Well…not quite. But I am sort of there, in a place where old-fashioned ways are alive and positively thriving. Where the stars shine blindingly bright at night, and the quiet is so pervasive you can hear your brain cells working.
Do I like it? In general – not that much. Not that I mind the clear night sky, the stars and the quiet. Still, I’m not a village person at heart. I’m also not a big city girl. I gravitate towards the middle ground, so I feel happy in the town where I currently live. It’s modest in size, and you get all the conveniences of modern life minus the crowds, the traffic jams, the overwhelming distances and the general feeling of isolation we associate with big cities.
But this place where I’m at right now…It’s special for me. This is where I spent the best summer of my life. My heart still aches when I remember those days. It’s partly because the person who kept me company all those years ago is dead. It was my grandma, who needed constant care because of her poor health. The two of us spent three months here, with family members visiting once a week or so. I was essentially tasked with looking after her, but I think I got the better deal.
A quarter of a century later, I’m back here, all by myself this time. The assignment: housesit for my parents. Oh, I think I forgot to mention this. Yes, the house belongs to my parents, who are in Italy right now. Being a freelancer, I have no problem packing and relocating temporarily. As long as I have an Internet connection, I can work anywhere. Lucky for my parents, I guess.
I should explain a couple of things. I’m not a people person. That said, I’m not some rude cow who delights in insulting people and behaving like a jerk in general. No, I have proper manners, and I’m perfectly civil to strangers. It’s just that I’ve always been a reserved person, and I don’t make friends easily. I am quite content to spend time alone, and I never get bored.
This peek into my character has a point. It’s meant to tell you that I don’t mind being here alone. In fact, I relish it. I just miss my cats, but I have made friends with two local felines. There are other animals around, and I’ll tell you more about them in a minute. As I write this, one of the kitties is sleeping in my bed. It must have come through the window last night because I woke up with it curled at my feet.
I’m not telling you the name of the place because it won’t mean anything to you. Administratively speaking, it’s not a village. It was declared a town in 1984, but that’s just a label — this is a village in every sense of the word. It’s very modest in size. I think it only has two blocks of flats, and those are four or five stories high. The rest of the population live in houses. They all have vegetable gardens, animals in their barns, and hens and roosters roaming in the yards. Each house has at least one guard dog and horse-drawn carts traverse the streets. People here make their own wine and hard liquor, as is the case in every Bulgarian village and out-of-the-way town.
And you never have privacy in such places, not really. Sometimes it’s annoying. Other times, you can’t help but marvel at the bond people have. You get folks dropping by every day, sometimes several times a day, to check up on you. They bring you produce, ask how you’re doing, and offer to take care of this and that in the yard. You look at them and think, “I wish they’d leave me alone!” Then they go away, and you actually start feeling happy that you matter enough to these people, who are essentially strangers.
You know what I smell of right now? Donkey shit. No, I’m not joking. About an hour ago, I was shovelling donkey shit. My father has one of these animals. A friend of his takes her out in the morning, ties her somewhere (no idea where) to graze and brings her back in the evening. There is also a massive dog, another girl, who I rely on to guard me at night. The donkey is called Marussya, which seems to be a very popular name for her kind around these parts. The dog is Maya. The cats have no names, so I just call them all Kittie. Two are constantly around, and a few others pass through every day, mostly to get fed.
Almost three decades ago, I had my grandma for company here. Now it’s these animals. Over the years, the village has changed. Not in its essence, though, just some physical upgrades. It’s cleaner, the centre has been spruced up, and some nice shops have cropped up.
But you can still sense that the spirit of the place has remained intact. I like that. I couldn’t live here all the time, no way. Still, I’m blissfully happy right now. More important than the preserved spirit of the place is the spirit of the past I can feel. My own past. A time when I felt useful and needed because a frail human being depended on me. A time when the peace and quiet of this place were a welcome respite. A time when I was truly happy.
As melodramatic as it may sound, it feels as if traces of my past happiness still linger here. I walk around the yard at dusk, and it’s as if no time at all has passed – I’m young, beautiful, free and full of hope. I look up at the clear, starry sky at night, and it overwhelms me in a good way. And I can’t help but think that we really don’t need much to be happy. As long as we’re open to it, happiness will find us anywhere.
I’ll leave this place in a few days. When I visit my parents, it doesn’t feel the same. It’s not my place then; it’s theirs, and I’m just a guest. However, I’ll keep hoping that my future holds more of these solitary retreats. Maybe I won’t have to wait for another 26 years before it happens again…
I tend to improvise a lot when cooking. I also go with my gut where quantities are concerned. That’s not to say I go completely rogue, but I generally use the amounts provided in recipes as more of a guideline than gospel.
What I just said does have a point, I promise. I’ll give you the recipe for a meal I cooked today and I must say it’s the tastiest thing to emerge from my kitchen in perhaps five years! Absolutely, insanely, indescribably delicious! I didn’t come up with the recipe. I’m not really an original in the kitchen; my creativity begins and ends with adding or removing ingredients and sometimes tweaking the serving suggestions.
I found this recipe on a website where I usually go for culinary inspiration or just an idea for a quick dinner. However, it’s a Bulgarian portal. Google Translate might be of some help but be prepared for quite a bit of guesswork and occasional examples of the ridiculous. In this particular case, you’ll get my help along with my personal choice for execution. Let me just repeat what I said in the beginning: I don’t deal with exact quantities so you might want to take a peek at the original recipe if you’re a stickler for such things.
So, what are we talking about here? It’s essentially chicken with vegetables and a scrumptious sauce.
1) The veggie mixture
I chose baby potatoes, carrots, sweet corn and broccoli. If I had any say in it, governments would pass a law making broccoli mandatory for daily intake! When I die, I want broccoli wreaths on my grave!
But back to the task at hand. Pick your favorite veggies and stir-fry them. I think I had about 450g of baby potatoes, two carrots, canned sweet corn (about 420g) and a head of broccoli weighing just under half a kilo.
I began with the potatoes as they require a bit longer to cook. Then in went the carrots, and the corn and broccoli joined towards the end. I like my broccoli crunchy, but if you prefer it well-cooked, you can add it earlier. Just a few pinches of salt here, nothing else. When the veggies are cooked, remove the pot, set it aside and get cracking on the chicken.
2) The chicken part
I had about 400g of chicken breast, but you can put as much as you want. Still, keep it reasonable: more than 600-700g would be overkill.
You can cut the meat into strips (as the original recipe suggests) or into mid-sized chunks, I don’t think it really matters. Season the pieces with a little salt and pepper. I recently bought one of those grinders that come with a mixture of peppercorns: black, white, red, green, some other color may have been inside as well, I’m not sure. So I used that on the meat. Then you just throw it in a pan and fry it until ready. Put this one aside too and start on the sauce.
3) The saucy bit
I suspect that my choice of this recipe had much to do with blue cheese being among the ingredients. Love, love, love it! But if you don’t, there’s no reason to give up on this dish. You can substitute blue cheese for another kind. Just make sure it’s some kind that will melt in water.
So, you need a piece of blue cheese and a small carton of sour cream. I had 100g and 200g, respectively. Pour about 150-200ml of water into a pan and bring it to a boil. It’s best to have the blue cheese mashed with a fork before you add it to the boiling water because it will melt faster. When it’s melted, add the sour cream and keep stirring until you get a smooth mixture. That should take less than five minutes.
And now you have all the parts ready! The original recipe calls for mixing the chicken and the sauce and serving it with the veggies on the side. However, I chose to mix all of them together in the pot where I’d cooked the vegetables. And I ended up with this:
Is it any good? Well, let me put it this way: I nearly burst into tears when I tasted it! Tears of joy and pride, of course. The same thing happened a couple of years ago, when I tried my hand at another dish. I’ve since experimented a bit with it and made it even better (at least I think so) but I’ll tell you about it another time.
I really hope you give this recipe a try. It doesn’t take long to cook: depending on the vegetables you choose, it will be 30 to 40 minutes in all. If broccoli and blue cheese are things you love, you’ll be sobbing after your first bite. If not, you can pick veggies that you like and some other cheese and still end up with a mouth-watering meal. I believe that’s the secret of good cooking: take an idea and give it your own treatment!
D’you love beer? You do?! Great, because I definitely love the stuff. OK, that’s settled then. Now the question is whether we love it enough to get adventurous to the point where we let piss into our beer mugs.
That didn’t come out quite right. I’m not saying we sample beer that contains piss. But how about beer whose production involves using human urine to fertilise the malting barley? Now that’s sustainability for you!
Maybe it’s not surprising that the idea originates in Denmark: that country gets a lot of piss! One thing it’s famous for, at least among music lovers, is the Roskilde festival. It’s the largest in Northern Europe and its 2015 edition supplied 50,000 litres of urine for Norrebro Bryghus to use. As reported by Reuters, the Danish microbrewery put this sea of human waste to interesting work: the piss served as fertiliser for the malting barley that ultimately delivered around 60,000 bottles of beer.
Norrebro Bryghus has dubbed its novelty brew “Pisner.” No great mystery here: piss and pilsner give you Pisner. Denmark’s Agriculture and Food Council is behind this idea and has already come up with a term for the concept: beercycling.
In case you’re worried the brew carries any whiff of pee-pee, Anders Sjogren can put your mind at rest. He is entitled to provide feedback as his excreta contributed to production: Sjogren was among the attendees of the 2015 Roskilde festival. Anyway, Reuters cited him as saying this:
“If it had tasted even a bit like urine, I would put it down, but you don’t even notice.”
It could be because I’m inexorably moving towards senior citizen status that childhood memories seem to become clearer and dearer. Sometimes, I suddenly remember things buried so deeply in my mind that I feel a jolt when they break through the veil of oblivion.
There are, however, events and people that time never coats in the dust of forgetfulness. Like that one special childhood friend – you know, the kind that feels like an extra appendage. You go to school and play together, take turns dining and spending the night at each other’s place…in short, you skip and hop through childhood hand in hand.
Then you grow up and life often gets in the way of these precious friendships. You do your best to keep them going, and sometimes you succeed. We couldn’t. The reason? The most banal of all – distance.
My childhood appendage, Mariyana, was a golden girl. Blond locks, sparkling blue eyes, a brilliant smile, a feisty and compassionate nature. We spent our early years joined at the hip. The first crush, the first cigarette, secrets, and lies – we shared all.
When my family moved to the other side of the country, I was devastated. Children are resilient, as we keep hearing, but some things you just never get over. Even though time dulls the searing pain of these memories, you still feel a stab through the heart whenever you remember. The spasm goes away quickly but never stays away for long. It will likely keep coming back until the day you check out for good.
After our paths diverged, I only got to see Mariyana once in the span of a decade. Then the trail grew totally cold and stayed that way for 27 years!
As the title indicates, we have a “happy ending” story here. It features Facebook (what doesn’t these days?!) and has Mariyana in the starring role. I’m a humble extra whose only contribution consists of finally succumbing to herd behavior and joining the Facebook swarm. This is how she found me and got in touch. Within a month, she was on her way to my place.
These are surreal moments and people usually lack the words to describe them. In moments like these, you believe that the universe is indeed on your side and there might just be such things as miracles. When I saw her there in the street, with her suitcase at her feet and that brilliant smile on her face, my heart skipped several beats and then all was right with the world. And time…No such concept exists when you find yourself in a situation like this. The years fall away and your heart can hardly contain all the joy, love and relief. The relief comes from having a hollow within close up at last.
We got our happy new beginning, I’m thrilled to report. Life remains in the way but no longer distressingly so. She has been living in Italy for the past 12 years and we won’t be getting together very often. But you know what? It’s fine. At the very least, we have all those social platforms and messaging apps to keep in touch. The truly important thing is that we have rebuilt the bridge riven by time and circumstances. We now stand on the reinforced structure older, maybe wiser and definitely still full of the childhood wonder and devotion of all those years ago.
See the person in the picture above? That’s Silver Ginger. Well, that’s the artistic moniker he goes by. His name is actually Lee Gill, he’s English and he lives in Derby.
He’s also kind of weird. For one thing, he’s fascinated with skulls. They are strewn all over his place. Not real ones, obviously. Decorative stuff, jewellery, mugs, you get the idea. And get this: he has an egg ring that fashions a skull out of two eggs. It’s adorable: the yolks end up as the eye sockets and the whites form the shape of the skull. Lee’s also a neatnik of the highest order. I don’t think I’ve ever met a man as clean and tidy as him. Let me put it another way: everybody else is a slob when measured against Lee! And he loves cycling, which I thought nobody did. I mean, watching the professionals go at it.
Skull fascination or not, Lee is a person I count as my friend. We’re not friends in the conventional sense. We live about 1,800 miles apart. And while we met online back in 1999 (it may have been 2000, we couldn’t decide firmly on the year), we’ve only met in person twice: in 2013 and 2014. Still, we keep in touch regularly, making it a point to have a video chat every week.
But our personal dealings are not the subject of this piece. I want to tell you about Lee’s passion for photography. I’m embarrassed to admit that his journey to photographic excellence somehow failed to register with me. It just hit me one day that he had become a very passionate photographer and a damn fine one at that! You should hear him drooling over some camera or salivating over lenses that apparently work wonders! So let me make it up to Lee by telling you the story of his love affair with photography.
You know how you go to a shrink and it typically turns out that your parents are at the bottom of it, whatever issue “it” happens to be? Luckily, our parents don’t always screw us up, at least not in all respects. Sometimes they nudge us in the right direction and become responsible for our greatest triumphs.
The hero at the start of this story is Mr. Mick Gill. Besides siring Lee, this lovely gentleman has much to do with Lee’s love of photography. Mr. Gill himself seems to have an on-and-off affair with photography, as Lee told me. Daddy returned from his army service with a “cool spy camera, a Minolta 16” and that thing had little Lee in awe. Our boy also spent hours flicking through the family photo albums, lingering in fascination at the pictures his father had taken during his army days. Mr. Gill was apparently a master of self-portraits but what little Lee loved most was poring over the images of military vehicles, foreign landscapes and animals.
Lee reckons he first tried his hand at photography at the age of nine or ten. It was during a school trip to London and he’s still holding on to those snapshots although they are “beyond terrible.”
It seems that this love story began in earnest in Lee’s twenties. Mr. Gill was actively involved in the process. In fact, daddykins had enrolled in a photography course at a local college in the 1990s.
“He really took it seriously and started buying all kinds of old cameras at boot sales and from charity shops. At the time, we were both fairly fit and used to go cycling together, combining it with photography.”
Lee started with an old Russian camera borrowed from his dad. Then he got really lucky.
“One Sunday morning at our favourite boot sale I saw someone was selling a kit bag with a Praktika SLR+50mm lens. Nothing exciting, but at the time it felt as if I’d won the lottery. I think he wanted £25 for it, which I gladly paid. I remember being so excited I was buzzing all morning.”
Certain years stand out although not it terms of scaling any photography skills heights. In 1998, the Gill men took a trip to Ireland. It was to see the first stages of the Tour de France but the trip also provided an opportunity to wield their cameras. In 2000, Lee tried his hand (for the first and only time) at portrait photography. The subjects were the members of a band his girlfriend at the time knew. However, that was not an experience Lee remembers fondly and to this very day, he finds human portraits way out of his comfort zone.
About a year later, he had his beloved Mountain Bike stolen. The theft devastated him, killing his passion for going out and taking pictures.
However, around that time Lee started hearing about digital cameras. The old spark was apparently still lurking somewhere there, waiting for the right moment to burst into glorious flame. Having saved some money, Lee bought a digital camera in 2004. It looks laughable now and even back then it was far from being a fancy piece of photographic equipment. But the important thing is that it reignited the passion that burns brightly to this very day. Photography reclaimed Lee with such force that by 2005 it had completely displaced poetry as his means of self-expression.
2007 was another landmark year. It was then that Lee got what he calls his “first proper camera.” The Canon 400D DSLR was ideal for the level his skills had reached.
As the camera arsenal kept getting upgraded, the shooting perimeter expanded. Due to his limited mobility, Lee focused initially on areas around home but later began to venture beyond those confines. He’d struck a friendship with an elderly gentleman, also disabled, and the two of them joined English Heritage and the National Trust. Their trips have given Lee the opportunity to photograph some amazing architecture.
I think now would be a good time to say a few words about Lee’s disability. It’s the result of a stroke he suffered at the age of 13. The whys and hows are not pertinent to our story but the effects of the stroke have shaped his way of taking pictures. Since his left side is affected, all he can do with his left hand is hold the pistol grip he attaches to the bottom of the camera. He uses it to support the weight and hold the camera still, employing his right hand then for all the positioning, composing, focusing and pressing the shutter.
I could go on piling chronological details but they wouldn’t really add value to the story. I wanted to tell it because Lee is a friend and this is his passion. As I hinted earlier, this is, to a certain extent, my apology to him for failing to share in his photographic evolutionary journey.
I don’t know anything about photography. But as with any form of art, its worth is largely determined by the impact it has in terms of stirring emotions and provoking thoughts. Mastery of expressive means and innovative techniques are the concern of art critics. Regular people like me, we are primitive in our perception of visual art. We like or dislike photographs and paintings because of their effect on us or lack thereof. If the work leaves us indifferent, we’ll most likely pronounce it to be crap. It doesn’t mean we are right. It simply means the work in question doesn’t speak to us on any level.
But I digress. What I wanted to say was that Lee’s pictures have a special aura, an atmosphere that seems to spill out and envelop you. You react to them, maybe everyone in a different way, but they don’t leave you cold.
As any writer on a mission, I got pesky at one point and brought out the big guns. You know, all those questions artists usually find hard to answer but can always expect to get asked. Like motivation and choices, for example. In plain speak, I wanted Lee to tell me what prompts him to lift the camera and click the shutter button. Here’s what he had to say:
“I often get asked what I specialise in and what my fave subjects are. And my answer is always the same: everything! If I like what I see, I’ll take a picture. I’m inspired by everything around me and like photographing mundane objects, the kind that people walk by every day and pay no attention to.”
Lee went on to note that his style had changed dramatically over the past decade. He used to be all about landscapes in the beginning, which is how many photographers start out. These days, however, he’s much more about details and emotions. His images tell a story, they have a moral and a deep meaning. He sometimes finds it frustrating when people don’t pick this up but when they do get it, he feels immense joy and the deep satisfaction of having successfully expressed himself.
Lucky for me, Lee did play favourites and declared trees his greatest inspiration. If he had any say in how he’s to be remembered as a photographer, it would be for his tree images. He calls trees his muses and sees a story behind each one of them. Number two on this list are cemeteries and church graveyards. It’s not some morbid fascination although some may jump to such conclusions. Lee sees them as another wellspring of stories. Plus, they often abound in gorgeous works of sculpture and architecture.
As passionate as Lee is about photography, he doesn’t see a glittering professional future ahead.
“Do I ever think I’ll be some hotshot photographer whom people admire? No! Would I want to have fame? No! I have a small following of friends who like my work and that suits me. I’m very much an ego-free person content just to be himself. If people like my work, great. If they don’t, that’s fine too.”
I, for one, hope he gets recognition beyond his circle of admiring friends. On the other hand, some people want nothing more than to express themselves. Their goal is to produce work that resonates with those who happen to see it. Such people use their cameras, brushes or keyboards to tell and share stories. Sometimes these are stories of heartbreak, woe and misfortune. Other times, we get tales of love, joy and redemption.
People have always hungered for stories. Otherwise, why would cave dwellers have scratched squiggly pictures on walls? The grim stories teach us lessons provided that we’re willing to learn. The upbeat ones fuel our dreams and strengthen our resolve. I guess what I’m trying to say is that storytellers are special people.
Lee has chosen to tell his stories through a camera. Let me treat you now to the five pictures he considers his favourites. Yep, I asked him to choose and that elicited a few loud groans but he indulged me. He also provided brief comments for each of the photos.
The way I see it, there’s no such thing as professional and amateur artists. They all create because they feel compelled to. Some sell their art; others choose not to. But each is driven by the desire to tell a story or share an experience. Go on then, I say unto them! The rest of us are ready and willing to hear you out and rejoice, wonder, commiserate or empathise, as the case may be.
And there’s Lee, grabbing his camera and heading out in search of his latest story. The book of his tales will keep on growing and maybe one day it will become required reading.
P.S. See? I wasn’t joking – skulls rule that household!
P.P.S. And a whole treasure trove awaits you at https://www.flickr.com/photos/leemgill/. I’ll be delving into it a LOT for the needs of this blog. Oh, that lovely picture you see in the circle on my front page? That’s Lee’s work. I adore this picture – it’s one of the most beautiful things I have seen! Thanks, mate!
The “first one” would be this article but I need to make something clear right away. It’s anything but my first! As part of my last regular job, I produced anywhere between 10 and 15 articles a day. With nine years on the job, that’s a whole lotta articles!
This one is the first meant to serve my very own purposes. Hmm…now that I think about it, it doesn’t have that much of a purpose. I just thought I need something to inaugurate this site. It makes sense (or so it seems to me) to have some general piece posted first, something maybe even a bit ramble-y. And I do tend to ramble, believe you me!
Still, I think I need to anchor this text and here’s what I’m going with: Stephen Fry.
I love that man! I want him for my papa! I love watching him on screen, but it’s his writing that floors me every time. The man is a genius, right? Well, I don’t know if he’s taken one of those tests and holds the title officially. But we just know it: Mr. Fry is an Ubermensch!
I’ve caught myself thinking on several occasions that Mr. Fry should be put in charge of the world. Of course, I haven’t got the foggiest how that can be arranged; I just know that we need him ruling. Maybe we can have the United Global States some day and he’ll be president…
I’m not a fan of social media. It has nothing to do with age – I love the internet and consider it the best thing to have happened in my lifetime. Should they find a cure for cancer, I’ll revise that statement, but it holds true for the time being. Twitter plain depresses me; it’s this constant barrage of messages, most of them ridiculous or meaningless. It’s overwhelming and not in a fun way. But I finally buckled and created a Twitter account just so that I can follow Mr. Fry and a few other people I admire.
Anyway, a few days ago vile Twitter spewed the most delightful piece of news! Mr. Fry’s book The Hippopotamus has been made into a film!!! I did the happy dance, shouted from my balcony (the neighbourhood dogs didn’t like it) and treated my cats to that nasty, gooey stuff they love to distraction – you know, the one that comes in pouches and is the equivalent of human junk food.
I should point out that The Hippopotamus is my favourite book by Stephen Fry. I must have read it about ten times and it ranks at number two on my top books list, after Kingsley Amis’ Lucky Jim.
So you can imagine my euphoria when I found out that The Hippo is now a film. I only wish Mr. Fry had been cast as Ted, but Roger Allam seems like an excellent choice as well. I strongly suspect that watching this film will be the highlight of the year for me. Here’s the trailer:
And go read the book, please! You’ll roar with laughter, cry, marvel, cringe, gasp and then scream in protest that it’s over. I don’t know how well it has translated to the screen, but even if it’s a marvellous adaptation, it can’t possibly capture all the magic and madness of the book. You know what? I’m off to read it again, must be a couple of years since I last immersed myself in this glorious maelstrom of a story.