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

  

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.