Moving to Bulgaria

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.

Beautiful England: Trentham Gardens in summer

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.

Vassil, the previous owner, who grew up in our house

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.

The Black Sea at the end of our street in Krapets

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.

Dobrich

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.

Layers of rugs on the dirt floors
Dirt floors underneath

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 original kitchen

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.

Anni helping the Roma move things out

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.

The dodgy bathroom and our wonderful walnut trees

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!

Mud brick walls and hobbit door
The bathroom in progress
The bathroom so far: hot showers woohoo, and I no longer have to pee outside in the rain

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?

The kitchen so far

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.

The living room

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.

Beyond our grapevines

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.

Front gate with pointless mailbox

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’.

Bars on the windows

21 thoughts on “Moving to Bulgaria

  1. I can not understand when you have a paradise in NSW, why you would go through such fun disarray at your (our) age in cold, decaying Europe?
    If only I could find a man like yours, who is practical and obedient 👍😉🧚‍♀️

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  2. Dear Jeanne – You write so wonderfully sweetheart, with all your warmth and humour I just can’t stop reading anything you write. I love sharing your adventures and think you are both so brave. We are in Deloraine today, a little town in northern Tasmania, the first place I ever taught. Its the beginning of another camping trip. Lucky my Dutch boyfriend has the nomad in him too. We have been Wild adventurers lately, bushwalking in remote mountains – in the footsteps of my intrepid parents. I am missing Cambodia and Amsterdam- my other two homes on the planet. I was talking to Maureen yesterday- that was lovely .

    Love you darling , kaz xxx

    Sent from my iPhone

    >

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  3. I loved reading your blog Jeanne! What an adventure especially with all the uncertainties that Covid creates. Safe travels back to Australia x

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  4. Wow! You guys really do have a life crammed full of adventure..look forward to seeing more photos & stories..amazing..Hope your journey back to Australia is as easy as possible..Happy Birthday JH,for $4000 quarantine ide be asking for a birthday cake & a carton of beer😜

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  5. I love reading about your adventures. The world is in total disarray but it seems one of the safest places is Australia. I’m glad you’re coming home. It sounds like the trip back to Australia is a nightmare. Loads of Aussies who have been trying to return to Australia have complained of cancelled flights with little, if any notification. Pack a few book for when in quarantine 😀😀Safe return home xx

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  6. Thanks for sharing your story and what an interesting one at that! Have a safe trip and look forward to seeing you when you get back x

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  7. Blimey What a saga. Looks like it will be paradise when you get back there. But it is time to return to the hermit part of the name😁
    We wish you all the very best with your trip back. Sounds like you will need a good rest.
    No doubt there will be book published in due course?

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  8. Oh Jeanne!
    You write so beautifully, and live so vibrantly, while I sit here bereft of adventure, & struggling for (and not achieving) the words to describe how happy I am for you that you are adventuring, and the deep green ache of envy that wells within me…..
    Thank you for allowing us to live your adventures vicariously!
    Big love to you & JH; I had hoped to catch up with you in England until covid reared its revolting head & kiboshed that adventure!
    Blessings for your safe travels back here to Australia, and I can’t wait to catch up here xx

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