I don’t do Christmas

That’s right – I don’t do Christmas.

But before you start feeling sorry for me, let me tell you that it’s not in a ‘bah humbug’ kind of way.  And I haven’t always been like this so let me explain why I don’t do Christmas.

Childhood Christmas

Of course, when I was a child, growing up in our family, we celebrated Christmas every year in Australia.

karen and i with father christmas
My sister and I (I’m the little one) in our obligatory annual Christmas photo

That meant lunches and dinners with extended family on the 25th and 26th December, a Christmas tree heavily decorated with both bought and homemade decorations, Christmas carols, Christmas parties, Christmas presents – well, you know what I mean.  They were absolutely normal, traditional, Australian Christmases.  And being Australian I even remember one year we had Christmas on the beach when my daughter was little.

So, I’m from a culture where Christmas is celebrated by almost everyone in the community.

And when I had my daughter we continued these traditions and had some very wonderful Christmases together with family and friends.

And there were presents. Lots of presents.  I think I tried to over-compensate for something because my daughter was thoroughly spoilt at Christmas time.  Every single time.

The presents under the tree every year formed a small mountain.  And as she was an only child, almost all of those presents were for her.

I’m sure she was happy about that.

Then she grew up and left home, so my Christmases became a little more low-key.  We still sometimes had lunches or dinners on Christmas day, and exchanged presents, but living without a child in the house was completely different.  I just didn’t feel the need to have a Christmas tree or decorations in the house.

Heading abroad to a new culture

I left Australia just a couple of days after Christmas, in 2006.  I don’t really remember much about that Christmas.  I was staying with my sister at the time and maybe she had a tree and maybe we exchanged presents (she had young children at the time), but I don’t really remember.

And if you know my story, you’ll know that I left Australia to go to live in Moscow, Russia.  And I arrived in Russia in January.

christmas in moscow
Moscow New Year celebrations – 15th December 2007

So, because I arrived in Russian in January, I had to wait almost a whole year to experience the fabulous ‘white Christmas’ that those of us who grow up in hot countries can only dream about.

The year passed, and during that time I learnt that Russians don’t celebrate our ‘western’ Christmas.  They celebrate Orthodox Christmas on 7th January – and it’s very low-key.

Their biggest party is New Year’s Eve.  That’s when it all happens.

New Year in Russia

They have New Year trees as you’ve probably seen in my post from a couple of years ago.  They give presents at New Year.  They have parties, drinking, fireworks, and everyone’s ready to be happy and celebrate together.

It’s a bit like ‘our’ Christmas, but just a little bit later. 

I must say, though, that the commercialism I see in Australia, and that I participated in by buying my daughter mountains of presents every year, doesn’t really exist in Russia.

new year moscow
Moscow 28th December 2019

Sure, they give presents in Russia, but from what I saw while I was there, people don’t go crazy in the shops before New Year.  There were not hordes of people in the shopping centres, filling up their trolleys with enormous amounts of presents and food.  It was quite low-key compared to what I used to see in Australia.

I don’t remember if my first 25th December in Russia was a white Christmas or not.  It was a working day so I was at work teaching.  We probably had a Christmas themed lesson, as we did these every year with our students.

Over the years in Russia, the 25th December Christmas became further and further from my life, and even though other foreign teachers in my school celebrated, I never did.  No tree.  No carols. And no presents.

Getting married didn’t change things

And then after a couple of years in Moscow I got married to Olivier.  And even though he’s French and not Russian, he also wasn’t really too interested in Christmas.  We’ve never exchanged presents at Christmas, not even the first one we spent together.

Living in Russia together for 10 years also meant that the traditional western Christmas was never really on our radar – it passed us by while we were concentrating on our jobs in the build-up to our New Year holiday plans.

moscow new year tree
New Year lights in Moscow stay up for a long time – 20th February 2020

Christmas in Bulgaria

And now, we live in Bulgaria.  It’s not Christmas yet, but from what I’ve heard, they celebrate on 25th December, just like we do in Australia.  There’s already plenty of Christmas decorations up in the town, in the streets, in people’s windows, and in the shops.

I’m not sure what we’re going to be doing on 25th December this year.  We may get together with some friends, either Bulgarian or foreigners, and have a little party – the first Christmas party I will experience in many, many years.

So, I’m not a ‘bah humbug I don’t do Christmas’ type of person, I’m a ‘my life has led me away from this holiday’ person, but it looks like things just might change this year.

The photo below was taken in the entrance of the building we currently live in. The tree is just about the right size for me.

tree in flat building
A very small Christmas tree

What about you?  Do you have big celebrations at Christmas time with lots of presents, or is your Christmas more low-key?  Or maybe you celebrate an Orthodox Christmas in January?  Let me know your Christmas plans in the comments below.

~ Cheryl

Rescuing the Past

I’m not sure if I’ve actually rescued the past, or just delayed the inevitable demise of some photographic relics.  I think it’s the latter.

A few years ago while living in Moscow, I found myself wanting to buy all the old photos which I came across in flea markets and other places that sold second-hand things.  There were a lot of photos, even suitcases full of them sometimes.

children playing
Girls in a playground

It made me sad to think that people no longer wanted these old photos of their ancestors, family holidays, photos of their babies and children, and many other memories that should, in my opinion, stay with the family.  Instead they were for sale in second-hand markets.

How sad.

I’ve got a box of my own photos back in Australia, as well as some here with me in Bulgaria, and some I’ve left in Moscow with a friend because they couldn’t fit in my luggage when we had to leave Russia in a hurry back in March.  I hope one day that I can get all my photos back together in one place, and that my daughter will treasure them and not try to sell them in a flea market.

So, I bought some photos in Moscow, but I couldn’t buy them all because they were actually really expensive.  People were selling their old family photos, or someone else’s photos, for the same price, or actually a little bit higher, as it would cost to have them printed in a photo shop.  I just couldn’t pay that, and so with great reluctance I left a lot of them where they were.

serious girl
A very serious girl

But I did manage to buy some on a few different occasions, and I felt such joy looking through them when I got them home.  I wondered who these people were, and what their stories were, and where the photos were taken.

I wondered about their families, and I wondered why their photos were now in my possession.

family of 3
A family photo

Of course I can never know the answers to these questions.

The saddest part about this is that I had to leave them all behind when I left Moscow.  I just couldn’t take them with me, I had only one suitcase and I couldn’t even fit all my own photos in it. 

I feel like I abandoned them. 

But I did scan every single one of them, front and back (when there was something written). I hope that I will keep their memory alive by sharing some of them with you.  I’m really grateful for the technology we have to be able to scan photos and other precious mementos.  And I do look at these photos from time to time, just to keep them alive

So, here are some of my favourites. It was difficult to choose because most of them, if not all, are simply wonderful. 

I hope you like them.

woman on the beach
A day at the seaside
profile of a woman
Profile of a woman
men working outside
I don’t really know what this is – a garden?
grandma and grandson
Grandma and grandson
winter
Rugged up for winter fun
men
A get-together with the boys
girl in flowers
A girl playing in the flowers – 1984
beautiful woman
What style!
formal woman
A formal shot
happy child
Happy child – 1959
out walking women
Out walking – 1952
at lake ritza
At Lake Ritza 1957 – Озеро Рица
young boy
A gorgeous young boy – January 1954
grandma and baby
Lunch with grandma – 1959 (the baby was 1 year and 10 months old)
4 siblings
Four siblings

~ Cheryl

One Swallow does not a Summer Make

I love this quote.  So before writing this post I researched the origin of it.

In its entirety, it’s this:

One swallow does not a summer make, nor one fine day; similarly one day or brief time of happiness does not make a person entirely happy.

Aristotle (384BC – 322BC)

He might have said it one fine day in early summer, not trusting that the good weather had truly arrived and was going to stay.

But maybe not.

In any case, I love it.

My swallow tattoo

You may not know it, but back in the mid 80s when I was 19 years old, I got myself a tattoo.  I was young and rebellious, and thought that a tattoo would suit me.  So I took myself off to the tattooist and looked through his art, looking for the perfect piece.

I was a young, poor, single mother at the time, so I decided on the cheapest one in the shop.  There was no choice, I couldn’t afford anything else. 

And the cheapest one was a swallow.  I paid $20 (Australian) for it.

It looks something like this, but in colour.

It was beautiful!  So colourful!  And such a rebellious act (at the time)!  Of course these days every man and his dog have tattoos, so it’s not rebellious anymore.  I actually feel more rebellious by not having more than one tattoo, when I look at people around me who are covered in them.

Well, I don’t try to keep up with fashion, even in tattoos.  My once beautifully coloured swallow tattoo is now old and faded.  I won’t have it re-coloured to bring it back to life – I will keep it as it is, and watch it age along with me.

But over the years, this swallow has become a symbol of freedom for me.  Even if I chose it for its price, it was absolutely the right tattoo for me.  And so when people ask me what it means to me, my reply is always the same – it’s freedom. 

Legend says that for British sailors, a tattoo of a swallow was a sign of their experience.  One swallow tattoo meant he had sailed over 5000 nautical miles.  Two swallow tattoos meant over 10000 nautical miles.  Such distances were rarely achieved in the distant past, so it showed that the sailor was really an expert in his field.

Another legend says that if a sailor has a tattoo of a swallow, it will guarantee his safe return home to his family (because swallows return ‘home’ every year).

In any case, it’s a lovely and very positive tattoo to have.

Swallows in Australia

While swallows are apparently wide-spread in Australia, I don’t ever remember a time when I was able to watch them.  I don’t remember seeing them flying around or seeing their nests.  Maybe I wasn’t looking hard enough.

Swallows in Bulgaria

When we arrived in Veliko Tarnovo we were looking for a flat to rent.  We found one that we liked and when we were signing the contract the owner told us that there were some swallow nests attached to the corners of the windows, and that she could remove them if we wanted to.

Of course we said no, no need to remove them.  Let’s live with nature.  Of course, there’s a mess at the bottom of the window, as the birds don’t go to the toilet in their nests, they hang their tails over the edge and let their ‘business’ drop below.  Onto our window ledge.

Never mind, we can clean it.  It’s only bird poo.

And then when we moved into this flat, we discovered the magic of these cute little birds.

swallows in the sky
Swallows on the wires and flying above our flat

Every evening as the sun started going down, they would all fly around just in front of our balcony, catching insects.  They catch their food while flying!  It’s amazing because they fly so fast, it’s incredible that they can see the insects in the air well enough to zoom in and eat them.

swallow on the nest
A swallow at the nest

So we found ourselves standing on our balcony every evening just watching the spectacle.  And they’re so cute.  They catch insects then fly up to their nests, feeding others in their families who wait inside for dinner.

swallow flying from the nest
Can you see the two swallows here?
swallow at the nest 2
swallow at the nest

Then at the end of the feast, when the sun has almost disappeared, they all go inside one last time and then it’s quiet.

2 swallows in the nest
Two together

They all seem to follow the same schedule, so almost immediately it goes from lots of swallows flying around catching dinner, to zero.

And it all starts again the following evening.

swallow in flight

And they’re not only on our windows, but there are several nests on the building across from us, too.

swallows at the window
Opposite our balcony
swallows flying
The building across from us

I found half an eggshell on our balcony, so small and fragile.  It’s amazing to think that a little bird came out of this so small and alive.

egg
The egg compared with the size of my finger

And then one day I found this feather.  See how small it is compared with my fingernail!

feather
This feather is so cute!

Occasionally during the day we could see little heads peeking out of the nests.  Maybe they were hungry, or maybe they were just talking to their neighbours.  They make cute little noises so I guess it’s their way of communicating with each other.

swallow in the nest
Can you see the little head poking out at the top of the nest?

They’ve gone now, off to Africa for the European winter.  Or maybe to southern Spain, as I found out that some of them prefer to stay in Europe.  We’ll keep their nests on the windows, hoping that our little friends will come back next April. 

And I’ve heard that to see the first swallow of the year is regarded as a good omen, so I’ll be keeping my eyes open for them next spring.

Do you have any swallows where you live?  Or maybe there’s a different kind of bird in your neighbourhood.  Let me know your bird stories in the comments below.

~ Cheryl

Growing Things

You might have seen my post about Russian gardens.  If so, you’ll probably have understood that I love gardens and growing things.  But it’s not so easy to do it yourself, depending on the resources you have available to you.

Gardening and my family history

Both my grandfathers were into gardening. 

I don’t know much about my paternal grandfather, he died when I was 13 years old, and I didn’t spend much time with him.  But I do remember the few times we visited him when we were kids we spent some time in his garden.  I have a strong memory of picking his peas and eating them fresh off the vine.

His father, my paternal great-grandfather, had been a market gardener in Riverton (a suburb of Perth, Western Australia) in the early 1900s, and supplied vegetables to the market which was located in the centre of Perth.

great grandfather riley
My great-grandfather Riley was a market gardener

On the other hand, my maternal grandfather was much more present in my early life, and he was always interested in growing things, healthy eating, and all things related to living off the land.

He was always in the garden, tending his plants, building garden beds or planting new things – vegetables, fruit trees, berries and other delicious things. He seemed to love all living things, even the insects and bugs that ate his precious plants!

So it’s hardly surprising that I have a love of growing things.  It’s probably in my DNA.

Growing things in my early adult years

In my 20s I was lucky enough to live in houses where I had gardens and space to plant vegetables, and despite moving regularly (I’ve been a nomad all my life) I often grew vegetables and enjoyed cooking and eating them at home. 

There’s an enormous pleasure eating your own produce – if you’ve done this yourself you’ll understand exactly what I mean.  Not only are the vegetables tastier than the ones from the shop, there’s something in them that you’ve put there yourself – something like your soul, or even blood sweat and tears sometimes!

Me and a friend in my garden with a sunflower – 1990s

There were times when growing vegetables wasn’t possible.  So during those times I often had house plants.  I prefer non-flowering house plants. I like to propagate them, and I’ve sometimes done that and then gifted the new plants to friends.

The limitations I lived with in Moscow

While I lived in Moscow, in one of the apartments we lived in I tried to grow things on the balcony – some herbs along with some cherry tomatoes.  The only problem was that the balcony didn’t get much sunlight, and I had to move the plants at least 3 times during the day, every day, for them to get the maximum amount of sunlight possible. 

So, if we went on holidays, or if I was at work all day, then the plants didn’t get their normal dose of sunlight because I couldn’t move them as the sun passed overhead.  You can guess that these weren’t my most successful attempts at producing food.

They did look good for a while, though.

herbs and tomatoes moscow
The balcony herb and tomato garden in Moscow

But at other times in Moscow I focused on growing house plants – much less stress!

The future

One of my dreams for the future is to have a garden that I can nurture.  One that I can keep for years and years and grow some food for healthy eating, as well as for preserving – because that’s really fun too!

We’re currently living in a apartment, so there’s no garden in my life yet. But we do have a balcony, which gets a fair amount of sun.  So I’m taking my chance with it, even though it’s now autumn here in Bulgaria which is not the best time to start growing things. I’ve planted 6 different kinds of herbs in small pots.

6 planters

So far, three of them have started to sprout (I planted them about a week or so ago). I’m hoping that in the next week I’ll see the rest of them poke their little green leaves through the soil.

Here’s the basil!

basil sprouting
Lots of little basil plants sprouting

Using food scraps to grow more food

I’m also trying to extend the life of supermarket produce, by using the food ‘scraps’.  My first experiment is using green onions (known as spring onions in Australia).  I’ve just cut the white bottoms off (using the green stalks in cooking or salads), and put them in a glass of water with some cotton wool in the bottom. 

All I have to do is make sure the water level doesn’t drop too much, and the onions will continue to grow the green stalks which I can cut off and use in the kitchen.  And they just keep regrowing when you cut them!

There are some great Youtube videos about how to use the vegetable scraps from your kitchen instead of throwing them out.  And when I get out of the apartment and into a house with a garden, I’ll be trying some other ways to extend my vegetable scraps and hopefully end up with a no-waste kitchen.

What have you been doing in the garden recently?  Do you grow fruit, vegetables and berries, or are you more of a flower gardener?  Or maybe you have some tips for those living in an apartment who are limited by having only a balcony.  Let us all know in the comment section below.

~ Cheryl  

The Eco Trail – Veliko Tarnovo, Bulgaria

(Just a little advanced warning.  There are photos of insects in this post.  There are NO spiders, just insects.  So if you’re afraid of strange and exotic insects, then this post may not be the best place for you.)

Most people I know would probably describe me as a city girl.  After all, I’ve just spent the past 10+ years living in Moscow, Russia, which has an official population of just under 13 million.  And every day people commute from the Moscow outer region for work, which can increase the daily, work day, population by a lot more.

I loved living in Moscow!  I loved the 24 hour life there.  Being able to go to the supermarket on your way home at any time of the night or day made life so easy.  Life in a big city can be hard for some, but for me it was a huge pleasure. 

Even the crowded Moscow metro was a thrill to ride (maybe because I wasn’t travelling in it every day to work and back at peak hour).

My early years

But, did you know that I spent some of my formative years growing up in the Australian bush?  At the age of 11 and 12 we lived on some land (50 acres if my memory serves me well) in the middle of the bush.  Our nearest neighbours were a couple of kilometres away.  I took the school bus to get to the nearest town, Gingin, to go to school (about a 20-30 minutes ride, picking up more kids along the way).

We rode horses, made cubby houses in the bush, tried not to get bitten by snakes or red-back spiders, collected and chopped wood for heating, cooking, and hot water making.  It was a kind of adventure playground for me and my brothers and sisters.

At 13 we moved to the city, but not for long.

When I was 15-16 we moved back again to the same place in the bush, after having spent the previous 2 years living in Perth (the capital city of the state of Western Australia).  Living in the isolated bush was a lot less fun at the age of 15 than it was at 11!

And, some years later, at the age of 20-22, I lived in a country town, Albany, in the south of Western Australia.  Although I lived in the town and not in the middle of the bush, as I had done as a teenager, I still had a small vegetable garden, and I had to chop wood for the only source of heat in the house – the open fire in the living room.

While I lived in Albany I often visited my grandparents, who lived in a nearby town, about 50 kms away.  They had a lot of land, with gardens, vegetables, and fruit trees, and they lived a life very conscious and respectful of nature and the world around us.

So, you can see, I have had some experience of country life, although the last 30 years of my life have more or less been city dwelling ones.

Veliko Tarnovo – Bulgaria

I told you in my last post that we’d arrived in Veliko Tarnovo, Bulgaria, in order to start a new life, after our lives were disrupted by the dramas of 2020.  So here we are in a reasonably small town (compared to Moscow!) with a population of just under 70 000. 

The centre of Veliko Tarnovo

In VT (as it’s known as) there are shops, restaurants and cafes, bars, estate agents, mobile phone shops, and all the other kinds of businesses that you’d imagine to be in a town of this size.  So living here is pretty convenient, even if it’s not a 24 hour big city we can get what we need most of the time – just not at 3am.

And I’m happy to be living so close to so much nature!  All around us are tree covered hills and it’s amazing to see this when we’re standing on a piece of high ground somewhere in the town.

View of the hills from near our street

But I wasn’t ready for my reaction the other day when we took a walk down a path just a few minutes from our home.

The Eco Trail

We’ve made a couple of new friends here (they’re Bulgarian), and they live in our street, so they know all about the local area. Last week they told us about a nearby trail that leads to a waterfall. 

This week Olivier and I decided to find it.  So off we went down the street until we found a rocky trail leading into bushes and trees.

At first it started out as gardens. No houses, just gardens with wire fences around them.  There were about 5 or 6 gardens and they were all different.  Some of them were well looked after, others not so well.

garden
Tomatoes and peppers growing in one of the gardens

In one garden was an old man sitting by himself on a chair under a tree, with a bottle of beer on the small table next to him, listening to very loud opera.  His bicycle was leaning against the fence, waiting for him to finish in his garden and head home again. 

We didn’t disturb him but I’d really love to find out what his story is.

gate
A gate leading to one of the gardens

As we continued along the trail, nature changed a bit.  In some places it was quite dry, in others it was wet and almost muddy.

trail 2
This part of the trail was cool and the air was humid
desert
And then it turned into this, almost like a desert in comparison

We crossed a small stream at one point.  And we also came across this water ‘trough’ – I don’t know what else to call it.  The water coming from the pipe was so cold and had no smell, so I guess it’s really pure.

water trough
water pipe

There was a picnic table right next to this water supply.

picnic area

The smell in the air was amazing!  It reminded me of the smells at my grandparents’ place.  Just nature – earth, leaves, water, wood.  I couldn’t stop taking in deep breaths just to get it into my lungs, I enjoyed it so much I didn’t want to leave.

Just keep walking

We walked and walked, and along the way we came across so many wonderful living things!   Not only plants (berries, roses, and other wonderful green things) but animals, like insects I’ve never seen before, and many different coloured butterflies. 

I was really like a child in wonder at the world.  It’s been a long time since I’ve felt so good, I really felt emotional looking around me at everything and breathing in the fresh air. 

After walking for about an hour, we came across some guys on motorbikes.  We had heard them earlier, and we finally saw them as they came towards us on the trail.

view
See the hills through the trees

At that point the trail had started going down the hill, so we decided that we should turn around and go back the way we came, because going down always means going up again (and I’d prefer not to walk up the hill!).

So we let the motorbikes pass us, and we turned around and headed back towards home. 

cliff
A cliff in the distance

The waterfall

On the way we’d noticed a small path that deviated to the left, and we decided to take it on the way back.  And it was a good idea, because here was the waterfall we’d been told about.

It was a lot smaller than we expected, but it was beautiful.

water fall

There was a small wooden bridge that looked like it might have been strong enough to walk across, but we didn’t take the risk.  Maybe next time.

bridge

And the other beautiful thing was that there’s a picnic table right there near the waterfall, and there were two young girls (teenagers) sitting there, with a lot of food, with two dogs, just talking to each other, enjoying the weather and the beautiful location.

And not a mobile phone in sight.

The critters

Here’s a sample of the wildlife we came across during our walk on the eco trail. 

This snail was huge!  I’ve never seen a snail this big in real life before.  I put my pen down next to him to show you his size.  I looked around but I didn’t see any of his family or friends, he was completely alone.  We left him on the trail, and I hope that the motorbikes didn’t run over him.

snail

I don’t know what this insect is, but he was very intimidating!  Estimated length including the head (not including the antennae) is about 4cm. 

bug

Then there was this beautiful creature on the trail, which I think is a ‘mint beetle’ (someone please tell me if I’m wrong!).

green beetle
A mint beetle digging on the trail

And these two look like ladybirds without spots. It looks like they’re reproducing, which is a very good sign for the future of the world!

ladybirds

And some other random insects, who coincidentally are both black and orange.

black orange bug
Black and orange stripes
orange bug
An orange and black insect with strange markings

And some lizards enjoying life on a rock.

lizard
Lizards sunning on a rock

The plants

I’m not really an expert with names of plants, especially when I’m in a country that has plants that I’ve never seen before.  So I’ll just leave these here for you to enjoy.  If anyone wants to let me know what they’re called I’ll update the photo with their names.

red flower
An unusual plant
white flowers
Beautiful white and grey flowers
blackberry
Wild blackberries
orange cape gooseberry
An orange Cape Gooseberry growing in the wild

And some orange/yellow lichen for you.

lichen
Brightly coloured lichen

So that was our two hour walk on the eco trail this week.  As you can see, I really enjoyed it!

Actually, it was more than enjoyment.  It was like nature touched my soul again for the first time in a long time.

I’m sure we’ll be taking this trail again and again in the future, as long as we live in this street.

Do you have any beautiful walking trails where you live?  What emotions do you get when you’re surrounded by nature? 

~ Cheryl