the skinflint philosopher

Attempting to thrift our way to a better life, with a toddler in tow!


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Initiation into a Bulgarian Christmas

Having now lived through our take on a Bulgarian Christmas, here’s a little update on our celebrations- I’ve been giving Digger the Bulgarian Inquisition and have tried to make sense of it all!
We started early with indulgent food right at the beginning of the month on December 6th, which is the feast day of Saint Nicholas. Now in the UK we tend to know the story of St. Nicholas leaving (or throwing over a wall) a purse of coins for a poor family, and hence the legend of Santa Claus began, even though he didn’t end up as the bearded, red and white figure of today until marketing and consumerism really got involved, although this image of him looks like he pretty much had his style down pat.
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Here in Bulgaria he is known as Saint Nikola, and the day is Nikulden. He is venerated as a the protector of fisherman, sailors, travelers and hunters, the master of the underwater world, and folklore includes a tale of how he plugged the bottom of a storm-broken boat with fish from the ocean, and thus saved the lives of everyone on board. Dinner on the 6th must include carp, (sometimes baked in dough to form a ribnik), and bogovitsa bread (bog=god).

(credit for bread images from zanus.eu, snimka.bg, moreto.net)

Traditionally, the bones of the carp must be thrown back into flowing water to allow continuing fertility and prosperity, apart from the head bone which was sewn into children’s clothing to protect them from the evil eye. Now we certainly didn’t go that far, as I personally was not that keen to have Tiddler walking around smelling of fish and acting as a street cat magnet!

This feast day is especially important to us though, as is it also the name-day of Digger’s brother in Canada. Name-days (imen den) are a curious phenomena, and anyone who is named after Nikola, or a derivation e.g. Nikolai, Nikolay, Kolyo, Nikolina, Neno, Nenka, Nikolina, Nina gets to have a day of celebration. Digger actually gets more phone calls and messages on his name-day than he does on his actual birthday. So we drank a toast of rakia (Diado’s eye-wateringly strong homemade fruit brandy) to Digger’s brother, and then ate plenty of cake on his behalf while we chatted over Skype.
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Christmas itself though, while clearly celebrated in Bulgaria, is less ‘in your face’ than Christmas back home. We did see Christmas lights on houses and a tree and sledge display in town, baubles on trees in peoples gardens, shops selling tinsel and reindeer deely bobbers, but there was not the ever present Christmas tunes in the shops, the constant stuffing our faces with mince pies, and the endless craft fairs and Santa’s grottos.

Let me revise that, I tried to find a Santa grotto or a fair to take Tiddler to, but in our provincial town Christmas entertainment was limited. Fortunately, her nursery school organised a party with a visit from Santa (one of the dads) so she got the experience. The system here was parents provided a gift in advance for their own child to be handed out by Santa, and my only comment on that was clearly when Bulgarians give gifts in public, bigger is most certainly the better. Thankfully, Tiddler didn’t clock on to this, and was more than happy with her reasonably sized gift of a board game from us.
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In general, I would say the whole build up to Christmas by Bulgarians was very refined and calm. Snow fell, and people did their shopping without any chaos or upset (as far as I could observe). Not so the British ex-pats living in the area. Panic stations!
From as early as November, ex-pats on Bulgarian facebook groups have been advertising ‘man and van’ runs to the UK, where people can place orders for food or other items. This clearly happens throughout the year anyway if someone is making the journey, but the Christmas orders were coming in thick and fast if the comments were anything to go by. People were requesting mince pies, quality streets, chocolate oranges, jars of cranberry sauce, christmas crackers and so much more. Familiar food from home was clearly an essential luxury, and the ex-pats are willing to pay the shop prices, plus the added purchase/delivery charge for the service that was being provided. Others were busy arranging pick up and drop off points for the van drivers to send and collect presents from family back home. There was a flurry of posts. Nearer to the big day, the concern took a worrying shift closer to home as the perishable goods needed to be sourced.

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I’ve decided the way for Bulgaria to boost its flailing economy is clearly to go into sprout production. Unfortunately for us, we couldn’t track any down in our smaller town, so I had to resign myself to a sprout-less Christmas dinner. Digger seems ever so slightly happy at that prospect.

Christmas proper then starts in Bulgaria not on the 25th, but on Christmas Eve. This is a time the family to cook a special evening meal, which has very specific requirements. Firstly, plan wisely, as you need an odd number of people to sit down at your table. We ended up with seven at the table at Diado’s house, as Digger’s aunt, uncle, cousin and wife arrived from Sofia for the holidays, piling out of the car laden down with bags and boxes of food. It was like a vehicular cornucopia exploding into rural V_L_.
The meal is strictly vegetarian (following the Orthodox 40 day advent fast, though we have not kept that of course), and also must include an odd number of dishes often up to thirteen in number, traditionally salads, bean soup, walnuts, unleavened bread (with a coin baked inside) and sarmi (stuffed vine and cabbage leaves), fruit compote and baklava. Straw is pushed under the table cloth to guarantee a good harvest next year, and the dishes and table at the end of the meal was left as it was overnight, in order for any ancestors to come and share any of the remaining food. It sounded slightly creepy to me, and clearly adds extra work to the christmas morning kitchen chores, but we were back in the apartment by that time so no ghostly visits at all. Just Santa, and of course that is perfectly normal.

Following this, Midnight mass is usual, but we settled for a christmas morning service instead with Tiddler, and even then she didn’t last the whole time. She managed to mistake the three priests for the three wise men as they went in procession, spent some time holding a random lady’s hand a few pews ahead of us, and then faked a coughing fit when the incense was swung from the censer. On her way out she bumped into the devotional candle stands and nearly took that out too.
For our first visit to a Bulgarian Orthodox service, I understood the confusion. People were wandering around, coming in late, and then kissing things. Other people were taking photographs of the priests. Things were going on behind the iconostasis and she wanted to see. Other people were chanting and singing up high up in the eaves and she thought the angels had arrived. Digger didn’t help by muttering how miserable everyone looked, and grumbling that I’d made us all come in the first place. ‘I can’t understand the point of a service that is just all chanting and formulaic fancy words’ he says in a stage whisper. Old grannies turn and look at us.

Back to the kitchen quickly then, as we needed to prepare for dinner for twelve. Although I had explained I was doing the dinner, everyone ignored that and turned up with enough food to keep Digger and I in leftovers for the next two weeks. We sat down to start eating at 12.30, and finally cleared away at 5pm. Bulgarians NEED rakia to start a meal, and they need salad to go with that, so they’d munched their way through three enormous enamel serving bowls of cucumber and fennel salad, crab and apple salad, and pasta and pickled gherkin salad before we even got to their main course. Turkey (first time ever cooking by me), lemon and thyme stuffing, pigs in blankets (that created much amusement of the funny English ways), parsnips, roasted potatoes, carrots, broccoli (no sprouts to be found near us!) and sauces and trimmings. Diado didn’t think was sufficient so had brought a huge earthern pot filled with pork stew, the usual Bulgarian Christmas day main, so everyone ate some of that too. After this, plates of salami and banitsa on the table. After this, nuts and raisins and fruit. After this, finally, gin trifle and yule log (from me) and gifted cream cake and baklava that we really didn’t need but ate anyway. Followed by wine and whiskey.

Our little rotund tummies eventually breathed a sigh of relief. Thankfully, with so many visitors, there was plenty of help with washing up at least. Digger and I, stupefied by food and exhaustion, silently surveyed the remains after everyone had gone home. I ask him the general verdict, having missed most of the conversation as it was predominantly in Bulgarian. ‘All good’, he says, ‘they’ll be back for breakfast’.

Link to list of Bulgarian name-days.
Nikulden recipes
Link for more information on Bulgarian Orthodox churches

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Thrifty toddler christmas decorations

Just a short little post to show you a few things that Tiddler has been busy creating over the last weeks in the run up to Christmas. As always, getting the craft things out amounts to an open invitation to smear glue, glitter and paint on anything she can get her hands on. Clearly our crafting is way below the minimum requirement for Pinterest/Good housekeeping magazine standards- we are just having a bit of fun with junk, packaging and the odd sequin or two. She doesn’t mind (or know) what other busy crafters are out there making; we are just having a bit of fun on the cheap. It keeps restless hands busy, active bodies still, and opens up creativity to fire up all those brain pathways as well as plenty of opportunities for improving her dexterity, colour, shape and texture knowledge, and just some downright bonafide christmas hygge Mama and Tiddler time.

Gummi bear advert calendar– we did eventually find a chocolate one in a shop (clearly not a common tradition here in Bulgaria) but Tiddler found this one much easier to cope with as the numbers were in sequence, so it was more useful for practicing our counting too. Tiddler’s real name is at the top, hence why the photos are cropped a little.

Crackers. Also impossible to find in shops here (rural-ish Bulgaria, I’m sure they are available in Sofia), we opted to make ones that can be untied, each with a christmas motto, balloon and sweet inside. We ended up making nine crackers (as Tiddler enjoyed dropping the goodies inside each tube so much), for what we thought would be a four person christmas day dinner. Turns out I grossly underestimated the guest list that I shall be cooking an “Énglish” traditional dinner for, so we don’t have enough crackers at the moment and more will need to be made. More on that bombshell – for a vegetarian who has never even cooked a Sunday roast before – in a later post!)


Decorated Christmas trees – card, sequins, glitter, glue, all little items that came with us all the way from the island in Leo. It it sparkles it must be good.

A special mention for the Christmas card below, not crafted by us, but made and sent to us here by my good friend and fellow blogger over on retired but not retiring. 🙂 Great stuff!
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Woodland scene – Our walks in the parks and woods have given us plenty of opportunities to cut boughs of various pines and spruces, and find some amazing fir cones for Rudolph creations (and you know I save and reuse those googly eyes from one animal creation to the next), and our local coffee shop serves up their cakes on little dollies that have become perfect snowflakes.

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Nativity – The piece de resistance though has to be the loo roll nativity. Materials: scrap paper, cloth, felt, ribbons, string, pipe cleaners, cotton wool etc.  I’m especially proud of the satsuma net turban!

 

Over to you to share any of your christmas crafting in the comments?
And in case I don’t get to post up again before the 25th, Happy Christmas and Vesela Koleda / весела коледа from Thrifter, Digger and Tiddler, and thanks for following all our upheavals, travels and general mutterings for this year. Seasons greeting to you all! x


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Cooking up a winter storm

Following the last blog post about how we were blessed with a seemingly limitless larder thanks to Tiddler’s Bulgarian grandparents being a dab hand at gardening, gathering, and preservation of food, which is having a significant saving on our food budget while we try and eke out our time without working, I thought it was about time I shared a little bit about what we were getting up to in our Bulgarian kitchen.

NB: None of the below is anything amazingly gastronomical, but in the last few years since the arrival of Tiddler we have become more reliant on quickly cooked food, all served in separate portions ( none of which can touch the others on the plate) so Tiddler would eat it. Anything remotely ‘mixed’ such as a stew or soup was was in line for for the five stages of Toddler mealtimes: 1. Disbelief, what is that! 2. Ridicule, ýou actually think I’m going to eat that? 3. Denial, er no way is that happening. 4. Anger, Waaaaaaahhhhhh! 5. Grief, How can you make me do this? We are now reaching the burgeoning stage 6, Bargaining, I might eat it if I feel like it and if there is something I want for pudding. As a result we have a few more options, a few different ingredients, and certainly a lot more time. I’m reasonable proud our cooking attempts so far. Digger slightly less enchanted with the clean up operation required after Tiddler has been let loose.

Firstly we needed the right attire, so thanks Baba for what we turned up after a quick rummage in the tea towel drawer.
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Next chop and scrape and bang and clatter and voila, or rather more accurately as the Bulgarians would say, заповядайте (pronounced zapovyadaite).

Beetroot soup preparation, hot beetroot salad, cold beetroot salad with pomegranate and sirene (the Bulgarian equivalent of feta, very similar but softer and stickier).

 


Baked carp, and then flaked leftover carp into paprika spiced rissoles.

 

 

Butternut squash tagliatelle with leek and kidney bean, halfway through a layered roasted pepper pie, and sirene and beef tomato crustless quiche. I can’t claim I had any hand in the making of the lovely heart shaped kashkarval cheese bread though I’m afraid, that was bought from a little shop across the street.

 


Tiddler then demanded some sweet things, so we tried honey (also made by Diado from his own hives) and cinnamon biscuits, and windfall pear flan.

 

One of our breakfast staples has become pancakes, including on occasion the randomly generated odd shaped one. Those of you who know Tiddler will know that the snail one below almost didn’t get eaten as she wanted to keep it as her new friend!
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But without doubt, the go to recipe to keep Digger happy is the Bulgarian dish, banitsa.
This is a layered filo pastry, cooked with egg, yoghurt, sirene, milk and butter that can be eaten by itself as a breakfast, or as a side serving to another meal, or just plain hey whenever you feel like it. There are to be fair probably as many banitsa recipes as there are Bulgarian grandmothers. I cook Baba’s version, not quite up to her standard, but I think I’m paying reasonable homage. Digger blames not carrying out physical work anymore for his waistline expanding somewhat, but I know it is his banitsa consumption. I’ll have to look into a local Banitsa Eaters Anonymous group.

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Next blog post: Just what exactly are Bulgarian christmas traditions, and what happens when you try to explain the weird British ones. Thrifty toddler craft for a frugal christmas also has been keeping us busy over the last few weeks, we’ve not been stuck in the kitchen all the time!

 

 


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Diado and Baba vs Tom and Barbara

I’m aware this blog has changed focus a bit in recent months, what with all the travelogues, and now we have arrived in Bulgaria I clearly need to update the Home page that details us trying to live a thrifty life back in the British Isles so we could try and save enough money to stop working and get over here! So this post is a little nod back at the original thriftiness and skinflintery ideas, while continuing to update on our life here.

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Lured here by the low land prices that allow many to achieve the ‘Englishman’s castle’ idea that is nigh impossible back home on our cramped and increasingly expensive Sceptred Isle, most ex-pats in Bulgaria will turn up with all their worldly possession on the back of a lorry, but not necessarily have the necessities for the Bulgarian way of doing things, or the language skills to facilitate accessing life here. They may be retiring here, or have simply chosen to sell up and move out and try their hand and luck. Some come with practical skills, much in demand of others in the ex-pat community all trying to improve and renovate their old houses and land, and others seek online work teaching Japanese school children English to help pay their way. What is clear however, is that many may have felt that the land and property prices at a pittance were a true reflection of the cost of living, which it is definitely not.  Land is cheap because so many Bulgarians have gone, spreading out across the rest of Europe and further afield. So the ex-pats cannot rely on their incomes here, or their savings. They must, as the remaining Bulgarians do as a fact of daily life, start to become partially self-sufficient.
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We are far more fortunate as we have my in-laws here. We have turned up with little in the way of our own possessions (our household goods and Digger’s tools are all in storage at my parent’s house in the Westcountry) but have been able to move straight into a fully furnished and equipped flat, and therefore while paying bills will have no rent. We also this winter are saving a considerable amount of money on food purchases because Diado and Baba (Tiddler’s grandparents) have a huge stockpile of preserved garden produce that we are dipping into. I worry to Digger that we will limit what they themselves can eat, but he assures me they have far more than they can possible get through. In the early days at their house and in the flat, I keep finding secret stashes of food. It is like treasure troves of epic proportions, of peaches and apricots, tomatoes and cherries. There are chutneys and syrups, cordials and purees, compotes and sauces. There is no space in the freezer for the few purchases we wish to make.


I am in awe of the labour that has gone in, matter of course, to ensuring thrift and zero food waste. Sweetcorn has been planted, and grown, and cut, and shucked, and par-boiled, and bagged and frozen, just so Tiddler can turn her nose up at it at our dinner table. Herbs have been gathered and chopped and dried, plum and cherry halves have been laid out in the summer sun, and now stored in a twisted pillow case. This is a generation, and a culture who understand the value of the bounty of a harvest. They have so much that they can teach us.

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(Any non-British readers trying to make sense of the title- please see here)


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Lost in translation

Coming home from the corner shop and dumping my bags on the table, I show Digger my latest find. “Look at these, so cute! Little biscuits shaped like hearts. Let’s treat ourselves and make proper coffee to have with them”

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Digger watches me bustle round our little kitchen getting things ready. The favourite Bulgarian staple of the elevenses or teatime treat seems to be a wafer biscuit with layers of flavoured chocolate or fruit and nuts in between. British readers might be thinking to themselves this must be like eating a Kit Kat in disguise, and therefore great for the palate, but seeing as there is definitely more dry papery wafer than chocolate they have quickly been nicknamed ‘The Communist biscuits’ in our little household.

So finding what look like beautiful buttery sugary heart biscuits has made my morning.
That is when Digger tells me that the name of my ‘hearts’ actually translates as ‘ears’.
Thanks for that.
Er…..yum?

 

 

Other post Lost in translation #2


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Toto and the flu jab

If I ever had any doubt that Bulgarian life was going to be more than a little different than back home in Blighty, the following confirms it.
The day after we arrive at the apartment in T_, Digger is out and about on a pharmaceutical mission. During our travel through Europe to get to Bulgaria, Granny Westcountry sent us a message saying that a letter had arrived at their house for Tiddler inviting her to come and have a seasonal flu jab. Now you have to understand that Digger is a bit of a stickler for medical advice. He firmly believes he should do what he is told, whereas I occasionally can take a more laissez faire approach (certainly with my own health as far as broken toes and the like go).
Digger is determined she gets a flu jab, particularly as we are intending to try and find her a place in a nursery for a few hours a week so she can interact and socialise with Bulgarian children. The poor child is clearly bored of just Digger and I after a few months in the campervan and needs some new friends. Digger and I also will benefit from a break from providing constant entertainment for a very enthusiastic toddler with a limited number of toys and books. The much favoured pop-up book Hansel and Gretel is on route to become my nemesis.


Back to the point. The slight logistical issue on the flu jab front is while we all are carrying EHIC cards which allow us to temporarily access healthcare services while in Europe (another doomed facility as Brexit talks continue?) these are really for emergency use only. We can’t register with a GP here as we don’t have the ‘golden ticket’ which allows Bulgarians to access anything- be it healthcare, a nursey place, or employment- that is an official, rubber stamped ID number on a registration certificate. We will have to register as residents within three months, and then carry our ID at all times to avoid incurring a fine if we are randomly stop-checked, but the process is laborious and will take time. Digger intends to circumnavigate this.
Normal practice in Bulgaria regarding vaccinations it turns out anyway, is to buy them at a pharmacy, take it to the GP who will then administer it. This may be normal procedure for many parts of the world, but for me growing up with the NHS wanting to provide the jab and the service for free, it is a little strange. Digger googles which brand of vaccination Tiddler needs, and does a round of all the local pharmacies. Nothing available. “We had some in earlier but they have all gone” is the refrain. Digger smells a rat. “That’s Big Pharma” he says “Only giving a limited supply so everyone can’t get the preventative medicine, and they have to buy the treatments instead that will cost way more. Or I bet the pharmacies have got some and they are holding on to it to sell it for a better price. Typical corruption”.
I try and reign in the conspiracy theories. “Maybe they have just all sold out?”
Digger unleashes his secret weapon. Diado is ex-police. Diado ‘knows’ people. Diado visits a pharmacy and comes back with the little orange box containing the vial and needle held aloft proudly.
“So are we going to go to a GP then?” I wonder. Turns out, no.
Digger and Diado knows a lady who lives in an upstairs apartment in our particular block. She is a nurse. He goes up after 6pm when he expects her in from work and knocks on the door. She comes down with a pair of reading glasses, a handful of cotton wool and a chocolate biscuit.  Watching her peer over the top of her glasses to read the Bulgarian small print on the box while talking ten to the dozen to Digger who she has not seen in years, I am overwhelmed with panic. Tiddler has spotted the chocolate biscuit and is fully prepared to do whatever she is asked provided there is that biscuit at the end of it. I grit my teeth, and gird myself to have faith.
This is a drug I can’t read the instructions and warnings for, and this is a strange lady in her civvies who has come into this still unfamiliar and twilight lit apartment halfway through making her husband’s dinner talking to us in a language I can’t understand, and in a few short seconds she will take Tiddler’s arm and inject her. This is the moment I realise fully that we are not in Kansas anymore.


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A glass less?: Welcome to Bulgaria

All the way on the long road to Bulgaria, Digger has been creating a mental list of things he doesn’t like about his country of birth. In a mode of negativity he details them as we approach the Greece-Bulgaria border.


My visits to Bulgaria previously have been always in the sultry hot summer months, where we stay in a little village with his parents, Diado (grandfather) and Baba (Granny). Their house and garden is a well-ordered model of self-sufficiency, with beautiful purple and white flowers adorning the pathways, and succulent red grapes hanging down above the swinging chair.
Although fully agreeing that Digger has a far greater knowledge, and perhaps allowance, to point out the faults, I do suggest he stops being so pessimistic. “Harrumph” he says “Bulgaria is a country with a glass less than half full”.
We follow a bus for a little while, and he laughs, ” That bus knows what I am talking about”.
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He says,
“One. The roads will be rubbish. It will take us far longer to get anywhere than it looks on the map.
Two. The police will stop us. They’ll spot the UK plates, and pull us over, and want to see all our paperwork and try and get a bribe out of us. They’ll think we are stupid foreigners that can be tricked into paying something”. He continues,
“Three. Did you know that Bulgaria has the worst air pollution in all of Europe? I read a report on it. People can’t afford to pay the electricity prices so everyone burns wood and coal. Everything is filthy dirty.
Four. Litter! People don’t care”, he shakes his head “there will be crap everywhere. And street dogs.
Five. You’ll spot the prostitutes out at the sides of the roads. In the lay-bys.
Six. And the gypsies will be going through the bins to see what they can find to recycle and sell on. Or steal from the empty houses”
He takes a break in his monologue of disaster to hand our passport over at the border. A long conversation through the window of the van follows.
“See?” he shakes his head sadly as we are finally waved through, “They think it is wrong we are all travelling on different forms of ID’s. They want to know why Tiddler has my surname but doesn’t have a Bulgarian passport. They are stuck in the past, stuck in the red tape legacy of communism. Nobody wants to be here, and do these jobs, and get no money for it. Don’t expect any sort of customer service”.
“Why are you being so grumpy?” I ask. “I thought you wanted us all to come to Bulgaria?”
“I came because I thought you wanted us all to come to Bulgaria?”
And with that slightly ominous note of a possible mis-communication of our grand plan, we cross the border.


We travel through to the capital city Sofia, passing into the shadow of the massive Vitosha mountains that prevents the warm Mediterranean air travelling northwards. The temperature drops immediately and there is frost on the ground. We spend a couple of days there with Digger’s aunt, uncle and cousin.


We get fed with rich banitsa and baklava, and buttery trout and stuffed roasted peppers, and the ubiquitous shopska salad, and Tiddler’s cheeks are pinched and her chin chucked. We drive on to Digger’s parents house, in the village of V_ L_ and get more banitsa, and hearty herb-laden bop (bean) soup, and Tiddler gets to dig out old toys that we left there the previous summer and talks ten to the dozen to Diado even though he does not understand a single word.

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Baba is still on an extended visit abroad, helping Digger’s brother and family in Canada. The Bulgaria diaspora is far flung, and the families and the empty houses and the ghost villages left behind are falling into slow but steady disrepair.


We decide to settle for the winter in a little empty apartment owned by Digger’s family (more detail in future blogs) in the nearby town of T_, as that way we have better access to services when the snows do come (ten weeks of metre high snow on the ground last winter) , and can visit the village without having to be exactly living under Diado’s roof. (This means however, he just ends up coming into town to see us every day, to instruct Digger on the best way of doing things, if it was him).
We take a few days to find our feet and unpack Leo properly, and effectively we are now in our new ‘home’ for the time being. So in these early days of Digger’s gloomy predictions, was he really being unfair to his homeland? No, not all. The roads broke Leo’s hydraulic suspension within three days, we got stopped by traffic police twice in one day (and they refused to accept that his island driving licence was real and valid for driving in Europe), and all his other points proved to be true too. In future days (and blogs) we see the problems and the ‘it-could-only-happen-in-Bulgaria’ solutions and the poverty and neglect that this beautiful country is suffering. But we find reasons to love it all the same.