The most humbling of our holiday experiences was meeting our new neighbours for the very first time.
The four of us were out on the east boundary, measuring the length of the plot (we only had a tiny little plot sketch map and wanted to make a bigger and perhaps more accurate plan of the property) and as we were doing it, a small, bent over, sliver haired, wizened and clearly elderly man climbed steadily over the big mound of earth between our place and the next door plot – his hand extended out to us – and started immediately talking to us 19 to the dozen in rapid Bulgarian! A few minutes later his wife (even shorter than her husband but not quite so stooped) joined us.
Yadelka (wife) and what sounded to like “Nigel” (but we are pretty certain that it’s not – it just sounded like that to us) are both in their mid 80’s, have lived in the village their whole life and they have one son who lives and works in Switzerland.
We quickly got over our embarrassing inability to communicate verbally with them as they started to talk and point to things or show us with their hands what they were talking about – we are pretty confident that they were giving us advice about the boundary fence, about how and when to chop down the trees, why they had cut some of our trees down (because they had fallen over and broken the old boundary wall) and that we needed to get the land ploughed up and prepared for planting! They were so animated and enthusiastic.
With typical British reserve we tried to avoid going over to their place, but they simply took us by the hands and led us back over the mounds of earth and through the brambles into their property. Their little plot of land (maybe about 1500 sqm) had been beautifully tilled and every piece of space had been planted. It was spring, so the field had been sown with something (or about to be sown), but all around in odd spots were different plants – and as we walked by each one Yadelka made a point of repeating the Bulgarian names for the plants several times to help us learn (but we had neither a tape recorder or paper and pencil so…). There were several different sorts of strawberries, early lettuces, fruit bushes, fruit trees (apple, pear, cherry, plum, apricot, peach) with some in blossom, lots of different herbs, spring onions, rose bushes and loads of other veg that we didn’t get the names of – and planted in between in any spare space were daffodils, tulips and primulas which were all just starting to flower.
We passed their outdoor privy (loo) which was spotless and got to the house which was a single story building smaller than a 40 foot shipping container and split into three rooms. Bedroom, a living room (with their little fridge in it) and another room that contained a large freezer and had an outdoor lean-to attached where they had a 2 ring stove. Outside the house was a large concrete water trough with a single cold water tap. In the sink was the washing up drying in the air. We didn’t have a camera with us at that moment, and it might be wrong to have shown you the intimate bits of their house anyway, but I wish we could show you.
From the yard there was a set of double gates leading onto the road and then there was the barn which was maybe 3 or even 4 times the size of the house, and consisted of a huge store room full of pots and pans and junk and stuff and shelves of preserved foods (not packets) everywhere, a garage (for “Nigel’s” almost pristine 1970’s bright red Trabant car that he hasn’t driven for over 30 years) and animal housing. We think that they have sheep or goats by the smell but they were probably out with the shepherd when we visited. They also had rabbits and chickens, and the biggest rooster I have ever seen – the size of a turkey almost! Again, every bit of spare space between and around the buildings was cultivated and either planted with something or ready for planting – near the barn were more fruit trees and bushes and of course their vines.
While Yadelka was showing us around “Nigel” started to collect things; preserved peaches, plums in syrup, tomato sauce, tomato garlic and chilli sauce, a string of garlic, onions, a large bag of frozen (seeded) peppers and the biggest pumpkin I had seen for a very long time. He also went a found a little trolley with which we could cart these things back to our car. It was impossible to explain to them that we would not be able to use these wonderful gifts ourselves as we had nowhere to cook them – and we thought that they would have been hurt if we refused anyway. Thankfully we were able to share these gifts with our friends who would certainly use them.
Eventually we said our goodbyes to “Nigel” and he sent Yadelka with us to bring back the trolley – we managed to capture a couple of half-decent pictures of her, but she had to take her work coat off first before she could be photographed – so sweet.
A couple of days later, again we were in the field and I heard a strange sort of failed whistle – and looking around I saw Yadelka once more coming through the brambles and the mud with a tray of eggs in one hand. 21 eggs in fact; not 6 or 12 but 21 – the whole weeks eggs. Unbelievable generosity.
What was humbling about all this? Well, at their age they were still almost totally living off of the land – what they could raise and grow themselves. One cold tap, an outdoor toilet, a living room the size of my bathroom here in Abu Dhabi – and all day every day spent looking after their little plot and tending the land whatever the weather – yet they showed such generosity to us – these two weird new foreign people – in their spirit and their gifts. And what’s more, there is nothing that we have or even what we could think to get them that would be really useful to them – until we are their neighbours and are able to share our own produce with them, and we are looking forward to that very much.