Having spent a little time at my mum's house over Christmas I was reacquainted with some of the more curious behavioural quirks of our island nation. And so - a little nostalgically perhaps - I thought I would indulge in one of the great British pastimes, that is, discussing the weather. It's our first winter out here in Bulgaria. We are currently experiencing the coldest weather in the country and of this winter so far, a minute (or mighty?) -18°C, and needless to say we are keeping our outdoor trips to a minimum (random trivia: did you know that diesel begins to solidify at -9.5°C?). We have had an apparently unusual time so far; the first snow was somewhere at the end of November and continued until we went back to the UK just before Christmas. Then we checked the news just after Christmas and it was hitting +18°C in most parts of the country! All the snow had melted and we were very jealous. The day we arrived back in mid-January it started snowing again - boo! But it's not all gloom and staying indoors - it is absolutely stunning when the sun comes out and illuminates the frozen branches of the trees. It's perfect photo-taking weather.
Weather forecasts here are a bit more predictable than in the UK - if you are from the UK you will be familiar with the concept of treating the weather reporters with a certain amount of disdain. Most members of the public would concede that it's not actually the weatherman's fault that you can't believe what he says, but you can't believe what he says nonetheless. Over here on mainland Europe, Tom and I are slowly forming a relationship of trust with that queer breed. They have certainly been invaluable to us during the coldest period of the year... which leads me on to some tips for enduring the cold winters here.
From about mid-November, snow is very likely to occur. We checked out the annual average temperatures and precipitation in the upcoming months: this will give a rough idea of what is in store in any specific area, but of course the average is rarely the reality of things as we experienced this year. It has been known to snow in Northern Bulgaria before mid-November, and by January it is pretty much a certainty that there will be a foot of snow. This cold weather endures for a month or two before the snow melts, so it is really worth stocking up on staples. I have about 8kg of flour, 10 litres of milk, a kg of butter and sugar (because I need cake), plenty of beans and pulses and fruit and veg. A chest freezer is a great idea in this kind of weather, because you can freeze just about anything (even milk, as my mum does; she lives in Hampshire though so it's not really necessary - I think she just hates shopping). Another good reason to stock up early is that stocks of even basics such as milk and bread are really dwindling in local shops; at least that has been our experience lately.
So you're stocked up on food, great! How about water? It is worth getting tens of litres of water in bottles in case the pipes freeze up. Well, the actual recommended quantity is difficult to give and I don't want to be responsible for giving a specific figure, so you are better off speaking to locals to see what their experience is, as water services and pipe runs will differ. If you have a direct-fed boiler (i.e. you don't have a storage tank) you can always dip into this as it is basically mains hot water, but drinking repeatedly boiled water as is what may be in your boiler is generally not a good idea. You can do your best to prevent pipes within your home from freezing by lagging them with whatever insulating material you can find. Unless you are confident at plumbing and have the tools and the materials, you will be very hard pressed to find someone to fix it in the deep winter. As residents will know, nothing much happens in these months.
Anyone who was in the UK over December and January has seen how unprepared the ordinary motor vehicle is in the snow, especially when the roads have not been gritted. Purchasing a set of snow tyres is a big investment in the UK, costing upwards of £1000, a cost that most people would not bother to foot as snow is a relatively rare occurrence. However it occupying a significant chunk of the year in Bulgaria really necessitates their purchase, and you will find that it is considerably cheaper here. We paid about 125 leva per tyre and this was expensive as we have a van so the tyres are bigger - we saw tyres in the hypermarket for 60 leva each, so it would cost you 240 leva in total for an ordinary car (and you really need to get all four, contrary to what you might think!). Not a big investment. Most small roads in Bulgaria may take a week or two to be ploughed (usually by the local authorities), so you may have to go out with a snow shovel to get to the main road, or use buses to get to the local town if you are really out in the sticks and need to get out in an emergency. Okay, you'll probably have to go out with a snow shovel in any case, so this is another essential investment. Even once the roads have been ploughed, there will still be a layer of compacted snow which will make driving tricky - grit is only really reserved for towns and large roads. If you are inexperienced in the snow, even if you have four wheel drive, you will still find it difficult so be sure to read Tom's guide to driving in the snow. Needless to say, if you don't absolutely have to go out, don't!
If you do end up driving in minus temperatures, be sure to take supplies in the car. We have had a snow shovel, double duvet, water, torches, means to make fire and food in there since November. Breaking down around minus 20°C is not an attractive prospect no matter how well prepared you are, but you can at least survive the night if you have to. Even if you do have your mobile phone, it might be a while before someone can come to help you.
Most people have wood-burning stoves as do we; we also have a couple of oil radiators. Having a wood stove means getting plenty of wood and preparing it in advance - this means buying it at the latest during the summer (the longer you leave it the more expensive it will be) and allowing it to season in time for when you require it. Winters here are anything but simply surviving, as long as you are well prepared and your house is well-equipped with all the necessary creature comforts to keep you happy and to prevent some serious cabin fever!