Post-Bulgaria

I read an article recently that said that when an ex-pat moves back to America after living overseas, she should not bring any souvenirs with her. Make new memories, the article said. Pick one thing that best reflects your experience and bring that. Leave the coffee cups and other “tchokes” behind. I couldn’t do that. I tried but couldn’t bring just one thing when we left Bulgaria.

mel and mark on AUBG signIn May, we moved back to the U.S. after living in Blagoevgrad for 4 years while teaching at the American University in Bulgaria. I simply can not believe that 1,392 days had passed since my husband and I packed up and gave away 20 years of stuff that was in our house in St. Paul, Minnesota, to start a new life in a formerly Communist country. We had just helped our daughter Jenna move to Chicago to start her post-college professional life. Kissing her goodbye and not knowing when we would see her again was almost as difficult as leaving her in her freshman year dorm room. I cried for hours as we drove away from University of Wisconsin and I felt my umbilical cord being cut in an incredibly visceral way. This time, she would be an ocean apart, not a few hours away by car. We tried to reassure her (and ourselves). It was a blur of emotions, goodbyes, boxes, beer, parties, trips to Goodwill and “just one more visit to Dunn Brothers coffee, please.”

We almost didn’t go. Among the many things we did before we left was to visit our doctors for checkups and prescription refills. We had been advised to take several months of medicine with us because there was no guarantee we would find our meds in this small college town near the border of Macedonia. We also wanted to make sure we were healthy enough to make this transition because who knew what kind of medical care we would be able to get in Bulgaria?

During the last days of packing, my doctors found two “areas of concern.” Both needed a biopsy. I tried not to think about these things as we went about cleaning out our house in preparation for the tenant who would be moving in a few days later

When I told my husband, he said we should just keep moving forward until we knew something. “Try not to think about it,” he said, ignoring the fact that we were leaving in less than 2 weeks. He said there was nothing else to do. Just keep packing. So that’s what we did. Secretly, I couldn’t help but wonder what we would do if I had to have immediate surgery? We had already given away most of our things. We didn’t even have our own house to live in anymore. Where would we live while I was recuperating?

The news about my neck came back rather quickly — it was “suspicious,” but I was cleared for travel. “Follow up in a year,” the doctor said. The gynocologist was less encouraging. I told her I was moving to Bulgaria in a week, and she said, “You might want to consider altering your plans.” She did not like what she saw. I did not like what she said.

When the call came, I didn’t want to pick up the phone. That call meant so many things. My grandmother always used to say, “We make plans and God laughs.” That’s what I had been thinking when I forced myself to answer.

“I have news,” she said. “You are free to go.” The relief spilled out of my body like a cracked egg being dropped in boiling hot water. I felt like I had been given a second chance. The joy! I was ready to embrace what was ahead, grateful for the opportunity.

On the way to the airport, we stopped by the DMV to renew our driver’s licenses that were due to expire soon. The photo on my new license revealed a huge bruise on my neck, a badge of honor left over from the biopsy that I wore proudly that day because I was moving to Bulgaria!

Bulgaria. The country brought us so much joy (and also much frustration, mostly for Mark dealing with the Bulgarian bureaucracy). The students at AUBG surprised us with their desire, commitment and heart. I searched for ideas for new documentaries (and even made a few like Steps in The Fire and “The Summer Help), Mark wrote stories about our adventures on his blog and we embraced our new lives in a new country. We drank wine and beer with our students (not normally acceptable in the U.S.), visited some of their families in their home countries, went to film festivals and met long lost relatives in Slovakia and dear friends in Estonia and Romania.  We also traveled to countries and regions we barely knew existed: Moldova. Georgia. Ukraine. The Balkans. The Baltics. Bosnia. Montenegro. Macedonia. Serbia. Albania. We explored incredible things like an abandoned “spaceship” on top of a mountain that looks like a UFO but is actually the former Communist headquarters in Bulgaria, known as Buzludzha).  The many late and long (very long!) nights of eating, drinking, grilling, relaxing, dancing, laughing and enjoying new friends. Our lives have been enriched in ways we could have never imagined.  Screen Shot 2014-11-21 at 3.22.59 PM

When we would come back to the U.S. for holidays, our friends — and even strangers — would tell us how much they admired us for what we were doing. We always told them that they could do it, too, but they would usually tell us why they couldn’t possibly move overseas. It’s true that it’s hard to move to another country. We always say if it were easy, everyone would do it. Yes, it’s uncomfortable, yet also unfathomably rewarding. Our inspiration is written on a piece of paper posted on our refrigerator door: “Try to project years ahead and imagine what you wish you had done and then go do it.”  pic with quote_

After 4 years of college life, we felt like we had grown up and graduated, and like our students were ready for the next phase. I requested a leave of absence, not knowing what the future will bring. We really have no plan other than I will work on my documentaries and my husband will look for work. But I’m skeptical. I just don’t know how any experience can compare with what we had just been through.

Once again, we went through the process of packing, giving away things, trying to decide what to take with us, and saying goodbye. This time, the farewells were different. They were based on new memories, not a lifetime of memories. In some ways, because of the compressed time and the intensity of the experiences, it was even harder. This time, the emotions stung like chopping onions. It lingered, but a few days later we were back in the United States and the tears were gone. It’s not a perfect country, but it’s ours. This is where our family lives. Our ties are here. And the beer is better, too.

After unpacking, I put a few special coffee and beer mugs in the kitchen cabinets and then carefully placed the rest of the significant items I brought back with me on the one shelf we have in our new apartment in Chicago. Each one has meaning. Each one will remind me of a precious moment or person.

I’m glad I didn’t take the advice of that article. I decided I would bring back 20 souvenirs, but they had to be small (except for one). I like my things. I cherish my memories. Maybe it wasn’t the most practical thing to do, but I want to remember the time in our life that now seems like a dream. Did it happen? I have my souvenirs to remind me.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

The Truth

So, here is the truth about why I haven’t been writing on my blog.

When Mark and I first arrived in Bulgaria in August 2011, I wrote many posts about the unique new experiences we were having after moving here from Minnesota. We had just said a teary goodbye to our college grad daughter, cleared out our house, gave away almost everything we owned and we were anxious to start a new phase of life. A blog was clearly in order.

23359_10200314754173194_810189654_n

Our old life in Minnesota. Dog died. Jenna moved to Chicago. Time for us to move to Blago.

When we arrived in Blagoevgrad, everything was different and it was fun to share our journey with family and friends we left behind.

IMG_5774

A sign you would never see in Minneapolis

In the first year, I wrote about drinking rakia with monks in a monasterytrying to buy jeans in Blago (difficult when you aren’t a pencil-thin Bulgarian)… about the Miss AUBG beauty pageant (yes, we used to have a beauty pageant at our prestigious university!) and about what I learned from living in Bulgaria (“The Good. The Bad. And What I Learned in Six Months”).  

 

Mark wrote often about his biking adventures  (watch him getting chased by stray dogs in this video ) and about his amazement at our lucky situation that allowed him to make the transition from newspaper editor to college professor.

IMG_5395

The sliding board I wrote about in my “The Good. The Bad. And What I Learned Along the Way” post.. but the hole in the sliding board is even bigger now.

I also wrote about our many travels. Living here in the Balkans gives us access to places that used to be an ocean away, so off we would go on trips to Slovakia (where we met some of Mark’s long lost relatives- check out this “Wollemann” back-slapping video in this post), Serbia (Belgrade is a very cool city, in case you don’t know!), Romania (for caving and again for a storytelling conference), Macedonia (we can see it from our balcony and I also took my students to the a film festival there) and the list goes on. We can drive to many of those places in the same amount of time it takes to drive from Minneapolis to Chicago.

tea-for-two

Caving and posing for pics in Romania

But at some point, as we moved into our 3rd year in Bulgaria, I didn’t feel like writing anymore. It’s not that the adventures stopped. Quite the contrary! We did an intensive 5-week tour of the Western Balkans in the summer of 2013 when I was hired to make short documentaries for a National Geographic Western Balkans Geotourism website (Mark wrote the stories).

Screen grab from the website.

Screen grab from the website.

(If you want to see or read the stories, go to  THE WEBSITE (CLICK HERE)  and scroll down you’ll be able to watch the videos or read the stories by clicking on each of the “theme” pics- it looks like this. My favorite is “People, Food & Drink” but they are all interesting!)

Screen Shot 2014-12-13 at 5.52.55 PM

Screen grab from the Balkans Geotourism/National Geographic website

That summer ended with a trip to Costa Rica for the wedding of our daughter’s best friend (Mark writes more often in his blog, so you can read more about that here).

We also went to Thessaloniki (Greece) with my AUBG students to premiere the new documentary that I produced  called “The Starfish Throwers,” which was an emotional experience for all of us (www.thestarfishthrowers.com).

opening night

At the world premiere of “The Starfish Throwers” at the Thessaloniki Intl. Documentary Film Festival with director Jesse Roesler, Jen Roesler and my AUBG students

Starfish were thrown in Greece.

We love Thessaloniki

Last summer, we flew to Iceland (hi Arndis!), Finland and then to Estonia to visit dear friends who invited Mark to sing in the Lalupidu Song Festival in world’s largest choir (25,000 people!) even though he doesn’t sing and he didn’t know the songs (and he drank a lot of beer that summer!).  Here he is being interviewed on Estonian television (and tested on his knowledge of the songs!).

Screen Shot 2014-07-04 at 10.54.47 PM

So, can you sing us a few lines from the Estonian national anthem?

IMG_0718

Mark’s partner in crime in Estonia. Jaan Soplepmann

Most recently, we went to Georgia (the country) on a recruiting trip for AUBG and ate what was, quite possibly, one of the most memorable meals I’ve ever eaten! The “supra” was at the home of relatives of one of our AUBG students.  The adventures never stop.

IMG_3661

A very memorable meal with Ani’s family in Georgia

And there’s more! We spent crazy weekend in a tiny Pomak village in Bulgaria (thank you Tracy!), drove to the Black Sea coast, saw a “spaceship” on a mountain top (the former Communist Party headquarters  that later became the subject of the class documentary my students made) ,  and spent many weekends in Sofia (our version of NYC). I went to Ukraine a month before the EuroMaiden protests started.  Living overseas is an adventure that never stops.

Screen Shot 2014-11-21 at 3.22.59 PM

Buzludzha…the abandoned former Communist Party Headquarters.

But I didn’t write about any of those things. Why? Because at some point after becoming an ex-pat, there are times you just want to feel like this is where you actually live and this is home and there is nothing special or unique about that. It’s just what you do.

You travel. You go to work. You teach your awesome students (thank you AUBG students!) and stay up all night making documentaries with them. You find a good shoemaker (thank you, Mitko, for fixing the zipper on my favorite boots twice for 8 lev!), and a new favorite coffee shop that has real cappuccino in take away cups (thank you Polca!). The lady at the bakery knows which bread you like. The Pomak villager at the farmer’s market saves a sheep’s milk yogurt just for you. When you walk through town, you bump into students who say “Hello Professor!” and when you enter your neighborhood restaurant, the waiter goes to get you a “bialo vino” before you even get to your chair.

Today, as we reach the middle of our 4th year here, there are daily reminders that I don’t live in America anymore, and that’s okay with me.  While missing family and friends “back home” is always tugging at my heartstrings, Bulgaria is where I live and work.  My life here is now filled with small, lovely moments – not big sweeping ones. That’s why I stopped wondering, observing and writing about all the “adventures.” I’ve learned ex-pat life (at least for me) is mostly about the joys and annoyances of navigating everyday life in a land far from my own. And isn’t that the real adventure?

mark and mel i thessa

Us

IMG_7671

Spring is just around the corner!

 

 

 

 

Mark’s 100 Beer Summer

SUMMIT EPAFor years, my husband Mark Wollemann drank only Summit beer, a craft beer made in Minnesota.  In fact, I can’t remember him drinking any other beer except an occasional Miller High Life, but only when he was hanging out with his firefighter brother in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

But for most of the time we lived in St. Paul, Minnesota, Mark was a Summit man. I used to tease him about this and would often ask him why he didn’t want to try some other beers. There were so many new craft beers and brews to try! He didn’t budge; he loved his Summit.

This summer that all changed.

When we returned to the U.S. this past summer from teaching at AUBG in Bulgaria, Mark embarked on an experiment (actually a challenge) to try 100 different beers.  I enjoyed watching him discover so many new beers, including many from our summer travels around the U.S. as well as to Estonia, Finland and Iceland.  Sadly, the summer ended and  the “new beer challenge” is a fading memory.

Now that we are back in Bulgaria for another school year, it’s been fun to look back and remember all the places we went and the beers he tasted.   I’m mostly a wine drinker, but even I tried a few new beers myself (my favorite discovery was Saison beer, which doesn’t exist in Bulgaria and I’m really missing it right about now).

In the end, Mark’s experiment certainly made it fun to go out this summer for happy hour or dinner (and, yes, sometimes even lunch).  Now that we are back in Blagoevgrad,  it’s back to Shumensko beer for Mark until we go back to the  U.S. for Winter break.  Not sure if he’ll go back to Summit EPA, but it doesn’t really matter, because it’s the memories that come with his list that are most precious to me.

Read his story here:

http://markwollemannonthemove.wordpress.com/2014/09/22/the-100-beer-summer/

Screen Shot 2014-09-23 at 12.29.15 AM

It happened again — another year in the books

My husband pretty much says it all (and way better than I ever could) so I’ll just reblog his post for now 🙂

Mark Wollemann: On the move

We gear up for graduation! It’s about time we gear up for graduation!

About 10 days ago, I dug into 21 stories produced by my students in “Specialized Writing.” I’m not going to lie to you. Reading 21 5,000-word stories took some time. Hours and hours and hours. But this was not like reading academic writing (with apologies to those who like academic writing). These were stories. STORIES.

Here’s what they were not. Typical.

My student reporters did not just gather quotes and facts and compose news stories (not that there’s anything wrong with that). They didn’t craft soft feature stories about easy-to-access topics. These stories (the best of them, especially) are personal, compelling, and rich with detail and intrigue. They have characters, plot, dialogue and scenes. They’re the kinds of stories that appear in great magazines. The kinds of stories that are turned into books, and movies, and TV shows. They keep you reading…

View original post 1,589 more words

My New Documentary Project

Yes, I am still making documentaries.  Even though I have been teaching at The American University in Bulgaria  (now in my third year here at AUBG!),  I can’t not make docs.

Currently I’m working on an incredible new documentary that I want to share with you. I am the producer of “The Starfish Throwers” (www.thestarfishthrowers.com) along with the director, the talented Jesse Roesler from Minnesota.  Before I tell you anything else about this beautiful film,  you can stop reading and just go watch the trailer here:

If you prefer to read on, here is some background.

In my filmmaking life, I have had the good fortune to meet and work with some amazing people who tell stories that enrich and touch our lives in many ways. “The Starfish Throwers” director Jesse Roesler is one of them. I agreed to join the team as producer because this film is extremely touching and beautiful and makes you realize that even one person can make a difference in the world.  As 13-year-old Katie says in the film, “You could be inspiring hundreds with just one small action.”  To me, this film shows what love and compassion look like in the face of danger and despair.

Here is the official synopsis:

 SYNOPSIS: In this poignant & heartfelt documentary, a five-star chef from India, a retired teacher from Minnesota and a sixth grader in South Carolina fight hunger with fierce compassion.  “The Starfish Throwers” explores how these compassionate individuals struggle to restore hope to the hopeless in unexpected and sometimes dangerous way.

A few lucky folks (including some of my students here at the AUBG) have had a chance to see the rough cut.  Here are some comments:

“Very, very deeply moved by what you have captured and conveyed…”  -Jeremy W

“This is one of the best documentaries I have ever seen! So inspirational!”  ~Ekaterina T.

“The cinematography is awesome.  Jesse’s documentary is a meditation and its advocacy is indirect and nuanced. Its message emerges through layer after layer of the portraits of the 3 amazing subjects of the film.”   -Dan Satorius                                                               

If you are so inclined, there are numerous ways you can help. 

You can start by “liking” our Facebook page https://www.facebook.com/pages/The-Starfish-Throwers/535792969834697

Follow us on Twitter:  @TheStarfishThro  (Note: our Twitter hashtag:  #Starfishdoc )

You can also share the trailer with people you know who care about this subject: http://kck.st/18k6v5u

Of course if you would like to consider a contribution, our team would be extremely grateful.   We are raising funds to help finish the film and can’t do it without some additional support. There are some great rewards for backers, such as awesome t-shirts, posters, DVDs, your name on the big screen in the movie credits, and more.  We are already half way through the campaign and appreciate the support we have received so far. With less than 2 weeks to go, I hope you will consider making a contribution.

Again, here is the link to the trailer to to find out more about “The Starfish Throwers.” Please share this with anyone you think might be interested http://kck.st/18k6v5u

Thank you for taking the time to read this and thank you for considering this worthy documentary.  I am excited about sharing this film with the world because I believe it will have a wonderful and positive impact on all who see it.

Yours in Docs, 

Melody

PS: Did I mention that Matt Damon and Bill Clinton are also in the documentary briefly?   But they are not the heroes.  Katie, Mr. Law and Narayanan Krishnan are the stars 🙂

f43f1b2feca6d134041feef0b309fb34_large
Twitter: @MelodyMN @frozenfeetfilms
Teaching: www.aubg.bg &  www.jmc-aubg & www.facebook.com/jmcaubg
Instagram: melodygilbert01
Skype: melody.gilbert

Falling in Love with Filmmaking

ImageThere are fewer things in life more exciting than the very first time you show a film that you made in public in front of people you don’t know.  Your film. Your baby!

I remember my first time like it was yesterday.  It’s the moment when you realize that you are giving part of yourself to the people who are watching with you.  When they respond, you can feel them.  It’s pure magic.

Recently, my documentary filmmaking students here at the university where I teach in Bulgaria had their first filmmaking experience with an audience. They were so nervous before the screening (see pic just below- I think you spot them) of their short documentaries they made this semester. You just feel so damn vulnerable.

Image

In the end, the night was magical.  Each student had their moment of audience connection and Q & A.

It was lovely to witness the transformation.  It was the kind of night that teachers dream about and makes me happy that we moved to Bulgaria to work at the American University in Bulgaria.

One of my students wrote an article about her “first time.” She describes her feelings way better than I can: Read it and see some pics from the screening here. 

I invite you to watch all of their docs on the AUBG Documentary Class website “Our Short Films.”  Some of the topics are: forgiveness, film, folk festivals, friendship, bodyguards, sleeplessness, dance, music, twins, triplets, and taxis. I think you’ll enjoy them.

Image

Of course it won’t be the same as having that magical moment in the theater with the students, but I know they would love to share their work with you, especially because it’s their first time.

Watch and comment on their docs here: www.ourshortfilms.wordpress.com

Like the Facebook page here: http://www.facebook.com/pages/AUBG-Doc-Class/155523174607612?fref=ts

How Feminism Missed the Balkans: Part 2

Image The “Miss AUBG” beauty pageant at the university where I teach was last night and I did not go this year.  I just couldn’t do it.

You might remember that last year I went with a team of my students to film all the action for a documentary that we were making in my production class (see link below to get to watch it). I wrote about that experience in a post called  “Sex, Brains and Videotape: How Feminism Missed the Balkans” which you can read here.   That was the first time I had ever been exposed to a beauty pageant at the university level and, to be honest, it’s still surprising to me that this exists at all, especially at my progressive American-style liberal arts private college in Bulgaria, called “AUBG” for short.

I think the part that still surprises me the most is the main goal of the event, which is cheerfully written in the Facebook page for the event:

“Come experience the atmosphere of glamour, grace and beauty.”

Even in the recruiting video for contestants (watch it here) the only “skill” that is mentioned is being “sexy” and “hot.”  Here are photos of the candidates who answered the ad. Now let me just say that I’m not some old fogey (or at least I hope not). There’s nothing wrong with being beautiful and sexy. In fact, I believe that a woman should feel good about herself and I try my best to look decent on most days.  So I am a fan of beauty. But my problem with this pageant is that there’s not even a pretense that any of this is about brains, too.  We are an American university and I think we should be promoting the American value of being beautiful and smart.

In the U.S., the “Miss America” pageant at least pretends to be about brains by awarding a scholarship to the winners. All contestants are asked to have a “platform” of a cause they believe in (helping starving children in some foreign country, supporting cancer research, etc.) and are expected to perform community service all year in that area.  Why not add this element to the Miss AUBG pageant?  Why not at least try to make it about a little bit more than just being the hottest chick on campus?

I think I know why.

Now that I’ve been here for a second year, I am starting to understand this part of the world a bit better. I think that many women living in Eastern Europe and Russia had (and still have) fewer opportunities for education and employment, so they often derive their self-worth from how beautiful they are. They can’t control much about their destiny, but they can control how they look. Winning a beauty pageant can be a stepping stone to bigger and better things. Personally,  I wouldn’t want to win anything based on how my body compares with other women or how hot I am. But that’s just me.

Why do I feel this way? Well, first and foremost I suppose it’s because I’m a feminist. I have been sexually harassed in my workplace and I have had to tolerate unacceptable and unfair behavior by my male supervisors when I was younger. I rarely got paid as much as my male colleagues.  I prefer to be judged by what I can do, not by what I look like. But that’s me (and Gloria Steinem, the very first feminist, who talks about some of these issues in her new book).  In my mind, beauty pageants contribute to this way of thinking of a woman as a sexual object. Even if it’s all in good fun. Even if it’s for “personal growth.” I get that. I just can’t get behind it. I would like to think here at the American University in Bulgaria, we have an opportunity to encourage change, not contribute to the status quo.

(* To see the Miss AUBG documentary that my students made about the pageant last year, go to : http://mnk101.wix.com/missaubg#!home/mainPage    The trailer is on the home page, but to see the 30-minute documentary, click on “Watch Documentary” on the tab above the trailer and be sure to put in the password:  missaubgdoc)

Here is a photo of one of my students filming the pageant last year. Click here to see more “behind-the-scenes” pics from the pageant last year.

IMG_6895