the skinflint philosopher

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


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.


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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Slip sliding away….

…the information’s unavailable to the mortal man.

That’s how it’s been feeling around here the last few weeks. We now have our final days on the island decided, as the ferry crossings are all booked. There is the 1st August return sailing for Digger and hired van to take our (somewhat minimalised, but I fear there is still work that needs to be done!) possessions down to the Westcountry to store at my parents, and the 14th August for car + two adult + one infant, what will be a one way sailing. Laughably, we have actually booked a return for the 14th, as in the infinite wisdom of the ferry company pricing procedures, a return is actually cheaper than the single. I can’t understand the logic, but the skinflinter in me had no hesitation deciding which option to click.

Digger and Tiddler had some quality time last Saturday while I loaded up the car and did a final car boot sale. Digger has been grumbling for weeks that the boxes where cluttering up ‘his’ sheds, and preventing him finding things. For a not very busy day, we made £92 which I was pretty pleased with given that most of the things were rejects from the previous car boot, and I was selling most items in large rummage boxes for 25p or 50p each. I also made £15 for a neighbour who had given me a couple of items of clothing to sell for her, and she gave me £5 back for my trouble. Tiddler and Digger turned up halfway through to man (and toddle) the stall so I could nip off to spend a proverbial penny, and found in the meantime Tiddler had conned the next door stallholder into giving her a freebie. This was a rubbery stretchy orange dragon that makes me feel slightly queasy when I touch it. Tiddler of course thinks it is fantastical and her new ‘best-favourite’. All in all then, a financially successful (and making Digger happy) kind of day, only marred slightly by the new reptilian addition to the family.

I’ve also spent quite a bit of time online, investigating further details with tax and residency and car insurance issues. Our island’s slightly unclear categorisation of status for such things makes this all a bit complicated. There never seems to be a drop down menu that applies to us, yet as we are not actually part of the UK, and herein lies the problem, as trying to get a straight answer as to whether this policy or that law is valid for where we are now, where we will be, and facilitating the transition between the two, is simply making my head spin. We’re workin’ our jobs, collectin’ our pay, believe we’re gliding down the highway.

Digger has taken a hit as his own van has some ‘computer says no’  (UK TV reference, sorry to everyone else. Maybe think a little bit like Marvin if that helps?) issues going on. He bemoans the days when he could poke around with a screwdriver, or hit things with a hammer to fix them.  Now some unspecified electrical self diagnosis means his van has been in the garage twice and a mate’s-rates mechanic has been out to the house to look at it too. This is all a few weeks before he was planning on putting it up for sale. Cost to fix as yet unidentified, as is the actual problem.  You know the nearer your destination the more your slip slidin’ away.

Tiddler herself has being accidentally thrifty. In getting out all her old clothes to pass on to a friend for future use, we discovered that a lot of old leggings and trousers that I had deemed too small are now getting a bit of a frugal revival. As she no longer wears a nappy there is more room in the bum department, and she continues to slim down from her previous roly-poly baby status, so what were once full length trousers can now be worn as pedal pushers. A few that were tight around the calves, or had worn thin in the knees I have simply cut off and made legging shorts, as the material doesn’t fray.

On my part-time hours, I now only have nine working days left. It is a very surreal situation to be in, attending meetings to discuss plans of actions for everyone else for the next academic year, or to be preparing students for classes I won’t be taking. I have a gifted bottle of Prosecco that I have been saving for Digger and I to share after that last day. Digger’s business should in theory be handed over officially this week, but he doubts that it will smoothly transition.
This means of course that I shall have three clear weeks after finishing work before we finally leave. In that time we have to pack everything up, try and sell some large pieces of furniture we cannot take, clear the house, attend a wedding, trick Tiddler in wanting to dress like a flower girl for the day when she’d much rather race down the aisle as a viking, or a pirate, or a dragon.

And a hundred and one other things to fit in and sort out too.  Seven weeks and counting.



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The ignoble art of lying

Let’s be clear before we begin, on our main definitions. I always think of the word ‘ignoble’ as meaning dishonest or not honorable, but it has a second meaning too. That specific adjective is one suggesting a humble origin, or a basic quality, and I suppose when we do a little bit of philosophising about lies and deception, both definitions probably ring true.

I’m prompted into this by conversations I’ve had recently with a few of my students (and parents). For us over here in the British Isles, ’tis the season of Options, whereby we must extoll the virtues of our chosen teaching subject for the delight and delectation of the masses. To GCSE, or not to GCSE (or A-level), that is indeed the question. We are asked ad infinitum “Do you think my son oblique daughter can do this course?” “What grade do you think they’ll get?” and so on. We of course, seek to encourage as many as possible to opt in. We love our subject. We think it is the most important subject there is. Without it, how can anybody possible function? Well truth is, they’ll of course get by fine without it in reality (though they may struggle at pub quizzes), but with it, you’ll peel back so many layers of understanding of how the world works you would think you were blind beforehand. So of course, for those students we embellish carefully and hedge our responses. On the other hand, where we see a student coming forwards who will definitely struggle with the requirements of the course, we employ a different form of truth telling, by highlighting difficult tasks and expectations and allow the implications of that to sink in. We are not lying, but are we slightly deceiving both?

Another seemingly straight forward question “Will you be teaching the course next year? How to answer this one folks? There is a choice of four possible teachers, including myself, so of course I give the standard (usually truthful) answer, that we simply don’t know, it depends on the timetables and we won’t know that till June. But the hidden lie, the absent truth, is that of course I won’t be here for the next academic year, (as we are taking our year or two out before Tiddler needs to start school herself) so it couldn’t possible be me. I will be off on a (hopeful) jolly. Why don’t I simply say that? I haven’t officially handed in my notice yet, and certainly most staff and students are not aware of me going, and I don’t really want to get into that conversation just yet. Of course, the students may be asking with the vain hope I won’t be teaching them and they can breathe a sigh of relief that they won’t get Miss Thrifter again, but I like to retain a little flicker of smugness that they might consider choosing the subject if they think they might get me again. We all like to be liked, at the end of the day.

According to the BBC ethics team ‘lying is an unavoidable part of human nature’. Back to our second definition then, a basic quality. The complicated nature of deception, lies and falsehoods are brilliantly summed up here, to get your brain into gear on this theme, and indicates how complicated we can make this. We can lie about something, which turns out later to be true. Our Homo sapien brains means we can manipulate our use of language to be stating a literal truth, while actually delivering a lie. We lie to protect other people’s feelings. Worse still, we happily attempt to lie to ourselves fairly often, even when we clearly don’t need a lie detector to work out that yes, it was me that ate that whole packet of maltesers all by myself. Should we therefore consider not the lie itself as a bad thing, but rather the underlying intention, and the potential consequences as the determining factors.

Tiddler of course doesn’t really know how to lie yet. We play a hide and seek game where she shouts out where she is hiding as soon as we start to look for her. We play a blindfolded guess the object game too. She is pretty good at feeling the object in her hands and guessing it from its shape or texture, but when she wants to blindfold us and give us an unseen item to work out, she invariable tells us exactly what it is as soon as she hands it over. I’m pretty good now at pretending I have absolutely no idea what is is and go through a good three of four guesses before I say the thing she has just told me. Perhaps she simply thinks I’m a bit rubbish at the game and need a clue. Poor Mama.
Clearly at some stage soon, she will start to lie. She already tells us when Mister Crocodile needs to go to hospital (usually as she has attempted to cut it’s leg off with a plastic saw from her ever expanding toolbox), or makes me cups of tea from swimming pool water, so she is capable of imagining, and surely that is the actual noble art of lying.  Sir Ken Robinson, a big cheese in childhood development, states that ‘imagination is the source of all human achievement’. It allows cognitive development, critical thinking, language progression, innovation and much more that this, the ability to lie. Is this indeed a purely human trait? We like to think we are the superior species in this sort of thing, but have a little look at this article if you are under the misapprehension that animals don’t get up to a little bit of ‘creative truth telling’ when it suits them.

Fundamentally then, without the ability to lie, we are without the imagination of an ‘alternative’ reality, and that might limit us in terms our aspirations, our relationships, and our happiness. Stick with the adage ‘do no harm’ and hopefully it will all work out fine. Even Santa has a part to play in all this, and I’m pretty sure he was a saint.



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Out with the old

It has been a non-stop pell mell Christmas for us this year, with hardly a chance to come up for air. We have braved travel during Storm Barbara, socialised with numerous friends and relations, ate far richer food than normal, and only finally touched down and had 24 hours at home on this the very last day of the year to try and get some method back into the madness.

Having spent a week at Thrifter’s parents, we are relishing being back in some sort of order, where clutter is not spiralling out of control and threatening to tsunami down on our heads if you nudge a precariously balanced pile of books, or foolishly think you are safe enough to open a closed cupboard door. Of course, we benefit from the hoarding. We only have to travel with hand luggage, as my mother has plenty of everything we could possibly need but don’t want to bring. Tiddler has been the proverbial ‘kid in the sweet shop’ with the amount of toys and jigsaws that I remember from when I was little and have been kept safe ever since. If ever we need something, Mum no doubt has one we could use, and we would have made far more use of this resource over the years if we were not two kingdoms and a sea away from them. Mum’s storage is of course the ultimate in thrifting by default, by not having to purchase anything ever, but it relies on an immense and seemingly constant managing, redistribution, and excavation of possessions. This is something that can’t be tracked on the household equivalent of the Dewey system. NASA may need to get involved at some stage.

Digger and I purposely decided not to buy each other presents this year, in the midst as we are of trying to reduce our material goods, as jacking in our jobs this summer and going off for a gap year or two is still very much on the cards. In the end, I found a bottle of avocado oil under the spruce tree from him, and he got maple syrup from me. Who says romance is dead? Little consumable luxuries that won’t add to our decision making criteria of Keep, Sell, Donate or Throw, as Eat is fortunately a wholly separate genre. Thoughtful gifts from friends and family mean we are replacing very old with new, but also enjoying a little extravagance with unexpected gifts for us and Tiddler that make us feel blessed with their friendship.

So now that Christmas is past, and new year is upon us, Tiddler has succumbed to the Land of Nod, and Digger is in the kitchen rustling up an avocado oil drizzled salad to go with the bottle of fizz to welcome in the chimes, we shall not be thinking about making New Years resolutions, as our resolution is already firm and steadfast. We want to be the best we can be for Tiddler, and we are already trying to walk that path for her. By the end of 2017, we’ll hopefully know if we are going in the right direction. As for the start of 2017, I doubt if we will make it to midnight. Sleep: a skinflinter’s cheapest form of leisure activity.




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How much is your freedom worth?

Now on the whole I’m not a great fan of short stories; in general I feel slightly short changed. There is an element of frustration as the reader sees a simple snapshot in the lives of the characters. But for those of us with a literary bent, here is an absolute must for your weekend reading. A story that comes back to me again and again, and is very apt given my current way of thinking, even though it was written in 1889. Read and enjoy, and if you have read it before, read and enjoy again.