The language of home ownership

Srem, Bulgaria – July 6, 2015

What did I say about assimilation? We’re turning local by the minute, picking up a very basic smattering of the language – greetings, courtesies, and essentials like ordering beer and G&Ts. ‘Malko’ for me (small – just 500 ml) and ‘golyamo’ for HRH (large – 100 ml).  And that’s before adding the tonic.

A surprising number of words are known to us from other languages, although the resemblance ends there. ‘Nyama zashto’ has nothing to do with the Zulu for meat (nyama). Here it means ‘You’re welcome’. Nor does ‘kak’ have any connection with the soundalike scatalogical term as used in South Africa and Scotland. It’s Bulgarian for ‘how’ and not a descriptor for what HRH talks most of the time.

One that does have a bit of commonality is ‘pat’ (road) not far away from the Afrikaans/Dutch ‘pad’ or the English ‘path’. And ‘kartofi’ (potatoes) is instantly recognisable from the familiar Germanic ‘kartoffel’.

‘Magazina’ is among the first Bulgarian words to register, and the meaning is very close to the original English sense. Not the penny-dreadfuls that I write for so often in Dubai but simply a shop. In English, magazine originally meant a storehouse – usually for ammunition. Think of loading a fresh magazine into a rifle.

Coincidentally, the root word is Arabic – ‘makzan’ (storehouse) and the verb ‘kazana’ to store up. The current sense evolved through French as a name for books providing information useful to particular groups of people. I suppose titles like ‘Hello’ and ‘Ahlan’ still qualify, even if their usefulness escapes me.

But enough linguistic lecturing. This is supposed to be about Bulgarian appeal – and as a good Scotsman, economy has got to be near the top of the list. I’ve already banged on about comparative booze prices – and eating out is on much the same reduced scale come settling time.

Violetta’s is Srem’s equivalent of The Ivy in London or Petit Maison in Dubai. And ‘equivalent’ is hardly accurate. Does The Ivy have a magazina attached where you can buy bread and milk, bottled water, mixers, washing powder etc? I don’t think so, not moving in such exalted circles, but I’m sure at least one of our high-flying readers can enlighten me.

What I do know is that the Petit Maison chef doesn’t run a sideline in mending children’s toys. At least not on the rare occasions I’ve been there.

At Violetta’s, all things are possible. Order from an extensive menu and equally lengthy wine list and eat indoors or outdoors. Better still, it’s just five minutes’ walk away so need for cabs or any inhibitions about driving home. Since getting here, we’ve been through everything from crispy whitebait starters to mixed grills, casseroles, roasts, assorted salads, and tasty local dishes which I could not recognise, far less pronounce or spell.

The most recent visit saw adjoining tables groaning with food as four adults and three children did a pick-and-mix from the menu. All washed down with jugs of beer and wine for us and juices and fizzy drinks for the bairns. No stinting on either food or beverage.

The entire bill came to a startling 70 lev – in case you’ve forgotten the exchange rate, that’s about 35 euro or 140 dirhams. For four adults and three children!

Now toy-mending this time, but it’s thrown in free anyway. Previous time round, Millie and Eva had brought their prancing-pony on puppet strings. After an hour or so of prancing, cantering, and galloping, the strings somehow got tangled and knotted and the poor pony was reduced to a lop-sided shuffle.

The chef was having a beer and a fag-break with his mates, when the two wee lassies presented their plight. How could anyone resist? These two could bring tears to the eyes of a wally-dug, as the Scottish saying goes.  Chef and mates were instantly transformed into horse doctors and the painstaking process began to restore full equine mobility.

Not sure if the kitchen closed in the meantime, or Violetta kept anaesthetising waiting diners with more beer, but the pony took priority. At last, Bulgarian cries of ‘Bingo!’ – or equivalent – and a fully-functional four-legged friend was back with his owners. Along with threats of the knackers’ yard if they ever got him so snarled up again.

Just another example of the warmth and friendliness that seems to typical of this part of the world.

Then there’s the weather. Mid-summer but just pleasantly warm compared to Dubai’s prevailing blast-furnace heat at this time of year. Daytime temperature is in the upper 20s so no problem with extended walks or prolonged outdoor exposure. Occasional showers freshen us up, but not to the extent that the novelty wears off for rain-starved desert dwellers like us.

Evenings are naturally cooler but no need for even a light sweater. Shorts and T-shirt are the 24-hour dress code. Maybe a white T-shirt when dinner formalities must be observed.

We’re sorely tempted to join the Srem community, perhaps as a summer home or even a retirement proposition. So much so that HRH has been looking at houses and has found one that could fit the bill. It needs a bit of care and attention, admittedly, but an insurmountable problem for one of such practical disposition.

She could stay here and lead the renovation project while labour away at Dubai hackery. We could save thousands by giving up the lease on the Marina property and I rent a room at the Paranormal. Just a pity the Metropolitan and the Rattlesnake have closed as that would have been a wee bit closer to the gulag (aka Media City).

Pictures of the property will follow and we’ll welcome your comments as to suitability. Meantime, wider exploration beckons and we’re off tomorrow to the resort town of Burgas on the Black Sea coast.  Stand by for seaside and deckchairs in the next instalment.


Needs a bit of work, but there’s loads of floor space, outbuildings, and about 1,500 square metres of land – all for just a few thousand lev.

house roof

Mending the roof will be HRH’s first priority.

site works

Ian’s site works show how it can be done.


Baba Russka – not camera-shy like some Srem ladies – poses for a souvenir portrait.


Peace and quiet, fire and brimstone

Srem, Bulgaria – July 4, 2015

We’re rapidly becoming Bulgarophiles. If not quite love at first sight, there was certainly an immediate attraction – and it’s becoming stronger with each passing day here.

After the noise and bustle of Dubai, this is an oasis of tranquility. Birdsong is the main disruption, along with the soft tinkle of cow bells as the morning and evening procession of livestock makes its way to and from the backyard pasture. A choir of roosters sound the dawn reveille and other than that the only noise pollution is the constant clinking of ice cubes as Linda pours herself yet another G&T.

Exploration of the wider neighbourhood took us to an Orthodox monastery, reputedly a fine example of Eastern religious architecture and iconry. (For once, the dreaded i-word escapes my sub-editorial blue pencil, this time being used in a genuine context and not as an overworked synonym for anything deemed by PR flaks to be even vaguely out of the ordinary.)

The main church was shut – bad timing on our part – but there was enough to be seen in the entrance hall to justify the claim. Glass cases full of cracked skulls and broken bones – the remains of Bulgarian martyrs who died resisting Ottoman invasion; faded gravestones commemorating early founders of the establishment; lithographs of various saints, including a St George lookalike on horseback and spearing a lurid dragon.

The piece de resistance is a massive painting worthy of Hieronymus Bosch, showing the joys and horrors of Judgment Day, depending on how you fare in the sin assessment stakes. The middle panel shows the judging panel, all robes and beards and suitably stern expression. Around them are the beseeching multitudes.

The upper panel shows those who got the nod, climbing the stairway to heaven with faces of rapt radiance where angels and a benign deity wait to greet them. The unlucky ones head downstairs, wide-eyed and terror-stricken, about to join the seething masses in the lower panel and the fiery pit where fork-tailed demons remind them of the error of their ways with vats of burning oil. A black-skinned Neptune wears a golden crown (presumably the very devil himself), wielding a fearsome trident and directing his hordes of assistants as they inflict retribution for earthly transgressions.

The entire thing would have gone down very well in the Highland kirks of my childhood, where the prevailing message of Sunday sermons was on very similar lines. Now the same kirk has become totally wussy, what with gay ministers, women moderators, and a decidedly ambivalent attitude to sin in general. No wonder attendance is declining and I became a born-again atheist. A wee dose of Bulgarian iconry could do wonders in refilling the pews to the standing-room only congregations of my youth. (Photography is not allowed so I’m unable to bring you the benefits of the potent visual message.)

A burn runs next to the monastery, very much on the lines of Tennyson’s babbling brook, so a walk alongside seemed a good antidote to contemplation of what the afterlife could hold.  Again, utter peace, broken only by the whirring of dragon-flies – almost black in colour until a shaft of sunshine breaks the canopy of trees to light them a deep iridescent blue.

Five minutes’ walk takes us to small reservoir, now abandoned and leaving a shallow sand-banked pond with a fast-moving stream running through where the sluice-gate used to be – an irresistible attraction for the bairns who were quickly plootering around while the elders kept a watchful eye from the bank and caught up on tobacco rations.

Another dam was the evening’s attraction, involving a cross-country drive over the hill in Ian’s 4×4. Again, we’re greeted by a profusion of birds and wildflowers. To one side, the sun was setting in a fiery glow reminiscent of the monastery painting; behind, a full moon was peeping over the ridge.

We set off homeward with Cursty at the wheel, a full complement of backseat drivers (Ian and Linda) firing non-stop instructions on gear shifts, 4×4 ratios, and  the best line of attack to negotiate the rutted pathway. Especially when the pathway ran out and became a newly-ploughed field.  Bulgarian farmers need to plant every available square metre, so who cares if a section of rarely-used track gets appropriated?

Having been a columnist on Middle East Car, a ploughed field proved no obstacle to the Golspie lass – even if the bairns did decide they’d be quicker on foot. With only the slightest of lurches and side-slips (and the occasional mild expletive), we had regained the track and caught up with the bairns, who still thought they could outrun us homeward – and did.

By now, the moon was climbing – a big buttered bannock in a starry sky that kept us heads upwards on the balcony, except when dipping into nightcaps of Scotland’s finest necessitated glances in the other direction.

I’ve already touched on the community aspects of life in Srem – the friendliness, the give and take with neighbours. Since then, Baba Jelena has been in with a massive tray of what sounds like ‘banista’, a local dish of flaky pastry layered with cheese and onions. And Ivan has dropped off a pot of lavender honey. Perfect breakfast combination.

Dmitri – at 89, very much the patriarch of the village – has brought a bag of plums. He attributes his longevity to the mineral springs a few minutes’ walk up the road and I’m convinced I must give them a try.  Dmitri looks barely older than me, and no, Bob, I know what you’re thinking… that doesn’t mean his appearance must be at least 80-something.

Baba Russka’s horse-cart needed welding, and that’s where community again kicks in. Ian is the ‘go to’ guy for such things and he soon had horse and cart reunited.  With a load of building rubble removed into the bargain.

Who could ask for anything more?


‘Cover me o’er wi’ wild flowers sweet’… who said John’s a grumpy old curmudgeon lacking a romantic bone in his body?


Splitting image… the bairns reflected in the dam.


Camera-shy Cursty finally gets in the frame.

horse cart

Thank you wave, as mended – and loaded – cart heads homeward (with horsepower).


Ham to the slaughter

Srem, Bulgaria – July 3, 2015

You’ll all be familiar with the expression ‘squealing like a stuck pig’. Most of the time it’s used figuratively, like describing Linda’s reaction if I come though Dubai Airport and fail to pick up enough stocks of Bombay Sapphire at duty-free.  Yesterday, it became all too literal as a 200 kg porker was dispatched, dismembered, dissected, and converted to crackling.

Operations were scheduled to begin at 5:30 am and I must admit to some misgivings about getting the team assembled at such an ungodly hour.  Maybe I’ve got too accustomed to the flexibility of ‘Dubai time’, but when I stumbled out of bed and to the front gate at 5:15, Ian and Cursty were waiting for me – coffee pot at the ready, along with immediate neighbours Angal, Baba Jelena , and Baba Russka. (The two ‘babas’ are the grandes dames of our corner of Srrem.)

All the kit was laid out and ready – knives, cleavers, and hacksaws on a bench covered in plastic sheeting. Gas cylinders and blow-torches. A cauldron of water coming to the boil on a wood fire. Assorted pots, pans, buckets, and stainless steel containers the size of a small wardrobe. A dozen packets of baking soda, bottles of vinegar, onions chopped in half. Lots of two-litre jugs of beer – and proportionate quantities of Angal’s home-distilled rakia.

Within minutes, the rest of the crew had arrived – by car, on foot, by bicycle. Nasco and Hristo, Gosho and Mitco – all eager to get the deed done and move on to their day jobs. (Gosho was later to put in a 12-hour shift in the wheat field with his combine-harvester.)

We trooped across the road to Angal’s croft where the condemned was waiting in the fattening shed, unknowing of her fate so probably not having the traditional last fag. (Before long, she was to create a lot smoke anyway.)

The squealing was mercifully brief. Restraint by many pairs of experienced Bulgarian hands, a knife to the carotid artery, and it was all over. With a bucket of blood for me and black-pudding conversion. The carcass was then manhandled on to a flat-bed cart and hauled up the hill to the blow torches and the boiling cauldron.

Their purpose soon became apparent: burn off the bristles and rinse the skin with scalding water. Very quickly, it took on the appearance of a B-list celebrity who’d spent too long in the tanning salon. Now the baking soda, vinegar, and halved onions came into play. Blow-torch, boiling water, scrape… dust with baking soda, douse with vinegar, use the onions as scrubbing pads, hose the whole lot down.

The entire process took maybe half an hour, ending in a smoothly clean and ivory-white carcass ready for the dismembering stage. Strips were already being sliced off, with Baba Russka in charge of the grill-rack below the cauldron.  Before long, delicious lumps of crackling and nuggets of meat were passed around, to be washed down with rakia as the dissection continued.

Cut, slice, chop, split, saw… what was once 200 kg on the hoof gets steadily reduced to manageable pieces. By 7:30 the job was done – all bagged and labelled (contents and recipient) and parcelled out to all who’d earned a share or bundled into the freezer for future reference. With a trayful left for the full-scale braai (barbecue to non-South Africans) to follow later.

Even Linda joined in, applying her long-idle administrative skills to organize the bagging and labeling as dismembered segments came off the production line.

Meantime, the Babas had turned their hands to sausage-making. All the scraped-off leftovers were chopped to bite-size, mixed with mounds of diced onions, and about two kilos of cooked rice. A saucerful of salt, pepper, and spices was added to the mix and well stirred in.

The blended ingredients were then spooned into the natural casing – about a yard of intestine that had earlier been carefully washed and cleaned for this very purpose. Tie off both ends with twine and dump in the still seething cauldron.

We already had more than enough from the grill-rack to keep us from starving, but the jugs of beer needed replenishment. As reinforcements were cracked open, I remarked on the price – all of 2.50 lev for two litres. Halve that for euros, double it for dirhams and you’ll get the exchange rate and an idea of comparative costing with your home pub or booze shop.

Ian is pretty fluent in Bulgarian and explained to Baba Jelena that beer in Dubai costs the equivalent of at least 70 lev for 500 ml, often 80 or more, so the standard two-litre jug here would set us back about 300 lev on average.

Naturally, she was unbelieving – and horrified that such a thing should be possible. “Only two drinks and that would be my whole pension gone!” Her equilibrium was restored by discovering that the sausages were ready and passing them round for sampling. A unanimous verdict of ‘delicious’ further assuaged the shock of ‘bira’ prices in Dubai.

And so the day wears on in increasingly hazy fashion. People come and go, likewise food and beer and rakia. Somehow, I manage to put the black-pudding together, hoping I’ve got the right ratios of oatmeal, suet, onions, blood, and spices. To short-cut the process, decide to make it like a meat-loaf instead of stuffing into sausage-casing.

Stick it all in a Pyrex dish and into the oven. Try and remember to remove it after 90 minutes. Succeed. Perfect! So much so that young Eva gets excited for all the wrong reasons, announcing to all who would listen: “John’s made a chocolate cake!” Admittedly, it did look just the right shade and texture, but sampling had to wait until it cooled down and slices could be cut off for the grill or frying pan.

By now, the main braai was in full swing, a conveyor belt of chops, steaks, crackling, and the ribs that Cursty had marinaded much earlier in the proceedings. Black-pudding was surplus to requirement and could wait till morning.

Very soon, it seemed, morning was not so far off. I think the last stragglers lurched homeward about 3:00 am.  And Ian and I, ever the conscientious hosts, lurched in the direction of respective beds.  Linda and Cursty had sensibly baled out hours earlier.

So ended a close to round-the-clock stint.  At my age, I really should know better by now. But, in all fairness, I have a daily column to fill and how else would I find anything to write about? Even here in Bulgaria, it’s work, work, and more work!


 Tanning salon… Srem style.


 Pause for refreshments – and plenty to choose from.


 Leading the queue at the beer and rakia table….


 Baba Russka and Baba Jelena show how not to hide the sausage…


 Star of the after-party… what happens to headmasters when they move to Srem.

Bulgar Jocks

Srem, Bulgaria – July 1, 2015

Vulgar jokes tend to be a staple of this blog – along with groan-inducing puns. Many of you will probably think that today’s headline qualifies on both counts, but we also have a Bulgar Saffer, assorted Bulgar Bairns of various nationality, and even a Bulgar Sassenach.

And she’s no joke. At least I’ll refrain from saying so when she’s in such close all-day proximity – no matter what may pass between us in Dubai pubs when prompted by inspiring bold John Barleycorn.

We’ve been in Bulgaria since Sunday, finally realising a long-planned rendezvous with Ian and Cursty Hoppe who are already known to many of you. For the uninitiated, Cursty is the other Bulgar Jock – originally from Golspie and going by the name of Mitchell, now a freelance hackette in Dubai. Ian is the Bulgar Saffer – originally from Port Elizabeth and a commercial pilot by trade, now airborne chauffeur to a high-ranking Emirati.

The Bulgar bairns are their daughters Millie (7), born in Port Elizabeth, Eva (5) also born in Port Elizabeth, and niece Carla (12) from the Ugandan capital Kampala, a semi-Jock – being born in Jordan to Cursty’s sister Fiona and her Cuban husband Jorge.

The Bulgar Sassenach is of course Linda, better known as HRH Queen of the Sofa for her long-standing (lying?) Dubai occupation of that piece of domestic furniture. She’s also a long-standing (suffering?) veteran of our travels to unlikely places and a constant source of material for my scribblings.

Very briefly on Sunday (in fact very, very briefly) she aspired to a slight variation to her title – almost becoming Queen of Sofia as we landed in the Bulgarian capital.  Ian had left a couple of weeks earlier to prepare the croft for the invasion and we followed with Cursty and the bairns.

As we replenished much-depleted nicotine levels outside the airport, HRH was rummaging through her bags for a reputed £200 left over from her last trip to UK. Gone! With the foresight and experience born of many years of international travel – overland across Africa, by cargo ship to China etc etc – she had carefully put the cash in her checked-in suitcase, confident that the five-dirham padlock would be more than ample deterrent to pilferers.

An expensive lesson, and one that’s being well-learned. As Dr Johnson remarked about the prospect of being hanged in a fortnight, deprivation of Bombay Sapphire concentrates the mind wonderfully. Maybe in another week or so she’ll have worked off the deficit by going without gin rations.

Meantime, Cursty, Ian, and I have to put up with envious glances as we work our way through Dubai Duty Free stocks of Laphroaig and two-litre jugs of Kamenitza – ‘Since 1881, Bulgaria’s best beer’.  We might even have to banish her to the byre to avoid the pleading sheepdog eyes.

But why Bulgaria? I hear you ask. That’s a long story that began with a young Cursty back-packing here from Golspie in 2001. (They breed them tough in the  remote northern Highlands.) I suspect she was actually trying to get to Brora but the bus-driver misheard her. Brora? Bulgaria? Easily confused, especially with a Sutherland accent.

So Bulgaria it was, and young Cursty discovered ‘crofting with sunshine’ – a far more attractive proposition than the Scottish variety and one that was never forgotten. After spells working in Sudan, Somalia, and Uganda – and meeting and marrying Ian along the way – the Bulgarian croft became a reality about five years ago.

Roughly 10,000 square metres of land – with a house, barn, and byre – came at a knockdown price.

Situated in the village of Srem (population 400) in the south-east corner of Bulgaria, not far from the Turkish border, this was the long-sought rural idyll. Almost. The only problem was the house. Even more knockdown than the price. So much so that Cursty’s father Charlie, a man not known for needless paternal sentiment, was moved to remark: “Ye cannae stay here, lassie. It’ll be the death o’ ye.’  Admittedly, winter was closing in and Bulgarian winters aren’t for the faint-hearted – whether or not you’ve survived a few in Teuchterdom.  Cursty was also minding Eva, then only three months old, and Millie at two-and-half, so Charlie’s concerns were not unfounded.

Ian was still in Africa – flying out of Chad for United Nations relief agencies and commuting to Bulgaria whenever he could to double up as builder, plumber, electrician, and do-it-yourselfer supreme. Cursty put her justifiable trust in Ian who had the place more or less habitable by the time the big freeze set in.

Since then, the two of them have spent as much time as possible in Bulgaria and the house has been transformed, although for Ian it’s still a work in progress, constantly re-building, converting, extending, and upgrading. Linda and I are now housed in what used to be the byre (How appropriate! I hear Bob Cassie saying to himself.)

More of that in later instalments, but for now let’s say that we’ve quickly discovered Bulgaria’s appeal. For starters, it’s very scenic – lots of forested mountains, dazzling fields of sunflowers, vast purple patches of bee-populated lavender that produce delicious honey.

The crofting connection is instantly evident. Every morning, we welcome a a line of neighbours’ goats, cows, and sheep as they make their way to the lucerne grazing at the back of the house. The neighbours themselves are equally friendly, constantly in and out and bearing gifts of fruit, produce, home-baking, and rakia – a potent grape spirit and the local equivalent of Scotland’s uisge beatha.

Tomorrow, a whole new experience awaits: pig slaughtering – not something that features regularly on Dubai’s social circuit, but here a great event for communal participation with everyone from miles around joining in. The beast began as Ian and Cursty’s pet piglet but has now grown to about 200 kg and is overdue for the roasting pan.

Linda’s proven abilities in systematic dismemberment (all these years of practising on me) will be put to good use. I’m assigned to black pudding duties, a delicacy not well-known in these parts. In the best tradition of Scottish missionaries, I’ll be bringing succour to the unenlightened. balcony

Overlooking Srem village from Ian and Cursty’s balcony.


The South African influence is evident in Ian’s hand-built braai area.

ian john beer

Ian and John plan braai operations with the aid of beer and Millie’s supervision.

Try again…

With customary (alleged) technophobe ineptitude I managed to cock-up the pix last time round.  Most of them didn’t show and all the captions ended up with the last one. It only took me an hour of painfully repetitive clicking back and forward, but I’ll try again. Grrrr! There might be an easier way – and one less prone to cock-ups.

Bit late when halfway through Suez!

Entering the canal in the morning mist.

Suez opens up into lakes.

First World War memorial to Suez defenders.

Canalside suburbia.

And more of the same.

Army guardposts are everywhere.

Could put up with living here.

More lakes.

No time to stop for prayers, unfortunately.

Marina and tug boat basin.

Southern entrance to the canal.

Convoy waits clearance in the morning haze.

Northbound tanker - empty obviously, look at the freeboard.

Swivelling bridge enables railway crossing.

Champagne neck from Cassiopeia launching.

113,000 tons takes an extra-large mooring line.

Propellor churn viewed from the aft mooring station.

Aft mooring station

Propshaft turns at only 100 rpm but transfers more than 80,000 horsepower!

Hi-tech engines need low-tech accessories - walnut shells!

A spare piston ... just in case.

This gadget stores spare cylinder head nuts.

Piston again.

The 12-cylinder Hyundai engine... not for your average car!

Anti-pirate armour at the ready on the bridge.

Sunset in the Indian Ocean.

And another off Sri Lanka.

Now do you believe how cold we were in New Zealand. The ship froze as soon as we boarded.

HRH was harnessed to the guardrail when she took this one.

At least weather like this keeps the pirates in port.

Heavy going in the Indian Ocean.