the skinflint philosopher

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


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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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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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A knees-up with Granny March

As if the heavy snow didn’t give everyone an excuse for some time off work anyway, (and the schools have been closed for days and when then happens in a country that is used to winter snow that says something about the conditions outside) then today is also a Bulgarian national holiday. Happy March 1st!

 

For the non-Bulgarians out there, see if you can spot someone around the world today wearing a red and white buttonhole or wristband. If you do, go up and say to them Zdravei! Happy Baba Marta!, as I guarantee they will be Bulgarian (or from the Balkans) and will smile back at you with pleasure. This is a custom that is more welcome than Christmas.

 


Way back in the annals of time, in the 7th century the first Bulgarian king Khan Asparuh was busy pitting his armies against the Byzantine empire, and following a fearsome victory he sent eagles with white threads tied around their talons as a message to announce his success to the main camp. The trailing threads picked up bloodstains from the battlefield, and the red and white martenitsa was invented.
An alternative story is that Huba, the sister of Khan Asparuh escaped captivity and in fleeing home to her brother and the new territory he had claimed that would become modern Bulgaria, she could not cross the mighty Danube river to reach safety. She tied a white thread on to the leg of a falcon, and sent him across the river to find a safe passage, while she followed the thread trail below. One of her kidnappers in pursuit shot the falcon with an arrow and his blood mixed with the white thread even as he led Huba to safety across the river.

 


The modern martenitsa token given as a gift to your nearest and dearest on March 1st has now a slightly less gory legend, and where white thread or yarn symbolises purity and beauty, and the red is vitality, love, courage and life. Put the two together and you have the perfect token of friendship, love, good luck and health.  Red and white can also symbol life and death, or the sun and melting snow. Traditionally some martenitsa take the form of two yarn dolls, the white male Pizho and the red female known as Penda. Nowadays though other symbolism has crept in, and Tiddler was quite happy with her ladybird and panda martenitsa that Digger gave her this morning over breakfast.

 

March 1st itself (the start of the traditional Bulgarian New Year) celebrates grumpy old Baba Marta (Granny March) who is the personification of early spring, indicating the coming of future fertility and prosperity, while still being a little bit erratic and unpredictable! Wearing a martenitsa will pacify Baba Marta and bring spring along a little quicker and with slightly less extreme and changeable weather. Bulgarians will wear the martenitsa either until March 22nd, the coming of real spring according to the calendar, or until they see the first stork of the year, or the first blossoming tree, when the martenitsa are then tied on to the branches like a huge shower of red and white confetti.

As I am sitting here writing this, I am thinking of friends and loved ones who I will not see for many months, and I am wishing you all a Happy Baba Marta, and a means to find a way to pacify the angry or awkward Baba Marta’s that may cross your path.

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The philosophy of Snow White

Tackling as we are, the thrifter’s life in Bulgaria, we are always trying to scrimp and save wherever possible. For example, I spent some time this week attempting to mend Tiddler’s story book and that has given me a few things to think about.

The backstory of course is that we set off from England as my good and faithful readers know last September, in Leo the campervan, though while sufficient for our basic needs on the two month journey pottering through Europe to get to Bulgaria, was rather lacking in library space. So, a swift calculation means Tiddler (i.e. me) has been reading the same twenty story books in some sort of spiraling rotation for around five months, with my nemesis the pop-up book of Hansel and Gretel appearing on a far more regular than it was due basis. Who knows why Tiddler loves this story so much. I think I made a rod for my own back when I once ad-libbed that the witch was ‘burnt up to a crisp’. Now if I don’t add that specific detail in every time I read of Gretel’s fiendish escape plan I get reprimanded by Tiddler for missing out part of the story i.e. the grusesome nasty bit.
There are a smattering of English language books in the bookshops here, but very expensive, and the town library was no help either. So Granny Westcountry kindly scoured her home for my niece and nephew’s old books and popped them in the post to us as an emergency package of books as frankly, if I have to read Hansel and Gretel one more time there are going to be consequences.  Much excitement all round! The joy of new (to us) books! Unfortunately, seems Tiddler’s cousins had been a bit heavy handed with Snow White and the seven dwarves, and a book had arrived which needed a good dose of TLC.
“Are books alive?” Tiddler asks. Inward snigger from me at the innate cuteness.
“Do books have skeletons?” Cut-off snigger as I have to answer honestly, “Well they do have spines, that much is true”.
“Are books made from lots of ingredients? Have we got the ingredients to mend this one?”
So given the circumstances, I don’t want to throw this book away, and I also believe strongly in the importance of Tiddler understanding the need to take care of her possessions. Money doesn’t grow on trees and all that. Things do still have a value, and a use, even if they are old. Why replace something if it is not broken. Look after the pennies and the pounds will look after themselves. I think you catch my general drift on this theme without resorting to further proverbs. Suffice to say, this is not just about money. Rather that I want Tiddler to be happy when she grows up. I cannot make her life a luxurious one, or guarantee no sorrows or troubles, but I hope I can equip her to be content with her lot, which will foster the skills of being practical, with common sense, and the emotional stability to make wise decisions.

Question: “Mirror mirror on the wall, who is the fairest one of all?”
Answer: “The one who is happy”

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Quotes to give us a few more thoughts on this theme today:
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Last year’s circus: Bulgaria photos 15

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These were part of a huge line of peeling and faded circus posters along a heavily graffiti covered stone wall outside a large four storey secondary school, currently out of use as it is undergoing repairs and renovation. Just before Christmas, the new roof that was being put on the school caught fire, cause unknown, and all the new work done was lost, and further damage created by the fire itself.
The tatty circus posters, the burnt and broken school, the children separated and shifted away to be educated in other schools…. the themes all seems to come together with this image.


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Twins and time

Rather than my own middling quality photographic attempts, (as a good thrifter I am still using the camera on the old and battered iphone 4 that was given me second hand when a kind friend upgraded, and I was sat up at night feeding Tiddler and kept falling asleep and needed something portable to help keep me awake), I’ve been rootling about learning more about Digger’s side of the family.

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Pictured here in this wonderful image is Digger’s mother, now Tiddler’s Baba (grandmother). She takes centre stage, with her twin brother to the left, their older sister (now the Sofia Auntie D) on the right, and their cousin on the far left. Behind them, both so proudly smiling, are their grandparents, that is Tiddler’s great-great-grandparents. Digger does a spot of maths and estimates the picture was taken circa 1952.
The story goes that the Uncle P, the first born of the twins arrived in the night at home in the rural village. A local ‘midwife’ (i.e. somebody else’s baba) attended, delivered Uncle P but was concerned, and great-grandmother was put on the back of a karuca (каруца), and taken off on a bumpy road to get to the hospital in the town, some distance away. Without prenatal care and scans, they were unaware of a second baby, and our Baba was only born later, unexpectedly, and fortunately with more complex medical care and not on the back of the karuca. This is why the twins have ended up with different dates of birth, one day apart.

I wish this picture was in colour. The twins are wearing terlitsi (knitted slipper socks), and all of the children sport knitted socks and leggings. Great-great-grandmother’s heavy apron and skirt and headscarf can be seen, and the cousin’s skirt and cardigan look to be knitted or woven in a traditional design too. Great-great-grandfather wears a tall kaplak bear fur (or black lamb wool) hat, and what looks like an ex-military coat.
A photo below (iphone 4!) from a modern but traditional style fabric in use today may gives you a hint of the possible colour combinations, or take a look at some of the ornate embroidery and vintage clothing on this webpage. 

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The heavy duty wools are clearly to keep out the cold continental winter air. I’ve also discovered these children’s knickers/shorts tucked away, perhaps sentimentally,  with moth balls in the back of a cupboard in the apartment we are borrowing for our stay in Bulgaria. I ask Digger if they were his when he was little, but he admits to nothing.

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I don’t know about the level of insulation gained, but I imagine an individual wrapped in a pair of these bad boys, plus all the other layers on top, would not be moving anywhere very fast, and you would certainly need plenty of warning for a toddler toilet stop.

It was definitely a different world, nearly three quarters of a century ago, and makes me sit and think a little on Tiddler’s relationship with her grandparents, both the Bulgarian side and those in the Westcountry, and whether she will be looking at pictures of us all in decades to come, and what she will think of us, and what she will remember, and what stories she will have heard. Hopefully she won’t be thinking about our underwear.


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Tree sparrows sheltering from the snow: Bulgaria photos 9

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Tree sparrows (Passer montanus) unfazed by the many shoppers banging trolleys in and out of the lines, sit and wait out of the bitter wind that blows across a Kaufland car park shortly to be covered in snow.


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Burn the EU?- a Bulgarian view

Digger jokingly quotes in rhyming couplets (and being Bulgarian himself of course) “‘These Bulgarians, are barbarians”
Great image below of a very smart Baba in a puffer jacket acting that out.
How much are the protests using the EU as a scapegoat to offload general anger and frustration at the government here is another question.

Anti EU protests in Sofia last night- images, slideshow and text. 

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Image taken from the link above.


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Brown is the new black

It’s about time that I introduced you to where we are living in Bulgaria. While we were mulling over the idea of moving to Digger’s homeland for a grown up gap year to work less and live more, and primarily to facilitate Tiddler’s bilingualism (Digger unfortunately was working too many hours and simply was not having the contact time with her)  we envisaged ourselves living in a village. While we knew that Bulgarian villages are often akin to semi-ghost towns, as the younger families move to urban centres or leave the country entirely, we felt that would be quite a positive for us, and had all sorts of plans for attempting self-sufficiency, or at least low-cost living. Digger had plans for using his non-working time for trialing a prototype log cabin build.


The reality though is we are not going to go down that route, certainly at this point in time anyway.  Arriving in wintery November, even with cheap property and land available, we decided we didn’t want to commit to invest in a property we may only live in for a few months of the year. Digger, in his cynicism, repeats the phrase, “There is a reason I left Bulgaria in the first place”, and feels he is making a backwards step in his life if he was to commit to anything long term. I am enjoying my work-free life here, there is no doubt about that, but I understand his concern over lack of opportunities and activities for Tiddler, the general complications of a legacy of the communist era bureaucracy, and ingrained neglect of many things that we as adults can live with, but seem wrong to expose my child to.

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Tiddler, on her morning walk to nursery told me “Look! More rubbish. I’m going to take Mama to a different country where there is no litter on the pavement” and I realise that while casually commenting to her about the litter to ensure that she understands she shouldn’t drop it just because other people do, she has taken on board the negativity in my tone.  We can play spot-the-cigarette-butt and avoid-the-street-dog on our walk, but it would be much nicer if we didn’t have to. (A side point to this, is that the main streets are daily swept and maintained, it is the more residential areas that suffer the worst in the litter stakes. However, even when swept, the roads and pavements themselves are in disrepair, and when we see improvement work going on it is poor quality and cuts corners so everything still looks unfinished. The sweepers we have seen are without exception women, wearing an ad-hoc uniform of gumboots and high-vis jackets. We regularly see one lady who calls Tiddler a ‘little princess’, and tells us about her grandchild called Katie who she has never seen, as her son is working in Scotland. I think about this lady, sweeping the streets to earn a minimum wage, and how distant Katie’s life must seem to her.)

We decided therefore to base ourselves in a little apartment that Diggers family own in a pre-fab 1980’s block on the okay side of town (that is, on the opposite side from the industrial zone) for the winter. Population is decreasing so rapidly in Bulgaria through outwards migration, there is little point putting it up for rent, and so it sits empty. High- rise (and even urban) living has always been an anathema for me, but I find I can tolerate this. It is warm, if shoddy. Like many eastern european countries who were part of the communist bloc in the second half of the twentieth century, the towns and cities are full of concrete block panel-constructed apartments. They are ugly, and now tatty, although surprisingly earthquake resistant if the Bulgarian Chamber of engineers can be believed. This rapid build solution to cope with mass rural to urban migration from the 1950’s onwards has left a high rise legacy sprouting up like rectangular grey mushrooms all over the country. Notoriously energy inefficient, people have taken to patching up the terraces/balconies to create extra insulation, giving the blocks a hodge-podge appearance.

The lifts have no internal safety doors and unnervingly the open shaft and floors brush past us as we ascend, and there is no way for the postman to deliver letters unless someone happens to be exiting the building at the time to let him in, so post is instead propped in between the loose door panes in a kind of postal roulette as to whether you’ll actually get what was delivered. The hallways sometimes have a musty hue of woodsmoke, or smell of rancid pickled cabbage, but that is because people are pickling cabbage in the storerooms.

It would be easy to say on first appearances that these apartment blocks are a miniature version of Garrett Hardin‘s ‘tragedy of the commons‘, that is, the communal space is no-one’s responsibility, so no-one bothers to look after it, and it declines to the detriment of everyone. That could perhaps be an analogy for Bulgaria as a whole. But, on closer inspection, we realise that that the lady in flat number one sweeps and mops the floor in the entrance hallway every week. People bring in the post and distribute it to the other boxes. People hang up their laundry on the terraces and raise their hands in greeting to their neighbours. Some people even ask nurses to give out flu jabs. And this gives us all, and the country, hope.

Inside the flat, we are stuck in a bit of 1980’s timewarp. Digger has only lived here off and on over the last fifteen years, and it has mostly now been furnished with random things from Baba and Diado”s house that they have no space for, for use when visitors come to stay. The wardrobes are all veritable portals to Narnia.
It is all very brown for my taste. I ask Digger if that was intentional.


‘It’s a corporate colour’ he said, “regulation Communist Brown. Back then, when I was growing up, there wasn’t any choice. There was one type of floor tile, one type of cupboard, one type of sofa. People just had that. No wonder they went nuts when capitalism finally kicked in’.
His point is highlighted when in the first few days we have to buy a carpet runner for the hallway. Tiddler refuses to keep her slippers on and the floor is cold.
‘Come to the shop so you can choose what you like’ he suggests. Turns out the choices are simple- it is either eye-wateringly bright oranges and purples, like some psychedelic madman has got loose in the carpet factory, or the alternative of regulation communist brown. Even with a few swirly patterns, in the guise of modernity, it is definitely just brown. I consider carefully what I can actually live with on a daily basis.
Brown is the new black.

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