By , November 9, 2012 9:21 am

As you’ve no doubt heard, we purchased a house in Central Bulgaria. This does not signal the end of our travels. In fact, we’ve already left Bulgaria and are currently exploring the countryside of Turkey.

Now it’s all well and good for us to tell you that we bought a house, let you know how much it cost, gave some insights into Bulgaria’s bureaucracy, and showed you some pictures of our new pad. But I think it’s also important to explain why we want to live in Bulgaria.

Yes, you read that right. We want to live in Bulgaria. Contrary to popular belief, we do not make a habit of buying houses as a souvenir in every country we visit. Bulgaria is special. It’s a place we want to live, and that’s why we bought a house there.

All dollar amounts quoted in this post are $CAD, which at the time of this writing are approximately equal to $USD.

Bulgaria is Beautiful

Maybe I should rephrase the title of this section to something like “The Small Bit of Bulgaria We Actually Saw is Beautiful”. The truth is that despite living in Bulgaria for three months, we hardly travelled around at all. Bulgaria has a beautiful Black Sea Coast, mountains to ski and hike, and plenty of history on display in the form of monasteries and Roman ruins. But we didn’t see any of that stuff. I guess we decided to save it for another trip. The bits we saw are all nearby our own village, and we thought they were beautiful.

Veliko Tarnovo – River Residences

Veliko Tarnovo – Tsarevets Fortress

Emen – Canyon

Gorsko Kosovo Reservoir – A great place to swim and fish on hot days.

Bulgaria is Centrally Located

If you look on a map, you’ll see that Bulgaria borders Romania, Turkey, Greece, Macedonia, and Serbia. All places we want to see. Still within range of a night train/bus, you find Italy, Austria, Croatia, Slovania, Slovakia, Hungary, Moldova, and the Ukraine. Wow.

Bulgaria is Connected

Even the small villages, like ours, have high speed internet access. So communication is no problem. But that’s not what I was getting at. What I find amazing is the fact that you can cheaply get  everywhere by bus/train. Our small village, for example, has a daily bus to and from the closest major centre, Pavlikeni. There we can do all of our shopping, or catch a bus/train to somewhere more exotic, like Turkey. And get this, the bus to Pavlikeni costs less than driving at only $2 each way.

Village Life is a Mix of City and Farm. As it Should Be.

City Life

  • You have neighbours to talk to.
  • There is a local store for your daily shopping needs.
  • A cafe & bar for those days you don’t feel like cooking.
  • Your streets will get plowed in the winter.
  • You have running water that you can drink from the tap.
  • And, of course, electricity.

Rural Life

  • You can buy fresh unpasteurized milk.
  • You can raise your own egg laying chickens (which, FYI, you can’t do within a village in small town Saskatchewan)
  • If you like, you can have goats, cows, horses, and sheep. You keep them in your yard at night, then send them out to public pasture with a local shepherd during the day. No need to buy your own pasture land.
  • You can grow your own cherries, grapes, peaches, apples, pears, walnuts, hazelnuts, blackberries, vegetables of all kinds, and much more. Anything you plant in this country has a habit of growing.
  • You get a big yard and privacy.

The Weather is Pretty Good:

The winters are shorter than they are in Canada by about a month on either side. There are heavy snows but there are also warm chinooks. It’s been known to hit positive 20 deg C on New Years Day, and a cold snap will only get as cold as -25 deg C.

Summers are fantastic (this is the only season we’ve personally experienced); Dry, not much for wind, temperatures between 30 and 40 deg C. I can’t imagine a better summer climate anywhere.

You Can Afford to Have a Drink

The beer is priced at a reasonable $0.70 for a 1L bottle. And it tastes not too bad. Wine is a bit more. A local vintage can be obtained 3L for $5. Better still, they’ve legalize distilling your own alcohol. And, since everyone grows their own grapes, there is a glut of hooch (officially called rakia). It’s tasty, and given away for free by nearly everyone. We’ll be making our own when we have a chance.

Actually, It’s Affordable All Around

We’ve already mentioned how much a house and land costs. If you missed it, you can catch up here. But it’s not just the housing and the booze. Food is also cheap, even if you are not growing it yourselves. Tomatoes, zucchini, eggplant, and fruit generally run $1 per kg or less while in season. Cheese is plentiful at about $3 per kg, and bread is about $0.50 per loaf. Property taxes are almost negligible (less than $100 per year), and water is less than $10 per month (depending on how much you use).

Of course some things are still expensive. For example, gasoline for your car is quite pricey, electricity is expensive, and wood for winter heating will still run you about $1,000 per year depending on how much heat you need. But these “expensive” items are priced comparably to everywhere else in the world. They are just expensive compared to how cheap everything else is.

So Why Aren’t We Living in Bulgaria Now if it is so Great?

A couple of reasons. First, we are not done travelling. Not by a long shot. Second, despite the low costs, we still need to figure out a way to generate an income before we can move to Bulgaria full-time. The country has a very high unemployment rate, and a very low average hourly wage. To make matters worse, neither of us speak Bulgarian, a fact that will severely limit our employment prospects until we can learn the language.

Although we’ve been quite successful thus far, it’s only possible to live on dreams and rainbows for so long. So until we work out how we are going to generate enough income to move full-time to Bulgaria, we won’t be living there full time.

What’s the Plan Then?

Like so many things, we just don’t know. Our first plan, is to eventually return to Canada and get jobs. We’ll work and save until we feel that we have enough money to make a go of it, then move to Bulgaria. It’s boring and old-fashioned, but there’s a proven track record of success. While we are saving up, we’ll visit our house when we can and do as much work on it as we can with the holiday time we are allotted.

Another option would be to relocate to Bulgaria and try to pick up seasonal winter work elsewhere. For example, we may try to spend our summers in Bulgaria enjoying our organic food, and low costs. When winter strikes, we’ll set off for a warmer country and work in the dive industry. It’ll mean another investment in courses to become instructors, but could be a enjoyable/sustainable way of making Bulgaria work now.

We’ve talked about working for a year teaching English in Japan or S.Korea. The idea being that we could save up enough money to live in Bulgaria for a couple of years before needing to undertake another year-long teaching gig. It has promise, but we are not sure if we’ll enjoy teaching English or not.

Finally, we could try to work in Bulgaria. It’s possible that Ashley could get a job as a teacher at an English school. But it probably wouldn’t be within commuting range of our home. I could try to earn an income online programming, or translating from Spanish into English, but that’s not fun either. Along the same lines, we could use our company to undertake some sort of business in Bulgaria. The big problem being that we’d be earning a Bulgarian wage. That would get us by, but we wouldn’t be able to save up for future travel. And it’s not just sightseeing that we would miss out on, we’d also be away from our friends and family back home without sufficient incomes to buy tickets to go back to Canada and visit. That would be hard.

So for now, and until further notice, the matter of fitting our Bulgarian house into our lives permanently remains unsettled. But we both really, really want to make it work.

By , November 6, 2012 12:37 pm

Here’s a little Bulgarian lesson for you…

Дa = Da = yes

He = Nay = no

Simple enough, right?  Wrong, my friend.  So very wrong indeed.

I thought that mastering the Cyrillic alphabet would be the biggest stumbling block to communicating in Bulgarian.  Of course, I was mistaken.  It was actually my neck that would get me in trouble.

For 27 years of my life, I understood that a nod of the head meant “yes” and a shake of the head meant “no.”  I was trained to believe this was universal and let me tell you, it’s now deeply ingrained.  So it was quite the shock to learn that this doesn’t hold true everywhere.

As you may have guessed… in Bulgaria, a nod means “no” and a shake of the head is “yes.”  We were quick to realize this fact as soon as we learned the words Дa and He.

Knowing a social convention and internalizing are two very different things, however.  When you see someone doing this…

… your brain doesn’t know how to process it.  Half the message is “yes” and half is “no”.  The visual and audio clues are perfect opposites and you end up perplexed.  Or at least I do.

And just try to say yes (or da) without nodding.  Or no without shaking your head. It’s about a thousand times harder than trying to pat your head with one hand while rubbing your tummy with the other.  Especially when those are two of the precious few words you can speak or understand.

I’ve heard lots of stories from British expats that have walked into a restaurant, asked if they had a table for four, and stood there waiting to go to their nonexistent seats after the hostess nodded.

Mike and I found ourselves in an unknown city looking to buy our Bulgarian car (which we later dubbed the “little red shitbox” – for obvious reasons).  We needed to find an English interpreter to help with the sale, but we didn’t know where to start.  We saw a sign for an information centre and walked in.  But it didn’t look at all like an information centre – there were no pamphlets, and the set-up was something like an accounting firm.  Mike asked, “Information?”  The woman behind the nearest desk shook her head.  We walked out.  About a block later, we realized she had actually said yes.  Oops.

Little Red Shitbox

How did we end up with this car? Mike shook his head and next thing we knew, it was ours!

You would think that after three months in the country, we’d get used to this, but it’s just too hard to master.

One of the last things we did before leaving our house in Bulgaria was to register the property with the municipal tax office.  We brought a Bulgarian friend along to translate, and fill out the 12 page form that reminded me of a university final exam.  When everything was signed and done, the tax official said, “Now all you have to do is come back next year and pay your taxes.”  To that, I nodded and walked out.  She was not impressed.

By , November 3, 2012 1:03 am

Ah, the night lights. It seems pretty rare that we share our night time pics with you, and I say it’s high time we did. We spent a total of 4 nights in Sofia en-route from Belgrade, Serbia to our HelpX gig in the village of Vishovgrad (Central Bulgaria). Compared to Belgrade, Sofia seemed like a jewel. Plenty of green spaces, nice architecture, and a very welcoming culture, if the free beer and food from our hostel staff were any indication.

If you are not the biggest fan of these nighttime photos, please do keep in mind that it was dark, and we couldn’t really see what we were doing.

By , October 30, 2012 1:03 pm

We are back from the dead!  After an unprecedented 28 days of internet silence, we’ve gained the strength to bring you this update…

Our return to the tech-laden “real” world has come with the surprise announcement that Mike’s sister was happily married while we were hiding from the sun.  While big events at home always bring on a bout of homesickness, we can take solace in the fact that she eloped to “the happiest place on earth” and we, in fact, missed nothing but the inevitable drunken celebration upon their return.  (Congrats sis!  Can’t wait to party it up next time we see you guys… we’re sending big hugs your way!)  The other thing that helped ward off the evil spirits – oops, I mean the homesickness – is the fact that we are no longer homeless.  Yep, you heard that right… we are the proud owners of a Bulgarian house, smack dab in the middle of the Balkan vampire zone.  My how things change when the blog goes dark!

[If you’ve been following us on our Facebook page, this isn’t really news, is it?  You’ve already seen the photos.  If you aren’t following our Facebook page, what the heck are you waiting for???]

Now, I suppose you want details… Of course you do.  I know you do because so did our moms, dads, friends, former colleagues, former high school teachers, new neighbours, our sheep herder (more on this in a bit), nearly every ex-pat we have come across, a fellow traveller we met in Sofia, and our recent victims.  Umm… maybe scratch that last one.

We arrived in rural Bulgaria for a HelpX gig at the start of August.  It took us a mere week or two of village life, along with an enlightening conversation about Balkan vampirism and just how cheap Bulgarian real estate can be (not that we’re implying the two are related) to decide that we should look at some properties.  After all, just looking can’t hurt, right?

After an, umm, “interesting” day with a real estate agent that involved getting lost for over an hour in a village, nearly breaking into the wrong house, and watching the realtor kick in the gate and the front door of a house we were looking at, we still weren’t sure.  Nothing spoke to us.  Perhaps it had something to do with all the garlic hanging on the doors.

Then, through our HelpX hosts and one of their friends, the perfect property presented itself.  We showed up, looked around, and knew within the first two minutes that we wanted it (despite the creepy, creepy doll in the bedroom).

Let me tell you… this baby didn’t last long… it was out before we moved in.

After twenty minutes, we had a kiss from the baba (aka the granny) that was selling it.  We had ourselves a lair!  I mean, a house!

It’s probably worth noting our mindsets here… Mike was 100% gung-ho about the purchase, and I was still a little on the fence.  Bulgaria is a long, long way from our friends and family at home.  I couldn’t picture exactly how it would fit into our long-term plan (whatever that may be).  Yet, in the moment,  I just knew the purchase was right.  When it’s right, it’s right, you know?  Mike helped to relieve any final misgivings I had with his well-timed statement upon our return: “Maybe I shouldn’t have had that beer right before we went to look at it… I was just walking around the yard thinking I really wish I wasn’t buzzed right now.”  Helpful, huh?  Anyways, I digress…

While we all considered the baba’s kiss to be binding, Bulgarians do like their bureaucracy so we started the ball rolling to actually buy the thing.  Everyone told us we’d be moved in within a week, but – alas! –  it was not to be.  And thus began the longest MONTH of waiting of our lives and the most difficult time of our trip for us.

First, we waited for our company papers to come through (non-EU citizens are not allowed to own property in Bulgaria, but they can form a company that owns the property).  Then, we waited for our company stamp.  Then, we waited for the bank transfer to go through.  Then, for the money to actually show up (this took a full week AFTER we got the confirmation of it).  Finally, we had to wait for the notary to make time for our appointment.

But finally, on October 1, the deal went through.  Everything was signed in quintuplet.  We went to the bank and paid our taxes and then paid the bank to obtain proof (in quintuplet) that we paid our taxes.  We took out our company stamp that cost a small fortune to make and asked for a stamp pad, but were waved off.  Apparently, you simply need to possess the stamp, instead of actually stamping with it.  Ah… the strange quirks of the system!

Coolest (and heaviest) set of house keys I’ve ever set my eyes on

“Wait…”, you’re thinking.  “This is all very nice,” (you’re probably actually thinking boring, but I’ve chosen to hear your interjection as “nice”), “but when you said details, I thought you meant what we all want to know…  HOW MUCH does a house in Bulgaria COST?”

Here’s the numbers and a little bit more of the bureaucratic process (in case you too want to get up close and personal with the vampires by buying a house)…

The house itself cost 12000 BGN leva (or $7650 CAD/6000 Euro at the time of purchase).  As I mentioned, this required the formation of a company which cost 450 leva, plus 17 leva to notarize the papers (EVERYTHING has to be notarized in Bulgaria!), and another 50 leva to get our stamp.  Getting lost?  Don’t worry.  There’s a grand total at the end.  Lawyer fees for the house deal were 750 leva.  While a lawyer wasn’t essential, we didn’t want to mess around here (and she caught a discrepancy in the lot size that was fixed up in our deed).  Taxes and notary fees for the house purchase totalled 764 leva.  We could have saved on the taxes by declaring a lower purchase price than the true amount (a common, and as it turns out expected practice), but we went by the book here too.  Every trip to the notary requires a translator (trust me, if you don’t speak Bulgarian, they won’t speak to you… even if you show them your fangs as proof of Balkan citizenship).  This, of course, adds to the costs – 30 leva.

So the grand total, including all the taxes and fees we never even considered was… drum roll please… 14,061 leva/$8,964.04 CAD/7,030 Euro.  (Which, as an amusing side note, would – if included in our overall trip budget along with our Bulgarian car purchase, car repair bill, and house renovation bill – put our daily cost at $68 CAD/day since we left home… still not too shabby, huh?)

And what did that money get us?  In Bulgaria, a 3 bedroom house with an outdoor kitchen, outdoor loo, and barn.  Half an acre of land with peach trees, apple trees, plum trees, and grapevines.  An amazing view of the stunning hills surrounding us.  No indoor kitchen or bathroom (but there’s plenty of space for them and there will be one day…) and no shower.  The house is in livable condition, with water hooked up and basic (as in basically old, crumby, and downright dangerous) electricity.  In Canada, the same amount would get us little more than a used car. 

The house, as we found it

Our future dining/living room… so much potential!

One of the bedrooms

Our yard

Outdoor kitchen, complete with clay oven

The outdoor loo.  Ever heard the expression “built like a brick shithouse”? Now you’ve seen one!

This picture was taken from our yard

The house also came with a sheep keeper – an elderly man that cuts the grass, keeping the yard from being reclaimed by the jungle.  I must admit, at first I was a little uneasy when he let himself into the back gate and started hanging out in our yard.  But, through a little translation help from a friend, we discovered that he cut the lucerne (aka alfalfa) in the yard for the old owner and he was willing to keep doing so until we were ready to move in.  And what does he want in payment?  Get this… the grass!  That’s right, where else in the world can you hire someone to cut your grass (through a combination of a scythe and two sheep) for the price of the grass itself?  It’s a beautifully simple system!

So, anyways, back to the present.  Mike and I battled our way out of Bulgaria (I’m sure you can sense there’s a story here.. but I’ll save that for a later post) after spending a blissful four weeks in our very own home.  We ditched our lofty goals of putting in a new bathroom, redoing the upstairs wiring,  and just got the windows and doors done.

Taking a break from renos to be carried over the threshold

Scraping, sanding, and puttying the window frame before painting

The windows BEFORE

The windows AFTER

The house, as we left it

And so, under the cover of darkness, we journeyed to Istanbul, Turkey.  We snuck into our hostel just as the sun was about to rise, and we’re spending the daylight hours hidden away… catching you, our reader, up on the adventures.  I’m sure we’ll venture out after sundown – there is, after all, fresh blood to be had!  Oops… I mean a new culture to experience!

FYI… We are not settling down in Bulgaria just yet.  In fact, we still don’t know when our Bulgarian house will become our Bulgarian home for good.  But for now, it’s one hell of a summer project, no?

AHHHHH!!!!! It’s back!

Want to see more of our house? Check out our photos in our photo gallery or stop by the ol’ Facebook page to see some more.

By , October 1, 2012 11:46 am

I’ve been racking my mind trying to think of something exceptional to share with you about Belgrade, Serbia, and I haven’t had much luck. The truth is, we were not really enamoured with this city, but we didn’t dislike it either. It just kind of was.

It was the place I celebrated my 30th birthday. That’s probably part of the problem. For some reason, I felt the need to feed my craving for baked goods, and gorged on far too many pastries. As much fun as it was at the time, I can’t help but feel a bit sick in my stomach when I think back on Belgrade.

I ate a lot of these little guys.

It was the first place where we experienced temperatures in excess of 40° Celsius. This was compounded by a lengthy walk from the bus station to our hostel at midday, with an even lengthier wait while we purchased a city map (first time we’ve had to do that) and figured out where the heck the bus had dropped us off. It felt hot, but not as hot as I expected having never before been in temperatures so high.

The Olympics had just started, attracting a steady crowd of spectators in front of the hostel television. We spent pretty much the extent of our time in Belgrade visiting with that very same crowd, drinking beer, and soaking up the air conditioning.

We did go out a few times.

We walked through the Belgrade Fortress. Meandered into some Christian orthodox churches where we learned that there are no chairs. Seriously, a service can take up to two hours, and everyone just has to stand there. And on my birthday, we went swimming at Ada Ciganlija, a man made sheltered swimming hole alongside the Danube River.

Lots of cool tanks and such at the fortress

The insides of an orthodox church

One of my favourite things about Belgrade was this building that was blown up by NATO in 1999. We were told that it’s the last example of the bombing left in the city – whether that’s true or not ,I have no idea. Even though Canada was responsible for about 10% of the bombs that were dropped during  that time, none of the locals held it against us personally. The people we met in Belgrade were some of the friendliest we’ve met anywhere, and the bakeries were kind enough to give me a few bonus pastries on my birthday.

Bomb damaged building

So that was Belgrade. Just a reminder, there’s plenty more photos where these came from in our Photo Album.

By , September 26, 2012 7:28 am

Have you ever wondered what to do with the ax you used to smash up the furniture your ex left behind?  Or the stuffed beagle he gave you when your dog died? What about the air sickness bags you collected from the flights you took to visit your former long distance lover?  Or the rear view mirror you ripped off his car when it was parked in front of the “wrong” house?  Or the fake rubber breasts your ex-husband so thoughtfully gave you to wear?

So what do you do with these mementos of failed relationships?  In Zagreb, Croatia the answer is put them on display!

Not your typical museum, the Museum of Broken Relationships is definitely worth a visit.  On the surface, it appears to be a collection of random and mundane objects (like wedding dresses, axes, and teddy bears) but, unlike most museums, it is not the artifacts that people come for… it is the stories.

Housed in a small building with attached cafe/wine bar, the museum is a collection of objects representing love lost.  Each object has been donated by someone with a story to tell, and is exhibited with a label telling the date, location, and tale of woe (in English and Croatian, though there are QR codes and free wifi so travellers can read the stories in their own languages).  As the information at the entrance tells you, the museum offers contributors a chance to “overcome an emotional collapse through creation” rather than destruction.  The stories range from humourous (like the garterbelts that are labeled “I never put them on.  The relationship might have lasted longer if I did”) to spiteful (the garden gnome that was thrown at a partner’s windshield) to, quite fittingly, heartbreaking (losses from war and murder, to name a few).

Admission is 25 Croatian kuna (about $4.25 CAD).  Even for shoestring budget travellers like ourselves, the hour or two of laughter, tears, and connection with a universal human experience are well worth the price.

A love letter on shattered glass

By , September 18, 2012 4:23 am

Check out our Q&A session on HelpX with Talon from 1dad1kid by following this link. HelpX is a online service that we use to find opportunities to work in exchange for food and lodging while we travel.