by Katherine Watt

Expat adventure: Orienteering problems, portholed roads and caustic coffee cannot dampen an escapee's joy

Katherine Watt

In the way home to dreary Peterborough I didn't have the usual end-of-holiday-blues. Instead, I had a much anticipated goal. We set a moving date for the start of September to coincide with the end of Luke's current project. My research portfolio grew as I enquired about visas and transport: whether to drive or freight-and-fly, acquiring wheels in Bulgaria and, of course, how to ferry my 13-year-old cat there. We also had the inevitable cull of superfluous belongings.

After much deliberation about cost, ease and availability, we decided to fly out with our very overweight suitcases. Another Peterborough couple also planning to move, whom we had befriended through a forum, drove over with our tools, computer and other bits and bobs. Tamera, my sprightly granny-mog, would fly with my parents as hand luggage in October.

Moving day was fraught. We toasted our departure and shed a few tears with family and friends before driving to Luton. We briefly stopped off in the city centre, had our very last Burger King and marvelled at the general staleness of the area before continuing to the airport. A lovely Hungarian check-in girl, who confided that her bags had also been “way beyond the acceptable range” when she had relocated to the UK the previous year, excused us half the penalty fine.

Luke attributes it to his charming smile, but I think the truth is she feared an imminent nervous breakdown in front of her desk! When we arrived in Bulgaria it was about 3am. The estate agent didn't open until 9am and our van-friends were still on the Romanian leg of their trip. We rested in the terminal and then got a taxi to Burgas centre where we sat on a bench while the sun rose. Shattered from heavy bags and sleeplessness, I nonetheless noted a few bizarre scenes.

A middle-aged woman ambled past and put one finger to her nostril while she shot snot out of the other. A man on the bench opposite gibbered to himself, wearing just Y-fronts and one sock. Two thicknecked gentlemen across the road were haranguing each other – I tried not to stare. I was hungry, but all the signs were in Cyrillic. I didn't know Cyrillic! What had I done? It was only 7am and we had no food, oversize bags and no keys to the property that we'd never be able to find anyway!

We resorted to pictorial deciphering. We followed some signs depicting colourful groceries. They led us to Billa where we stocked up on a few tins of necessities and slow perishing stuff as we were still without a fridge. My camping stove was en route in the van, so that was our only source of cooking for now. The estate agents were about to open, so we got a taxi back there and loitered in reception until someone approached us. Before long, we had the door keys and a folder of documents to add to our baggage.

We had to wait a while, so we went to a nearby café and ordered two large coffees. I don't usually drink coffee, let alone the Bulgarian variety, but we'd been on our feet and running on nervous energy for over 24 hours. When a little alien-looking cup of thick liquid arrived – I'm used to the large, Nescafé mug version – I overlooked that they had “forgotten” the milk, added a few sugars and gulped it down.

The next half hour was a voyage to the polar opposite of sensory deprivation. My eyelids felt like they had been peeled back over my head. Conversations resounded as if taking place in my ear itself. I even had to sit on my hands to keep them still. By the time our van-friends arrived at Burgas train station I was in a post-caffeine slump, wanting desperately to go home but not entirely sure which way to direct them – only knowing that it was on the road to Sliven.

Having spent three days driving from the UK they were no more kindly disposed to mis-direction than me. We eventually found the turning to the village, where we encountered new problems. We drove around for a while, then a little while longer, then stopped, then circled around some more.

The roads, full of rocks and without tarmac, seemed infinitely worse than on our original visit. In the back of the van, wedged between Luke, our tools and a dismantled table, withdrawing fast from coffee and sugar, I felt every pothole, decline and incline, magnified. On the third loop round the village, we spied a local herding his chickens back inside. Luke showed him a photo of the property.

The man, whom we now know as our neighbour, Shouty – real name Stoyan – gestured over the hill, where even worse roads and steeper inclines lay. The van and the driver, concerned about the axel, groaned up the hill and down again where – lo and behold – our old bungalow and half-finished house awaited us.

It transpired that our two domiciles had been ready for over 18 months. The estate agent had reassured us, falsely, that the garden and house had been maintained in this period. We waded through cobwebs and three-foot weeds with our belongings, and dumped them in a dusty corner of the bungalow. Our van-friends, sensing our discontent, cheerily complimented us on the quality of the grape vines and scurried off to their house in Varna.

The next few days were spent scrubbing, sweeping, and hoeing. Several items of furniture had been left behind, such as cabinets and tables, so I polished them and started de-canting our own few items. We met our German neighbour, Klaus, and his wife, Leena, from Panagyurishte, who invited us for coffee. I had juice. We had a visit from Shouty, so-called because of his teaching method whereby, if we don't understand him, he just rants louder and more forcefully until we do! The shepherd stopped by and offered us some livestock, which we declined – one step at a time! – and a man who didn't speak at all mimed to us what to do with the walnuts on the tree, then blessed our bushes with water.

Everyone made us feel so welcome, and everything was so novel, I couldn't help but walk around with an eternal clichéd, slaphappy smile on my face. Despite the momentous and life-changing move, I felt, and still – usually – feel, so much calmer than in the UK.

In the third instalment Katherine makes home rakiya, adopts a stray puppy and describes her first “Bulgar” Christmas away from England. Will she be homesick for life's little luxuries or will she go native? Read in VAGABOND 15


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