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

  

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.