Steve and Ann Thomson photographed by Deddeda Stemler.
By Tom HawthornSpecial to The Globe and Mail
January 7, 2009
At first, the problem seemed so easy to solve it was a wonder no one had thought of it before.
The problem: The old folks in a hamlet outside of Yambol in Bulgaria were freezing.
Ann Thomson, 50, of Victoria, learned of the plight of the elders from friends working at a real estate office in the southeast of the Black Sea nation.
She knew from her visits the suffering peasants lived in huts and hovels lacking running water. Electricity remained a fantasy. But most had small wood-burning stoves atop which water fetched from a well could be boiled.
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If you had hot water, Ms. Thomson reasoned, you could stay warm by cuddling a hot- water bottle.
In North America, folks use space heaters, or electric blankets, or heating pads warmed by microwave ovens. An object filled with warmed water seems a hopeless relic of a previous epoch.
Ms. Thomson, the proprietor of a craft shop, figured a brief word in the store's weekly newsletter might persuade a few customers to donate their underused hot- water bottles.
The bottles arrived in dribs and drabs. She expected to gather perhaps a dozen. She recognized "hot water bottles for Bulgaria" is less than an inspiring charity slogan.
In time, a dozen arrived. A second dozen soon piled up. Then, a third.
The final total was eight dozen plus five. That's 101 bottles, not as cute as the Dalmatian puppies of the Disney cartoon, but far more practical.
The donations were neatly packed into three boxes. It was time to send them to Europe. That's when the troubles began.
The quoted shipping costs were as high as $1,600, which is far more than the value of 101 second-hand rubber Thermoses.
She eventually got an acceptable $500 quote from Air Canada Cargo. The clerk also offered a crash course in the intricacies of overseas shipments. To enter Bulgaria, Ms. Thomson needs only a Canadian passport. However, her hot water bottles required a sheaf of documentation, generating enough paperwork to warm even the cold heart of a bureaucrat.
At this point, Ms. Thomson decided to call her local member of Parliament for assistance. She met with Denise Savoie to explain the circumstances, feeling only mildly foolish since the NDP MP was eager to return to Ottawa during the constitutional crisis.
In turn, the MP met with Bulgarian embassy officials in the capital.
After overcoming initial confusion over the properties of the mysterious hot water bottle, apparently an innovation unknown in the homeland, it was agreed the packages could be sent to Bulgaria as charitable donations.
Last month, the boxes began the long journey.
They arrived safely in Sofia at 9:15 p.m. on Dec. 17.
Where a customs agent demanded duty payments.
Officials also began charging $10 a day storage for the boxes.
The Balkan state is balking at releasing the shipment.
If money is not paid by Friday, she has been told, the boxes will be seized.
She has put calls out to the embassy in Ottawa and to her MP in Victoria.
"I thought Canada was bad when it came to bureaucracy," Ms. Thomson said, "but Bulgaria wrote the textbook."
"We're not trying to cheat the Bulgarian government out of justifiable taxes. If I was trying to ship prescription medicines, or expensive sporting goods, I could see their concern about how they could end up in the wrong hands."
Until four years ago, after learning her father's birthplace on his death, she didn't know Bulgaria from Burundi. "I had to look it up in an atlas," she admits. "I didn't know where it was." The father she thought was German was in fact born as a Kalojanoff, fleeing the Communist regime in 1951. Fearing suspicion for having been born in what was by then a faithful satellite of the Soviet Union, he kept from his family his origins.
Intrigued, Ms. Thomson travelled to Bulgaria, where she found a people warm in spirit if poor in possessions. The cities reminded her of the Victoria of her childhood, a small-town idyll where folks kept chickens in their backyard.
Let's take a moment to reflect on the humble hot water bottle. Some credit the modern object, a precursor to the Thermos flask, to the Croatian inventor Slavoljub Eduard Penkala, who registered a patent in 1903. He went on to develop the world's first mechanical pencil, as well as an insecticide and a flying machine he named for a butterfly.
The hot water bottle was so simple in design it clearly did not exhaust his wellspring of ideas.
For Ms. Thomson, sending an ordinary household item from Canada to Bulgaria seemed a modest contribution to improving relations between nations.
"We're not building an orphanage, or something magnificent," she said.
"We were just trying to get a few old people warm."
Modest thought it may be, it remains a worthy goal. The forecast for Yambol today promised a nippy low of -7.
She already has a resolution for 2010.
The next time Ms. Thomson gathers donations for Bulgaria she will pack them up in a suitcase, book a flight to Europe and deliver them in person.