The English summer came and went in the blink of an eye, suspended in an anti-COVID bubble. There’s nowhere prettier (or more fun) than England in the summertime but this time there were no parties, music festivals or sunny beer garden afternoons.
Then, just like that, it was Autumn again, the second wave of COVID and Brexit were on the way and it seemed like a good idea to go. It was disappointing to leave the UK without seeing so many people we’d come across the world to see but who knows when it’ll be safe to see people again? After all, according to one of my personal mantras (or random lines of songs that play in my head) ‘the secret to a long life is knowing when it’s time to go’. Although I’d been in England for a year, it felt like I hadn’t really been there at all.
We made it out of England and into Bulgaria just before the flights stopped for the next round of virus-drama. The flight was horrible, packed to capacity with no spaces between and the people in the next seats kept taking their masks off. In case you were wondering, it’s not possible to hold your breath for four hours.
We were so excited to see the bargain cottage we’d bought a few months ago while House hunting in Bulgaria (the keys and deeds arrived in the mail) and quite surprised that we managed to find it again. We expected it to be more overgrown and neglected but there were vegetables growing in the garden and it seemed like someone was living there. When the keys wouldn’t open any of the doors we started to freak out. Maybe they thought we weren’t coming back and someone’s decided to move in? A quick call to the real estate and she said the previous owners will come straight over. It turns out they’d been looking after everything for us and it was in better condition than when we bought it. Total legends.
We rented somewhere to stay for the first couple of weeks, that turned into a couple of months. We found a clean, cheap and comfortable enough studio apartment ten minutes away in Krapets, just 150 metres from the sea. It was quiet and private with a big garden and great internet (necessary so I could work). It was perfect for a short stay but having no washing machine and cooking outside started to wear thin after a while, especially when winter set in.
There are signs for cafes, bars and restaurants all over Krapets but nothing open at all. I think they must only open in the summer. It’s often really difficult to find decent food for the first month in a new country with an unfamiliar and indecipherable language. Oh the Bulgarian language! As an example, this is g’day – добър ден. I’m learning as fast as I can but what’s written on the signs and labels is still a complete mystery. There are fresh homegrown vegetables for sale everywhere but only what’s in season. At first there were tomatoes, peppers, pumpkins and potatoes but now it’s mostly giant cabbages. Luckily, Bulgarian potatoes and tomatoes are extra delicious. I’ve eaten a lot of potatoes, tomato sandwiches and dolmades lately.
It was such a relief when we discovered ‘Bio’ shops in all the bigger towns. They sell oat milk, vegan cheeses and everything needed for survival. Phew! Since then, we’ve found many more food options. There are so many towns and villages nearby that we haven’t had time to visit yet. So far, we’ve been doing all of our shopping and business in the seaside towns of Shabla (building supplies) and Kavarna (food and the municipal office) plus the inland regional city of Dobrich. These all have Soviet style concrete buildings and a dilapidated air. Occasionally, there’s a glimpse of an older architecture.
No-one has lived in our house for twenty years but it was still chockablock full of furniture and personal belongings. The dirt floors were covered in a multitude of colourful rugs.
One of the first jobs was to dig out all the dirt floors and put down concrete, so we had to completely empty the house. I felt a bit sad and very humbled to have this glimpse into someone else’s life from a totally different time and place. Their belongings told the story of the importance of family with the big cooking pots and so many beds. They also told of frugality and hard times, where everything was homemade, saved and mended. We spent a week or so playing hilarious mime tug-o-war with Vassil and his wife Anni. ‘You take this’, ‘no, you take it’, ‘no, I think you should have it’ with us speaking English and them speaking Bulgarian. Eventually, after packing all the things we wanted to keep in the ‘sheds’ and many trips to the communal bins, an end was in sight.
The Roma were called in to take anything they wanted from the leftovers. The Roma (Romani/Gypsies) make up an estimated 10% of the Bulgarian population. They tend to move around the region and tend not to fill in census forms. Like all of the related groups across Europe, they originated in India. One of my favourite films of all time is ‘Latcho Drom’ the story of their migration told through their music. ‘Gypsy’ is a derogatory term here and it seems they experience disproportionately high levels of poverty and discrimination and everything that goes with that.
We’d almost managed to empty the house when all our stuff arrived from England and filled it up again. We arrived in the UK with two backpacks and just over a year later we somehow had half a truckload to transport to Bulgaria. The UK is such a prosperous and throwaway society that you can get almost anything secondhand and super cheap (even free) online. It’s such a scavenger’s paradise, how could we resist?
I’ve been working in Krapets during the week and going out to the house on the weekends. How satisfying is peeling wallpaper off walls? Very meditative indeed. JH has worked every day on the house for the last two months. He’s worked so hard that his hands are constantly bleeding. One of the biggest challenges is the bathroom. We thought we’d be able to use the pit toilet and basic shower that was tacked on to the side of the house for a while. It soon became obvious that it just wasn’t safe. The whole concrete structure is on an alarming angle and about to collapse.
Our cottage consists of five small rooms with stone walls as the main part of the house but joined on are another five rooms. They’re actually animal barns made of mud brick and twig ceilings, linked by a series of small ‘hobbit-sized’ doors. They all have the potential to be many things one day. JH has miraculously transformed the first of these into a functional bathroom, complete with hot shower, toilet and washing machine. Oh the joy!
With the help of an invaluable hired translator, JH got his five year Bulgarian residency card in exactly one week. No drama. Easy peasy with a UK passport. It’ll probably be a whole different story post-Brexit though. For me, it’s not straightforward at all. Despite the conflicting advice from the Bulgarian embassy in London, the only way I can stay in Bulgaria is if we get married. Otherwise, I can only stay for 90 days and then leave for 90 days before I can come back again. I’ve successfully avoided getting married my whole life, so I’m a bit miffed at the situation.
You’d think it would be easy enough to do but it seems to be harder to get married than I imagined. Apparently you can’t do it online or just rock up somewhere and do it on the spot. Everyone wants loads of paperwork and the sacrifice of seventeen virgins. Who would’ve thought? Where’s the Las Vegas drive-through with the Elvis impersonator when you need one? We considered popping over to Gibraltar like John Lennon and Yoko Ono or even eloping to Gretna Green but none of these things are possible during a global pandemic. The only option is to get married in Bulgaria. Here, you have to do this in the municipality where you live. For us, this is Kavarna. The registry office man is suspicious and obviously doesn’t want to marry us. He says we should go to the British Embassy in Sofia and get married there. The embassy says we should get married in Kavarna. Eventually, he gives us a long list of all the things we need to get before he’ll marry us. One of these is a ‘Certificate of no impediment to marriage’ from the Australian embassy. The closest Australian embassy is in Athens, Greece. As you can imagine it took ages to get this certificate and when it finally arrived my date of birth was wrong. Doh!
Meanwhile, after almost two months of cooking outside and washing our clothes in a bucket in Krapets, we’ve moved into our house. Hooray! We’ve got electricity, plumbing and concrete floors. A major achievement I reckon, especially under the circumstances of COVID, the language barrier and weeks of constant rain. Everything has turned to mud and we can’t drive down our road. Since the electricity supplier is 100% renewable (hydro and wind) we don’t feel the need to go off-grid. Such luxury! We had to get the whole house wired and an upgraded supply into the house from the electric company. When we went to their office to organise it, they said we had to buy our own cable and then they’d do it. Whoever heard of such a thing?
We’re having so much fun playing house. The first night was freezing but now the stone walls have warmed up, with a couple of electric heaters and a portable gas one, it’s all cozy and toasty. We’ve put insulation down on top of the concrete and piled all the original rugs back on the floors until we get flooring. The roof is pretty solid and there are no leaks and no holes in the walls. We’ll need to replace the windows eventually but the doors are all tough and fixable. We saved as much of the original furniture as we could. It’s kind of folky and homemade but I like it. A few repairs and a coat of paint and it’ll be great.
It’s so quiet here. In fact, it’s totally silent. It’s like a little cosy cocoon. I guess it’s the thick stone walls and being at the edge of a tiny, mostly abandoned village. There’s no raucous wildlife (giant hares are pretty quiet), there’s no snakes in the house, and even the occasional spider is spindly and harmless. Even though the house had been empty for so long, there’s no sign of mice, rats or anything like that. I guess (hope) there’s no way for them to get in. It’s not really beautiful here in this part of Bulgaria, not in my beholder’s eye anyway. It is beautiful on the coastline, just ten minutes away, but here we’re surrounded by farmland. We have plans to create a pond or dam for the wildlife and to plant a mini forest on our half acre. JH already has loads of tree seedlings sprouting.
Neykovo village is very small. There’s no shop or post office. Nothing at all really. It looks like there used to be a shop, a school and a library but these are all abandoned and falling down. We’re out on the edge of the village and it feels like a peaceful sanctuary ‘away from the madding crowd’. Yet, Istanbul, Athens, Rome, Budapest and so many exciting places are all less than a day’s drive away. I’m so looking forward to the day when it’s safe to go out in the world again. We’ve been trying to track down our mail. We had letters sent to our address but they never arrived. We’ve got a little wooden mailbox on the gate (with a nest in it) but nothing got delivered. Then we found out that the post only comes to Neykovo once a month. It goes to the mayor’s office but we couldn’t find the mayor. It turns out she’s been in hospital for months with COVID. Our closest neighbour was a lovely old lady called Radka, who brought me a posy of flowers from her garden. She died a couple of weeks ago, so we’re hoping that wasn’t COVID too. Bulgaria was doing well when we got here but the COVID situation is getting really bad now.
Two days after we moved in, off we went to the municipal office with a translator and all our painstakingly collected bits of paper, to see about getting married. ‘Oh no’, says the horrible man (in Bulgarian) ‘you can’t get married in Bulgaria until one of you has been an official resident here for at least six months’. What the hell? Why didn’t he say so before? Oh dear. So, now I have until mid-January to leave the country. What to do? Where to go? All around are closed borders, travel restrictions and a rampant mutating virus.
After much deliberation, we’ve decided the best thing to do is to try to get back to Australia. Life looks comparatively normal there (apart from the corruption/police state/fascist government thing) and an isolated island in the Pacific Ocean sounds like a good place to be in these crazy times. We’d have had to go back sometime next year anyway to sort out JH’s visa. What a pain in the arse all of these borders, fences and rules are. For me (one of the lucky ones) it’s an annoyance but, of course, for the millions of refugees and displaced people across the world it can mean life or death.
Getting back to Australia is not so simple I know, when thousands of Australians are stuck all over the world trying to get home. I think (hope) I’ve managed to book us a series of flights from here to Sydney via Sofia, Istanbul, Kuala Lumpur, Penang and Singapore. It’ll take four days and cost many times more than usual. It’s absolutely criminal how airlines have hiked up their prices astronomically to take advantage of the world situation. Fingers crossed none of our flights will be cancelled, no one will refuse us entry and we’ll be in mandatory quarantine in Sydney (at a cost of $4000) before the end of January. Poor JH will spend his 60th birthday locked up in quarantine.
We’re glad we haven’t dismantled any of the full on security system on our house here. Every window is covered in steel bars drilled into the walls and every door has at least one steel bar. External doors also have multiple padlocks and an extra metal door. Apparently crime rates are really low in Bulgaria, apart from the organised mafia kind, and Vassil says no one has managed to break in during the last twenty years. So, we feel quite safe to just lock up and walk away, in the expectation that everything will still be here when we get back. We’ll arrive home to Australia broke but it wouldn’t be a proper adventure if it ended with money in my pocket. As the classic saying goes, ‘If you’re not living on the edge you’re taking up too much space’.