You may have noticed that I’ve had a whole year off from this bloggery business and I expect you’re thinking that I’ve just been sitting around in the warm Balkan sunshine with a knotted hanky on my head, sipping the fine wines of the Thracian Valley and discussing the works of our great poets (Vazov, Botev, Bagriana, et al.) with my dear neighbours. I can assure you, however, that I have kept myself busy throughout as I continue to immerse myself in Bulgarian culture and the fine wines of the Thracian Valley.
As ever, I wander this beautiful country, taking in the mountains and rivers, cities and villages, and chip shops and kebab vans in a never-ending quest to soak up as much of Bulgaria’s culture as I can and to learn its wonderful language. The language in particular takes up a lot of my time as, in addition to my regular weekly classes with two of the greatest intellectuals that a cup of tea and a sticky bun can buy, for the whole of the year I have been keeping a journal in Bulgarian. I write each day’s events in simple English, translate it into Bulgarian, read it to my friend Dary who tells me where I have gone wrong (in terms of spelling and grammar rather than in terms of the things I have got up to from day to day) and then I copy it to a proper shop-bought diary in my neatest joined up Bulgarian handwriting.
Malki Chiflik Book of the Year 2018
The journal writing takes up a lot of the spare time that I would in the past have used for blog writing so there’s my excuse for my absence, and a quite valid excuse if you don’t mind me saying so. However, all scribble and no play makes Terry a dull Bulgarian so I will now enlighten you by running through some of the other scintillating stuff that I have encountered since last I scribbled.
In January I did three things that I had never done before in Bulgaria. I went to church, I attended a political demonstration and I had a go at horo, Bulgaria’s unique traditional dancing. I’ve been attending churches in various other countries (well, England) for approximately fifty-five years but never really got the hang of it. I had three attempts here: once on our village saint’s day, once at midnight mass on Saturday night at Easter and then again at the morning service on Easter Sunday. It’s not really my chalice of tea but it is interesting and I like going along to show my new countrymen and women that I respect their traditions. Three times this month I went to city centre demonstrations to protest at the government’s decision to allow the building of another ski slope in the spectacularly scenic Pirin National Park. During my twenties I attended numerous political and environmental rallies but the world is still a right bloody mess despite my efforts so I was amazed that the Pirin campaign did not suffer because of me and that the politicians’ decision was recently reversed. At a couple of horo dancing lessons that I attended in the little club house in our village square, let’s just say that I learned the Bulgarian words for ‘two left feet’. So, of the three new places to go to meet new people and do my bit for the community, I failed in two and there was a change of government policy to prevent me from continuing with the third.
In February we had our heaviest snow of the winter. I thought I’d go abroad to escape this but Berlin turned out not to be the best place to go to avoid arctic conditions because, although devoid of snow, it was just as cold as it was here at home. The Berlin trip was a present to me from my family to celebrate a special birthday I had had a few months earlier and what made it really special was that they all came along to Berlin too. So it was really nice that together we could discover the similarities between rakia and schnaps. Paracetamol is the same the world over, by the way.
Malki Chiflik looking cool.
More heavy snow came in March so I went to Barcelona for a wee while. Meteorological conditions there at the time could be described as predominantly cool and slightly damp, which was a marked improvement. Again, it was family connections that drew me there as I went primarily to visit our Seán (my second-born child) who worked for Barcelona Football Club for a season. He had an apartment on the top floor of a building which had a tapas bar on the ground floor and which was very close to the Camp Nou stadium. We took in a match and a cheeky splash of Rioja in a week that could be summed up with the words ‘patatas bravas’ and ‘Messi’.
April was a gorgeous month as Bulgarian nature exploded into life, painting the hills and mountainsides in a myriad of colours as aromas of all kinds tantalised the nasal passages. We had wall to wall acacia blossom and cuckoos! I took advantage of the fine weather by having my second cat (Boris) castrated. There’s nothing quite like an intimate modification to make a spring.
By the time May came around Boris had recovered from his operation, but not his embarrassment, and I had got my garden looking really good. It’s always been more of a job for a chainsaw and a petrol strimmer than for a trowel and hoe and I’m always in a great deal of pain at the end of each day’s work in it. The pain is usually of a muscular nature and I’ve tried to reduce the intensity of this by starting work later in the day so that when I reach the point where I have to stop because darkness has fallen, I still haven’t reached the point where I have overdone it and half crippled myself. However, for a few days this month I had a different kind of pain caused by a couple of hornet stings in my arms, but the staff at the accident and emergency department at Veliko Tarnovo hospital were very kind to me and the antibiotics that they gave me ensured that for almost a fortnight I was unable to venture further than a couple of metres from the safety of my toilet seat and consequently I didn’t overdo things in the garden. Once the stinging and the gastric tsunami had abated, I wandered off to England, Belgium and France for three weeks to escape any sort of repetition of my misadventures.
For many years I had fancied having a stab at backpacking round the world so now when I travel outside of Bulgaria I realise my dream by throwing a spare pair of pants, my camera and a corkscrew into a backpack and I hit the road, whistling The Happy Wanderer as I go. As well as it seeming like quite a cool thing to do, I’m also too tight to pay the economy airlines’ ridiculously expensive checked-in hold luggage charges, so as long as I can pummel my belongings into acceptable easyJet cabin luggage dimensions, I can save myself a fair few leva. On reflection it might have been a good idea to have started such adventures forty years earlier as heaving my burden around on my back damaged a muscle in my shoulder and also, I think it might have appeared a lot cooler if I had been somewhere more like Kathmandu than Guildford railway station when I sustained my injury. I had a good time though, visiting my family at both ends of England and touring the World War One battlefields, cemeteries, patisseries and bars in Belgium and Northern France with my sister.
Back in Bulgaria the daily thunderstorms gave us the wettest July in decades, my shoulder was a big problem and my car was being a bit of a pain too so I had to cancel a little trip I had planned for Balchik on the Black Sea and I had to abandon hope of maintaining the horticultural standards I had set in June. Also, my brand-new cherry tree sapling and my sunflower seeds failed to flourish so I felt as though Mother Earth, who I had embraced since the day I moved into my house, had suddenly abandoned me. I needed to sort out my life and soon discovered that a good Bowen Therapist lady, a good car mechanic, a good pair of wellies and a good old slug of rakia would get me back on track.
The broad majestic Yantra in Veliko Tarnovo, swollen by
the summer rains.
August was a lot warmer and a lot drier than July though still not the scorching summer that I had come to expect in Bulgaria, but also still a million times better than what I had experienced in ninety nine percent of the summers I had waded through before I came to Bulgaria. The garden was a jungle of weeds such that even David Attenborough would have struggled to resist and, although my shoulder was significantly better, I was a bit nervous about thrashing about with my thicket and damaging it again. Thankfully Leeds United appointed an exciting new manager to take my mind off this little flurry of irritations.
By September I was as right as the rain we had had in July and I toddled off on holiday with Dary my friend, navigator, translator, botanist, gourmet and tour guide. For almost two weeks we toured the Eastern Rodopi Mountains and the remote and intriguing Strandzha region in the south eastern corner of the country near the frontier with Turkey. We explored some incredible Neolithic sites; visited beautiful old villages steeped in superstition and a type of Christianity that was borderline paganism; luxuriated on luscious Bulgarian cuisine, wines, spirits and cordials; stood open-mouthed as we took in the splendour of the mountain scenery; and took off our boots for a paddle in the Black Sea. It was strange to think that, although still within my new country, in some respects it was a bit of a trip down memory lane for me. By a huge coincidence, we stopped at a roadside café near Dimitrovgrad where I had stopped on my first ever trip to Bulgaria more than three years earlier and where the waiter had helped me with the local words for ‘where is the toilet?’ This time my linguistic skills had moved on a little and the waiter (I couldn’t remember if it was the same one) helped me by giving me a bit of wire to stop a rattly bit of my car from rattling. The day I first set foot in there I never imagined that I would ever set foot in there again. Also, in Sunny Sozopol, we met up with my good friends Steve and Judith who were instrumental in the early stages of my moving abroad decision-making process but who I hadn’t seen for over three years. ‘It’s a funny old Balkan world’, I said to myself as the memories of anxious, dithering about in my head times came flooding back.
In October I spent a few days in Plovdiv, the oldest continually inhabited city in Europe, and fell in love with the hustle and bustle of the place and wondered if I could one day live there. A week later I spent a few days in Nova Zagora, a quaint little town just over an hour’s drive south from where I live through the spectacular Stara Planina range of mountains, and fell in love with the tranquillity of the place and wondered if I could one day live there. I’ve found that I tend to fall in love with just about everywhere I go in Bulgaria (though Botevgrad was a challenge) but when I get home again I remember that my house is the best house in the world, despite the plagues of insects, the constant struggle with vermin and the mountain of empty rakia bottles that I have to climb over to get out of bed in an afternoon. On the subject of vermin, late on in the month, with the help of my local scouts, I signed Mermer, a grey tabby from Momin Sbor, to strengthen my rat-catching squad. A lovely little cat that coped well with the aggression from my other two adult felines.
Cat Three - Little Mermer
November was birthday month not only for me but also for approximately one twelfth of the population of the world. A year earlier I hadn’t wanted to be sixty years old and then suddenly this month I wasn’t, so there was cause for celebration even though I didn’t. The first snow of the winter came while a friend and his friends were painting the outside of my house, which was handy because we didn’t need to chill the brush cleaning fluid before we drank it.
In December, in a room above a bar in town, we held the inaugural meeting of the Veliko Tarnovo Immigrants’ Club. It was nice to round off the year by mingling with nice new faces from many nations to ruminate (as a scholar would, rather than as a goat would) over our various experiences that strangely brought us together. However, I also have a lot of dear old friends in Bulgaria who I absolutely treasure and without whom my great adventure wouldn’t be half the fun that it actually is and who I know I can rely upon for help in times of difficulty. For much the same reasons, I love to bits all the people who travelled over from the more western bits of Europe to visit me during the year. Sadly, some special people who I have known are no longer with us, but as they have been part of my strange new world, they will always have a place in my heart.
So that’s 2018 for you. I promise 2019 will be different with the written tale spread out over the whole year on my blog and with a lot more detail, photographs and quotes from our great poets (Vazov, Botev, Bagriana, et al.)