Did you know that [counter] people have been having a skeg at my little autonomous region?

  

Stress Relief

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.

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.

Once Bitten

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.

 Unable to provide a photograph of my beasts that bite,

I give you ... Cat Two.

 

Благодаря

Аз съм роден в Северна Англия. Имам ирландски паспорт, защото моят баща беше от Ирландия. Пътувам по целия свят. Но сега живея в България и съм много щастлив тук.

Живея в тази страна от една година. Моята къща е в Малки Чифлик, село в близост до старата част на Велико Търново. Пътувал съм от София до Черно Море и от река Дунав до Родопа планина. Навсякъде видях красиви пейзажи и много приветливи хора.

Срещнах само двама българи, които не ми харесаха. Те работят в компания за коли под наем до летище София. Поискаха ми твърде много пари, за да ми дадат навигационна система. Бяха първите хора, които срещнах в България. Един час след моето пристигане си мислех, аз никога повече няма да дойда в България. Но когато минах през планините с колата, видях, че е много красива страна. Спрях за кафе в село Български Извор и приятните хора, които работят там ме накараха да се усмихна. Бързо се влюбих в България.

Обичам планините, реките и езерата. Обичам историята, старинните сгради и музиката. Слънцето, ракията и хората ме правят още по-щастлив. Аз съм горд да имам българска лична карта. Но имам два малки проблема. Първият е, че българският език е труден и го уча бавно. Вторият е храната, защото тя прави моите панталони много стегнати.

През първата си година тук се почувствах много добре дошъл и сега имам много добри български приятели. Всички помогнаха на самотния чужденец и аз съм много благодарен за това. И сега знам, че ще остана тук до края на живота си.

И благодаря много на България.

 

Veliko Tarnovo, the city of my dreams.

 

And for those dear readers who are not blessed with the gift of the Bulgarski tongue, here it is in English ... 

I was born in the north of England . I have an Irish passport because my father was from Ireland. I have travelled all over the world. But now I live in Bulgaria and I am very happy here.

I have been living in this country for a year. My house is in Malki Chiflik, a village near the old part of Veliko Tarnovo. I have travelled from Sofia to the Black Sea and from the Danube River to the Rhodope Mountains. Everywhere I saw beautiful landscapes and very friendly people.

I met only two Bulgarians who I did not like. They work in a car rental company at Sofia Airport. They charged me too much money for a navigation system. They were the first people I met in Bulgaria. One hour after my arrival I thought, I will never come to Bulgaria again. But when I went through the mountains with the car I saw it was a very beautiful country. I stopped for coffee in the village of Balgarski Izvor and the nice people working there made me smile. I quickly fell in love with Bulgaria.

I love the mountains, the rivers and the lakes. I love the history, the old buildings and the music. The sun, the rakia and the people make me even happier. I am proud to have a Bulgarian identity card. But I have two small problems. The first is that the Bulgarian language is hard and I learn slowly. The second is the food because it makes my trousers very tight.

In my first year here I have felt very welcome and now I have some very good Bulgarian friends. Everybody helped this poor foreigner and I am very grateful for that. And now I know I'll stay here for the rest of my life.

So thank you very much Bulgaria.

Shaz the Kotka

You may have read in an earlier instalment of my Balkan saga that round about the time of last year’s mid-winter festival I was cursed by the presence of an unwanted visitor in my home, it being a rat. I’m normally a hospitable sort of bloke but this particular visitor was eating my water pipes, pooing in places where one shouldn’t poo and just not adding to the festive spirit at all. I invited it to leave a number of times but it was a rat that just couldn’t take a hint. I adopted several approaches in an attempt to persuade it to go home such as laying poison, setting traps, saying please, displaying signs that said ‘no rats’, repeatedly looking at my watch and yawning, blanket bombing with napalm canisters and spinning my long-playing record Golden Hour of the Speeches of Margaret Thatcher on the gramophone. The latter of these seemed to do the trick and it eventually packed its bags and scarpered, but it posted a letter of complaint to the Bulgarian RSPCA before it left the village.

Friends in Bulgaria told me that attack would be the best form of defence if repetition of this tiresome rodent-based incident was to be avoided, but I should employ the services of a big hard cat rather than go out attacking rats myself. So I put an advertisement on a card in the post office window. It said something like:

Cat required. Must be a mild-mannered psychopath and non-smoker with genitals removed and good sense of humour.

A few days later I had a reply from a she-cat that was living in a biscuit tin in a petrol station forecourt in the nearby town of Dryanovo. The cat had no form of transport so I drove there to collect her. I bought some fuel and when I went to pay, the man who ran the petrol station handed her over to me with my change and receipt. A much better reward system than Nectar points or Green Shield Stamps, I thought. He told me her name was Sharenka which in Bulgarian meant ‘colourful’ to describe her unusual markings. Although a nice name, this sounded a bit poncy and pretentious so I immediately added a bit of Leeds culture to her Balkan background and renamed her Shaz.

On the front seat of the car on the journey to her new life, Shaz was shaking and howling with fear, stinking of petrol and scratching vigorously, but delighted in the knowledge that with her new name she would be made to feel quite welcome if ever she fancied a pint in Seacroft Working Men’s Club on the fashionable eastern side of the great city of Leeds; an exclusive establishment where people are often found howling with fear, smelling of solvents and scratching themselves. So we bonded immediately.

I was a little bit concerned about my new mate introducing parasites to my home and the possibility of underage pregnancy, especially as she was now called Shaz. I imagined that after three halfalagers and a bowl of new meaty Whiskas with rat Shaz might be anybody’s. I was quite happy to take on a new friend in my life but I didn’t want her bringing a whole load of baggage, particularly in the form of kittens, with her too. So before going home we paid a precautionary visit to a vet in Veliko Tarnovo for a health check. I passed with flying colours (almost), but Shaz had ear mites. I got a bit confused here muddling up ear mites with ear worms. Mistakenly I felt so sorry for the poor little creature thinking that she might have spent most of her life so far with something like Boney M’s Rivers of Babylon rattling around in her little head. But the vet squirted some stuff on the back of her neck and sang a couple of David Bowie songs to get her back on track, and we all knew that from that point everything would be alright. He refused to neuter her though as she appeared to be only six months old. He said we should return when she had been in season at least once.

So we went home and I tried to show her around the place (demonstrating how to control the central heating, where the towels are kept, etc.) but she immediately went and hid down the back of the settee for an hour, humming Life on Mars? When she eventually and nervously emerged she came to sit beside me, purring loudly. She seemed a nice cat but I wondered how I would stop her from getting pregnant. We discussed various methods of contraception and she purred even more loudly. She seemed to be over-affectionate, not very active and quite fat for her tender age. I went and did a bit of rooting around on Google where the symptoms suggested that she might already be with kitten. Apparently cats can conceive from the age of four months. My immediate reaction was to go round to the father’s house and loosen a few of his teeth but then I calmed down and considered the possibility of raising the babies as my own so that the mother could pursue her lifetime’s ambitions unhindered by the need to provide child care.

I contacted my new friend Emma, who is incredibly wise in the ways of abandoned animals in this part of the world, and who had put me in contact with the petrol station owner a couple of days earlier. She suggested that I take young Shaz back to Dryanovo the following day to see a street vet that she worked with who would do the neutering and terminate any embryonic kittens at the same time, which would have been a shame but probably for the best for all concerned, especially the mother and babies.

The following morning the cat was put back into the carrying basket and taken out to the car to embark upon another stressful road trip. She had that ‘Oh what now? I was just starting to like it here.’ look on her face. Forty minutes later we met Dimitar who was a good vet with a very practical and enthusiastic approach to dealing with Bulgaria’s big problem of street cats and dogs. He agreed to do the necessary there and then, so while the poor little thing was under the knife I went away to have a coffee with Emma, who turned out to be from near Leeds and consequently delighted with Shaz’s name. 

On my return to the surgery Dimitar told me that my cat hadn’t been pregnant at all. She was just fat, probably because she had been overfed by the kind people who had been looking after her in the petrol station. I imagined her stuffing her face with Ginster’s pasties, Scotch eggs and cans of Coke. A fat street cat in Bulgaria is pretty rare so whatever she’d been fed on it was better than not being fed at all and being able to call her Fat Shaz made her sound even more Leeds Council Estate, so I warmed to her even more.

If cats could speak, Shaz would have said ‘I’ve bloody well had enough of all this’ as I carried her in her basket back to the car. She slept throughout the return journey and when we got home and I let her out in the kitchen her gait was wobbly as if she’d had a drop too much of the rakia. But apart from a bit of oozing from her wound and the embarrassment of having had some over-the-top trimming of her bikini line, she was the same old Shaz that I had known for all these hours. Once again she settled in to her new life in my house, albeit in an even more nervous and pathetic way than the previous day.

The weeks went by and Shaz grew in confidence from being a terrified runt to a cocky little get. It’s nice to see that she has made herself at home here but she has also made the place home for all sorts of wildlife that she brings over the threshold into my kitchen. Wildlife such as large beetles, lizards, severed but still wriggling appendages of lizards, snails and mice. She brings them in and gets bored with them so they end up just running or slithering around on my floor. She brought a mouse in a couple of weeks ago, played with it for a while and then lost interest, leaving it to get on with its business alone. So I rescued it in a dustpan and released it back into the wild at the top end of the wilderness bit of my garden. Fifteen minutes later the cat brought it in again and the whole process was repeated except I released it much further away at the bottom end of the wilderness part of my garden and I swore a bit. Last night I saw her with the back leg of an enormous toad, half the size of my foot, in her mouth as she tried to drag it into the house. This was defeating the object as the whole point of my employing a feline was to remove from my home any animal species that were more suited to living in the great outdoors. Consequently we had words, though she doesn’t understand my words because she’s Bulgarian. She’s not a cat, she’s a котка … Мазнини Шаз котката.

Just because she’s been taken in off the streets and given a new start in life, she must think I’m a rescue centre for all creatures of the wild. Though I’m pleased to say I haven’t seen any sign of a rat here since Shaz became my housemate. Perhaps the rats are just waiting for her to invite them in.

To close this piece of scribble I would like to apologise if it causes offence to anyone reading who really is called Shaz, particularly if they live on Seacroft estate. I have known a number of people with this name during my life and they have all been very nice. I really don’t mean any harm. Sometimes it’s just fun to go stereotyping.

 

Shaz the Kotka.

Shaz the Kotka.

Home

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.

The snail is small ... but the cat is far away.

Lost & Found

One thousand square metres of overgrown wilderness came free with the house I bought here in the Republic of Bulgaria. This pales into insignificance the bottle of Morrison’s own brand champagne and the bunch of half dead flowers we got from the estate agent when I moved with my family into a house we bought in the North of England nearly thirty years ago. It just goes to show how great a work ethic East European people demonstrate when going about their business. The Harrogate estate agent, however, did show at the time a positive side in claiming that the flowers were half alive rather than half dead.

Although officially my property, this chunk of extra land is not my garden but an unruly patch of land that lies beyond. The large, partly paved and partly terraced, cultivated garden enclosed in a white painted stone wall topped with terracotta tiles looks all prim and proper as it basks in the lovey Balkan sunshine, as I suspect I do myself.

The tidy garden with its fruit trees, grapevines, lush hostas and tall, spikey, tropical-looking plants that make your arm bleed and rude words spill from your mouth if you catch yourself on them is lovely and fairly easy to look after. Even the empty beer bottles are neatly stacked away in crates. But the bit at the other side of the wall is mad. It’s like a jungle, sometimes it makes me wonder how I keep from going under. At least it was like a jungle when I first got here but I’ve been grappling away with it for months and recently my labours have brought me to a point where it could be loosely described as being under control.

The entire population of Bulgaria told me that I needed to buy a strimmer with a petrol motor to carry out this task. I ignored them initially because I knew that if I did it would be noisy and smelly, it wouldn’t be able to deal with the small boulders strewn across my land and it would deal far too efficiently with the reptilian wildlife that has lived happily for years in the vegetation between the boulders. I can boast that I used only precision instruments, although a little primitive, and no reptiles were harmed in this operation.

Last October I noticed that the sting had gone out of the sun’s rays and a billion flesh eating insects (not to mention arthropods and arachnids, who can also be little buggers when they’re a bit peckish) had packed up and toddled off on their winter holidays, so working outside in daylight hours became possible for the first time since my arrival in this land. In true Soviet satellite state tradition, I bought myself a sickle and set about thrashing at my thicket.

The constant need to sharpen my instrument, rake up and burn the debris and scratch my insect-ravaged arms and legs down to the bone was hard work. Even in the autumn the weather was still quite warm. In fact, even on a Sunday afternoon early in November I had to down tools and down beer because the weather was too hot to work in without fear of being labelled a mad dog or an Englishman.

The hard work turned out to be very rewarding as ground that probably hadn’t been seen for six or seven years by any creature with two legs was gradually exposed. As I laboured away I was joined by wild birds of all sizes and colours, gay fluttering butterflies, lizards, slow worms, frogs, enough exotic looking insect life to make it worthwhile for David Attenborough and his film crew to pay me a visit, and the man who drinks a lot of rakia as he wanders aimlessly around the village. The sounds around me were only of nature at its finest, dogs barking and cocks crowing in nearby farmyards and neighbours with petrol powered strimming machines; but mostly of the buzz of insects, shrill and vibrant birdsong and woodpeckers tapping at the lofty boughs of trees around me. The smells of freshly cut vegetation, wood smoke from freshly felled saplings burning on my bonfire and freshly dropped droppings from the goats and cattle that are lead in procession along the lane by my house a couple of times a day.  

I didn’t think that cultivating with a blade until every muscle in my body ached and every joint creaked could bring me so much pleasure, but it did. Consequently, as I was enjoying my labour of love so much, I spent a bit too long each day beavering away with my simple tool in the undergrowth. Exercise and fresh air are all well and good until you get to the point where you feel so exhausted that vultures start to circle overhead and the rakia man drools from the corner of his mouth as he stares expectantly through a gap in the fence at your not quite exhausted supply of drink.

Probably the most interesting aspect of this massive defoliation exercise was the quantity and variety of things that I found. Admittedly, some of these were in my derelict barn rather than my lush brush, but it was all part of the same tidying up job. They included an antique wooden bow saw, an almost limbless plastic model of Pinocchio, three unlabelled bottles of what I suspect is homemade rakia but might not be, the remains of domestic animals, a gothic gold censer of Christian Orthodox design (though I suspect it may really be made from 1960s Bulgarian brass), enough scorpions to fill the Old Trafford football stadium, a 1981 calendar, a framed black and white photograph of a man and a woman dating back several decades, an old oil can, a fondue set, a cuddly toy, a hundred jars of pickle that had turned black with age and an overwhelming feeling of peace, tranquillity and solitude.

My horticultural endeavours halted temporarily when a thick blanket of snow forced an unwanted winter break on me. For three icy months I lay in my bed dreaming of my sickle. Thankfully the spring is here now and in the last few weeks I have cleared a lot more land and bought the petrol strimmer that I need to keep on top of the nettles and wild roses that are already threatening me with a hostile return and to hush up all the people who keep telling me I need a petrol strimmer. To improve the scene even more, I demolished a dangerously decrepit outhouse with a sturdy hammer, my bare hands and a winter’s worth of pent up energy and frustration.

So what was once a jungle now looks more like a meadow. Sometimes I imagine that I can see Julie Andrews running down the grassy bank from my back gate, arms outstretched as she sings, ‘the hills are alive with the sound of music’. I can’t wait for the full swing of spring and to see the vast profusion of wild plants making the whole place green again, and hopefully with a splash of a few more colours besides.

I lost myself on that bit of overgrown land but while I was there I realised that I had found the place I have always been looking for. It’s in a field in the middle of Bulgaria. Who’d have thought? 

 

The tools of my thicket thrashing.

The tools of my thicket thrashing.

 

St Trifon Zarezan

Surely everybody in the developed world and Swindon is aware that the fourteenth of February is a saint’s day. In the bit of the developed world where I used to live the saint in question was a bloke called Valentine, named after romantic Irish crooner Val Doonican. It’s a day when anybody who loves somebody in a carnal sort of way sends the person that they love a bouquet of red roses or a big box of Maltesers and a greetings card, each costing five times the price of what they would on the thirteenth or fifteenth of February. It doesn’t really have to be one of these items that you buy to express your deepest feelings to the love of your life, or even anything slushy and soppy, as long as it is something that is temporarily ridiculously overpriced. So a Domino’s pizza, or a bag of cinema foyer pick ‘n’ mix sweeties or a ticket to watch Manchester United wouldn’t do because those things are permanently ridiculously overpriced.

I must admit that in the past I have joined in with this ritual. I was reluctant at first as the thought of it being a saint’s day suggested to me that I would have to go to church and pray. What else would you do on a saint’s day? In the first ten years of my life, when I was rather saintly myself, I spent so much time kneeling by pews in the name of saint this, that and the other, that I developed callosities on my kneecaps and a morbid fear of saints. When I lived in Scotland I had an invitation from friends to go to watch St Mirren competing against St Johnstone, which I almost declined until I discovered that it was a football match and that no snakes, dragons or dolphins would be harmed in the proceedings. Though it means bowing to the vulgar consumerism of the twenty first century, sending a card and a bunch of daffs is a lot more enjoyable and probably more worthwhile than hoping that a man or woman with a silly name and who was executed in a terrible way over a thousand years ago, is gaily skipping around Paradise.

Call me boastful but on St Valentine’s day this year my tally of cards was only one short of my all-time personal best haul of St Valentine’s day cards ever, despite me being in my twilight years and living in a country where the patron saint of sentimental tat is barely recognised. My all-time personal best haul of St Valentine’s day cards ever, by the way, amounts to one.

Here in the Republic of Bulgaria we have a much better saint to celebrate the life and work of on this day. His name is (was) St Trifon Zarezan and he is the patron saint of going on a bender. According to my mate Ivan who sits outside the bar in our village in all weathers quaffing fine rakias in a pilgrimage sort of way, St Triff was a common vine-grower. Apparently one day he went out to his vineyard to prune his vines and there he met the Virgin Mary and joked with her that she had an illegitimate child. She was a bit put out by this and decided to punish him, so she went to see his wife and told her that Trifon had cut his nose. In a huge panic, Mrs Trifon rushed towards the vineyard to help her husband but soon saw that he was fine. When she told him what had happened he said that it was impossible and he started to laugh, but while waving his hands around in his state of hilarity he really did cut his nose with his pruning knife. It was from this accident that he got his nickname ‘Zarezan’ which means ‘truncated’. The real St Trifon died as a martyr during the Roman persecution of the Christians but people didn’t want to associate his name with sadness and pain, so they crowned him with the halo of wine making and rejoicing. My friend Ivan must have broken his nose at least half a dozen times down the years as it is spread all over his face. I often wonder if his love for strong drink, laughter and facial disfigurement could mean that he is a direct descendant of Trifon.

As a consequence of this merry tale, the day of St Trifon Zarezan is seen as the cusp between the end of winter and the arrival of spring.  It is considered to be the first day of the year on which it is safe to prune vines so, traditionally, Bulgarian village men wander off to the vineyards to perform this task while women stay at home to prepare food for a feast. At the end of a hard day’s pruning everyone gets together to eat the fine food, drink wine, sing songs and dance to celebrate yer man Trifon and the winter’s passing. The villager who grew the most grapes in the preceding year is appointed ‘King of the Harvest’ and a crown made from chopped off grapevine twigs is placed on his head as everyone gives him loads and loads of wine in the hope that they will be blessed for their generosity. It is thought that the more wine that is poured on this day, the more plentiful the next harvest will be. The fifteenth of February, incidentally, is St Anadin’s day in celebration of the patron saint of hangover cures.

Well that’s the tradition and it still goes on in many places in rural Bulgaria but my village of Malki Chiflik is only four kilometres from a small city so, being a bit more suburban that rural, most people here mark the occasion simply by going out to work during the day and sitting in front of the telly feeling knackered in the evening. They do keep up the custom of having a glass of locally produced wine or rakia, and the vinegar in their packets of salt ‘n’ vinegar flavour crisps tends to be the bad wine shipped in from a rival village nearby.

I’m determined to be as Bulgarian as I can so I spent the day working in my vineyard giving loving attention to my vines which look like they are raring to go once the spring kicks off in earnest. Actually, when I say ‘day’ I really mean forty minutes as I only have three mature vines and a couple of babies that I planted myself in the autumn. I would emphasise, however, that I did the job properly. I spent hours watching YouTube videos on the subject and read the book Drinking Copious Amounts of Wine for Dummies. So, armed with a fancy pair of secateurs and a passion for all things Balkan, I set about the task of chopping off all the bits that shouldn’t be there and leaving the bits that should, even though it didn’t seem right to be so brutal to these lovely plants so early on in the year.

In terms of the changing of the seasons, today really did seem like the cusp. Piles of snow and ice remained in my garden but there was meltwater gushing everywhere as warm sunshine prompted me to remove five of six layers of the clothing that I had been wearing constantly since early December. It was a wonderful feeling to be outside in just my tee shirt. Well obviously not ‘just’ my tee shirt as I wore my gardening gloves, a broad smile and a crown made from chopped off grapevine twigs as well. I felt I had reached a wonderful milestone in the Bulgarian calendar, so in my mind I thanked St Trifon Zarezan for getting the timing just right and in my kitchen I poured myself an ample glass of rakia which I sat and drank outside as woodpeckers tapped at the upper boughs of my pear tree and I watched the sun setting on my beautifully manicured vines. 

 

The flowers of romance.

The flowers of romance.

 

Devil Gate Drive

Between Malki Chiflik and Sofia the road cuts through the Balkan range of mountains by means of several lofty viaducts and four tunnels. Back in December I had reason to travel this way to meet my friend Anne, who was arriving at the airport from her home in the Netherlands. As I left my home I was already a little anxious about the journey because of the thick blanket of snow that had covered the Republic of Bulgaria overnight, but I had no idea of the scale of the adventure that lay ahead of me. The stretch of road between tunnels two and three will stay in my mind forever as a place of great excitement, though not in a fun way like Panda’s Palace in Skegness.

For a hundred and sixty kilometres I sped in my trusty Opel Corsa along Bulgaria’s Road Four, trying to fit the names of towns like Sevlievo, Sopot and Balgarski Izvor to the tune of Get Your Kicks on Route Sixty Six that always rattles around in my head on long car journeys. Even stopping for a cuppa in the village of Golyama Brestnitsa didn’t help me hone my lyrics (though it always makes me smile because golyama means big) but from there the remaining seventy kilometres were along a motorway so by the time I had reached this point I thought I had cracked it, although flurries of snow were still around and threatening worse.

After the first tunnel the car’s engine seemed to be struggling a bit. I put it down to the bitterly cold and windy weather, the long drag of an incline that the road followed in that mountainous region and the fact that the car wasn’t much younger than I was. After the second tunnel it was struggling a lot and I could smell burning. I think one of the best decisions I have ever made in my life was to not attempt the third tunnel in which there would have been no emergency parking area, no emergency telephones, no reception for me to ring for help on my mobile phone, no facilities for changing into clean underpants and no hope of ever emerging alive. About two hundred metres from the entrance to tunnel three I pulled into a layby, switched the engine off and got out of the car to get a good lung full of the smoke that was coming from its undercarriage.

Obviously I could go no further and miraculously I had taken out motor vehicle recovery insurance only a week or so beforehand. Despite the gravity of the situation, I was pleased in a way that I was going to get value for money for the few quid that I had invested in the breakdown company, so I got back in the car and gave them a ring. I was delighted that the very helpful and polite lady operator at the other end of the line spoke very good English but frustrated that the only English word she didn’t know was ‘tunnel’. Locating me on the short stretch of road between the second and third tunnel would have been so simple had the range of her vocabulary been just that tiny bit greater. If I had had the foresight to take my Bulgarian dictionary with me on the journey I would have been able to tell her that the Bulgarian word for ‘tunnel’ was ‘toonell’ and nothing would have been lost in the divide between our tongues. However, unflustered and with the greatest of politeness, she told me that she would find a colleague who was more of a linguist than she was herself, and she would get him to ring me back within approximately twenty or thirty minutes.

 

My once trusty Opel Corsa motor carriage.

My once trusty Opel Corsa motor carriage.

 

Alone and afraid and aware of the great potential for stickiness in my trousers, I sat behind the wheel of my no longer trusty car as the grey of the day turned to darkness and the flurry turned to blizzard. It started to get cold. I started to get more than a bit concerned. Would I freeze to death between tunnels two and three and would my friend spend the rest of her life in the arrivals lounge at Sofia airport? Actually, the latter of these concerns was less of a concern because I knew she had an airline ticket to fly home again a week later so her discomfort, at least, would be for less than all eternity.

Sure enough, my phone rang after roughly twenty minutes and a kind Balkan gentleman was able to  take details of my location. He said he would get in touch with a mechanic in the nearby town of Botevgrad and I could expect to have roadside assistance within half an hour. I said thank you in my best Bulgarian, scraped the snow from the back window of my vehicle and prepared myself mentally for another reasonably short bout of sitting in a state of sub-zero, semi-abject misery.

Twenty minutes later a large yellow van pulled up behind me. I got out to speak to the driver and his mate but then noticed they were having a wee against the fence at the side of the road. I introduced myself with the word ‘breakdown’, also in my best Bulgarian. They responded by zipping up, shrugging their shoulders, getting back in their van and driving off like a bat out of a place a bit like hell but much colder. I returned to my car and had a breakdown of my own. I also rang Dutch Anne to explain my predicament and she told me not to worry because she had enough Bulgarian money to keep her in vending machine tea and stale airport sandwiches for a week.

Not many more minutes elapsed before a breakdown truck arrived. No one got out of the cab so I went and knocked on the window. The two men inside seemed reluctant to get out of the warmth but pointed to my car and repeated the word “Service. Service. Service.” So I wasn’t sure if they were from the mechanic’s garage or if they were just kind Bulgarian people offering to help me. A phone call to the breakdown company confirmed that they were the former, so it was agreed that my Corsa would be dragged up onto the back of their truck and we would all tootle off into the warmth of cosy Botevgrad and everyone would live happily ever after. On the way there it didn’t matter that the darkness and the heavy snow restricted our view of the road because the cigarette smoke inside the cab was so dense we couldn’t even see the windscreen.

The garage that we drove to through a labyrinth of snow swamped lanes in the darkest part of the town was as warm as I had hoped. A huge wood burner had been made out of an oil drum and one man had been given the permanent job of keeping it stoked up with logs. His name was Petrov and while his colleagues tinkered with the intimate bits of Ladas and Trabants and whatever the plural word for a Lexus is, he made a decent living from his career in warming people up, though he confided in me later that he did have to fiddle his overtime claim form a bit to make ends meet in July and August.

The breakdown company man on the phone was called Yordan. The driver of the breakdown truck was called Ilya. Yordan told me that the breakdown company would pay for me to stay in a hotel in Botevgrad for one night and that I could collect my repaired car the following day or, as an alternative, Ilya would drive me to the airport that night and I could make my own way back to the garage when the deed was done. Before the car was even lifted off the back of the truck Ilya told me that it would be ready to drive away before Christmas (this all happened on the thirteenth of December, by the way). I sat and talked to Petrov as I wondered when the car to whisk me away from all this would turn up and exactly which Christmas Ilya had in mind.

It became apparent that Ilya was the boss and he was busy working on a car that was hoisted up on a ramp while a thousand pieces of it lay scattered on the floor. He had five or six assistants working with him. Without being able to speak any words of English, Petrov offered me a cigarette and asked me if I liked the Beatles. I said no and yes to his questions respectively and he started singing Yellow Submarine. He then sang one or two other Lennon-McCartney classics to keep me amused. I told him that my favourite was I Am The Walrus and he had a stab at it but it was a struggle for him without the backing of an orchestra. So we moved on to the Rolling Stones, the Who and the Kinks. I tried to bring him up to date a bit by asking him about more recent recording artists that he might have known such as Queen, Elton John and Oasis. He sang a couple of lines of Candle In The Wind and then suddenly waved his hands in the air and shrieked ‘Suzi Quatro’ who was obviously his favourite because as well as singing, he danced around the wood burner as he did a not quite perfect rendition of her smash hit, Can The Can. I was laughing so much I just had to join in. Ilya and his team glanced across at we whirling dervishes, seeming pleased that Petrov had at last found a friend but worried that I had found Petrov.

Several other men came into the garage, each warming their hands with the heat from the stove, each offering me a cigarette, each lighting up next to huge canisters of oil and petrol, each asking me where I was from, each looking across at Ilya at work and laughing and then each disappearing off again into the darkness outside. There was a little variation to this theme as one man asked me if I had a cigarette (which I never have as the only thing I ever smoke is herrings), one man couldn’t speak because he was coughing so much (I was amazed at the way phlegm sizzles and gives off so much extra heat when spat into a wood burner) and one man offered me a white girl to keep me warm for only forty Leva (about €20, or £18). I’m sure he was joking but I suspect if I had said yes he would have been able to deliver. Meanwhile Petrov had moved on to Devil Gate Drive.

I try not to show impatience so I gave it an hour before giving my friend Didi a ring. A nice Bulgarian lady who sorts things out for tenderfoot immigrants like me. I handed my phone to Ilya and she asked him all the right questions before the device was passed back and she could tell me that there would be a car for the airport in about fifteen minutes but it just needed some minor modifications to make it roadworthy before departure.

Twenty minutes later, the car that had earlier been in a thousand pieces on the floor was reassembled and driven off the ramp and, rather impatiently, Ilya asked me if I was ready to go. I interrupted Petrov in between verses three and four of Suzi’s 48 Crash to bid him a tearful farewell and off we sped in a smog filled 1972 model Lada (with central cigarette lighting, velour finished ashtrays and rosewood spittoons) through the driving snow to meet with my friend at Sofia airport, only five hours late. When I arrived she couldn’t leave the terminal building straight away as she had arranged a meeting with a post-traumatic stress disorder counsellor funded by Ryanair.

The rest of the story is another story, which I will tell once I have recovered from this first bit.

Just Chilling

During the hottest weeks of last summer my house was in a state of dusty upheaval as a team of hard hitting electrical engineers fitted a swanky modern heating system for me. Housed in what looks like a garden shed in the corner of my living room, it’s the size of one of those huge big Yankee Doodle fridges and it’s a marvellous piece of engineering. It works like a dream as it heats the house in the winter and cools it in the summer at just the flick of a switch and the pressing of a button or two and the turning of a handle and a bit of fiddling with a knob. However, it was suggested to me that I should also have a modest sized wood burning stove appliance installed just in case of emergencies.

By my reckoning, the last few days can be considered an emergency as the temperature in my house, together with my overall feeling of content and wellbeing, plummeted. Meltwater from the thawing snow on my roof had dripped onto the heating system’s outdoor bits and refrozen, encrusting the whole thing with ice and causing a bit of a malfunction and a lot of shivering and a not unsubstantial amount of mild mannered swearing. To exacerbate the scale of the emergency, the only man with the skills to sort it out and his mate were working away on a job in Denmark. So my emergency petchka was kick started into action sooner than expected.

Practice manoeuvres during the last few weeks had me fully prepared. I had been a little concerned that eighty year old East European heating appliances don’t come with a user manual or a twenty-four hour technical helpdesk phone number to ring but the first time I had to stoke up the stove in anger everything went perfectly well. There was not a sign of smoke inside the house, with my careful attention the fire didn’t go out, the house didn’t burn down, my shiny new fire extinguishers remained shiny and I didn’t freeze to death.

To be honest I had rehearsed the drill quite a lot because my antique stove looks so nice in the corner of my kitchen and it glows with warmth like a mini Chernobyl when it is set to work. It kept me warm and I grew to love it, but not so much that I could hug it because it was a bit too hot close up and I was fearful of burns in tender spots. But we would spend the long dark winter nights huddled up together with me feeding it every twenty minutes and giving it the occasional poke to make sure it was still alive. During what turned out to be the iciest period of my life so far, I could have done with someone doing the very same to me.

However, despite the efforts of my little heavy metal friend, it largely remained extremely nippy in my quarters. This came as a blunt reminder that I had been told when I first landed on these shores that a lone petchka was not enough to warm the big, open plan spaces of my house and that was why I had gone for the heavy duty thermal pump system instead. I was happy enough in the unplanned chill but a few more degrees of those Celsius things would have made me happier as I couldn’t move from the environs of the wood burner without my teeth chattering and any damp patches on my clothing freezing over.

 

My heavy metal friend.

My heavy metal friend.

 

So I sat there for almost a week with little else to do but swot up on the Bulgarski tongue (it is going to take many winters to get to grips with that, I fear) and work my way through a pile of DVDs that I had accumulated down the years. Here I was amazed to discover that Michael Palin’s Pole to Pole television series was not filmed in Poland, neither did it contain any footage of pole dancing, and that the Polar Regions during their winter months are almost as cold as my downstairs toilet. I pursued one or two other pastimes which I had also neglected, such as cutting my toenails. For the first time ever they got a treatment equal in standard to that which I used to offer my dear customers back in the days when toenails were my bread and butter. Also, I spent an entire day listening to the David Bowie albums on which I did not already know all the lyrics off by heart, which was fun to funky.

Ever optimistic I considered the advantages of not having adequate heating around the place. I was saving a lot of electricity which doesn’t come cheap, even in Bulgaria. In the absence of hot water, I found that I was using very little soap and shower gel. I wasn’t drinking beer or wine because it was too cold to go to the toilet. I even saved money on honey which is funny because it wasn’t runny in its enforced state of refrigeration. It had become so stiff in the cold that I had to use a screwdriver to prize it out of the jar and really I couldn’t be bothered so I gnawed on my own body fat for nutrition instead.

As I rejoiced the fact that my home was probably too cold for the various species of wildlife that had tried to snuggle up with me while I had been living here I also rejoiced the knowledge that in my former lifestyle I would never have been able to afford the time to do these things. Neither would I have been able to enjoy a cheeky glass of rakia during the day which I sometimes do to take the sting out of the things that might not be going my way and because it’s nice and because I feel that every sip is another step towards supporting the local economy.

Outside the days were bitterly cold, grey and dry. Fifty centimetres of snow had turned into a thirty centimetre layer of ice. There was no sign of a thaw, even though it had been a partial thaw that had mucked up my heating machine in the first place. Wandering out in such weather is only enjoyable when there is a cosy warm house to return to, but there wasn’t, so I didn’t.

In past years this would have driven me mad but recently I have accepted that it is all part of growing up and being Bulgarian. Here the problems that winter brings are short lived and are soon followed by a long hot summer. With my trusty stove and my rakia bottle at hand I can cope with that, and the coping got an awful lot easier when my good friends the heating men returned from Denmark, where they said the weather had been remarkably mild for the time of year. I felt bad really for interrupting their little holiday.

Rat Attack

My New Year’s resolution for 2017 has been to not kill anything. I’ve not really classed myself as a killer before but, in terms of my blood lust, I must confess that last year ended rather badly.

My new life in rural Bulgaria boils down, in many ways, to the survival of the fittest. So it seemed quite wrong that in a battle between a fat, bald bloke approaching sixty years of age and a lithe young rat, it was the former that turned out to be the victor.

I felt bad about it. I try not to harm any living creature. When I see a caterpillar or a frog on a road I pick it up and put it out of harm’s way on the nearest grass verge. When I see a centipede or a scorpion in my house I remember that it could be someone’s grandad reincarnate, so I coax it outside with a pipe and a pair of slippers. I am savagely opposed to fox hunting. The biggest test to my humane side is that almost two days went by before I could take the Theresa May Voodoo Doll that I got for Christmas out of its box. But the rat had to go because it was making my life difficult.

Now had the rat been the sort that would sit down and negotiate with me, things might have been different. I saw it scampering along down behind the settee one night and I spoke to it but it just ran away. Perhaps my words were not exactly conciliatory but had it just agreed to not eat the insulation on my water pipes and to improve its personal hygiene standards then perhaps it would still be alive today.

Once it had been established that peace talks were not going to be effective I decided it was time to put traps on the ground and, as I broke four fingers in the process as these deadly machines went off accidentally in my hand, I was convinced that this approach would be a speedy remedy. But they didn’t go off and it wasn’t. The little rascal was able to remove the bait with such precision and dexterity under conditions of great danger I wondered if it had been a bomb disposal expert back in the days when it was someone’s grandad.

At my local DIY shop I bought some stuff that bore the words ‘rat pasta’ on the packet. Having always been and adventurous diner, I imagined this unusual food item would go down well with a tossed salad and a cheeky glass of Chianti. As I unpacked my shopping bags at home I looked for cooking instructions only to discover that it wasn’t edible for humans, leaving me with the problem of what else could I have for my tea but the benefit of potentially solving the problem of the furry little beast that was having my house for its tea. These small and soft sachets really did look like ravioli, stuffed with meaty goodness, Mediterranean herbs a hint of deadly poison.

I lay these sinister morsels in strategic places in my roof space and round the back of water pipes and in the large porcelain jar marked ‘pasta’ that I once bought in Ikea because it seemed like a bargain and it matched the colour of my rustic yoghurt thermometer and my ‘Greetings from Stoke-on-Trent’ fish slice. Soon some of them were gone so I thought that in no time at all, the rodent would be gone too. But it wasn’t, and every night I could hear it running around inside the bathroom wall and in the roof, ripping things to bits with what sounded like a mini rat-sized crowbar and shouting ‘Screw you, human!’

Feeling the need to bolster my defence, I bought another type of poison that looked like purple muesli but without sultanas in it and no added sugar. My little friend wasn’t interested in this stuff at all, probably because it didn’t contain sultanas or added sugar.

I continued with the pasta parcels as these were disappearing in great numbers. The Rat Catchers’ on-line chat forum community, of which by now I was a respected member, suggested that these would be dragged away to a nest and consumed later. That was why, to my initial surprise, the beast had not already died, but I took comfort from the fact that the greedy little bugger had plans for these deadly comestibles as it stored them up in its ratty little larder.

Frustrated, I went to the rat poison shop in town. The lady in her smart Deadly Chemicals ‘R’ Us uniform suggested another approach, which strangely didn’t involve deadly chemicals. She flogged me a couple of large plastic pads coated with the stickiest sticky stuff in the world which would just consign any unsuspecting rodent to death by stickiness. The plan was that I would put an assortment of cheese, nuts, chocolate, fruit and cold cuts on it (a proper little festive buffet) and when my little chum went to tuck in it would stick to the glue forever and victory would be declared.

A couple of hours after I had placed these pads in spots where I knew a Christmas party might go on for tiny creatures I heard a load of clattering about up in my roof space. I was tempted to immediately go and have a look but I didn’t really want to be confronted by a sticky but still alive rat. So I left it to the following morning thinking that at least it could no longer gnaw at my house, even though it gnawed at my conscience.

Have you ever seen the film The Red Baron? Do you know how World War One fighter pilots Baron von Richthofen and Captain Brown were committed to shooting each other’s magnificent flying machines out of the sky but at the same time had ultimate respect for one another? Well that’s how I began to feel about the rat when I discovered there was no actual rat in the sticky trap that I had laid for it but there were tiny footprints and half of the food had gone. This was a rat with attitude and something inside me made me want to make friends and give it a better life, but something scurrying about inside the wooden casing where all my central heating pipes are hidden made me want to shoot it out of the sky, or at least out of the wooden casing.

However, within a day or so of my thinking I had won it appeared that I really had won as silence fell on the normally infested areas of my house. The instructions on the pasta packet told me that I would probably never find a body as the lethal poison was so designed as to mummify the victim in its nest, taking away the possibility of bad smells and further infestation from insects. I was disappointed. I wanted to see the poor blighter’s remains, to have closure and to give it a decent burial.

I’m pleased to say that this splendid fellow did the decent thing and shuffled off its mortal coil before midnight on the thirty-first of December. Consequently my New Year’s resolution for 2017 seems like it’s going to be a success. Giving up killing is so much easier than giving up cake and biscuits, or alcohol, or looking at pictures of Lady Astor with her clothing loosened. Next January I’m going to try to go a full twelve months without carrying out an armed robbery.

 

I don't have photographs of the rat but here is a picture of my friends celebrating at its wake.

I don't have photographs of the rat but here is a picture of my friends celebrating at its wake.