While we were off gallivanting in Malta, the greyscale Bulgarian winter was transformed into full Disney technicolour. I had no idea our village of Neykovo could be so beautiful. All the deciduous trees, that I thought were just sticks, miraculously sprouted green leaves and erupted into blossoms. The tumbledown cottages, stone walls and overgrown gardens were covered in a wild profusion of unbelievably bright and colourful flowers. It was as if I’d fallen ‘through the looking glass’ and landed in a children’s storybook. With tortoises, badgers and hedgehogs crossing the road, bees buzzing in and out of flowers, and unfamiliar birds singing happy songs, I half expected the White Rabbit to drop by for a cup of tea.
I think by lucky chance we’ve chosen a great place for our European base. I love the slow pace of life in this sleepy north eastern corner. There’s no traffic and no rush. Horses and carts are almost as common as cars in our village and life travels at horse-speed. People are out and about now that the weather’s changed and everyone smiles and says hello. There are at least four different ways to say hello in Bulgarian and you have to pick the right one for each occasion. I think I’m finally ‘starting’ to get the hang of the language. The more I learn, the more I’m beginning to get a feel for the culture. Some words are just brilliant. The equivalent of cents/pence are stotinkis but when people say it, it sounds like stinkies – “that’ll be twenty stinkies please”. We laugh and laugh, every time. Our place feels like a private sanctuary. All of the neighbouring properties, except one, are abandoned and returning to forest. The overgrown gardens spill flowers right down to the fence line.
People describe life in the rural villages as the ‘old Bulgaria’. It’s as if time has stood still and life remains as closely bound to the earth and the seasons as ever. It’s very real and unpretentious. Bizarre artefacts left behind from the Soviet era add a quirkiness that I love. Our village doesn’t seem quite as abandoned as it did before. Probably about half of the houses appear to be inhabited now. Perhaps they’re only here in the summer? When we first arrived back we were dismayed to see the village mayor’s office had been completely demolished. Had our village been demoted? After a couple of months, a brand new demountable box appeared in its place. It’s such a shame that one of the old falling down buildings couldn’t have been used for the purpose. Too expensive to fix up I suppose.
This rural area is planted almost entirely with food crops – peppers, tomatoes, cucumbers, melons – everything grows so fast here. Over the last few months the small patchwork fields have progressively morphed through the stages of spring and into summer. A kaleidoscope of constantly changing colours, from bright red poppies, through golden wheat, the deep green of corn, the pop of purple lavender and now the sunny yellow of sunflowers. How could anyone look at a sunflower and not smile?
We’re getting to know our area much better this time around and discovering the back roads and shortcuts. Fruit and nuts trees, berries, herbs, marijuana, and a huge variety of edible mushrooms grow wild. There’s such an abundance of free food in the warm seasons that no one need ever go hungry. The only direct neighbour we have is a farmer. His fields stretch between our house and the forest. He’s there every day, grazing his sheep and rounding them up in a horse and buggy. JH gave him the wheat from our small wheat field. He came and harvested it with the help of a tractor and was very happy about it. He’s a lovely guy but we can’t pronounce his name.
The forest on the other side of the farmer’s field is much bigger and thicker than it appears. One day we walked for hours and still didn’t reach the end. I feel much better knowing there’s a forest so close that I can escape to when I feel the need to commune with trees.
With the glorious spring weather, we got all enthused about working in the garden rather than the house and had a very happy time exploring all the corners of our new space. It’s such an adventure learning to garden in a totally different culture and climate. The unfamiliar plants and insects are fascinating and many of them turned out to be things I know from books but have never seen – like elderberries and poison hemlock. Every few minutes I’d get excited by something new and get out my plant app to identify it. We discovered lots of existing flowers, herbs and fruit trees in the garden – cherries, pears, guavas, plums, peaches and apples – and planted some more. JH planted the first few trees in his mini forest. I had the best time tending the grapes and fancying myself as Mistress Of The Vine. We planted so many vegetable seeds and were eating whole meals from the garden in under three months. So fast!
With the change in season, I realised that everyone’s a keen gardener in this region. Every town has a ‘garden pharmacy’ (literal translation) where you can go to get advice and buy medicine for whatever seems to be ailing your plants. I’ve always believed you need to stay a whole year in a place to experience all the seasons and really get to know it. If only life was long enough to spend a year everywhere! In this little corner of the world, there are neat rows of vegetables at every house, ancient bent-backed old ladies wielding hoes, and even small children know the names of all the plants and their uses, what to plant, and when to harvest. It’s such fundamental knowledge that’s being lost in so much of the world.
Meanwhile, in progress on the house, what we’d thought was a good solid roof turned out to be not so solid after all and water started pouring in from various places. I kept waking up in the middle of the night thinking I was being buried alive but no, it was just the layer of mud and straw mysteriously suspended above my head. We realised we’d have to get a team of roofers in. They brought a tent and camped in the garden for a very entertaining week. The old tiles were just sitting on top of a thick layer of mud and straw, so they scraped all of that off and laid wooden boards to attach the tiles back onto. An interesting process. While they were at it, they knocked down the old bathroom. When they were finished there was a huge mess that took JH weeks to clean up with a shovel and a prehistoric wheelbarrow. Luckily, I had a work contract, so I managed to avoid participating in that.
After months of perfect weather, it rained like crazy for a couple of weeks and everything turned into a pile of mud. I thought this was supposed to be a dry country? Pah! The rain washed the beautiful spring away and suddenly it was summer. I guess I’d been expecting something like a mild English summer or perhaps a dry Mediterranean one. To my horror, this year is like the tropics, with an average of 30-31 degrees, storms almost every afternoon, clouds of mosquitoes and hellish humidity. I detest humidity. It became too hot to garden, except in the early morning and late evening.
It’s good beach weather though and great for sitting in a seaside establishment. Our closest beach is at Krapets, about ten minutes drive away. Most of the year there’s just one shop and a tiny bar but suddenly in summer there are cafes, bars, restaurants and roadside stalls appearing out of nowhere. Everything’s exploded into life. It’s the same all along the Black Sea coast.
Also nearby is the dramatically beautiful Cape Kaliakra, where according to a 14th century story, forty young girls tied their hair together and jumped into the sea to escape the invading Ottomans.
The more time I spend in Bulgaria, the more I like it. Sadly, Bulgaria doesn’t feel the same way about me. First of all, our brand new marriage certificate wasn’t good enough and I had to send off to Malta for a different one, then it had to be officially translated into Bulgarian. Then, I had to open a Bulgarian bank account (what a saga!) and have a certain amount of money in it. Then, I had to get private health insurance. Then, after all that, the immigration rules have changed. As my (potential) residency is contingent on JH’s ‘Britishness’, the ongoing impact of Brexit is that I now have to go back to where I came from (only Australia or the UK will do) and get a visa, before I can apply for residency (again). I tried to get one of these visas in the UK last year but the embassy wouldn’t give me one because they said I didn’t need it. Now I do. Agh! Bloody immigration is the bane of my life.
In the meantime, my 90 days in Bulgaria is up again. So, we’ve had to abandon the vegetable garden, pack up again for destinations unknown and hit the road (Jack). It’s disappointing that we won’t get to eat all the things we’ve grown. The corn is just starting to tassel, the eggplants and cauliflowers are just babies and the trees and grape vines are loaded with almost ready fruit. Wah, wah, wah! I always seem to be planting asparagus patches but never sticking around long enough to eat them. Anyway, we told the village mayor that there’s plenty of fruit and vegetables going to waste in our garden if anyone wants them.
On our last day, the previous owners of our house (Vassil and Anni) randomly came to visit. They live elsewhere now and we haven’t seen them since we first moved in. They said they’ll harvest the grapes and bring us some wine when we get back. Perfect! I’m feeling quite philosophical about having to leave this time. It’s too hot now anyway and all kinds of good things are sure to be just around the corner, or over the next hill. Gardening is good but seeing new places is better.
Europe is completely opening up again now and finger’s crossed it lasts. Covid hasn’t gone away though and travelling by public transport doesn’t feel totally safe yet. We’ve had our double vaccine shots (Astra Zeneca) but still feel the need to be as careful as possible. So, we’ve bought a car – an all-black (inside and out) mean machine – for a road trip instead. So gangsta! I wish it was electric but it is hybrid, so that will have to do. Why are electric cars still so expensive? Who’s running this show? They’re doing a piss-poor job of it. The advantages of travelling in your own car are that you can go anywhere you like and you can take a bunch of probably unnecessary stuff with you. The disadvantages are many but one in particular is that thanks to Brexit, our European car insurance is no longer valid in the UK.
A few days ago, we drove the 20km from our house to the Romanian border. On the Bulgarian side, they said I’ve stayed 92 days instead of 90 and the fine is €2,500. I insisted I’d only stayed 89 days. I was sure I’d counted it carefully, but who knows? Maths has never been my strong point. There was a lot of frowning, muttering and recounting happening behind the glass window, then the big boss got called in. After playing twenty questions for a while, he said he’s going to let me go because he’s “a nice boy with a good heart”. I’m not arguing with that. Now, here we are in Romania and let the next adventures begin.