the skinflint philosopher

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


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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”

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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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Nuts! Ohhhhhh, Hazelnuts!

Digger and Tiddler have both been confined to their sick beds this last week, and in between administering medicine, tissues and general sympathy, I’ve not had much time to call my own. This little post then is a sum up of previous enterprises in the kitchen, given some of the wonderful ingredients that we have been fortunate to have supplied from Diado and Baba’s stockpile of homegrown and foraged foods. Many of these cooking items may seem run-of-the-mill to some of our readers across the pond, but tend to be either seasonal and/or expensive back in the UK so I’ve been enjoying experimenting with something I perceive as a bit of a treat. A good thrifter of course should never ever waste food, so what better than to cook up a glut of something into something delicious, and save money on our food bill at the same time. My challenge then was to find recipes with butternut squash, honey, walnuts and hazelnuts as the main ingredients, and given that we have no weighing scales here I’m going with the cup measuring system, or the more generalised lets-chuck-it-in-and-see-if -it-works approach.
If anyone has any other tried and tested suggestions for recipes with these ingredients please drop your ideas into the comments section. Thank you!

WALNUTS

Bulgaria has a very famous use for walnuts in tarator, a yogurt soup. While this mix of yogurt, cucumber, garlic, dill and walnuts is delicious enough on a summer’s day when temperatures can often reach above 40C, a cold soup doesn’t really take my fancy at this time of year. So once Tiddler and I have spent a goodly time cracking the nuts, and then picked all the bits of the floor and hoiked out the ones that have rolled under the fridge, we have a stab at something a bit more warming.

 

Sweet potato, walnut and thyme soup.
1 large sweet potato (or similar quantity butternut squash)
1 onion
4 cloves garlic
half cup red split lentils
splash of olive oil
1 cup walnuts
tbsp of thyme (or dill)
salt/pepper
litre of water

I chopped it all very roughly, boiled it all up (add walnuts halfway through), and for Tiddler to eat it we blended it up with a hand blender, but it could have been finely chopped and left as a more rustic soup. The freshly shelled walnuts had a very high oil content and made a deliciously smooth and creamy texture to the dish.

 

 

Banana and walnut cake/bread
3 bananas
half a cup butter
4 tablespoons of Diado’s own honey
1tsp vanilla essence
1 cup flour
1 cup cornmeal
1/2 tsp baking powder
1 cup chopped walnuts
1 egg
brown sugar

Melt butter and honey in a saucepan, mash in the banana, add in all other ingredients. put in lined cake tin and sprinkle brown sugar (and cinnamon if desired) over the top. 180C for an hour.

 

 

HAZELNUTS

Date and hazelnut bombs
In an attempt to make Tiddler something without processed sugar in, and a suitable snacking food for me too, we came up with this little gem. It was fairly time consuming given that I don’t have a food processor, and ended up having to squeeze the dates through a garlic press, but the finished product were delicious and lasted very well despite my constant visits to the fridge while they were there!
Digger assisted by producing some sort of 1970’s plastic gadget from a cupboard that turned out to be a hand-operated nut grinder. Who would have thought such things existed, and I was charmed by the kitsch-ness of it all. I had to fight Digger away from it so I could have a go at turning the handle myself.

dates
raisins
roasted hazelnuts
spoon of honey

Chop/grind everything up and mix it with a dab of honey if necessary (optional addition is add in some cocoa powder but I felt the roasted hazelnuts gave enough of a chocolaty vibe).  Shape into little balls and chill, wherein the ‘bombs’ firm up and become an ideal snacking go to. Feel free to vary the dried fruit/nuts according to taste.

 

 

Hazelnut, coconut and honey biscuits

1 cup flour
1/2 cup cornflour
1/4 tsp salt
3/4 cup butter
3 large dollops of honey
1/2 cup desicated coconut
1tsp vanilla essence
1 cup roasted and chopped hazelnuts

Mix dry goods together. Melt honey and butter in saucepan and add coconut to soak. Mix all, shape into rounds. 180C 15 mins. These, did not last more than 20 minutes. We discovered, as they are quite a dry/biscotti-like texture they are the bees-knees with a cup of coffee.

 

 

BUTTERNUT SQUASH

We have been eating a lot of butternut soup already, or cubed and roasted butternut with a baby leaf salad is my other favourite, but I needed a bit more of a challenge.

Butternut squash cheesecake
12 oat biscuits (or Digestives for the UK folk)
half cup roasted hazelnuts
5 tbsp butter
1 tbsp sugar
Melt butter and sugar, stir in crushed biscuits and nuts, flatten into a lined cake tin and bake blind for five minutes.
3 x 8oz cream cheese packs
1 cup sugar
1 tsp vanilla essence
1 cup pureed roasted butternut squash
3 eggs
1/2 tsp cinnamon
1/4 tsp nutmeg
1/4 tsp allspice
1/4 tsp ground cloves
Mix all these ingredients together to form a smooth paste, layer over the top of the biscuit base. 180C 60 mins.
Beautiful.

 


Butternut and cheese scones
1 cup flour
1 cup cornmeal or wholemeal flour
half cup butter
1 1/2 tsp baking powder
pinch salt
1 cup roasted pureed butternut squash
1 1/2 cup grated cheese
milk

Rub flour and other dry ingredients into butter.  Stir in squash and most of cheese, milk if necessary. Roll out, cut, sprinkle a few pieces of cheese on top. 210C fan, 20 mins.

Tiddler was a dab hand at doing the cutting out for these, and then decided she wanted to make a tiger. The colour theme worked very well and we added raisins for the eyes.

 

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As always, there is just as much fun in the making as there is in the eating!


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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.