Bulgaria. The sort of place where Russell Brand decides when you can turn on your central heating

The snow has fallen early in Bulgaria, weighing down heavily on the still leafy trees, lending them a mournful, crestfallen look, kind of bent double. The children want to go out to play in the first snow. I tell them they can look forward to another four months of this and that the novelty will soon wear off. Nevertheless they want to experience the first fall.

The front door of my mother-in-law’s flat is in such a state of disrepair, not having been changed in 40 years, that freezing drafts creep underneath. She makes do with stripes of insulation to fill the gap. She need to buy a new door but money is a problem for most pensioners. We will oblige, of course. Baba is very good with the children, making soup for them – chopping potatoes, onions and carrots from scratch. Decent tinned soups are rare here and very expensive. My mother, on the other hand, who lives in Portugal, lives off Baxters’ soups in the winter.

Just a week ago it was 20 degrees here in Sofia. Now we have a high of two degrees. A quick but extensive change of wardrobe is required. It’s expensive living here because of the volatility of the climate. When it gets colder the street dogs begin to look more desperate. We have a neighbour who goes out to feed them several times a day. That’s probably why 10-15 of them are curled up near our block’s entrance. I never saw strays in London. Here, they always seem to chase after Roma as they pass by with their horses and cart, stopping to sift through rubbish bins.

The strays also bark at taxi drivers. They probably have exquisite taste in that respect. Taxi drivers are notorious in Sofia, charging tourists up to 10 times the going rate. The law now dictates that taxi companies have metered fares but that doesn’t stop them cheating gullible new arrivals at the airport. In some cases you have to salute the cabbies’ ingenuity. One acquaintance, making his first trip to Bulgaria, told me that the driver in question couldn’t have been more friendly, even warning him about conmen. Then he casually fleeced him out of 100 leva (50 euro) for what should have been no more than a 10-leva ride. In its own way, perhaps, an Oscar-winning turn!

One or two family members have heavy colds. We need heating but, apart from using blow heaters, that’s not possible. Toplofikatsiya Sofia, the central heating company, is bound by a government decree that says the heating can be turned on only after the maximum daily high is below a certain temperature on three consecutive days. As I write, today is the third day of such conditions and so they are obliged to begin the process. It is introduced in phases; schools and kindergartens will be first to get warm, although, of course, on a weekend nobody will be there!

The central heating system here, you see, really is “central”. And it always has been. It’s a way of telling the people that the state is their master, not their servant. Such decrees make the individual feel impotent. Perhaps that was part of the communist masterplan. You have the sense that people wait to be told what to do. In the prefab blocks you can’t opt out of the central heating system. Even if you remove all your radiators you still have the communal interconnecting pipes in your apartment. And you will still have to pay hefty heating bills. The radiators, by the way, are very powerful. Even when we have had temperatures of minus 12 in the past, they were not turned to full power!

Heating is a complicated and vexed issue here. We know of people who have not paid their bills for years. Yet they cannot be cut off without stopping the supply of the whole building. Sometimes, if – for example – three quarters of a block’s residents have not paid their bills, Toplofikatsiya makes noises about terminating supply for everyone. Yet, in practice, it doesn’t happen. Such collective punishment would be frowned upon – perhaps rightly. Sometimes the residents of a block can form an association and decide to forgo central heating completely. In much of the Bulgarian countryside, of course, there is no central heating – and warmth comes from old-fashioned wood-burning.

This isn’t Moscow. We are 1100 miles south but the climate is still continental. A mere three-hour drive from here will take you to Salonika. But for my wife, sneezing in the background, that’s no consolation right now. Well, the socialist state knows best, doesn’t it, Mr Russell Brand?

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