Tuesday, 29 July 2014

It's Almost Like A Water Sport

Many people will tell you that you are often confronted with a string of related problems with a house. They can be structural, electrical or like us it can involve water. We have had water where we don't want water, we have had to move water away to prevent it taking up residence in the cellar, we have had to put water where previously there wasn't any. We have fiddled and faffed around with clean water, grey water and 'orrible stuff too. We have had leaks where we don't want them, blockages preventing water actually getting where we do want it to go. It's just like a form of water sport, in as much as it involves water and I normally end up getting hot and sweaty sorting it out. The latest episode involved our hot water boiler in the bathroom, as the name implies it is there to provide us with hot water.

Sunday morning everything is working as advertised, operate the hot tap and hot water comes out. Go for a shower and you can adjust the temperature to your own desired setting. During the day it had behaved itself, but when I went for a shower that evening (and its not even my birthday), where's the hot water? Net, who had had a shower before me, hadn't noticed a problem, but at this time of year you don't want to turn the bathroom into either a sauna or a sweat lodge. The power light outside the bathroom is working, but no power light on the boiler. I made a mental note of where the temperature indicator was sat and left it alone for 10 minutes, just in case it was the LED in the switch which had gone. After 10 minutes there was no change, so it was a slightly tepid shower for me. Thankfully it wasn't the depths of winter.

So Monday morning I arm myself with a multimeter, and start checking voltages. Voltage coming in, voltage going into the switch, voltage coming out of the switch, the thermostat seems to be working fine. So it looks like the element has given up the ghost. I remembered someone saying that the element itself can be replaced, which is great if you have the parts, but being out at the back of beyond we are quite limited on DIY stores. I remembered that a neighbour had previously had boiler problems and it was taken away, sorted out and refitted all in a day. So I thought that it can't be that difficult to disconnect it all, and remove it from the wall. I always like to have a go myself, then if I run into problems I will then call for the cavalry, but at least I will have learnt something.

So having already removed the base cover from the switch area, I thought that I would make a start disconnecting it electrically, remembering to first isolate it outside the bathroom and at the trip box. Now for those not familiar with Bulgarian wiring, there is often no colour coding, so how to identify which wire goes where. My method involved a CD marker pen and my mobile phone. I first marked the various white cables, and then I photographed then in place before I started disconnecting them. There are possibly easier ways of doing such things, but I thought it was a great idea for me on a Monday morning. So feeling quite pleased with myself I disconnected the electrical side of things, that seemed to be the easy bit out of the way.

So now I have a water tank holding 80 litres still on the wall. It seemed a logical step to remove said 80 litres of water before attempting to do myself a mischief, as 80 litres of water is going to be a bit on the heavy side. So I thought I had best disconnect the cold feed in first, after closing off the shut-off switch. So now no more water can get into the tank, surely I only needed to open a hot tap to drain the water from the tank itself. Unfortunately it doesn't work like that, which is a bit of a bugger. One foot is now getting a bit damp as the shut-off switch when it is in its closed position doesn't fully close the water off, so water was still dribbling out of the main supply. So I sort that out before I squelched my way up to the shed to find something to help drain the tank. We now have a sawn-off hose. More by luck than judgement I had cut off enough hose to go between the boiler and the sink. So if the water wasn't going to leave via the hot tap there was no point in the hot water pipe being connected, so that was disconnected too.

So now no water can get in, but I still had to get the existing 80 litres out. There is a small spring loaded lever as shown on the cold water feed, but see that small itty-bitty pipe just to the left of it, 80 litres of water has to come out of there. Trying to hold the lever in while keeping the length of hose in the sink is easier said than done. After the first 10 minutes you try changing hands, a further 10 minutes and your brain has switched off and entered into neutral, and the hose that should be in the sink is now soaking your other foot. At least I could now squelch in stereo. All in all, with interruptions, and a coffee, it took me over 45 minutes to totally drain the tank. If it wasn't a wet room before I started, it was by the time I had finished. Unmounting it from the wall was relatively easy, and thankfully lighter as it was empty.

So with dry feet, and the water heater in the car I set off for where I had been told they did boiler repairs. Unfortunately I must have arrived during Mrs Monday's fag break, as she didn't look overjoyed to see me. The only thing she was interested in was did I have the guarantee and the documents. When I explained that we were not given these treasured bits of paper she lost even more interest and turned to wander off. I politely asked if she knew anywhere else in town which could do the repairs, but that was just met with shrugged shoulders. Realising that I wasn't going anywhere she called her smoking partner over who spoke some English which almost helped. I went through the whole pantomime again with him, only to be told that they no longer did repairs, but he knew a man that did. Unfortunately he knew that this man was at the sea, but he could phone him if I liked and find out when he would be back. So he phoned his mate and they were having a nice natter, eventually he got round to asking about boiler repairs. It turns out that he wasn't at the sea at all but had been busy for the last few days. So I was given his name and number and told to phone him the next day. I didn't think that was too bad, until I asked if he spoke any English, the answer being a big fat no. OK so how do I find this man if I can't understand his directions, which was met by more shoulder shrugging. I did ask if smoker's mate could find out directions, but was told that I would have to phone the boiler repair man the next day, however if I wanted a new boiler he had some that were on special offer that day. So I was given various prices for different models, but still left there with a knackered boiler, a phone number I couldn't decipher and the name Ivan.

As I had other bits and pieces to do I thought that I would do a price comparison with my normal plumber's merchant. So I went in and there were the same boilers at exactly the same price, so his special offer can't have been that special at the other place. As I was there I thought that I might as well ask if they knew anywhere that did repairs. Now neither of them speak English, and admittedly my Bulgarian isn't brilliant, but as best I could I explained the problem. I was stopped so that a phone call could be made, I was then asked where was the boiler. The answer being in the car, up in Kaufland car park. OK says the main man, drop it off later and you can pick it up tomorrow. The difference between the two places was like chalk and cheese. He even gave me a hand carrying it into the shop, and also out with it when I picked it up today. It has been repaired all for the princely sum of 30 Leva, he did say what was wrong with it and I am fairly certain it was the element. So I did all of that running round in yesterday's heat and humidity, and ended up sweating like the last chicken in Colonel Sander's back garden.

Actually fitting it back up in the bathroom was quite easy with my handy reference bits and pieces. The only problem I had was that I had to dismantle part of the shut-off switch to enable water to fill the boiler back up. The good news is that the little LED works in the light switch, the thermostat changes the water temperature and the indicator changes with the different temperature. I also managed to keep both feet dry. So as I said earlier plumbing type jobs are almost like a water sport for me, and today despite the humidity I only ended up like Sweaty McSweaty of the clan McSweaty, rather than the usual Marine in a spelling test. At least I have been able to have a proper shower, which makes it all worth while. Rather than the old boiler being junked it has been given a new lease of life. By following the Bulgarian example of trying to fix things first, I have saved myself money which can't be a bad thing.

Wednesday, 23 July 2014

A Great Bulgarian

When people are asked about famous, or great,  Bulgarians, their answers are often quite varied. Certainly many will mention the likes of Vasil Leski or Hristo Botev. There are some who might even mention John Atanasov, Vladimir Dimitrov or even Veselin Topalov. Those more interested in sports might mention Dan Koloff or Hristo Stoichkov. While all of these people have great merit in their own right, there is a quiet unassuming Bulgarian, who restores the idea of human kindness and goodness. A man by the name of Dobri Dimitrov Dobrev, which might not mean much on its own, for he is often known as Diado Dobri (Elder or Grandpa Dobri). Some even refer to him as the Saint of Baylovo.

He has just celebrated his 100th birthday, a wonderful milestone for this remarkable man. He was born in the village of Baylovo, just outside of Sofia, on July 29th 1914. Another famous Bulgarian was also born in this same village, the writer Elin Pelin, who once wrote "It is my native village, it is good but very poor".

Diado Dobri's father died during the First World War and it was left to his mother to raise him and his siblings. As with many of his age he doesn't remember much about his younger years. He married in the early 1940s, and he and his wife had 4 children. Sadly he has outlived 2 of his children. It was during a bombing raid of Sofia that he lost most of his hearing, when he was quite close to where a bomb fell.

In his younger days he would walk between his village and the capital, Sofia. Now that his legs aren't quite as good he relies on public transport. Many of the bus and tram drivers will not ask him for the fare, it seems as though everyone is touched by this man's goodness. He is as much of a landmark of Sofia as some of the old historic buildings. He can often be sighted in the capital holding out his tin cup, never asking for money but always grateful to receive a few coins. None of the money is for him, it all goes to charity and the restoration, and upkeep, of monasteries and churches across Bulgaria. He seems to have turned his back on material things, and lives frugally on his monthly pension.

Despite his age, he is out in all weathers, dressed in his home made clothes and shoes. He is always ready with a smile and a blessing for those who donate. Often the only food that he will eat during the day, is that which a stranger has given to him. He seems to love children, and many would say that the highlight of his day is kissing a child's hand. Unlike in the West he is not moved on by the Police, or terrorised by gangs of teenagers, but he is allowed to do his own thing in his quiet way.

Some might ask how one man can make a difference. Years ago he sold all of his possessions and then gave the money to the church. It has been estimated that so far he has raised in excess of 80,000 Leva (40,000 Euros), and he hasn't kept a single Stotinka for himself. Even today he is cited as being the single largest donor to the Alexandar Nevsky Cathedral in Sofia, when he made a donation of 35,700 Leva (20,000 Euros). He has also made large donations 25,000 Leva to the Elishnishki Monastery near Sofia, and to the village church in Gorno Kamartsi. He hasn't forgotten his parish church in the village of Baylovo either, as they received a 10,000 Leva donation. Orphanages across the country have had such things as their utility bills paid for by this man. Surely his actions, and his kindness, putting others before himself, should be an inspiration to us all. A very humble man, who doesn't do these things for acknowledgement, he is reluctant to talk about himself or his family, he just wants to carry on doing his good works as best he knows how.

Some of the time he lives in Sofia, where he is cared for by his daughter, but he also lives in a single room in a small out building within the grounds of the church of Saints Cyril and Methodus. There are no modern amenities, and even though there is a bed he prefers to sleep on the floor. Even in the winter he rolls his sleeves up and can be seen carrying water from the well. He is also not averse to helping out with the more physical aspects of maintenance and restoration work.

Many have said that actions speak louder than words, and this man personifies that for me. He doesn't worry about the trappings of finery, or the material things, he just helps those he can in the best way that he can. So maybe world, and church, leaders could be well served by taking a leaf out of this man's book. It is time to think of humanity, but act with humility. To take one of his own quotations from the film 'Mite', "The good will is just and true. Everything in it is good. We must not lie, nor steal, nor commit adultery. We must love each other, as God loves us".

Old Man Dobri by Miroslav Yotov

Saturday, 19 July 2014

When Suddenly Not A Lot Happened

Just in case anyone thought that I had fallen off of the face of the Earth, here is a new blog. I had hoped that something interesting might have happened, which could have been incorporated into a blog. The main talking points seem to be the weather, which has been very unsummerlike, and the World Cup. Well the World Cup finished almost a week a go, and I have to admit to being pretty underwhelmed by it all. Even the opening match was very uninspiring, and I can totally understand why Croatia felt more than slightly peeved. Normally such a match would be a showcase event, featuring the host nation, which in this case was Brazil. The same country who have lifted the trophy more than anyone else, but this time they looked very ordinary, with no real skills to get the crowd on the edge of their seats. Instead they resorted to the tactic of continually diving and trying to con the officials, now whether the officials fell for it or not is a moot point, but for me it set the tone for the rest of the tournament. There were a few exciting matches, but they were the exception rather than the norm.

England might have made it to the tournament but they didn't even make it to the knockout stages, but they were in good company as various fancied sides also fell by the wayside. The good news is that Crystal Palace played their first friendly match during the week and won 1-13 against GAK Graz, so maybe the Austrian non-league opposition weren't much good but football is largely a confidence game so it will be interesting to see how the next few friendlies go out in the States.

As the month has been so quiet, I thought that it would be an ideal time to write about one of the normal summer visitors. I did consider doing it last month while they were about, but other things seemed to overshadow them. Each year they seem to appear for between four and siz weeks. Their appearance is normally a good indicator that summer is on the way, but this year summer has been very much a stop/start kind of thing. I am of course refering to the Firefly, and in case you are wondering why there is a picture of an aircraft it is because that is a Fairey Firefly.

Many of us, having previously lived in the UK, will not have seen these wonderful insects before. Unless you were lucky enough to live out in the countryside, and then you might have seen a glow worm or two. Unfortunately modern living is destroying a lot of the natural habitats, even here in Bulgaria. So many of the hedgerows seem to be disappearing to make way for slightly larger fields, and mankind might benefit but it is the wildlife that pays the price. Fortunately Bulgaria still has a lot of undeveloped countryside, and hopefully it will continue that way, which allows some species to relocate. The Firefly isn't one of these creatures, they are non-migratory, and once their habitat is gone that is it for that colony. So I did start to wonder what I could do to help improve the lot of the ones we see in the garden. After all, they do give me so much pleasure watching them throughout June, even the cats are curious about them but don't seem to fancy including them on their diets.

Even though they are called Fireflies (Светулка in Bulgarian),  they are a winged beetle. They belong in the family of Lampyridae, which is probably Latin for Firey flying beetle type thingie. In Bulgaria we just seem to get the Fireflies which flash. Not as in standing on a street corner in a grubby raincoat type flash, more of a light's on, light's off type flash. So that would put them in the family of Luciolinae, I wonder if that has its roots going back to the Devil, in much the same way as matches used to be called Lucifers. Maybe mankind didn't understand how these beetles could emit a light without burning themselves when they were first noticed.

Being beetles their natural habitat is anywhere that there is rotting wood and leaf mulch for their young larvae to feed on. Normally it will often be quite damp, often near to a water source, so hopefully this damp summer hasn't caused too many problems for them. We have an area between two barns, where the ground is quite soft and loamy, and I have been throwing some of the bark from the firewood there so that it can breakdown quite naturally for them. Being between the barns means that it gets the rain water from both roofs, so it is quite damp, but sheltered at the same time. From what I have read Fireflies will mainly stay in the same area where they have been raised, so hopefully that undisturbed area will help to generate or even stabilise a colony. As they are beetles they are possibly carnivorous, so I am hoping that their natural prey will also thrive in that area.

Their adult lifespan is quite short so it is important for them to attract a suitable mate. As you might have guessed this is where the light comes in handy. With some species it is just the males which fly, the females take up position in tall grasses and such like. If a male is deemed suitable the female would give him a flash or two. I'm not sure but here in Bulgaria it seems as though both male and female fly. Often you will notice that one flashes and is answered by the other one flashing back, and so life goes on in the Firefly world.
These are nocturnal beetles, and as dusk falls they climb tall grasses, and plants before launching themselves into the evening air. The light that they emit is what scientists call a cold light. One can land on your hand and there is no chance it will burn you, which is quite handy for the Firefly itself as I doubt they are made of flame retardant material. They are what is known as bioluminescent, and are highly efficient light sources. Consider an ordinary domestic light bulb, it produces light but it also produces a lot of heat as well. All of the Firelies energy is spent on its light source, and no heat is generated. In the tail of a Firefly you will find two chemicals Luciferase and Luciferin, There's that Devil connection again. Luciferin glows under the right conditions and Luciferase is an enzyme used to trigger the light emission. There are still companies which buy live fireflies as these chemicals can be used for food safety and biomedical research. The two chemicals can be synthetically produced so the live trade in Fireflies is fortunately dying out.

I used to think that these flashing lights would make them easy targets for things like bats, but it seems as though these lights have the opposite effect. If anything does catch hold of a Firefly they will exude a bitter type blood, which in some instances is poisonous to the predator. Maybe that is why we don't see glow in the dark bats.

So hopefully with my efforts to try and help create a naural habitat, we should gradually see more of these wonderful creatures flitting about the garden. It might be a small step, but its an area we don't use, and maybe they will help keep the numbers of slugs and snails down.

Friday, 11 July 2014

A Slight Cock-Up On The Weather Front

You could be excused for thinking that July is a Summer month. In the course of normal events it is, however this year there seems to have been a bit of a cock up on the weather front. Normally you would be thinking about lazy days on the beach, perhaps looking forward to your feet cooling in a stream as it slowly meanders past, or maybe even barbecues and picnics. So far this summer has been notable for just one thing, and that has been the weather. There just seems to have been so much of it, and unfortunately not the type of weather that you would normally associate with the Summer.

There have also been baking hot days to contend with, and in many areas, ours included, they have warned people not to swim in the lakes and reservoirs. Some of these have been filling rather rapidly through both springs and heavy rainfall, and every so often they have been opening sluice gates to prevent these dam lakes bursting their banks. Unfortunately sometimes this has created further problems downstream. The main problem seems to have been caused by the mild winter and the seemingly endless rainfall. The ground in many areas is still saturated and can not absorb any more water.

Flooding is not unusual in the summer, but that is normally due to the ground having been baked like concrete. The water is unable to penetrate with any great effect, and so this can lead to flash flooding. Looking at the amount of man made rubbish caught up in these flood waters, 'civilisation' is also partially at fault. Cutting down trees, removing hedgerows and altering watercourses doesn't help matters either.

Many will have seen the news footage of this summer's flooding in places like Varna. Unfortunately this flooding either directly, or indirectly caused 12 deaths. It is probably safe to say that no-one predicted over a month's rainfall in the space of 24 hours. There were drainage ditches and culverts in place, but some had been partially blocked with illegal rubbish tips. I also seem to remember hearing that part of this drainage system had been damaged and interfered with. So the overall effect just seems to have snowballed, and some people were even likening the rush of water to a tsunami. With the way that cars were shown being thrown around on our TV's, they were probably not far off of the mark.

Another problem that people had to face was the mud. Anyone who has been to Bulgaria when it has rained will know just how sticky this mud can be. People were shown risking their own lives to help out their friends and neighbours. Those living in the lower levels of apartment blocks were invited to stay in neighbour's apartments above the water level.

This time it seemed to be Varna which bore the brunt of things, but it could so easily have been anywhere in the country. Around this way there was some general flooding, with minor damage. We were told that at one point the River Yantra in Veliko Tarnovo rose to 6 metres. The problems were not just confined to the coast as places like Kilifarevo were also hit. Roads have been damaged, homes have been wrecked, and businesses have been affected. The cost of sorting things out is going to be astronomical, and I only hope that the money goes to where it is genuinely needed and not to tarmac some politician's driveway and refurbish his house.

Things have been slowly getting back to 'normal' in many areas. Collection points have been started to help those unfortunate enough to have been caught up in all of this. As the water levels have receded, the flies and the mosquitoes seem to have gone into a breeding frenzy. The little buggers seem to be everywhere. We have tried various bug repellents, fly sprays and citronella things. The Aikon and Fendona sprays, which we normally use, are proving largely ineffective. These bloody bugs are just laughing at us as they swoop in to take another bite. Some evenings I look even more like the Elephant Man than I usually do. One things that they haven't overcome yet is the good old-fashioned fly swat. If you have ever wondered how come Bulgarians have got so good at tennis, try a summer here with only a fly swat as your means of protection.

The rains departed and people began to look forward to the summer actually starting. The temperatures began climbing, and with them the ground began to dry out. Well the moisture in the ground seems to be almost boiling off, as the humidity has ramped up sharply. You wake up all sweaty and go for a shower, the humidity levels make it difficult to dry yourself off. As soon as you put so much as a sock on, you are once again sweating like a marine in a spelling test. The ladies probably can't wear much make-up as it would soon be sliding down their faces. So at times it feels as though I have become a walking fly paper.

As if that wasn't bad enough, Sofia had a hailstorm the other day. Not the normal pea sized hail which you would expect to see around the end of autumn. These were great big things, I had seen a photo showing hail stones the size of a tennis ball, but as Sod's Law dictates I couldn't find that picture again so I have grabbed a few from the internet and from friends just to show the kind of thing that I mean. Once again it has been no laughing matter, as there was 1 death and over 40 injuries reported. Yes, I did check the calendar and it is definitely July, but with these strange weather events I am beginning to wonder whether my calendar had problems in the printing stage.

Homes and businesses had their windows broken. Car windscreens, both front and back suffered. Some of the worst hit were open air car parks and used car lots. There would have been no protection for the vehicles, and I am guessing it would have been very unpleasant for those who were caught up in it all while they were out and about. Now is possibly not a good time to ask for ice in your drinks while in Sofia. I know that double flazing firms seem to be ten a penny, but I have yet to see anything like Auto Glass over here. It is probably about and its just me not being observant though.

So to sum up the summer so far. People have grown webbed feet due to the incessant rain, various lichens and fungi are now growing on everyone. We have all turned a uniform mud colour, and are slowly cooking ourselves, while dodging rocks of ice. So welcome to the summer, the good news is that I haven't heard of anyone saying that they'relooking forward to the winter. Yet, but there is still plenty of time.

In the meantime I have dug up this weather poem which I remembered from my childhood, and it just about sums things up.