the skinflint philosopher

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


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Rub-a-dub-dub, ever feel like you are alone in your tub?

Candles seems a rather distant reminder of my possibly slightly more trendy (at the time) younger self. Or actually now I think of it, my little set were distinctly trying to be ‘un-trendy’ as far as popular culture of the 90’s went and were a little bit more into hippy-dippyness, but by rather sensible standards though of course. We didn’t get up to anything too far along on the Woodstock scale of things; we were in rural England after all.
Anyway, burning candles and joss sticks, and shopping trips to Natural Selection were all the rage, and if you didn’t own a pair of Dr Martins with coloured laces well then frankly, you might as well listen to Top of the Pops.

Digger as you know tends to be somewhat lacking in the romantic gestures- he’d rather change a punctured tyre for me, or unblock the drains, or ban me from using the superglue again, and assume that transmitted to me words of l’amour and le coeur). And so dusky candlelit dinners are not often on the cards, and that is even without taking into account the ‘Tiddler Effect’, a well-known to our household phenomenon where somebody-mentioning-no-names refuses to go to bed until past midnight on any given days that potential gourmet aphrodisiacs are found to be in the fridge.

In line with my general thriftyness, I don’t like to turn down anything that is offered for free, so I ended up last week with a free carrier bag of candle odds and ends. Lets specify that again, there were lots of ends of candles, and they were pretty much all odd-one-outs. Multicoloured, broken, a jumble of beeswax and paraffin, and completely stuck together in this heat, this was like Joseph’s technicolour dreamcoat in a bag.
Tiddler was put to task sorting them into colours, a task she will happily do for hours with any mixed up coloured items. Note to self though, don’t try it again with a bag of Jelly Beans which all got sorted into one category- Tiddler’s Tummy.
Then with no candlemaking equipment we had a shot. Not bad I feel for the frugal, make-do-and-mend side of things, but I’m also going to try and get Digger to have a conversation with me in the candlelight glow from these, even if it is only to see where to put the car-jack.

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The red ones

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The cauldron of blood

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recycled yogurt pots

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Recycled wicks

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Lollipops and blutack

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Tension on the wick, looking remarkable like the puppy’s tail

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Here’s a few I made earlier (a nod to Blue Peter)

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Waiting for it to cool

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The finished article in Digger’s handmade centrepiece candle holder (see he made that years ago for me, but we never use it!)

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They are not tiny candles, they are massive fir cones, brought all the way from the west coast of Italy in the back of Leo. 

And if this inspires you to look a little harder into the flame the next time you light a candle, these are two thoughts you might like to ponder on.

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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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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.
download(Stork image from novinite.com)

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”