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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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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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 philosophy of Snow White

Tackling as we are, the thrifter’s life in Bulgaria, we are always trying to scrimp and save wherever possible. For example, I spent some time this week attempting to mend Tiddler’s story book and that has given me a few things to think about.

The backstory of course is that we set off from England as my good and faithful readers know last September, in Leo the campervan, though while sufficient for our basic needs on the two month journey pottering through Europe to get to Bulgaria, was rather lacking in library space. So, a swift calculation means Tiddler (i.e. me) has been reading the same twenty story books in some sort of spiraling rotation for around five months, with my nemesis the pop-up book of Hansel and Gretel appearing on a far more regular than it was due basis. Who knows why Tiddler loves this story so much. I think I made a rod for my own back when I once ad-libbed that the witch was ‘burnt up to a crisp’. Now if I don’t add that specific detail in every time I read of Gretel’s fiendish escape plan I get reprimanded by Tiddler for missing out part of the story i.e. the grusesome nasty bit.
There are a smattering of English language books in the bookshops here, but very expensive, and the town library was no help either. So Granny Westcountry kindly scoured her home for my niece and nephew’s old books and popped them in the post to us as an emergency package of books as frankly, if I have to read Hansel and Gretel one more time there are going to be consequences.  Much excitement all round! The joy of new (to us) books! Unfortunately, seems Tiddler’s cousins had been a bit heavy handed with Snow White and the seven dwarves, and a book had arrived which needed a good dose of TLC.
“Are books alive?” Tiddler asks. Inward snigger from me at the innate cuteness.
“Do books have skeletons?” Cut-off snigger as I have to answer honestly, “Well they do have spines, that much is true”.
“Are books made from lots of ingredients? Have we got the ingredients to mend this one?”
So given the circumstances, I don’t want to throw this book away, and I also believe strongly in the importance of Tiddler understanding the need to take care of her possessions. Money doesn’t grow on trees and all that. Things do still have a value, and a use, even if they are old. Why replace something if it is not broken. Look after the pennies and the pounds will look after themselves. I think you catch my general drift on this theme without resorting to further proverbs. Suffice to say, this is not just about money. Rather that I want Tiddler to be happy when she grows up. I cannot make her life a luxurious one, or guarantee no sorrows or troubles, but I hope I can equip her to be content with her lot, which will foster the skills of being practical, with common sense, and the emotional stability to make wise decisions.

Question: “Mirror mirror on the wall, who is the fairest one of all?”
Answer: “The one who is happy”

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Quotes to give us a few more thoughts on this theme today:
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Last year’s circus: Bulgaria photos 15

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These were part of a huge line of peeling and faded circus posters along a heavily graffiti covered stone wall outside a large four storey secondary school, currently out of use as it is undergoing repairs and renovation. Just before Christmas, the new roof that was being put on the school caught fire, cause unknown, and all the new work done was lost, and further damage created by the fire itself.
The tatty circus posters, the burnt and broken school, the children separated and shifted away to be educated in other schools…. the themes all seems to come together with this image.


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Tree sparrows sheltering from the snow: Bulgaria photos 9

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Tree sparrows (Passer montanus) unfazed by the many shoppers banging trolleys in and out of the lines, sit and wait out of the bitter wind that blows across a Kaufland car park shortly to be covered in snow.


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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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Initiation into a Bulgarian Christmas

Having now lived through our take on a Bulgarian Christmas, here’s a little update on our celebrations- I’ve been giving Digger the Bulgarian Inquisition and have tried to make sense of it all!
We started early with indulgent food right at the beginning of the month on December 6th, which is the feast day of Saint Nicholas. Now in the UK we tend to know the story of St. Nicholas leaving (or throwing over a wall) a purse of coins for a poor family, and hence the legend of Santa Claus began, even though he didn’t end up as the bearded, red and white figure of today until marketing and consumerism really got involved, although this image of him looks like he pretty much had his style down pat.
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Here in Bulgaria he is known as Saint Nikola, and the day is Nikulden. He is venerated as a the protector of fisherman, sailors, travelers and hunters, the master of the underwater world, and folklore includes a tale of how he plugged the bottom of a storm-broken boat with fish from the ocean, and thus saved the lives of everyone on board. Dinner on the 6th must include carp, (sometimes baked in dough to form a ribnik), and bogovitsa bread (bog=god).

(credit for bread images from zanus.eu, snimka.bg, moreto.net)

Traditionally, the bones of the carp must be thrown back into flowing water to allow continuing fertility and prosperity, apart from the head bone which was sewn into children’s clothing to protect them from the evil eye. Now we certainly didn’t go that far, as I personally was not that keen to have Tiddler walking around smelling of fish and acting as a street cat magnet!

This feast day is especially important to us though, as is it also the name-day of Digger’s brother in Canada. Name-days (imen den) are a curious phenomena, and anyone who is named after Nikola, or a derivation e.g. Nikolai, Nikolay, Kolyo, Nikolina, Neno, Nenka, Nikolina, Nina gets to have a day of celebration. Digger actually gets more phone calls and messages on his name-day than he does on his actual birthday. So we drank a toast of rakia (Diado’s eye-wateringly strong homemade fruit brandy) to Digger’s brother, and then ate plenty of cake on his behalf while we chatted over Skype.
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Christmas itself though, while clearly celebrated in Bulgaria, is less ‘in your face’ than Christmas back home. We did see Christmas lights on houses and a tree and sledge display in town, baubles on trees in peoples gardens, shops selling tinsel and reindeer deely bobbers, but there was not the ever present Christmas tunes in the shops, the constant stuffing our faces with mince pies, and the endless craft fairs and Santa’s grottos.

Let me revise that, I tried to find a Santa grotto or a fair to take Tiddler to, but in our provincial town Christmas entertainment was limited. Fortunately, her nursery school organised a party with a visit from Santa (one of the dads) so she got the experience. The system here was parents provided a gift in advance for their own child to be handed out by Santa, and my only comment on that was clearly when Bulgarians give gifts in public, bigger is most certainly the better. Thankfully, Tiddler didn’t clock on to this, and was more than happy with her reasonably sized gift of a board game from us.
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In general, I would say the whole build up to Christmas by Bulgarians was very refined and calm. Snow fell, and people did their shopping without any chaos or upset (as far as I could observe). Not so the British ex-pats living in the area. Panic stations!
From as early as November, ex-pats on Bulgarian facebook groups have been advertising ‘man and van’ runs to the UK, where people can place orders for food or other items. This clearly happens throughout the year anyway if someone is making the journey, but the Christmas orders were coming in thick and fast if the comments were anything to go by. People were requesting mince pies, quality streets, chocolate oranges, jars of cranberry sauce, christmas crackers and so much more. Familiar food from home was clearly an essential luxury, and the ex-pats are willing to pay the shop prices, plus the added purchase/delivery charge for the service that was being provided. Others were busy arranging pick up and drop off points for the van drivers to send and collect presents from family back home. There was a flurry of posts. Nearer to the big day, the concern took a worrying shift closer to home as the perishable goods needed to be sourced.

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I’ve decided the way for Bulgaria to boost its flailing economy is clearly to go into sprout production. Unfortunately for us, we couldn’t track any down in our smaller town, so I had to resign myself to a sprout-less Christmas dinner. Digger seems ever so slightly happy at that prospect.

Christmas proper then starts in Bulgaria not on the 25th, but on Christmas Eve. This is a time the family to cook a special evening meal, which has very specific requirements. Firstly, plan wisely, as you need an odd number of people to sit down at your table. We ended up with seven at the table at Diado’s house, as Digger’s aunt, uncle, cousin and wife arrived from Sofia for the holidays, piling out of the car laden down with bags and boxes of food. It was like a vehicular cornucopia exploding into rural V_L_.
The meal is strictly vegetarian (following the Orthodox 40 day advent fast, though we have not kept that of course), and also must include an odd number of dishes often up to thirteen in number, traditionally salads, bean soup, walnuts, unleavened bread (with a coin baked inside) and sarmi (stuffed vine and cabbage leaves), fruit compote and baklava. Straw is pushed under the table cloth to guarantee a good harvest next year, and the dishes and table at the end of the meal was left as it was overnight, in order for any ancestors to come and share any of the remaining food. It sounded slightly creepy to me, and clearly adds extra work to the christmas morning kitchen chores, but we were back in the apartment by that time so no ghostly visits at all. Just Santa, and of course that is perfectly normal.

Following this, Midnight mass is usual, but we settled for a christmas morning service instead with Tiddler, and even then she didn’t last the whole time. She managed to mistake the three priests for the three wise men as they went in procession, spent some time holding a random lady’s hand a few pews ahead of us, and then faked a coughing fit when the incense was swung from the censer. On her way out she bumped into the devotional candle stands and nearly took that out too.
For our first visit to a Bulgarian Orthodox service, I understood the confusion. People were wandering around, coming in late, and then kissing things. Other people were taking photographs of the priests. Things were going on behind the iconostasis and she wanted to see. Other people were chanting and singing up high up in the eaves and she thought the angels had arrived. Digger didn’t help by muttering how miserable everyone looked, and grumbling that I’d made us all come in the first place. ‘I can’t understand the point of a service that is just all chanting and formulaic fancy words’ he says in a stage whisper. Old grannies turn and look at us.

Back to the kitchen quickly then, as we needed to prepare for dinner for twelve. Although I had explained I was doing the dinner, everyone ignored that and turned up with enough food to keep Digger and I in leftovers for the next two weeks. We sat down to start eating at 12.30, and finally cleared away at 5pm. Bulgarians NEED rakia to start a meal, and they need salad to go with that, so they’d munched their way through three enormous enamel serving bowls of cucumber and fennel salad, crab and apple salad, and pasta and pickled gherkin salad before we even got to their main course. Turkey (first time ever cooking by me), lemon and thyme stuffing, pigs in blankets (that created much amusement of the funny English ways), parsnips, roasted potatoes, carrots, broccoli (no sprouts to be found near us!) and sauces and trimmings. Diado didn’t think was sufficient so had brought a huge earthern pot filled with pork stew, the usual Bulgarian Christmas day main, so everyone ate some of that too. After this, plates of salami and banitsa on the table. After this, nuts and raisins and fruit. After this, finally, gin trifle and yule log (from me) and gifted cream cake and baklava that we really didn’t need but ate anyway. Followed by wine and whiskey.

Our little rotund tummies eventually breathed a sigh of relief. Thankfully, with so many visitors, there was plenty of help with washing up at least. Digger and I, stupefied by food and exhaustion, silently surveyed the remains after everyone had gone home. I ask him the general verdict, having missed most of the conversation as it was predominantly in Bulgarian. ‘All good’, he says, ‘they’ll be back for breakfast’.

Link to list of Bulgarian name-days.
Nikulden recipes
Link for more information on Bulgarian Orthodox churches


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Cooking up a winter storm

Following the last blog post about how we were blessed with a seemingly limitless larder thanks to Tiddler’s Bulgarian grandparents being a dab hand at gardening, gathering, and preservation of food, which is having a significant saving on our food budget while we try and eke out our time without working, I thought it was about time I shared a little bit about what we were getting up to in our Bulgarian kitchen.

NB: None of the below is anything amazingly gastronomical, but in the last few years since the arrival of Tiddler we have become more reliant on quickly cooked food, all served in separate portions ( none of which can touch the others on the plate) so Tiddler would eat it. Anything remotely ‘mixed’ such as a stew or soup was was in line for for the five stages of Toddler mealtimes: 1. Disbelief, what is that! 2. Ridicule, ýou actually think I’m going to eat that? 3. Denial, er no way is that happening. 4. Anger, Waaaaaaahhhhhh! 5. Grief, How can you make me do this? We are now reaching the burgeoning stage 6, Bargaining, I might eat it if I feel like it and if there is something I want for pudding. As a result we have a few more options, a few different ingredients, and certainly a lot more time. I’m reasonable proud our cooking attempts so far. Digger slightly less enchanted with the clean up operation required after Tiddler has been let loose.

Firstly we needed the right attire, so thanks Baba for what we turned up after a quick rummage in the tea towel drawer.
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Next chop and scrape and bang and clatter and voila, or rather more accurately as the Bulgarians would say, заповядайте (pronounced zapovyadaite).

Beetroot soup preparation, hot beetroot salad, cold beetroot salad with pomegranate and sirene (the Bulgarian equivalent of feta, very similar but softer and stickier).

 


Baked carp, and then flaked leftover carp into paprika spiced rissoles.

 

 

Butternut squash tagliatelle with leek and kidney bean, halfway through a layered roasted pepper pie, and sirene and beef tomato crustless quiche. I can’t claim I had any hand in the making of the lovely heart shaped kashkarval cheese bread though I’m afraid, that was bought from a little shop across the street.

 


Tiddler then demanded some sweet things, so we tried honey (also made by Diado from his own hives) and cinnamon biscuits, and windfall pear flan.

 

One of our breakfast staples has become pancakes, including on occasion the randomly generated odd shaped one. Those of you who know Tiddler will know that the snail one below almost didn’t get eaten as she wanted to keep it as her new friend!
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But without doubt, the go to recipe to keep Digger happy is the Bulgarian dish, banitsa.
This is a layered filo pastry, cooked with egg, yoghurt, sirene, milk and butter that can be eaten by itself as a breakfast, or as a side serving to another meal, or just plain hey whenever you feel like it. There are to be fair probably as many banitsa recipes as there are Bulgarian grandmothers. I cook Baba’s version, not quite up to her standard, but I think I’m paying reasonable homage. Digger blames not carrying out physical work anymore for his waistline expanding somewhat, but I know it is his banitsa consumption. I’ll have to look into a local Banitsa Eaters Anonymous group.

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Next blog post: Just what exactly are Bulgarian christmas traditions, and what happens when you try to explain the weird British ones. Thrifty toddler craft for a frugal christmas also has been keeping us busy over the last few weeks, we’ve not been stuck in the kitchen all the time!

 

 


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Diado and Baba vs Tom and Barbara

I’m aware this blog has changed focus a bit in recent months, what with all the travelogues, and now we have arrived in Bulgaria I clearly need to update the Home page that details us trying to live a thrifty life back in the British Isles so we could try and save enough money to stop working and get over here! So this post is a little nod back at the original thriftiness and skinflintery ideas, while continuing to update on our life here.

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Lured here by the low land prices that allow many to achieve the ‘Englishman’s castle’ idea that is nigh impossible back home on our cramped and increasingly expensive Sceptred Isle, most ex-pats in Bulgaria will turn up with all their worldly possession on the back of a lorry, but not necessarily have the necessities for the Bulgarian way of doing things, or the language skills to facilitate accessing life here. They may be retiring here, or have simply chosen to sell up and move out and try their hand and luck. Some come with practical skills, much in demand of others in the ex-pat community all trying to improve and renovate their old houses and land, and others seek online work teaching Japanese school children English to help pay their way. What is clear however, is that many may have felt that the land and property prices at a pittance were a true reflection of the cost of living, which it is definitely not.  Land is cheap because so many Bulgarians have gone, spreading out across the rest of Europe and further afield. So the ex-pats cannot rely on their incomes here, or their savings. They must, as the remaining Bulgarians do as a fact of daily life, start to become partially self-sufficient.
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We are far more fortunate as we have my in-laws here. We have turned up with little in the way of our own possessions (our household goods and Digger’s tools are all in storage at my parent’s house in the Westcountry) but have been able to move straight into a fully furnished and equipped flat, and therefore while paying bills will have no rent. We also this winter are saving a considerable amount of money on food purchases because Diado and Baba (Tiddler’s grandparents) have a huge stockpile of preserved garden produce that we are dipping into. I worry to Digger that we will limit what they themselves can eat, but he assures me they have far more than they can possible get through. In the early days at their house and in the flat, I keep finding secret stashes of food. It is like treasure troves of epic proportions, of peaches and apricots, tomatoes and cherries. There are chutneys and syrups, cordials and purees, compotes and sauces. There is no space in the freezer for the few purchases we wish to make.


I am in awe of the labour that has gone in, matter of course, to ensuring thrift and zero food waste. Sweetcorn has been planted, and grown, and cut, and shucked, and par-boiled, and bagged and frozen, just so Tiddler can turn her nose up at it at our dinner table. Herbs have been gathered and chopped and dried, plum and cherry halves have been laid out in the summer sun, and now stored in a twisted pillow case. This is a generation, and a culture who understand the value of the bounty of a harvest. They have so much that they can teach us.

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(Any non-British readers trying to make sense of the title- please see here)


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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


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A glass less?: Welcome to Bulgaria

All the way on the long road to Bulgaria, Digger has been creating a mental list of things he doesn’t like about his country of birth. In a mode of negativity he details them as we approach the Greece-Bulgaria border.


My visits to Bulgaria previously have been always in the sultry hot summer months, where we stay in a little village with his parents, Diado (grandfather) and Baba (Granny). Their house and garden is a well-ordered model of self-sufficiency, with beautiful purple and white flowers adorning the pathways, and succulent red grapes hanging down above the swinging chair.
Although fully agreeing that Digger has a far greater knowledge, and perhaps allowance, to point out the faults, I do suggest he stops being so pessimistic. “Harrumph” he says “Bulgaria is a country with a glass less than half full”.
We follow a bus for a little while, and he laughs, ” That bus knows what I am talking about”.
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He says,
“One. The roads will be rubbish. It will take us far longer to get anywhere than it looks on the map.
Two. The police will stop us. They’ll spot the UK plates, and pull us over, and want to see all our paperwork and try and get a bribe out of us. They’ll think we are stupid foreigners that can be tricked into paying something”. He continues,
“Three. Did you know that Bulgaria has the worst air pollution in all of Europe? I read a report on it. People can’t afford to pay the electricity prices so everyone burns wood and coal. Everything is filthy dirty.
Four. Litter! People don’t care”, he shakes his head “there will be crap everywhere. And street dogs.
Five. You’ll spot the prostitutes out at the sides of the roads. In the lay-bys.
Six. And the gypsies will be going through the bins to see what they can find to recycle and sell on. Or steal from the empty houses”
He takes a break in his monologue of disaster to hand our passport over at the border. A long conversation through the window of the van follows.
“See?” he shakes his head sadly as we are finally waved through, “They think it is wrong we are all travelling on different forms of ID’s. They want to know why Tiddler has my surname but doesn’t have a Bulgarian passport. They are stuck in the past, stuck in the red tape legacy of communism. Nobody wants to be here, and do these jobs, and get no money for it. Don’t expect any sort of customer service”.
“Why are you being so grumpy?” I ask. “I thought you wanted us all to come to Bulgaria?”
“I came because I thought you wanted us all to come to Bulgaria?”
And with that slightly ominous note of a possible mis-communication of our grand plan, we cross the border.


We travel through to the capital city Sofia, passing into the shadow of the massive Vitosha mountains that prevents the warm Mediterranean air travelling northwards. The temperature drops immediately and there is frost on the ground. We spend a couple of days there with Digger’s aunt, uncle and cousin.


We get fed with rich banitsa and baklava, and buttery trout and stuffed roasted peppers, and the ubiquitous shopska salad, and Tiddler’s cheeks are pinched and her chin chucked. We drive on to Digger’s parents house, in the village of V_ L_ and get more banitsa, and hearty herb-laden bop (bean) soup, and Tiddler gets to dig out old toys that we left there the previous summer and talks ten to the dozen to Diado even though he does not understand a single word.

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Baba is still on an extended visit abroad, helping Digger’s brother and family in Canada. The Bulgaria diaspora is far flung, and the families and the empty houses and the ghost villages left behind are falling into slow but steady disrepair.


We decide to settle for the winter in a little empty apartment owned by Digger’s family (more detail in future blogs) in the nearby town of T_, as that way we have better access to services when the snows do come (ten weeks of metre high snow on the ground last winter) , and can visit the village without having to be exactly living under Diado’s roof. (This means however, he just ends up coming into town to see us every day, to instruct Digger on the best way of doing things, if it was him).
We take a few days to find our feet and unpack Leo properly, and effectively we are now in our new ‘home’ for the time being. So in these early days of Digger’s gloomy predictions, was he really being unfair to his homeland? No, not all. The roads broke Leo’s hydraulic suspension within three days, we got stopped by traffic police twice in one day (and they refused to accept that his island driving licence was real and valid for driving in Europe), and all his other points proved to be true too. In future days (and blogs) we see the problems and the ‘it-could-only-happen-in-Bulgaria’ solutions and the poverty and neglect that this beautiful country is suffering. But we find reasons to love it all the same.

 

 


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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.