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.
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.