I expect you’re wondering what I got up to in December. I’m sorry it’s taken me so long to get around to writing about it but there are two reasons for this. The first is that at this time of year the days are as short as they’ll ever be, so I tend to spend less time being out and about and consequently there are fewer interesting things happening to write about. Secondly, I didn’t even start writing about December until we were a couple of days into January by which time, like half of the population of the developed world, I was bingeing on water and herbal tea and food that contained no fat or sugar or even flavour. For this reason, I wasn’t really in the mood for writing, especially as my laptop looked so mouth-wateringly tasty every time I sat in front of it. I prefer doing this blogging thing late at night and into the early hours of the morning with a bottle of wine or two by my side to provide moral support. A peppermint infusion does nothing to encourage the flow of creative juices so I found it hard to recount my experiences in a cheery and amusing way. But my own personal austerity measures do help me in my quest to be able to put my clothes on of a morning without needing to use a shoe horn or painkilling drugs, and should ensure that I live a bit longer and have the time to write many more blog pieces in the future. My Bulgarian word of the month for December was дебел which is pronounced ‘debel’ (like a posh person saying ‘double burger and chips’) and means ‘fat’.
So, looking back to a time when I was obsessed with storing fat for winter rather than losing it for spring, I spent the whole of December waiting for it to snow. It did snow but not very much. It snowed four times but it snowed like it used to snow in Wiltshire when I lived there, so within a couple of days it had gone again. Each time I saw the first flake of a new snowfall I wondered if I should start eating my emergency rations that I had stocked up on but then there would be an immediate thaw and I had to stick with the non-emergency rations which I keep in the same cupboard anyway. Remarkably, they are all still there, still in their unopened packets, jars, tins and flagons. What happens if it gets to April and I still haven’t eaten them? Should I not wear my vest and should I leave the door of my freezer open to make the house cold so that I can pretend that I have been thrust into the icy depths of an Arctic blast so that I can justify having a clear-out of beans, rice and tinned fish? Or should I keep them for next winter? Perhaps July and August will be too hot to go shopping so I could eat them then. There’s nothing quite like a tin of stew while you’re sunning yourself by the pool.
A day when it snowed but not very much.
Last winter, apparently, was the coldest in Bulgaria since 1947. This winter, so far, has been nicer than some English summers I can recall. I’ve hardly had the central heating switched on at all. I just fire up the wood burner for a couple of hours in the evenings to take away the chill and snuggle up on the settee with a couple of nice warm goats. I’ve even continued eating daytime meals outside on my sun terrace which is even better than in the summer because I’m no longer pestered by the fierce carnivores of the insect world. Apart from the ongoing bi-monthly rodent-in-the-roof problem and next door’s mangy cat that often comes begging for a crust or a bit of coquilles St. Jacques washed down with a cheeky Chablis, I’ve hardly been troubled by the wildlife at all since the autumn began. When the sun shines it’s really very pleasant, but the sun disappears far too early for my liking so evening meals are taken indoors where there are also no insects at this time of year.
You may find this hard to believe but my central heating actually aids me in the war I wage against aggressive wildlife. My house, being more than a century old and being of the style that has exposed timbers everywhere you look, has naturally become the home for a thriving colony of woodworm. Well that was the case until I arrived here with my fancy pants thermal pump heating system which blows out warm dry air all day long, or cold dry air in the summer if required. The effects of this are noticeable in that some wooden items have shrunk a bit, and even split in some cases. But as it has reduced the moisture content of the timber beams that the woodworm need to survive, their activity has significantly reduced in the last eight or nine months. Less and less do I find little piles of sawdust beneath the holes they have burrowed and less and less do I hear the munching sound that they make like someone with no teeth eating a sandwich. Sometimes I’ve even seen the struggling little grubs giving up the ghost as they gasp for a drink and plummet from the ceiling. This sounds a bit disgusting but it’s a rare occurrence and I’m happy with it as long as I remember keep a piece of mesh over my cuppa, particularly at the moment as I’m trying to abstain from meat. The heating has proved to be a more effective culling method than the hazardous chemical spraying that I paid an arm and a wooden leg for shortly after moving in. The downside to this wood shrinkage situation is that I now have to regularly hoover the floor as bits of garden, toast, cat, insect, etc. accumulate in the gaps that have appeared between my floorboards, whereas in the past I would simply sweep the floor with my traditional Bulgarian broom.
Many of my outdoor activities have ground to a halt for the winter. Professional football in Bulgaria has begun its ten-week long winter break so, for the time being, that white hot cauldron that is FC Etar’s Ivaylo Stadium in Veliko Tarnovo isn’t a place to go once a fortnight to keep warm. The Praktiker do-it-yourself shop has closed down until May to undergo a major overhaul and some construction work of its own. As the shop is shut, I wonder where they will get their building materials from to do this work. I often used to go there in winter to keep warm or in summer to keep cool as I wandered the aisles, browsing in amazement at their extensive ranges of rat poison, barbed wire, chainsaws and soft furnishings. Even the extensive Roman ruins at Nicopolis ad Istrum, a few miles north of the city have closed until the spring. This isn’t a great loss to me as I can probably get by without an insula or a horreum until April but I do wonder why a site which is little more than neatly laid out piles of carved stone needs to be locked up for the winter, particularly when I consider that climatic conditions almost killed me there one Sunday afternoon last July. The dozens of outdoor cafés and restaurants that adorn the streets of Veliko Tarnovo are also temporarily out of bounds for a few months. I love to spend time in these places reading my book or watching the Balkan world go by as I sit in the shade and sip a Turkish coffee or a Bolyarka beer or a couple of pints of yogurt.
As well as not going out much myself, my collection of cats doesn’t seem to relish the dark nights and the less than tropical weather either. They spend most of the daytime outside but as soon as they hear me putting the kettle on for my teatime cuppa they are whining and scratching at the back door to come in. On the colder days I let them stay inside more but, having got used to the profusion of living creatures that there are available to kill in the garden, they get a bit bored just sitting around twiddling their claws. Using by my ample CD collection I have tried to introduce them to the music of Ireland and of Bulgaria, the humour of Monty Python’s Flying Circus and the speeches of Mahatma Gandhi, but neither have seemed all that impressed and both, I’m sure, would have much more fun ripping the limbs off a lizard. You can take a cat out of Bulgaria but you can’t take Bulgaria out of a cat, as the old saying goes. I’ve maintained a good standard of health so far this winter but both cats have had a dose of the ‘flu with all the usual symptoms of streaming eyes, constant sneezing, scabby snotty noses, moaning and groaning and a trip to the vet. The female cat coped reasonably well with it but the male had full on man ‘flu. Despite being dosed up with gallons of Lemsip with Tuna he lay on the sofa with his paw resting on his slightly febrile brow and that pathetic ‘bring me some Whiskas / oh I couldn’t possibly eat a thing’ attitude that gets on everybody’s nerves.
A cat at teatime.
The twenty-fifth of December was a day for celebration as it was exactly eighteen months to the day since I arrived in Bulgaria to live. I enjoyed the luxury of breakfast in the garden as I rejoiced the warmth of the December sun on my face. This was the latest of my many ‘Bulgaria moments’ when I see or do something that further reinforces what a good idea coming here to live has been. These moments are occurring a bit less frequently now as I become more and more accustomed to my East European lifestyle. But this particular Christmas morning moment was a bit of a special one because of the surroundings, the birds singing in the nearby trees and the unbelievably nice weather. Later I went to the house of some dear friends (one English, one Welsh) who had invited two of their neighbours (one Bulgarian, one Greek) for what turned out to be a multi-cultural and most delicious Christmas dinner. Although vulgar Western consumerism is starting to gnaw its way into the Bulgarian way of life, Christmas here is a much more low-key affair than the hustle and bustle stuff that I became used to down the years that I spent living in Britain. Bulgarian people who celebrate it in their traditional way do so with more understanding of why the day exists, more subtlety and much less extravagance. The forty days that immediately precede it are a time of fasting and then, the following day, it’s all over and done with, which makes the whole thing much more bearable in my opinion.
I also felt justified in celebrating a major victory in the area of the above-mentioned rat problem. Last year my enjoyment of Christmas was impaired by the presence of my first unwanted visitor. There have been more since but I am pleased to say that me and my cats are beating the rats seven lifeless torsos to nil and the house is currently a rodent-free zone. But nature has a habit of not standing still when it comes to presenting me with crises. About a month after the last sighting of a rat, whilst out working in my garden, to my great surprise I noticed out of the corner of my eye a steaming great cow pat. Out of curiosity I looked around for further evidence of bovine activity, only to discover hoof prints in the soil. Concerned about what damage cattle might do to my house, especially if they get in amongst the pipework or into the loft, I’ve invested in some of those humane traps in the hope that I can capture them and release them back into the wild, far from my home. I’ve been expecting to see homemade posters tied to lamp posts around the village bearing a picture of a cow and the words ‘Cow missing. Answers to ‘Daisy’. Reward for finder’.
As December drew to a close and the sun set behind the forested hills at the other side of my garden wall for the final time in 2017, so ended my first full year in my new country. I’m still alive and there’s been no mention of me being deported. Despite constant attacks from nature and the elements my house is still standing and, despite a constant supply of fine Bulgarian wines and rakias, I’m still standing too. Going into a new year I feel ever more confident in my new surroundings and at peace with my world. I hope your 2018 will be as happy as I think mine is going to be and there are no woodworm swimming in your tea.