Saturday, 26 March 2016

An Early Start

Thursday morning was an early start in our house. By early I mean OMG it's early, a bit like daft o'clock in the morning early. It was 3AM, and another trip to Sofia airport loomed. It seemed like everything was being done on automatic pilot. Fortunately, we had planned ahead. Bags and cases had been packed, bus and plane tickets were to hand, passport too. Even the car was parked in the lane outside so that our neighbours wouldn't be woken up by creaking gates. Even the kettle had been filled, and mugs for tea and coffee were ready and waiting. We had even prepared something to eat for the journey, so that only had to go from the fridge and into a cool bag. The biggest problem was trying to persuade the dogs and cats that they had had enough beauty sleep. They just raised their heads as if to say, "If we wanted to get up and this ridiculous time of day we would have woken you." Eventually we managed to persuade them that it really was a good idea, although they were probably not totally convinced, as it was still dark outside and a there was a persistent drizzle. Fenny, our Boxer, was not impressed, and as is his way started puffing and blowing, just to make his disgust known.

What probably finally persuaded him was the promise of an early breakfast. He does enjoy his food. Now with it being dark, it meant going from the house to up under the barn, and possibly stepping in something that I would rather not. The easiest way around this is to use a head torch. So there I was like a demented Dalek, shepherding dogs and cats through different gates so that they could get to their breakfasts. By the light of the head torch I could see that not only was there the drizzle, but also a mist. So maybe getting up quite so early was not such a bad idea after all, and it certainly helped to bring me round to full consciousness. That all important first coffee of the day also helped. Bags and cases were quietly taken out and put in the back of the car. A final loo break, and a check that everything was locked back up and we were ready to start the first leg of our journey.

Given that I had noticed the mist we decided to start out slightly earlier than planned. It wasn't until we got to the next village that the mist soon became a fog, and living in a rural area the roads twist and turn so we slowed to a crawl. They have also been stripping out the undergrowth and vegetation at the sides of the roads, which is great when you can see where you are going. There are normally silver leafed plants, which the headlights pick out, so you can tell where the road ends and the verge begins. Because they had been stripping things out they were no longer there, how inconvenient. Not only that but the machinery that they had been using had spread mud all over the road making things twice as difficult. Fortunately we didn't have any other traffic, or suicide Badgers, to worry about this early in the morning as we crawled along. Eventually the fog once again gave way to mist, and we could once again see where we were going without looking like a pair of Japanese snipers peering through the windscreen. Our route takes us across four level crossings, and we had to stop at two of them to let trains pass. It was a good job we left that bit earlier, and we eventually arrived in Gorna to a steady, but light rain.

Another part of my preparations came into play when our taxi arrived to take us over the hill into VT. The bus now goes from the South bus station, and not from outside Hotel Etar. The bus station has recently been refurbished, and it was light, dry and warm. Apparently the loos are good too, and I can personally vouch for the Cappuccino, even if it comes from a machine. Our bus turned up out to the front of the bus station, and once the cases were placed in the baggage compartment, and we had located our seats, the next leg of our journey could begin. It was still dark.

As the morning slowly got lighter, the rain seemed to get heavier. There was a film playing, but it was at least the 4th time that I had seen it, so I was spending most of my time nosing out of the window at the damp and soggy countryside. As we approached the series of tunnels and bridges on the motorway, it started snowing. Big fat flakes being driven by the wind. So far we had dealt with drizzle, mist, fog, light rain, heavy rain, and now snow was thrown in for good measure. We finally arrived at the bus station in Sofia, where I joined in the scrum to reclaim the cases and bags. Next it was a taxi out to the airport, to join a queue which didn't seem to move for the check in desks. Finally we got to the head of the queue, and Net was checked in, all that remained for her to do was go through the security bit, which is where we parted, and I could do the morning's trip in reverse.

As usual I decided to get the Metro back to the bus station, so that meant waiting for the shuttle bus to go from Terminal 1 round to Terminal 2. When we got out of the taxi I hadn't really noticed how windy it had got, as we had gone straight into the Terminal. I soon realised as I waited for the shuttle bus, the wind was driving the rain under the canopy too, and it felt more like winter. The trip round the airport, and on the Metro was uneventful, and after the usual change I arrived back at Central station. I was even able to get a bus ticket on the next bus which was due to leave in 20 minutes. There were queues everywhere apart from the loo, so I had to forego my usual coffee and go back outside to wait for the bus to take me back to VT. Once again the same film was playing, even though it was a different bus. Back into VT and it was still raining, and from the size of the puddles it had been doing so all day. I got a taxi back over the hill into Gorna, and for once the hill hadn't made any difference to the weather, as it was still raining there too.

Our neighbours had asked if I could pick them up a pizza on my way back. Pizza sounded good to me too, so I had a quick wander round Kaufland and grabbed a couple, one for them and one for me. Finally back to the car, and the drive home. I must have been tired, as I couldn't remember where all of the potholes were in the various roads, as they were hiding under puddles. I found a few though, which reminded me where they were. Back into the village and I did my Domino's bit, by delivering the pizza to our neighbours. Then I could finally get indoors and sort out the four legged welcoming committee, and eventually myself. There is definitely something to be said for finally being able to relax, indoors with what was only my third cup of coffee that day.

Yesterday morning, and Polly decides to get her own back by wanting to be let out at 6 o'clock. It was still cold, and though not raining everything felt damp and soggy. So yesterday the fire was lit early, I think that I earned some bonus brownie points from the various cats and dogs. I've yet to tell them that the clocks change tonight, so they will get an hour's less sleep.
A few weeks time and I have to do it all again.


Monday, 22 February 2016

Liquid Goldish

There are some readers of the blog who actually know me, and some of those hardier souls will even admit to it. One thing that they all have in common, is that they will confirm that I have what is commonly known as a 'sweet tooth'. I do eat savoury stuff, and spicy things, but I have a weakness for sweet things. I know that these 'treats' are bad for me, but after so long it is probably too late to change the habit of a lifetime. Over here, in Bulgaria, you can get all sorts drenched in honey, much of it locally produced. The only problem I have with that is, despite my sweet tooth, I dislike honey. To me there seems to be no reason why I should eat something a Bee has sicked up, or that has come from it's backside.

The other day I was idly surfing the Internet, as you do on a wet and windy day, when I found an article a friend had posted up (thank you Hazel). It was how to make your own Golden Syrup. Now this is something that I have not had since moving here all of those years ago, and the recipe seemed easy enough to follow. So I thought that I would have a go. Today was the day. Thankfully my Mum brought us up well, and none of us boys are helpless in the kitchen. I have two brothers and a sister, and I am in the middle at №2. No laughing at the back. I can still remember the green tins in my Mum's cupboard. They seem easy enough to get in the UK, probably about £2 for a big tin. Here in Bulgaria they seem to be a bit of a rarity, or hellishly priced. I also thought that if my culinary skills failed me I could always use the resulting mixture as bait in my fly and wasp traps.

So once the housework was done, I began to get myself organised in the kitchen. Although I can cook, maybe I'm not the tidiest, but I am organised. With a shake of her head Net left me to it. Fortunately it has been a nice sunny day, so she was sat outside with her Kindle. She was close enough that if there were any major problems she could come to the rescue. I found the scales, and the sugar, we didn't have any Lemons, but I used pure Lemon juice instead. Part of the recipe called for  boiling water, so I boiled the kettle and the hot water went into a thermos flask. The recipe is basically done in two stages. So I had one stage on the left of the oven, and the other on the right, and even by that stage I had managed to get sugar over the kitchen floor. Whoever thought of making bags of sugar so difficult to get into without the bag tearing? So I swept up before I even really got started, fortunately I am a graduate of the Naval school of cleaning.

So the first stage called for 100g of sugar, and 3 Tablespoons of water. These had to be added into a saucepan on a medium heat. This mixture had to be stirred for the sugar to fully dissolve. Initially not a lot seemed to be happening, but then it began to slowly thicken and finally darken. reading the recipe it called for a dark caramel colour. It didn't tell me that it would carry on darkening, and smell like a candyfloss stall at a fairground. That great smell of burnt sugar, even though I had taken it off of the heat. That was the first stage complete, so it was quickly on to the second stage.

This called for 300ml of boiling water to be slowly added to the stage one concoction, and stirred in. Adding it too quickly causes stuff like napalm to jump out of the saucepan and stick to the tile backsplash behind the oven. Then 500g of sugar had to be added, and again stirred in until it had completely dissolved. Then the missing quarter of a Lemon should have been added, but I used 50ml of pure lemon juice. Apparently this will help prevent sugar crystals reforming, so it is chemistry that I have been doing and not cooking stuff. All of this is left to simmer for 45 minutes on a low heat. I don't know if I was meant to carry on stirring it or not but I did anyway. All was going well until about the 30 minute mark, when the previous coffee made its presence felt. I was in need of the loo, but should I stay tending my witch's cauldron of gloop, or head for the loo. Eyes watering, and legs crossing I soldiered on, until finally I could take the pan off the heat, at which pointed the lemon could have been removed. Maybe that's why it calls for the mixture to be left to cool for 5 minutes, it's a convenient loo break too.

Once the cooling time had finished I had to strain the mixture into a sterile jar. Luckily I found an old tea strainer in the odds and sods drawer, which served the purpose nicely. I did manage to stop some burnt crunchy bits of sugar going into the jar. My effort is more tawny than golden in colour, but trying some of the cooled napalm stuff from the side of the saucepan its not a bad first effort. As it is still hot it has a runny consistency, but it thickens as it cools. The lid has to be left off of the jar for an hour to let the heat escape.

I have just checked my jar and it has thickened up nicely. They do say that if it is still too runny the next day simmer it again for 5-10 minutes. Or if it is too thick make up another half recipe and add the jar contents to it. Mine might be a bit on the thick side, but I will find out more tomorrow. Hopefully my first attempt will stick to the spoon, and not run off like honey, or will not let me have the spoon back. So if I can make this then I reckon that anyone can. Just think syrup sponge, syrup cake and even proper syrup flapjacks. I am now off to chisel some of the napalm off of the tiled backsplash in the kitchen.


Monday, 15 February 2016

The Weather Changes, Then Changes Again

We now find ourselves midway through February, and the last clumps of snow have finally left the garden. Snowdrops are flowering, and birds are singing in the trees. Sometimes it is easy to think that Spring is just around the corner, and then the weather switches and reminds you that it is still winter. The snowdrops instead of nodding their heads in the breeze are being battered by strong winds, or being deluged under rains of Biblical proportions. This morning I had to quickly nip into town to pick up a few odds and ends, and the bushes and shrubs have yet to wake from their winter slumber. The good news is that Spring must be on its way, as last week they were setting up the Martenitsa stalls in the square at Gorna Oriahovitsa, which always seems to be a good indication. With this year being a leap year we get an extra day this month, which means that Baba Marta will be delayed by a day. Hopefully she will look kindly on us for letting her have a lie-in, and not be grumpy because we kept her waiting.

Although the night time temperatures are still a bit on the nippy side, we haven't woken up to frost covered gardens for nearly a week now. Unless the rain overnight had washed the frost away before I emerged from my cocoon beneath the duvet. The dogs are a bit miffed now that the snow has gone, no more barking at snowflakes invading the garden, no more playing in the white cold stuff that can be eaten, and no more trying to discover what treasures might be hidden beneath it. The cats prefer no snow, as now they can wander where they like without having to follow paths that a mere human has dug. Personally I am glad to see the back of it, with the last lot being the wet snow which causes so much damage to trees and shrubs. At times it was almost like being in a snowball fight, there I was clearing the steps out the front when clods of snow were shed from the branches of the walnut tree overhead. No matter how well you wrap up, the snow will always find a way to go down the back of your neck. As to whether we have seen the last of the snow, who can say one way or another. In previous years we have had snow at the end of March, so I mustn't raise my hopes just yet.

Today is an odd day. Through one window I can see blue sky and white clouds, yet through another it looks grey and overcast. We have had some strong winds recently, and today it is a stiff breeze blowing. Yet the temperature is an unseasonable 20C, looking at the forecast it is set to get back to normal about midweek, whatever normal might be. About the only thing that can be said about the weather in February and March, is that it is predictably unpredictable. I did get some odd looks in town today, well odder than usual, as I wandered round town with no jacket or jumper. Even the spits and spots of rain didn't cause me to go scurrying back to the car to grab a jacket.

Yesterday was Valentine's Day, also my wife's birthday, and here in Bulgaria it was also Trifon Zarezan Day. This is when the grape vines are blessed, hoping for a bountiful harvest in the coming months. The weather was gorgeous, and how did I spend it? Repairing part of the garden wall which had fallen down due to, in part, all of vagueries that the weather had thrown at it. I wouldn't mind so much but it was a patch that we had previously had repaired by some of the local maestro's in the village. It doesn't help that the field on one side of the wall is two feet higher than on our side. It also wasn't the section that fell down the other year.

Many will know that when you are told that something is 'nyama problem' (no problem), you know that it will turn round and bite you, and so it proved with this 'repaired' patch of wall. I guess that I was lucky to have noticed it when I let the dogs out for their evening constitutional. At least I was able to prevent them from making a bid for freedom across the field and terrorising the village. We found out why we had a problem, the locals had filled it with earth, which acted as a wick from the field, then the freezing and thawing meant that it just popped like a cork. So yesterday my neighbour and I were out there trying to rebuild it. Just imagine trying to complete a jigsaw, without the picture on the box lid. Some of these 'stones' were a fair old weight, and where my knees and back were creaking and groaning, my neighbour was moving them round as if they were no more than a bag of sugar. Between us, we managed to get everything rebuilt solidly, and we had various rocks, stones and boulders left over, which can now be used elsewhere.

So next month I will be scanning the skies, looking for that first Stork. Although we do still have to get through the rest of this month first. Hopefully the weather will be more settled, and not all seasons in one day. Wherever you may be I hope that the sun shines down on you. Just think that it will soon be time to blow the dust and cobwebs off of the lawn mower, and give the grass its first haircut of the year. Even if it does look like soggy straw at the moment. The confused bees will enjoy the better weather, and hopefully find some flowers instead of pestering me.  

Thursday, 21 January 2016

Winter Shows Its Teeth

Just when we might have been getting a bit complacent, and hoping for a short lived, mild winter, it arrived in full force. Those early bits of snow, which we had at the start of the year, were nothing by comparison. Being a 'Brit Abroad' I seem to have developed a slight fascination with the weather. One of my first tasks each day, once we have finished the housework and sorted the animals out, is to log on and check out the weather forecast. So with my normal coffee, I had noticed that we had three days of snow to look forward to, as time moved on it became two days, and then back up to three again. So we could safely say that snow was expected, just not how much would fall. Then it arrived one evening, the first flakes dancing in the street light in the lane outside. The wind began to blow them into neat little piles, but nothing to get too concerned about. Those bits of snow from the start of the year had all but disappeared, and the frosts had frozen the ground, so this fresh stuff did start to pitch.

Throughout the night, and all through the next day the snow came down continuously. When we woke up, everything had a thick blanket of white laid across it. The dogs were quite eager to go out and play in it, the cats were a different matter. The snow was deeper than they are tall, but they seemed quite happy sitting on window sills, watching me dig yet another trench for them to get up under the barn. Sirius, our bad tempered sawn-off dog, was quite happy doing an impersonation of a snow plough. Nose down and trudge forward, clearing a path for Fenny and Polly. Their water trough was frozen, but fresh warm water soon took care of that. So with the animals sorted out, trenches dug, logs brought down, and the fires lit we could actually sort ourselves out. Well, we could have done but at that moment the power went out, and for the rest of the day it was on and then off again. Thermos flasks were filled with boiling water during some of the on times, and using the gas rings on the oven we managed to feed and water ourselves. Somewhere in the village a power line came down, and due to our location and the amount of snow no one could come out and fix it. Fortunately we were not one of the houses affected by this, unfortunately our village Kmet's house was.

So we have spent days with cats and dogs snoring and steaming in front of the fires. Which is fine, until I have to feed more logs onto the fire, and then they seem very reluctant to move. Once the fire is banked in again, the dogs want to go out and play in the snow again. Why can't they make this decision before I have to step all around them. So over a period of about 36 hours we had almost 2 feet of snow fall. If wasn't the dry powdery stuff, but the wet clumpy version. The type of snow which brings down branches, and possibly the power line too. Every couple of hours I was back outside clearing my trenches again. For those first 36 hours nothing moved in the village unless it was on foot.

Everything looked like a winter wonderland, with the surface of the snow largely unbroken. Since the snow finished falling we have had a couple of days of sunshine. So the snow has glistened and sparkled. It's own weight starting to compact it all down. We have even had a slight thaw, which has caused some of the snow on the roof to melt and drip from the eaves. This in turn leads to icicles forming, not so much the icicles of doom from previous years, more like the fangs of fate. They do look quite spectacular when the sun shines on them. I was going to get a photo of them today, but the sky has turned a pale grey, with no hint of sunshine.

The sunshine on the snow might make everything sparkle, and it might cause a slight thawing possible, but we also have the night time temperatures to take into account. Where things have melted on the paths and other trenches, and then refrozen overnight we now have our own skating rinks, -19C seems to have that effect. So these paths and trenches have now been dusted with ash from the fires. That might give some extra grip, but it does mean that there is an increase in grubby footprints being trailed indoors. Taps are left dripping overnight, to help prevent frozen pipes. Anything with a rechargeable battery has been boosted, mainly because we never know when the next power cut might happen. Torches and candles have been dotted round the house.

It looks like we have to wait until the middle, or end, of next week for those night time temperatures to start to creep back up again. Although things have been a wee bit parky, we haven't managed to break any records yet. Mind you, we do still have February to look forward too. Even though a tractor has been round the village with a plough blade on I have no idea what the main roads are like. Maybe I will have to make one of my winter forays into town on the village bus next week, but much can change in the space of a week.




   

Monday, 4 January 2016

Looks Like Winter Might Be Here

Welcome to my first blog of 2016, and I would like to wish you and you family a very happy and healthy New Year. Hopefully there were no sore heads through over zealous celebrating, and that things have settled down now that we are a few days into 2016. Here in the village there were the usual fireworks, but due to the chilly night air they didn't seem to go on for as long as usual. The animals seemed quite happy about that, especially as the fireworks seem to get louder each year. We entered the New Year the same way as Christmas, with no snow, but keeping an eye on the forecast we were due some.

We woke up on New Year's Day to a white garden, fortunately it was just a heavy frost. By midday the sun had dealt with most patches. It was even quite pleasant in the sunshine once you had managed to find shelter from the wind. On the 2nd, a countrywide weather warning was issued, the snow was about to hit us. Once again we had a frosty start to the day, but still blue skies and sunshine. Unfortunately the pleasant weather didn't last, and from about lunchtime onwards the clouds began to build and the sky darkened. Shortly after dusk the first flakes of snow could be seen swirling in the glow from the street light outside. They were so small that I didn't really expect it to mount to very much. Yet, with the way that they were being blown, I could see a possible problem with drifts if the snow actually started to pitch.

So when we woke up yesterday morning, we found that it had snowed throughout the night. It hadn't really amounted to much, the roofs of houses had a slight covering, and even in the garden blades of grass could still be seen. Was this what the severe weather warning was all about? Admittedly, it was somewhat chilly, with the thermometers hovering about the -11C/-12C point, and the day didn't seem to warm up at all. The little, bitty, flakes of snow seemed to increase in size as the day progressed. The cats and dogs wanted to go out and play in the snow, but they also wanted to stay indoors near to the fires. Maybe at some point someone could invent warm snow just to keep them happy. With the fires banked in, and Net doing the fire monitor and stoking duties I wrapped myself up like the Michelin Man and armed with the snow shovel started clearing paths.

Now you might think that the cleared paths would be for me to get backwards and forwards to the woodpile. The animals have different ideas. They want paths cleared from various doors to up under the barn, over to the studio, another so that they can get to the wall and investigate the barn next door, to their eating areas, to their summer 'bedrooms', and down to 'poo' corner. Only once those had been dug was I permitted to clear the paths and steps for two legged people. Sometimes I do wonder if we spoil these animals maybe a bit too much. Even once the trenches were dug, the snow kept constantly falling, and the wind was blowing it back in to fill the trenches. At least once the initial trenches were made, I then had a guideline to follow, and with it being fresh snow it hadn't compacted at all so was easier to shift. Compared to other years we have still not had a great deal of snow, but with it being a constant yesterday I can officially claim that I am already bored with it, and I am looking forward to Spring.

Despite having the fires lit, we still ended up with a minor problem. After tea last night the washing machine was put on, and we didn't really think any more about it. The kitchen was warm, as was the little lounge, water came out of the tap when required so no frozen pipes. Yet the washing machine decided that it wanted to try flooding the kitchen. This morning I found the reason why. The waste pipes run outside along the back wall, and they are insulated. Well, all apart from one bit that the dogs try to use as a back scratcher. The insulation from there seems to have been worn away, and inside the drainpipe was a nice block of ice. It can only have built up from us having dripping taps, which help prevent water pipes freezing and bursting. So the washing machine was trying to pump out water, and the water wasn't going anywhere outside so decided to have a tour of the kitchen. I wouldn't mind too much but we have had lower temperatures in previous winters, and have never had this problem before.

Looking at the 10 day forecast the weather is set to warm up, so maybe the winter will be a very short one this year. At the moment we have reached the dizzy heights of -7C. The only problem being that, whatever thaws during the  day will tend to refreeze at night. Which will make roads and paths into skating rinks. I shall being doing the same as our neighbours are scattering the wood ash from the fires on the road and paths. It does seem to help give an extra bit of traction, and also treated areas seem to thaw faster. I just hope that everyone remembers to check for nails and bits of metal before they scatter their ashes.

This afternoon I had a wander round the village getting a few photos as I went. As you can see the snowfall is nothing compared against other years. The tractors have been out and ploughed the roads, leaving that lovely layer of ice there for the unwary, but with care, we are not isolated this year. I'll still be treating myself to trips on the village bus though, it wouldn't be winter otherwise. It also means that I am forced to speak Bulgarian, with getting tickets and nattering with neighbours who are also using the bus. It might not sound a lot, but every little helps. At this time of year it can be an easy option to remain in your little domain and not actually see anyone from one day to the next. It seems to be a village sign that, if there is smoke coming from the chimney then everything is OK.

Well that seems to be the first blog of 2016 done and dusted. Very many thanks for your support over the last year, I have just realised that the blog articles have been accessed over 150,000 times now. None of which would have been possible if people decided not to read them, so my heartfelt thanks to each person who actually reads, or shares, these blogs. I hope that you have a wonderful New Year, and that it is everything that you wish it to be.