Across Continents

Ken's Blog

No snow…

January 16th, 2011

Snowman - web

Blighty under a blanket of snow. The sort of thing that was the norm for Bulgaria. Where I’d spent the previous Christmas. Being introduced to Nanette, Nicky and their son Michael (pictured). But in what seemed to be a straight weather swop, not a single flake this year. The only snowmen artificial. Warm enough for an outdoor barbeque.

[Photograph reproduced with permission]


Reflections on Bulgaria

December 30th, 2009

Sofia. A city of open spaces, parks, bustling shopping streets. Modern facades amidst the older buildings. Plovdiv, once the capital, with its well kept old city on the hill above the new. Wide pedestrian areas, familiar high street names.

Very different in the rural towns and villages. A much more simple existence. Tough for many. A strong sense of community, the upholding of traditions such as the killing of the family pig for Christmas, and a willingness to share these with outsiders. Ignoring the pervasive spread of the mobile phone, some ressemblance with the UK thirty or forty years ago, maybe more. Fashions – clothing and hairstyles – a little more recent, perhaps early 80s.

I’d spent some time staying near the town of Elhovo in the eastern part of the country, close to the Turkish border. I’d expected to see some familiar supermarket chains. They’d already permeated across much of Europe and Bulgaria. But not here. Not yet. But they’d come. And soon. Consumerism was slowly replacing the material reminders of Communism. Bulgaria had joined the European Union.

But wherever you went in Bulgaria, a very hospitable people. Welcoming, friendly, always willing to share with others. Katyusha and her team at Outward Bound Bulgaria in Sofia. Julie and George, Zoya and Jack, Donka and George, Radka and Christopher, Mitko and his bike, Nicky, Nanette and Michael in the eastern hills. And many others. I’d loved it.


Pig’s ear

December 26th, 2009

Photo 5 - web quality

I’d joined Zoya and Jack, together with their family and friends, to experience a traditional Bulgarian Christmas celebration. Dinner in the afternoon was a communal affair, no plates, just forks, and an endless succession of dishes to dip into, all made using the family’s pig reared for the occasion. Ample home made wine and Rakia, the local firewater. With so many guests, the men sat around the table in one room, the women next door in the kitchen.

The day had started early with the traditional killing and then butchering of the family pig, as much a part of the festivities as the meal itself. The whole process took the best part of four hours, done outdoors with great skill, passed down from father to son. Nothing went to waste. Water was boiled in large cauldrons over open wood fires beside the house, used to help scrub the pig clean. Tasty morsels of meat for those busy stripping the carcass were prepared on a small grill, fuelled with the embers. Indoors, the women prepared dinner with the freshly cut meat.

After the meal, I’d returned to the house where I was staying, a few logs for the woodstove, phone calls to family and friends. Then back to Zoya and Jack’s. A chance to sample home made sausage, prepared earlier in the day entirely from various parts of the pig, and then slowly boiled. Tender. I ate a good few slices. Zoya seemed pleased.

Off next to Christopher and Radka’s house on the other side of the village. Thirty, perhaps forty, people in two small rooms, one the kitchen. Long tables arranged in the sitting room as if for a banquet. A small space was found for me next to Christopher, a jovial chap who’d been learning a little Welsh. I offered a few new phrases I’d learnt growing up in Wales, in between tucking into the meal Radka had presented me with. Keen to show my gratitude by eating a decent amount, I soon found myself presented with a second plateful.

I returned once more to the house where I was staying, thoroughly fed. The day had been a wonderful experience. But now it was time for more adventure. I’d been given a knitted woollen cap for Christmas, thoughtfully designed to be worn under my cycle helmet. I was ready.

[The author is indebted to Chris, Ruth, Alex and Emily for the very generous use of their home in Bulgaria, and with it the opportunity to experience traditional village life]


In the chair

December 21st, 2009

It appeared that the surgery doubled as a waiting room. At least, I hadn’t found one, and there were two women sat in the corner next to what I recognised as a dentist’s chair. I was fairly certain they weren’t dental assistants. Never moved. The dentist herself was left to wipe the instruments with what I hoped was antiseptic spray. No autoclave. Just a microwave in the corner. Probably for lunch.

I already knew they didn’t do local anaesthetic, and had toyed with bringing along some of my own. In the end I’d decided against it. Never mind the language difficulties, I’d a pretty good idea that inadvertent misuse of such drugs could be, at best, unwise. Besides, the dentist had been sufficiently unimpressed with my use of antibiotics. Not for dental treatment I was told. Not what the UK patient information sheet said, but probably best to leave it there.

Bit of tapping. Did it hurt? Had to concentrate. Bulgarians nod for no, shake their head for yes. I was very keen to get it right for once, reliant on word association. ’Ne’ means no, and I’d imagine a horse nodding as it ’Ne’d’. Inconclusive. I’d need an X-ray. But that would be in another town, forty or so kilometres away. Then treatment would be spread over five or so days.

Back outside I contemplated what to do next. Quite mild now. About minus five. I’d had some last minute emergency dental treatment done before I’d left for France, finally sorting out a problem that had niggled me all summer and which had eluded my own dentist. But that was with a very experienced surgeon and a well-equipped surgery. Here I sensed a lot of time and effort could be expended for little, if any, benefit. I’d already started a course of antibiotics and had plenty of painkillers. No need to rush into treatment I might come to regret. Istanbul was looking like my best bet. At least any X-rays would be within walking distance.

[Author’s note: My medical kit includes a number of drugs prescribed for personal use, and for which I have received specific training from UK medical professionals with extensive overseas expedition experience. Notwithstanding this, advice was sought from a very experienced dental surgeon before embarking on the course of antibiotics]


Wash and brush up

December 16th, 2009

Emma’s low maintenance. One of the reasons I like her so much. But after close on five thousand miles this year, three thousand of which spent crossing Europe, a proper wash and brush up was in order. Fit winter tyres. Maybe even a bit of pampering. Actually, my plan was two-fold. Firstly, to see just exactly how well she’s wearing. That way I can re-assess my field kit, both the tools I carry and the spares outfit I hold. Secondly, in a way because she is just such low maintenance, an opportunity to refresh my own skills. Of course, working on Mitko’s bike had been a great help.


I’ve been busy compiling some pretty comprehensive notes – things I’ve learnt, problems I’ve solved – together with a detailed specification and parts inventory for Emma. Very helpful to me, and I hope to anyone else thinking of undertaking a similar venture. Quite a bit more time-consuming than I’d imagined, but I hope to make it available for download via the website shortly, if that’s your sort of thing.

Ordinarily I’d have done quite a bit of this before I’d left home, but simply ran out of time. That’s the trouble with going away for four years. Lots to do. Lots. And I was never going to miss my first goal, getting away on the chosen date.


The bill, stupid

December 15th, 2009

Left brain, right brain. I can never remember. Whichever it is, I do struggle with languages. Not that I don’t try of course. But it’s definitely enthusiasm over ability. And quite a bit of smiling. Logically, and that’s more my thing, I should be able to do better. After all, met lots of people who speak English as a second language. And do so very well. I’d watched Julie, my guide and mentor here in the village, chat away with the Bulgarians. She’d moved here a few years ago and just got on with it. And, fair to say, like me, languages probably weren’t her thing at school. She’d shown me the art of the possible.

Time helps, provided you use that to immerse yourself into everyday life, learning to deal with the day-to-day challenges. Unfortunately, I’ve rarely been in a country for more than a few weeks, a month at the most. Turkey should be a bit different. Couple of months, maybe a bit more. And I’ve a decent phrase book to get me started. Much better than my small Eastern European one. Which did each one not very well, and skipped Serbian.

But South and Central America’s another matter. Spanish. For months. Reckon even I’ll become fairly proficient by the end. Myles, with whom I’d cycled from Sofia eastwards across Bulgaria, had spent some time living in South America and suggested it would be worth a month’s crash course, living with a Spanish speaking family. I’d liked the idea, and the costs sounded very reasonable.

But, for now, I was in Bulgaria. Julie had been helping me improve my pronunciation. ’Dobra den’ not ’Dobra dan’ for ’Good day’. But I’d steer clear of asking for the bill in a cafe. ’Smetka’ – ’The bill’ – can be easily mistaken for ’Smatka’ – ’Stupid’ – unless you’re very careful. Best left alone. Unless you want to say ’The bill, stupid’.


Taste of home

December 14th, 2009

Whenever I’m asked what I’m eating in a given country, my stock answer is that it’s always whatever the locals are having. I really try not to sound too flippant, too rude. There is, after all, a really great place for fine traditional English cuisine. That’d be England. However, nothing wrong with the odd reminder of home. I’d Yorkshire tea bags from my parents, there’d even been a Christmas pudding.

I’d heard the nearby town of Elhovo, high up in the hills of eastern Bulgaria, was popular with English ex-pats. Seen a few about, but not many. So I was a little surprised when I’d joined Julie, my guide and mentor, and Mitko for lunch in a cafe in the centre. Presented with a menu in English. Very comprehensive. Not exactly British, but chicken pieces fried in corn flakes sounded good.


We headed out to a mini-market, run by Nicky and Nanette, a little outside of the centre. She’s Scottish, he’s Bulgarian, and their son Michael is bilingual. Outside, smart. Inside, ordered, the shelves neatly stacked with provisions. And stocked with a few luxuries from home. Like custard powder. After Eight mints. Pork and leek sausages. Aberdeenshire bacon. With a little notice, there probably wasn’t much they couldn’t get hold of.

A few days later I’d joined Julie and her partner George for Toad in the Hole. Always went down a treat with the locals, although I did wonder what they made of the name. There was even proper gravy, creamy mash and home made garlic bread. Reckoned Nicky and Nanette had probably had a hand in sourcing the ingredients.

Then there was the tempting offer of Julie’s other specialities, flapjack and bread pudding, before I returned to the road. Evoked strong memories of home. I’d often made flapjack, and my good friend and neighbour Jon could bake a bread pudding to die for. Of course, he’d deny he could cook. Always did, despite a compelling body of evidence to the contrary. Award winning bread in the local fete, first prize in the village pudding competition. Probably have a Michelin Star by the time I got back.


Outward Bound Bulgaria

December 13th, 2009


Earlier in the year I’d visited three of the centres run in the UK by The Outward Bound Trust. Inspiring. Both the students and the instructors. So I’d leapt at the chance to drop in on Outward Bound Bulgaria. Their’s is a small, dedicated team, led by Katyusha Pavlova, operating out of an office in central Sofia. I’d met Katyusha in a park. We’d grabbed a coffee. We chatted about what I’d seen of the UK operation. She talked a little of where they were, the challenges they faced, who they worked with.

The office was in a quiet street, a few blocks off the capital’s main shopping thoroughfare. Just a couple of floors, staff room and kit store rolled into one. The Outward Bound logo and motto on the wall. Through the day I was joined by a two of instructors, Ogy and Pavel, who, fortunately, like Katyusha, spoke good English. Some fascinating insights, and an opportunity for me to share a few ideas of my own.


I returned to the office the following evening, a chance for some of the instructors to sit down with Katyusha and discuss plans and ideas. Might as easily have been a staff meeting at Aberdovey, Ullswater or Loch Eil, or another of The Outward Bound Trust’s UK centres.



Mitko’s bike

December 13th, 2009

That was it. Something Dewi, who’d taught me the art of cycle maintenance, had mentioned. Nothing to be dreaded more than when someone brings you a bike they’ve already had a go at fixing. Apart from, of course, someone claims it was their friend who’d tried. I’d been asked if I’d take a look at Mitko’s bicycle. Delighted of course. Fixing these things is the one skill I do carry on the road, a means to help repay people’s hospitality whenever the opportunity arises. Besides, he’d struck me to be such a good-natured chap, it’d be a real pleasure. You really couldn’t do anything but want to help.


It had taken quite a while just to clean the bike up. Chipping caked on mud, set hard, out of the gears. I’d known they didn’t work, and the brakes needed replacing. Lots of play in the steering, similarly with the pedals. Would have been a great instructional piece. At least the handlebars looked straight. With the help of Julie, an English lady in the village with a garage full of tools, a bike shop in the nearby town of Elhovo, and a bag of parts Mitko had found for me, work could finally begin.


At home you’d probably throw the machine away, pop down to your local bike shop and pick up another, all for less than one hundred quid. But that’s the UK. And this is Bulgaria. I’d sourced the parts for less than six Leva – about three pounds. I’d decided the best thing to do was to strip it right down. It had taken a while – there’d been some serious over tightening going on, and someone had tried to chisel the pedals off. But I’d got there in the end, even managed to remove the seat post, notorious for getting jammed solid.

Two days later I’d reassembled the bike, fitted new brakes, repositioned the saddle to a less eye-watering angle. Even managed get five or so of the gears working, which, considering the amount of play in the pedals and frame, I’d been quietly pleased with. But what really mattered was what Mitko made of it. He’d looked absolutely delighted when he’d come to collect the bike. That was more than enough for me. But then, half an hour later, a knock at the door. Some minor adjustments needed, I thought. No. He’d brought me a box of chocolates.



December 12th, 2009

I’d woken early. Sensed the bedroom was much cooler than normal. I’d peered out through the blinds. Snow. Three or four inches, still falling fast. In the still, early morning air generous quantities were balanced precariously on the branches of nearby trees. After weeks of unusually mild conditions, winter had finally caught up with me.

Snowbound road

Cup of tea. Hot toast and a thick layer of honey. Fire up the woodstove. It was barely light outside, but I felt the need to mark the occasion, to hunker down for winter proper. Found myself checking the refrigerator. Enough milk, eggs and bread? I doubted if the Bulgarians ever worried themselves with such things. They’d be very used to this.

View from Julies

After breakfast I’d an idea. A fresh video for the website, and a short piece for Alex and Emily, who’s parents had kindly let me make use of their house here in the village. Then into the village proper, my first attempt at capturing snow scenes with the camera.

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