the skinflint philosopher

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


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Treasure in the garden

The new rental gaff has not much in the way of a garden, but it has a three tiered patio system with a few beds, and is a definite sun trap so I’m already thinking tomatoes. There is also a little bodged wooden conservatory that will be great to bring on anything, as it is ferociously hot at the moment (and no doubt ear piercingly cold in the winter).

Before we get started though we discover amid the dandelions and other weeds, a few surprises left by the last tenant.

Prodigious quantities of mint. With the hot June/July sun, and a determination to keep up our good water drinking habits we developed while travelling in the campervan, Digger and I have taken to putting a sprig of this in a jug of water and leaving it on the dining table at all times. Tiddler not so keen, but we are keeping very mintly hydrated as a result.

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The forgotten veg patch. Leeks going to seed, potatoes and gnarly carrots- all a bit left to their own devices but I used to make a stock and soups.

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More herbs- Rosemary and thyme, evoking our Greek travels. The mug, a gift for me on Tiddler’s birth from a sadly now passed friend, M, the jokey slogan on it exactly her take on things to a tee.

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Flowers in need of some TLC

 

The best surprises though came in terms of the wildlife. Tiddler of course was straight in there, picking up all the snails, and her new favourite thing, these little critters.

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The birds flit from side to side in the overgrown hedges, and after a few days of putting out seed we see them gaining more confidence with the feeder, and grateful for the water. Robins, blackbirds, pigeons, and sparrows so far, and more that I am yet to identify. Skitter skitter skitter go their feet on the conservatory roof.

But the best is yet to come, as Tiddler runs in shouting ”I’ve seen a snake!” We hotfoot it out there fearing adders, but spot this female slowworm instead, and as the days go by we spot her and her other half on a regular basis, particularly in the early mornings before the sun is up, sunbathing themselves by the snapdragons.

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Tiddler and her cousins run wild as various forms of make believe wildlife themselves.

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Given that I have missed a lot of the planting slots, I cheat and head to a local plant sale to pick up a few established seedlings to replace the vegetables I have dug up. Tomatoes, courgettes and french beans to start with, I’ll let you know how it all goes if my not-sure-if-they-actually-are green fingers can get busy in between the obligatory slowworm hunting and woodlice husbandry.

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Summer in a bottle

Relishing the reality that we are now in a house, with a garden, and all our things around us that were in storage for a year while we roadtripped it around southern Europe, it was about time I got back in tune with my thrifty and self sufficient principles.

Job number one:
Elderflower cordial.
Digger rings me on his lunch break. “I’m cutting a hedge around a house that backs onto a field. There are elderflowers. Do you want some?”
I dial up on google and see that a typical recipe requires 25 ‘umbrella heads’ of the tiny fruity smelling white flowers. I relay this to Digger.
Digger returns with a carrier bag squashed full of heads.’I got bored of counting but I figured it will just make it taste more intense. Let’s whack them all in.’
We don’t have any citric acid, so we steep the heads overnight in boiling water and dissolved sugar with double the quantity of  lemon juice and sliced rind to try and balance out the recipe without it.

Preparing the heads


Adding the lemony zing


Letting it stew


Straining it out


The finished article
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A little bit cloudy but looked fine when diluted with sparkling water for a little bit of summer bubbles. We also had a further four jam jars full which have gone into the freezer to be defrosted at a later date. Rumour has it in the fridge the cordial will last for up to five weeks, but it was finished off by a thirsty Digger and Tiddler far quicker than that. Delicious.

Any thoughts please on your elderflower recipes and experiments? I’m keen to try an make a sparkling elderflower champagne next year!


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How to set up a life in three weeks

Landing on the wharf in the UK with nothing at all concrete about where we would live, what we would do, how things would work out, it has all gone rather swimmingly well:

1. I was incredibly seasick and suffered for 10 days with mal de debarquement after our 23 hour ferry crossing returning from our road trip across Europe. Tiddler kept herself amused with Granny and Papa Westcountry who were hosting us. Leo remained packed, our stuff remained in storage, and we lived out of a bag of ‘stuff’ in my parent’s spare room.
2. Ten hours after arriving, Digger secured himself 4 days a week work gardening/landscaping with a local company. (We arrived at 11pm, and he went for an interview at 9am the following morning. Thankfully gardening type interviews are not that fussed if you turn up looking like you have just lived in a campervan for a month. Fortunately).
3. Five days after returning, I went for a whole day interview at a school round the corner from my parents (rather more formally attired than Digger had been). This included two observed lessons aswell as the formal interview, all of which was rather tricky when my sea legs meant I felt I was on the swell every time I moved an inch. Despite my fear of looking like I was bobbing up and down worse than the Churchill dog, I succeeded, and will be on a one year contract (part time) from September 2018 teaching my subject, geography. Tiddler will be able to attend a preschool on the same site, so all is looking rosy as long as I can keep her entertained till then.
4. After the interview, Digger and I meet up to view a rental property. It is pokey and small and we cannot believe the prices in this locality. The estate agent however turns out to be an old flame of sorts of my sister, and he suggests we look across the road at a property on for more money. He doesn’t have the keys on him so we peer through the window. and jimmy open the back gate. We phone up the following morning and offer 10% less than the asking price, given that we can move in immediately. The landlord jumps at the chance.
5. The following Friday we move in, after much messing about as everyone’s computer says no. We have no income records for the last year. Digger”s records of employment are from our little island and the checks won’t go outside the UK. Digger doesn’t have a bank account ( he couldn’t open one in the UK last summer without ID, and he couldn’t get ID without a UK utility bill, or UK driving licence). Our credit rating is not actually low, it just simply doesn’t exist in their paper trail. Eventually estate agent ex lover-boy and landlord see sense and knock all of that on the head. I’m a teacher gawd darnit; I must be respectable.
6. Leo comes into his own again, as he now doubles as a removal van. Fourteen days after our arrival in the UK we spend our first night in our new home, albeit sleeping on Leo’s mattresses on the floor. We have no furniture.
7. My good friend puts out a plea on social media, that is answered with a rally cry from this market town that is very bohemian/hipster/new age and more. As she puts it, ‘Wow, when I moved there I really had to up my game to stand out!’. I scour the freebie sites and those on facebook buying and selling. I raid my parents shed. In the end we get for absolute free, by hook or by crook: a dining table, 4 dining chairs, a leather sofa, a footrest, a flatscreen TV (Digger thinks he’ll hook it up to the laptop- we don’t have a licence and not had a TV at home for years, but it was offered with the sofa so we didn’t want to say no), a dresser, a bureau, a single bed and mattress, a wicker chair, a sewing machine table to double as a desk, a office chair, a slimline dishwasher, a tiny freezer, a chest of drawers, curtains and a potted geranium.
We cough up 50 pounds for a washing machine, 20 pounds for a fridge, and eventually a whopping 379 for the most beautiful mattress in the world. We are still sleeping on it on the floor though as I type this. No progress on the bed front, but it is far more comfortable than Leo’s mattresses that had to be bound in place with a strategically placed fitted sheet to prevent Digger waking up on the other side of the room at 3am.
(Please excuse the lack of pound signs- this is being typed on Digger”s Bulgarian keyboard and I can’t find the symbol!)
8. We spend time with old friends. We scour the lists of playgroups, and events, and programmes and try them all. The weather burns bright and hot. We plant french beans, and courgettes in the garden, and set up buckets of tomato plants in the conservatory. We relax.
9. Digger gets the first of word-of-mouth work, and takes on additional private customers and odd jobs on top of his four days. I sign up for a Saturday summer job, being a housekeeper for a three bedroom house that is moonlighting as a holiday cottage. The owners are due to set off on a road trip through Europe at the end of July, and the house is let every week through till October. I offer them tips of life on the road, and they promise to pay me to keep their guests happy. Digger plans on having Saturday as a Bulgarian language day for him and Tiddler, but we still have to see how it all pans out. We are in the finer points of negotiation at the moment, such as whether the welcome tea tray should have biscuits or scones on it. They are the other end of the spectrum from us, with our free furniture and converted minibus. I shall think of them off in their deluxe van while I am busy polishing the fiddly bits on their grandfather clocks.

To do list:
Get Digger a work van. Poor Leo is not cut out for all that green waste on his lovely carpet, and branches up his inner cupboards.
Get the garage sorted as Digger’s man lair i.e. wood workshop.
Get crafting- what can I sell alongside his wooden toys to make some cash on the side?
Get back into our thrifty ways. I have a whole 379 pounds worth of mattress to offset. I’ve made a start with making elderflower cordial yesterday.
Look for a house we can buy. Not here as it is too expensive. Maybe across the county borders, somewhere with a bit of land, with some potential. And so you see dear readers, when people comment that Tiddler seems very confident and well adjusted for a child who has undergone a lot of different places and people, we reply, that for her change is the norm. Digger however has put his steel toe-capped foot down.
“This is the last house move I make, until we move into our own house”
“Aha” I say, “change is the norm”


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Return

We’d been beset with poor wifi, and beautiful sunny weather that I wanted to be outdoors enjoying, and I simply didn’t keep up to date with blogging our journey through Italy and Spain. We are now back in the Westcountry, with plenty to update you all on on the changing circumstances and life and times of Thrifter, Digger and no-longer-quite-as-tiddly Tiddler. I promise to try and write up all that soon.
In the mean time, it is going to be a simple whistle-stop version of our journey home.

Landing in Bari, Italy, we heading straight over to Pompeii, and just about managed to find the ruins behind the made-in-China tourist tat, and the swarms of pesky foreigners like ourselves. We had been spoilt in Bulgaria and Greece, as being just one of a relatively few campervanners on the road. In Pompeii we hear English voices for the first time in months.
In Rome we potter round the sites with our friends who are living and working in central Italy for the year, and who we also we met up with last October on our eastwards journey through Italy. Tiddler is overwhelmed with excitement to see familiar faces, and holds hands contentedly with A for hours, chattering away not only about Romans, but also taking the time to fully inspect and be taught about the ants crawling over the ruins. She only lets go of him to eat the fruity and obligatory gelato.
After the long ferry crossing to Barcelona, we dawdle along the Spanish coast and attend April fiestas and drink sangria. The Spanish children run wild, and hang out in polite packs in the campsite toilet blocks, only returning to their parents for enormous grilled platefuls before dashing off on their bikes again. Spanish children appear to require no sleep and keep Digger and I awake past midnight chattering away (politely) in the darkness.
We are in awe of the beautiful landscapes in the Bardenas nature reserves in the Navarre region, a biosphere in northern Spain. These sandy cliffs and pyramids transport us to a desert, as the genuine home of the spaghetti western. Hermitages and cellars are chiselled into the cliffs, and we watch the townsfolk putting up wooden barricades in village after village, not to stop the Injuns, but for the toned down country versions of the Pamplona bull runs, as our host informs us, with cows.
From here we criss-cross the many pilgrimage routes of the Camino do Santiago, following the way of the shell more by accident than design. We greet the walkers and cyclists that pass us, and walk alongside them for a few Tiddler-size hikes. The guide books suggest it isn’t practical to go by horseback these days, as the hostelries can’t cope.
Leo obtains his first puncture of the roughly 8000 mile round journey. Digger is aided by the campsite groundsmen for a good ten minutes, speaking in English to each other, before they realise they are both Bulgarian. Clapping on the back and tyre changing wizardry ensues.
We depart from Bilbao on a twenty-three hour crossing, but our return to the UK is blighted with rough seas and Digger and I are both ill. Tiddler snores and dreams and is mercifully oblivious. The sea is so rough, that on our return to dry land it takes me eight days to stop feeling that the ground is rolling beneath me, and turning my legs to jelly. I question Digger as to whether I am walking strangely, as the queasy uneasiness remains. I google mal de debarquement, and wait for reality to return.


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Monasteries and mobiles: Greece

 

Over the border into Greece we head straight south. The first few kilometres are on a bone shuddering scratched off stretch of road, but we then ease onto the main drag and sail along smoothly. We stop for a roadside cafe breakfast and are treated to a huge platter of cheeses, cured meats and fried eggs, and freshly squeeezed orange juice. This is not your typical greasy spoon or bland and processed service station fodder.
Tiddler stands and makes cow eyes at the lady behind counter, and is promptly rewarded with a lollipop. This is the start of what becomes her clear mission for Greece (and later Italy). that is “if I look cute and stand here long enough I will get given a gift”. I’m afraid to report we leave behind us for the next few weeks a trail of conned shopkeepers, restaurant owners, and souvenir sellers as Tiddler manages to bring in booty everywhere we go. I begin to wonder if the culture of family, and the love of treating young children has serious impact on smaller businesses, if all children who enter the shops are treated as we are. We have to start rationing Tiddler’s consumption of chupa chups before it gets silly.

 


On the coastal plains below Mount Olympus and its fifty two peaks, south along the mainland coast from Thessaloniki, we visit Platamon Castle. This was a crusader castle built in the early 1200’s, and the imposing medieval tower now overlooks the modern highway below. Inside are the remains of a smithy, a pottery, and rusted old canons. The hill is ablaze with spring flowers.

 

 


Further inland, and at what we later decide is our favourite campsite of the whole trip, we stay more days than expected in Meteora. From a distance these huge grey rock formation loom out from the landscape like some real life Gormenghast.

 

As we reach near we see them for their real beauty.  Massive rock formations like these are usually the result of resistant volcanic rocks left standing proud as the softer rocks around them are weather away. These however are a mixture of sedimentary rocks, and so not only have resulted in huge pillars and domes, but these individually have been eroded with numerous caves and potholes.

 

The caves became shrines and hermitages, and a complex of Eastern orthodox monasteries have been been built precariously perched on their peaks. Tourists either come to climb the worn steps to the monasteries, or bring ropes and carabiners and scale the peaks themselves.

 

 

 

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We do nothing so adventurous as this, though Digger manages to cut his head open (on a cupboard in Leo) and we are in two minds whether to go to A&E to be better safe than sorry, but eventually just stick him back together with the medical supplies we had left over from his hand operation and that does the trick.

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In the village below we speak to a Greek-American who makes huge metal mobiles in a garden workshop that twist as meditatively in the wind as the climbers on their ropes.
We walk trails around the base of some of the peaks, and stumble across so many tortoises along the way that even Tiddler loses a bit of interest in them eventually. We pick wild thyme and oregano along the way to garnish our salads.

 


Tiddler befriends two dutch girls and the three of them race around the campsite on scooters and bikes for a few days. We swap addresses when it is time to travel on.

 

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In Igoumentisa, we spend a day at the beach waiting for the ferry to arrive. We talk to a German police woman, swimming in the sea on her day off, who is working with the Greek authorities at the port. Many people are trying to arrive in Greece with fake German documents, trying to reach northern Europe. She laughs when we talk about Bulgaria, and she says all winter she has seen the Bulgarian gypsies crowding on to the ferries to Italy all winter with all their pillows and blankets as they will sleep on the decks rather than pay for a cabin. It is only now that spring has arrived, and she meets travellers such as ourselves, that she has realised that not all Bulgarians are from the gypsy community. She laughs and shakes Digger’s hand.
Later in the evening, sitting in Leo on the chaotic dockside, where juggernauts, campers, cars and foot passengers jostle for position, and nobody apart from a teenager in jeans and sunglasses with a piece of paper in his hands seems to have any sort of authority, we board the ferry for Italy.

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Sandstone, Churchill and a climbing wall: Bulgaria road trip (the return journey)

Waving farewell to the place we have called home all winter, we set off on the bumpy road to the capital city of Bulgaria, Sofia.

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(Leo parked in the snow just eight days before we set off, thankfully Spring burst into action for our departure!)

Digger and I both observe that Leo the campervan, in an unspecific way we can’t put our finger on, definitely sounds different than before. We hope it is making some genuine top notch improved clicks, whines and general shuddering rather than ‘help me help me’ morse code on the potholed main arterial route from east to west across the country. The trouble is that neither of us has an ear for engines. Digger goes back to his old approach of wind the window down and switch the tunes up (in this case a medley of Tiddler’s including the Wombles, Poddington Peas, and Filbert the Frog) which is enough to drown out and disguise any slightly unnerving thrumming from beneath our feet.
We also operate the ‘top drawer’ scale of road quality. How quickly the bumps, twists and half finished road works shoot out the drawer from its moorings in the back of the van determine the state of the roads, and by default the economy. I could snooze my way across Europe missing all the road signs, and would only have to look at the specific precarious balancing angle of that drawer to make an educated guess as to how far west or east we were. Suffice to say in Bulgaria I had to wedge that drawer shut with a stick I got so fed up getting out the van to shut it tight again.

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We hit rush hour in Sofia, which amounts to any time in and around the radial roads. Despite the rest of the country losing its population and with a negative growth rate, Sofia continues to boom and expand. It is a central amoeba, sucking in its countrymen (and plenty of foreign industries) through a centripetal force. However, the centre remains oddly low rise and provincial, with the multi gold-domed St. Alexander Nevski cathedral sitting comfortably squat across the plaza of yellow ceramic cobbles (ordered specially from Budapest) along from the parliament buildings, across from the street artists with religious curios and the vintage Russian army kit sellers.

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We spend a few days in the suburban apartment of Tiddler’s great aunt and uncle, who as is typical feed us extremely well and eventually send us on our way a few pounds heavier. Tiddler is in seventh heaven as the twelve year old son of Digger’s cousin has come to stay from England for the Easter holidays. A three year old girl might not be the normal playmate of choice, but M took it all in his stride and the pair of them were soon tearing round the rooms with a mix of Bulgarian and English cries of glee and roaring of dinosaur teeth and waving of tiny little dinosaur hands. To save Aunty from an early grave we spent a day at the incredibly well presented children’s interactive museum Museko, which didn’t stop the mayhem but meant everyone got a rest from T-Rex impressions.

 

 

From here we hit the road, making a last stopover before Greece in the border village of Melnik. This aspirational little place wasn’t content with its amazing sandstone cliffs and pinnacles as a draw for tourists and amateur painters alike, but thought it had better invest in some high quality wine production too. We try samples in an underground wine cellar, where Digger’s palate coincides with that of Winston Churchill, who ordered a particular product of the region by the barrel load. I suggest to Digger this may be a symptom of an addled, rather than a refined taste for wine. Back out in the bright sunshine, I’m more interested in the wide flood management channel that divides the two sides of the main street, not from a geographical view an more but rather after all those snifters in the wine cellars I’m concerned I might fall in.

 

 

 

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In the late evening sun we also visited the humble medieval Rozhen monastery a few kilometres uphill from Melnik. The sparseness of the decor (aside from the church itself) was a welcome and peaceful change after the more showy and famous Rila monastery. Tiddler drank water from a copper cup on a chain at a fountain, and tied a final martenitsa on a blossoming tree.
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We ate the last of our ridiculously cheap Bulgarian restaurant meals, including a mountain of thick buffalo yogurt topped with a blueberry compote, and then headed southwards to Greece.

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Bench: Bulgaria photos 17

This image, a final blog post from this little apartment in Bulgaria that has been our home for five months as Digger waits impatiently to disconnect the wifi router, really sums up urban Bulgaria for me.

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It might look on first glance, a tatty, botched job of a bench below a six storey pre-fab tenement block. It seems to involve broken metal chairs, and lino, and cardboard and blocks of concrete, and a little bit of string.

But to me is says, this is a community where people really want to spend time sitting outside, drinking coffee and talking with their neighbours and watching the world go by, and they are not going to let the lack of finances for a bench stop them.
And I think that says a lot about a place.