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.