the skinflint philosopher

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


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How to set up a life in three weeks

Landing on the wharf in the UK with nothing at all concrete about where we would live, what we would do, how things would work out, it has all gone rather swimmingly well:

1. I was incredibly seasick and suffered for 10 days with mal de debarquement after our 23 hour ferry crossing returning from our road trip across Europe. Tiddler kept herself amused with Granny and Papa Westcountry who were hosting us. Leo remained packed, our stuff remained in storage, and we lived out of a bag of ‘stuff’ in my parent’s spare room.
2. Ten hours after arriving, Digger secured himself 4 days a week work gardening/landscaping with a local company. (We arrived at 11pm, and he went for an interview at 9am the following morning. Thankfully gardening type interviews are not that fussed if you turn up looking like you have just lived in a campervan for a month. Fortunately).
3. Five days after returning, I went for a whole day interview at a school round the corner from my parents (rather more formally attired than Digger had been). This included two observed lessons aswell as the formal interview, all of which was rather tricky when my sea legs meant I felt I was on the swell every time I moved an inch. Despite my fear of looking like I was bobbing up and down worse than the Churchill dog, I succeeded, and will be on a one year contract (part time) from September 2018 teaching my subject, geography. Tiddler will be able to attend a preschool on the same site, so all is looking rosy as long as I can keep her entertained till then.
4. After the interview, Digger and I meet up to view a rental property. It is pokey and small and we cannot believe the prices in this locality. The estate agent however turns out to be an old flame of sorts of my sister, and he suggests we look across the road at a property on for more money. He doesn’t have the keys on him so we peer through the window. and jimmy open the back gate. We phone up the following morning and offer 10% less than the asking price, given that we can move in immediately. The landlord jumps at the chance.
5. The following Friday we move in, after much messing about as everyone’s computer says no. We have no income records for the last year. Digger”s records of employment are from our little island and the checks won’t go outside the UK. Digger doesn’t have a bank account ( he couldn’t open one in the UK last summer without ID, and he couldn’t get ID without a UK utility bill, or UK driving licence). Our credit rating is not actually low, it just simply doesn’t exist in their paper trail. Eventually estate agent ex lover-boy and landlord see sense and knock all of that on the head. I’m a teacher gawd darnit; I must be respectable.
6. Leo comes into his own again, as he now doubles as a removal van. Fourteen days after our arrival in the UK we spend our first night in our new home, albeit sleeping on Leo’s mattresses on the floor. We have no furniture.
7. My good friend puts out a plea on social media, that is answered with a rally cry from this market town that is very bohemian/hipster/new age and more. As she puts it, ‘Wow, when I moved there I really had to up my game to stand out!’. I scour the freebie sites and those on facebook buying and selling. I raid my parents shed. In the end we get for absolute free, by hook or by crook: a dining table, 4 dining chairs, a leather sofa, a footrest, a flatscreen TV (Digger thinks he’ll hook it up to the laptop- we don’t have a licence and not had a TV at home for years, but it was offered with the sofa so we didn’t want to say no), a dresser, a bureau, a single bed and mattress, a wicker chair, a sewing machine table to double as a desk, a office chair, a slimline dishwasher, a tiny freezer, a chest of drawers, curtains and a potted geranium.
We cough up 50 pounds for a washing machine, 20 pounds for a fridge, and eventually a whopping 379 for the most beautiful mattress in the world. We are still sleeping on it on the floor though as I type this. No progress on the bed front, but it is far more comfortable than Leo’s mattresses that had to be bound in place with a strategically placed fitted sheet to prevent Digger waking up on the other side of the room at 3am.
(Please excuse the lack of pound signs- this is being typed on Digger”s Bulgarian keyboard and I can’t find the symbol!)
8. We spend time with old friends. We scour the lists of playgroups, and events, and programmes and try them all. The weather burns bright and hot. We plant french beans, and courgettes in the garden, and set up buckets of tomato plants in the conservatory. We relax.
9. Digger gets the first of word-of-mouth work, and takes on additional private customers and odd jobs on top of his four days. I sign up for a Saturday summer job, being a housekeeper for a three bedroom house that is moonlighting as a holiday cottage. The owners are due to set off on a road trip through Europe at the end of July, and the house is let every week through till October. I offer them tips of life on the road, and they promise to pay me to keep their guests happy. Digger plans on having Saturday as a Bulgarian language day for him and Tiddler, but we still have to see how it all pans out. We are in the finer points of negotiation at the moment, such as whether the welcome tea tray should have biscuits or scones on it. They are the other end of the spectrum from us, with our free furniture and converted minibus. I shall think of them off in their deluxe van while I am busy polishing the fiddly bits on their grandfather clocks.

To do list:
Get Digger a work van. Poor Leo is not cut out for all that green waste on his lovely carpet, and branches up his inner cupboards.
Get the garage sorted as Digger’s man lair i.e. wood workshop.
Get crafting- what can I sell alongside his wooden toys to make some cash on the side?
Get back into our thrifty ways. I have a whole 379 pounds worth of mattress to offset. I’ve made a start with making elderflower cordial yesterday.
Look for a house we can buy. Not here as it is too expensive. Maybe across the county borders, somewhere with a bit of land, with some potential. And so you see dear readers, when people comment that Tiddler seems very confident and well adjusted for a child who has undergone a lot of different places and people, we reply, that for her change is the norm. Digger however has put his steel toe-capped foot down.
“This is the last house move I make, until we move into our own house”
“Aha” I say, “change is the norm”

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Cartwheel and corn: Bulgaria photos 8

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The wheels are from a karuca (каруца) cart, a horse-pulled low vehicle still used commonly enough in Bulgaria for there to be necessary signs on certain larger roads.
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Many karuca are traditionally painted in intricate folk designs. Image below taken from here
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The modern karuca lives on in many forms. Image below from Varna, here.

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Burn the EU?- a Bulgarian view

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

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

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Image taken from the link above.


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Brown is the new black

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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Lost in translation

Coming home from the corner shop and dumping my bags on the table, I show Digger my latest find. “Look at these, so cute! Little biscuits shaped like hearts. Let’s treat ourselves and make proper coffee to have with them”

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Digger watches me bustle round our little kitchen getting things ready. The favourite Bulgarian staple of the elevenses or teatime treat seems to be a wafer biscuit with layers of flavoured chocolate or fruit and nuts in between. British readers might be thinking to themselves this must be like eating a Kit Kat in disguise, and therefore great for the palate, but seeing as there is definitely more dry papery wafer than chocolate they have quickly been nicknamed ‘The Communist biscuits’ in our little household.

So finding what look like beautiful buttery sugary heart biscuits has made my morning.
That is when Digger tells me that the name of my ‘hearts’ actually translates as ‘ears’.
Thanks for that.
Er…..yum?

 

 

Other post Lost in translation #2