Forty minutes after our midday meal today the house shook from seismic levels of snoring as, with bellies full of cat food, dog food, lentils or any combination of these three, seventy-five percent of our domestic population snugly snoozed in the warmth of our big electric monster heating machine that was working its socks off to combat the chill of the thirty-six-hour blizzard that had abated only a matter of hours earlier. As the sun came out for the first time in a week, four cats, a dog and Priyatelka seemed quite happy to forsake a magnificent opportunity to escape the confines of our wintry prison by continuing with their hibernation schedule. During the darkest days of the year, sleep should be interrupted only, it seems, when the need to eat arises, and vice versa.
To overcome this disgraceful episode of sloth, gluttony and monotony, the most energetic dog (i.e. Snezhanka) and the most energetic human (i.e. me) of the house decided to go for a brisk afternoon stroll around the village, sneaking out as quietly as possible in order to avoid disturbing any of the hypersomniacs from their passion, at least one of which would have subjected us to the inevitable ‘when, where, why and are you mad?’ interrogation and delayed our departure. The sound of me taking a few just-in-case coins from our communal pot of money caused Priyatelka to rouse slightly, muttering the words ‘buy chocolate or die’ from somewhere beneath a pile of comatose felines, but it didn’t bother me as this is her general response to just about everything.
The winter habits of the second most energetic dog (i.e. Gaia) are slightly different to those of the rest of us in that her eating / sleeping ratio is about nine to one, which is the converse of most hibernating mammals. So she, like Priyatelka, momentarily thought that the rattling of shiny leva signified the buying of food and partially opened an eye. But then she remembered that she doesn’t like going out in the snow because she’s a Shih Zhu, as opposed to a Shit Zoo which is what our house seems to be turning into as we welcome more and more stray animals. The greatest distance above the ground of any part of this poor dog’s body is 39 centimetres which isn’t much fun when the snow outside is 40 centimetres deep, especially when she wants a poo. In terms of hair she is very much like a sheep and on a bi-monthly basis has to have a large proportion of it removed by a woman whose expertise lies in dog hair. She could do with having a bit chopped off at the moment really because it’s flopping about in her eyes so she can’t see where she’s going and her bikini line is a huge embarrassment to us all. It’s not really practical or healthy to have the shearing done in the winter so she’s had to choose between dying from the cold or dying from humiliation, opting for the latter. However, she would benefit from having just a trim as the huge deposits of snow that attach themselves to her flowing locks tend to accumulate in a dangly way and after a five-minute comfort break in the garden she looks very uncomfortable and we have to put her in the shower to chip the ice away from her distressed undercarriage. But as long as we give her a biscuit she seems quite able to tolerate all of this.
Snezhanka doesn’t have long hair so I was happy to take her on a walk with me.
It’s virtually impossible to take a cat for a walk so I didn’t even consider waking the fat, lazy creatures for inclusion in mine and Snezhanka’s fitness regime. Rather than just walking along, relishing the fine scenery and taking in the fresh air, cats seem more inclined to hide behind a bush until a car approaches at which point they dash out into the road, avoiding death by a whisker, before running up a tree. Such behaviour would be more understandable if there was something in the tree tops more entertaining to see than leaves, stray supermarket carrier bags and the remains of previous cats that have run up there and not been able to get down again. I remember the days when, if your cat got stuck up a tree, you would make a 999 call (or 112 in Europe, or just shout ‘Help!’ in Malki Chiflik) and a fire engine loaded up with firemen would come running with a ladder and rescue the poor kitty. Sadly, this service is no longer available because of austerity cuts to public services and because no one knows what number to ring if a fireman gets stuck up a tree.
Snezhanka doesn’t like firemen so I was happy to take her on a walk with me.
Snezhanka, the most energetic dog in our house.
When I was a kid and our family lived in the North of Ireland we would often have relatives over visiting us from the North of England. Sometimes they would stay for weeks and, without transport of their own, they were unable to venture very far from our house. This wasn’t a huge problem because we all shared similar views on politics, religion, football and personal hygiene so we tended to like each other. But sometimes our guests would find themselves at a bit of a loose end. My Grandad from York would often ask if he could take our dog for a walk. He asked my mother, not the dog, though both were always in total agreement. Two or three hours after their excited departure they would arrive home with my Grandad looking a little flushed but the dog mysteriously exhibiting barely any sign of fatigue at all. Gradually news spread from York to Sunderland of what wonderful holidays could be had at our jolly little home in our sleepy little town in County Antrim and my Uncle from the far North of England decided that he too would join us for a summer break. Unsurprisingly, he was another who eventually found the need to get out of the house for a bit of fresh air and exercise and he took the dog with him when he went. On his return from the first of such outings he reported that along his way he had thought about calling in at a local hostelry for a pint but wasn’t sure what sort of reception he might get in a place full of strangers with strong strange accents as strong and strange as his own but completely different, and with a dog in tow. Eventually his thirst outweighed his reservations and cautiously he ventured into the Northern Star public house not far from where we lived. Immediately it became evident that he needn’t have shown any concern as all of the bar staff and the customers recognised the dog from previous visits and gave them both a great welcome and a free packet of crisps for the dog.
Snezhanka is a very respectable young lady who doesn’t frequent public houses so I was happy to take her on a walk with me.
We haven’t got a pub in our village but there is a place with a garden in which a white plastic table and four white plastic chairs sit on a terrace encrusted with coffee coloured sputum and which is loosely described as a bar. Here the more mature male members of Malki Chiflik society meet to quaff fine rakias as they discuss personal levels of tomato production, boast about the size of their goats’ teats and demonstrate to foreigners like me that the only effective way to keep the blood thirsty mosquitos away is to bombard them with the emissions of the traditional Balkan pastime of chain smoking. Aware of the need to drink responsibly, they substitute some of their rakia intake with sips from plastic bottles of beer discretely concealed in their coat pockets, such refreshments having been bought earlier at the shop up the road because it is five stotinki per litre cheaper than the beer sold in the bar.
Snezhanka refuses to frequent this particular drinking establishment because the toilet facilities are not up to the standard to which she is accustomed.
In deep snow, our route took us along our lane to the old cemetery on the edge of the village. It’s not very often that people go there. Most who do go there go only once and tend to stay. The track’s low footfall is even lower when the weather is bad so today there was absolutely no sign of footprints in the snow except for our own, which was handy as well as beautiful because it meant that I always knew where the dog had gone when she was out of sight. Snezhanka’s name (written Снежанка in Bulgarian) means Snow White and was chosen for her because of her colouring. Even though she’s not completely snow white (and not many of us are) it can still be difficult to spot her on a snowy day, but here the trails in the snow had to be either hers or mine and even they were easy enough to distinguish because hers were punctuated with splashes of yellow, in a Frank Zappa sort of way.
Malki Chiflik’s central business district.
From the cemetery we walked along the top road with magnificent views of the forest on the other side of the valley and of the village below. We could see our own house, snuggling amongst the snow and bathed in winter sunshine as it shook gently to the rhythm of its snoozing contents. We passed the house of our friend but didn’t call in because we thought he would probably be snoring in his chair and even if he wasn’t we didn’t want him to know that we had money for chocolate for fear of having to share. We met our neighbour coming in the opposite direction. He looked as though he was chilled to the bone as he smiled a grudging half smile and uttered only the words ‘good day’ (добър ден, in Bulgarian, and pronounced ‘dobar den’), but that didn’t bother me as this is his general response to just about everything, even on a warm day. His wife’s sick of it.
Mindful that we might be murdered if we returned home empty handed, we did eventually stop off at the shop to buy some chocolate. Snezhanka hates shopping so she waited outside while I went in for a five-minute escape from the cold and a chat with the shop lady whose village Bulgarian I struggle to understand at the best of times but even more so today as she was wearing an antivirus mask and a furry hat that covered most of her face. But, warmed up and brought up to date with a little of the local gossip (I think), I emerged from the shop with a bar of chocolate big enough to lure any sleeping beauty from a state of unconsciousness.
Snezhanka doesn’t eat chocolate because chocolate is poisonous to dogs mostly because of its theobromine content, which dogs are unable to metabolize effectively so I was happy to take her on a walk with me.
After pausing to look at our beautiful Church of Sveti Atanas glimmering in the sunshine and snow, we dashed past the bus shelter in the village square which is normally occupied for eighteen hours a day by a poor man who always asks me for money for rakia, or for money for cigarettes, or for rakia, or for cigarettes or for anything that he hasn’t already got that he thinks might be worth having which is everything in the world really. I don’t want to embarrass him by mentioning his name so for the sake of anonymity I will call him Alcoholic X and he will call me Tight Fisted Foreigner Y. The reason for our quickened pace was that I was pretty sure that there would be no chocolate in his pocket and consequently he would want some of ours or some money to buy a bottle of something combustible to warm his shivering bones on such a sharp day.
When we arrived back at our garden gate, Snezhanka looked at it longingly in a contentedly tired sort of way and then at me. I did the same and looked at her. Each of us checking with the other for confirmation that the tremors had subsided and it was safe to enter the house. Inside we were greeted by an assortment of animals that had woken up and were looking for food. The initial frenzied burst of excited yapping was quelled as Priyatelka unwrapped her chocolate. The cats and dogs were more patient.
Our beautiful Church of Sveti Atanas glimmering in the sunshine and snow.
Author’s note: I love it when readers of my blog leave a comment. It’s not essential but it is greatly appreciated and I usually send a message to thank those who have done so. But, if you do leave one, may I suggest that you also leave your name so that I know who you are? It’s best really if you leave both your forename and surname as recently I was unable to decide which Paul had signed off a comment with a mere ‘Paul’. I think I know which Paul it was but it could quite easily have been pop star Paul McCartney or former Leeds United defender Paul Reaney, both of which were very well known in the 1960s and 1970s but not so much now so they might just find the time to read my blog and leave a comment. If you add your email address, which it asks for but isn’t essential, don’t worry about other people knowing who you are as it will be automatically hidden from the comment when it’s approved for publishing. And if all you do is read the blog and say nothing then I am still very grateful that you have taken the time to do this. Thank you very much indeed.