Monday, 16 March 2015

Has Spring Sprung Yet?

Well here we are midway through March, and I keep asking myself whether Spring has finally arrived. Baba Marta is holding true to form, and is being very indecisive, but I wake up each morning in the hope of sunshine. At the moment the wind is still mainly coming from the North, and it still has a bit of bite to it. Some areas of the country are facing major problems, with big snowfalls which are now melting, being cut off due to the weather, and power cuts as the power companies can't get to the downed power lines. So maybe up here in the hills, in Paisii we aren't doing so bad. Sometimes we do get some sunshine during the day, but the evenings can still be a bit chilly. If it is damp outside we light the fire, if not the gas fire goes on.

When the sun is out, the cats and dogs have their favourite sunny spots already. Fenric has really got things worked out, as he goes up under the barn and drags his blanket where he wants it. If the sun moves, he just gets up and drags his blanket to his next spot. Whoever said that Boxers were clowns and not intelligent, hasn't met Fen. I just wish that before he comes in he would put his blanket back from where he got it, but that seems to be my job. Sometimes, if he's feeling generous, he will drag all the blankets out and build a dog nest which he will share with Sirius and Polly. On a rare occasion they will even share with a couple of the cats, but that seems fair as they will share in front of the fire with the dogs.

I am still waiting for the magic switch to be thrown, when everything in the village seems to burst into life at the same time. At the moment the trees are still looking all branches and twigs, but they are covered in leaf buds. Due to the height of the village we do tend to be a couple of weeks behind everywhere else. Down towards the bottom of the ridge road I did notice a few of the roadside shrubs slowly showing signs of green leaves, so it won't be much longer to wait. I have already noticed that the birds are more inclined to sing up in the trees around us, rather than huddle together coughing and sneezing. The cats have already started bringing us presents, yesterday it was a Salamander and a Tree Frog, not to mention various piles of feathers and bits of mouse.

Down in the South of the country, the Storks have already been spotted, but they have yet to make an appearance here. So for the time being we are still wearing our Martenitsi. We have started straightening the garden up after the winter, and rather than looking red and white, my Martenitsi are looking more red and grey and a bit grubby. Even though the sky is looking a bit overcast we now have washing out on the line. I have even managed to have a bonfire the other day, burning off dead leaves and twigs which have magically appeared over the winter. I'm sure that I did  it all in the Autumn. The remnants of the bonfire is now a bit soggy after this weekend's rain, but at least it means I'm not tempted to light it while the washing is out, probably saving me from a fate worse than death. The ground is fairly sticky underfoot, and that means mud. Although Bulgarian mud seems more like superglue, as it sticks to everything. So this morning we were more concerned with doing more spring cleaning indoors. Windows have been opened, and the bodies of the zombie ladybirds have been swept up. The windows have been washed, walls wiped down, and ceilings de-cobwebbed along with various spiders being evicted.

When we bought our house, the rule was that as a foreigner we had to create a company to do so. So like many we now have a company which doesn't actually do anything, but we still have to submit yearly accounts, which also have to be submitted for entry onto the national trade register. So all of the paperwork for that has been sorted out. Those buying property now don't have to do this as far as I am aware. We have also been and paid our municipal property and vehicle taxes. Our property tax bill was just under 25 Leva, but by paying it before the end of April we got a 5% discount. With the way that Sterling is at the moment it means that our equivalent to council tax works out at something like £11.43. As I was in town doing all of that I also renewed our house insurance, so that's us covered for another year. I did notice that the weather must be slowly warming up as most people are no longer wearing hats, some even had coats and jackets undone. It isn't quite t-shirt and shorts weather just yet, but soon the ice cream stalls will be out and about and I can sit in the square and indulge in just watching the world go by.

The snowdrops might have been and gone, but there are masses of wild crocuses along the roadside and in our garden. The daffodils and tulips are pushing up through the cold damp earth. Everything is poised for that switch to be thrown, and for Spring to be ushered in, including me. We might still get a few flurries of snow, but rain is more likely now. Weatherwise, March here has always reminded me of April back in the UK, but I wouldn't swap locations. The scent of woodsmoke on the air is getting less each day, it's being replaced by the smell of damp earth as they slowly start working in the fields. It really is a great place to live.  

Monday, 2 March 2015

A Busy Start To March

Early March is always a busy time here in Bulgaria, and it began yesterday. Many people have asked what all the fuss is about with Baba Marta, so I have decided to put my previous March blog bits into this new post to save people trawling through older posts in the archive. So even though the 1st was yesterday, some people still aren't aware about what it all signifies. Then there is also Liberation Day, which is celebrated tomorrow the 3rd. That is then closely followed on the 8th by Ladies Day. We also have our wedding anniversary to look forward to, and yes I do remember the date and how many years. I also remember what day we met and where, so the long term memory hasn't gone just yet. We also have various birthdays within the family, so it's all go here. So firstly let's have a look at one of my favourite celebrations, Baba Marta.

It is the celebration to welcome the coming of Spring and the waning of Winter. It is depicted by a cranky old lady called Baba Marta, or Grandmother Marta. Marta is a play on words for March, the month being called Mart in Bulgarian. Weather wise we find that it is quite similar to April in the UK, one day it can be brilliant sunshine and the next you can be confronted by all sorts of weather. I seem to remember something being said about in like a Lion and out like a Lamb. So the weather can be as contrary as an old lady, one day she can be all sweetness and light, but the next it could be like she has been on a diet of vinegar and lemons. Definitely not an old lady to mess with, and one who will keep you on your toes. So far she has been smiling, so the sun has been out today. It is so much nicer to hear the birds singing in the trees, rather than coughing and sneezing. There have even been a few bees lazily droning by, hunting for the crocuses and snowdrops which are now out in the garden. The daffodils and tulips are also pushing their way up through the soil, hopefully they won't come up blind this year or that we have some late frosts.

On the 1st March Bulgarians exchange Martenitsi, and wish each other Chestita Baba Marta! The custom is to essentially wish each other good health, luck and happiness. When Baba Marta is smiling the sun shines and the weather is warm, but when cross, or her bunions are playing her up, the cold stays longer and it may even snow.

These Martenitsi are the red and white ornaments, made from twisted threads and are often worn around the wrist or neck, pinned to the left side of clothing, especially coats and jackets. You can even see them decorating house doors and hanging in vehicles, some people even buy them for their pets to wear. At this time of year there are many stalls selling these Martenitsi, but there are still those who prefer to do things the traditional way and will hand make them for their friends and family. The colours are quite significant, with white symbolising strength, purity and happiness, and the red with health, blood and fertility. As shown in this picture Snowdrops are quite often incorporated as they are often the first things flowering after winter.

Quite often you will notice that a couple of figures are represented, and these are known as Pizho and Penda. Pizho is the male figure, and can be identified by being mainly white. As you might have deduced the mainly red figure is the female of the two, and is called Penda. Maybe it is a Bulgarian version of Yin and Yang, with all things being balanced out.

There are different schools of thinking, firstly there are those who feel that a Martenitsa can be thought of as an amulet and is used for protection against Baba Marta, whose mercurial temperament can cause unexpected misfortune. Baba Marta is thought to be gentler and more forgiving towards the person who is wearing a Martenitsa. Some feel that a Martenitsa can also be used for fortune telling or to encourage the desirable outcome of a wish. Some also believe that wearing a Martenitsa will also hasten the coming of Spring. I have to admit to being guilty to smiling when I see the Martenitsa stalls set up, it gives me a little lift thinking that soon the warmer weather will be back with us. Even though the daytime temperatures look to be holding quite steady, the night time temperatures are set to remain above zero. Now that we are wearing our Martenitsi I have already started my annual version of Stork watch, the good news for us is that last year a pair of young Storks built a nest in the village.

Tomorrow sees a very important day in the Bulgarian calendar, so all shops are closed as it is a public holiday. This year marks 137 years of Bulgaria's Liberation from under the Ottoman yoke, where they had been held for five centuries. The actual Independence Day is celebrated later in the year in September. So tomorrow commemorates the signing of the San Stefano peace treaty in 1878 between the Empires of Russia and Turkey, which enabled the Bulgarian nation to re-emerge, although that wasn't the final version of the peace treaty.

This peace treaty came at the end of the war of Liberation which was fought between 1877 and 1878. The Russians became involved due to atrocities that the Ottomans had carried out against the Bulgarians in the April uprising of 1876. Fortunately it was reported by an American journalist who was working for the British press.

There are many famous names linked to the Independence movement of the 1870s, some are even known to us foreigners, some of who I have mentioned in previous blog posts. People such as Hristo Botev, Georgi Rakovski, Lyuben Karavelov and Vassil Levski were leading figures in the Independence movement but the deciding factor in ousting the Turks was the Russian involvement. This was when Tsar Alexander II of Russia declared war against the Ottoman Empire, over concerns about treatment of orthodox christians in Bulgaria. After the liberation Bulgaria came under Russian administration for a couple of years, but it also allowed Bulgaria a gradual transition to achieving nationhood once again.

Tomorrow there will be celebrations held throughout the country. There are normally large solemn celebrations held at the memorial atop the Shipka Pass, which was where fierce fighting took place during the war. This is of such significance that various politicians, and heads of the military, are often in attendance. Flowers and notes of thanks are often placed at the various liberation memorials on this day. The parades are quite sombre occasions, but once the wreaths have been laid it is time to celebrate, and the Bulgarians don't need much of an excuse to enjoy a party. Don't be at all surprised if fireworks light up the night sky tomorrow evening, hopefully Baba Marta will keep her happy head on, and the weather will be good.

Ladies day is hopefully quite self explanatory, and if you are in one of the villages it is quite possible that the village ladies will come calling. That is next weekend so no need to panic just yet.

Thursday, 19 February 2015

Who Was Vasil Levski?

Any tourist visiting Bulgaria will notice that one name keeps on cropping up. It is seen on sports stadia, schools, roads, and public parks to give just a few examples. This one name is enshrined in Bulgarian history, and that is Vasil Levski. For many Bulgarians, this man epitomises all that is good and great about Bulgaria. Sadly his name is not widely known outside of the country, which is a shame. Consider what Martin Luther King did for the civil rights movement, and it is probably fair to say that Vasil Levski did just as much for Bulgaria and Bulgarians. Yet European history has managed to largely ignore his efforts and sacrifice. So who was this man Vasil Levski?

He was born on the 18th July 1837, to his parents Ivan Kunchev and Gina Kuncheva, in the town of Karlovo. In honour of his maternal Uncle he was named Vasil Ivanov Kunchev. His parents were part of the emerging middle classes, with his father being a craftsman and his mother's family being part of the clergy. At that point in Bulgarian history the country had been under Ottoman rule for more than 400 years. Bulgarians and other Christians were treated as second class citizens by the Ottoman establishment, and constant friction arose because of differing religious beliefs. Young Vasil's father died in 1844, leaving his wife Gina to raise Vasil and his siblings. He had 2 younger brothers Hristo and Petar, an elder sister Yana and a younger one, Maria.

His education began in Karlovo, and he was also a local craftsman's apprentice studying tailoring. At the age of 18 his maternal Uncle, who was a superior Abbot and envoy of the Hilandar monastery, took him to Stara Zagora where he gained further schooling, while working as the elder Vasil's servant. He also undertook clerical training, and in 1858 became a monk under the religious name of Ignatius. The following year he became a deacon monk.

In 1862 he left the religious world of a monk and travelled to Belgrade in Serbia. He had become inspired by Georgi Rakovski, who was attempting to put together the First Bulgarian Legion. This was a military unit comprised of Bulgarian volunteers and revolutionary workers whose aim was the overthrow of the Ottoman rule. After several armed conflicts around Belgrade a truce was diplomatically brokered between the Serbs and their Ottoman rulers. This resulted in the First Bulgarian Legion being disbanded. It was during training and the conflicts that Vasil gained the nickname Levski. A translation from the old Bulgarian reveals that this means Lionlike. After a short stay in Romania Vasil Levski returned home to Bulgaria in the spring of 1863. His own Uncle reported him as a rebel to the Ottoman regime, and so he was forced to endure 3 months of imprisonment in Plovdiv until he was released. He gave up his religious office, and began working as a teacher near his hometown of Karlovo. While a teacher he also gave shelter to those persecuted by the ruling Ottomans, and also began organising patriotic companies amongst the population.

His activities began to create suspicion from the authorities, and once again he was forced to move. Levski met up with Rakovski again, and learnt of two revolutionary bands determined to cross into Bulgaria and cause an armed rebellion. These bands were led by Panayot Hitov and Filip Totyu, and with Rakovski's recommendation Levski became the standard bearer for Hitov's group. They crossed the Danube at Tutrakan in April 1867, fighting skirmishes along the way they made it to the Balkan mountains before escaping to Serbia in August. This led to the Second Bulgarian Legion being formed in Belgrade. Levski had to undergo surgery for a stomach complaint, and by the time he was back on his feet the Legion had been disbanded. Attempting to reunite with his compatriots caused Levski to be briefly imprisoned once again.

Over the next couple of years Levski made journeys throughout Bulgaria, meeting up with various patriotic revolutionary cells and cadres. On his second tour he carried proclamations from the provisional Bulgarian government based in Romania, declaring that he was acting as their representative. In 1869 he was one of the founding members of the Bulgarian Revolutionary Central Committee based in Bucharest. Through a disagreement about implementation and planning, he left to begin his own plans for an insurrection based on an internal revolutionary network in 1870. Over the next 18 months he busied himself with creating a vast network of secret committees throughout Bulgaria, perhaps his previous trips had been beneficial for this purpose. These secret committees brought arms and trained volunteers to be part of a coordinated uprising. Each volunteer had to swear an oath of allegiance, and treason was punishable by death. To maintain the high level of secrecy they had their own secret police, who would monitor each individual's activity. With a price on his head, Levski was forced to use disguises during his travels.

Revolutions are not cheap, and funds were in short supply. An unsanctioned, though successful, raid on an Ottoman postal convoy yielded 125,000 Groschen. The Ottoman authorities soon rounded up the raiders, who included Levski's assistant Dimitar Obshti. Under torture they revealed much about the Internal Revolutionary Organisation, including its links to the BRCC in Bucharest and the leading role that Levski played. Realising that he would soon be hunted down, Levski decided that he would flee to Romania and take stock of the situation. Not knowing how much had been revealed by those captured, he needed to remove or destroy important papers held in the central committee's archives in Lovech. On the morning of 27th December 1872 he was surprised and detained at an Inn in the village of Kakrina. Various theories surround how he was captured, but the one most popularly cited is that he was betrayed by a priest.

Following his capture he was taken to Tarnovo for an initial interrogation, and then on 4th January 1873 he was transferred to Sofia for further questioning and trial. He revealed nothing apart from his own name. The death sentence was passed on the charge of a servant who had been killed when money was being extorted from a wealthy local in Lovech, rather than as the head of an impending armed rebellion. Today there is a monument which stands close to the spot where Levski was hanged. Realising that even in death Levski could still be an important catalyst for an insurrection, the authorities had the body buried secretly. To this day no-one knows for sure where the final resting place of Vasil Levski is, but there are various myths and legends. In 1937 the following story appeared in the newspaper Mir. It told how the body of the Apostle had been buried near to the gallows by the priest Todor. In the night following the execution the Sexton of the church of St Petka disinterred the body and then buried the remains in the church's altar. During urban developments in 1956, archeological excavations were required in the church of St Petka. A grave was discovered, and although not conclusively proven many conclude that it does belong to Vasil Levski.

Many of his thoughts and beliefs are just as pertinent today, as they were all of those years ago. Here are a couple for you to ponder upon

"To be equal to the other European nations depends on our own united strength"

"If I shall win, I shall win for the entire people. If I shall lose, I shall lose only myself"

"It's deeds we need, not words"



Wednesday, 11 February 2015

A Corrupting Influence?

Welcome to the first blog of February, after a few years of writing these blogs it gets slightly difficult to avoid covering old ground. Especially at this time of year when the weather is not favourable towards getting out and about. Last month it was the children coming round on New Year's Day followed by Yordanov Den. This month it is birthdays, Valentine's Day and Trifon Den. So whilst I was pondering what to write this time I came to the conclusion that it was about time that I made a confession.

Now those of you who actually know me, will possibly be aware that I have three great loves in my life, that is besides my better half of course. Were it not for Net then I wouldn't be where I am today. Anyway these great loves of mine, they are football, music and reading. You might be wondering where the confession comes into play. Well I think that I might actually be a corrupting influence on unsuspecting Bulgarians. All done quite unintentionally I hasten to add, but perhaps my enthusiasm might have rubbed off somewhere along the way. It's innocent until proven guilty anyway, and enthusiasm is worthwhile for mitigation purposes.

The first charge involves football. I do have to hold my hands up and admit that I prefer club football to International matches. I am a firm believer in supporting your local club. This meant that when I was growing up that gave me a choice between Wimbledon and Crystal Palace, even though my Dad was an Arsenal supporter. Thankfully I decided on the Eagles, and have followed them through thick and thin since, my cousins and other family members might have had something to do with my choice as well. It is probably fair to say that we are not the most fashionable of clubs, but we never have really boring seasons. One thing that many pundits agree on is that the supporters generate a proper good old fashioned atmosphere, and this isn't only limited to home matches. Selhurst Park is an old fashioned stadium and not one of these new soulless bowl type ground, but whatever happens down on the pitch the supporters are there behind our team. I have shown people clips on YouTube, and now a few Bulgarians watch out for our results, some watch the matches on the TV and I know of at least one who has made the pilgrimage to SE25 to watch the Palace. In my own turn I have taken in a few matches at the local ground here, so I also follow Lokomotiv GO.

Next we have the charge with regards to music. As I have previously mentioned in these blogs, when the weather warms up people emerge into their gardens. They also bring their radios with them. Unfortunately the volume controls often seem to be broken, they are either off, or at maximum. No matter how hard I try I can't really seem to get my head round Bulgarian music (Chalga doesn't count as music). To my ears it just sounds like a lot of random notes thrown together. Well that's not quite true, as I do like the haunting quality of Malka Moma as sung by Neli Andreeva. As loud music seems to be the order of the day I also join in. Although anyone wandering about close by is likely to be entertained by something like Madness or The Damned. Maybe not to everyone's taste, but I have been known to play classical music too, but sometimes the dogs decide that they want to join in as backing vocals.

I have previously been asked if people can borrow books, so that they can practice their English. Rather than confuse them with American spellings and vague grammar I have tried passing on English writers. Not wanting to replicate English Literature classes from my schooldays I avoid the Dickens and Shakespeare. Instead I have passed on the likes of Colin Dexter, Peter Robinson and Stuart MacBride. Perhaps they might not paint a totally accurate picture of life in the UK, but at least they are written in English.

There are other areas where I might be guilty of being a corrupting influence. One such area is the patch of land just outside of our garden wall. I do try and keep the 'grass' cut short, and if the Kmet wanders past I often get the official nod of approval. I have noticed that more of our neighbours are starting to do the same, but instead of using a lawnmower quite often goats or sheep are used. I try to set an example of if I see litter I pick it up and put it in the closest bin. When we first got to the village it seemed like those getting social payments would be utilised picking up litter and keeping the village tidy, sadly that no longer seems to happen so it is up to everyone to do their bit and keep the village looking good. There is still the problem with people letting their dogs run loose round the village. Fair enough they don't seem to worry the flocks of geese or chickens, but they do cause a lot of unwanted puppies.

It is a two way street though, and I am sure that bits and pieces have rubbed off on me. I now seem to be more patient, I have more time for people and I have remembered that enjoyment can be gained from even the simplest of things. I will still be following the football, listening to music and reading though.

Friday, 23 January 2015

Do You Know Where You Live?

Yesterday was more than a little bit foggy, all of our daily jobs were finished and I had just finished reading my book. My mind started to contemplate what to write for the next blog, and hoping for inspiration I started looking on the internet. Out of idle curiosity I put the village name into the search bar, just to see what would come up. There were a couple of my own blog articles, and also some news items from a couple of years ago. It was in one of the news items that I came across a small statement from our Kmet. In it she said that she was pleased that foreigners had found this little village, but often wondered how we had come to discover it. We were fortunate, as it was our lovely estate agents who brought us out here when we were house hunting. Admitedly, the village is small and quite remote, hence the name for the blog, and it doesn't appear on every map. I can safely say that I only know of one road sign which actually points to the village. So I decided to do a bit more digging, and this is what I found.

The village itself is located in the Veliko Tarnovo region, and comes under the municipality of Gorna Oriahovitsa. It is up in the hills, but actually sits in a small valley. This is quite convenient as all too often by the time that weather has noticed that we are there it has bypassed us and just carries on. If we do get hit by the weather it most often stays above us until it has worn itself out. As an average, the village itself sits at a height of roughly 262 metres above sea level. Seeing as how we are surrounded by farmland, forests and lakes the air is always fresh and clean. Although during the winter it has been known for the village to be cut off, fortunately there is a doctor in the next village 5kms away in case of emergencies. By and large it is a peaceful village, and often the only things you hear are the occasional tractor puttering away in the fields, village dogs barking, or chickens clucking and scratching in the dirt. Sometimes due to the age of the people living here, their hearing might be going a bit, so if they are working in their gardens (most days in the Summer) then their radios might be turned up a bit louder. Houses here seem to have quite decent size gardens, so no-one lives on top of each other so nobody really gets disturbed by other people's musical tastes. Which is quite fortunate as I have a habit of playing some distinctly 'English' music, including various Punk groups.

As I previously mentioned we are very rural here, and you can see the percentage breakdown of how the village area is utilised. Most is taken up by fields and trackways, followed by woodland and trackways. One day I might even find out where allof these various tracks lead, I do know that once upon a time they were the main routes between the various villages, and tend to be more direct that the present day roads. It is a very pleasant place to be, and when the weather is good it is nice to take a slow wander to one of the dam lakes around the village. We have two main ones, Great Spring and Shtirkov.

One of the first  things that I noticed in the village, was that to my mind the houses don't look typically Bulgarian. I had often wondered why, and finally I might have found an answer. It would appear that once upon a time workers for the Governor of a neighbouring village, Varbovka, settled here. They were generically called Albanians , but could have come from anywhere in that general area as it was a larger country than it is now. They were not even the first settlers here as traces of both Thracian and Roman settlements have been discovered, as well as traces of a Roman road. It is not surprising as the land is so rich and fertile, and being in a hill top valley protected from a lot of the weather.

It wasn't until a decree made on the 23rd May 1934, that the village changed it's name to Paisii. As far as I am aware this is the only village in Bulgaria with this name. Prior to that it was known by the name of Arnautlii (Арнаутлии). These Albanian settlers built a small school and church, along with their houses. Even today that school is used for the Kmet's offices, as the school is no longer used as the children get bussed to neighbouring schools. At one time this village was quite a thriving little place, it had its own library. community centre and even a small cinema. Up until people started to get lured away by work in the towns and cities, there was a village population of 872. Sadly this has now dwindled down to about the 200 mark.

It would appear that at one time there was a military presence here as well. They took over the management of the school during the 1970s, by which time it was no longer a school. Maybe I am putting two and two together but perhaps it had something to do with the president's former hunting lodge, which we pass on the ridge road, or at least that is what we have been told that it was. Up in the woods I have found what appear to be tank berms, there is a short runway which is now used by the crop spraying aircraft, and in Strelets there is what appears to be a military style bunker. All very Cold War'ish.

No matter what the history of the village actually is, it is a pleasure living here. The air is clean, the peace and quiet can't be beaten, and the villagers are second to none. Everywhere you look you are surrounded by beautiful countryside, wildlife and birdlife abound. This really is a little slice of heaven, and I consider myself lucky to live here. It might be called Paisii, Paisiy, Arnautlii, Arnautli, Паисий or even Арнаутлии, I am just pleased to call it home. Hopefully I haven't bored anyone too much with my findings about this little hideaway.


Sunday, 11 January 2015

The First Blog Of 2015

First let me wish each and every one of you a very Happy New Year, and I hope that 2015 is all that you hope it to be. Most of you I haven't seen since last year, and thanks to you all the figures on the blog were far beyond my wildest expectations, from a starting point of 30,000 you all helped push the figures to just over 91,000. Now here we are into the second week of the year and already that figure has risen by over a 1000. So once again I can only convey my thanks, but you didn't come here to be dazzled by figures, you came to read the blog and see what has happened so far. I think that I can safely say that the weather has been variable, in the past three weeks it has gone from almost t-shirt weather to being bundled up and looking like the Michelin Man, and now back again. We have had sunshine, sleet, snow, rain and wind, possibly everything in between too.

As usual I have tried cultivating my icicle of doom, this year it managed to get to almost a metre long before a sudden thaw caused it to part company from the  downpipes on the guttering. Fortunately it didn't impale anyone or anything, although at daft o'clock on New Year's Day I wouldn't have minded if it had. Once again the village children were out and about with their decorated twigs and wands, tapping you on the back and saying the little rhyme in exchange for small gifts. I'm trying not to cover old ground here as this tradition has been covered in previous year's blogs. Each year I am surprised by the number of children who trudge through the snow to our gate, and yet they are not in evidence throughout the rest of the year. So they are either alien abductees given time off for good behaviour, or they are visiting family. The previous evening we had made up 20 little goodie bags, each one containing fruit, sweets and loose change. I thought that 20 would be plenty, but they all went, maybe next year we will have to make more. I have yet to work out at what age the village youngsters will stop coming round.

Earlier this week, the 6th, it was Yordanov Den. This is the day when young men of the village gather at rivers and lakes and casting caution to the wind plunge into the icy waters to retrieve a cross which the local priest has thrown into the water. Supposedly whoever retrieves the cross will be blessed with good health and good fortune throughout the coming year. Although it doesn't seem to happen here, I think that the closest event to us would be at the Lion Bridge in Parvomaytsi. There the winning man not only got blessed but he also gained 100 Leva, and a 20kg piglet. It would appear in some areas that some of the local gypsy lads have been trying to shoe horn their way in just to get the prize money.

Once again due to the road conditions we were unable to get out of the village to go and observe. Normally when I renew the car insurance at the end of the year I would get the new vignette at the same time. Sod's Law meant that the Post Office wasn't open so that put the kibosh on that idea. Which meant that I resorted to the village bus, this now seems to be like an annual pilgrimage for me. Net is left at home tending fires and exciting things like that and I am sent out into the wintry wastes armed with a to do list and a shopping list. I was surprised that the bus fare had remained the same as last winter, unfortunately I think the smell of the bus was also a hangover from last winter too. Either that or someone didn't get any soap in their Christmas stocking. Apart from the whiffiness the bus is a safer option on these village roads, especially when logging lorries have plastered mud everywhere, leaving frozen ruts behind. Where there weren't ruts the snow and ice had been compacted down making for a skating rink, even the back end of the bus drifted on some bends.

By the time we got to the main road you wouldn't have realised just how slippery the village roads were, as it was totally devoid of either ice or snow. Looking at the fields, as we made our way closer to Gorna, they were having less and less snow in them. Arriving in Gorna itself, apart from some small piles of snow at the roadsides and minor patches of ice on pavements, you could easily think that winter had passed the town by. The first stop was the post office to mail some bits and pieces to the UK, and to get the new vignette. Once again the annual cost has not risen, as it is still only 67 Leva for a full year. I seem to remember it has been that price for at least three years, unlike the road tax in the UK which always seemed to increase. Post Office done, bills paid and that just left sorting the TV package out with Vivacom and the shopping. Due to the length of time in Vivacom sorting everything out, including house phone and mobiles as well as the TV which I initially went in to sort out, I only had enough time for a quick visit round CBA before getting the bus home again. I have had a further trip into town on the bus, as you are limited to what you can get shopping wise by what you can carry, and cartons of milk take up a fair bit of room. So I have had shopping trip mk2 to enjoy, I even managed to find time for a coffee in town.

Over the last couple of days the temperatures have certainly been on the rise. I even took the chance of driving down into Draganovo to refill one of our gas bottles. Today I was outside building my wood pile back up without having to wear 93 layers of clothes. To say that it was quite pleasant would be a slight understatement, there were even bees flitting round. Heaven only knows what they expected to feed on. We have been quite lucky so far this winter, we have only had about four nights where the temperatures have dipped down below -15C. So far all of our water pipes have survived, I did have a bit of an ice build up on the kitchen waste pipe as it exits onto a North facing wall, but that have been sorted out now. The thaw has come quite quickly so now the garden is a bit of a boggy mess. If I', unlucky I will be mowing the grass before I realise it.

So far this winter has been very pleasant, reading in the warmth of the cellar of an evening with a big mug of coffee, the animals contentedly basking in front of the fire. Each morning I do the log run, and sort the fires out for my bit of winter exercise. Soon we will be back to work in the garden so it is worthwhile recharging the batteries while we have the chance.

As to whether the winter has finished with us, I very much doubt it. Everyday the sun is rising just that little bit earlier, and setting a little later, we have had cloud but we have also had blue skies too. The weather can be a fickle thing. Looking on the bright side of things the Martenitsa stalls will soon be out in the main square of Gorna, and apparently Storks were building a nest in the village last year so hopefully they will return again this year.

Wednesday, 24 December 2014

Christmas Traditions

Believe it or not, today is Christmas Eve and I am sat here wearing a t-shirt, no jumper or jacket. The fire isn't lit, and even the gas fire is sat idle. We seem to be having a little bit of a warm spell at the moment. The last cold days that I can remember were at the very start of the month, it has been otherwise damp and foggy, up until about a week ago. Now we have sunshine and clear blue skies. The only ones making use of my snow shovel at the moment are spiders using it to hang their webs from. To say that the weather is a bit odd is an understatement, it is nearly as odd as one Christmas spent in Florida when it snowed for the first time in over a century. Maybe someone is trying to tell me something.

I have seen Bees trying to hunt for any available flower, but they seem to be in quite scant supply. Every so often you see a fly drift past, and you think that can't be right. Here we are as the end of the year draws closer and insects are still out and about. Until I had seen the weather forecast I was slightly concerned that these mild temperatures might have meant that we would be inundated once the summer months get here. I think that we can safely say that we are not going to be getting a white Christmas this year, the New Year might be a different story.

In the meanwhile all we can do is enjoy the weather, the firewood pile is slowly going down but nothing like in previous years. All of the stocking up we did in case of bad weather is still there, so we are still fully prepared should we have to face a prolonged cold spell. Who knows I might have to evict some spiders before the year is out, as I might find it necessary to once again wield the snow shovel. The dogs are enjoying the sunshine, as they drag their beds and blankets round chasing the sun. They still head in front of the fire as soon as they come in, even though it hasn't been lit. The cats, especially Billy, will soon move them out of the way if they feel that there is a dog where a cat should be.

Anyway I digress, today is Christmas Eve, although in many traditional Bulgarian homes it signifies the start of three days of celebrations. Today goes by the name of Бъдни вечер, and depending on who you listen to some say badni vecher while others say budni vecher. At least everyone seems to agree on the vecher part. Not only is it known as Christmas Eve, but either Little Christmas or Incensed Eve can smetimes be used too. All too often the preparation work for the meals which are an important part of the traditional celebrations got underway yesterday. On the table itself you will often see both pine and ivy, and underneath it you will notice straw has been laid.

Tradition says that the dishes laid on the Christmas Eve table should be an odd number, and they should be meat free. Many of the dishes are made from the crops which the villagers grew themselves earlier in the year. You will see various dishes with beans, stuffed peppers, stuffed vine leaves, fruit and nuts, garlic and onions, quite often honey and ritual bread. Perhaps many ideas hark back to more pagan times. For instance honey is meant to symbolise a sweeter life, garlic to drive away evil spirits, nuts and seeds for health and luck and the fruit to symbolise fertility. Also a lot of the dishes are used as they swell during preparation and cooking, this is also something else used to symbolise fertility and pregnancy.

Perhaps more so in villages, this is a time for the family gathering together. You will often find many different branches of the same family in just the one village, although some have now moved away to seek a better life for their families. If they can make it back they do so, as this is an important time for families. The festivities start early with incense being burned thoughout the house, this is also meant to drive away any evil spirits. Once the table has been incensed and blessed the oldest member of the family breaks the ritual bread. Traditionally this is homemade and often decorated with crosses, circles and flowers, a coin is also baked within the bread. The first piece of bread goes to the Virgin Mary and the families ancestors, the next goes to the house, then to the animals and the finally a piece of bread is given to each family member from oldest to youngest. Whoever gets the coin will be blessed with health and luck for the coming year, should it be in one of the pieces given to the Virgin Mary or the house then everyone will be healthy and fortunate. On sitting at the table everyone moves a place to their right which is said to leave room for family ancestors and benevolent spirits. Even when the Christmas Eve feast is finished the table is not cleared away. There are two thoughts behind this, there is always something to offer an unexpected guest, and also it is these for those departed ancestors.

They do say that there are two different groups who come round to the villages houses singing Christmas songs. The first group is made up of boys who go round during daylight hours, once nightfalls the men take over. As you might expect for doing the difficult job of blessing houses and households certain small items are passed their way. However if you are in a small village such as this everyone is busy with their own families, so marauding bands of carollers are something which we have yet to witness. Many say that the Christmas Day church services are worth attending, but when you have a village priest responsible for several villages it can be difficult to know where such services are being held. Maybe we will just get the bells this year, and when the church is only a stone's throw away they can be hard to ignore. So the celebations often continue onto what we would call Boxing Day, or St Stephen's Day on the 27th. There are some familiar traditions too, such as the Yule Log (badnik), which is normally Oak and is placed on the fire on Christmas Eve, and is supposed to keep burning until Christmas Day, the ashes are then gathered and used in rituals in the coming year, as is the straw from beneath the table. 

Finally all that remains is for me to wish you and your families a very Merry Christmas. Also to pass on my heartfelt thanks to you all for your support of this blog. At the start of the year it had been accessed 30,000 times, which I thought was no mean achievement. Now come the close of year that figure has moved up to 90,000. None of which would have been possible without people reading these blog articles. Thanks to you all, this blog has far exceeded my wildest expectations. 

So once again wherever this blog may find you I wish you a very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year. May the coming festivities bring you all that you need, and some of what you wish for.