the skinflint philosopher

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


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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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My Country, My Bulgaria / Моя страна, моя България

I’m reblogging a post here from the blog site To Bulgaria which will make interesting reading for those of you with an interest in Bulgarian political history, the diaspora and the nature of identity. Many thanks to To Bulgaria for a very interesting read. Thrifter.

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We spent the New Year’s holiday with Bulgarian friends in New York. Lubo and Vessi have lived in the United States since 2003. They’re educated, were already fluent in English when they arrived, live well, are successful, don’t regret their decision to immigrate. Vessi translated for me during my first visit to Bulgaria in 1987 so our friendship has a long history.

In the years just before and just after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the fall of Communism throughout Eastern Europe, I noticed a difference in the attitudes of Bulgarian immigrants to the country of their birth. If they had immigrated long ago and thus it had been years—sometimes decades—since they had seen Bulgaria, their break was entire. They identified with Bulgaria, but as one identifies with long deceased relatives or one’s own early childhood. A handful of recipes, an affiliation with a small Bulgarian Orthodox congregation…

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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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Hairpins and smurfs: Italy # 2

Just exactly how steep is a 7-12% road gradient, and will Leo cope? Digger and I ponder this in relation to hills and ascents we know from back home as we drive onwards into the Apennines. Our fears are temporarily allayed when we meet a caravan (with French plates) coming in the opposite direction.
“Well, it must be okay if a caravan can be towed surely?”
“Unless they also didn’t know what they were getting into on the way in but then couldn’t turn round to get out again”, Digger suggests.


We are leaving the coastal stretch heading into a little town called Cervarezza Terme, just south of the larger and more well known town on Castelnovo de Monti, famous for the historic bell factory that still survives there. Cervarezza Terme itself is over 1000m altitude, and as we climb upward, ever upwards, we see the countryside morphing with every turn of the road. The colours change to oranges and russets, and distant hills take on a reddish-purplish tinge. Summer weather on the coast is a picture postcard receding through our back windscreen, and by the time we reach the brow of the mountain range we have clearly dropped into an alpine-induced autumn. We are grossly undressed and I pull on my bedsocks as we drive along. Digger snorts in amusement. “No wonder the Italians despair at the British fashion sense”.
After triple, nay quadruple, uphill hairpins in a row, with me clinging onto the side of the door as we negotiate the curve, we realise how the caravan, and all other drivers cope with these roads. They simply drive in the middle and those with any semblance of passing courtesy for other drivers sound their horn as they go round blind corners. Note to self, massive delivery lorries don’t feel the need to warn you of their presence on your side of the road. Luckily all that extra adrenaline released served well to warm up us slightly, and we arrive just before dusk, Leo and nerves fairly intact, into serious chestnut country.image

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The large campsite is set onto a slope, and has around two hundred pitches as well and numerous wooden cabins, some of which are obviously privately owned as the bespoke additions of pot plants and pizza ovens. The dense woodland, part of the Fonti national park means that the scale of it is hidden like some forest wonderland beneath leaves and thousands and thousands of fallen chestnuts. The chap on reception seems a bit concerned about us turning up unannounced. “There is room tonight, but if you are still here at the weekend there might be a problem. You need to let me know first thing in the morning how long you are staying”. We are slightly bemused as the site seems deserted, apart from two little Italian grannies, dressed in stereotypical black, poking at the chestnuts with their walking sticks.


We enjoy two quiet days, walking in the woods, collecting chestnuts and playing on the mini zip wire we find there. We walk into the town and drink coffee on a terrace, shoe-horned in on a table full of old men playing cards and clutching their leather over-the-shoulder bags to their rotund stomachs, who buy Tiddler icecream and then chuckle at her chocolate moustache. We visit the ‘has-seen-better-days’ mineral spa, famed for its hydrotherapeutic qualities (I’m hoping for some improvement with my broken toe) with the slipperiest floor I have every had the misfortune to try and walk across. Tiddler slam dunks herself like Bambi on ice.


Seven thirty on Saturday morning it all suddenly makes sense. We are awakened by motors running, brakes, shunting and tyres cracking gravel, and Italian voices calling. The Italian Motorhome Club weekend has arrived on our doorstep. Many must know each other as they hop in an out of each others vehicles, hand signally and backing in on top of each other, trapping Leo in some sort of white van corral. Children spill out, and dogs, and glamorous looking Italian campers who clearly have just left home this morning. Tiddler, Digger and I look on in our own slightly dishevelled manner. Tiddler can hear the children and jumps into her coat and hat and is out the door to play, befriending a family of three who later spend a whole afternoon playing lego and beetle drive on a picnic rug outside Leo, and in return the no doubt grateful mother showers us with little sweetened biscotti and leaves Tiddler with a toy smurf. Italian motorhoming is an organised phenomenon. The women cook up veritable feasts on their van hobs, no scrimping on the fiddly bits. Food is clearly worth doing properly. At certain times everyone disappears en masse to some organised programme, and we are in a motorhome ghost town. And then like clockwork, they all reappear again. It is a frantic, exuberant, oh so Italian few days.

 

Next post: what happens when you end up on the autostrada without a ticket.


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People in glass houses shouldn’t: Italy #1

Crossing borders in this part of Europe was very easy. Speeding along a motorway we entered a tunnel in France, and popped out the other end of it into Italy. It is a definite case of everything changes; everything stays the same. From scrubby olive trees and terracotta coloured apartment blocks, we rapidly switch to scrubby olives, teracotta coloured houses, swooping nerve defying flyovers with plunging chasms far below and impatient truckers undertaking a relatively slow moving, English-plated campervan who clearly is at fault, whatever it does. Beep beep! Beeeeeep!  The swathes of sloping glasshouses precariously terraced into the hillsides look eerily like some sort of Bladerunner-esque large scale industrial labratory. It is only later when we stop near the town of Ceriale, that we realise that many of these warehouses of glass are defunct and derelict, their old irrigation systems strung up across the beams like black and rotten tentacles, now full of dust as the agricultural trade has moved away to other regions and countries. There is more graffitti and litter. There are more signs on the gates warning of dogs and security cameras, but it is charmingly Italian, from every adult being unable to pass Tiddler without utterances of ‘Ciao Bella’ and huge platefuls of fragrant salads and tall latte machiatos on every corner.

The red dust gets everywhere. The campsite pitches are earthern, bordered by ornate succulents that the Dutch couple who own it clearly maintain, along with their aviary of perhaps twenty blue and yellow budgies. The soil has broken down through oveuse and penetrates everything. Tiddler and Leo are immediate dust magnets. I start to wonder if the terracotta coloured houses were actually painted white and I’m just seeing the stain left behind. Out of season the pool is closed, but it is hot and arid. We burrow into Leo’s inner stowaway seats and pull out the paddling pool. Tiddler splashes and makes mud pies. The few other visitors on site look on benignly and return to their newsapers. Even the gentle crooning of Mull of Kintyre, and the newly learnt strains of Jolene don’t warrant any attention.

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The motorhome season is drawing to a clear close. Digger searches for future sites but Italy has all but shut up for the season. We decide not to try the ‘sortees’- break stops suitable for motorhomes to park up alongside the long distance truckers which many motorhomers in Italy swear by, but we prefer a little more security travelling as we are with Tiddler. It is clear we must travel bigger distances at a time, tracing across a map of the Boot and joining up the dots that are the open campsites Digger has studiously marked. We are beginning the transition not only through the seasons, but through the West-East wealth spectrum across Europe. With many miles still to go before we reach Bulgaria, we are bound to see this continue.

Next posts: budget busting, festivals and amici in unexected places

p.s. a ccouple of new photos have been added to some of the France posts- we have had poor access to wifi and time for posts and photos….


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Sore fingers and sore toes: France #3

After our brief sojurn into the ex-pat territory in the north Dordogne area, we headed into medieval France with the hilltop village of Pujols. As we continue our ‘out-of-season’ break, we again reap the benefits of a relatively deserted tourist hot spot. One of France’s designated most beautiful villages, its wooden beamed houses, narrow alleyways and tumbled down ramparts are a brief glimpse into what replaced the original fort that perched on the summit. The view of the wide valley below is stunning, and we treat ourselves to crepes and cafe au lait and sit in the sunshine in the pedestrianised cobbled square, in complete peace as we have clearly hit the long lunch time when we appear to be the only people in the world.

Although the village is full of art shops and workshop galleries, selling expensive ceramics mostly, the highlight is hidden behind a heavily laden sharon fruit tree behind the church. This is Le Maison de Jouets, an insiprational wood and natural objects den of fun. It is full of toys, instruments, and automatons all crafted from carefully selected found objects. The young curator tells us it is part of the lifetime work of an old man, who he says sees the world in a different way to everyone else. There is no charge, nothing for sale, and we are invited to play and handle the toys as much as we like. Tiddler is in seventh heaven, and Digger and I are not far behind in astonishment and amusement.

Leaving the Jouets behind eventually, we wander into the church and realise we are at one of the posts of the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage route. We take a moment to stop, and reflect. Tiddler stamps her hand with the scallop shell print, and lights a candle.

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We end up staying more night at the Pujols campsite than intended. I turn abruptly in the confines of Leo, and catch my toe on the edge of a board. I hear a crack. It is not the board. My toe is clearly broken. Having broken the big toe on the same foot two years ago I know the signs, and also know there is no point seeking medical advice. I strap it up (the compulsory first aid kit coming in handy after all) and limp around the campsite. Digger had cut a couple of bamboo poles from the side of the road a few days earlier with the intention of making a sun shade, and now I take one with me for support like some sort of jungle Gandalf. Tiddler runs around semi naked with the other pretending it is a sword, or a wand, or a blowpipe. We get a few strange looks from the elderly clientele in the neighbouring pitches, but that is okay, we are English, and therefore expected to be a bit eccentric.

Digger takes the opportunity to take Leo to the garage. There has been a squeaking whine on the back wheel for a few days, which we have avoided dealing with so far by switching the radio up louder. A couple of hours work and €43 later and the whine has gone. The exact problem the mechanic could not translate for us, but it is solved now no matter what the language.

We take the opportunity to get the guitar out. This has sat in our attic for about four years, always with the intention that we would learn. Life happens of course, and you don’t find time. Despite taking up valuable space in Leo, we were determined to bring it with us. Again, we need to apologise to our camping neighbours as the sounds of our poorly constructed chords and slightly out of tune singing filter out in the afternoon sun. Fortunately for everyone, at this early stage of learning my fingers can’t cope and I have to stop before too long and give my hands a rest before blisters develop. Tiddler wades in with the tambourine and warbles a fairly decent rendition of ‘muckle in tyre’ in an attempt to copy my Mull of Kintyre, which has to be the easiest song ever to play on the guitar, if even I can manage it. Then peace returns.

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Next post: travelling on a shoe string, warriors and the Med.