled in to her new life in my house, albeit in an even more nervous and pathetic way than the previous day.

The weeks went by and Shaz grew in confidence from being a terrified runt to a cocky little get. It’s nice to see that she has made herself at home here but she has also made the place home for all sorts of wildlife that she brings over the threshold into my kitchen. Wildlife such as large beetles, lizards, severed but still wriggling appendages of lizards, snails and mice. She brings them in and gets bored with them so they end up just running or slithering around on my floor. She brought a mouse in a couple of weeks ago, played with it for a while and then lost interest, leaving it to get on with its business alone. So I rescued it in a dustpan and released it back into the wild at the top end of the wilderness bit of my garden. Fifteen minutes later the cat brought it in again and the whole process was repeated except I released it much further away at the bottom end of the wilderness part of my garden and I swore a bit. Last night I saw her with the back leg of an enormous toad, half the size of my foot, in her mouth as she tried to drag it into the house. This was defeating the object as the whole point of my employing a feline was to remove from my home any animal species that were more suited to living in the great outdoors. Consequently we had words, though she doesn’t understand my words because she’s Bulgarian. She’s not a cat, she’s a котка … Мазнини Шаз котката.

Just because she’s been taken in off the streets and given a new start in life, she must think I’m a rescue centre for all creatures of the wild. Though I’m pleased to say I haven’t seen any sign of a rat here since Shaz became my housemate. Perhaps the rats are just waiting for her to invite them in.

To close this piece of scribble I would like to apologise if it causes offence to anyone reading who really is called Shaz, particularly if they live on Seacroft estate. I have known a number of people with this name during my life and they have all been very nice. I really don’t mean any harm. Sometimes it’s just fun to go stereotyping.

 

Shaz the Kotka.

Shaz the Kotka.

Home

They say that home is where the heart is and I have a packet of frozen chickens’ hearts in my freezer. The freezer can by no stretch of the imagination be considered a home though. It isn’t a makeshift chicken run. It’s not a place that poultry might consider a cosy place to roost. The chickens’ hearts are only there because offal is a very popular component of the cuisine of the Republic of Bulgaria, it is very tasty and the packet was on offer in the CBA supermarket where I go once a week to stock up on choice cuts of offal, tasty skad fish, the most luxurious natural yoghurt imaginable and fine rakias. I never scoff at offal on offer so I always have an ample supply in store in case friends pop round unexpectedly.

With my own heart the situation is a bit different. I haven’t tried cooking it with red peppers, garlic and vinegar like I have done with the chickens’ hearts. I haven’t cooked any of my internal organs for that matter, though my kidneys and liver have been marinating in red wine for quite some time. No, a good way to describe the location of my heart would be to say that it is well and truly in Bulgaria. It is near to the small medieval city of Veliko Tarnovo which I have grown to love. It is in the village of Malki Chiflik, a quiet spot on the southern slope of a forested valley which is the most beautiful place me and my heart have lived by a million kilometres. But top of the list, my heart is in my home.

I know my home is where my heart is because when I’m away from home I miss it enormously. I can’t ever remember feeling this way before. Until last September when I returned here from a couple of weeks in Italy for my oldest daughter’s wedding I had never before been pleased to get home from a holiday; and I would add that that’s no reflection on my daughter or the wedding which were absolutely lovely and utterly magnificent respectively. I’ve lived in a fair few places in Britain and Ireland, but never for all that long, and I haven’t lived in Middlesbrough where I was born for over fifty years, so I can never really say where my roots are. I’ve spent thirty years of my life in Yorkshire, and before emigrating to Bulgaria I spent twenty years in Wiltshire, so I will always have a warm and soft spot in my heart for these places but no desire to live there again. I was five years in London which was alright at first but which I was glad to see the back of in the end, and I had brief periods in Glasgow and near to Cardiff to attend seats of learning which I enjoyed but which could never be described as anything more than just passing through. Each one of these experiences, whether enjoyable or not, I feel has contributed to my nomadic outlook in a positive way.

The places I’ve lived that have inspired me the most have been the three ships I tossed about the southern oceans on during my days as a merchant seafarer when I could just about be guaranteed a different view from my window every day, and the little Irish market town of Ballymoney in the middle of County Antrim’s Garry Bog; the former fuelling my urge to wander and the latter cementing a deep love for Ireland, the beautiful island where my dear departed father, great legends, passionate song, fine verse and the best strong drink in the world were born.

So I lived in Middlesbrough until I was eight years old. I called our house in Kensington Road ‘home’ because it was the place where my parents and younger sister lived. My bed, my food supply and my box full of Lego were there. It was warm and comfortable and it was the place I went to after school or when I wasn’t on my knees in the Church of the Sacred Heart (formerly known as St Philomena’s until your woman Philomena was made redundant in 1961 by the Vatican’s Decree of the Congregation of Rites). Back then I didn’t know that people moved house so I had no concept of not living in an environment shaped by heavy industry and Irish immigrant culture. I wasn’t aware that life would present options. But then, as a family, we moved house to another town. And soon afterwards we moved house again … and then again. It didn’t seem to matter to me at the time but as the kid in the school playground that always had the wrong accent I never really knew where home was after that. Consequently, house moves in my adult life were never influenced by a need to stay in one particular place. They were determined more by the need to seek better employment and earnings so they never seemed permanent. Most of them were very nice places to live and I had extremely happy times there but I knew that for a variety of reasons I would not stay there forever.

During my final two years in England I rented a house in Devizes in Wiltshire which was really more of a transit camp than a home to me. I knew I wanted to go somewhere totally alien to what I had become accustomed to but I didn’t know where. I also knew that a move abroad would be an awful lot easier if I didn’t have the millstone around my neck of a house to sell. So the grand plan to flit to Bulgaria was well past its embryonic stage when I packed up and left my previous house in Chippenham ten miles up the road where I had lived since 1996 and where I had seen my lovely kids grow up. At that point I wasn’t really sure where Bulgaria was and had no great yearning to live there. I just knew I didn’t want to be in England anymore. Other countries such as the Netherlands, Belgium, Greece, Hungary and Ireland were considered and researched extensively, but Bulgaria got maximum points. There were others on the list though, just in case Bulgaria didn’t win my heart. Had Malki Chiflik not existed then India would have been the next lucky contestant.

For the first time since just before I saw my first packing case in the summer of 1966 I feel like my home is the place where I will spend the rest of my life. Everything I own is here including the same box full of Lego that I had as a child in Middlesbrough. I’ve sorted out a lifetime’s accumulation of crap so there is nothing here that I don’t want, apart from a small stain on my settee and the occasional hangover. The Bulgarian economy is such that I was able to afford to buy the sort of house that I would never have even dreamed of owning in England, or anywhere in Western Europe, and I was able to afford to end my working days much sooner than either I expected or the rat race dictated. The people and the climate here usually have a sunny disposition and are always interesting, the culture of the country is a lot less developed and ruined by consumerism than it is over on the other side of the continent, and the scenery is breathtakingly beautiful. Every day something new and interesting happens and there is a myriad of fascinating new places to see. I feel like I’ve replaced my once obsessive long range wanderlust with a need to just explore Bulgaria and her Balkan neighbours right on my doorstep. I feel safe, welcome, integrated and stimulated here.

There are, of course, some things that I miss about England such as family, friends, Guinness and curry but, although it's so far away, thanks to new-fangled technology such as the internet, aeroplanes and postage stamps I keep in touch with loved ones. The occasional need for a jar of stout or a king prawn dhansak gives me reason to make an occasional journey back to the place from whence I came. I’ve had two trips to England since my migration day last June and on both occasions I’ve had an utterly splendid time, some Guinness and some curry while I’ve been there but on both occasions I’ve been very glad to get back home to my beautiful Republic of Bulgaria where my offal is.

 

The snail is small ... but the cat is far away.

The snail is small ... but the cat is far away.

Lost & Found

One thousand square metres of overgrown wilderness came free with the house I bought here in the Republic of Bulgaria. This pales into insignificance the bottle of Morrison’s own brand champagne and the bunch of half dead flowers we got from the estate agent when I moved with my family into a house we bought in the North of England nearly thirty years ago. It just goes to show how great a work ethic East European people demonstrate when going about their business. The Harrogate estate agent, however, did show at the time a positive side in claiming that the flowers were half alive rather than half dead.

Although officially my property, this chunk of extra land is not my garden but an unruly patch of land that lies beyond. The large, partly paved and partly terraced, cultivated garden enclosed in a white painted stone wall topped with terracotta tiles looks all prim and proper as it basks in the lovey Balkan sunshine, as I suspect I do myself.

The tidy garden with its fruit trees, grapevines, lush hostas and tall, spikey, tropical-looking plants that make your arm bleed and rude words spill from your mouth if you catch yourself on them is lovely and fairly easy to look after. Even the empty beer bottles are neatly stacked away in crates. But the bit at the other side of the wall is mad. It’s like a jungle, sometimes it makes me wonder how I keep from going under. At least it was like a jungle when I first got here but I’ve been grappling away with it for months and recently my labours have brought me to a point where it could be loosely described as being under control.

The entire population of Bulgaria told me that I needed to buy a strimmer with a petrol motor to carry out this task. I ignored them initially because I knew that if I did it would be noisy and smelly, it wouldn’t be able to deal with the small boulders strewn across my land and it would deal far too efficiently with the reptilian wildlife that has lived happily for years in the vegetation between the boulders. I can boast that I used only precision instruments, although a little primitive, and no reptiles were harmed in this operation.

Last October I noticed that the sting had gone out of the sun’s rays and a billion flesh eating insects (not to mention arthropods and arachnids, who can also be little buggers when they’re a bit peckish) had packed up and toddled off on their winter holidays, so working outside in daylight hours became possible for the first time since my arrival in this land. In true Soviet satellite state tradition, I bought myself a sickle and set about thrashing at my thicket.

The constant need to sharpen my instrument, rake up and burn the debris and scratch my insect-ravaged arms and legs down to the bone was hard work. Even in the autumn the weather was still quite warm. In fact, even on a Sunday afternoon early in November I had to down tools and down beer because the weather was too hot to work in without fear of being labelled a mad dog or an Englishman.

The hard work turned out to be very rewarding as ground that probably hadn’t been seen for six or seven years by any creature with two legs was gradually exposed. As I laboured away I was joined by wild birds of all sizes and colours, gay fluttering butterflies, lizards, slow worms, frogs, enough exotic looking insect life to make it worthwhile for David Attenborough and his film crew to pay me a visit, and the man who drinks a lot of rakia as he wanders aimlessly around the village. The sounds around me were only of nature at its finest, dogs barking and cocks crowing in nearby farmyards and neighbours with petrol powered strimming machines; but mostly of the buzz of insects, shrill and vibrant birdsong and woodpeckers tapping at the lofty boughs of trees around me. The smells of freshly cut vegetation, wood smoke from freshly felled saplings burning on my bonfire and freshly dropped droppings from the goats and cattle that are lead in procession along the lane by my house a couple of times a day.  

I didn’t think that cultivating with a blade until every muscle in my body ached and every joint creaked could bring me so much pleasure, but it did. Consequently, as I was enjoying my labour of love so much, I spent a bit too long each day beavering away with my simple tool in the undergrowth. Exercise and fresh air are all well and good until you get to the point where you feel so exhausted that vultures start to circle overhead and the rakia man drools from the corner of his mouth as he stares expectantly through a gap in the fence at your not quite exhausted supply of drink.

Probably the most interesting aspect of this massive defoliation exercise was the quantity and variety of things that I found. Admittedly, some of these were in my derelict barn rather than my lush brush, but it was all part of the same tidying up job. They included an antique wooden bow saw, an almost limbless plastic model of Pinocchio, three unlabelled bottles of what I suspect is homemade rakia but might not be, the remains of domestic animals, a gothic gold censer of Christian Orthodox design (though I suspect it may really be made from 1960s Bulgarian brass), enough scorpions to fill the Old Trafford football stadium, a 1981 calendar, a framed black and white photograph of a man and a woman dating back several decades, an old oil can, a fondue set, a cuddly toy, a hundred jars of pickle that had turned black with age and an overwhelming feeling of peace, tranquillity and solitude.

My horticultural endeavours halted temporarily when a thick blanket of snow forced an unwanted winter break on me. For three icy months I lay in my bed dreaming of my sickle. Thankfully the spring is here now and in the last few weeks I have cleared a lot more land and bought the petrol strimmer that I need to keep on top of the nettles and wild roses that are already threatening me with a hostile return and to hush up all the people who keep telling me I need a petrol strimmer. To improve the scene even more, I demolished a dangerously decrepit outhouse with a sturdy hammer, my bare hands and a winter’s worth of pent up energy and frustration.

So what was once a jungle now looks more like a meadow. Sometimes I imagine that I can see Julie Andrews running down the grassy bank from my back gate, arms outstretched as she sings, ‘the hills are alive with the sound of music’. I can’t wait for the full swing of spring and to see the vast profusion of wild plants making the whole place green again, and hopefully with a splash of a few more colours besides.

I lost myself on that bit of overgrown land but while I was there I realised that I had found the place I have always been looking for. It’s in a field in the middle of Bulgaria. Who’d have thought? 

 

The tools of my thicket thrashing.

The tools of my thicket thrashing.

 

St Trifon Zarezan

Surely everybody in the developed world and Swindon is aware that the fourteenth of February is a saint’s day. In the bit of the developed world where I used to live the saint in question was a bloke called Valentine, named after romantic Irish crooner Val Doonican. It’s a day when anybody who loves somebody in a carnal sort of way sends the person that they love a bouquet of red roses or a big box of Maltesers and a greetings card, each costing five times the price of what they would on the thirteenth or fifteenth of February. It doesn’t really have to be one of these items that you buy to express your deepest feelings to the love of your life, or even anything slushy and soppy, as long as it is something that is temporarily ridiculously overpriced. So a Domino’s pizza, or a bag of cinema foyer pick ‘n’ mix sweeties or a ticket to watch Manchester United wouldn’t do because those things are permanently ridiculously overpriced.

I must admit that in the past I have joined in with this ritual. I was reluctant at first as the thought of it being a saint’s day suggested to me that I would have to go to church and pray. What else would you do on a saint’s day? In the first ten years of my life, when I was rather saintly myself, I spent so much time kneeling by pews in the name of saint this, that and the other, that I developed callosities on my kneecaps and a morbid fear of saints. When I lived in Scotland I had an invitation from friends to go to watch St Mirren competing against St Johnstone, which I almost declined until I discovered that it was a football match and that no snakes, dragons or dolphins would be harmed in the proceedings. Though it means bowing to the vulgar consumerism of the twenty first century, sending a card and a bunch of daffs is a lot more enjoyable and probably more worthwhile than hoping that a man or woman with a silly name and who was executed in a terrible way over a thousand years ago, is gaily skipping around Paradise.

Call me boastful but on St Valentine’s day this year my tally of cards was only one short of my all-time personal best haul of St Valentine’s day cards ever, despite me being in my twilight years and living in a country where the patron saint of sentimental tat is barely recognised. My all-time personal best haul of St Valentine’s day cards ever, by the way, amounts to one.

Here in the Republic of Bulgaria we have a much better saint to celebrate the life and work of on this day. His name is (was) St Trifon Zarezan and he is the patron saint of going on a bender. According to my mate Ivan who sits outside the bar in our village in all weathers quaffing fine rakias in a pilgrimage sort of way, St Triff was a common vine-grower. Apparently one day he went out to his vineyard to prune his vines and there he met the Virgin Mary and joked with her that she had an illegitimate child. She was a bit put out by this and decided to punish him, so she went to see his wife and told her that Trifon had cut his nose. In a huge panic, Mrs Trifon rushed towards the vineyard to help her husband but soon saw that he was fine. When she told him what had happened he said that it was impossible and he started to laugh, but while waving his hands around in his state of hilarity he really did cut his nose with his pruning knife. It was from this accident that he got his nickname ‘Zarezan’ which means ‘truncated’. The real St Trifon died as a martyr during the Roman persecution of the Christians but people didn’t want to associate his name with sadness and pain, so they crowned him with the halo of wine making and rejoicing. My friend Ivan must have broken his nose at least half a dozen times down the years as it is spread all over his face. I often wonder if his love for strong drink, laughter and facial disfigurement could mean that he is a direct descendant of Trifon.

As a consequence of this merry tale, the day of St Trifon Zarezan is seen as the cusp between the end of winter and the arrival of spring.  It is considered to be the first day of the year on which it is safe to prune vines so, traditionally, Bulgarian village men wander off to the vineyards to perform this task while women stay at home to prepare food for a feast. At the end of a hard day’s pruning everyone gets together to eat the fine food, drink wine, sing songs and dance to celebrate yer man Trifon and the winter’s passing. The villager who grew the most grapes in the preceding year is appointed ‘King of the Harvest’ and a crown made from chopped off grapevine twigs is placed on his head as everyone gives him loads and loads of wine in the hope that they will be blessed for their generosity. It is thought that the more wine that is poured on this day, the more plentiful the next harvest will be. The fifteenth of February, incidentally, is St Anadin’s day in celebration of the patron saint of hangover cures.

Well that’s the tradition and it still goes on in many places in rural Bulgaria but my village of Malki Chiflik is only four kilometres from a small city so, being a bit more suburban that rural, most people here mark the occasion simply by going out to work during the day and sitting in front of the telly feeling knackered in the evening. They do keep up the custom of having a glass of locally produced wine or rakia, and the vinegar in their packets of salt ‘n’ vinegar flavour crisps tends to be the bad wine shipped in from a rival village nearby.

I’m determined to be as Bulgarian as I can so I spent the day working in my vineyard giving loving attention to my vines which look like they are raring to go once the spring kicks off in earnest. Actually, when I say ‘day’ I really mean forty minutes as I only have three mature vines and a couple of babies that I planted myself in the autumn. I would emphasise, however, that I did the job properly. I spent hours watching YouTube videos on the subject and read the book Drinking Copious Amounts of Wine for Dummies. So, armed with a fancy pair of secateurs and a passion for all things Balkan, I set about the task of chopping off all the bits that shouldn’t be there and leaving the bits that should, even though it didn’t seem right to be so brutal to these lovely plants so early on in the year.

In terms of the changing of the seasons, today really did seem like the cusp. Piles of snow and ice remained in my garden but there was meltwater gushing everywhere as warm sunshine prompted me to remove five of six layers of the clothing that I had been wearing constantly since early December. It was a wonderful feeling to be outside in just my tee shirt. Well obviously not ‘just’ my tee shirt as I wore my gardening gloves, a broad smile and a crown made from chopped off grapevine twigs as well. I felt I had reached a wonderful milestone in the Bulgarian calendar, so in my mind I thanked St Trifon Zarezan for getting the timing just right and in my kitchen I poured myself an ample glass of rakia which I sat and drank outside as woodpeckers tapped at the upper boughs of my pear tree and I watched the sun setting on my beautifully manicured vines. 

 

The flowers of romance.

The flowers of romance.

 

Devil Gate Drive

Between Malki Chiflik and Sofia the road cuts through the Balkan range of mountains by means of several lofty viaducts and four tunnels. Back in December I had reason to travel this way to meet my friend Anne, who was arriving at the airport from her home in the Netherlands. As I left my home I was already a little anxious about the journey because of the thick blanket of snow that had covered the Republic of Bulgaria overnight, but I had no idea of the scale of the adventure that lay ahead of me. The stretch of road between tunnels two and three will stay in my mind forever as a place of great excitement, though not in a fun way like Panda’s Palace in Skegness.

For a hundred and sixty kilometres I sped in my trusty Opel Corsa along Bulgaria’s Road Four, trying to fit the names of towns like Sevlievo, Sopot and Balgarski Izvor to the tune of Get Your Kicks on Route Sixty Six that always rattles around in my head on long car journeys. Even stopping for a cuppa in the village of Golyama Brestnitsa didn’t help me hone my lyrics (though it always makes me smile because golyama means big) but from there the remaining seventy kilometres were along a motorway so by the time I had reached this point I thought I had cracked it, although flurries of snow were still around and threatening worse.

After the first tunnel the car’s engine seemed to be struggling a bit. I put it down to the bitterly cold and windy weather, the long drag of an incline that the road followed in that mountainous region and the fact that the car wasn’t much younger than I was. After the second tunnel it was struggling a lot and I could smell burning. I think one of the best decisions I have ever made in my life was to not attempt the third tunnel in which there would have been no emergency parking area, no emergency telephones, no reception for me to ring for help on my mobile phone, no facilities for changing into clean underpants and no hope of ever emerging alive. About two hundred metres from the entrance to tunnel three I pulled into a layby, switched the engine off and got out of the car to get a good lung full of the smoke that was coming from its undercarriage.

Obviously I could go no further and miraculously I had taken out motor vehicle recovery insurance only a week or so beforehand. Despite the gravity of the situation, I was pleased in a way that I was going to get value for money for the few quid that I had invested in the breakdown company, so I got back in the car and gave them a ring. I was delighted that the very helpful and polite lady operator at the other end of the line spoke very good English but frustrated that the only English word she didn’t know was ‘tunnel’. Locating me on the short stretch of road between the second and third tunnel would have been so simple had the range of her vocabulary been just that tiny bit greater. If I had had the foresight to take my Bulgarian dictionary with me on the journey I would have been able to tell her that the Bulgarian word for ‘tunnel’ was ‘toonell’ and nothing would have been lost in the divide between our tongues. However, unflustered and with the greatest of politeness, she told me that she would find a colleague who was more of a linguist than she was herself, and she would get him to ring me back within approximately twenty or thirty minutes.

 

My once trusty Opel Corsa motor carriage.

My once trusty Opel Corsa motor carriage.

 

Alone and afraid and aware of the great potential for stickiness in my trousers, I sat behind the wheel of my no longer trusty car as the grey of the day turned to darkness and the flurry turned to blizzard. It started to get cold. I started to get more than a bit concerned. Would I freeze to death between tunnels two and three and would my friend spend the rest of her life in the arrivals lounge at Sofia airport? Actually, the latter of these concerns was less of a concern because I knew she had an airline ticket to fly home again a week later so her discomfort, at least, would be for less than all eternity.

Sure enough, my phone rang after roughly twenty minutes and a kind Balkan gentleman was able to  take details of my location. He said he would get in touch with a mechanic in the nearby town of Botevgrad and I could expect to have roadside assistance within half an hour. I said thank you in my best Bulgarian, scraped the snow from the back window of my vehicle and prepared myself mentally for another reasonably short bout of sitting in a state of sub-zero, semi-abject misery.

Twenty minutes later a large yellow van pulled up behind me. I got out to speak to the driver and his mate but then noticed they were having a wee against the fence at the side of the road. I introduced myself with the word ‘breakdown’, also in my best Bulgarian. They responded by zipping up, shrugging their shoulders, getting back in their van and driving off like a bat out of a place a bit like hell but much colder. I returned to my car and had a breakdown of my own. I also rang Dutch Anne to explain my predicament and she told me not to worry because she had enough Bulgarian money to keep her in vending machine tea and stale airport sandwiches for a week.

Not many more minutes elapsed before a breakdown truck arrived. No one got out of the cab so I went and knocked on the window. The two men inside seemed reluctant to get out of the warmth but pointed to my car and repeated the word “Service. Service. Service.” So I wasn’t sure if they were from the mechanic’s garage or if they were just kind Bulgarian people offering to help me. A phone call to the breakdown company confirmed that they were the former, so it was agreed that my Corsa would be dragged up onto the back of their truck and we would all tootle off into the warmth of cosy Botevgrad and everyone would live happily ever after. On the way there it didn’t matter that the darkness and the heavy snow restricted our view of the road because the cigarette smoke inside the cab was so dense we couldn’t even see the windscreen.

The garage that we drove to through a labyrinth of snow swamped lanes in the darkest part of the town was as warm as I had hoped. A huge wood burner had been made out of an oil drum and one man had been given the permanent job of keeping it stoked up with logs. His name was Petrov and while his colleagues tinkered with the intimate bits of Ladas and Trabants and whatever the plural word for a Lexus is, he made a decent living from his career in warming people up, though he confided in me later that he did have to fiddle his overtime claim form a bit to make ends meet in July and August.

The breakdown company man on the phone was called Yordan. The driver of the breakdown truck was called Ilya. Yordan told me that the breakdown company would pay for me to stay in a hotel in Botevgrad for one night and that I could collect my repaired car the following day or, as an alternative, Ilya would drive me to the airport that night and I could make my own way back to the garage when the deed was done. Before the car was even lifted off the back of the truck Ilya told me that it would be ready to drive away before Christmas (this all happened on the thirteenth of December, by the way). I sat and talked to Petrov as I wondered when the car to whisk me away from all this would turn up and exactly which Christmas Ilya had in mind.

It became apparent that Ilya was the boss and he was busy working on a car that was hoisted up on a ramp while a thousand pieces of it lay scattered on the floor. He had five or six assistants working with him. Without being able to speak any words of English, Petrov offered me a cigarette and asked me if I liked the Beatles. I said no and yes to his questions respectively and he started singing Yellow Submarine. He then sang one or two other Lennon-McCartney classics to keep me amused. I told him that my favourite was I Am The Walrus and he had a stab at it but it was a struggle for him without the backing of an orchestra. So we moved on to the Rolling Stones, the Who and the Kinks. I tried to bring him up to date a bit by asking him about more recent recording artists that he might have known such as Queen, Elton John and Oasis. He sang a couple of lines of Candle In The Wind and then suddenly waved his hands in the air and shrieked ‘Suzi Quatro’ who was obviously his favourite because as well as singing, he danced around the wood burner as he did a not quite perfect rendition of her smash hit, Can The Can. I was laughing so much I just had to join in. Ilya and his team glanced across at we whirling dervishes, seeming pleased that Petrov had at last found a friend but worried that I had found Petrov.

Several other men came into the garage, each warming their hands with the heat from the stove, each offering me a cigarette, each lighting up next to huge canisters of oil and petrol, each asking me where I was from, each looking across at Ilya at work and laughing and then each disappearing off again into the darkness outside. There was a little variation to this theme as one man asked me if I had a cigarette (which I never have as the only thing I ever smoke is herrings), one man couldn’t speak because he was coughing so much (I was amazed at the way phlegm sizzles and gives off so much extra heat when spat into a wood burner) and one man offered me a white girl to keep me warm for only forty Leva (about €20, or £18). I’m sure he was joking but I suspect if I had said yes he would have been able to deliver. Meanwhile Petrov had moved on to Devil Gate Drive.

I try not to show impatience so I gave it an hour before giving my friend Didi a ring. A nice Bulgarian lady who sorts things out for tenderfoot immigrants like me. I handed my phone to Ilya and she asked him all the right questions before the device was passed back and she could tell me that there would be a car for the airport in about fifteen minutes but it just needed some minor modifications to make it roadworthy before departure.

Twenty minutes later, the car that had earlier been in a thousand pieces on the floor was reassembled and driven off the ramp and, rather impatiently, Ilya asked me if I was ready to go. I interrupted Petrov in between verses three and four of Suzi’s 48 Crash to bid him a tearful farewell and off we sped in a smog filled 1972 model Lada (with central cigarette lighting, velour finished ashtrays and rosewood spittoons) through the driving snow to meet with my friend at Sofia airport, only five hours late. When I arrived she couldn’t leave the terminal building straight away as she had arranged a meeting with a post-traumatic stress disorder counsellor funded by Ryanair.

The rest of the story is another story, which I will tell once I have recovered from this first bit.

Just Chilling

During the hottest weeks of last summer my house was in a state of dusty upheaval as a team of hard hitting electrical engineers fitted a swanky modern heating system for me. Housed in what looks like a garden shed in the corner of my living room, it’s the size of one of those huge big Yankee Doodle fridges and it’s a marvellous piece of engineering. It works like a dream as it heats the house in the winter and cools it in the summer at just the flick of a switch and the pressing of a button or two and the turning of a handle and a bit of fiddling with a knob. However, it was suggested to me that I should also have a modest sized wood burning stove appliance installed just in case of emergencies.

By my reckoning, the last few days can be considered an emergency as the temperature in my house, together with my overall feeling of content and wellbeing, plummeted. Meltwater from the thawing snow on my roof had dripped onto the heating system’s outdoor bits and refrozen, encrusting the whole thing with ice and causing a bit of a malfunction and a lot of shivering and a not unsubstantial amount of mild mannered swearing. To exacerbate the scale of the emergency, the only man with the skills to sort it out and his mate were working away on a job in Denmark. So my emergency petchka was kick started into action sooner than expected.

Practice manoeuvres during the last few weeks had me fully prepared. I had been a little concerned that eighty year old East European heating appliances don’t come with a user manual or a twenty-four hour technical helpdesk phone number to ring but the first time I had to stoke up the stove in anger everything went perfectly well. There was not a sign of smoke inside the house, with my careful attention the fire didn’t go out, the house didn’t burn down, my shiny new fire extinguishers remained shiny and I didn’t freeze to death.

To be honest I had rehearsed the drill quite a lot because my antique stove looks so nice in the corner of my kitchen and it glows with warmth like a mini Chernobyl when it is set to work. It kept me warm and I grew to love it, but not so much that I could hug it because it was a bit too hot close up and I was fearful of burns in tender spots. But we would spend the long dark winter nights huddled up together with me feeding it every twenty minutes and giving it the occasional poke to make sure it was still alive. During what turned out to be the iciest period of my life so far, I could have done with someone doing the very same to me.

However, despite the efforts of my little heavy metal friend, it largely remained extremely nippy in my quarters. This came as a blunt reminder that I had been told when I first landed on these shores that a lone petchka was not enough to warm the big, open plan spaces of my house and that was why I had gone for the heavy duty thermal pump system instead. I was happy enough in the unplanned chill but a few more degrees of those Celsius things would have made me happier as I couldn’t move from the environs of the wood burner without my teeth chattering and any damp patches on my clothing freezing over.

 

My heavy metal friend.

My heavy metal friend.

 

So I sat there for almost a week with little else to do but swot up on the Bulgarski tongue (it is going to take many winters to get to grips with that, I fear) and work my way through a pile of DVDs that I had accumulated down the years. Here I was amazed to discover that Michael Palin’s Pole to Pole television series was not filmed in Poland, neither did it contain any footage of pole dancing, and that the Polar Regions during their winter months are almost as cold as my downstairs toilet. I pursued one or two other pastimes which I had also neglected, such as cutting my toenails. For the first time ever they got a treatment equal in standard to that which I used to offer my dear customers back in the days when toenails were my bread and butter. Also, I spent an entire day listening to the David Bowie albums on which I did not already know all the lyrics off by heart, which was fun to funky.

Ever optimistic I considered the advantages of not having adequate heating around the place. I was saving a lot of electricity which doesn’t come cheap, even in Bulgaria. In the absence of hot water, I found that I was using very little soap and shower gel. I wasn’t drinking beer or wine because it was too cold to go to the toilet. I even saved money on honey which is funny because it wasn’t runny in its enforced state of refrigeration. It had become so stiff in the cold that I had to use a screwdriver to prize it out of the jar and really I couldn’t be bothered so I gnawed on my own body fat for nutrition instead.

As I rejoiced the fact that my home was probably too cold for the various species of wildlife that had tried to snuggle up with me while I had been living here I also rejoiced the knowledge that in my former lifestyle I would never have been able to afford the time to do these things. Neither would I have been able to enjoy a cheeky glass of rakia during the day which I sometimes do to take the sting out of the things that might not be going my way and because it’s nice and because I feel that every sip is another step towards supporting the local economy.

Outside the days were bitterly cold, grey and dry. Fifty centimetres of snow had turned into a thirty centimetre layer of ice. There was no sign of a thaw, even though it had been a partial thaw that had mucked up my heating machine in the first place. Wandering out in such weather is only enjoyable when there is a cosy warm house to return to, but there wasn’t, so I didn’t.

In past years this would have driven me mad but recently I have accepted that it is all part of growing up and being Bulgarian. Here the problems that winter brings are short lived and are soon followed by a long hot summer. With my trusty stove and my rakia bottle at hand I can cope with that, and the coping got an awful lot easier when my good friends the heating men returned from Denmark, where they said the weather had been remarkably mild for the time of year. I felt bad really for interrupting their little holiday.

Rat Attack

My New Year’s resolution for 2017 has been to not kill anything. I’ve not really classed myself as a killer before but, in terms of my blood lust, I must confess that last year ended rather badly.

My new life in rural Bulgaria boils down, in many ways, to the survival of the fittest. So it seemed quite wrong that in a battle between a fat, bald bloke approaching sixty years of age and a lithe young rat, it was the former that turned out to be the victor.

I felt bad about it. I try not to harm any living creature. When I see a caterpillar or a frog on a road I pick it up and put it out of harm’s way on the nearest grass verge. When I see a centipede or a scorpion in my house I remember that it could be someone’s grandad reincarnate, so I coax it outside with a pipe and a pair of slippers. I am savagely opposed to fox hunting. The biggest test to my humane side is that almost two days went by before I could take the Theresa May Voodoo Doll that I got for Christmas out of its box. But the rat had to go because it was making my life difficult.

Now had the rat been the sort that would sit down and negotiate with me, things might have been different. I saw it scampering along down behind the settee one night and I spoke to it but it just ran away. Perhaps my words were not exactly conciliatory but had it just agreed to not eat the insulation on my water pipes and to improve its personal hygiene standards then perhaps it would still be alive today.

Once it had been established that peace talks were not going to be effective I decided it was time to put traps on the ground and, as I broke four fingers in the process as these deadly machines went off accidentally in my hand, I was convinced that this approach would be a speedy remedy. But they didn’t go off and it wasn’t. The little rascal was able to remove the bait with such precision and dexterity under conditions of great danger I wondered if it had been a bomb disposal expert back in the days when it was someone’s grandad.

At my local DIY shop I bought some stuff that bore the words ‘rat pasta’ on the packet. Having always been and adventurous diner, I imagined this unusual food item would go down well with a tossed salad and a cheeky glass of Chianti. As I unpacked my shopping bags at home I looked for cooking instructions only to discover that it wasn’t edible for humans, leaving me with the problem of what else could I have for my tea but the benefit of potentially solving the problem of the furry little beast that was having my house for its tea. These small and soft sachets really did look like ravioli, stuffed with meaty goodness, Mediterranean herbs a hint of deadly poison.

I lay these sinister morsels in strategic places in my roof space and round the back of water pipes and in the large porcelain jar marked ‘pasta’ that I once bought in Ikea because it seemed like a bargain and it matched the colour of my rustic yoghurt thermometer and my ‘Greetings from Stoke-on-Trent’ fish slice. Soon some of them were gone so I thought that in no time at all, the rodent would be gone too. But it wasn’t, and every night I could hear it running around inside the bathroom wall and in the roof, ripping things to bits with what sounded like a mini rat-sized crowbar and shouting ‘Screw you, human!’

Feeling the need to bolster my defence, I bought another type of poison that looked like purple muesli but without sultanas in it and no added sugar. My little friend wasn’t interested in this stuff at all, probably because it didn’t contain sultanas or added sugar.

I continued with the pasta parcels as these were disappearing in great numbers. The Rat Catchers’ on-line chat forum community, of which by now I was a respected member, suggested that these would be dragged away to a nest and consumed later. That was why, to my initial surprise, the beast had not already died, but I took comfort from the fact that the greedy little bugger had plans for these deadly comestibles as it stored them up in its ratty little larder.

Frustrated, I went to the rat poison shop in town. The lady in her smart Deadly Chemicals ‘R’ Us uniform suggested another approach, which strangely didn’t involve deadly chemicals. She flogged me a couple of large plastic pads coated with the stickiest sticky stuff in the world which would just consign any unsuspecting rodent to death by stickiness. The plan was that I would put an assortment of cheese, nuts, chocolate, fruit and cold cuts on it (a proper little festive buffet) and when my little chum went to tuck in it would stick to the glue forever and victory would be declared.

A couple of hours after I had placed these pads in spots where I knew a Christmas party might go on for tiny creatures I heard a load of clattering about up in my roof space. I was tempted to immediately go and have a look but I didn’t really want to be confronted by a sticky but still alive rat. So I left it to the following morning thinking that at least it could no longer gnaw at my house, even though it gnawed at my conscience.

Have you ever seen the film The Red Baron? Do you know how World War One fighter pilots Baron von Richthofen and Captain Brown were committed to shooting each other’s magnificent flying machines out of the sky but at the same time had ultimate respect for one another? Well that’s how I began to feel about the rat when I discovered there was no actual rat in the sticky trap that I had laid for it but there were tiny footprints and half of the food had gone. This was a rat with attitude and something inside me made me want to make friends and give it a better life, but something scurrying about inside the wooden casing where all my central heating pipes are hidden made me want to shoot it out of the sky, or at least out of the wooden casing.

However, within a day or so of my thinking I had won it appeared that I really had won as silence fell on the normally infested areas of my house. The instructions on the pasta packet told me that I would probably never find a body as the lethal poison was so designed as to mummify the victim in its nest, taking away the possibility of bad smells and further infestation from insects. I was disappointed. I wanted to see the poor blighter’s remains, to have closure and to give it a decent burial.

I’m pleased to say that this splendid fellow did the decent thing and shuffled off its mortal coil before midnight on the thirty-first of December. Consequently my New Year’s resolution for 2017 seems like it’s going to be a success. Giving up killing is so much easier than giving up cake and biscuits, or alcohol, or looking at pictures of Lady Astor with her clothing loosened. Next January I’m going to try to go a full twelve months without carrying out an armed robbery.

 

I don't have photographs of the rat but here is a picture of my friends celebrating at its wake.

I don't have photographs of the rat but here is a picture of my friends celebrating at its wake.

Let It Stop Now

In the last five days I have ventured only as far as my garden gate and each time was to clear the snow from the twenty-five big stone steps that lead down to the door of my house. In between clearings I didn’t venture up the steps at all which means that at least two out of the three of them were a waste of time. I suppose it did provide me with a bit of fresh air and exercise, and an adrenalin rush or two as I almost went flat on my arse on the ice. 

I like to think I have finished clearing snow for the time being. The bitter weather of late has been bright and beautiful but also the cause of borderline anxiety, so the novelty has definitely worn off now. It remains very cold but the weather forecast people have suggested that this batch of snow is all done and dusted and that this coming Saturday’s blizzard has been downgraded to a day of icy rain, which I would consider a luxury by comparison to the conditions of the year so far. Mind you, weather forecast people are not averse to changing their minds from time to time. Theirs must be the easiest job in the world because they can come out with any old crap but still find themselves in gainful employment when they get it completely wrong. Considering their success rate, it’s a good job brain surgeons and bomb disposal experts don’t do their training at the same seat of learning as meteorologists. So, I’m not ruling out the possibility of more snow on Saturday but, for the same reason, neither am I ruling out a tropical heatwave.     

I’m not complaining though. It has been quite an exciting experience from which I have learned a lot.

For starters, I have learned to love my petchka, or wood burning stove. It’s a bit of an antique job and it makes my kitchen look like the waiting room in a 1930s Siberian railway station, like you see in the movies. So much so that troupe of Cossack dancers and the Red Army Choir wouldn’t look out of place in the vicinity of my dishwasher. I only got the petchka as an emergency back up device in case the power failed and my posh electrical heating system was out of action. Three times my electricity supply has abandoned me but more than three times has the stove been lit. This is because it looks nice and it elevates the standard of my living conditions from comfortable to cosy.

The stove made me feel very warm long before I ever put a match to it. Lifting this solid cast iron beauty down the twenty-five steps on the day it became mine made my temples and oxsters moisten slightly. I have a barn full of wood but all in bits too big to fit through the neck of the burner so I found myself in a puddle of perspiration after an hour of splitting logs on a cold day back in November. Also, just getting up from my seat every twenty minutes to give it a poke once it’s lit and to check if it needs more wood requires more physical exertion than I am accustomed to. I’d never had to light a fire in my house before though so it has been a new and interesting experience for me and one that makes me feel at home amongst a nation of wood burners.

Another thing I like about this weather is standing outside in the still and silent, icy air and taking in the sweet, soft aroma of wood smoke floating from the chimneys of hundreds of other houses with petchki blasting away to keep the inhabitants warm. The smoke forms a misty blanket in valleys in the mornings and looks gorgeous as the snow covered rooves glimmer beneath and the white dusted towers of churches and mosques and the Socialist era concrete apartment blocks poke their heads through. Basically this is pollution, but it’s my all-time favourite pollution and it’s what people have been doing here to keep themselves alive for thousands of years. I like to think it’s not as bad as the gases emitted from the cars, factories and politicians and, as much as I admire those lovely people at Greenpeace, I’ll be keeping this a secret from them.   

 

Sleepy Veliko Tarnovo snuggled in the valley of the Yantra River.

 Sleepy Veliko Tarnovo snuggled in the valley of the Yantra River.

 

Other things that I have encountered as I have climbed up my Bulgarian winter learning curve include staying in bed until two o’clock in the afternoon because it’s warm there and there’s no point getting up when a blizzard is raging outside and there’s nothing else to do but drink coffee and read a book. Without any great difficulty, I have learned to drink alcohol during the day whilst still remaining sufficiently sober to drink more alcohol during the evening and the night. I have learned that staring out at the snow, at the natural unspoilt scenery that surrounds me and at the wild birds that busy themselves looking for food in my garden is far more entertaining and rewarding than watching a television. From my experience, I can understand how isolation must have driven people mad during longer and harsher winters than mine and I have discovered that isolation these days isn’t necessarily a problem as I have had messages and Skype conversations with people all over the world wondering if I am surviving. Some of them sounded a little disappointed that I haven’t had appendages frozen off or that I haven’t had to resort to drinking my own urine, because that would have been much more exciting, but it’s good to know that people are taking an interest in my welfare.

What I am really pleased about is that my first winter in Bulgaria has been a severe one. I must admit that it was getting on my nerves a little bit when a few of the people I know here were telling me that when winter eventually came I wouldn’t know what had hit me, and when I’d lived here as long as they have, and blah-di-blah. So I couldn’t wait to get on with it and show them what I’m made of. I was also concerned that this winter would be a mild one so that the conversation would just change slightly to me being told that I wouldn’t know what had hit me once a bad one eventually came along. I know they all mean well but it has made me feel like the geeky new kid at times. This excludes my closest friends, of course, whose help and advice and moral support and trips to the pub I have treasured all along.

So now I have a list of things to do to make next winter easier to survive. I need to get my house insulated a bit better than it is to keep my precious heat in; I need to get a semi-ferocious cat to keep out the rodent-based items who have the notion that they can come in to share my heat; I need to add toilet paper to the list of items to stock up on for winter (tidying up in a lavatory situation with just a copy of the Bulgarian Argos catalogue in sub-zero temperatures is less than comfortable); and I need to sit back and not panic as by then I will have passed the alternative lifestyle initiation test, hopefully!

Let It Snow

Last Friday it snowed non-stop for thirty-six hours and I thought life on our planet had come to an icy end. Yesterday was another day when it snowed non-stop for thirty-six hours but the snowflakes were much bigger. My world has turned cold and white and, much to my surprise, I love it.

I’ve never been very fond of winter weather but the winter weather of my bit of the Republic of Bulgaria has, so far this winter, been extremely nice. Most of the country has been caught up in a series of ten day cycles each consisting of a single day of heavy snow followed by week long periods of sunshine with iciness in which the whole place sparkled as the snow melted slowly in a slush-free sort of way before the whole routine started again.

However, the latest batch has been the heaviest snow I have seen here. In fact, it is probably the heaviest snow I have ever seen in my life. A forty-two centimetre deep layer has carpeted the village of Malki Chiflik where I live. There’s even a bit of underlay remaining from the last snowfall we had a week and a half ago. It’s a good job it looks nice because there’s no escaping from it for anyone with fewer than eight huskies to pull their sled, or Lada.

For the first time in fifty-six years I haven’t had to worry about trudging through wintery conditions to get to work or school. Not having any responsibilities makes bad weather so much more bearable, or even enjoyable. I would go as far as to say that this is my all-time favourite bad weather. The snow is too deep to venture out so I have just sat inside, poured myself the odd cheeky glass of rakia to help keep me warm and to support the local economy, and watched through the windows as the deluge of white flakes made my garden look like a Christmas cake, albeit a Christmas cake with a few nettles poking through the surface and a couple of piles of waste matter deposited in the chill by as yet unidentified wild animals with frostbitten bums. I’m staying inside and if the world needs me it will just have to wait until I re-emerge from my den at the end of the hibernating season.

I will go out once it stops snowing but at the moment I just don’t fancy getting wet in such low temperatures. It won’t stop me going to explore my beautiful new surroundings but last week it did stop me going out to join in the New Year’s Eve celebrations in the nearby old city of Veliko Tarnovo, which was a bit of a shame because I missed out on a few fireworks and a lot of merrymaking. However, I suspect that everybody else in the region was in the same predicament so if I had turned up I would have had to stand there on my own with a sparkler and a sausage looking all lonely and pathetic instead of just feeling that way at home.

 

My summer sun terrace.

My summer sun terrace.

 

Cosy though it is in my old Bulgarski farmhouse stocked to the gun whales with food and drink and stuff to keep me entertained, I do feel a little claustrophobic. I could do with getting out to get some exercise, some fresh air, some fresh fruit and veg, some contact with other human beings and a pint. To break the silence I’ve been talking to myself a little bit and each noise that I hear I imagine to be voices or footsteps. A couple of weeks ago, I had a minor skirmish with a rodent-based creature. I won our little battle but it put up a good fight and made me constantly aware of animal noises in the roof and the walls. I’ve been advised to leave my water taps running a little to reduce the likelihood of the pipes freezing. It’s amazing how similar the dribble of water into the kitchen sink sounds to the patter of a rat’s little feet. So, as I sit here trying to write, all the time looking around me and listening out for sinister intruders, I imagine that my life is turning into Stanley Kubrik’s film, The Shining. I have my woodman’s axe at hand ready for the reappearance of any unwelcome wildlife and a psychopathic grin on my face, just like Jack Nicholson’s, in case I need to smile for the camera as I hack my visitors to bits.

The other little problems associated with being snowbound are that the electricity, water and internet have been cut off intermittently, though never all at the same time. I’m prepared for this though. My old petchka (wood burning stove) and a glass of rakia keep me warm when I can’t use my posh modern electrical heating system; when the internet goes off I have a glass of rakia and I sing old Bulgarian folk songs to myself instead of watching them on YouTube; and when there is no water I immerse myself in rakia to keep myself clean and warm, and preserved in the event of failing to survive these Arctic conditions.

Anyway, I feel as though I am coping with this cold winter which will be over in a few weeks and then we can all look forward to a hot Bulgarian summer during which we will drink rakia to keep cool. The local economy needs my support the whole year round you know!

Thanksgiving

Today it has been my birthday, again! Today has been a bit extra special though as it has been my first ever birthday as a resident of the Republic of Bulgaria, though I was here on holiday for my birthday last year. Reaching this particular birthday means that I have survived several things. Read on and all will be revealed.

I have survived my first summer in Bulgaria. A very hot and very dry period of time during which I lost five kilograms in weight by being gnawed at by the myriad of insects that saw me as an item from a summer barbeque and in which I gained six kilograms in weight due to the simple fact that cutting down on exercise and drinking enormous volumes of cold wine or beer are the only sure way to keep cool in that scorching sun of the Republic of Bulgaria.

I have survived the move from a home three thousand kilometres away on an island in Western Europe to a new home right here where I am sitting now in South Eastern Europe. For me it was easy but for my personal effects it was much more of an adventure. They went the long way round in a shipping container on a shipping container ship from Harwich in the Far East of England, through the Strait of Gibraltar, most of the Mediterranean Sea, the Dardanelles and the Bosphorus, a bit of the Black Sea to Burgas and then back in a westerly direction of all things along the road to my humble abode in Malki Chiflik. My journey here was a three-hour EasyJet flight from Manchester to Sofia but my collection of antiques and crap went on quite a nice little cruise … and they never even sent me a postcard! They arrived here about a month after me and, because there were dusty goings on of a workmen nature in my house, it took another month for me to unpack them, to do a bit of Feng Shui (with a portion of egg fried rice and prawn crackers) and to welcome them to my, by then, beloved Republic of Bulgaria. Every last item that I packed up back there in Devizes survived the journey unscathed and I fully intend to one day reward the removal company with a bottle of the finest rakia and a large flat sausage, both of which are commonplace in the cuisine of the Republic of Bulgaria.

Did I ever tell you about one of my dear old lady former customers who once went on a holiday to Istanbul? She told me that during her stay she befriended a young Turkish gentleman. He was very kind and polite and went to a great deal of trouble to show here all the interesting sights of that magnificent city. And apparently one night during dinner he even offered to take her up the Bosphorus.

Arriving relatively unscathed at another birthday obviously means I have survived another year on this planet. How my life has changed in the last twelve months. From time to time I look in my diary to see what I was doing a year ago and, even though back then I had started to wind up my business, my life was still burdened with ten hours per day of slicing away at hyperkeratotic lesions on foetid fungal feet (but if you’re a former client reading this I’d like you to know that it was an absolute joy). The same applies to the previous eleven years. I know this without even having to look in old business diaries, all of which are now stored in a loft in North East London to protect the innocent. By my reckoning, in twelve years as a professional and fully qualified foot hacker I must have cut 480,000 toenails, perhaps slightly less to allow for the odd avulsion or amputation. If I had kept them all I would have enough material to construct a full-scale model of the ship Captain 1st Rank Dimitar Dobrev of the proud Navy of the Republic of Bulgaria.

The next part of my plan is to survive my first hard winter of the Republic of Bulgaria. The months from December to February, I am told, will be extremely cold. I’ve become rather accustomed to sitting out in my garden well into the evening with a glass of rakia and a flat sausage, even as late in the year as a couple of weeks ago. To ensure that I can continue to do this through the frost and snow I have constructed a fire pit in part of the now partially tamed wild bit of my garden. I lit the first fire there tonight, as it was my birthday. Although my back was cold the flames made my face glow and placing my hands on the rocks around the fire kept them warm. I sat there for a couple of hours into the night listening to the sound of the cows’ tinkling bells as they were ushered home from pasture along the lane at the front of my house, the last couple of hardy cicadas chirping in the trees around me, the sad cries of the jackals in the forest beyond, and Turkish music softly drifting down the hill from my Pomatsi neighbours’ terrace. The exquisite smells of Balkan food cooking in nearby houses and of the wood smoke from my fire permeated my nostrils as I looked up at a quarter moon and a million stars in the clear night sky of my rural setting. I felt as though I was a million miles and a hundred years away from what I had previously been accustomed to, but I felt totally at ease with my surroundings, probably for the first time in decades. The peace and serenity of the simple ways of the Bulgarian countryside are what I have spent most of my life yearning for and striving towards, even though I didn’t know it was here until eighteen months ago.

I took my hands from the warm rocks around the fire, poured myself a glass of rakia and drank to my own survival and to the Republic of Bulgaria, a country that has made me feel very welcome since my arrival four and a bit months ago, a country in which surviving hasn’t been at all difficult and a country in which every day has seemed like a birthday while I have been living here.

I hope someday you’ll join me, and the world will be as one.

 

The fire pit of the Republic of Bulgaria.

The fire pit of the Republic of Bulgaria.

Dobre doshli

Well I’ve been banging on about moving to live abroad for years and I’ve been banging on about moving to Bulgaria since April 2015, but now my emigration process is complete so you can read this little record of my little life without worrying about me moaning and groaning anymore.

I finally landed at my final resting place (but one) on Saturday 25th June, which was probably the hottest day I have ever known in Europe and I’m pleased to say that it has been at least very warm and almost completely dry ever since. In comparison to what I am used to, I think this can already be described as a long hot summer but there is still a lot more to come before the short bitter winter kicks in.

I’ve got all the time in the world to find my feet here, metaphorically speaking. I have no intention of seeking out real life feet which are, apart from my own, a mere distant memory of my working days of yore. In terms of my new alternative lifestyle, finding my feet has amounted to things like trying out the dozens of different natural yoghurts that are on sale in the shops until I find the best one, going through exactly the same procedure with wine and rakia in the same shops, buying a garden chair for my extensive garden, digging up my extensive garden and disposing of an assortment of weeds that I have never seen before in previous gardening situations, shouting ‘bugger off you little get’ a thousand times a day to the blood sucking creatures that fly around until they have found the tastiest bit of me to bite and taking in the wonderful views of the area in which I now reside, one of which can be found round just about every corner.

 

Jilly Goolden's Strong Drink of the Month for June 2016.

Jilly Goolden's Strong Drink of the Month for June 2016.

 

My knowledge of the local tongue is still very limited, though I did have a delicious plate of calf’s tongue cooked in wine and herbs at a restaurant in the nearby city of Veliko Tarnovo the other night. But speaking in tongues is very difficult. I can usually work out what I need to say in Bulgarian but I can rarely understand the reply that I get. I’m sure the people are saying nice things to me because from day one I have been made to feel very welcome here and they nearly always smile when they speak to me. I suppose they could be saying ‘bugger off you little get’ but I doubt it.

I do something every day but I don’t do very much. That was always part of the glorious plan. I have a loosely fitting daily agenda that comprises of knocking up a healthy meal from local ingredients, a bit of exercise, learning a few new words of Bulgarian, going somewhere I have never been before, not scratching my mosquito bites and sitting with my feet up reading a book and listening to the muse of South Eastern Europe. That’s quite a few things to remember but such is the laid back sunny atmosphere here a lot of it just happens without any effort.

I’ve been here almost three weeks now and looking back it seems like a long time and a lot has happened. Too much has happened to fit into one page of this this scribble but if you watch this space I will tell you more as the adventure unfolds.

So welcome to my new world and to my blog. Or Добре дошли (dobre doshli), as my lovely Bulgarian friends would say.

Doddy

Ten weeks today will be my first full day living in my new house in the fashionable Malki Chiflik district of Veliko Tarnovo.

I’ve been told by many a Brit expatriate that when I emigrate to Bulgaria I will only survive if I turn off my English head and turn on a Bulgarian one. The country that I am going to make my new home is a beautiful, interesting and friendly place but I’ve oft heard it described as being ‘a bit rough round the edges’. So if I’m really going to feel at peace there I need to accept that I won’t have access to many of the things that I have become accustomed to here in Gross Britain.

I can boast, however, that I have been training hard for the ‘big push’ when it eventually comes (with a little help from easyJet) on 25th June. I have been having Bulgarian language lessons, I have saved all my Easter eggs for the Christian Orthodox Easter on 1st May, I have been following the Bulgarian national football team’s progress (they recently beat Portugal in Lisbon … ha ha Ronaldo) and I have had an image of St George (Bulgaria’s patron saint) tattooed on my left buttock in readiness for the huge party that takes place on St George’s Day on 6th May. I’m even going to my house over there for a nearly a fortnight at the beginning of next month to have a crack at celebrating these two rakia-fuelled traditional holidays so I can hit the ground running, or more likely just hit the ground.

I’ve also been trying to get used to living without some of the things that are a part of my English lifestyle but which won’t be available in Veliko Tarnovo. Things like tomato ketchup, Coronation Street, Sunday roasts, traffic pollution, cold and grey summer days, Tesco, the British Government, cards shoved through my letter box by the gas people to say that they called during the thirty seconds that I was unable to answer the front door because I needed to go and have a wee, the Sun and the Daily Mail, people who read the Sun and the Daily Mail, Jeremy Clarkson and weak coffee. How will I ever manage without these things? Hard going, I know, but I’ve got to become much less English.

Last night I had what I considered to be my ‘Last Supper’ of Englishness. I went to see Ken Dodd on stage in Birmingham. There aren’t many things that I care about that are typically English but ooh I do love Doddy.

 

Ooh we do love Doddy.

Ooh we do love Doddy.

 

I was delighted when he mentioned Bulgaria, without any prompting from me. He said he went there once but didn’t stay long because everything they said to him ended with ‘off’. I would have loved to have been sitting near enough to the stage to have been able to tell him about my plans. I could have even invited him to come and stay with me over there, as I have done with just about everybody else that I know.

His act was very entertaining. He told long rambling jokes that I have heard a million times before but all his little detours along the meandering route to the punchlines were hilarious. He talks absolute rubbish but very funny rubbish and I admire him, for that is what I aspire to but I don’t do it well enough to earn a living from it like he does.

From the start of the show to the end, five hours and twenty minutes passed by. He wasn’t on stage the whole time as there was an interval and a folly of other acts came on for twenty minutes or so to give the poor fella a breather. The other acts were a bit crap really but just the sort of thing you’d expect to see performing on the end of a pier in Blackpool or Scarborough or somewhere else beside the seaside, so that really added to the old fashioned English feel of the entertainment. There was a bloke that played 1950s rock ‘n’ roll classics on a ukulele and sang Heartbreak Hotel in a George Formby voice. A woman the size of six Karen Carpenters played the organ and sang Yesterday Once More before blowing out catchy renditions of popular old tunes from around the British Isles on her flute. And then there was a juggler but not a juggler like all the other jugglers I have seen in my life. No, this bloke kept dropping the things that he was juggling with which was something I had never seen in a juggler’s act before. I didn’t enjoy any of these turns but the vast majority of the audience did and it was the sort of stuff that Ken Dodd must have had supporting him for decades. Although very wrong, they seemed right, so I clapped them off at the end anyway.

Ken, this dear eighty-eight year old complete and utter legend of a comedian, who I have loved since I was a young kid, laughed and smiled throughout his marathon performance. Taking his final standing ovation, long after midnight, he was still smiling as he looked around at the audience and the lovely Alexandra Theatre where he had told us he had performed many times in his long career. To me, the look on his face seemed to suggest that he was taking it all in for a final time. He calls his show the Happiness Show but I’m sure the final few minutes were tinged with a little sadness behind the smile that didn’t fully disguise a look of resignation.

I’ve seen many comedians in the flesh so it was strange that it had taken fifty odd years for Doddy and me to meet in this way. I’m sure he’ll go on for a good bit longer yet but the lions’ share of his incredible working life is behind him. Much of his material had been about him and his audience being allowed out of the care home for the evening. He said that, of his famous Diddy Men, only Dicky Mint was still fit enough to work but when he did his ventriloquist act with his Dicky Mint puppet, Dicky too announced his retirement. All subtle suggestions that it wouldn’t be long until they lowered Doddy’s final final curtain.

And my life in England is very nearly behind me too, though I’m hoping for a long stretch in the Balkans … ooh missus! Last night was the last opportunity I would ever have to be entertained by this national treasure. I always knew I would get round to it eventually but I, or we, only just made it by the skin of the teeth. And I felt that by seeing him during my final weeks here I was drawing a line under my time as a resident of England to a degree that just giving up fish and chips and Ant and Dec could never match.

Last night was a wonderful night, a night that I will never forget, a milestone in my life and a night that could only have been better if Birmingham had had a pier.

 Happiness. Happiness. The greatest gift that I possess.

Happiness. Happiness. The greatest gift that I possess.

 

Baba Marta

I love the fact that Bulgarian people put so much effort into marking the end of winter. In fact they can’t even wait to the end of winter to start celebrating so on the first of March each year they rejoice because it is almost the end of the winter.

I detest winter and for the last fifty or so years I have started to look forward to spring arriving from round about the first week in September. Winters are harsh in the part of Bulgaria where I am going to live but they are usually followed by long hot summers. I can cope with the former if I can count on the latter. So when I get there I will take enormous pleasure from joining in with their anti-freeze customs.

Literally translated, Baba Marta means Grandma March and this is the day that Bulgarians start to feel that the worst of the winter is behind them, as I do myself. Legend has it that Baba Marta is a bad tempered lady who continually bickers with her two brothers but when the sun comes out she smiles. On the first day of March she starts her spring cleaning and when she shakes her mattress the feathers that come out of it fall on Earth like snow – this being the final snowfall of the winter.

On the day of Baba Marta, Bulgarians give each other red and white coloured plaits of wool, ribbons or dolls as a lucky charm to bring good fortune and ward off evil spirits. These are called Martenitsas and they are worn on the clothes or hung in the trees until another sign of spring appears such as the first sighting of a stork, the first blossom, the first new born lamb or the Eurovision Song Contest.

I have noticed that Bulgarian people tend to drink rakia, an often homemade fruit brandy with a high alcohol content, to celebrate this heart-warming day. Just before I bought my house in Malki Chiflik I asked one of the locals what sort of winter I could expect if I went to live there. He told me that they are bitterly cold but they are a very sociable time of year as people gather in each other’s houses and drink rakia to keep warm. He went on to say that the summers are unbearably hot but people gather together on each other’s porches and drink rakia to keep cool. He also told me that in each village as soon as the first stork of the spring is seen everybody stops what they are doing and drinks rakia to celebrate the end of the cold period. In autumn they drink rakia to celebrate the crops having been gathered in and the production of another fine batch of rakia having got underway.

I got the impression that rakia, like the man who told me about these rituals, is drunk every day of the year. I’m sure I will dabble in the traditions of my new country but the celebration of the end of the cold dark winter months is something that I will embrace in full. I would gladly have done the same in Britain but I have never been able to tell when the cold dark winter months have come to an end. I think it was on the twenty seventh of July last year.

 

A martenitsa moment.

A martenitsa moment.