Written in Bulgaria in November 2007. I was beginning my first winter in Eastern Europe.
The word “convenient” doesn’t really figure in my life right now. In fact I’d go so far as to say most of my life is very inconvenient if you look at it from the point of view of someone living in western Europe. Interestingly though, its not getting me down. Convenience suggests something that saves time but time has a completely different set of parameters here so the benefits of convenience are also up for question. Sometimes I do take a bit of a detached look at my life and notice what I’m actually doing at that moment – like going out in the rain to collect a pile of logs – not a big thing but not very convenient if you think in terms of central heating.
By ‘convenient’ I mean all the little things that we expect to have around us in “real life” to make our lives easier and to give us lots of free time. We’ve had labour saving devices developing around us for an awful long time now and they gradually save us more time by taking the trivia out of life – like switching on the central heating. That’s funny, because here, those things that take up time, like getting in the wood and preserving enough food, are the essentials of life and are not in the least trivial.
So what rates as inconvenient? Buying milk, maybe. Nothing so simple as getting a carton at the shop around here. I go down the road to my friend Naem who has 6 cows. Ok so far, but after he milks them, at some very early hour, and gets them off to the pastori (the shepherd) for the day, Naem sometimes goes back to bed for an hour or so before the milk gets collected around 9 o’clock. So it’s a fine window of opportunity around 8.45 when he’s up and the milk is still there. A bit inconvenient but I like that the milk comes fresh out of the cow and I like chatting to Naem and his wife. Someone last year made me think about whether or not the milk should be pasteurised. Now that really was inconvenient – pasteurising milk is a right hassle and I only did it once so I just stopped thinking about whether or not the national herd is brucellosis free and I got rid of that inconvenience.
I don’t have a bathroom, which could be seen as a major inconvenience but I haven’t had one for 2 years and it hasn’t stopped anyone having a great time here and no-one was particularly smelly. It was nice having a shower outside in the sun as long as you had remembered to fill the solar shower with water and hang out it in the sun a few hours earlier. It also makes you think about how much water is normally spent on washing and maybe some people found it quite convenient not to wash every day.
Having a sheep was quite a hassle at times. (I got a bit drunk one day and ended up buying a sheep….as you do!) She didn’t like to be left for too long on her own and she had to be moved around the field a lot so she didn’t wear the grass out. After a few months she thought she was a dog, so she needed to be taken for walks to gallop around with Jess and Tino –the real dogs. However she is now in the freezer and the only inconvenience at this point is that I only have half a packet of Bisto left – not a product that is readily available in Bulgaria- it comes in Red Cross Parcels. I suppose most people find it more convenient to buy meat at the supermarket but having Alan Shearer (the sheep – great name) was brilliant. I never imagined a sheep could be so interesting – and annoying of course. Who would have thought that a sheep could have such a vocal range and distinct moods – sometimes she got into a right strop. Her relationship with the cats and dogs was priceless and I’ll always remember her racing down the path and sailing over the wheelbarrow – impressive and not something you usually see at the supermarket. And then there was the day she came into the living room… another story!
I guess day to day inconvenience is something like having to light the fire when I get up – this is part of the whole process of finding someone to bring me 10 cubic metres of oak (that’s impressive in itself), getting it sawn up, getting it delivered, getting it all chopped and stacked and remembering to bring it into the house while its still light. Not quite as convenient as having timer control central heating, but it still keeps me warm and I made new friends during the weeks of negotiation.
I guess when people save all of this time, they get to do things like walk and exercise. I used to do that but taking the dog for a walk was never a chore because it was physical movement. Here I think I walk more than I ever had in my life – except when I lived half way up the mountain in India – but, by normal standards .. a lot of walking. My kitchen has a fairly neat layout mainly because the space is so small and I don’t have loads of stuff and there isn’t much room for error. However, in the summer or almost 6 months of the year, the wood stove is outside – we cook outside but all of the ingredients and cooking things are inside the house. Not very timesaving but cooking in the garden is great and I quite liked bumping my head 10 times a day on a peach hanging way down in front of the cooker. Sadly it was too bruised to eat. But reaching out for a couple of tomatoes and bending down to pick a bunch of Basil made it actually quite convenient and lovely.
I can’t imagine sitting around in a house in England with thermal underwear, 3 T shirts, a jumper and a scarf plus 2 pairs of socks and slippers and the heating on full blast. Interestingly, there isn’t a noun in Bulgarian for “heating” in the sense of central heating. People just light fires and keep warm. But all it boils down to is that I’m warm and well fed and the fact that it took more than a flick of the switch to get there, doesn’t really matter. Life here generally takes up a lot of time but its isn’t split up into work, domestic and social – its all mixed in together and because everybody here has the same kind of life, it’s the norm and no-ones sees it as inconvenient.