the skinflint philosopher

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


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Return

We’d been beset with poor wifi, and beautiful sunny weather that I wanted to be outdoors enjoying, and I simply didn’t keep up to date with blogging our journey through Italy and Spain. We are now back in the Westcountry, with plenty to update you all on on the changing circumstances and life and times of Thrifter, Digger and no-longer-quite-as-tiddly Tiddler. I promise to try and write up all that soon.
In the mean time, it is going to be a simple whistle-stop version of our journey home.

Landing in Bari, Italy, we heading straight over to Pompeii, and just about managed to find the ruins behind the made-in-China tourist tat, and the swarms of pesky foreigners like ourselves. We had been spoilt in Bulgaria and Greece, as being just one of a relatively few campervanners on the road. In Pompeii we hear English voices for the first time in months.
In Rome we potter round the sites with our friends who are living and working in central Italy for the year, and who we also we met up with last October on our eastwards journey through Italy. Tiddler is overwhelmed with excitement to see familiar faces, and holds hands contentedly with A for hours, chattering away not only about Romans, but also taking the time to fully inspect and be taught about the ants crawling over the ruins. She only lets go of him to eat the fruity and obligatory gelato.
After the long ferry crossing to Barcelona, we dawdle along the Spanish coast and attend April fiestas and drink sangria. The Spanish children run wild, and hang out in polite packs in the campsite toilet blocks, only returning to their parents for enormous grilled platefuls before dashing off on their bikes again. Spanish children appear to require no sleep and keep Digger and I awake past midnight chattering away (politely) in the darkness.
We are in awe of the beautiful landscapes in the Bardenas nature reserves in the Navarre region, a biosphere in northern Spain. These sandy cliffs and pyramids transport us to a desert, as the genuine home of the spaghetti western. Hermitages and cellars are chiselled into the cliffs, and we watch the townsfolk putting up wooden barricades in village after village, not to stop the Injuns, but for the toned down country versions of the Pamplona bull runs, as our host informs us, with cows.
From here we criss-cross the many pilgrimage routes of the Camino do Santiago, following the way of the shell more by accident than design. We greet the walkers and cyclists that pass us, and walk alongside them for a few Tiddler-size hikes. The guide books suggest it isn’t practical to go by horseback these days, as the hostelries can’t cope.
Leo obtains his first puncture of the roughly 8000 mile round journey. Digger is aided by the campsite groundsmen for a good ten minutes, speaking in English to each other, before they realise they are both Bulgarian. Clapping on the back and tyre changing wizardry ensues.
We depart from Bilbao on a twenty-three hour crossing, but our return to the UK is blighted with rough seas and Digger and I are both ill. Tiddler snores and dreams and is mercifully oblivious. The sea is so rough, that on our return to dry land it takes me eight days to stop feeling that the ground is rolling beneath me, and turning my legs to jelly. I question Digger as to whether I am walking strangely, as the queasy uneasiness remains. I google mal de debarquement, and wait for reality to return.


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Monasteries and mobiles: Greece

 

Over the border into Greece we head straight south. The first few kilometres are on a bone shuddering scratched off stretch of road, but we then ease onto the main drag and sail along smoothly. We stop for a roadside cafe breakfast and are treated to a huge platter of cheeses, cured meats and fried eggs, and freshly squeeezed orange juice. This is not your typical greasy spoon or bland and processed service station fodder.
Tiddler stands and makes cow eyes at the lady behind counter, and is promptly rewarded with a lollipop. This is the start of what becomes her clear mission for Greece (and later Italy). that is “if I look cute and stand here long enough I will get given a gift”. I’m afraid to report we leave behind us for the next few weeks a trail of conned shopkeepers, restaurant owners, and souvenir sellers as Tiddler manages to bring in booty everywhere we go. I begin to wonder if the culture of family, and the love of treating young children has serious impact on smaller businesses, if all children who enter the shops are treated as we are. We have to start rationing Tiddler’s consumption of chupa chups before it gets silly.

 


On the coastal plains below Mount Olympus and its fifty two peaks, south along the mainland coast from Thessaloniki, we visit Platamon Castle. This was a crusader castle built in the early 1200’s, and the imposing medieval tower now overlooks the modern highway below. Inside are the remains of a smithy, a pottery, and rusted old canons. The hill is ablaze with spring flowers.

 

 


Further inland, and at what we later decide is our favourite campsite of the whole trip, we stay more days than expected in Meteora. From a distance these huge grey rock formation loom out from the landscape like some real life Gormenghast.

 

As we reach near we see them for their real beauty.  Massive rock formations like these are usually the result of resistant volcanic rocks left standing proud as the softer rocks around them are weather away. These however are a mixture of sedimentary rocks, and so not only have resulted in huge pillars and domes, but these individually have been eroded with numerous caves and potholes.

 

The caves became shrines and hermitages, and a complex of Eastern orthodox monasteries have been been built precariously perched on their peaks. Tourists either come to climb the worn steps to the monasteries, or bring ropes and carabiners and scale the peaks themselves.

 

 

 

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We do nothing so adventurous as this, though Digger manages to cut his head open (on a cupboard in Leo) and we are in two minds whether to go to A&E to be better safe than sorry, but eventually just stick him back together with the medical supplies we had left over from his hand operation and that does the trick.

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In the village below we speak to a Greek-American who makes huge metal mobiles in a garden workshop that twist as meditatively in the wind as the climbers on their ropes.
We walk trails around the base of some of the peaks, and stumble across so many tortoises along the way that even Tiddler loses a bit of interest in them eventually. We pick wild thyme and oregano along the way to garnish our salads.

 


Tiddler befriends two dutch girls and the three of them race around the campsite on scooters and bikes for a few days. We swap addresses when it is time to travel on.

 

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In Igoumentisa, we spend a day at the beach waiting for the ferry to arrive. We talk to a German police woman, swimming in the sea on her day off, who is working with the Greek authorities at the port. Many people are trying to arrive in Greece with fake German documents, trying to reach northern Europe. She laughs when we talk about Bulgaria, and she says all winter she has seen the Bulgarian gypsies crowding on to the ferries to Italy all winter with all their pillows and blankets as they will sleep on the decks rather than pay for a cabin. It is only now that spring has arrived, and she meets travellers such as ourselves, that she has realised that not all Bulgarians are from the gypsy community. She laughs and shakes Digger’s hand.
Later in the evening, sitting in Leo on the chaotic dockside, where juggernauts, campers, cars and foot passengers jostle for position, and nobody apart from a teenager in jeans and sunglasses with a piece of paper in his hands seems to have any sort of authority, we board the ferry for Italy.

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Sandstone, Churchill and a climbing wall: Bulgaria road trip (the return journey)

Waving farewell to the place we have called home all winter, we set off on the bumpy road to the capital city of Bulgaria, Sofia.

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(Leo parked in the snow just eight days before we set off, thankfully Spring burst into action for our departure!)

Digger and I both observe that Leo the campervan, in an unspecific way we can’t put our finger on, definitely sounds different than before. We hope it is making some genuine top notch improved clicks, whines and general shuddering rather than ‘help me help me’ morse code on the potholed main arterial route from east to west across the country. The trouble is that neither of us has an ear for engines. Digger goes back to his old approach of wind the window down and switch the tunes up (in this case a medley of Tiddler’s including the Wombles, Poddington Peas, and Filbert the Frog) which is enough to drown out and disguise any slightly unnerving thrumming from beneath our feet.
We also operate the ‘top drawer’ scale of road quality. How quickly the bumps, twists and half finished road works shoot out the drawer from its moorings in the back of the van determine the state of the roads, and by default the economy. I could snooze my way across Europe missing all the road signs, and would only have to look at the specific precarious balancing angle of that drawer to make an educated guess as to how far west or east we were. Suffice to say in Bulgaria I had to wedge that drawer shut with a stick I got so fed up getting out the van to shut it tight again.

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We hit rush hour in Sofia, which amounts to any time in and around the radial roads. Despite the rest of the country losing its population and with a negative growth rate, Sofia continues to boom and expand. It is a central amoeba, sucking in its countrymen (and plenty of foreign industries) through a centripetal force. However, the centre remains oddly low rise and provincial, with the multi gold-domed St. Alexander Nevski cathedral sitting comfortably squat across the plaza of yellow ceramic cobbles (ordered specially from Budapest) along from the parliament buildings, across from the street artists with religious curios and the vintage Russian army kit sellers.

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We spend a few days in the suburban apartment of Tiddler’s great aunt and uncle, who as is typical feed us extremely well and eventually send us on our way a few pounds heavier. Tiddler is in seventh heaven as the twelve year old son of Digger’s cousin has come to stay from England for the Easter holidays. A three year old girl might not be the normal playmate of choice, but M took it all in his stride and the pair of them were soon tearing round the rooms with a mix of Bulgarian and English cries of glee and roaring of dinosaur teeth and waving of tiny little dinosaur hands. To save Aunty from an early grave we spent a day at the incredibly well presented children’s interactive museum Museko, which didn’t stop the mayhem but meant everyone got a rest from T-Rex impressions.

 

 

From here we hit the road, making a last stopover before Greece in the border village of Melnik. This aspirational little place wasn’t content with its amazing sandstone cliffs and pinnacles as a draw for tourists and amateur painters alike, but thought it had better invest in some high quality wine production too. We try samples in an underground wine cellar, where Digger’s palate coincides with that of Winston Churchill, who ordered a particular product of the region by the barrel load. I suggest to Digger this may be a symptom of an addled, rather than a refined taste for wine. Back out in the bright sunshine, I’m more interested in the wide flood management channel that divides the two sides of the main street, not from a geographical view an more but rather after all those snifters in the wine cellars I’m concerned I might fall in.

 

 

 

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In the late evening sun we also visited the humble medieval Rozhen monastery a few kilometres uphill from Melnik. The sparseness of the decor (aside from the church itself) was a welcome and peaceful change after the more showy and famous Rila monastery. Tiddler drank water from a copper cup on a chain at a fountain, and tied a final martenitsa on a blossoming tree.
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We ate the last of our ridiculously cheap Bulgarian restaurant meals, including a mountain of thick buffalo yogurt topped with a blueberry compote, and then headed southwards to Greece.

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You can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs

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

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

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

 

Images from powerling.com and zikata.wordpress.com

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

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Image above from BG Vestnik

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

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

 

 

 


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Ciao, Bulgaria.

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

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

 


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

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

 


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

 


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


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The Bulgarian job: Greece # 1

What do you do if you can’t speak the language but know your final destination is Bulgaria? In Bari, our final stop in Italy, Digger plays a game of follow the BG car and lorry registration plates. He’s right, and we easily get to the ferry port despite the majestically convoluted one way systems in place.

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He jumps down from Leo and chats to the Bulgaria truckers in their cabs, and finds out the latest news and technical details of the embarkation. These long distance drivers have come from all over Europe, shuttling their loads through countries and weeks. Many travel in pairs, so one sleeps as the other drives thus ensuring no delay on the items they are shifting. There is an edge of competitiveness, each trying to outdo each other with tales of their speeds at covering certain routes, and dismissing those who achieve it in less time as simple rookies. They are away from their homes for six weeks at a time, and carry photos of their children stuck on their cab dashboards. Their salaries are around €1000 a month, three times a typical Bulgarian wage. You can see why they tolerate the working conditions.

At the check in we show our passports for the first time since being on UK soil, and then have a few hours to spare before we can board. We head for a long lunch into the town centre to while away the time until the night crossing. The newer part of the city of Bari , the Murat quarter, is built on a strict block system, and is filled with high end fashion shops and Italians drinking coffee, and the parks are filled with (we assume, perhaps wrongly) African immigrants using the free wifi and waiting. We prefer the old town Barivecchia which is the original settlement between the two harbours. It is a veritable maze of buildings and narrow cobbled streets, where people open their kitchen doors straight onto the streets and cook on gas burners in alleyways. We see three generations of women sitting round tables rolling, pinching and drying pasta together, while the men sit in the cafes and let their opinions disperse through the passageways. We visit the 11th century Basillica and view the relics of St. Nicholas, and chat to Sicilian monks on holiday.

By the time dusk begins to fall, we load ourselves back into Leo and attempt to follow the directions to the actual ferry. The port is a mini-city in itself, and we are sent into a seeming dead end in a trucking graveyard. The truckers shift and reverse and wave us forwards to squeeze through tiny gaps, it is a free for all medley and the port authorities seem little bothered by the hodgepodge fashion in how we get on board. We are a little lost campervan amongst a sea of juggernauts. We finally get on board, and hook up to the electric. We have chosen the cheaper ‘camping on board option’ which means we  will sleep in Leo on the deck rather than pay for a cabin. The crossing from Bari to Igoumenitsa is eight hours through the night, and we squeeze up past the huge greasy vehicles to get up to the main lounges for an evening meal amongst the truckers. They are loading themselves up with huge plates of beetroot salad and moussaka and red wine. Alcohol turns out to be necessary to lull us of to sleep later given the droning thump of the engines beneath us.

We arrive in the port town of Igoumenitsa at 4.30am. We drive and park on the prom, and wait for morning to arrive. The day is a national holiday, and the Greeks have clearly been out celebrating the night before with the knowledge of not having to work today.  Out-all-night revellers stop to wave through the windows at Tiddler, and ladies with high heels and shiny clothes do the greek equivalent of the morning walk of shame home in their party clothes. The first rain in weeks suddenly arrives and within half an hour the streets are awash, water funnelling down the streets and out into the harbour. We understand why the pavements are so high in comparison to the roads. Later, the morning’s weather is soon forgotten as we set up camp on a little spit of land that is surrounded on all sites by a narrow beach. The sun shines, and we spend a few days doing nothing but dig sandcastles and swim in the perfectly clear sea. Tiddler collects shells by the bucketload, and our peace is only slightly disturbed by the arrival of a convoy of caravans and motorhomes from Ireland, who turn out to all be part of an extended family and spend a disproportionate amount of time shouting at each other and their dogs. We move to the other end of the campsite and peace returns.


From here we travel on to Thessaloniki, the second largest city in Greece. We see nothing here, only the inside of a hotel room, as Tiddler goes into meltdown and flatly refuses to walk anywhere. There are famous roman architectural sites, and the white tower, and market places, but only if you are visiting without a truculent toddler in tow. We decide to move on, knowing we have plenty of opportunities to drop back down into Greece from Bulgaria when the weather is better and Tiddler is more willing.

So we head north, through the plains of Serres where the biting winds rattle Leo’s doors and the bleached out fields look as dry and pale as the cotton growing there. We stop for lunches in border towns where people finish eating direct from paper tablecloths and jump straight into their tractors that they have left parked on the kerb. We take the twisting turns into the Rodopi mountains, and arrive at the Bulgarian border.

Next post: Digger’s black humour predictions about life in Bulgaria are proved to be true.


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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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Europe on a shoestring?

It has become glaringly clear that the cheapest way to get to Bulgaria is not overland. We know the delightfully named Wizz Air and the like hop across with flights from London to Sofia at less than £100, but not only would that have severely restricted Tiddler’s books, toys and random paraphernalia that we could have brought, but would have meant we  would have gone straight from living with one set of grandparents (lovely as they are) slap bang into the welcoming arms of the others. We needed a little bit of a time out, as well as the opportunity to explore and experience a road trip.

Financially speaking then, let’s cut to the chase. Campsites with the discount ACSI card average around €17 per night. However it is a definite lottery as to what you finally end up paying as the French in particular have made the system so unfathomable (even with handy billboard size tables of rates on the walls for the brave or foolhardy to try and tot up for themselves). Here is the easy bit; rates vary according to high or low season. Then factor in number of people, extra people, children above a certain age, children below a certain age, dogs, tents for dogs, electric hook up or not, caravan, campervan, campervan above a certain length, motorhome, motorcycle trailer, other trailer, extra car, standard pitch size, large pitch size, grass pitch, hard standing and the list goes on ad infinitum. Then don’t forget to add on the tax on top for the final figure owed. We gave up trying to understand the system, and clearly some exasperated campsite owners had done the same and declared to us a flat fee on arrival, ignoring both Tiddler’s presence and tax in one fell swoop. Tres bon for the thrifty minded camper.

Digger’s French is not up to much, so he has taken to wearing a t-shirt that – provided he puts on a quizzical look and points to himself – mean we should end up with somewhere to kip at the end of the day.

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Sites vary immensely in terms of facilities, with heated or indoor pools in some and free wifi, right down to no toilet paper (not that it hadn’t been restocked, there simply wasn’t dispensers for the paper in the stalls in the first place) in others. Bizarrely, quite a number of the french toilet blocks had piped musak or local radio constantly on the go. I wondered if this was some sort of french intellectual cultural tradition, to ponder world politics while carrying out your morning ablutions, or perhaps a matter of french delicacy to mask those slightly embarrassing bodily sounds. Either way, a little bit of toilet paper would surely have not gone amiss.

We chose to hand wash our clothes as the weather was perfect for drying them even overnight, but some sites also had washing machines and tumble driers for a few euros a pop. Others organised pre-ordered deliveries of croissants and baguettes just in time for breakfast every day- again slightly more expensive a purchase but a welcome treat. The best savings to be made on food and drink were local markets in village squares for fresh produce, and Super U, Lidl and Carrefour for one euro cartons of wine. Digger and I make no claims at appreciating fine wines, and are more than happy with a cut price glassful, which we were consistently pleasantly surprised by.

Our main expenditure therefore was (aside from the sites themselves, which many motorhomers avoid by using lay-bys and service stations) the diesel for Leo (pricey given the mileage) and a few toll payments on the motorways (when Digger got fed up of traffic through the more built up areas). Tourists genuinely getting out and about and seeing attractions would also end up paying out for entrance fees and honeypot-priced food and drink, whereas with Tiddler’s attention span we spent more time pottering about making our own entertainment, and unofficially eating packed lunches where we probably shouldn’t. However Tiddler once spent a solid hour and a half making her own version of a jigsaw puzzle by matching acorns to their original acorn cups. This epic task was not for the faint hearted, and no doubt far better for her at this age than anything a museum or free wifi could provide.

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Low -cost things therefore we are so glad we brought with us: the paddling pool, the ACSI card, Tiddler’s bug shoes (in and out and in and out of the van, and then in and out again), the old scooter, sarongs instead of towels for speedy drying, a stove top kettle, sleep masks to block out the early morning light… though of course we also brought lots of things we probably won’t use at all until we get to Bulgaria, and in the meantime clutter up Leo.

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“The best teacher is experience and not through someone’s distorted point of view”

“Better to sleep in an uncomfortable bed free, than sleep in a comfortable bed unfree.”

Jack Kerouac, On the Road


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Warriors and wilderness : France #4

Next for our viewing pleasure, we travel uphill for what seems like the first time since entering the country. The landscape of Normany, Brittany and the Atlantic coastline had been incredibly flat, ideally suited to the agricultural production that seems to dominate – apples, sunflowers and the like- we even knew when we were passing fields of onions or leeks as the warm humidity filled Leo with an aromatic fuzz. The Dordogne made way to gently undulating hills, sporting vineyards like regiments of soldiers in perfectly straight lines, evidence of meticulous mathematical planning. Woe betide the vine that dares to grow a little bit scraggily.

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Now though we are climbing into the national park area of upper Langedoc. Here the roads twist and coil their way through serious craggy country, and wild olives and the stripped bark of cork and eucalyptus take centre stage. We wait for beret wearing old men to drive herds of sheep across the red dusty roads.

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The campsites are deserted or boarded up. We thought the coastal areas were quiet out of season, but this place has shut down, all except the racing circuit at Castellet, and the roads that surround it. At every corner (and there are many on this winding trail across the Black mountains) we observe wilted bouquets, and cairns, and epitaths to the dead. The modern love for speed jars with the slow, traditional beauty of the landscape they must pass by in a blur. We stay in Montelieu, and visit the fairy tale-esque Cite at Carcasonne. A mish mash of Gaul, Roman, Moor and Cathar fortifications, with a healthy dollop of tinkering by the 19th architect Viollet-le-Duc it is easy to see why this has been used for many film sets, and why tourists flock from all over to buy plastic helmets and swords for their children, and blow their ciggarette smoke out against the ramparts over their coffee and galettes.

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Tiddler of course is more interested in the warrior living statue making a few euros in the carpark, and the Italian brothers offering hand machine stiched merchandise. They sew her name on a piece of card for her, quicker than I could write it. It reminds me of roadside tailors in India, with such skill and dexterity that their labour appears as chorographed as a piano recital, should one have the time to marvel at it.

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From there we continue eastwards, visiting Arles, Varjas and Mandelieu. This is all fairly indistinguishable. The growth of seaside resorts along the Meditteranean has led to a conglomeration of urban conurbations, with apartment blocks springing up, We enjoy beatiful days on the beach, swim in the sea and enjoy the glorious warmth of the sun in October, but the environment is as claustrophobic as the many tunnels we whizz through to avoid Marseilles, and Cannes, and Nice, and Monaco. We are clearly not of the same ilk as the thousands who flock there.

We take a short detour to Saint Tropez, unexpectedly coinciding with a Porsche rally. We see plenty of low sleek cars, and wide sleek yachts, and low slung sleek golden glowed folk-about-town, but we spend the walk around constantly lifting Tiddler up to avoid the dog mess that carpets the hallowed streets of Saint Tropez. Dick Wittingdon this certainly isn’t. We journey on.

Next posts: how is our budget actually doing, and Au revoir France and Buon giorno Italia!


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Trois, deux, un, allez!

Finally, we are off! (in two days time). Keen readers will know we have been semi-thwarted with various obstacles- the V5C logbook/registration document being sent by the DVLA not once, but twice (!), with spelling mistakes in Digger’s name. Leo’s insurance being cancelled with no notice as our island driving licences were deemed ‘irregular’, which then led to other companies not wanting to insure us as we ‘had had insurance cancelled’ and therefore were clearly tainted and downright suspicious. The insurance company not paying back the full payment as promised. Fair to say, I have spent quite a lot of time being passively-aggressive on the telephone recently.

Meanwhile, getting off my high horse. Ferry booked, Leo loaded, and even (due to Granny Westcountry assuming we would have been gone already, meaning she has booked B&B guests into the rooms we have been using over the last few weeks) we are now living in Leo. This isn’t I’m afraid as ‘on the road’ as it sounds, instead rather ‘on the driveway at Granny’s house’. This has serious perks though as we can get used to the rhythm of campervan life, moving around each other in a (sometimes) beautifully choreographed flow of sidestepping each other, waiting for a cupboard to be closed, and passing things through multiple hands. It also means we are still popping in for cuppas whenever we feel like it, full board in terms of food and meals supplied, and Tiddler still gets the run of the house and garden. But this is all the equivalent of ‘playing dens’ as children.

Until we wave a farewell to the Westcountry at Silly o’clock on Monday morning we won’t really know how prepared we actually are. Digger has been poking around with the gas bottle all morning before going for a haircut, clearly feeling the need to make a good impression on the local Cherbourg populace when he arrives, regardless of whether we have a working cooker. I’ve been researching campsites and swotting up on my GCSE French, and packing plenty of teabags as you just know the continental ones won’t taste right and some things are sacrosanct. Tiddler has been finding more snails and trying to smuggle them into the van. I’m not sure if EU regulations have anything about that in the small print, but clearly it’s a no from me.

In terms of how we are feeling then, it is a mixture of anxious enthusiasm. I feel I have been neglecting Tiddler, which defeats the whole object of taking this time out from work, and normal life as we know it. I have been on the internet researching, or in the van packing, or in the hardware shop purchasing. I haven’t sat down just the two of us, to make a craft or play a game for days. She isn’t worried of course as has had cousins and auntie and grandparents to fawn upon and be entertained by, and I accept that this is really part of the overall goal too, and a great bonus for her. She will be stuck with just us soon enough, but I realise how easy it is to ‘miss’ my own child, even when I see her all the time. I’ve perhaps got a little too used to island life where I was without doubt the most important person to her. I’m very aware that this is of course just the beginning of the transition into her being her own person, and it is a a journey best not to think too much about at this time.

The bonne voyage of course to consider right now is this- the very roughly hewn plan is head through Normandy, down the west coast of France, and then along through the southern regions. Cross into Italy, where we shall try and visit two sets of island friends- one couple taking a year out to work in a school near Parma, and another couple who will be holidaying for a week, destination as yet unkown. Ferry across to Greece, amble our way through there and arrive in Bulgaria at Baba and Dyado’s house sometime in November.

Sounds good.

Please feel free to post any advice, comments, places to visit, things to see……

 


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Pimping my ride : Leo

The latest on Leo’s overhaul- Digger found both a flat battery and a leaky water connection when he wired Leo up to the mains, but all now resolved (we hope for good). I finally had my maiden voyage in The good ship Leo (only down to the petrol station and back) and then we carried on getting things ready.

Digger has tried out the sleeping accomodation, spending a night on the driveway while Tiddler and I were tucked up asleep in the house.

Verdict, comfy but cold. The second week of September and that is the UK weather, unless we wrap ourselves in tinfoil in there it is going to be cool at night. 9 degrees he said, at silly o’clock when he got up to christen the porta potty. Thank goodness we are going south, but we do need to get going, and note to self: hot water bottle. I also realised that all my white bedlinen is not the most practical thing to be heading off in a campervan with, but it is what we have got, and no point in buying new.

He has also finished Tiddler’s bunk, in the end without the ‘stolen’ chair legs.  It is more satisfy that it is all in wood, though now with a hinged support is is heavier, but still will sit flat under the side seat during the day.

 

We realised however that by the time the mattress (a sun lounger cushion borrowed from Granny (Hoarder) and Papa (Snoozer) inside an old sheet sewn up into a sort of giant pillowcase) is on the bunk, plus pillow, Tiddler, and duvet, she is fairly high up from the double bed below. As Tiddler is also ‘Wriggler’, we now needed a solution to keep her in the bunk.

In the end we came up with what I explained to the others as ‘the windbreak design’. This gave me the chance to make another thrifty item at no cost to us – a piece of old window blind fabric, an old broom handle (that Digger had brought with him from the island- goodness only knows what he was thinking he would use it for at the time!), and the chance to use my mother’s lovely old Singer sewing machine, complete with a random box of sewing paraphernalia as part of the hygge factor. The final picture show it before I sewed in the last baton, but hopefully you get the idea. The broom handle pieces can just be pushed down into the holes in the main bed board after she falls asleep, so we still can do goodnight stories, but she isn’t going to attempt to crowd surf us in the middle of the night.

While this was going on, Digger took a break to fashion something else out of wood. My parents have a bit of a seagull problem. The tealeaf-ing gulls get in through the chicken doors to the sheds, and peck and eat the hens eggs. Friends have suggested nets or awnings overhead but the seagulls will still land and walk in, a dead gull hanging up (!), and blowing eggs and filling the empty shells with mustard or chilli sauce as a decoy, which sounds pretty epic but fiddly. So Digger put together a little roosting box with a double slope so in theory the eggs should roll down and under a second board, so the gulls can’t get to them but we can. In place this evening, so will have to see whether it works, and whether even the hens will take to it as a place to sit.

My next job has been carpet fitting. Again using an old off cut we had, with Papa in the background back seat directing with ‘measure twice, cut once’, and Digger extolling the virtues of the correct way to cut with a stanley knife to avoid impaling myself,  I then had to get my head round the reverse maths of cutting on the back to then flip over to fit.Not exactly a perfect job, but given the wierd shape of the floor space I’m pretty darn chuffed with my attempt.

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In non Leo related news, Tiddler and I have been playing playgroup roulette, trying out various groups in the neighbourhood to give her a bit of ‘other children’ time.  Tiddler has tried out the local pool, and managed full immersion for the first time, albeit while laying on her tummy underwater on a shallow step. She has learnt to say ‘ramsbottom’ and ‘bonzo’ and other random sayings of my father. I have had emails from work colleagues asking how we are doing and telling me that the start of the new term is pretty much like always. Digger and I hold hands on the sofa and smile a quiet smile at each other while we are watching TV with my parents. We are busy, but not tired. We are planning, but not stressed. I ask Tiddler in the morning what she dreamt of. ‘It was you Mama, dancing.’

 

 

[Motorhomers out there- still open to suggestions and ideas you may have of things we should take, or things we should know before we set off. Particularly any legal requirments for Europe we might not be aware of? Any comments welcome please- thank you!]

 

 


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Hop on the bus, Gus

No need to discuss much? What was Paul Simon thinking when he penned those lines? If Digger and I, with the added matured-with-age input of Granny and Papa Westcountry are anything to go by, any attempt to hop on a bus needs plenty of discussion, pontificating, and generally going round in verbal circles. Hopefully Digger and I will still be speaking to each other when we finally do hit the road otherwise it’s going to be an awfully quiet journey all the way to Bulgaria.

Update needed I think on where we are at. We have welcomed into our family a new addition. Hello to Leo!

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Leo (named by the previous owners and we didn’t bother to question why- reasons no doubt lost in obscurity) is a converted minbus. The chap we bought it from scavenged and stripped an old caravan, using all the fittings to kit out Leo with a fridge, oven and hob, sink, double bed, toilet and all the expected storage units. It is clearly a DIY conversion, but that makes it a little bit quirky. We hestitated handing over our hard earned and saved cash, considering whether Leo would have any re-sale value, but in the end we decided better to buy now and get going, rather than sit and wait for the perfect motorhome to turn up for sale while we may still be drumming our heels here at Christmas. So we now have Leo, possible warts and all.

In order to seat Tiddler safely, in a three-way seat belt for her car seat, we have had to lock in an additional minibus seat into the floor, which unfortunately blocks access to the fridge. Digger and the previous owner conferred and have worked out a system where the whole seat can be slid backwards and forwards, at least allowing us to use the fridge when we need to, but looks like we’ll probably end up storing random stuff in there instead of food!

Next on the hit list of upgrades is a bed for Tiddler. The original conversion has just a (smallish) double bed, and while we could squeeze Tiddler in with us no-one will get much sleep with that option. So Digger (he is so excited as now has a genuine reason to get his tools out and tinker around in the garden with a pencil behind his ear!) is trying various plans to make and secure a raised bunk. This should go above our bed, but still needs to be dismantled and ideally store flat so it doesn’t clog up our limited space. The two benches/sofas that become the double bed are here in this picture, with a plan for a raised bunk on the right hand side.

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Inkeeping with our thrifty ways, we managed to find a suitable board to take Tiddler’s weight jammed in the roof space in Papa’s garage, and then found a couple of old dumped chairs in the corner of a carpark. I’d spotted them abandoned a few days previously and walked past without a thought, till Digger mentioned he needed some sort of stand to support the bed. Guerilla chair stealing moments later, Digger is chopping them up on the lawn, taking the metal legs as bed supports while Tiddler steals the brown seat and sets up an impromtu musical concert with herself as the star performer.

Sounds good so far, though Digger has come in shaking his head tonight and so the bunk may need a little rethink before I can post up the finished article. Plenty of opportunties of course for us all to have our pennyworth on the best way to do it. Don’t even get me started on the negotiations regarding the best way to fit the curtain to save anyone’s blushes (our own, or random Gallic passers by) around the ‘bathroom’ area.

In the mean time, I’m beginning to sort through our boxes, packing into Leo things we think we need. We are of course complete novices at the motorhoming lark, though I have survived plenty of kayak wild camps and expeditions, and Scouting in the past, so I am pretty handy with setting up a tent and brewing a cuppa on a trangia. But now I have a whole vehicle to pack, I’m a bit stumped. We are not sure when to cut back (I really don’t need all those t-shirts) and when to splurge (I am taking a pair of wine glasses) so that we actually enjoy the experience. It shouldn’t all be masochistic minimalism. China plates or plastic? Duvets or sleeping bags?
We still don’t have a plan for when we get to Bulgaria, so we don’t know what we need for that, let alone what we will need for the journey. My very good friend, found on her blog here, has started writing lists for me of things to consider. Carbon monoxide alarms. Washing lines and pegs. Hot water bottle. Maps.

We are now motivated for the off, to get on that (mini)bus, Gus, but we are still waiting. Waiting for confirmation that Digger’s island driving licence is valid with the insurance. Waiting for the V5C vehicle logbook to be sent back. Still waiting for Digger to be able to get a bank account.

So my philosophy for today is, that it is very true that a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. What you need to watch out for is that someone hasn’t tied your shoelaces together before you even start.