The Bulgarian wrap-up. End of an Era.
Trip Start Jan 20, 2008
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Been a while, hasn't it? Well, despite all of my good intentions regarding more frequent and substantially shorter blogs, I must again admit failure. This, I am sure, will not come as a surprise to those of you who know me well, or indeed, at all. I seem to be constantly setting low expectations and then failing utterly to achieve them, but hey, shit happens - y'know?
To begin, I suppose we need to wrap up and summarise the Bulgarian experience... not an easy job, considering just how much fun we had, the antics we got up to, how long we were there and of course, the bits I may not remember (which are always exceedingly difficult to include in any coherent narrative). We shall proceed, however, with style and aplomb (or at least as near to style and aplomb as I may jokingly presume to come) and begin with the hotel Belona
The hotel Belona, where we stayed and worked for the duration of our stay is fairly small and family run. Nasser owns the hotel with his partner Vesi, and Vesi's mother and her auntie (Babba Milena & Lelo) operate the kitchen. Babba Milena is a veteran kindergarten teacher who still teaches at the local kindergarten and then comes in to the hotel in the evenings to make some of the most extraordinarily tasty dishes I've come across. Lelo also has her own range of kitchen specialities and loved getting us to sample whatever tasty treat was being produced any and almost every time we were transited through the kitchen. The lovely and hardworking Vesi takes care of all the customers, from check in to check out, including doing all the waitress work in the restaurant. Vesi's father and her uncle (the formidable Esen and irrepressibly cheerful Kaleko Aleko) take care of all the routine maintenance and any other miscellaneous tasks that need doing around the hotel.
Actually, I can't help but think that Esen and Kaleko would get on very well (aside from the language barrier) with my dad, Chris. Having grown up while Bulgaria was still very much under communist rule, they've had a lifetime of experience at making do with what's available. So many things were unable to be purchased under communism that they're become very proficient at simply making whatever they need
By far the major part of their guests seem to be return customers and it isn't difficult to see why. Almost all of the guests would eat in the hotel restaurant or "mexana" every night of their stay and when the place was busy (which was frequently) it had more of a carnival atmosphere than the somewhat subdued ambience normally associated with a restaurant. There was a large open fireplace with a couple of spits on which they would frequently cook five or six whole chickens, a lamb or a whole pig
In fact, all the food was, simply put, amazing. Not only amazing, but also delivered in prodigious quantities! Patutniks and Banitzas and Sur Mees and Kacharma and stews and soups and casseroles, and Nas' curries... You don't need to be Sherlock Holmes to look at our photos and see how much weight we've both put on. To be fair though, this is not all due to the good food at Belona. The infamous, "Heathrow injection" doubtless played its part, as did the idleness and inactivity brought on by large periods of inclement (read: CRAP) northern hemisphere weather, particularly during our extended stays in Lancashire. Anyways, returning to Belona... you know that life is treating you pretty well when the only thing you can complain about is that you're being fed too much.
To earn our keep at the hotel, Doug and I chopped and carried firewood to keep the three open fireplaces burning which, though a cunning artifice of Nas' own devising, also heat the hotel. There is a bewildering array of copper piping, overflow tanks, pressure gauges, thermostats and automatic pumps behind the scenes at hotel Belona which all combine to heat the hotel quite nicely. So when the Ukraine cut off all the gas going to Bulgaria, hotel Belona was lovely and comfortable while some of the others wound up, "a bet chully" as the kiwi's might say.
We also served drinks in the restaurant bar, the upstairs bar and washed all the dishes and glasses from the restaurant and both bars, so we weren't completely idle
Overall, the snow season was pretty rubbish, there were only a few good dumps of snow and there was a bit of time in between 'em. I sometimes suspect though, that Doug and I are in danger of becoming snow snobs. It depends on what you want out of your snow, I suppose. Doug and I seem to have progressed with our snowboarding to the point where it's a bit dull, just going down the pisted slopes... The real fun and excitement is off through the trees, in the powder, looking for the drop-offs and the powder fields and the natural jumps! For that sort of stuff though, you need a fairly decent covering of snow. As Mike is fond of saying, "the powder hides a multitude of sins". Meaning that while it doesn't take too much snow to make it all look white and pretty, it needs more to make it rideable without killing yourself, or breaking an ankle or a wrist or something along those lines. You can never really be sure what's under the powder and if its not what you think, it might hurt. A lot. We did get a few quite good dumps of snow though, and altogether got about 8 to 10 fantastic days of off piste riding out of a pretty rough season
Just reading back over this blog so far... it's not very funny, is it? Well, at this junction, I think it's about time we introduce... Pavelski. Obviously, there are a number of people who'll be reading this who already know Pav (is this hopeless optimism? Does anyone really read it?) but equally so, there are many who won't. Pav is the partner of my good mate Geoff's sister, "Schmal", and I suppose you could say that he is one of the reasons the Marshes came to Bulgaria. Aside from being a very motivated business man and a very nice bloke, he is also an exceptionally funny fucker. We met Pav at dinner at the hotel one night and agreed to head up the slopes to hit the snow the next day. Pav was nice enough to give us a lift to the slopes in his pride and joy, a brand new VW caravelle which he uses for his airport transfer business, "Ski Transfers Bulgaria" (www.skitransfersbulgaria.com). We soon became good mates and hit the slopes a number of times in the weeks to come. Pav hails from the Czech republic and his English is pretty damn good, but you don't really appreciate just how good his grasp is until you get to hear him hurl abuse at idiotic Bulgarian drivers on the way up to the slopes, or at any learner skiier or boarder who might be unfortunate enough to be on the black slopes as we would pass overhead on the lift..
Lift rides up to the top of the mountain were almost as enjoyable as riding down to the bottom, with the three of us pissing ourselves laughing over any number of things, from the antics of the ridiculously persistent bell sellers who plague the restaurant and shop areas of pamporovo to our hopelessly tuneless renditions of Kevin Bloody Wilson songs belted out to the befuddlement of the other skiers and boarders. Actually, the bell sellers were frequent sources of merriment and anyone who has ever been to pamporovo will no doubt understand why the idea of a t-shirt proclaiming, "I skied Pamporovo and didn't buy one fucking bell!" is so funny. Well, we thought it was anyways.
Australia day, unsurprisingly, isn't really a big deal in Bulgaria. Or at least it wasn't, 'til doug and I got through with it. In fact, Australia Day kind of snuck up on us. We had been planning to have a few quiet drinks after work in the hotel and imagine what all the lads back home were up to, find out which song came in at number one in the hottest one hundred etc, but the night before Australia Day turned out to be a fairly busy night in the restaurant and we had pretty much forgotten about it until nearly midnight
Anyway, we hit the town in grand style, ushering in the 26th in typical Australian style - by getting blotto. There had been a good snowfall that night as well and there was simply no way we were going to miss the next day on the slopes, despite the awful hangovers that we were busily earning at the time. Morning came and a glorious one it was too. Fresh powder snow everywhere, not too cold, the sun was shining, it was honestly about the best day we had on the slopes in the two or so months that we were there. We found a disused lift line that was very steep and narrow, and best of all, was completely untouched! Boarding down it in the fresh powder was, simply put, fucking brilliant. Australia Day 2009 goes down in the books as an absolute, dead set ball-tearer.
Around about the early part of February, we were lucky enough to have a couple of visitors, Sharone and Katie, who came for a short stay with the stated intention of learning to snowboard
After rambling about the city some more we headed off to the hostel we stayed at last time we were in Sofia, the Art Hostel, which has just about the grooviest cellar bar I've ever seen, to kill a few more hours
After the mammoth drive back up the mountains to the hotel, most of which the girls slept through, despite mine and doug's determinedly atrocious singing, we arrived back at the hotel and everyone settled in to get a bit of sleep. In the afternoon, we phoned the Snowboard Shack and got the girls booked in to hire some gear and get a professional lesson.
Our departure for the snow slopes the next morning was slightly delayed when I carelessly pulled out a lump of firewood from the huge stack outside the hotel and was then chased down the street by about two and half tons of gravitationally motivated timber that I then had to restack. The lessons were going well and Sharone and Katie both seemed to being doing well, motivating themselves by not wanting the other to be any better than they were, until the fateful moment when Sharone caught a back edge and landed savagely, half on her back and half on her bottom
Anyways, despite all the encouraging and cajoling and mild reproach, one or two more efforts at snowboarding were all that Sharone could be enticed to attempt and those were clearly quite painful for her. The next day we spent on ski's, as Katie hadn't tried it before (neither had I) and Sharone rated her chances of falling on her bum as substantially less, having had some skiing experience some years before. We mucked about at the very bottom of the mountain on the ski's while Sharone endeavoured to give us some basic tips on control and technique.
In typical form though, I was apparently determined to run before I had learned to crawl and consequently was sliding about all over the place in what could only be called an absurd parody of skiing. Eventually we decided that walking up hill was no fun at all and we got some lift passes and headed up to the top of Pamporovo to make use of the nursery slopes which had a button lift at the bottom. I soon started to make some progress and get a bit more control on the ski's and managed to severely annoy Sharone by constantly interrupting her attempts to teach Katie the basics of skiing with my own interpretation of how it all worked and what to do etc
At any rate, the afternoon was ticking away and we were very slowly making progress down the quite long nursery slope towards the button lift, constantly encouraging Katie that despite her protestations to the contrary, she could do it and that in fact she was doing it. As it turned out, there was to be quite a lot of this sort of thing before the day was out... When we were almost at the bottom of the slope, we saw a terrible sight. The lift operators, coming back up the lift, waving us off and saying, "ne roboti, finish" (no work / not working / finished). What the fuck? This wasn't supposed to happen. A quick check of the time revealed that it was only 1615h, the lifts were supposed to operate 'til 1630h! Fucking Bulgarain lifties! This meant that we had to walk all the way back up the nursery slope that we had just come painfully slowly down, in ski boots (which aren't exactly wonderful for walking in... skiing yes, walking - no) before they shut down the lifts other lifts at 1630h. I had a pretty good idea how this was going to work out. Needless to say, we didn't make it to the top in time, Sharone was still pretty sore from her snowboarding tumble the day before and even had I been on my own, I still would have had to push myself pretty hard to make it back up in time
With much coaxing and cajoling, Sharone and I (over the course of several hours and countless encouragements, platitudes and appeals to reason ("there simply isn't any other way off the mountain, Katie") we did finally manage to get down - just before a very concerned Vesi called out the mountain rescue to come and find us. By the time we were very nearly at the bottom of the mountain, our encouragements had devolved to a repetitive litany that hadn't really changed from the top.
Katie: I can't do this! I just can't! I really really can't!
Me: (soothingly / encouragingly) Yes you can Katie! You're doing really well. You've made it so far already, you're doing great!
Katie: No! I can't do it, I really can't. I can't. I just can't do this!
Me: (not quite so soothingly) Katie, you've been saying that for about two hours now. Clearly, you can do it, you are doing it! You have already done 95% of the mountain for heaven's sake! Come on! We're nearly there, you have done fantastically well! Don't give up now!
Katie: (skis another 5m) I can't! I just can't. I can't do this... - oh... Are we finished now? Are we there? We are? Oh wow, I did it.
Katie is a lovely girl, but on that day I really think she could have tried the patience of a saint. And I am certainly not a saint. (Sorry Katie! All jokes aside though, you really did do amazingly well. From the top of the mountain to the bottom, on your first day on skis, without a single stack (and there were some pretty daunting bits) is a considerable achievement. Be proud. :) )
On the next day on the slopes, Sharone and I decided to ski again while Doug took Katie for some more snowboarding lessons, seeing as how the skiing had proved so traumatic for her
Some of the other visitors to the hotel were Nas' brother in law, Khalil and a few of Nas' mates, Asif and Asad. Khalil, Asif and Asad are all practicing mslims and as such, don't drink alcohol. It was quite interesting, even a little amusing watching Nas' have to curb his drinking out of respect for his brother in law and his mates. While they may not drink, Khalil at least, certainly isn't averse to a bit of this strange sort of chewing tobacco that contains a lot of wild and wacky herbs and is also apparently mildly narcotic. According to Nas, it's also a natural and very potent type of Viagra. Then again, according to Nas, a lot of things are kinds of Viagra... Anyways, Doug was persuaded to try some of this stuff, which you apparently stick in your gob and leave there, meaning you have to spit disgusting looking reddish juice that resembles coagulated blood out of your mouth at regular intervals.
After putting up with this for about two hours and feeling a little strange, Doug came to the conclusion that he really had to get this stuff out of his mouth, so, not wanting to offend (and also not having anywhere convenient to spit it out) he decided to swallow it
Geoff and Bec also managed to put in an appearance, bringing with them the dance floor destroying, Corey and it was great to see them again after a whole 12 months. Actually, just about the entire Marsh clan, as well as some managed to put in an appearance at one time or another. Rob and Jackie were also there, Schmal made it as well and Mike's brother in law Steve came over for a visit and between all of us, we managed to put a fair sort of a dint in Nas' supplies of Wymehcko (pronounced Shumensko, believe it or not. Crazy arse cyrillic!). Steve's son, Geoff's cousin James also put in an appearance which is noteworthy mostly because of the havoc he managed to wreak in an amazingly short amount of time.
James is a nice enough guy, but can't handle his alcohol, or at least, couldn't on this occaision. On Corey's (Geoff's good friend and old housemate) last night in Bulgaria, he came around to the hotel with Geoff and young James in tow to have a few drinks and then head up to Pamporovo where the nightlife is better for a bit of a last night fiesta
After several warnings and being shoved away by the girls, he still couldn't seem to control himself and eventually succeeded in annoying them so much that they left the pub. Bereft of any other females clientele on whom he could lavish his attention, James then directed his version of affection to the female barstaff. The first that I had seen of any of this was when two scared looking bargirls yelped (quite literally) for the manager. James had actually pursued them behind the bar itself. Corey and I quickly came around the bar to get control of him, but by this stage the girls had already hit their panic button to bring the local police running. James didn't want to leave the bar, nor his prospective loves (in the form of the now frightened witless bargirls) and Corey and I basically had to wrestle him out of there.
Once we got him outside, he appeared to have calmed down and we spoke to the manager and managed to pursuade him to call off the police, who had thankfully not yet arrived
The trip back from Pamps was quite interesting. James was off on his own little planet by now, where he was the only good guy and everyone else was a bastard. He spent quite some time whispering in my ear about how he was going to get me fired and do me over and all sorts of other nasty things. I listened to it all quite bemused and then told him he was about as intimidating as a kitten with a water pistol, so why didn't he do himself a favour and shut the fuck up, which actually did shut him up for all of about a minute. Once we got back to Cheps though, and paid off the cab driver (extra, because james blew his noe into his hands and then wiped it on the back of the drivers seat, and also spat twice) the antics began again
Anyways, Geoff couldn't get him out of the cab so I stuck my head in to have a go. This wasn't the greatest idea in the world, as the first thing I met was a fist coming the other way (hence my busted lip). At this point my patience pretty much evaporated. It wasn't even like it was a violent explosion of rage or anything... I just shrugged and thought, "Right. Strike three, fucker. Get him out here Geoff, I'll knock him right out, we can carry him upstairs put him in bed (in the recovery position so he doesn't choke) and then the rest of us can get on with our lives. I am done wasting time with this knob." Once again though, Geoff demonstrated his familial love and asked me not to kill him.
Me: I'm not going to kill him though Geoff, just hit him.
Geoff: Yes, Paul, but I'm not convinced that it won't kill him if you do hit him.
Me: Oh alright then, i'll leave him alone
(Okay okay, that's probably not exactly how the conversation went, but you have to leave some room for comic licence, right?)
So, when he finally did emerge from the cab, the antics continued, including his breaking one of the windows in the hotel and waking up Mike and Tich before we got him upstairs and into bed. Probably the most amusing part of it all was when, after having run off down the street, James decided to run back up the street with all the speed he could muster, directly at Geoff. For those of you who know Geoff and James, I'm sure you can visualise exactly what happened next. For those of you who don't know either of them, allow me to explain: Geoff is around 6ft tall and is not exactly what you would call a small lad. He also has a lot of years of playing rugby under his belt. James is also quite tall, but built like a feather duster. In the state he was in when he attempted to run into Geoff, a strong fart could probably have knocked him over. Just before James ran into him, I saw Geoff sigh, adjust his feet and drop his shoulder. When James collided with him, the result was something akin to a tennis ball bouncing off a brick wall. I nearly pissed myself laughing. (Sorry James.) Anyways, in the end he pretty much passed out on the stairs and was much more controllable when he came to a little later
A few days later, when we ran into James and the rest of the Marsh's up on the slopes, James offered some red-faced apologies and good relations were restored. Actually, James isn't a bad lad at all and the incident was quickly forgotten about. It was too funny to be left out of here though.
Speaking of things that shouldn't be left out, there was also another incident which involved me getting hit in the head which should be included, I suppose. As mentioned earlier, one of our priority chores around the hotel was bringing in the firewood and managing the enormous stacks of it which lined one side of the hotel. There was an enormous pile of split logs that were in roughly 4ft lengths that needed to be cut into 3 pieces of a much more manageable size and then restacked along the wall. The task involved Nas, Esen, Doug and I, and took the best part of a whole day. Esen was operating the home made table saw (the one with no safety guards and the massive saw blade mentioned earlier) and Nas, me and Doug made up a human chain at about 5m intervals to pass the wood down and stack it in its new location. We were working fairly quickly, and in the chain the throws were coming in fairly fast when Nasser became a little over enthusiastic and threw the next his lump of wood before i had turned around ready to catch it
My reaction was fairly typical and, I think, completely justifiable. I exploded, "Fucking hell Nas! D'you fucken look before you throw these fucken things or what mate?!" Naturally, he claims this was not his fault and that I had slowed down or hesitated when I was supposed to catch it. In reality, he had bloody well thrown it before I had even had a chance to turn back around after throwing the previous one to doug. How could I have hesitated when the bloody thing had to travel 5m through the air to hit me in the back of the head before I had turned around? It had to have left his hands while I was still in the act of passing the previous one to Doug! I suppose it's almost lucky. If I'd turned around a tad earlier it would've hit me in the face. Possibly damaging my brain would be scant loss to society, but damaging my looks? Good grief, Europe may never have recovered...
There were plenty of other things that happened in Bulgaria that probably warrant a mention, but this blog has gone straight through the point where it could justifiably be called 'absurdly long' and passed out the other side into 'purely ridiculous'
To Nas, Vesi, Nasco, Esen, Kaleko, Babba Milena, Lelo, Lucky, Kalinka, Vesco and Nona, thank you all very very much, you guys took us in and made us feel like a part of the family and we hope to visit Bulgaria again sometime. Maybe one summer, just for something different.
And a big g'day to all the other people we met in Bulgaria who were just cool people and great to hang out with when we had the opportunity: all the Marshes and friends (Mike, Tich, Boags, Becks, Rob, Jackie, Schmal, Pavelski, Steve, James) and to the liverpuddlians we met too: Alan and Gillian and Steve and Cathy.
Hope all is well back home with everyone! Stay tuned for the next instalment, which should cover St pat's day in Dublin where we visited Anto and Marissa and our foray into northen Ireland, visiting Belfast and various other locales!
P.S. pictures should be coming soon (most of them are on face book anyways) but I can't upload them from here, internet is too bloody dodgy and keeps dropping out.