He was a humble Bulgarian waiter. I was a jet-setting Westerner working in the film business. But we fell in love and ended up in a remote village in the Balkan countryside.
My Bulgarian odyssey all began in Greece. My brother had invited me to join him on the island of Thassos after I'd finished working on a TV series starring Tom Hanks called Band of Brothers. I couldn't wait to escape yet another dreary English summer. But my main preoccupation was with what to wear.
Instead of the expected relaxation and sunbathing, I met my gorgeous Bulgarian husband-to-be. Against all odds, we succeeded in turning the clichéd holiday romance into a journey of discovery. We decided to sort out a visa, settle in England and get married.
I'd enjoyed working in movies – travelling to LA and Cannes, attending film premieres and buying clothes. I never pictured myself doing anything else but we returned to the UK and I plunged into a new job as a film company chief executive. Stefan found work in catering. He enjoyed managing a pub in Hackney and discovering British comedy. However, he was (and still is) a Huck Finn character and missed the countryside.
A television programme gave Stefan the idea of developing a forgotten hamlet in Bulgaria where his grandfather once lived. He saved and bought old houses on trips home. It soon became a fulltime business as friends began asking him to find and renovate houses. The British buying frenzy in Bulgaria had just erupted. We were effectively living apart as I was busy travelling. I started to decline invitations to lunches and dinners. To be honest, we were both miserable. Would I consider giving up my comfortable Soho lifestyle to join him?
He wasn't in the most fashionable location. Where exactly was the village of Kipilovo, snugly wedged between Sliven and Kotel? The Rough Guide offered this endearing description: “Worth making the effort for the scenery alone… It's an enchanting, almost time-warped corner of Europe that still follows a pastoral way of life.”
So yes, here I am with my “Sertificate (sic) for Long-term Residence”. And I have to say that the Bulgarian immigration police were much friendlier than the UK Home Office where they make you feel like a criminal.
Life in the village is a fascinating adventure, full of activities and interests. I have heard a nightingale sing for the first time and seen my first woodpecker… well… peck. Previously, I thought they only existed in Disney films! I delight in the expanse of lush, wild countryside and I relish hearing the clopping of horses' hooves rather than the roar of car engines. Guests are amazed that they can walk anywhere without seeing “No Entry” signs or barbed wire. I love being invited by neighbours to see the goats, chickens, rabbits and donkeys in their barns.
All this may soon disappear if EU regulations are enforced. Visiting farmers from the UK have described how bureaucracy has totally destroyed their way of life. It seems you have to fill in forms if you want to light a bonfire! Life here, by contrast, is simpler but somehow more precious. Of course, problems abound – poverty, depopulation, neglect and lack of resources lurk just behind the rustic idyll. Many Bulgarians have had to move abroad to earn a living. During the annual village festival weekend we spotted cars with Italian, Spanish and German car number plates arriving to visit their families.
I'm conscious of being an outsider and a curiosity, but most people support Stefan's efforts. No two days are ever the same. I have incessantly to reassure family and friends that I'm never bored. I get goat's milk from my father-in-law for my tea and I've learned how to make yoghurt. I'm trying to learn Bulgarian and it's a pleasure to be able to decipher a Cyrillic newspaper headline or a road sign. I'm also preparing to teach English in the local school and start writing a book. There has been a constant welcome stream of enthusiastic guests offering suggestions. We also have four American Staffordshire terriers, an incongruous sight next to the farm dogs here! I'm the only person who walks dogs in the village and although it enables me to meet new people, I can only amuse myself wondering what they must be thinking.
The odd drama has sometimes disrupted our paradise: a roaring house fire sent villagers bolting to the river, armed with buckets, brightly coloured bowls and leaking cans. People formed a line to extinguish the inferno in the darkness. Fire engines arrived several hours later but most of the hard work had already been done, demonstrating the effectiveness of group effort.
Wealthy Bulgarians have weekend retreats here and I've been introduced to a cross-section of society at large dinner parties. The once derelict, handsome timber-and-stone traditional house we bought a few years ago is taking shape. It's now an intriguing mixture of antique and modern thanks to Stefan's meticulous eye.
We've also bought another historic house that the Communists had ordered to be pulled down. But the former owner defiantly kept paying the fines, so we felt obliged to renovate it. The hamlet has neither road nor electricity, but will make an outstanding holiday retreat where people can escape from the over-regulation of urban life. We also plan to bring artists, writers and film-makers together here.
I'm not so obsessed with what to wear as I was when I set foot on that Greek Island over five years ago. I now make time to think and learn new things. So I would recommend a Bulgarian adventure to anyone considering the journey. I've discarded the glitter of the jet set and feel happier for it.
Village of Kipilovo, in the Svilen range of the Balkan Mountain