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.