the skinflint philosopher

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


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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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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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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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Amici, Romans and countrymen: Italy 3

From the (hopefully) healing waters and sparkling air of Cerravezza Terme, we continue on a slightly less tortuous route, fortunately given the dense fog that has descended overnight, down the other side of the Apennines and into Reggio de Emilia.

 

In a town that has rather been benevolently neglected due to the twin sisters on either side of it of Parma and Bologna, we are fortunate to spend time and have a guided tour from two friends and colleagues who themselves are taking a sabbatical here for a year. They have been residents of Reggio a few months, enough to find a wonderfully high ceiling-ed rental flat above a hidden courtyard behind a huge stone archway and facade, and purchase just enough crockery and furniture to be comfortable, and find work in a local language school. Even so they regale us with their thankfully unfounded fear that they would be permanently sofa surfing with airbnb for the year. Despite their fluency in Italian, the bureaucracy gears that were needed to move rental agreements, and parking permits, and Brexit spanners in the works for potential employment, all took time to get resolved. Tiddler is joyous that she has found old friends in the middle of this strange journey across Europe. We ourselves enjoy it even more so, conversation, good company and being ordered for in restaurants and the compulsory gelato shop, without struggling to translate the menus for a change. I eat deliciously sweet pumpkin ravioli, and given that the region is famous for its meat, Digger devours a platter of smoked hams and salami. In the icecream shop, we perch on white-painted log stumps while Tiddler tries almost fluorescent pink forest fruits, I take sharp lemon and figs in ricotta flavours, while Digger manages to consume a chocolate ice cream so rich it gleams as slick as a ganache under the shop lights.
In the park, as a promotion advertising a new museum exhibition ‘The way of the road’, we stumble across another reminder of the history of this country. Tiddler occupies herself admiring swords and beards, and collects conkers to add to her acorn collection, and waves our friends a wistful Ciao when it it time to move on.

 

From Reggio we travel on southwards, stopping in Bologna to potter round the square, eat pizza slices and spicy courgette dumplings. The police are out in force, and we wonder if this is normal, or a symptom of ongoing fear of terrorist attacks in crowded public places.

 

Parking is difficult and costly and we have taken to leaving Leo in the car parks of the huge cemeteries to visit the towns where it is much easier to manoeuvre. My father has talked for many years of visiting Milan and also Palermo to try and research and track down records of his family tree, but visiting these cemeteries confirms it is a mammoth task he would be undertaking, and I do not think it is a viable project for his age now. There are tombs and plaques stretching out, row upon row. The numerous flower stalls and sellers at the entrance had seemed superfluous, until we realised the scale of just this one premises, where a step ladder on wheels is a necessary requirement when you come to pay your respects.

 

Digger’s recent diagnosis of carpal tunnel syndrome (years of using power tools has begun to take it’s toll) seemed worsening with the regular driving, and we decide to try and cover more mileage on the autostrada, the Italian motorway. This would not only reduce the driving time, but also reduce the amount of turns and rotations he needs to make with the steering wheel. These roads would have made the Romans proud.

imageThe autostrada system is quite clear, take a ticket from the machine on entry to the motorway,  and on exit the ticket works out the cost, and you pay. It is all automated, instructions can be in your language of choice, and it has all worked perfectly fine so far the few stretches we used them in France and just across the border into Italy. We had confidently negotiated the problem that Leo is too high to be at the car height buttons, and too low to be at the lorry height buttons, so I (being the passenger as we are a right hand drive), have to carry out a series of yoga stretches with my whole torso out the window with Tiddler holding my legs for balance in order to operate the system. We also worked out the confusion that France has blue signs for toll motorways and green for free route, whereas Italy has the complete opposite, clearly to lull unwary motorhomers into paying unexpected charges. So we were feeling fairly confident by this stage. Picture the scene. Digger drives up to the booth. I launch myself out the window as normal, and press the button for the ticket. No ticket. I press the button again. No ticket. No ticket. Car behind beeps. Still no ticket. Lorry trundles up behind. There is no option to reverse. Digger is visibly sweating, if only I could see it, but my head is halfway down the side of the van. The barrier goes up, without issuing a ticket. Digger puts his foot down and drives through with me scrabbling back into my seat with a bump. And this is how we end up on the autostrada without a valid ticket.
“Not to worry, we’ll sort it out at the other end” is our mantra of the day. Four hours later we pull up at the exit booths, gratefully seeing this is unusually manned.  Manned by a non-English speaker however. We wave our hands and point and try and explain. We give the name of the junction we entered, and point and wave and hand signal a bit more. The chap sees the light and turns to his computer. He prints us a receipt for 73 euros. We are flabbergasted. We repeat the name of the junction, in higher pitched voices. Bear in mind this is all happening with me in my favourite leaning-out-of-the-van yoga pose. He takes Digger’s driving licence details, and gets out to write down the registration number, which all now gets entered into the computer too. “ponto blu” he repeats at us again and again, along with a whole host of other things we can’t understand. “ponto blu, ponto blu!” He waves the receipt. Tiddler shouts “pontu blu, pontu blu!” It is clear on all sides we are getting nowhere.
He conceded defeat and writes €17.20 underneath the receipt. We hand this over. He wants Digger’s signature. He lifts the barrier, calling “ponto blu” forlornly after us as we drive off.
Some time later, our nerves steadied with the best falafel wrap I have ever tasted, from a Pakinstani shop where the owner give Tiddler slices of kebab straight off the rotating skewer while we wait, and whose whole face lights up when we say we are from England. He talks about Sadiq Khan with a misty eyed glow of delight. We learn from him we need to go to a Ponto Blu office, the administration for the autostrada system. Fearing we still need to pay a €73 fine for not having a ticket, we are pleasantly surprised if a little confused when the following day at the Punto Blu we hand over our receipt, the bespectacled man taps his computer, Digger signs another paper, and the matter is resolved. It seems that without a ticket you are liable for the whole stretch of motorway toll to prevent people losing their tickets on purpose. Once our registration plates were checked by the autostrada entrance photo recognition system, we were off the hook. Tiddler, in some act of defiance for the stress and inconvenience, did a wee in the Punto Blu car park and we hustled her into the van before we got fined for that too.

 

The Republic of San Marino was a clear tourist destination, with American cruise goers popping up from Rimini port to waste their time there queuing up to pay five euros to get their passport stamped with the official (though unnecessary) border pass. Like Le Mont St. Michel in France, the town of San Marino itself was historically and architecturally fascinating, but full of random shops as a glorified duty free location. Whether leather bags, souvenirs or guns, it was all there on display.

 

It also hosts various museums, including the museum of vampires, and the museum of curiosities, both of which seemed out of place in this hill top fort. We spotted the guards, and took the cable car, and Digger heard some snatches of Bulgarian conversations around him. “We are getting closer” he said, “I’m not sure how I feel about that”.

 

Tiddler befriends a German couple who give her an Italian deck of cards with its forty cards and random pictures of coins and cups. They try and teach us a game but the rules get lost in translation. We move on through Pescara, to Bari. The ferry is waiting for us.

 

Next post: crossing the Adriatic sea and follow the BG plates!


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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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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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Two steps forwards one step back

Sorry there has not been much philosophising of late or even that much thriftiness. It is all going on behind the scenes, just not getting it out to you!

I’ve managed to grab a few minutes laptop time just before dusk fall when I have to go and put the chickens to bed. Granny and Papa Westcountry have headed out for a night on the razz watching Ralph McTell at a local folk festival (of interest to you perhaps, ‘Yeah, another blogger’?), Digger and his father Dyado Bulgaria have headed off to London Gatwick to put Dyado on a plane home after a week visit here to the bedlam (what must he think of his first visit to our quirky ‘British’ family!) and Tiddler is off in the land of nod dreaming of promised jellies and cake as tomorrow is her third birthday.  I tried explaining the concept of a year, and that three had passed since she was born. ‘Papa is very old’ she says seriously. ‘My {sic} think he will be dead soon. Shall we put some flowers on him?’ Clearly the visit to the grave of Great Grandad Billy (who lived to 100) a few days ago in the old village church is still giving her food for thought. Explaining time, and death and all those sort of abstract concepts to a small child are never going to be straightforward. I suppose we muddle through as best we can, and hope it all make sense in the end.

Tomorrow will actually be a triple celebration, as Tiddler, my sister (Auntie B), and our own Aunt (Auntie K) all share the same date of birth- September 3rd. I don’t know what the probability statistics are for that, but we found the two pretty impressive even before Tiddler popped out on her due date.  Tiddler of course is still young enough to be happy with balloons, jelly and a couple of presents to open. Our thriftiness this year is logical too- we would rather spend money once we arrive in Bulgaria to replace toys and items we have had to leave behind.

Speaking of which, our offer on the cottage was pipped at the post by another vendor. Disappointed in a way, but relieved in an other. The money can sit in the bank (though I have since caught Digger scrolling through commercial woodland plots for auction like a secretive little woodmouse) and we are now back to the original plan i.e. motorhome hunting. As complete newbies, we are a little bit bamboozled by all the little fold out compartments- all very Japanese urban living to my way of thinking- and were toying with the idea of splashing out (!) on an expensive van (£25,000!!) with the logic it would retain a high value on resale. Then problems ensued with seatbelts (legality and safety for Tiddler’s car seat) so we knocked that idea on the head and our bank balance breathed a sigh of relief. Back to square one. But, we think we have found the van-to-be, in the end not five miles up the road from us. It is in keeping I think, with our hodge podge approach in general to this adventure. It is a converted minibus, a labour of love where the retired couple who are selling it have stripped out the seats and rebuilt it from scratch. It is not refined, or modern, or even with everything you might expect to find in a motorhome. We think it might do the job. Digger listened patiently and with interest as the chap in his cricket umpire hat talked him through the minutae of the gadgets. There is another empty van sitting on their driveway, which is to be the project mark 2. I sat in the seating area with the lady and talked cooking and curtains. The sun shone through the (many) minibus windows (hence the importance of curtains). We are back on Monday with Tiddler to double check seating arrangements for her will work, and then it might be time for cheque books out.

Digger smiles.’ We could be off in a couple of weeks!’
Yes, when insurance is sorted, and ferry booked, and all manner of other things organised, including all our random boxes of stuff in the sheds. Maps and guide books are in hand, and I’ve just requested the European health cards for us all- what else do I need to do? Am I missing anything obvious?
Motorhomees, and campervanners-  please share advice you wished you’d been given before you set out please?