Bulgarian Squirrels of Poverty

Bulgarian Squirrels of PovertyIn Bulgaria most of the population are not unlike squirrels. They stock pile all the food during harvest to see through the winter. Right now we have everything in storage and set for the Bulgarian short, sharp, cold winter hibernation.

It has been quite an effort to get to this stage; much preparation has been made by us all to ensure we will not go short in food and resources this winter. The garage is full of barrels bottle and jars of preserved produce that was harvested during the summer and autumn. It looks like a warehouse. This year hasn’t been the greatest harvest for us as we arrive back in Bulgaria in May, a bit too late to get the farm full of produce, however we still have more than enough to see us though comfortably.

Whatever we grew it is now preserved either as meat in the freezer, fruit in conserves or compote, leeks in buckets of soil, other vegetables in barrels or big jars of salt water and wine and rakia bottled up securely. There is something about this system that feels just right; something that is a stick in the spokes of cycle of relying on commercial based goods pre-packed and ready to poison. My soul and spirit is in fine form right now knowing that even in a town centre we can survive on our own back from he produce we have grown and harvested. Next year is something we all eagerly look forward to as we can start at the beginning of the growing season at the end of February by pruning the vines.

Bulgarian Squirrels of PovertyHow fortunate we feel to be feeding ourselves with food that is basically free of cost and free of chemicals, testimony to that is the fact that I have had no illnesses here for over three years for the food we have produced. Yes a little weight has been put on but I put that down to writing too many blogs!

To Bulgarians this is something that is not special but normal, part of he routine of living here and surviving here. It is a case of having to rather than wanting to from purely a financial stance. To me, the poverty has brought something special, a system that is better than anything that I have experienced before. How ironic that the discovery of good life and living here is a direct result of their poverty and something you can’t buy. Being rich here would completely ruin the infrastructure and the way of living that is part of their long tradition and culture.


A Bulgarian Helping Hand in the Kitchen

The Bulgarian family we have here all think very differently, me included as I found out recently.

It came to pass that the big stone ceramic lined kitchen sink was playing up, it often did being and oversized sink for the very small diameter based plug and outlet pipe, it was more like a drip based drainage system. This meant that on many occasions the system got blocked up; here was another one of those occasions.
A Bulgarian Helping Hand in the KitchenEach time this problem occurs for Baba the whole world has come to an end, the smallest problem and she is in a panic thinking that money is involved to fix it. Her thoughts are for a Bulgarian maestro to be called in to repair the plumping.

Then there is Galia, here answer to the problem was simply to go to the ‘One Lev Shop’ and buy some gunge-eating chemical to chuck down the sink. She was annoyed but not stressed out.

Then there me, my thoughts were that we need a plunger to clear the blockage. We didn’t have one in the Yambol home, but I did have one in the Skalitsa Farmhouse, my idea was to bring it back with us from Skalitsa next time we were there, but that may not be for a couple of weeks with guests staying there.

All these different thoughts to solve the problem were being weighed up when we had a visitor it was Galia eldest son Anton. He was made aware of the problem in hand and didn’t hesitate for a moment to use his Bulgarian practibility to solve the lingering problem. He thoughts took another leaning as he set about working on the task armed with nothing other than a dishcloth and the words 'No problem!'

The dishcloth was stuffed in the small plug and the water run. After a few moments the water line rose by some 15 cm. While this was happening his right arm sleeve of his shirt was rolled up ready for action. We all looked and said nothing as this young Bulgarian took charge of the situation. The dishcloth was removed and replaced by Anton’s cupped hand that now immersed itself into the cold water and over the plug. The height of action now started as three sharp downward jerks of the cupped hand propelled water forcefully into the plug and canal system. The hand was taken out and the water just flowed out with graceful ease.

The problem was solved as the Bulgarian hand plunging hero took a round of applause - his response following his the 'No problem' statement was ‘Bulgaski Robota’. This phrase is commenly used for all work done by Bulgarian and can mean a good or a bad job done depending on which side of the fence you are. In this case is it was a good Bulgarian job as we all sighed a breath of relief; Baba the biggest sign of relief as no payment was involved.


Welcome Home to Bulgaria Sylvia

Monday morning and Galia and I can hardly move, as the muscles in our bodies seemed to have been through ten rounds in a boxing ring and we were the losers. Why?

Welcome Home to Bulgaria SylviaIt all started with Galia’s niece turning up in Bulgaria, she had been working as a nurse in Greece for the last four years. She had decided to come back to Bulgaria and a home welcoming evening was organised at a Yambol restaurant last Saturday evening. In attendance were Galia, her niece (the nurse) another niece of Galia’s, plus another friend of the family. The scenario is set for four beautiful women and myself out for the evening and the best part of the morning., We partied on until we dropped, how fortunate am I and Sylvia insisted she paid for the whole evening! She had been earning ‘real money’ in Greece, not the pittance given out in wages to employees in Bulgaria - After all, that’s exactly why here and millions of other work abroad.

We all met at 7:30 in a well-known Bulgarian restaurant and the eating and drinking began. Four years away and Sylvia had lots to talk about with her experiences working in Greece. My goodness can she talk, Bulgarian are renown for their non-stop talking and conversation, but this to date was the most incessant example I had experienced since coming here. Four Bulgarian women talking all night, not much food was eaten, too much talking for that, but quite a bit of rakia was downed throughout the night, Sylvia loves rakia, she couldn’t get it in Greece and was making up for time.

We were due to attend a retro music discothèque after the restaurant, as Galia and myself took off to make a reservation at around 9:30. But to our disappointment it was fully booked and we had to think of alternative plans after we had got back to the talking, salads and Rakia.

During the course of out restaurant stay, I was fortunate to meet the Head coach of the Bulgarian National Basketball team, I had met Ivan once before on the 'St. George' Name Day party in Yambol's big Diana Park in the summer. Lovely chap, but he was letting his hair down tonight with friends, he still smokes with his left hand and rakia held in the right as I remember from before.

Welcome Home to Bulgaria SylviaSylvia was a stressed Bulgarian woman this evening, it showed as she couldn’t get her words out fast enough – she wanted to get it all off her chest. She told tales of how badly she had been treated in Greece by the men who have no respect fro their own women let alone Bulgarian women. She spent most of her time indoors tending the sick. Never had hardly any time off and what time was off was spent sleeping recovering from the workload. She never wants to go back there again and realises that money is important but there is no quality of life doing what she was doing away from family. She intends to work in Bulgaria but won’t even think about work until the New Year – she needs time to recover mentally from the experience. Galia and I know exactly what she is going through on that scale.

Welcome Home to Bulgaria SylviaWe had some musical visitors; a local village called Kabile has a Gypsy band. They came in to perform well-known Bulgarian songs but in Gypsy style arrangements that involved a lot of unified singing (shouted in the main) with a rhythm that never stops. The band consists of an accordion, two clarinets, a violin and two drummers. They were loud, brash and full of energy and they were still playing gone midnight as we left.

Welcome Home to Bulgaria SylviaWe went to another restaurant with more live music, this time Bulgarian/Greek/Gypsy style with the Gypsy element on keyboard the Greek on the bouzouki and Bulgarian sung by the very big male vocalist. We spent the rest of the evening now on beer and dance with a little meze on the table.

The dancing just went from strength to strength with music just calling and wanting to be danced to. This of course was expected from everyone who dined there as the lines of Bulgarians with traditional dance steps were made throughout the evening.

We finally finished at gone 3:00 in the morning and in bed just before 4:00 after walking a few kilometres in the crisp clear Yambol air. We never get drunk of course, there is far too much dancing to ever get that close, besides it isn’t the Bulgarian way to do this.

A night out with my Bulgarian family was an absolute pleasure, we are all glad to see Sylvia back in Bulgaria, but as we all know here, she will need time to recover from being away, this is important for tonight we knew she wasn’t at all right from the experience of being away from her homeland.

As for us, well we all know now why it is painful to move today, the dancing we did would merits a marathon! We probably lost weight that evening!


Bulgarian Cities and Towns and Much Needed Villages

This is Bulgaria and in this place where I have chosen to live we find 249 towns and cities over 5,000 villages scattered around the country. Almost every Bulgarian has a village connection either because they once lived in a village or their ancestors lived or still live there. Bulgaria remain a rural country in so many ways. Many Bulgarians have moved to the towns and cities for work but often they return the villages as it is only there that they can resurrect their Bulgarian soul.

Life today in Bulgaria as many Bulgarians will tell you, takes a village to survive. If there were no villages, life for many would be unbearable for many that live and work here. This is more true for the older generation, but in time the younger generation will become that older generation and have the same feelings.

It has been difficult for many Bulgarians over the last two decades. Before this, the population had time to relax with friends, enjoy the beautiful nature and have a stress free existence. This is not the case in Bulgaria today for many people who working harder, work longer with relaxation becoming a thing of the past. It is even more difficult with this for them to stay in communication to people. Money earned has to be spent on food and other things rather than other luxuries rather than having a good time with friends and family.

Village life is totally different from town and city life. It is cheaper, friends are always there working. People grow almost everything they eat. There is bread, sugar and a few other things bought at the store but most are homemade. Rakia, of course, the national drink, is made from the grapes or other fruits grown in the gardens in the villages. It is not uncommon for a village household to make in excess of 100 litres a year of Rakia for their own use. Buying Rakia from a store or offering anything other than home made Rakia to visitors is unheard of.

It is as important to people to spend time in a village as it is in the cities, but in a different way. Town and City folk work eight hours a day and go home or go out to play. Village folk work from dawn to dusk and never go anywhere. When all the work has been done, you will see people sitting on the street in front of their houses or in the yard around a run down old table. Town and City folk have time to waste, but this is never ever the case in the village as there are always chores to be done. They are deep in though of the arrival of winter and they must be

To many Bulgarians feel that village life is not an appealing life style on a permanent basis. It offers very few of the nice things in life that the western world have come to enjoy. However, it offers something for the town and city folk for a few days or weeks. A deserved break from the rat race of the city and their stressful working environment. It is in the village that they can reconnect to their roots and the real Bulgaria. This is something they can't find anywhere else.

Their culture and tradition, while not as popular as they once were in the past, can still be found in villages. Grandparents and friends still live in the old ways, doing things how they had always been done and life itself is simple and good. the village is a refuge and relief over a glass of homemade Rakia and Shopska salad. These are moments in time to forget modern Bulgaria where the hectic life will wait again for them.

The First Taste of Rakia 2008

It was a special occasion today as I returned to Yambol town, I had just left my Scottish guests on their own at the farmhouse, they had rented it out before so they knew what to expect and the Bulgarian systems in place. But it was not for that reason, but for a very different reason that today was special. The time was nigh to test this season’s Rakia that had been made a month ago.

The First Taste of Rakia 2008The Rakia had been sitting in the outhouse for a month now and now all the toxins had been rid with a pale colour that had transformed the Rakia from a crystal clear liquid into liquid gold!

As a jam jar was filled to bring it into the house kitchen, it looked very impressive as it sat on the sideboard. The next step was to check its’ specific gravity for the alcohol content. I had brought the alcoholometer back with me from Skalitsa and was ready to test it.

As the measuring tool settled it was clear that the Rakia was far to strong for everyday drinking, it read 50% proof. The next step was to bring it down to around 42% – 43%. To achieve this mineral water had to be added. It didn’t take too much water to get down and after a little stir it was re measured at 43%. Mission accomplished and now the actual tasting comes into the act.

There was already a beautiful cabbage salad and Ayran (buttermilk) waiting on the table, Baba had seen to that knowing that this was needed with the drink. And so it was poured into the small Rakia glasses. The first to try it was Galia, just a sip – it got a shake of the head, which meant yes in Bulgarian body language. That was a relief, but then she doesn’t really like Rakia and never likes to upset me, so there was no evidence to suggest the Rakia was good from this initial critic. Baba had previously been banned from drinking Rakia from her Grandson, who is a doctor, She is allowed rub in on her body, but it is not to be taken internally was the instruction. We had saved a little jar of some 70% proof Rakia on the day of distilling to do just that, but not this evening.

And so it cam to pass that the maker of the Rakia has now to taste his own product, the little swirl in the glass then a big nose and to scent, the alcohol vapours were very strong from this potent little number. Finally the sip with a little pause in the mouth before and letting it trickle down the back of my throat and in the basement of my stomach. It had a cutting edge all the way from the tonsils to the stomach, a piercing heat that never gave up as it left smoking trail all the way down. This was damped with some Ayran and a mouthful of cabbage that followed the imprints left by the Rakia on the lining of my internal organs.

The verdict was clear, not the smoothest Rakia I’ve made, perhaps a little longer in the barrel with the hanging secret ingredients and the mulberry wood to mature a little longer should make it smoother by Christmas. We certainly won’t be short of firewater this winter. Because that’s what it is right now, even with the lower alcohol content.


Kind And Generous Bulgarian Baba

Baba is of the old Bulgarian school and a very funny person with it. However, she does get stressed out at the smallest of things. A hole in a jumper is a major problem and she's on it with repairs even before you can take the jumper off! Just missing a phone call sends here into a panic worrying that the call was the utmost importance. She will spend the next 20 minutes trying to figure out who it was and what they want question everyone until the mystery caller that was missed is solved.

Now 85 years of age, she is full of aches and pains with the colder weather during night now upon us this mid November. Even with the aches, she never attempts to put the newly installed air-conditioning system on when she is at home on her own.

There are two reason for this, the main one is, she’d rather stay cold than use up the electric, she often goes to bed at 7:00 before the system was installed to save energy. The other reason is that she just can’t understand the air conditioning controls. Even though the on/off button is the biggest and the only one coloured pink. No matter how many times we try to teach her, it goes in one ear and out the other.

The other day she had us all in stitches with a typical incident. She said that lunchtime she had lost two teeth; one fell in her bean soup she was eating and other she accidentally ate. That was it! The story was a two liner. The funny thing was that we all couldn’t understand how on earth you could lose teeth eating soup! She repeated the story time and time again and it remained as funny each time as she herself had trouble telling it from the fits of giggling.

Baba always puts other people before herself, even if she was starving, she would make sure others ate before her. She sneaks out of the house without telling anyone sometimes and brings back basic food such as bread bought on her measly pension. She knows we usually shop everyday after work, but feels that she has to contribute something to the dinner table. That’s Baba; they just don’t make people like this anymore - even in Bulgaria. Looking after here is our duty in the family house, but it really is a case of her looking after us.

So what is the point of this particular blog?

Bulgaria is changing so fast that it has left many behind, Baba is one of those people. She just doesn’t know what has hit here with the changes over the last ten years. It is now an unfamiliar world she is living in, along with many others of her generation. It becomes even more unfamiliar to her as each day goes by, I see that very clearly.


Keep Your English Mouth Shut

Keep Your English Mouth ShutA Skype message from Galia today, ‘I’ve broken my tooth can you bring my toothbrush and toothpaste to work when you pick me up at 5:00?’ Oh dear, it wasn’t bad enough that she had been ill with her kidneys for the past two weeks and picked up a cold at the weekend, now with the broken tooth a trilogy of illnesses have come about. And there’s me as fit as a fiddle feeling guilty that she has all the problems.

We met at 5:00 and it was straight off to the dentist after she had gingerly brushed here teeth before the short trip to the dentist. The tooth that had broken was a molar that had taken some battering with a boiled sweet at lunchtime.

The dentist was in the town centre as we parked up and made out way to the entrance. You would never know a dentist was there as the façade was just like another other town house in Yambol. The only give away was a very small plaque (quite funny seeing as it is a dentist sign) about the imposing grey painting metal gate. As we walk through the front garden there was a classical styled tap and sink built into the wall with a moulded bust at eye level and next to that an old vine that travelled up the wall and out of site, there were still black grapes hanging just out of arms reach, which it probably why they are still there.

You would still never know this was a dentist until the double glazed front door was opened, but it wasn’t from the sight of the narrow ceramic tiled hallway, it was the unmistakable smell of a dentist. Hard to describe this clinical and distinctive air of scent, but all who attend dentist will know.

Galia, who hadn’t said much throughout all this time, understandably sudden gave instructions. ‘Stay here!’ She was telling me to wait in the hallway whilst she went into the dentist’s reception room. I was under the impression she didn’t want me to see her in pain. There were other patients and partners there but all in the reception area with Galia, I was the only person out of the social limelight. I really felt like I should have been in the chatting away with everyone else.

I could hear things going on in the busy environment as I sat on a little lonely plastic chair there feeling like an outcast whilst reading a tattered, old, Bulgarian football magazine that was left on the table.

A full 30 minutes had elapses as people walked backwards an forwards past me giving greetings as they went past, as they do here. There was a little curiosity in their mannerisms as if to ask why I am sitting there and not in the surgery with my partner like everyone else is?

Galia finally came out with the dentist; I was quite surprised to see that the dentist was quite an elderly woman. Greeted them both as they approached and it fell upon a silence. I looked at Galia and asked if she was okay. Still there was no response and a silence came about again. It was almost a rushed movement as we walked out, no eye contact was made from Galia as she quickly said goodbye to the dentist and paced outside leaving me in her wake. It was only when we both got outside I finally realised what all the strange goings on where all about.

Keep Your English Mouth ShutKeep Your English Mouth Shut
Keep Your English Mouth Shut

It was explained that I should have kept my mouth shut and not said anything at all in the dentist’s premises. Galia went on to explain that if they found out I was English they would charge her more money for the treatment. She was very worried indeed that now they may well up the price for the work they are due to do tomorrow. As is was, even at Bulgarian prices, the cost of the work needed is the equivalent of around one month of Galia's earnings (around 350 leva).

The fact that I speak Bulgarian all the time I am with Galia doesn’t come into play, it is not Bulgarian’s Bulgaria and anyone listening who know straight away that this is not a Bulgarian and therefore richer than them!

It is so true that because I am English or non-Bulgarian, they will charge you substantially more, even if you have a Bulgarian partner. If a Bulgarian has an English partner, they will think that that Bulgarian will also have come into lots of disposable income; this is how they think. This is how they see the English here and this is what we have to deal with on a day-to-day basis.

No one knows that we are both living here on the poverty line like most others and if we try to explain that they think we are lying. There is no way out of their thoughts and association of English equals Rich. Perhaps Galia is right; well I know she is, if I keep my mouth shut when out and about, this would be better for us all round.


Tikvanik - Bulgarian Pumkin Banitsa

Food, that’s all I seem to be blogging about at the moment, but you can’t expect anything else in the season where food is coming from all directions. Right now it prime time for pumpkins and walnuts, I won’t mention all the other goodies that are still pumped out in the Bulgarian kitchens and summer houses, I’ll need a good couple of days to cover it.

This weekend was a strange one, it was the first weekend we hadn’t had any guests in Skalitsa this year. Can you believe that? We were so used to catering for others that by the end of the weekend we were absolutely stuffed with home cooked food made from home produced ingredients.

Tikvanik - Bulgarian Pumkin BanitsaThe highlight of the weekend’s courses was the tikva (pumpkin) banitsa that Galia delicately made. Actually they are called tikvanik. It is such a simple dish but aren’t the favourite dishes just that? It was made this weekend by accident as stupid me being at the farmhouse on my own for a couple of days previous, forgot to make the sirene as I was too preoccupied with digging the land over in preparation for winter. This is really uncanny as tikvanik actually also means ‘fool’.

So it came to be that we had given to use three pumpkins that had been given to us the weekend before. We had the filo pastry the sunflower oil, sugar, walnuts and cinnamon. This was all we needed for the sweet banitsas that were about to be conjured up by this angel of a cook of mine.

No Skalitsa banitsas this weekend as I took a reluctant back step from the kitchen area. Galia doesn’t like me watching her cook, as she gets nervous. “It’s only curiosity!” I tell her, ‘Not a judgement.” It doesn’t make any difference me telling her though as I walk with my tail between my legs back in the living room and carry on blogging, but my mind is on what is happening in the kitchen.

To be quite honest I know exactly how these tikvanik are made, as well as having seen Galia and other friends here making them each year during the pumpkin season, I’ve even made them successfully myself on a number of occasions. Despite this, it is the love of being involved in the process as well as watching that is a passion. Before in England it was me who did all the cooking, I’ve never had a woman who could cook before and I was obviously still trying to come to terms with that.

It was a near disaster today though, as we both got distracted outside with neighbour talk. We forgot the banitsas were in the oven and it was a couple of Linford Christies up the flight of stair and into the kitchen when we twigged. We had just saved them in time as we put cloth over the well-cooked tikvanik to cool down and keep the moisture in.

We knew this was going to happen right from the moment of the conception of the idea of making these melt-in-the-mouth tikvanik. In fact is was more a case of melt-the-mouth as 10 minutes later we both had burnt tongues!

I suppose you are expecting the recipe to follow now. Well it isn’t! For tikvanik to taste as good as they do, you need to make and eat them in Bulgaria. And if you are in Bulgaria you wouldn’t need the recipe anyway as any Bulgarian worth their salt knows how to make them anyway.

Fishing for Nothing In the Cold

It was forecast a cold weekend in Bulgaria, but most of us had fogotten what cold was as winter was such a long time ago. We have had a hot or very warm six or seven months and it was with that in mind we decided to go fishing for a few hours.

The journey to the next village of Ovchi Kladinets, which means sheep well was our destination as we were told that there was good fishing in this village. It lies 7 km west of our farmhouse in Skalitsa, but as we were to find out that was only half the trip.

We had been given instructions on how to get to this reservoir which was meant to hold very large carp. Although the place is technically in Ovchi Kladinets there was a further 4 or 5 km to travel over rough ground to reach the fishing area.

After reaching the village we turned onto the initially stone track which is designed for horse and car not ladas and made out way, slowly and carefully. With pot holed and subsidence ridden tracks it was an exciting route to take in this wild area of Bulgaria.

Fishing for Nothing In the Cold3 or 4 km later we entered into a deeply wooded area and followed this through, it was magical ovoiding trees as we made out way to the sight of a little clearing about another kilometre on. As this was reached we could see this massive expanse of water and wandered how many people knew of this place. It would be hard if not impossible to reach after rain as the track to the reservoir would be a mud pit and the rises and fall of the tracks far too steep to negotiate for any motor driven vehicle; even tractors would find this hard to reach on this track with rain.

Fishing for Nothing In the ColdWe had arrived as the car was parked right next to a sandy shore with much wildlife around from the floral and fauna kingdom. We still had to walk a little way beyond some rocks that sttod in the way of the 'beach' type shoreline. It was while waliing through swamped brush that most of the thistly seeds decided to come with us as we swept past! Removing these was a very painful process without gloves and we were without gloves!

Fishing for Nothing In the ColdThe fishing postion setup and we cast our lines and waited. There was a strong wind coming off the water, often whipping up a little wave or two, so repositioning out lines was frequently done with the floats wandering quickly out of place. It was hard work as the first half and hour wnet by and no bites made. It was now cold as the wind was consistently blowing in this open position we had taken up. All the time in our heads were the thought of just one big fish for dinner tonight on the barbecue, the cold was a minor inconvenience with this in mind.

Fishing for Nothing In the ColdWe endured another hour or so and still not one bite was made. The cold now was becoming unbearable as we shivered our way through each regular casting; time and time again we had the same result; Nothing!

Finally, the fanstastic views, the massive variety of waterfowl that shared our environment and our love of fishing was no match for the cold. We packed up and made out way back to the windcheating inners of the Lada. That was a lovely moment when we sat down out of the wind, but not before another rich picking of thistle type seeds off out trouser and socks (ouch!)

Fishing for Nothing In the ColdThe journey across the open countriside track was enjoyed to the full in the warmth of the car as we all relaxed knowing that there was a wood burner and rakia waiting for us at home to warm us up even further, but no barbecued fish today.

I must add that this is the first time I have been fishing in Bulgaria where I ended up with absolutely nothing!