The kitchen took on the appearance of an overfilled Greetings from Murmansk snow globe as the door flew open and in gushed a torrent of winter’s whitest weather. Following close behind the icy maelstrom was Priyatelka, her arms laden with logs that she had gathered in the forest. Her burden covered with crisp and sparkling snow, and missing only a robin in a Santa hat to complete a typical Christmas card scene.
‘Put the kettle on would you please, my love?’ I heard her request in her French accent from somewhere inside a glacial feature.
‘I’m afraid I can’t,’ I replied.
‘Oh what a jolly shame,’ she said as she scrambled on the floor to retrieve, before the cats got them, the frostbitten toes that had fallen from her feet as she pulled off her socks.
I could tell that she was itching to use a torrent of strong words to express her feelings of discomfort but, as she had spent the whole of July and August complaining about the ferocity of our summers (which I happen to love), she knew she daren’t use a single word of criticism towards the ‘cooler’ weather that she had been longing for since the day of the anniversary of Hristo Botev’s death.
She did manage to slip a couple of her special strong words into a sentence to emphasise what might happen to me if I didn’t put the kettle on. It was the least I could do after she had spent such a big chunk of the morning foraging in the woods for winter fuel, à la the poor man in the Good King Wenceslas tale.
As I replied ‘the power’s gone off,’ she turned her fury upon the Bulgarian electricity suppliers. Priyatelka took the Bulgarian word nyama (няма, meaning there is no) and tock (ток, which means electricity supply) and repeated them for five or ten minutes but with a Gallic expletive or two tucked in between them. Oh, she’s so international!
To tell the truth she had been grocery shopping at Lidl but I don’t like to admit that I let her go there alone in case people think of me as a cruel person. Clambering around in a snowstorm in search of firewood is a much less traumatic experience. In the forest it is unlikely that she would have had to use a shopping trolley with a wonky wheel or mingle with hordes of shoppers unable to control their shopping trollies with wonky wheels as they cough their germs all over the place, especially the cheese. Also, I think a wood gathering scenario provides a better introduction to my story.
It was round about mid-morning coffee time that the electric people took our tock. They took it at the most crucial time of the day and, like the winter sun, it took a long time to dawn on us that its prompt return was unlikely. The answer to our power outage was obviously to fire up our petchka (печка, the Bulgarian for wood stove). Ours is a beautiful contraption that sits majestically in our kitchen waiting to be called into action when all other forms of heating have let us down. It’s a Godin you know, from the Godin cast iron foundry, situated in Guise, north west of Paris, which has been manufacturing cast iron stoves, cookers, ranges, etc., since 1840. So, just like Priyatelka, it’s a hot little model from France. But, unlike my dear partner, it’s round about a hundred years old with an enamel finish and an external flue, and I picked it up in an antique shop in town rather than in a wine bar.
After only twenty minutes of faffing around with firelighters and burning my fingers and singeing at least one cat and leaving the outside door open to optimise the through draught needed to really get the fire going and to maximise our hypothermia and to recite another batch of multi-lingual profanities, our lives were reignited. Bulgarian people are able to perform this seemingly simple task in seconds using only a birch twig and something that may once have been part of a goat that’s been kept for years in a jar on a shelf at the back of the larder. Then they celebrate the fire with one of their lovely folklore dances. Between us, Priyatelka and I have two left feet and two right feet but unfortunately we don’t have one of each each, so dancing was out of the question.
A nice hot brew was quite enough for us and soon our djezve (джезве, the Bulgarian for small copper coffee pan) was simmering away nicely atop the petchka and a state of relative normality was restored.
The unavailability of morning coffee is less of a problem in the Balkans than it is in the West because here they tend not to sell digestive biscuits in the shops. Not having something to dunk them in becomes much less of a problem when you don’t have the biscuits in the first place. I suspect that a team of sales executives at the McVitie’s factory near my oldest daughter’s house in Manchester was taking the threat of interruptions to Bulgarian power supplies into consideration when they decided that such confectionery would not be marketed any further east than Hull. We had hoped that things might change when Cold War austerity came to an end but no, still no digestives! Instead we have confectionery made using only a birch twig and something that may once have been part of a goat that’s been kept for years in a jar on a shelf at the back of the larder.
Our adopted country may have the best natural yoghurt, the best traditional dance and the best alphabet in the world but, as long term residents of Bulgaria, Priyatelka and I have had to accustom ourselves to dealing with unavoidable inconveniences such as electricity outages, heavy snowfall, summer droughts, flesh-eating ladybirds, flesh-eating tourists from Western Europe, venomous reptiles, venomous squat toilets, an economy heavily reliant on watermelons and fridge magnets, and what I suppose could be described as food shortages, but only as far as digestive biscuits are concerned. We can overcome most of these problems by using either our imagination or a big pointy stick, but in a house where we rely on electricity for heating, cooking and hot water, our petchka is our lifesaver.
A hot little model from France.
A lifesaver it may be but I’ll never forget the day we bought it and the battle we had to drag it down the twenty-five irregular stone steps from the road to our door; an ordeal which nearly killed me and my good, but not exactly muscular, friend Dimitar. I remember it being a very hot day in August and as the good people who have worked in Jean-Baptiste Godin’s Parisian factory down the years had never taken the manufacturing of these things lightly, the appliance also turned out not to be light. We really struggled and we were amazed that something designed to keep people warm was already making us sweat like Jacques Brel before we’d even got it into the house. Chopping up the logs is another energy sapping job that makes you want to strip down to your vest and pants, even on a chilly day. So strange it is that if you’ve got a cast iron petchka, you don’t necessarily need to light it to keep the cold out. Just move it a few metres or split a bit of wood to load it up and you’ll be grand.
On the day of our power interruption, once the gravity of the situation had sunk in, we started to consider things that were of greater concern than going without our elevenses. Priyatelka asked me, ‘What are the Bulgarian words for severe cold, funeral arrangements and light buffet back at the house?’
Smurt (смърт, meaning death) was the only relevant word I could think of. I had seen it used in graffiti daubed on walls and bridges around our town in conjunction with the names of unpopular politicians, rival football teams and the bosses of inefficient electricity generating companies. And I reassured her, ‘it won’t come to that, but even if it does, it won’t be our responsibility to provide the customary cups of tea and ham sandwiches that follow a burial.’
‘I don’t want to be buried. I want to be cremated. It’ll warm me up a bit,’ she retorted.
I expect you’ll be pleased to know that, as I write this, we are both still alive. Our heavy metal friend, loaded with logs from our barn and old snotty tissues and empty egg boxes and cardboard tubes from toilet rolls that we’d been saving up outside in a tightly sealed bag since the previous spring to use as kindling, gradually thawed our kitchen and our bones as we relished several coffees. We even used its hot surface to warm up some delicious comestibles from our freezer, which didn’t take long because the power was off and the freezer wasn’t quite as freezing as you might expect a freezer to be, even on a freezing day.
The temperature outside was only just below zero, rather than the minus ten or twenty degrees that January sometimes throws at us, so we soon got to the stage where it was uncomfortably warm in our kitchen. Due to the holes in the knees and elbows of our underwear we were able to cool ourselves with a bit of ventilation but there is no temperature setting or thermostat on a petchka so my plan to prepare a spinach and Gruyère soufflé had to be abandoned, giving way to boiled eggs. Basic, I know, but we tend not to appreciate the special little things in life until we go back to the old, rustic ways and discover that an egg boiled on an antique cast iron petchka tastes so much nicer than an egg boiled on something black and ceramic with Samsung written on it. Maybe it was something to do with how we prepared our kindling.
A problem that we had failed to cater for in our winter survival plan was doing the washing up in the absence of a mains power supply. Archaeological finds have revealed that there has been sophisticated civilization in Bulgaria since around 5,000 BC, but I have to wonder how they managed until relatively recently without dishwasher machines. Surely that must have been a greater priority than inventing the wheel or making arrowheads out of gravel. Had this particular cold day turned out to be the start of a new Ice Age and we had all perished for the want of a bit of tock, then I think any socio-cultural anthropologists excavating our house hundreds of years from now might conclude from the mountain of dirty pots and pans piled up in our kitchen sink that we were neither sophisticated nor civilised and therefore must have lived and died before 5,000 BC. The lack of stone arrowheads in our stone arrowhead drawer would be another tell-tale sign.
Late in the afternoon we heard the entire population of our village simultaneously shout ‘hurroo!’ as the electricity supply was restored. This came at round about the time that the people employed by Bulgaria’s favourite energy supplier would have been finishing work for the day and wanting a nice warm house to go home to and something better than old, rustic boiled eggs for their tea.
In the evening, despite not having added wood to our stove for a couple of hours, there was no sign of the warmth that it emitted subsiding, thanks to the heat-retaining properties of the fire bricks contained within. We continued to take advantage of it until it was time for bed as it provided us with heating and hot water free of charge, unlike the big electric monster heating machine (or heat pump, as the more technically minded would call it) hidden away in our big dark cupboard that looks like a garden shed in the corner of our living room. To further improve our lifestyle, we’re going to invest in a tin bath before next winter because I can’t say that following a personal hygiene routine with only a casserole dish of hot water was without its problems. There was nowhere to put the soap and I’d never before considered how much discomfort could be caused by a stray bay leaf in an intimate place.
On the whole, our day turned out to be a quite enjoyable one. I was so busy keeping the fire going and bringing more logs into the house that I hardly noticed the weather conditions sent to us by our friends from the plains of Central Asia and it never crossed my mind for even a minute that the need to build a snowman might arise.
As we enjoyed the cosiness and warmth, and the old, rustic boiled eggs that it enabled us to prepare, we reminded ourselves that a petchka isn’t just for Christmas or even for a single cold, dark day in January. For starters we needed it the very next day when the power went off again. We also use it in the spring and autumn when we find that the warmth of the days often mean that we’re not required to switch on our big electric dream machine but the temperature might need topping up just a little when the evenings become chilly.
And whenever Priyatelka demands, as she often does, ‘I want an old, rustic boiled egg,’ I know that I can deliver within three minutes, plus the half hour it takes to split a few logs and the twenty minutes to faff about firing up our trusty Godin.