the skinflint philosopher

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


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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.


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You can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs

It turns out Leo the campervan needs further work before it can take us overland back to the UK. The suspension problem we thought was fixed went kaput again on a trial run at the weekend. The garage mechanic shakes his head at us, citing either age or the perishing cold that has ruptured the rubber on a different part to what we just paid to get mended. We have two options, either sit and wait for a few weeks while the parts are sent for from either Germany or UK, or replace the suspension completely with a different system. Both are costly. Both are a blow to the finances. But if we wait here for option one, we will take a loss on ferry bookings.
“There is always option three”muses Digger in an Eeyore sort of mood, “We could sell Leo here for spares and repairs, and fly home instead”. Quick calculations on the back of an envelope reveal this is not a sensible option at all. Never mind the cost, we don’t want to give up on our adventures and plans for Greece, Italy and Spain. Tiddler sadly sticks out her bottom lip at the thought of leaving any of her precious and already minimalistic spectrum of toys behind in favour of only what can be crammed into an overhead locker on a plane. I don’t want to admit defeat, and am privately cosseting the beautiful blue enamel tins I had planned on carrying home. Digger seems to have temporarily forgotten the large heavy box containing his jigsaw machine that he has already informed me I am resting my feet on in the campervan footwell for the entire journey home.
Option two it is then, and we are now playing a waiting game to see if it can be fixed by Friday, so we can set off on the Monday as planned. Apart from the actual packing and loading up of the van, we are set to go. Tiddler finishes at the nursery on Friday. The wifi has been cancelled for the same day. We don’t want to postpone ourselves into a limbo that might stretch out for weeks.

In the meantime, we are saying goodbye to Bulgaria. I think of all the things I had planned to blog about, the bizarre dual shift school session system that changes halfway through the year, the coffee shop culture and the hookah pipes, the constant digging up of the roads, the wholesale perfume shops, the inability of Bulgarians to let you serve yourself with food resulting in a warm hospitality that threatens severe indigestion if not full-blown gluttony, the constant surprise that a toddler can speak a foreign language (and while we are at it, has she got enough warm clothes on!), the British ex-pats and their social media curiosities regarding life here, the telling off we receive by the bespectacled and slow moving postmistress because we have dared to receive a package from the UK with the sender address written in the unofficial wrong place, the from-pillar-to-post approach to try and get Tiddler her entitled Bulgarian citizenship (which we gave up on at this stage, lacking the approved paperwork), the warm soft breads and banitsas in the little outdoor cafe that constantly plays jazz to the pigeons, street dogs and patrons alike. These will all have to wait for another time.

Our last experiences here are the preparations for Easter. The supermarkets are full of cardboard stands selling ink pellets and sachets to make traditional Bulgarian dyed eggs, though there are plenty of made-in-China plastic chicks, rabbits and baskets that have crept on to the shelves as well.

 

Images from powerling.com and zikata.wordpress.com

From a midnight mass to the cracking of the eggs in the big egg fight (for the British, think of an egg-themed conker challenge to get how that works) Easter or ‘Great Day’ (Velikden) is a big deal here.

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Image above from BG Vestnik

Tiddler and I have a go at making the traditional dyed eggs (red coloured ones are the most important), though we poke a hole with a needle and blow ours first, when for prime egg fighting success they are usually hard-boiled. There is a little unexpected excitement when Tiddler decides to suck instead and ends up tasting her first egg nog. With the hard boiled versions, the surviving uncracked egg is declared the winner, and should in theory be kept until next Easter, although I’m not sure of the olfactory benefits of that, particularly through a long hot Bulgarian summer.

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We stuff ourselves with kozunak, the sweet Easter bread, and wait for Leo. I am not unaware of the irony and the inappropriate timing, as people across the globe are celebrating the resurrection and the victory over death, that we are somewhat preoccupied with the fate of a battered old van, albeit that it might be a renewal of sorts. We can only hope that Tiddler, Digger and I are fortunate enough to go forwards with grace, as the new and next steps in our lives continues to unfold.

 

 

 


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Ciao, Bulgaria.

You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink.
You can take a Bulgarian back to Bulgaria, but he’s not necessarily going to stay there.

The decision has been made that this visit to Bulgaria has come to an end. We have spent five months here, plus the two months overland travel time on the road in the campervan Leo to get here.
Here is a quick review:
1. Tiddler’s bilingualism has seen a huge boost through attending a local nursery, and hearing real conversations around her. Prior to arriving here she did understand a few things Digger would say to her, but we have now progressed to a very good understanding (she translates some things into English for me to understand), she speaks various correct words and sentences, alongside a general constant stream of gobbledygook which is her playing with sounds and language, which neither Digger and I can fully interpret but is all part of the learning process. Digger also feels more inspired to chat with her in his native tongue, now he is getting a conscious response. (My language skills are now being tested in order to keep up!)

 


2. Stay-at-home mama life suits me. Having worked for more than 10 years in the secondary education sector, Digger’s big fear of me resigning from my post in July last year would be boredom, particularly in Bulgaria with the absence of my friends, my normal routine, and playgroups/events I could take Tiddler to. Yes of course, it would be better if all those things could have been here too, but I have not been bored. We have cooked, and baked, and crafted, and invented games, and acted out make-believe stories. I have had long conversations with my child. I have sat and brushed her hair, for no reason other than to chat. We do yoga together. We have read stories, and made our own books. Tiddler has started to learn to read and I have the time to help her. Digger laughs at my ‘letterwork’ folder I have put together with resources for her reading. “I can tell you are happy because you have got plastic wallets and are organising your files! You enjoy her learning to read more than she does because you get to have bits of paper, and post-its, and a checklist of things to tick off once she has done them!” There is no point being defensive, because it is true. I am an educator by trade, a purveyor of instruction and worksheets. I may be more used to teenagers in the classroom, but I am learning how much fun a pile of coloured beads and reward stickers can be. As an only child, Tiddler has a lot to gain from books.

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3. Financially, it has not been too bad. Having both given up work in the summer of 2017, our biggest expenses have been removals and travel. Firstly, to get ourselves and our possessions off the island where I had lived for over a decade, and into storage at my parent’s house in the westcountry in the UK. Then the travel overland through Europe. We justified it as being a long extended holiday, the opportunity that we would not have if we were working and limited to days off. Campsites, the van itself and even petrol and road tolls all chipped away at our travel kitty. We were concerned with safety for Tiddler and so chose not to park up in lay-bys as many other travelers on the road could do to save their pennies. But the open road experience, as summer faded to autumn and we still traveled on southwards into the sunshine was worth the costs involved.
Once in Bulgaria, we were able to use a family apartment as our base, so bills were limited to electricity, water and wifi. Food bills were reduced through raiding Diado and Baba’s supremely delicious range of preserved stocks, bottles and supplies. Unexpected expenses came from Leo’s hydraulic suspension breaking on the potholed Bulgarian roads. Digger and Tiddler both had chest infections in February, and without having registration numbers as residents, we had to pay through the nose to even see a doctor, who eventually came to look at Tiddler in the dark and drafty corridor of the hospital between his shifts, and that was only because Digger managed to get hold of his personal mobile number. We paid for the prescriptions to be written, and the antibiotics and the syrups to be bought. Digger also had expenses to pay for the aftercare on a carpal tunnel syndrome operation on his hand. He was charged per stitch by the scissor-wielding dour-faced nurse, even when I told him I could have cut them out myself at home. He has faith in me, but perhaps not that much.
We also had to factor in the nursery fees, inexpensive compared to the UK but we had not planned for it, expecting Tiddler’s grandmother Baba to be here, not for childcare per say but for entertaining Tiddler and prompting her language development. Diado is a lot less verbose although he tries his best. The lack of playgroup-type opportunities also meant Tiddler needed more children to interact with, and so we opted for a private kindergarten to fill the gap. Baba talks to us on skype from Canada, just another Bulgarian granny farmed out to support the childcare of relations overseas, further evidence of Bulgaria’s declining and ageing population problems. She is visibly upset every time we speak that she has missed this opportunity with her granddaughter.  If she was here, I believe we would have stayed longer.

 


4. May you live in interesting times. It hasn’t all been roses of course, but I can’t deny that it is interesting. Digger and I have bickered more than before, mostly because he has been mooching around the apartment with limited access to power tools. Digger is a man who likes to work and be useful, and the wintery weather, the flu, and his hand operation have all conspired against him. He has done odd jobs with his father and for friends, but as we decided against buying a run-down old property at this time to bring back into use he has had nothing to get his teeth into.
But I like a challenge. I like dealing with currency I don’t recognise, and food I haven’t tasted, and taxi drivers who need to put their glasses on to read the address I am waving at them because I can’t pronounce it. I like not having to be embarrassed when Tiddler makes a personal comment about someone, because they don’t understand and then I can explain a little about manners. I like the snow, and the sunshine, and the weirdness of the winters here. I like learning about the customs and the folk tales, and developing a taste for rakia with my lunchtime salads. I like walking to the farm to collect the still warm milk, and have grown to be accustomed to the whooshing sound of the rickety lift that takes us up to the fourth floor.
It is not an easy, or a clean, or even a very efficient place, but I have never once regretted the decision to be here.

 


Digger however, is itching to go. As I type this he is downstairs ‘playing’ with Leo. He wants to go now, to get on the road. We leave in 11 days, weather permitting. Right now the snow is falling and I am not relishing the prospect of cold nights in a campervan. Bulgaria has been on the news as many local people in the rural areas have been taking the storks into their homes to save them. These long-legged birds, supposedly the heralds of spring, have arrived over the last few weeks from Africa alongside the better weather. This current deterioration back into minus temperatures has seen them frozen into their nests, and icicles growing on their feathers as the cold air rises off the ground, unable to open their wings and trapping them in the fields. The villagers are going out with baskets and blankets, plucking up these huge birds like statues, and bringing them into their homes to defrost.
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Should better weather arrive, our route is planned for Bulgaria, Greece, southern Italy, but then we veer off from the outbound route and sail across to Barcelona. We are due to arrive back in the UK in May, with no house, no work, no definite plans. I’m hoping for some inspiration along the way.
I asked Digger last night, “Do you still think we did the right thing, giving up work, trying to do something different with our lives?”
“Yes” he says. “I don’t want to live out of a suitcase for ever, I want to be settled, but I don’t want to wait till I’m too old to enjoy life. We just need to find the right place to be.  Bulgaria isn’t right for Tiddler’s future. We need to see what we can find instead. But yes, we did the right thing”


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Solidarity with Baba Marta

That cantankerous Baba Marta (Bulgarian Grandmother March, see post here for an explanation)  has clearly been appeased with all her martenitsa offerings that she mellowed beautifully in conjunction with International Women’s Day (March 8th) and the UK Mothering Sunday on the 11th. I like to think she felt the vibe.

Gone are the snows and the -15 temperatures of last week, as early Spring has suddenly descended on us in all it’s glory.

Diado has begun his garden regime early, and we are already gaining the first of the salad crops.

Digger and Tiddler set out for a jaunt around the village in her Bulgarian version of a palanquin, waving like royalty to little old grannies sat out on wooden benches, and families eating their lunches under the bare stems of their vines. A flock of sheep wander up past the houses until Tiddler shouts a random string of gibberish with the clear intention of a ‘Tally Ho!’ and they high tail it out into the fields beyond.

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Women’s Day is a big thing here in Bulgaria, and is to all intents and purposes a Mother’s Day. People in the street go about their business laden with bouquets, either for the giving, or the getting, depending on the gender.  I’m invited to a presentation at Tiddler’s nursery to receive flower crafts and gifts, and Tiddler even manages to astound us all by getting into an actual dress for the occasion and handing out her yellow paper flowers that we have made in return. The mums and grandmothers all are sporting bright red lipstick and discussing going out for celebratory drinks after work. Clearly, the menfolk of Bulgaria are in charge of childcare tonight.


Digger disappears after breakfast and returns with a wooden flower pot ornament he has made as my token for Mother’s Day. I cynically wonder is this a romantic gesture, or a chance to go and play in the workshop with the power tools, but I love it all the same.
Tiddler’s plucked primroses in a tiny rakia shot glass bring the spring into the apartment with her.
It is the simple things.
I am blessed.

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