Thursday, 4 December 2014

Surviving Winter - A Dozen Helpful Hints

Perhaps you have noticed that along with the days getting shorter, the temperatures are also dropping. With this persistent damp spell that we are having at the moment it perhaps feels a bit colder than it actually is. You can rest assured that the temperatures will continue to decrease going into the New Year. Hopefully it won't be as harsh as some years, and maybe it will be just as mild as last winter. One thing that we can safely say though is that in the time we have been here no two winters have been the same. Supposedly we have experienced both the coldest and mildest winters on record. We are still here to tell the tale, complete with all fingers and toes, so if we can survive the winters here then anyone can. Hopefully some of the things which we have learnt along the way might come in handy for others, this is by no means an exhaustive list, and what might work for us might not work for others. As the adverts tell us all, "Every little helps".

1. Leave taps dripping when the temperatures drop. It is harder for moving water to freeze rather than static water. Just think the surface of a lake on pond will freeze before a stream or river. If you have water supplies for animals outside try floating a couple of tennis balls in their water troughs. I did read somewhere that a couple of drops of olive oil on the surface of the water might also help. Its also worthwhile finding out where your water pipe run, just in case you do end up with a frozen pipe somewhere. Try increasing the ambient temperature in the relevant room, that should help thaw your pipes out before you end up with a burst. If you are going away during the winter, drain down all waterworks before leaving.

2. It is worthwhile sorting out torches and candles now, rather than when you actually need them. Every year there are reports of villages without power for days on end. So it is also a good idea to stock up on spare batteries too. If you do end up losing power can you still cook and make yourself hot drinks? One of the first things which we were advised to buy was a dual fuel cooker, two of the top rings are electric and the other two run off of bottled gas. Some of the villages are quite remote so getting work crews there to fix the power supply problem can take a bit of time. For those who dislike silence might I suggest a battery radio, even if it is just on in the background for noise.

3. Many of us, certainly those living  in villages, seem to adopt a bit of a siege mentality. Villagers were busy jarring and bottling at the end of the summer. We do it the easy way we buy extra tins, packets and jars as part of our normal shopping. When we were cooking we did extra, this was then frozen. As a result we have full freezers and cupboards. Extra basics have been bought and put away, such as flour and other bits for baking bread. One good thing about village life is that there is still a sense of community, and everyone looks out for everyone else. No one is in danger of starving, even if the local shop fell down. Don't just stay indoors, even if you just go for a walk round the village or checking up on elderly neighbours, you are seeing as well as being seen. Not a lot escapes the watchful eyes of the village Buba network.

4. Check for draughts, before we put double glazing in, this house was like living in a wind tunnel. Breezes and gusts of wind were easy to detect but the smaller draughts were more difficult. We found that joss sticks were ideal for this, as a slight draught would disturb the smoke plume. It also has the added benefit of making the house smell nice, fortunately neither of us felt inclined to play finger cymbals or chant Hare Krishna as we searched for draughts. We also found that putting insulation up in the roof space really made a difference. I have to admit that getting it right the way to the edge of the eaves was a pain in the backside but it was worth it. One downside to eliminating the majority of draughts is that it can make your fire harder to light, so sometimes we have to vent a door or window to slightly open to increase the airflow.

5. When we first got here we found it really difficult to get rock salt for the paths. We also discovered that salting paths degrades the concrete, and we ended up with ours cracking up and faling to pieces. The next year I watched the villagers, and they use the ash from their fires. If you intend using ash I would strongly advise keeping it in a metal bucket, as there is always the possiblity of a red ember being thrown out when you clean your fire. At least a metal bucket won't burn or melt. You do end up with ash footprints throughout the house, as no matter how often I show them the dogs and cats stillhaven't got the hang of wiping their feet. With the ash being a darker colour and sunshine is absorbed by it faster and so helps thaw out paths, steps, driveways and roads. If you are using it on the last two try and make sure that there are no nails from the firewood, before you spread it round.

6. Everyone knows that metal conducts heat, but few consider that it will do the same with cold. Think of those metal door handles on an external door, they have a metal bar which connects the two handle portions. So -15C outside is also brought indoors too. Round about that temperature skin sticks to metal and you can get cold burns. To get round this we wrap out kichen cloths round the inside handles, as its fair to say that my brain doesn't want to fully wake up first thing in the morning. This is also one reason why we don't leave keys hanging in door locks overnight. Another reason is that if your car keys are in that bunch, the chip inside the keyfob bit can be killed by the cold. Any padlocks are sprayed with WD40 to displace any moisture which might freeze.

7. This probably isn't as much of a concern for those not living in villages, but what would you do if the front glass cracked and broke on your wood burner. It wasn't a concern for us until someone tried to combine the temperatures of Mount Vesuvius erupting and the Towering Inferno. As Sod's Law dictates this happened when the village was cut off and nothing was getting in or out for two days. Fortunately we do have alternate heating, but as a consequence I now hold spare glasses for both wood burners. The Prity fire is the easiest of the two as in their spares catalogue the dimensions are given. The other fire is a mystery fire with no maker's name on it anywhere, so the only way to get that replaced is to actually get it measured. You've already guessed which glass broke, to get it measured it was a case of getting as many pieces as we could and try and make up a jigsaw. I also had to make sure that it was fire resistant glass, or what I would call Amber Glass, just in case Junior Assistant Arsonist fancies re-enacting Krakatoa erupting.

 8. Whilst I am mentioning fires always keep a supply of both firewood and kindling close at hand. Somewhere that it can remain dry and out of the weather. If the weather does turn bad overnight at least you will have a ready supply to tide you over until you can go and replenish your come in handy stock later in the day. At least by the time you have moved firewood and kindling over from your main supply your house will be nice a warm.

9. Something which might seem obvious is all too often overlooked. We often get snow here in Bulgaria, and to enable ourselves to continue to move about we need to clear snow away from paths, steps, driveways and roads. To do this many of us use a humble snow shovel. The first time people want to use it, they discover that it is still in their shed. So they then have to wade through knee deep snow to get to their shed, where they have to clear the snow away, so that they can get in there to get the snow shovel. If the snow shovel was kept somewhere close at hand it makes digging these various snow trenches so much easier. It might not look wonderful propped up against the side of the house, but not only does it mean snow clearing operations can start much quicker but it also provides a handy perch for some  of the local birdlife.

 10. If you do have to go out and about chances are that you will be confronted by ice. We might not be allowed to use studded tyres here, but we can sometimes find these devices which slip on over shoes to provide additional grip. We do have to remember to take them off before going into a shop or a cafe, as they prefer not to have perforated floors. Another method, which is popular in villages are the oversize wool socks. Again these are pulled on over your normal footwear and provide some extra grip. As an added bonus they don't mark floors, and are probably easier to find than their modern day counterparts.

11. A lot of people jokingly refer to their mobile phones as their lifeline. During the winter, in a village, they can be exactly that. So it is worthwhile making sure that you know the phone numbers for the various emergency services, better still stire them in the phones memory. Also it is important to make sure that while power is on that you ensure that your mobile phone has a reasonable amount of battery power. We also have an in car charger too, so that in an emergency the mobiles can be charged that way.

12. Finally what can we do to help keep ourselves warm? It isn't necessary to put on one thick heavy coat and look like the Michelin Man, layers of thinner clothes will probably work out just as effective. This is because layers of warm air get trapped between the different layers of materials. Wool hats, gloves and scarves are also important, as even when its wet wool will still warm. The tips of the ears are very thin skinned, and don't have a great deal of blood supplied to them so keep then tucked up inside your hat if you have short hair. My winter shoes and boots are bigger than my summer footwear, and this means that I can comfortably wear eaxtra socks. During the winter I tend not to shave every day, and sometimes I look like a cross between Stig of the Dump and Santa's deranged cousin. If I do shave then it is done of an evening rather than in the morning.

Hopefully someone will find at least one of these hints helpful. If you can think of any more then please make a comment below. Remember anyone can be uncomfortable, but it is up to us to pass on information to help each other.

Saturday, 29 November 2014

Stay Warm, Stay Safe

The other week there was talk in the Facebook group about fire safety (cheers Ian), and what people actually knew about it and tips that they could pass on. The only downside to something like that is that all too soon it disappears as new topics come up and push it further down the page. As it is such an important thing I thought that perhaps it might be worthwhile putting something like that in here, where it is easier to find. As we are approaching the winter it is possibly more important than at other times of the year. The days are getting colder, the nights colder still, and in an effort to keep ourselves warm we try to heat rooms in a variety of ways. Unfortunately with the heating attempts there is always the possibility of fire. Most of us have seen news reports about the devastation which fires can cause, but how many of us realise that we can actually take steps to help ourselves prevent such a mishap.

As many of you know we live out in the middle of nowhere, and if we did suffer the catastrophe of a fire by the time that the alarm had been raised and a fire crew had arrived on scene all that would be left of our home would be some charred timbers and smoking rubble. To our minds that is certainly a very valid reason for getting the house and contents insured. Hopefully it is something which we will never have to claim on, but for peace of mind it is a necessary expense each year. As I previously mentioned there are various steps which we can take to help minimise the risks. We do have the wood burners, but they are not our sole means of heating. We also have gas fires, oil filled radiators,electric fan heaters and circulatory fans built into most of the ceiling lights. One of my first jobs in the autumn is to make sure that everything is clean and that it works properly. If it has got a power lead, the lead is checked to ensure that mice haven't been taking bites out of it or that it is not damaged in anyway, paying attention to the plug. For the gas heaters the connection units are tested to make sure that they work properly, and in turn they are used to check that they cause the valve units om the gas bottles to open and close. The flexible rubber hoses seem to go a bit porous over the course of a year so I replace them and any worm drive clips necessary. The ceiling fans get switched over so they are now pushing the warm air from the light bulbs down into the room.    

Like many people though our prime source of heat comes from the wood burners, we have them at either end of the house. Every year I dismantle the flue pipes and check them, especially along the seams. If I am even slightly dubious they get replaced. The whole run gets thoroughly swept and cleaned, paying particular attention to the 90 degree bends. Bearing in mind that these flue pipes do get hot it is worthwhile taking your time when deciding where they will run. Even though it looks close to the wooden roof beam in the photo, there is about a two foot gap. Anyway I dismantle the flue pipes and clean them on roughly a six weekly cycle, depending on what I am burning, and how often the fires are lit. Talking of which try not to burn rubbish (especially plastics) and green wood in the fires.

People might think that wood is wood, and that it all burns the same. Fresh wood still has a lot of sap and resins in it, which is why you can smell freshly split timber. If you burn this fresh wood the fire is not as efficient. For one thing a lot of the heat is used to boil off the sap so that the wood becomes dry enough to burn. The resin and gases are carried along the flue pipes of chimney until they start to cool. At which point they will start to stick to the sides as a tarry creosote type substance. If you do that often enough and then burn good dry seasoned wood it is possible for the creosote to then catch fire and you end up with a chimney fire. Green wood is also harder to light and produces more smoke. It makes sense to get smoke detectors and carbon monoxide detectors fitted. Personally I prefer the battery powered ones as opposed to mains powered, as you never know when you are likely to get a power cut. Test them on a regular basis and keep spare batteries in stock. We can count ourselves as very fortunate in that twice we have been woken by them going off to find a house full of white smoke.

Its easier to see the funny side of it looking back on things, but at 3am wearing only a bathrobe and a pair of flip flops with all windows and doors open at -18C it was a definite sense of humour failure. Now we don't put any more wood on the fire after 9pm, and at bedtime all of the embers are raked together and then all the fire's vents and doors are closed. The good thing about our lounge being down in the cellar is that the stone walls are 2 feet thick and act as a night storage heater. Many of us live in traditional Bulgarian village houses which we have modernised. Perhaps the fitting of double glazing has cut down on a lot of the draughts which used to be there. Apart from being a pain in the backsides these draughts used to help start the fires with a constant air flow, now sometimes I have to open the cellar door or a window to create that airflow. Another reason could be that it is getting towards the end of my six week sweeping cycle and there could be a build up of soot. I now have a complete spare set of flue pipes, so in half an hour the old run is dismantled and the new lengths are fitted. I can then do my Black and White Minstrel audition up in the barn where its out of the wind and snow as I clean the old flue pipes at my leisure. If the glass is blackening then that could be another indication that you are in need of having your chimney or flue pipes swept.

When you look at one of these wood burners you can see that all they are is a metal box with fire bricks inside. Ours in the cellar also stands in its own metal tray. The heat is conducted down the metal legs and starts to warm up the metal tray which in turn warms up the ceramic floor tiles. No wonder that area is so popular with the dogs and cats.The heat from the metal sides radiates out and helps to warm the room, and due to convection the heat also rises straight up and the travels across the ceiling until it starts cooling. So that is how your room gets heated. Hopefully you can see why it is a good idea to keep flammable things a safe distance away from your wood burner. Logs might look good stacked up alongside in photos, but unless you are constantly moving and rotating those logs radiated and conducted heat are constantly drying them out. Logs are flammable, which is why we burn them in the first place, so always try and leave a sensible air gap between the fire and any combustable material.

You might even have heard about the traditional brick built Djamals, and how wonderful they are. They are very efficient burning at temperatures of something like 1000C, so there is not even any ash left, the bricks just act like a night storage heater. We have some Djamals in our house, and when we moved in we were told that they are perfectly safe to use. The one shown was in our kitchen, and we wanted to increase the size of the kitchen and let more light in so that wall and the Djamal had to go. Now I have no doubt that originally it was wonderful and probably provided all of the cooking and heating needs. However when we took the wall down we found so many burnt and charred timbers that it kind of put us off lighting any of the others, so now they are kept purely as part of the charm and history of the house.

The purpose of this article is not to cause worry, but hopefully to point out a few steps which we can all take to help make our winter evenings a bit safer. It is up to the individual how much attention they pay towards fire safety, and the steps that they take. We might well be the exceptions rather than the rule, but we also have fire extinguishers and a fire blanket up in the kitchen. Although we don't do fire drills we do know safe evacuation routes just in case the worst should happen. It always pays to plan ahead.

On the cold dark winter nights the wood burners do come into there own. There is so much rubbish on the TV that it kind of makes sense curling up in front of the fire with a good book. If the animals will actually let you get anywhere near to it.  


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.