March 2013 archive

TA DA!! Our new place. Shopping for a new home. Part 2 (scroll down for Part 1).

It was meant as a joke, Matt asks our friendly realtor Ivan if there are any cool spaces with stairs. “Stairs! I’ve always wanted a place with stairs, I think it’s so cool, only fancy people have loft spaces!” Matt exclaims excitedly. Ivan gladly shows us a top floor studio loft down the street from a small place we were viewing, “Looking is free, no problem”.

From the moment we pulled up to the cheerfully bright orange building we knew we were in trouble. A secure paved park lot in plain view from the suite, a nice swimming pool, 6th floor, South- West facing, floor to ceiling windows, a nice bathroom with a tub and heated floors and of course, STAIRS! Well, that was it, we’re in love. That night Ivan work his magic and by the next day the loft would be ours if we were willing to pay a premium.

Imagine buying a condo in Canada right now, think of the price difference between a first floor 300 square foot studio with an ugly bathroom, buckling laminate floors and a hotel style kitchenette compared to a brand new, move-in ready, sunny top floor loft with a deck and a bathroom no different than one  in a brand new downtown Vancouver condo. Astronomical difference I’m sure. Not in Bulgaria! I won’t get into too many details but the price difference was less than %25.

We couldn’t be happier, our new loft space is amazing. We’ve been hard at work making the place our own, painting, furnishing and replacing a few things here and there, things are really coming together. Surprisingly Matt and I are on the same wave length when it comes to the decorating, NYC industrial loft meets contemporary beach house. The paint is matched with the blue water of the Black Sea, the furniture is very unconventional yet functional (every centimeter counts in a small space), my kitchen is fully equipped and Matt has the house wired up to the nines with computers, 46 inch TV, tablets, Apple TV and countless other gadgets. 

Here are the “before” pictures, the “afters” will be coming shortly, we might even make a small video to walk you through.

This gives you a good view of our space, the stairs have no landing at the bottom and the kitchen is in a different direction but you get the idea.

 

Having a bathtub in Bulgaria is like winning the lottery, nobody has them. We only discovered the heated floors after we moved in, it’s like a foot spa every time you walk on them, especially in the middle of the night when it’s cold.

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How the heck can I cook in this tiny kitchen!?! I came up with some great ideas, I’m really excited to show you the final product.

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Shopping for a new home. Part 1

By the time we celebrated our 10th month of living in the van we knew that the trip needed to come to a pause, work needs to be done, showers need to be taken and the desire for a somewhat stable routine finally kicked in. Little to worry my travel blog followers, the van will never be sold and we already have a few routes mapped out for our next trips. I know that even if we stay put for a little while the nomad lifestyle has etched something deep within us and we will never truly feel attached to one place for too long.

Decision making time. Last November Matt and I discovered the municipality of Burgas in Bulgaria and completely fell in love with the place; Sunny Beach, the resort town with a wealth of entertainment possibilities in the summer months, Nessebar, the lovely ancient town on an island and Burgas, a cosmopolitan city with so much to offer. When it came time to agree on where we wanted to lay our roots Bulgaria’s Black Sea coast was a no brainer. No time was wasted, the second we parked the van in Nessebar we set out to talk to some real estate agents. We had 3 different companies showing us on average 4 condos a day for 3 days plus one other guy sending us leads via email. Go big or go home right?

This is the first studio we saw and really liked, it’s bright and large with  a very spacious balcony but the bathroom, kitchen and floors need to be replaced. Matt especially loved the building because it has a huge pool with a swim-up bar.       

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Floor to ceiling windows and an interesting space for the kitchen.

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Contender number 2 is a new construction a little bit off the main strip. We considered this place because we could finish it ourselves, the kitchen area is massive, floor to ceiling windows and it’s a walk-up on the first floor with a spot for a mini garden.

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The downsides of new construction are; you have to live in a construction zone for a few months, plus you have no idea what will happen with all the construction around you, will they ever  build a road?

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Most of the other viewings were uninspiring, ranging from communist era looking buildings to tiny hotel rooms with no kitchens, all with an average square footage of 320 sq/ft!

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Spring Rolls.

I love making spring rolls because they’re so easy to make and great for a light meal.

The dipping sauce:

2 teaspoons of sweet chili sauce with equal parts rice vinegar and water.

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The trick to handle the rice paper without it falling apart is to dip them in warm / room temperature water, if your water is too hot the paper will crack leaving you with a sad mess. 

Avocado, smoked salmon, purple cabbage, cucumber, yellow and red peppers, shrimp, basil, caviar and bean sprouts. Pick and choose what you want then roll it up in a sheet of rice paper (be careful to not over stuff your rolls, the paper might crack).

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Ryan in Bulgaria.

Matt’s buddy from Halifax came to visit us for a week as part of his 3 week European tour, unfortunately he arrived exactly at the same time as we were buying the condo which took up most of our time. Ryan was a great sport and helped us out with everything, he truly is a great friend.

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Tomato and guacamole appetizers.

Cut open little cherry tomatoes and gently empty the inners with a small spoon.

With a fork, mash one avocado then mix in 1/4 of a red onion that’s been finely chopped, salt, pepper, a touch of cumin and nutmeg and a splash of lemon.

Fill the cheery tomatoes with the guacamole using a small spoon and garnish with an arugula leaf.

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Penne with tomato sauce.

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We’re watching Family Ties and folding clothes all day.

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Wikipedia information about Michael J Fox:
“Fox starred in the Canadian television series Leo and Me produced by the CBC at the age of fifteen, and in 1979, moved to Los Angeles to pursue an acting career at the age of eighteen. Shortly after his marriage, he decided to move back to Vancouver.[5] Fox is one of four members of the Leo and Me cast and crew who eventually developed Parkinson’s disease in mid-life, an unusually high number that led to some investigation as to whether an environmental factor may have played a role.[9][10][11]”

Skopje Zoo, Macedonia.

A few years ago this zoo had a bad reputation, the chimpanzees were chronically depressed and their only elephant died at age 23, only a year after moving to Skopje. Thank goodness they got their act together in 2010 and spent over 9 million dollars modernizing the zoo. 

Even though it drizzled rain while we walked around the whole experience was great (especially the $2 entrance fee).

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Kumanovo, Macedonia and friends.

As you well know our lifestyle is a little unconventional, we never really know where we will be next, who we might meet and when our next real shower might take place.

This story is about our last stop in Macedonia, Kumanovo. I’m not going to lie, 99% of the town looks like a dump, forgotten over time; poor road conditions, extremely low hanging electrical wires (very scary when driving a 3 meter high vehicle),  garbage everywhere, rundown vandalized buildings, the works…PERFECT! Matt and I are all over it! The first thing in order when arriving in a new city is finding the perfect parking spot, I dream of the days when we will have a tiny scooter “parkable” just about anywhere. Next step is checking for free Wi-Fi waves and/or finding a generous person to host our electrical needs. Our requirements usually consist of recharging our deep cycle battery, keeping the fridge cool and maybe a small space heater on chilly nights. This time we tried a little corner store deep in suburban Kumanovo but unfortunately the language barrier was insurmountable which lead Matt to panic and accost everyone who walked by. “DO YOU SPEAK ENGLISH?” he asked. Luckily within minutes a young man exclaimed “Of course I do!”, thank the heavens, lets get this going. With the help of our new translator we concocted a deal with the store owners where we could park safely on their property and receive electricity for the night.

Matt befriended the translator and invited the young man for drinks later that evening. Alexander and his wonderful curly haired beauty arrives at 9 pm prompt with gifts of homemade spicy roasted red pepper and eggplant dip, homemade pickled vegetables and homemade moonshine. OPA!   20130309_214856

The conversation flows as does the booze. Differences between Canadian rule and Macedonian government are vast yet we all seem to have the same forward thinking agenda; invest in education, clean up our surroundings, respect one an other and pay no attention to religion and self pitters.

Night falls and we hit the road, first stop we try out an apartment/mall/bar situation. A few minutes in and we’re informed that there are too many young people and we must proceed to the next bar (keep in mind that our hosts are about 20 years old, 10 and 20 years our junior…I promise we’re not narcs!).

Bar number two is a tame biker bar with a live band playing “famous” Serbian rock anthems. Matt and I dance like two idiots without a care in the world, pretending to know all the words to the songs. Thankfully Alexander, our host, and his friends enjoy our humor and we laugh and toast every five seconds.

Bar numero 3 is just down the street and features a wonderful and animated band covering great American classic hits from the 60’s and 70’s sung with fantastically thick Bulgarian accents, emphasizing syllables in all the most “original” spots.

Our fourth move takes us back to the first bar (this time with much more mature 20 year olds) to meet the rest of the crew. A future travel adviser, an actor, an aspiring plastic surgeon, a tall handsome student, an engineer, etc., …and Tom Cruse…well kind of! Our new Macedonian friends are incredible, they  are young, smart, intelligent, insightful, funny, adorable, sweet, helpful, inviting…AHHHHH I love them so much!!!!

Four am rolled around and it was time for Matt and I to hit the hay. A crew of our friends escorted back to the van and bit us fairwell. (I would like to take a little pause here to emphasize and make you understand how insanely fantastic-5000 everyone we’ve met tonight is, no downers, losers, no dimwits, solemnly fantastic, inspirational people). We woke up a few hours later with full hearts and happy  smiles on our faces. Macedonia, Kumanovo, Alexander and your “do you speak English””of course”, that night meant the world to us and I wish a lifetime of friendship between us! Nazdrowie!   

 

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Macedonia !?!

“What the heck are you doing in Macedonia?” That’s the first thing the locals would ask.

We had a great time in Greece and felt a little sad leaving the country of beautiful beaches, great food, friendly laidback people and cheap Frappes (we’ve become hardcore Frappe addicts.)  Matt was pushing to go to Kosovo and Serbia next but when we got the great news that our friend Ryan would be landing in Burgas on March 16th we realized that we needed to get a move on. The new route would have to be through Macedonia; Bitola, Skopje, Kumanovo, then back to Bulgaria.

First stop, Bitola. The main pedestrian street was very clean and lively, everyone is having a good time drinking coffees and beers at the hundreds of elegantly decorated cafes and pubs. We stopped for coffee and a bathroom break at one place and it cost $1 for a regular espresso OR $1.10 for an espresso with cherry liquor and whipped cream. Booze in my coffee? Yes please! 

Deviate even one block away from the main road you will truly see how the majority of Macedonia lives. The buildings are unkempt and every third house is rubble yet people hang tarps and sheets in these spaces and live there. It looks like a post war movie set. Despite their terrible poverty Macedonians are the friendliest and most generous people we have met so far (and Greece is a though one to beat).   

Macedonia is a tiny Balkan country and the drive from the Southern city of Bitola to the Northern capital of Skopje only took a couple hours, mostly through valleys and farms with snowy peaked mountains not so distant.

Arriving in Skopje we were hit by some serious traffic. Yet another protest was taking place which forced the police to barricade two of the major roads and reroute all the cars down a 5 kilometer detour, delaying us by about an hour.

Once parked and locked up we hit the town square for some snacks and people watching. Skopje is like no European city I’ve ever seen before, or maybe it’s more like a combination of ALL the cities we have recently visited but on crack. The main plaza is huge, you could easily fit two football fields in there without blinking. The buildings are tall and impressive of varying styles and colours and the Vardar river runs through main square with several ornate bridges linking the two sides. What makes the city so unique the insane amount of statues and monuments, you think Vegas has a “bigger is better” attitude, wait until you visit Macedonia! Though the locals find them ridiculous and would prefer the money spent more wisely, Matt and I enjoyed walking around taking pictures of them as if we were strolling down an outdoor museum.

 

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Lots of twisty roads through the mountains, luckily the road was in fair condition.

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Skopje!

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We drove up the mountain to take pictures of the 66 meter tall cross but the road was closed near the top and Matt wasn’t excited to hike the last 7 kilometers to the summit.

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Jewish holocaust memorial museum. 

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Easy dinners.

Matt made stir fry for dinner.

Onions, red peppers, green peppers, purple cabbage and egg with sweet and sour sauce.

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Paprika chicken.

Chicken thighs and legs, onions, red peppers, green peppers, tomato paste, lots of paprika, oregano and chicken stock. The slower you cook it, the best it tastes.

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Our last few days in Greece.

We met Dot and Malcolm when we stopped by the water in Vonitsa. This wonderful couple has been sailing around the Mediterranean for the last 9 years, they invited us over for coffee and we spent most of the morning swapping stories. Malcolm is a retired computer programmer and Dot, a retired nurse with a passion for food, wildlife and handmade crafts, both avid travelers.Needless to say we had lots to talk about.    

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Preveza underwater tunnel.

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We stopped in Preveza and picked up some fresh seafood, these guys were still twitching when I took this picture!

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Butter, garlic, sumac and prawns, and of course wine.

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Ancient bridge of Arta.

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Steak and snow.

We shared this huge steak with vegetable kebabs and roasted garlic and feta sauce.

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Working hard!

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A time to remember.

Oh boy, the last few days have been some of the best days this year. Driving towards Albania on a gorgeous sunny day Matt and I couldn’t resist stopping in Amfilochia, Greece for a quick walk and a beer, 5 days have past and we’re still here. Nestled in the corner of the Ambracian Gulf, this town of about 4000 friendly inhabitants is absolutely perfect; crystal blue water, mountains, mild weather, happy people, fishing, drinking, everything! We parked our rig in the marina, a perfect location with great views of the city and the sea. A few people were working outside on the million dollar yacht parked to our left so we took this perfect opportunity to ask really politely if we could plug into their electrical hub for a little while.  “No problem, free, no problem at all.” Sweet!

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I spent the afternoon reading my Kindle in the sun all while watching my sweet husband learn how to fish off the docks with group of local elderly fishermen. Matt came home with huge grin on his face, arms extended, holding a jittery parcel containing three midsized, very alive, fish wrapped in newspaper. Plop, plop, plop, he transfers them into a pot and hands it over to me lid on. The pot twitches and I scream almost dropping everything. I’m laughing, partially excited, partially hysterical, 100% not drunk enough to brave killing our dinner. Sweetie? He doesn’t want to be part of this operation either. I slip on my shoes, sport my warmest smile and head over to our yacht buddies with the pot extended as far away from me as possible, letting out small excited cries each time the fish flop around. My new hero leads me into the yacht kitchen and teaches me the proper Greek way to gut a fish. It was absolutely hilarious, if you know me well enough you know how I get when I’m excited; arms flailing, jumping up and down, giggles, lots of giggles, my new friend probably thought I was nuts (that’s because I am)!

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That evening we were invited back on the boat to drink Tsipouro and officially meet our neighbor “The Captain” and his friends. Everyone was so friendly, funny and full of life. My fish gutting hero made the best squid I’ve ever had. He simply built a fire in the parking lot, squished the squid he caught that morning in a grilling rack and placed it over the fire for about 10 minutes flipping sides occasionally, then he removed the squid from the rack and cut it into smaller pieces, sprinkled salt, pepper, fresh lemon and olive oil over everything and voila, tender squid with a nice char from the open flames! Amazing! After a few shots of Tsipouro the party really started to pick up, the guys showed me how their worry beads work and laughed when I exclaimed that at the moment my only worry was that I might have a headache the following morning from all the Greek moonshine that was getting passed around. Matt and I got a few dancing lessons and we all danced to Greek folk music in the living room of the yacht. “The Captain” spoke the most English and told us great tales of the voyages he had done and the people he had met and we of course reciprocated with our stories of the last 10 months. The night couldn’t have been more perfect.

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The next day we explored the city then returned to the yacht for a chat and a quick cooking lesson. I got sent home with my very own bag full of cuttlefish and was instructed to clean and gut the critters then simmer them for one hour in a tomato sauce with lots of garlic.

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This is a cuttlefish. I remember watching a cuttlefish documentary with my mom last year and they are discovering that cuttlefish are very intelligent and can be trained in maze just like rats, ‘Recent studies indicate cuttlefish are among the most intelligent invertebrates. Cuttlefish also have one of the largest brain-to-body size ratios of all invertebrates’ – Wikipedia. So on top of the almost impossible task of breaking down these slippery creatures without the proper fish knife, I had a guilty conscience every time those dark eyes glared back at me.

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You must remove the eyes, the beak, the inners (ewwwww) and the bonelike shell called the cuttlebone.

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It took me ten minutes to fully clean and prep a whole cuttlefish. It was terribly hard to hold and would often slide right out of my hands plus, my knife wasn’t fine enough to scalpel out the beak and eyes. I got fed up very quick and ended up throwing out the heads and only cooking the bodies.

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My Greek friend was right, an hour of simmering and the cuttlefish was as tender as a perfectly cooked scallop and the sauce had soaked up just the right amount of sea flavor. Dinner was a great success!

(Sorry for the sad picture.)

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