Looking back

The fair in Popovo (BG) at the beginning of June

It is now a bit more than a year since I started living here in Bulgaria, after having left Belgium a bit discouraged. Or maybe also a bit disgusted by that country and its citizens. The acidification of society, the corruption of politics, the almost non-existent justice (except for the rich), the disproportional taxes.. All these factors, and then some, made me decide to leave that country and look for peace and rest in a corner of the European Union. Not that politicians are not corrupt here, but at least I don’t have to spend more than half of my income sponsoring their secret schemes anymore.

But today I started asking myself if this was a good decision I made, if Bulgaria really gave me what I expected from it. And I think I can say I’m still happy with my decision. Of course nothing is black or white, but adding everything together I found what I was looking for. Some things I really do miss, some I really don’t. Maybe the big difference with other people is that I never really grew up in Belgium, nor have I lived long in the same country nor region. I moved over 20 times in my life, and most of the moves were to completely different regions or countries, sometimes separated by hundreds of miles. So I didn’t grow those roots most people seem to have, nor do I have an allegiance to death with any country, despite having served the Belgian armed forces dutifully during seven years of my life.

Waterfall along the eco-trail near Emen (BG)

Bulgaria has been very welcoming for me. In the beginning I was surrounded by wrong people, luring expats into their money-making maffia-practices, but once I managed to get rid of those people I got submerged in the Bulgarian culture. Most credits should be given to Emo, my neighbour who offered his services as builder once I threw out the whole maffia-gang. As we grew closer by working together, we became friends and he became my window on Bulgaria. Of course there is also Yoana, the woman who works on the administrative side for expats who hire her for her outstanding services, and whom I also befriended. Someone like her is invaluable in a country which not only speaks a difficult language, but also writes in a different alphabet.

Since the very first day the language has been the biggest obstacle to surmount, and it still is hampering my efforts to build an extensive social life here. People mastering the English (or French, German, Spanish) language are rare over here, but maybe that is an advantage pushing me to learn the language faster. Now I manage to express my wants, but I’m still a long way of being able to have an intimate conversation about feelings, and that makes me sometimes a bit sad as this is the main (and only I guess) way to really connect with people. After a long search I found someone to teach me Bulgarian (and does speak the English language well), but it is not an easy language to learn.

My neighbor playing on my guitar in front of my trailer :)
My neighbor playing guitar.

What provides me the most happiness is the peace and the silence. No cars racing by, no planes flying overhead, no trains thundering by. Just the sounds of people walking on the street, the voices of people sitting on a bench beside the wall at the gate of my property under the shade of a big tree, the animals grazing around between the houses, the occasional cart with horse passing by, and sometimes the Bulgarian or Turkish music from a stereo a few houses away when the people are happy. Of course there is a car passing my house once in a while, but no more than 4 on a busy day, and in the season there is an old Russian biplane with a star engine making a deep growling noise maneuvering over the village to spray the crops in the huge fields, but this sound is rather welcoming as it is rather seldom. Nature over here is uplifting for me, and the notion I can go anywhere, without fences, private properties or prohibited areas and knowing that whomever I shall meet will be friendly and hospitable is heartwarming. On the premise I can make myself understandable of course ?

Slowly I start to attune to the rhythm of nature, and though I never had green fingers, I start to work in my garden more often, reaping the fruits trees and plants freely offer me. I prune trees and vines as if I was a semi-pro, and harvest the strawberries and cherries that are waiting to be picked this month. These I cook and then dry the jam-like substance in my dehydrator to preserve the abundant quantities for later on in the year. I try to keep on schedule for once the cherries and strawberries are gone the raspberries, apples, pears, plums, apricots, grapes and peaches will grow ripe and then I fear I will have to work day and night to process the vast quantities nature freely offers me.

A very old cemetery.. (BG)

My decision to buy a motorcycle with off-road capabilities was a good one. It enables me to recon the area, and reach places I never would have visited with my car. Just driving around in a car with no specific goal, turning around when something catches my attention, engaging a dirt road trough the fields and woods, is no thing I would have done, but the motorcycle lets me do all that when I drive around at leisure with no specific goal other than enjoying myself and discovering new places. My motorcycle reinforces my feeling of uninhibited freedom this country offers me.

The downside is I did not manage to convince my family and friends to move over here ?. So I do miss them, and being able to see them from time to time via FaceTime or Skype is reassuring. And of course I travel to Belgium regularly, as the people I do love with all of my heart are living there. Often someone drops by on a visit, and the last weeks my neighbor and his son-in-law were busy rebuilding my guesthouse next to my house. That will eliminate the need to shelter my guests in my trailer, as luxurious as it is, but a house feels more comfortable and cosy. Once ready it will have its own toilet and shower, a little kitchen and a living room. And the two houses are connected via the half-basement which functions as my huge living room, so even on cold or rainy days there is no need to go outside to meet. Due to the thick walls in sandstone and clay the temperatures are reasonable indoors during the hot summers. Down in the half-basement the temperature is always pleasing: warm in winter, fresh during summer. That is why I made it my living room, with a soon-to-be built rocket mass heater for heating the house in the cold winter days.

Storks are omnipresent (BG)

Most of all I miss my partner. She is a courageous and superb woman, often having to handle the problems she encounters by herself due to my frequent absence. Sometimes that makes me feel guilty. And of course lots of people do not understand the symbiosis between us, as we are not living the ‘standard’ life a couple is supposed to live by general standards. But we are happy, and we manage, and there is no ‘standard’ way a couple should behave, it is all about agreement between two people. Some have an open marriage, some have a conservative relationship, some live apart together, some cannot spend a minute without each other.. Whatever works and makes these two people happy, and it is no one else’s business. But I do miss her ? And we often travel to see each other. She likes it here, and I try to like it in Belgium.

Church in a little monastery near Veliko Tarnovo (BG)

Little by little I get to know more and more local people, I get invited to parties and celebrations, and so my horizon is expanding and I get immersed in the Bulgarian culture. I have no doubts about staying here, just the evolution of civilization worries me a bit, and I fear it will catch up with the Bulgarian countryside in a few decades. But I might not be in this world any more by then, so there is no reason to worry about that yet. And if it happens and starts to bother me, I just might move on to a further place.

Love ❤️, yann.

Rocket mass heater

rocket mass heater by Ernie and Erica Wisner

During months I have done research on the internet. Most Bulgarians heat their homes – even apartments – with wood stoves. Unnecessary to say this causes a lot of pollution, taking into account that the output of the used stoves does not surpass 20%. That means that 80% of the energy present in each woodblock is just spewed out of the chimney without being used to warm the house.

The amount of pollution created by those thousands upon thousands of stoves is unimaginable. Next to that is the fact that wood is fairly expensive, taking up almost half of the income of the average Bulgarian during winter time.

My first thoughts were to improve the output of these stoves by soldering extra metal parts on the stoves to improve the airflow, so to reach a more complete combustion. That would have been a cheap alternative, but unfortunately the possible gains were too low to consider this option.

Pellet stoves are, due to the high purchasing cost, not worthy to take into consideration as a solution for the common people, next to the fact that pellets cost almost as much as wood over here.

So I ended up reading about ‘rocket mass heaters’. It was, I guess, the name that made me take a second look at the possibility, even if I could not imagine these kind of heaters would be a solution, for I am no rocket scientist. But every man, or almost every man, has some fascination for rockets. So, reading on, I found out it just got it’s strange name because the stove makes a sound just like a rocket when burning.

Because it burns fiercely. When operating and well fed with small branches of wood, the temperature in the secondary combustion chamber can reach up to 1000°C! ?

So last week, after having searched all over the nearby towns, I finally found heat-resistant bricks needed for the primary and secondary combustion chamber. I built a prototype in my yard to test out if the measurements I used for the thing were working as they should. My worker, a guy from the neighborhood who works for me, rebuilding my house and garden, looked at me if I was crazy. In his opinion that thing never would work because it went against all intuition.

I lit it, and after having released a bit of smoke the prototype started making it’s rocket-sound. The flames were sucked inside into the primary and secondary combustion chambers, and the inverted barrel sitting on top of the construction started to heat up really fast. I was in total amazement when only steam came out of the exhaust. It just had a vague smell of smoke, but just faintly.

When the weather starts to improve here we are going to build this rocket-thing in my living room. In the design I imagined in my head there will be a seat like a reclining chair that follows the contours of the body, so people can lay down reading a book with a warm back. Since the material to be used around the stove is adobe all imaginable designs are possible. Inside it run the exhaust pipes which end up in the chimney, heating along their way the surrounding adobe. On the other side of the barrel I will make a bench where a few people can take a seat to heat up their bums and feet.

The big mass of adobe heats up slowly, while the inverted barrel immediately heats up the room just like a classic stove. After a few hours of having made the stove work the adobe slowly gives off the heat that was stored inside it. That way it keeps heating the room more than 24 hours after the fire got killed.

Finally the chimney lets the gasses out, but since all energy has been used to be stored in the adobe, the exhaust is no warmer than 30° to 40°C. Other than water (dry wood has about 20% water in it) and CO₂, along with some chemical elements in wood that cannot be burned (similar to classic stoves), there is no smoke, and pollution is reduced to a minimum.

Since the stove uses between 1/8th and 1/10th of the wood used for a classical stove (the output is around 90%), this will be a huge money saver. Combined with the huge reduction in pollution this is just a win-win situation for both man and nature.

Some locals have already expressed their interest for this project, and if all works well at my place I guess I will help them build one for their homes so they and the environment can benefit from this wonderful (but very ancient) technique. The cost of building a rocket mass heater would be less than 100€, which is much less than the price for a new wood stove as they have them here.

So wish me – and especially my rocket mass heater – success!

The prototype in my yard. Only steam comes out with a very faint smell of smoke. The definitive construction in my house will also have an exhaust and lots of adobe to store the heat. ©yannbastiaans


Take care,

Love ❤️