During the hottest weeks of last summer my house was in a state of dusty upheaval as a team of hard hitting electrical engineers fitted a swanky modern heating system for me. Housed in what looks like a garden shed in the corner of my living room, it’s the size of one of those huge big Yankee Doodle fridges and it’s a marvellous piece of engineering. It works like a dream as it heats the house in the winter and cools it in the summer at just the flick of a switch and the pressing of a button or two and the turning of a handle and a bit of fiddling with a knob. However, it was suggested to me that I should also have a modest sized wood burning stove appliance installed just in case of emergencies.
By my reckoning, the last few days can be considered an emergency as the temperature in my house, together with my overall feeling of content and wellbeing, plummeted. Meltwater from the thawing snow on my roof had dripped onto the heating system’s outdoor bits and refrozen, encrusting the whole thing with ice and causing a bit of a malfunction and a lot of shivering and a not unsubstantial amount of mild mannered swearing. To exacerbate the scale of the emergency, the only man with the skills to sort it out and his mate were working away on a job in Denmark. So my emergency petchka was kick started into action sooner than expected.
Practice manoeuvres during the last few weeks had me fully prepared. I had been a little concerned that eighty year old East European heating appliances don’t come with a user manual or a twenty-four hour technical helpdesk phone number to ring but the first time I had to stoke up the stove in anger everything went perfectly well. There was not a sign of smoke inside the house, with my careful attention the fire didn’t go out, the house didn’t burn down, my shiny new fire extinguishers remained shiny and I didn’t freeze to death.
To be honest I had rehearsed the drill quite a lot because my antique stove looks so nice in the corner of my kitchen and it glows with warmth like a mini Chernobyl when it is set to work. It kept me warm and I grew to love it, but not so much that I could hug it because it was a bit too hot close up and I was fearful of burns in tender spots. But we would spend the long dark winter nights huddled up together with me feeding it every twenty minutes and giving it the occasional poke to make sure it was still alive. During what turned out to be the iciest period of my life so far, I could have done with someone doing the very same to me.
However, despite the efforts of my little heavy metal friend, it largely remained extremely nippy in my quarters. This came as a blunt reminder that I had been told when I first landed on these shores that a lone petchka was not enough to warm the big, open plan spaces of my house and that was why I had gone for the heavy duty thermal pump system instead. I was happy enough in the unplanned chill but a few more degrees of those Celsius things would have made me happier as I couldn’t move from the environs of the wood burner without my teeth chattering and any damp patches on my clothing freezing over.
My heavy metal friend.
So I sat there for almost a week with little else to do but swot up on the Bulgarski tongue (it is going to take many winters to get to grips with that, I fear) and work my way through a pile of DVDs that I had accumulated down the years. Here I was amazed to discover that Michael Palin’s Pole to Pole television series was not filmed in Poland, neither did it contain any footage of pole dancing, and that the Polar Regions during their winter months are almost as cold as my downstairs toilet. I pursued one or two other pastimes which I had also neglected, such as cutting my toenails. For the first time ever they got a treatment equal in standard to that which I used to offer my dear customers back in the days when toenails were my bread and butter. Also, I spent an entire day listening to the David Bowie albums on which I did not already know all the lyrics off by heart, which was fun to funky.
Ever optimistic I considered the advantages of not having adequate heating around the place. I was saving a lot of electricity which doesn’t come cheap, even in Bulgaria. In the absence of hot water, I found that I was using very little soap and shower gel. I wasn’t drinking beer or wine because it was too cold to go to the toilet. I even saved money on honey which is funny because it wasn’t runny in its enforced state of refrigeration. It had become so stiff in the cold that I had to use a screwdriver to prize it out of the jar and really I couldn’t be bothered so I gnawed on my own body fat for nutrition instead.
As I rejoiced the fact that my home was probably too cold for the various species of wildlife that had tried to snuggle up with me while I had been living here I also rejoiced the knowledge that in my former lifestyle I would never have been able to afford the time to do these things. Neither would I have been able to enjoy a cheeky glass of rakia during the day which I sometimes do to take the sting out of the things that might not be going my way and because it’s nice and because I feel that every sip is another step towards supporting the local economy.
Outside the days were bitterly cold, grey and dry. Fifty centimetres of snow had turned into a thirty centimetre layer of ice. There was no sign of a thaw, even though it had been a partial thaw that had mucked up my heating machine in the first place. Wandering out in such weather is only enjoyable when there is a cosy warm house to return to, but there wasn’t, so I didn’t.
In past years this would have driven me mad but recently I have accepted that it is all part of growing up and being Bulgarian. Here the problems that winter brings are short lived and are soon followed by a long hot summer. With my trusty stove and my rakia bottle at hand I can cope with that, and the coping got an awful lot easier when my good friends the heating men returned from Denmark, where they said the weather had been remarkably mild for the time of year. I felt bad really for interrupting their little holiday.