Life in the Bulgarian Boondocks


Steve: Our pleasant stay in Sofia served as a perfect introduction to our first (fully) European country. Now it was time for us to move deeper into Bulgaria and its customs for our first Workaway since leaving New Zealand. Even though we would be staying with a British couple we knew we would be off the beaten track and in for some truly unique experiences.

Getting off of the train at the tiny rural train station in Tulovo we were instantly greeted by the smiling and charming Mel, one-half of our British host duo. Pleasantries and hellos done we were whisked away to their home to pick up Mel’s mother, Judy, and their four-month-old rescue pup, Tinker, before meeting her partner Darren, who was off fishing for the weekend. So within minutes of getting off of the train we were with two friendly English-speaking people and had a cute black and white mutt straddling us as she hung her head out the window—we knew right away that this would be a great fit for us.

After a scenic ride filled with mountains and sunflower fields we found ourselves at one of the local lakes where Darren, his brother Martin and British friend Tom had spent the weekend camping and fishing. Basking in the sun and taking in the views, we met Mel and Darren’s other dog—the one-year-old shepherdess Molly (who liked to stand on her back legs to pick and eat plums from the backyard tree)—as well as Tom’s wife, Helen. Soon the BBQ was lit and beers were poured—if it wasn’t for the accents we might as well have been hanging out with your average Americans (Leah: and as it turned out, they had both spent time in the US- Mel as an au pair in New Hampshire and Darren visiting friends in Minnesota and the Dakotas whom he had met in the UK). We learned that Mel and Darren had moved to Bulgaria about four years ago after deciding that they wanted a change in lifestyle after years of hustle and bustle—sound familiar? Mel had owned a prosperous but time-consuming costume shop in the Newcastle area of northern England and Darren worked for himself as a residential landscaper (clearly there would be a lot in common on that end). Although they were doing well for themselves they needed a change of pace and after a visit to Bulgaria this seemed to be the place to do it.

Since buying their property in Shanovo (population: 400 or fewer) and moving to Bulgaria they have changed their lifestyles and while they aren’t necessarily any less busy, they have adopted a less-stressful style of living. Darren still does part-time landscaping and building construction to keep some money coming in but both him and Mel focus on producing their own food—raising animals and growing veggies—all while tackling different projects as they develop their own veritable eco-compound. In true form Leah and I slept in a tent and took solar showers during our stay and while some of our less-accustomed friends might cringe at this, we had perfectly warm water and some of the best sleep we’ve had in awhile.

During our stay Leah and I helped out with the daily feeding and care of the pigs, chickens, turkeys and rabbits…and before I make a faux pas and am corrected by my wife I should mention that also included a pair of two-day-old bunnies and a dozen week-old chicks. As I mentioned all the animals, with the exceptions of the dogs and cats of course, are raised for food so although everyone cooed and cuddled all the little ‘uns the words “bunny burgers” were probably spoken every day. The animals were all so well taken care of that I have decided if I’ve gotten it wrong and we are reincarnated I want to come back as some kind of organic livestock—you’re kept fat and happy all day every day; you’re constantly cleaned up after; and when it’s your time you are taken out quickly and humanely before you’re decrepitly old and with your life having served a noble purpose. Not a bad life at all when you look at it that way.

Aside from the daily animal routine we also lent our hands to some of the bigger construction projects which included a mud-mortared stone wall and re-roofing the main house. Darren and I spent a day helping but Leah and Mel did the majority of the work on the stone wall, which apparently included some fully-intentional “womanly curves.” That said the wall looked rather nice from the roof where I spent much of my working hours. I assisted Darren and Martin—who also purchased and is in the process of renovating a house down the street—in fixing large portions of the roof which were heavily susceptible to leaking. We got the ladies to help us and started a human conveyor belt as we took off tile after tile, replete with Soviet-era star ridge tiles, before getting down to the damaged wood underneath. Constructed in the 1950s to common Bulgarian standards the roof beams were essentially thick branches and covered with bamboo and mud for insulation. Much of it was still quite sturdy so we only had to replace a quarter of the wood with new timber before installing plywood and waterproofing membranes. It was my first attempt at roofing and even though Darren and Martin had only done a few themselves I must say I learned quite a bit.

At the end of the week Mel, Darren and Judy entrusted us with the house and the animals as they took Martin over to the coast for a prearranged flight back to the UK. It was nice to have some well-deserved free time and although we were left Darren’s van for use as we please we found that we “couldn’t be bothered” (this is one of my favorite Brit sayings now). After a week of good hard work and some soaring temperatures we were done for and I started with flu symptoms, a surprise after nearly a year of being virtually sick-free. We lounged at the house and caught up on some reading and had ourselves a BBQ feast on their outdoor fireplace. We were perfectly content to hang around with Molly and Tinker who reminded us daily why we are dog lovers. I can say this even after we took the mutts for a walk down to the local reservoir and came back with a fox-poo-encrusted Molly. Apparently the musky stank drives them wild and they will roll around in it the first chance they get. Guess who got a bath as soon as we got back home?

The day before we were scheduled to leave Mel accepted a request from a last-minute Workawayer who had his own van and was willing and ready to come and work. Although Blake was 50-50 on his reviews—one good, one strangely bad—he came off as conscientious and Mel is the type to give everyone the benefit of the doubt. So with a day to go we were joined by another Brit who while nice enough did seem a bit odd; at least he would be able to help Darren with the next section of the roof. Except that night Leah and I almost simultaneously had the thought “do we really want to go already?” We had gotten accustomed to life at Chez Mel & Darren and just didn’t feel ready to leave them and the animals. Mel had even made a comment about not wanting us to go so the next morning we got to the breakfast table and asked if we could stay a few days longer. Even though I was getting my butt-kicked by this cold I knew that the past week would leave me better equipped to help Darren with Martin’s absence, so I think it was a win-win for both parties. Mel and Darren assented immediately.

That day was quite hot—over the next two days temperatures would reach 40° C (about 105 in Fahrenheit!) –and the work was taxing. We took regular tea/coffee/water breaks but even the fittest person would have been drained. We did imbibe in plenty of ice cream and even made the dogs "popsicles" consisting of frozen chicken stock to stay cool, but it was tough. I felt bad since my unexpected stay relegated Blake to a somewhat secondary role of clean-up and other odd jobs (a good portion of what I did the week previous, mind you) however with his work gloves and makeshift dust mask it was apparent that he wasn’t too keen on the down and dirty nature of the job. So that said it wasn’t the biggest surprise when he made a runner and took off at almost 1 a.m., sending Mel a passive-aggressive text message that he was sorry but was unhappy with the work, long hours and accommodation. Darren and I had a clue he wasn’t the best fit when he made a comment to the effect that he wasn’t on Workaway since he stayed away from anything with “work” in the title (he is on the similar but less-intimidating titled Maybe he was scared after seeing Darren show me a martial arts move or two; he is a black belt in several styles and is a veritable British ninja. If I wasn’t feeling so lousy I would have loved to learn more.

I would like to think that we are proof that the Mel-Darren household was in fact a nice place to be. Following with Workaway tradition meals were fresh, varied and often extraordinary. Judy was a mainstay and provided good company and culinary expertise (her fish pie was the bomb!) and was a part of our almost nightly ritual of Rummikub and cocktails. This often included some of their homemade rakia, a fruit-based moonshine that is often flavored with fresh fruits. The pear might have been the best as it had a smoothness approaching a nice Scotch whiskey. As a thank you we were even sent away with 500 ml bottle of their very nice grape rakia. Nazdrave, (cheers) as they say in Bulgaria.

Sitting in a hostel in the next town after our Workaway gig we’ve found ourselves understandably tired and travel-weary. So the usually verbose Madam McFail has opted to add some other highlights of our stay in an annotated bullet-point fashion. Without further ado…

Leah: Yup, I’m a bit spent and Steve did a fab job covering all the important bits and bobs, so I just have a few things to add:

                *We saw a funeral procession through the village one day after hearing tolling bells that signified a woman had died. The mourners streamed right past the front of the house while we were working on the roof and we saw the elderly woman laid out on a wooden cart surrounded by an array of flowers. During the summer the dead are buried within 24 hours due to the heat and we all remarked at how other cultures seem to embrace the reality of death more openly than we do in the US & UK.

                *Similarly, we were struck by what I call the “dead people doors.” Walking through the village nearly every door had a piece of paper hanging with a person’s photo, dates of birth and death and something written about them. Mel explained that surviving members of the family post these tribute flyers at intervals after the person has died, often decades later. Slightly morbid to return home each day to mugshot of your dead loved one, but yet again a unique take on death.

                *We had to learn real fast how to decipher Bulgarian body language. It’s one of the few countries in the world where the response “ne”, or no, is accompanied by a nod of the head, while the affirmative response, “da”, elicits a head shake from side to side. Rumor has it that this custom started when Bulgaria was under Ottoman rule and the Bulgarians were taught to reverse the shaking and nodding of heads to confuse the occupiers. Either way, no looks like yes and vice versa---oh, and the “yes” response looks like the Indian head bobble I love so much. Fun times, except when it leads to very some very confusing conversations about whether a bus goes to a certain place or if the corner shop has a certain item.

                *Bulgarians apparently love guard dogs, but not necessarily dogs as pets (reminded me of my Gabonese Peace Corps days). As a result, they’ll often chain up a dog outside on a meter worth of chain and that’s the only space the dog will ever see—they sleep, eat and poo in the exact same spot 24/7. Mel said that Bulgaria passed a law last year stating that all dogs need to be taken off their chains for at least one hour every day, but good luck enforcing that. In fact, Mel and Darren’s neighbors, with whom they’re friendly, had a very handsome black and white shepherd Bucky who suffered that exact fate. Absolutely broke my heart to see him in the exact square of space every single day…(and how a dog can guard a property when they aren’t even free to chase intruders is beyond me).

                *Speaking of dogs, we had quite the encounter on our last day in the area when we all went into Stara Zagora for a well deserved break. While checking out the top of a ginormous monument in honor of the defenders of Stara Zagora, Steve heard a meek little "ruff" issuing from nearby. He stepped off the path and a furry nose peeked out from a burrow under the concrete, followed by two more similarly small noses and wagging tails. Seriously?! While still very young, these dapper brothers seemed healthy and fed so we assumed momma was around and our hearts didn't hurt so much at the thought of leaving. We gave them some water, cuddles and way too much attention, before herding them back into the safety of their burrow and running away before they could follow. 

  *William and Catherine, Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, became the proud parents of Prince George while we were here. Although we weren't exactly part of the royal baby fervor, it seemed to be the perfect end to the story since Catherine had announced her pregnancy while we were in San Rafael, Argentina and she had the bay while we were still on the trip. Woot!

We absolutely learned a ton and whether we were celebrating Darren’s birthday by Go Kart racing in the underground parking garage at the mall (brilliant way to use the space!) or sitting on the deck watching a fiery pink sunset over the hills, we quickly acclimated to the slower pace of village life. We already miss them dearly and while I’m glad we won’t be there for butchering season, it was gut-wrenching to leave. Cheers Mel, Daz and Judy, we couldn’t have asked for more (even if I’m still cleaning pig and chicken shit off my shoes and clothing)! Now we're off on a whirlwind tour of the rest of Eastern Europe--crazy to know that the next month will see us in six countries before our long-awaited stint in Finland. Wish us luck!



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