This blog is supposed to be all about Bulgaria, but for five years we were in Shenzhen, in southern China. That is the reason for the weird title, "Bulgaria with Noodles". In June of 2018, Irena and I left China and retired to Bulgaria, to our villa 60km north of Sofia and to our apartment in Veliko Tarnovo. This blog is really all about some comparisons and contrasts between China and Bulgaria, two very different countries.
How about Easy Peasy Brain Surgery?
came to China, I bought lots of books and other resources, in order to learn
some Mandarin. After all, I had learned French and Latin at school, then Greek
and Hebrew at university. Marrying a Russian lady meant trying to learn at
least a little Russian, while buying a house and an apartment in Bulgaria has
meant that I have even learned some Bulgarian phrases. “So Mandarin is not
going to be too tough!” I thought. Yeah, well, we all make mistakes.
much, much harder for a westerner to learn than any of the other languages I
have come across. There are just no points of contact, zilch similarities. If you
know English, then German and French are not so difficult because there are so
many German and French words that have found their way into English. Mandarin,
however, is not like that. For a start,
there are no singulars and plurals in Mandarin. You have to guess from the
context. Then there are the tones. No, I am not talking about the delicate
shades for your bedroom’s colour scheme. “Tones” means the different ways of
saying the same word, so that it has different meanings. For example, the word Ma can mean four different things,
depending on the tone, and only one of them is the lady who is married to your
Dad. Furthermore, a word can even change its meaning (a sort of verbal
chameleon) if it comes at the beginning, the middle or the end of the sentence.
For example, Ma becomes a “question
word” at the end of the sentence.
A metaphor for Mandarin?
languages have alphabets, but Mandarin does not. Instead, there are
“characters”, little symbols or pictures that each have their own meaning. In
order to read a Chinese newspaper, you need to know about 4,000 different
characters and some experts have estimated that there may be as many as 40,000
separate written characters, although some of them are very rare and hardly
ever used. Written Mandarin does look rather elegant, I must say, and the
Chinese people have great respect for calligraphy, as writing in these weird
and wonderful symbols is really an art form.
All of these
problems mean that Mandarin is a horribly difficult language to learn, the
linguistic equivalent of the Great Wall of China. Wanting to make things a bit
easier for tongue-tied laowai
(foreigners), the Chinese people invented something called Pinyin. This is
Mandarin, but with English letters. Even though Pinyin is supposed to be really
helpful, in reality it isn’t. Books are not printed in Pinyin. It is a bit like
Esperanto, as it seemed to be such a good idea and it does actually not work. If you try
to read a phrase in Pinyin to most Mandarin speakers, they probably will not
understand what you are trying to say. If you go to Shanghai or Hong Kong, then they will not speak Mandarin anyway!
So what does a linguistically-challenged laowai do? Help is
usually at hand, in the form of an English-speaking Chinese friend or an app on
your mobile. In the supermarket, a little old lady will take your arm and try
to help you, even though she does not know what it is that you want to buy. If you are a foreign teacher, then you will probably have your own Miss Yanee. The
strange (and in many ways charming) thing is that the Chinese people are so
patient, helpful and friendly to strangers in their country that not being able
to speak Mandarin is rarely a problem.
Yes, a few determined westerners really
do manage to leap over this linguistic hurdle and somehow become fluent
Mandarin speakers, even though they probably will still struggle with the
written language. For them, learning the lingo must truly be a
really enjoy going back to England any more. Last year it was RTD’s memorial
service and last month I went back to try to sort out what to do with my lump
sum from the Teachers’ Pension Scheme.
Well, why don’t I enjoy going back to my
own country? First of all, I think that it is because I just do not belong
there. Bulgaria is my home and therefore, more and more, I feel that my roots
are in my adopted country. Bulgaria is “home” now. Secondly, there are the
practical issues of going back, as I have no place of my own in the UK, no car,
no nothing. My old friend Peter Adams was very hospitable, as usual, and we
certainly enjoyed some splendid scoffing: lots of roast beef, roast potatoes,
Yorkshire pud and all the trimmings! This was then followed up with the
inevitable crumble and custard. Then we also had a good lunch with Peter’s mum
(fish and chips), followed by a delicious Chinese meal. But food leads on to my
next anti-British moan: the outrageous cost of just about every…
Even though we left Qatar more than five years ago, many teachers still contact me through the TES and ask me what it is like to teach there. Hi Hippo
I hope you don't mind me pre-emptively sending you a conversation about my job
GEMS Wellington Qatar have offered 13.5k which I think is reasonable for three
years' experience qualified (five including unqualified experience).
However, they are not offering medical insurance for my family nor are they
covering flights for them. At the interview, the Director intimated that my
family might even have to stay here in the UK while stuff like permits got
sorted out. My gut instinct tells me not to accept the offer as a result.
Also, I've heard Qataris can be quite racist towards non-white people. How true
is this? I've always fought against this sort of thing in the UK as an Asian
man and don't want any trouble when I go out to work.
Is the cost of living higher than Dubai or London? Obviously, I'd not have to
In many ways Veliko Tarnovo, also known as V.T., is a much nicer city than Sofia. It is smaller, less polluted and the traffic is nowhere near as bad as it is in the capital. Every year, we go and spend a week or so in our apartment in Veliko Tarnovo. For I don't know how long, Irena and I have been saying, "When you retire, we will move in V.T. and that is where we will spend the winter, as it won't be much fun spending the winter in Kalotina." The main problem with this plan is that we have not retired yet. Well, I was retired for six months, but then I started working again and now we have started to put down roots in Sofia, not in V.T. This trip to V.T. was rather different, as it was dominated by the presence of Tina. Yes, it was a lot of fun to have her delightful company, but she was also seriously ill. Several trips to the Vet were needed, along with quite a few injections and a course of antibiotics. First she was vomiting and had bad diarroheia, followed by …