I’ll start off by saying that I’m very thankful to be alive. I’ve always thought this, even before the global pandemonium came along. Life just wouldn’t be the same if I was dead, especially for me. I often hear people saying that we’re lucky to be alive so we shouldn’t complain but for various reasons, all of which were very sad, a lot of folks that I have known in the past are now dead and consequently in no position to complain. So if in reading the following paragraphs you get the impression that I am complaining then at least you know I’m not dead. I’m just getting a bit of complaining in while I’m still alive and able to do it. But before I start at the complaining about what’s going on while I’m living, I wonder should I prepare a complaint in advance, just to be on the safe side, in case something goes wrong after I’ve ceased to exist. You never know in the life!
At the moment, however, I have nothing to complain about. This is good news because in the past when I have complained it has never done me any good anyway, whereas when I have remarked upon things that have made me happy, people have said ‘Ahhh!’ and the happiness has spread amongst them. This brings to mind the time of my emigration away from England. I was feeling very happy and excited at the prospect of my new life and the people that I knew in England said ‘Ahhh, we’re also very happy and excited that you’re going’. Some of them were even more enthusiastic than this about my departure but I can’t repeat their words because this is a family blog. Also, for Lent, I’ve given up writing graphic descriptions of shoving flaming hot metal objects into human orifices, so you’ll have to use your imagination as to what might happen if I were to return there.
People saying ‘Ahhh!’ upon hearing the news that I was going to live in Bulgaria.
These days Priyatelka and I frequently talk about how lucky we are. We are both very healthy for our years and very much alive, especially when you consider how much illness there is going around and that we were both born before Leeds United were promoted to the top flight of English football the time before the time before last. And I’m so old that I missed, by a matter of only three days, the launch of the Soviet Union’s artificial satellite, Sputnik 2, which carried the first living creature, Laika the dog, into space. The day before Priyatelka was born cardiac surgeon, Vasily Kolesov, at the Leningrad State University performed the first sutured internal thoracic artery coronary bypass on a human patient, grafting the left internal thoracic artery to the left anterior descending artery. Over a hot brew and a biscuit, we often have lengthy discussions about these incredible historic events as we reminisce and chuckle at how our own lives have fitted in so remarkably around them.
Incidentally, Sputnik (or Спътник) is a Bulgarian word meaning ‘companion’ and Laika (or Лайка) is a Bulgarian word meaning ‘camomile’. And another incidentally thing is that last December we rescued a dog from the street near our home and named her Laika in memory of the space dog. Our Laika has moved on to live elsewhere now but if we ever rescue another dog from the street we are going to call it Peacock in memory of Alan Peacock whose goal against Charlton Athletic secured promotion for Leeds United in 1964, and should we ever happen to rescue a peacock from the street we’re going to call it Alan for the same reason. However, to name a living creature after Vasily would be silly.
But, in terms of health, we really are very lucky as even when we do sometimes become a little bit ill and find it necessary to visit our doctor it’s always reassuring to see him coughing his guts up and giving us the feeling that there’s always someone worse off than ourselves. I once suggested to him that he should see a doctor about his bronchial problems and his gruff reply was ‘I don’t like doctors!’ I get the impression that he’s very fond of nurses though. His remedy for high blood pressure is to stay away from nurses and for low blood pressure he recommends going to a café in town for an espresso and a slab of granny cake. It’s homeopathy gone mad!
Our extensive garden where we go to avoid having to listen to Billy Joel records.
In my lifetime I’ve never known there be a big war on my doorstep and never gone through a full-on earthquake, tsunami, volcano, typhoon or famine experience or one of those even more miserable events that takes place in an average episode of EastEnders on the telly. The nearest I’ve ever come to a near-death experience was a night out with the lads in Swindon and the biggest calamity that I have ever been able to accept as a major cause for complaint has been the global spread of this microscopic monster that everybody except the president of Brazil is talking about. If you’ve caught the disease it’s pretty awful but even if you haven’t then life can still be a pain in the Shipka Pass. I’ve read about some people whose lockdown living conditions can be described as being confined to a two room flat with ten kids, a partner who insists on listening to Billy Joel records all day and all night, and an incontinent dog. Again Priyatelka and I can’t complain as we have enough rooms in our house to lose each other should we want to, all our kids live at least 2,500 kilometres away, clause three in our pre-nuptial agreement distinctly says ‘No Billy Joel!’ and our animals’ personal hygiene standards are possibly better than our own on account of them having acres of wilderness near to our home in which they can go to wee, etc., rather than being confined to just a small bathroom as we are.
As well as the house we have an extensive garden, some bits of which are so far away from the house that we can no longer see the house when we are there so that it feels like we are right out in the countryside. In fact, after months of painstaking research, we have found a spot that would be out of earshot of Billy Joel should that awful situation ever arise, though I’m sure it wouldn’t. The garden has become more and more beautiful with each day that we have spent tending and tilling out there. We’ve worked our fingers and various other appendages to the bone so that now, without losing its slightly wild look, it has become manageable enough to introduce trees, bushes, flowering plants and rhubarb. This has involved many a long day toiling under the hot Balkan sun, engaging in mortal combat with vampiresque insects and shouting at our cats each time it looks like they might be going to poo on one of our precious plants. Being horticultural in a large horticultural space often means spending long periods of time alone so we welcome the company of the four and six legged invaders even though our conversations with them tend to be more along the lines of shouting profanities than discussing where we should plant the gladioli bulbs. Extended moments of solace exist after the felines have gone away to dig up the neighbours’ plants and our aggression has caused the insects to swarm off in a huff, providing us with a great opportunity to admire the nature around us, to take in the beautiful hills and forests that we see in whatever direction we look, and to absorb the sounds and smells of the rural Bulgaria and its wildlife. Such lengthy periods alone also enable us to contemplate how lucky we are to have what we have and to spare a thought for those who are so much less fortunate than us, such as Billy Joel’s wife, kids and dog.
71.43% of our ever expanding collection of stray cats.
We’re also lucky to have no busy roads, no television, no neighbours of the sort that we came here to get away from (the likes of which I expect you know, especially if you too found the need to up sticks and move to Bulgaria), nobody pushing leaflets from undesirable political parties or undesirable Domino’s Pizza outlets through our door, no unruly kids gobbing off and kicking their football against our car at all hours of the day and night, no people trying to get us to convert to British Gas, no people trying to get us to convert to Jehovah’s Witnessism, no people coming to collect their Avon Calling catalogue which they said they left us three days ago but really they didn’t but they still insist that they did and that we’re only saying they didn’t to be awkward, sometimes no electricity, water or internet and always no regrets.
Although an obvious choice as a target for the moaners and groaners, we must really show gratitude for the advantages of being confined to our small space. For example, we haven’t been spending as much money as usual because we haven’t been going out socialising as much as usual. This is partly because any place where there is normally a potential for spending money is closed but also, on those occasions when you just can’t be arsed going out and meeting people, adhering to the laws imposed during a state of emergency is the perfect excuse. And I suspect that other people realise this too as it is such a long time since we were invited to go anywhere. So even though we have this fool proof excuse we haven’t really needed to use it because everyone else has beaten us to it. It’s a handy one to keep up our sleeves though. In fact, when the world has finally rid itself of this terrible blight, we’re going to tell people that it’s still going strong in Malki Chiflik, or that our village has other diseases that people need to be afraid of, which is probably a bit nearer to the truth. We’re also going to continue to wear our facemasks for all eternity because they reduce the risk of us being recognised in the street by people we don’t really want to talk to.
Solitary confinement has also thrust us into a situation where we have needed to dig deeper to find home entertainment. Priyatelka has taken up hoovering, adding to our ever expanding collection of stray cats, shouting at storks as they fly over our house in the hope that they will bring us luck by coming to live in our garden, and Mongolian throat singing which could probably be more accurately described as snoring (or vice versa).
As I have mentioned before, my favourite television programme is YouTube and I also dabble a little in Spotify, so much of my newfound spare time has been channelled into these to acquire skills like making yoghurt from ferret’s milk (the actual milking of them is the tricky part), removing the shells from hard-boiled eggs after they’ve been swallowed, and attracting members of the opposite sex down from mountain tops by means of Mongolian throat singing. Priyatelka and I have been learning the latter of these together but so far we’ve only been able to attract Alcoholic X from the bus shelter and his wife, Mrs X. They thought we had a cough and offered us their spare face masks which we politely declined because we no longer partake in wines and spirits. You wouldn’t believe how much Mongolian throat singing there is to be found on Spotify. Huun Huur Tu a band from Tuva, which is a Russian Federation Republic on the Mongolian border, are our favourites. We’ve got all their albums and I even once saw them performing live at the WOMAD Festival in the quaint Wiltshire village of WOMAD back in the summer of ‘13. In their time they’ve done musical collaborations with the likes of the Chieftains, Frank Zappa, the Bulgarian Voices and Johnny "Guitar" Watson, as well as with me and Priyatelka … though they’re probably not yet aware of our contribution to their illustrious career.
Huun Huur Tu, the Mongolian throat singers from Tuva. At this point they’d gone to the bar for a pint to ease their sore throats.
I’ve found that I’ve also had lots of time for reading books, though often when I finish one I think that I could write better myself, or even re-write a so-called classic to make it more entertaining. I’m currently working on a comedy version of The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky; a man too modest to mention that his first name is really only the nickname that he acquired after inventing the emergency exit. If you haven’t already read it, look out for the scene where Pavel Smerdyakov’s trousers fall down just as the vicar walks in … I wrote that bit!
Seriously though, I am trying to write a book which certainly won’t be serious. This blog will be the basis of it, so even if you read everything that I write on this website you will still need to buy the book. It’s a bit like the blog articles are the seven inch singles but the book is the whole LP (for those readers who are under the age of fifty, a detailed explanation of what this means will be contained in the book’s foreword). Digitally remastered versions of the blog articles will be included in the book so if you can’t be bothered reading this now, you could just wait until the book hits the bookstands and / or fan. However, when I’m writing blogs or books or even notes for the milkman, I’m very easily distracted so I would be a fool to myself if I were to suggest that the release date is imminent or even before Leeds United are promoted to the top tier of English football again. Perhaps if I were to try to concentrate on boiled eggs and ferret milk products the writing might become the distraction and I would have more success with it.
Uptown Funk (not Girl) in downtown Malki Chiflik.
Speaking of my dear friend Alcoholic X, I was sitting at the bus stop in the village square the other day when he came over to talk to me. I think it was Tuesday. Yes, it must have been Tuesday because that’s the day the bus comes to our village; though sometimes it runs a bit late so it may have been Wednesday. Once we had finalised the negotiations over how much money I might be able to give him to buy cigarettes (his negotiating skills would be much keener if the monthly one Lev that I give him was actually spent on cigarettes, as he always claims it is, rather than rakia) we started to discuss other matters. He told me that he too has discovered that there are advantages as well as disadvantages to the Government’s pack of precautionary health measures. He said that he had been feeling much fitter recently because everything he drinks has the impurities filtered out of it as it passes through his facemask which he never takes off because it reduces the risk of being recognised by people in the street that he doesn’t really want to talk to. But on the other hand, the shops where he goes to buy his favourite tipple no longer have bleach on their shelves because everyone is drinking it because Donald Trump said it was a good idea.
Apparently Bulgarian health experts (also known as Babas, the elderly ladies who pass the time sitting on a bench and analysing personnel movements in any village in this part of the world) claim that rakia is the perfect cure-all. Sadly, this demonstrates how greatly opinions can differ between the West and the East, decades after the Cold War has ended. I wonder what Messrs. Biden, Putin, Johnson, and their world leader mates all drink to make themselves immune to viruses and to keep away the scary monsters that come out of the wall. Considering the mess that the world’s in today they’re going to need something pretty strong, or maybe it’s because of their drinking habits that they got us into this mess in the first place. Alcoholic X said that he’s busy in the process of writing a global social and economic plan to right all their wrongs but it’s taking him a while because he is so easily distracted by YouTube, Spotify and those stubby bottles of brake fluid that they sell in the petrol station down the road from us. Apparently they’re very moreish. I asked him when he thought he might be able to publish it and he replied that it depended upon how long it took him to get that stupid song Момиче от Най-горния Квартал на Града (the Bulgarian for ‘Uptown Girl’ or literally translated as ‘Girl from the Top District of the Town’) out of his head. Poor old Mr X in the bus shelter! I bet he's never had a backstreet guy. I bet his momma never told him why.
Bulgarian health experts.
So that’s a rundown of reasons why Priyatelka and I shouldn’t complain about our lives. We are so much luckier than most other people in the world. But we do have one complaint and that is that because of the pandemic palaver we can’t travel. We haven’t been able to cross an international border for more than a year which is particularly frustrating as we live quite close to five of them. We haven’t had the fun that comes with talking to people who don’t speak our language, except when we talk to our neighbours or to each other. We have even had to tolerate lengthy periods of time without being able to travel as far as a café in town for an espresso and a slab of granny cake. Travelling is our passion and we still have a very long list of places we want to go to but, as you know, we were both born before Leeds United were promoted to the top flight of English football the time before the time before last so we feel like time is running out.
Our passports are in danger of expiring with many of the pages still untouched by border control officials so we have cut shapes into half potatoes and stamped the blank spaces ourselves with the names of exotic destinations like Shanghai, Shiraz, Shumen and Sheffield. Our redundant backpacks have become those out-of-the-way-in-the-cupboard places for storing things that we don’t really want to throw away but which might never get used, such as the usual proliferation of supermarket carrier bags but also train tickets, walking boots and shark-repellent spray. We’ve been getting hate mail from the people who work on the bookings page of the EasyJet website, but so have the people who work on the bookings page of the Ryanair website. The pretty ladies that devote so much of their time standing in lay-bys at the side of the Tarnovo to Sofia road to wave at passing motorists sent me a lovely card saying ‘We miss you!’ in which they enclosed a money-off voucher for when life returns to normal.
I once had a holiday to West Africa cancelled because of the Ebola virus and I still feel bitter about it. I hope that the people who brought us COVID-19 realise the inconvenience they have caused and are prepared to be the subject matter when I am playing with my travel voodoo doll kit (£5.99 from Boots' in Trowbridge, a town where people expect only the best in terms of voodoo and the occult) for many years to come.
A little something I picked up at the voodoo counter in Boots’ in Trowbridge.
This prompts me to consider if life will ever return to normal. Perhaps the circumstances that we are living in now are a new version of normal. In a world where we are not allowed to expose our faces or hug each other or even shake hands, how are people going to get round to making babies? Where would you put your bottle of sanitising gel? Eventually humanity will disappear from the planet as there will be no means of replacing those who die from the virus or from lockdown related boredom or from being murdered for instigating Billy Joel earworms. But at least the complaining will come to an end when there is no one here to do any complaining. This will be an absolute tonic for me as I do really have a second complaint and that is having to listen to people complaining all the time.
And if, after reading this, you’ve got Uptown Girl stuck in your head for the rest of the day, just remember that there are a lot of people with much worse problems than yours, though probably not much worse. Or try listening to Huun-Huur-Tu’s version of Chas ‘n’ Dave’s Snooker Loopy to take your mind off it. Or even better, ask Priyatelka to sing it for you.