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.
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.