Friday, 21 November 2014

Enough To Drive You Crazy

I was speaking to a friend back in the UK the other day, when the conversation got round to the state of the roads. Both over there in the UK, and here in Bulgaria. It was also mentioned that previously I have mentioned about changing our UK Driving licences for Bulgarian ones, and getting the car sorted out for its MOT, but I haven't really said what it is actually like driving out here. So here are some of my observations from across the years, hopefully most will nod their heads wisely and have seen the self same things.

Firstly the roads get a lot less traffic than in the UK. There are the main arterial routes which are plagued by Turkish HGV drivers. They seem to totally ignore other road users, and their sole object in life is to get from A to B as quickly as possible. The roads here were probably not designed to deal with these huge trucks, and you will often notice wheel ruts running in great lengths in the road surface. Once your car's wheels are in one, it must be something like riding along in a Scalectrix car, as it will guide you round bends. That possibly doesn't sound too bad until you want to turn off somewhere, or you are confronted by half a shredded lorry tyre. During the height of the summer it isn't so bad as large HGV vehicles are restricted from the roads during the heat of the day.

On the whole the Bulgarians are very polite and well mannered. However, this all changes when they get behind the wheel of a car. I often think that they lose their common sense at the same time. I have lost count of the number of times that I have witnessed them overtaking in dangerous places. Blind bends and the brows of hills are popular, and weaving through the closed gates at level crossings. Often done at the same time as talking on their mobile which is clamped between their ear and shoulder, which allows them to swig from a 2 litre bottle of water. A worrying statistic which came out recently is that a lot of young Bulgarian men actually think that a few drinks makes them better drivers.

If you are out driving and someone coming the other way flashes their lights at you, there is a good chance there is a speed trap coming up. Or they might even know you. Just recently there has been various reports about some traffic police taking financial incentives to issues warnings rather than issue penalty fines. Even the Prime Minister has issued a statement saying that these practices will be clamped down on. Obviously one motorist didn't hear that bit and on top of his traffic fine now has another charge of trying to bribe a Police Officer.

Hopefully you will remember me saying about the early snowfall that we had. It was the wrong type of snow to quote one of British Rail's famous excuses. It was a damp heavy snow, and stuck to things, especially branches. This caused various branches to snap and to then hang partially across roads. Even a month after those early snows have disappeared it is surprising just how many of the branches are still about to cause potential hazards. These are not confined solely to the back roads, but can also be found on some of the major routes too. Unfortunately many of them seem to be about windscreen height, and I have yet to see anything like Autoglass round this way.

If I can I try to avoid driving on snow and ice, even with winter tyres. I might have preempted the conditions, but I can't say the same for everyone. I have even seen tyres which were so bald in the winter, that they could have been used as racing 'slicks'. Supposedly all vehicles are meant to carry snow chains during the winter months, but apparently 4x4s with Winter tyres don't have to. I am guessing that individual regions will have their own understanding of that bit of legislation. Every vehicle is meant to carry a fire extinguisher, a first aid kit, warning triangle and high visibility jackets, along with spare bulbs and anything else they can dream up. Soon each vehicle will need to tow a trailer just to cart all of these items round.

The weather does play havoc with the roads surfaces. In some areas there is more hole than road. Many rural areas were earmarked for road repairs this year, but due to various floods damaging roads elsewhere they have slipped back down the pecking order. The rains cause just as much damage as the freezing temperatures. Kerb stones and drainage are often not used, so if you glance at the side of the asphalt you will often see what looks like small dry stream beds. Not the kind of thing you want to put your wheel down into on a dark night. What road markings there might once have been will have long since disappeared. Often this is the reason why people drive along the crown of the road, rather than on the right side.

Potholes are another reason, and often when you follow someone it is almost as though they are on a slalom course. Following someone on an unfamiliar road is helpful, as at least you know roughly where the worst areas are. You just have to hope that there is nothing doing the same thing coming the opposite way. During the drier months it is not so bad as at least you can see just how big an obstacle it is going to be. In the wet it becomes a whole new adventure.

The camber on the road is often not as you would expect it to be, which tends to push surface water every which way. What might look like an innocent puddle, might hold a nasty surprise for the unwary. Potholes like lurking underneath puddles,and the puddles are often like a muddy soup. With more hedgerows being removed, more fields are moving into roads when it rains. This is great for concealing a pothole which is just waiting for an unsuspecting motorist. The pothole might be six inches deep, or for all you know it could be the birthing pool of either Jaws or Moby Dick. You will be in the middle of a potholed stretch of road before you see the first road sign warning you about the 'Uneven Road Surface'. The majority of road signs seem to have been placed as after thoughts, and the only people who gain any benefits are the hunters who use them for target practice.

Living out in the countryside you have the added joys of goats, sheep and cows being driven across the road, often adding to the 'mud'. Then there are the flocks of Geese and Turkeys, and not to forget the packs of marauding Chickens, along with sundry dogs and cats which have been let out to forage. Dark nights and foggy days can also give rise to the problem of the locals in their horse and carts, none of which have lights, or even a reflector on. In towns you have people acting like Lemmings, they walk behind your car as you start reversing, they will walk in the road when there is a perfectly good footpath, they will try crossing the road without looking, and many will ignore a pedestrian crossing to walk 10 yards further up the road and cross there. So driving here you need your wits about you, a revolving head (constantly in motion) and the eyes of an Eagle. Patience comes in handy, I always leave a large gap between me and the vehicle in front, although some see that as a challenge to find out just how many vehicles will fit into that gap. As I don't really have to be anywhere by a certain time I just let them carry on and smile when I see them stopped at a speed trap. So driving here is an experience, but with the quieter roads its not too bad at all, and once the Bulgarians have reached their destination and stepped out of their vehicle they revert back to the happy smiling polite people we know them to be.

Friday, 7 November 2014

That Time Of Year Again

It has reached that time of year when the weather is predictably unpredictable. As is often the case we have had our first snow, although I am glad to report that it didn't hang round for too long. It was here long enough for me to break out my snow shovel and reacquaint myself with how to use it. Maybe its a bit like riding a bike, in that its a 'skill' that you don't really forget. The only problem with the snow and the rain, was the mud that got left behind in their stead.

Halloween has been and gone for another year. Luckily that awful habit of trick or treating hasn't made it out into the villages yet, but judging by the amount of bits and pieces being sold in shops, perhaps its only a matter of time. One of the heads of the Eastern Orthodox over in Varna was calling on people to turn their backs on this unChristian celebration. Although to my mind the church has no room for argument, as how many religious festivals have their roots in old pagan celebrations? Which were adapted slightly so new converts would still have the partial familiarity of their old ways. In certain groups Samhain is given a higher priority than either Halloween, or even All Hallows Eve.

Once the snow and the rain had cleared away, and things had slowly started drying out we had the usual thick fog. During the day it isn't too bad, but it isn't very pleasant driving home in it after dark. Fortunately we are quite used to the ridge road home, so we have quite a good idea about where the bends are, how sharp they are and the direction that they take. As luck would have it they have carried out quite extensive road repairs, so there was no requirement to try and second guess where potholes might be lurking, waiting to jump out on unsuspecting motorists. There is one area which has been cleared of undergrowth for quite a way, and that does throw a bit of a spanner in the works with judging your position.

This time of year also means that the car is due for its annual roadworthiness test. To a certain extent it is the equivalent of the MOT which we have all had to go through in the UK. Once I had arranged a time and date I then have to make sure that I have all of the required paperwork to hand. You need your identification, both the big and little vehicle registration documents, a valid insurance certificate, both bits of the old MOT certificate and the one that I always have to hunt for proof that you have paid the municipal car tax. So on the required day I left home, through the final mist patches as the sun warms the ground up causing mist wraiths to slowly spiral up into the air. Fortunately the sheep in the next village were well away from the roads, as they have no road sense, and it possibly isn't a good idea to go for your MOT with a startled sheep sat on your car bonnet.

On getting to the test centre, I just hand over all of the paperwork, make sure that everything is there and that they know where the first aid kit, fire extinguisher and breakdown kit are stowed then go and find a coffee. Everything is done on CCTV now so in theory all vehicles on the road should be roadworthy and legal. Maybe the test isn't as strinent as the MOT in the UK, but every other year I get the car fully serviced before the MOT. Its mainly for our own peace of mind. To kill two birds with one stone this year I asked to have the new winter tyres put on as tyres are one thing that does get checked in the test. The other things are steering, axles, wheels lights, emissions, brakes, and safety equipment. So now we are running on Pirelli Scorpions for snow and ice. Not only that as they are dedicated SUV tyres they are also rated for mud, which is a definite plus when you live out in a village. We do tend to find ourselves driving through more mud than we do snow and ice anyway, as if the roads look bad I do the same as the villagers and get the bus. The word from my mechanic is that with a 4x4 and winter tyres there is no legal requirement to carry snow chains, now watch them change that ruling.

One thing that I don't really miss from UK life at this time of year is bonfire night. Maybe it has something to do with me having bonfres in the garden throughout the year, and the locals setting off fireworks to celebrate name days and birthdays, births and marriages. It just doesn't seem the same, also the animals appreciate the peace and quiet. They are much happier sprawled in front of one of the fires indoors, with maybe a louder piece of music to disturb them. One thing that I was pleasantly surprised about was, the amount of my Bulgarian friends living in the UK who are familiar with the traditional bonfire night rhyme. Not just the opening verse, but also the other ones too which I had long since forgotten, it must be an age thing, or at least that is my excuse and I'm sticking to it.

One thing that I do miss is the service of Remembrance. The only really organised one which I know of over here is with the British Embassy up in Sofia. There is a meeting of various ex forces members going on in VT this year, and hopefully that will become a regular thing and maybe spread to other cities. In years past others have come up with the idea of observing the two minutes silence at their nearest war memorial. I can never work out whether to observe the silence at 1100 in Bulgarian time, or to use 1100 UK time. To solve my dilemma I do it for both time zones.

Tuesday, 28 October 2014

An Old Question Answered

Every so often we get asked the question, "Why did you move to Bulgaria"? Some of you may well have heard this answer before, but I'm guessing that the majority haven't, until now.

For those of you who don't know me, I served in
the British Armed Forces for 24 years. Once my time was up it would then be time to head into Civvy Street. So a big decision needed to be made about the direction our lives would head. Net has always said that she had no intention of seeing out her days in the UK, so we decided to test the waters and think about living abroad. Others were in the same boat, and through various chats, discussions and idle musings New Zealand started to look a very attractive prospect, and after enquiring at the New Zealand High Commission in London we found that we were acceptable with our qualifications. It was time to get really serious, should we up sticks and move to the other side of the world, away from everything and everyone that we either knew or had known, family included? In the end we decided to shelve the idea temporarily, the deciding factor being that the two youngest children were still in school and it wouldn't be really fair to uproot them and disturb their education.

Fast forward a few years, we were both working, the children had grown up, had left school and were leading their own lives. Net started to get painful fingers and pains in her hands. At the Doctor's appointment she was diagnosed with the early stages of arthritis in both hands. Now this was quite a blow to Net as she does like doing her arts and crafts, especially her painting. Through reading various forums and helplines, it seems that its quite common, and is not helped by the damp British weather. So with the main concerns being our quality of life we resurrected our emigration plans, We discussed it with the family, and most said to go for it. So we got back in touch with the NZ High Commission, but they had moved the goalposts and no longer recognised my military qualifications. So undeterred we started looking at other options.

Initially we took quite a broad approach, and nowhere was off limits for our consideration. We looked at Australia, Canada, South Africa and even America. Slowly these places were discounted for one reason or another. Which mainly left Europe. At that time there were various TV programmes on about buying a place abroad, for all I know they might still be shown. Lots of places, which were shown, had plenty of merit, and because they often interviewed others who had made the move you began to get an insight into living a foreign lifestyle. We also got to hear some things which put us off various countries. Northern Europe we didn't really look at, as we felt that the weather would not be overly different to what we were trying to leave behind, and so Net's hands and fingers would not enjoy any benefits.

So it was looking more and more like somewhere round the Mediterranean. A friend who was retiring at about that time was enthusiastic about the Greek islands, especially Rhodes. So that made it onto our short list. I quite liked the idea of island living so Corsica, Sicily and Sardinia made it, as well as mainland Italy. Then one afternoon Net watched one of these programmes, and it featured Bulgaria. The first I knew about it was Net phoning me up at work and telling me all about the country which she had just discovered. Up until then my knowledge about Bulgaria was limited to they do some nice stamps, but they have 'funny' writing on them. I could open up an atlas and point to it, and tell you that it was formerly behind the 'Iron Curtain'.

So we joined various forums, and asked question after question. We read up on things, and tried to glean as much information as we could from as many sources as possible. The first thing was deciding where we wanted to live, neither of us are that keen on cities, so that ruled them out. We were already living on the coast in the UK, so we fancied something different. It seemed to be looking like a town or village inland. Despite being able to find the country in an atlas, neither of us had been to Bulgaria before. So our next stage would be to actually go and have a look. We were fortunate enough to deal with a wonderful estate agency. We gave them a list of properties which we were interested in viewing, they sorted out transport to and from the airport and accommodation. Our first experience of Bulgaria was as we came out of the airport and through the shanty town. Now I have been to some less than salubrious places round the world, but it looked awful. If that was an indication of what Bulgaria had to offer, I could see it being a wasted journey.

Fortunately once we left Sofia, things became more and more scenic, and I could see Net thinking "I could paint that, and I could paint that". Now maybe I'm a bit of a soft touch but if Net's happy then I'm happy. All thoughts of Sofia's less than desirable area were soon forgotten as we headed towards Veliko Tarnovo, one of the former capitals. Net was as happy as a little sand boy, plenty of history and plenty of different scenery to paint. We had even checked up on the average temperatures, and worked out that when we went across it would be the coldest time of the year. We wanted to see if Net's hands and fingers would be able to cope. Thanks to it being a dry cold they didn't give any problems at all. We even found a very nice house here in the village of Paisii, thanks to the agency, with barns that could be turned into a studio.

So now we find ourselves fortunate enough to be living in this small village, here in Bulgaria. Net has somewhere to paint during the summer months, with plenty of natural light. On going projects can be left where they are and don't have to be packed away. During the winter its slightly different as most of it gets brought indoors so that the cold doesn't affect it. Mostly Net works with acrylics, and for the first few years trying to find fresh tubes, tubs and pots of the stuff was a bit hit and miss. We have found a small art shop in VT which stocks Winsor & Newton, and Reeves acrylic paints, along with canvases and good quality brushes. Apparently it helps to stick to one type of paint as you know how to thin it, and to work it to achieve the desired results.

Once upon a time we acted as a host family for foreign students who came to the UK to learn English. Many of them were fascinated to watch Net create one of her paintings. All too often they were badgering Net to allow them to take 'that' painting home as a souvenir. Not only have people paid money to have one of Net's paintings, but people have also commissioned her to paint for them. I think that the furthest Net's paintings have gone is Colombia one way and Hong Kong the other way.

Sometimes Net has offered, or been asked, to donate a painting to be raffled or auctioned for charity. All too often they get given away to friends and neighbours. There is even a set of three paintings by Net hanging in our village Kmet's office. I do have to admit that I love the smell of paints and inks as they are being used or as they are drying. Maybe I associate them with my aunt, as she was one of the last lithographic printers left in England while she was alive. She will be happy knowing that Net still uses her old drawing board, and that out of all her brushes Net still likes to use some of Auntie Rena's battered and mangled ones which we 'rescued' from the bin.

Sometimes I get asked if I paint too, and besides using a six inch paintbrush and a tin of emulsion the answer is unfortunately no. However, on occasion I have been known to pick up pencils and draw. With paint I can never seem to get the colours to merge or to flow how I want them too. If I feel extremely adventurous I will even have a go at pen and ink drawing. Net did try teaching me how to draw with charcoal once, but I ended up with a smudgie mess and looking like I had been cleaning the flue pipes.

The good news is that Net is still enjoying her painting, and that her hands and fingers are an awful better than if we had stayed in the UK. So hopefully that has answered the question for you all.

Thursday, 23 October 2014

Hibernation Starts

We woke up this morning and on looking out of the window we were confronted with a grey, gloomy looking sky. Turning the radio on proved that we were still in Bulgaria, and had not been mysteriously transported back to the UK during the night. I don't remember noticing the weather forecast warning that it would degrade before the weekend. I had things that I had planned to do outside, such as another bonfire to get rid of more garden bits and bobs. Once it started raining that put the kibosh on that idea. I am glad that all of the wood is now up under the barn, cut into cheeses and drying out ready for next year. So far the running repairs which I had to carry out on my English splitting axe are still holding out.

So if my previously planned outdoor activities couldn't go ahead, then I would give Net a hand indoors. With two of us doing it we could give the house a good go through before the onset of winter. Very much like Spring cleaning, but in the Autumn. As we don't have carpets, normally everything is swept by broom, but today the Dyson made its way out from its lair in the cupboard under the stairs.

Another added benefit of the vacuum cleaner coming out is that I can get the nozzle into some of the higher corners. Admittedly I'm no man mountain, but I am taller than Net, so it makes more sense for me to do things like that. Now although it might be heading towards Halloween, and cobwebs might be considered seasonal in certain circles, if Net tells me that they have to go, well who am I to argue. Unfortunately it wasn't just the webs which ended up being sucked up, but several spiders also made that one way trip. I am sure that I didn't manage to get all of the spiders and tomorrow webs will be back festooning the corners of the ceilings. At least with the damp weather now, there shouldn't be so much dust flying around from the fields and roads around the village. So hopefully the new webs might not be quite so noticeable.

So while I was causing death and destruction to the local spider community I started thinking about some of the other bugs and beasties which we get indoors. It wasn't until we moved to Bulgaria, that we first confronted these House Centipedes. They are mainly nocturnal, or inhabit shadowy areas, and supposedly prey on other insects and bugs. I have never seen them eating or even hunting their prey, but I have seen them running across the wall when disturbed. I will say one thing for them, they do have a fair turn of speed, as a consequence we refer to them as road runners. We have been told that they do bite, fortunately neither of us have had to experience that. Also their feet have an acid like substance on them, so if they do run across bare skin there is the possibility of an allergic reaction.

Another set of visitors at this time of year, are the ladybirds. They are looking for somewhere to hibernate during the winter months. You would be surprised at just how many sneak into your home each day, and then all of a sudden you will find a colony of them. Everyone seems to think that they are harmless, unless you are an aphid, but these are something else that will bite you. That's gratitude for you.

Our latest visitor arrived courtesy of one of our cats, thanks for that Brahms. Those living in the country will be well aware of all of the work going on in fields. As fields of stubble have been burnt, and then turned over by rough ploughs, their normal inhabitants have found themselves being evicted. So they head into the villages trying to find somewhere warm and dry. Our cats certainly seem to know where to sniff out these new neighbours, judging by some of the dissections we find on garden paths. We wouldn't have minded so much had Brahms let us know that he was bringing a friend home to tea, but nothing had been said. The first we knew about it was when we saw Mr Mouse just sat there cleaning his whiskers. A quick swat with the brush stunned it, and I was able to scoop it up and move it outside. My problem was trying to place it somewhere out of temptation for the cats, otherwise they would try and bring it back indoors. At least we haven't had to face any visitors which hiss this year.

When you consider that this weekend the clocks are due to change, as is the weather, we shouldn't be that surprised with things trying to find somewhere to hibernate. I don't know about anyone else but the clocks changing always seems to come round so quickly. Maybe even more so this year, as it feels that it has been a very wet summer. The good news is that most of our winter preparations are already either complete, or under way. So I hope that the really bad weather doesn't set in yet, the nights getting colder we expect, and delicate plants have been moved under shelter

Sunday, 12 October 2014

Winter Preps Continue

We were working out the other day, that we have now lived here in Paisii for just over six years. In all of that time the only things to stay the same each winter, have been our preparations for it. No two winters have been the same, we have faced mild damp winters and bitterly cold winters. In all honesty I preferred the bitterly cold as we did at least see blue skies, rather than oppressive leaden grey skies. So here we are fast approaching mid October and our preparations are already underway. It might still be temperatures into the 20s, but there is much to be said for the old adage about 'making hay while the sun shines'. Also making an early start means that things aren't done in a rush. Having said that we are bound to forget something, as 'I' always seem to manage to do. So while the weather is decent I have mainly been focussing on the tasks which need doing outside, while Net has been doing some of the indoor things as well as being my director of operations.

I have made the most of it being dry this week and have had my ladders out again. This time I have been up on the roof and checking for cracked tiles, damaged flashing round chimneys, and any damage to the pointing on the ridge tiles. As the tiles used here are like the fired clay type, it doesn't take long for the extremes of temperatures to cause damage. If any are cracked rainwater can come in, and if that freezes a cracked tile can become a broken tile. So I find that a check in the Autumn and another one in the Spring potentially saves me a lot of problems. Remember me writing about having to trim the branches of the walnut outside? While I was up on the roof I was able to have a good look along the length of the power lines, and could see that there shouldn't be any problems with snow laden branches this year, and hopefully next.

As previously reported we have arranged, and taken delivery of, our wood supply from the Kmet. Compared to our first year here getting proper 'stamped' wood is so much better than falling for the locals "We will get you wood". Heaven only knows what rubbish we were sold at an extortionate price, but at the time we didn't know any better and now we get legal wood via the village Mayor's office. This year, along with my other bits and pieces to do, I am cutting it up myself. With two different size fires we were having to sort out the wood as to what piece would fit into which fire when the locals cut it up. Admitedly they were quick doing it, but last year we found it so much easier to cut the logs to the size we wanted, not to the size others thought might do for us. As last winter was so mild we still have plenty of wood left over from then. So we have tried to keep the new wood separate from the old wood, which just makes things take that much longer. The new stuff hasn't really had any chance to age, and is still quite sappy. It will burn, but not as well, and it will produce more smoke, soot and sappy resin which will coat the inside of the flue pipes meaning they have to be cleaned more often.

Throughout the winter, I clean the flue pipes round about every 4 to 6 weeks, but one of my pre-winter prep jobs is to dismantle them and give them a thorough clean. Last year I was able to make sure that I had enough spare pipes so that I was able to completely change all of the flues. This meant I was able to clean the old pipes up under the barn, out of the way of the wind. It also meant that the fires could be relit a lot sooner, so we weren't losing as much of the warmth from indoors. It is a filthy job and I do look like a reject from the black and white minstrel show, but it is an essential job. Most chimney fires are caused by the resin coating the insides of chimneys, and a build up of soot can mean that your fire will not draw as well as it should do.

The garden has benefitted from a tidy up, and a lot of the bits and bobs have ended up on the bonfire. I'm not too worried about the fallen leaves just yet, as there are still plenty up in the trees to come down. I shall be collecting the Hazel nuts up in the next week or so, but this year the walnuts seem to be a lot smaller than usual, perhaps the weather in the summer has affected them in the same way it did the fruit in the trees. Most of the vegetables have now been lifted from the garden, and prepped and placed in one of the freezers ready for use in the winter.

Now is also the time that Net starts cooking more. With just the two of us it is quite easy, everything gets doubled, we eat what we would normally eat and the rest is bagged and tagged and put in the freezer. To save on freezer space plastic containers have a plastic bag fitted inside. Whatever is placed in the bag which is then sealed, the whole lot is frozen. When I put the next lot in the freezer the previous day's offerings are then tipped out of the plastic containers and are easily stacked. I have to admit that it was touch and go as to whether the extra chicken curry made it up to the freezer or not. Heavier curtains are going up and rugs are going down. Summer clothes are being put away and warmer clothes are coming up. Jackets and jumpers are in evidence whenever you go into town. I've even had to start wearing socks again.

Gas bottles are being charged up, and hoses on gas fires are being replaced. We are starting the siege mentality when we go shopping, and cupboards will soon be groaning at the seams and hinges. Some things we can get at the local 'magazin' but other things we can't. Things like pet food we end up stocking up with, any medication that is needed, or think that we might need is also squirreled away. Then there is also the winterisation of vehicles to consider, no-one knows how cold this winter might be so I get the strongest anti freeze and screen wash that I can find. Check the winter tyres, the list seems to be endless, but at the end of the day it is all for our own benefit. So I might spend the next few weeks sweating like a marine in a spelling test, fishing sawdust and wood chips from places I wish they hadn't found their way too, smelling like an Arbroath smokie although hopefully without the fishiness, and looking like a cross between Stig of the dump and an old Tramp, but it will be worth it in the end.

Before we know it this shot on the left will soon look like the photo on the right. Looking back at last year's blog entries we had the first snow at the change between November and December.

Talking about blog articles, for those who follow the facts and figues, at the start of this year the blog had been accessed 30,000 times. It now stands at more than 77,000 and that is all down to you. One article on its own has been accessed more than 2,000 times. So if you read the blog, and especially if you share the blog with friends and family, you have my deepest thanks, and please carry on doing so.