In the last five days I have ventured only as far as my garden gate and each time was to clear the snow from the twenty-five big stone steps that lead down to the door of my house. In between clearings I didn’t venture up the steps at all which means that at least two out of the three of them were a waste of time. I suppose it did provide me with a bit of fresh air and exercise, and an adrenalin rush or two as I almost went flat on my arse on the ice.
I like to think I have finished clearing snow for the time being. The bitter weather of late has been bright and beautiful but also the cause of borderline anxiety, so the novelty has definitely worn off now. It remains very cold but the weather forecast people have suggested that this batch of snow is all done and dusted and that this coming Saturday’s blizzard has been downgraded to a day of icy rain, which I would consider a luxury by comparison to the conditions of the year so far. Mind you, weather forecast people are not averse to changing their minds from time to time. Theirs must be the easiest job in the world because they can come out with any old crap but still find themselves in gainful employment when they get it completely wrong. Considering their success rate, it’s a good job brain surgeons and bomb disposal experts don’t do their training at the same seat of learning as meteorologists. So, I’m not ruling out the possibility of more snow on Saturday but, for the same reason, neither am I ruling out a tropical heatwave.
I’m not complaining though. It has been quite an exciting experience from which I have learned a lot.
For starters, I have learned to love my petchka, or wood burning stove. It’s a bit of an antique job and it makes my kitchen look like the waiting room in a 1930s Siberian railway station, like you see in the movies. So much so that troupe of Cossack dancers and the Red Army Choir wouldn’t look out of place in the vicinity of my dishwasher. I only got the petchka as an emergency back up device in case the power failed and my posh electrical heating system was out of action. Three times my electricity supply has abandoned me but more than three times has the stove been lit. This is because it looks nice and it elevates the standard of my living conditions from comfortable to cosy.
The stove made me feel very warm long before I ever put a match to it. Lifting this solid cast iron beauty down the twenty-five steps on the day it became mine made my temples and oxsters moisten slightly. I have a barn full of wood but all in bits too big to fit through the neck of the burner so I found myself in a puddle of perspiration after an hour of splitting logs on a cold day back in November. Also, just getting up from my seat every twenty minutes to give it a poke once it’s lit and to check if it needs more wood requires more physical exertion than I am accustomed to. I’d never had to light a fire in my house before though so it has been a new and interesting experience for me and one that makes me feel at home amongst a nation of wood burners.
Another thing I like about this weather is standing outside in the still and silent, icy air and taking in the sweet, soft aroma of wood smoke floating from the chimneys of hundreds of other houses with petchki blasting away to keep the inhabitants warm. The smoke forms a misty blanket in valleys in the mornings and looks gorgeous as the snow covered rooves glimmer beneath and the white dusted towers of churches and mosques and the Socialist era concrete apartment blocks poke their heads through. Basically this is pollution, but it’s my all-time favourite pollution and it’s what people have been doing here to keep themselves alive for thousands of years. I like to think it’s not as bad as the gases emitted from the cars, factories and politicians and, as much as I admire those lovely people at Greenpeace, I’ll be keeping this a secret from them.
Sleepy Veliko Tarnovo snuggled in the valley of the Yantra River.
Other things that I have encountered as I have climbed up my Bulgarian winter learning curve include staying in bed until two o’clock in the afternoon because it’s warm there and there’s no point getting up when a blizzard is raging outside and there’s nothing else to do but drink coffee and read a book. Without any great difficulty, I have learned to drink alcohol during the day whilst still remaining sufficiently sober to drink more alcohol during the evening and the night. I have learned that staring out at the snow, at the natural unspoilt scenery that surrounds me and at the wild birds that busy themselves looking for food in my garden is far more entertaining and rewarding than watching a television. From my experience, I can understand how isolation must have driven people mad during longer and harsher winters than mine and I have discovered that isolation these days isn’t necessarily a problem as I have had messages and Skype conversations with people all over the world wondering if I am surviving. Some of them sounded a little disappointed that I haven’t had appendages frozen off or that I haven’t had to resort to drinking my own urine, because that would have been much more exciting, but it’s good to know that people are taking an interest in my welfare.
What I am really pleased about is that my first winter in Bulgaria has been a severe one. I must admit that it was getting on my nerves a little bit when a few of the people I know here were telling me that when winter eventually came I wouldn’t know what had hit me, and when I’d lived here as long as they have, and blah-di-blah. So I couldn’t wait to get on with it and show them what I’m made of. I was also concerned that this winter would be a mild one so that the conversation would just change slightly to me being told that I wouldn’t know what had hit me once a bad one eventually came along. I know they all mean well but it has made me feel like the geeky new kid at times. This excludes my closest friends, of course, whose help and advice and moral support and trips to the pub I have treasured all along.
So now I have a list of things to do to make next winter easier to survive. I need to get my house insulated a bit better than it is to keep my precious heat in; I need to get a semi-ferocious cat to keep out the rodent-based items who have the notion that they can come in to share my heat; I need to add toilet paper to the list of items to stock up on for winter (tidying up in a lavatory situation with just a copy of the Bulgarian Argos catalogue in sub-zero temperatures is less than comfortable); and I need to sit back and not panic as by then I will have passed the alternative lifestyle initiation test, hopefully!