Political Rally and a Coffee Cup

As we headed out for dinner last night, we heard some very loud music which is not something you hear every day in Blagoevgrad. So we followed the noise and ended up in the town square where there was a huge shiny stage with neon lights and large crowds of people waving flags.

Turns out that there  is a national election coming up here and one of the mayoral candidates threw a big party for the town  including performances by a famous rock star (winner of Bulgaria Idol, or something- the band was good!) and the Bulgarian national dance company.  These dancers put on quite a show of variety of dances from around the world from  hip-hop and Hungarian and all I can say is it was simply joyful to watch! This was Broadway musical quality stuff and so much fun to see while standing in the town center (and made me realize how culture-starved I might be).   We found out later that the head of the dance troupe is a former Olympic Bulgarian gymnast (she came out for a bow at the end).  At the very end of all this, the Mayor showed up to say a few words (no big speech, just a few words) and to urge people to vote. Now that’s one way to get people voting, I say.  Tonight, the Socialist party put on another event for their candidate and needless to say it did not have the same feeling.

Once the big show was over, we were hungry so we decided to stop in for a bite to eat at  our favorite neighborhood restaurant  (for our Minnesota friends, this is our new “Groveland Tap”).   After we got the bill, the waitress came over smiling and handed me something:  my very precious reusable coffee cup! This cup is a big part of my life from home and I was going crazy without it and had no idea where it was.   It turns out that  I had left it there the week before and they kept it for me until I came back!   Surprised, I thanked her and then turned around and nodded to the bartender/barista who sometimes makes my morning capuccino for me in that cup and he waved back at me. At that moment, I realized that we really do live here.


This slideshow requires JavaScript.


Macedonia and Kosovo: Sensory Overload

Just back from our combo hired car–and-bus trip to Macedonia and Kosovo.   A quick summary:  this area is a mix of contrasts, chaos, churches, natural beauty, nightlife, meat, mosques, trash, border crossings and a lasting love of Bill Clinton.    For more, read on for some random musings:

  1. Bus drivers and cab drivers in the Balkans seem to be obsessed with music from the 70’s and 80’s.  It’s pretty weird to hear Madonna singing “Like a Virgin” as you are driving through a mostly Muslim country. It’s also equally strange to watch a music video on a bus in Kosovo that is a cross between an Albanian version of American Idol mixed with those old-time female singers who performed on Lawrence Welk. Picture women dressed in tight-fitting sequined gowns alongside other women in traditional dress singing pop songs.  This while passing mosques in the countryside.  Mind-boggling stuff.
  2.  Skopje, the capital of Macedonia, is a vibrant and bustling city of contrasts.  We connected with some filmmaker friends of mine who live there and said “we’ll meet you under the fountain with the big horse warrior.”  So off we went to find this incredibly beautiful giant fountain in the town square that was erected just 2 weeks ago (!) and has since become a huge people magnet  (maybe you saw the YouTube videos of people celebrating there when the Macedonian basketball team beat Lithuania and thus ALMOST won the European championships http://www.youtube.com/watchv=UZC4f7DLQX8&feature=relatedwhen).  The fountain is topped by Alexander the Great (apparently a controversial choice) and frequently changes colors to the amusement of children and adults alike. This city also has crumbling benches, stray dogs and cats, a fascinating  Old Bazaar  across the stone bridge (from 15th century ) from the fountain which is the largest bazaar in the Balkans outside Istanbul. The stone paths and curvy streets were packed with music and people until late into the night. There we drank and ate with my filmmaker friends that I had met last year in Sofia and we had a great time. We definitely plan to go back here and spend more time exploring bustling Skopje.
  1. Prizren, Kosovo:  Picture a charming city that is along the banks of a shallow river and surrounded by mountains. This city is linked to the Albanian coast (2 hours to the sea) on a brand new highway (unusual for these parts) and dotted with elegant old buildings constructed over many centuries.  It’s also the city with one of the best documentary festivals in the world (Dokufest) each summer. Here we had the wonderful opportunity to meet with the founder of the festival, Veton Nurkollari, and see the Dokufest office where all the docu-magic happens. Veton was a wonderful host who took us to an art opening in a 15th century hammam (turkish bath) and then to his favorite place for dinner (just point to the meat you would like cooked for your meal and they c0ok it for you) and after dinner to his favorite bar for après-dinner drinks on busy street bustling with people and chatter until the wee hours of the night. The view from our hotel room gives you a sense of this charming town from above. The morning call to prayer  from  the newly renovated mosque in the center of town was especially powerful as the sun was coming up.
  2. Next stop: Pristina, Kosovo.  First reaction:  picture a city that is complete chaos, traffic-clogged, over-built and polluted. Given that Pristina has been bombed as recently as 1999, this all makes sense.  But we were getting tired by this point in our trip and did not have a hotel booked (and phones that did not work)  so we decided to start heading back to Bulgaria (which would require 3 buses and about 8 hours of travel time to get back).   On our way to the bus station, we passed a large statue of Bill Clinton!  To this day, Clinton is loved and adored for launching the NATO bombing that stopped the ethnic cleansing of Albanians by the Serbs.   There is even a boulevard named after Clinton.  Anyone we talked to who asked us where we are from would say things like “We love the USA” and “Thank you for helping us.”  Strange feeling to be loved for being an American, especially given all the other things going on in the world today.
  3. After many hours and transfers on buses, we finally got back to Bulgaria. But not until we were stopped at the last border crossing and we were all asked to get off the bus and take out our luggage for inspection, which took about an extra hour. Not a pleasant way to end the trip.  The border crossing rituals of passports that are taken away and given back several times on each side of any border is a constant reminder of what it means that we have our freedom to travel between these countries. Many people in this region do not.
  4. All along the way, there is trash, trash, and trash. On the sides of roads, in front of houses, on street corners…everywhere. It just seems like this part of the world hasn’t figured out how to deal with trash.  I took a picture of a house across the street from the U.S. Embassy in Skopje that had a huge pile of trash and another pic of a pile of trash on the side of a rural road somewhere.  But often the trash will be next to something very beautiful so it’s a little bit disarming.
  5.  Finally, I just want to say that I have noticed that women in this region are dressed either very fashionably or they are stuck in the 70’s and that goes for hair styles as well.   Check out this hairdo ( in the slideshow below) of  a lady who was on our last bus!

In summary, this was an incredible 4 days and is exactly the kind of experiences we were hoping for when Mark Wollemann and I  moved to Blagoevgrad to teach at AUBG.  One thing I realize is that I still have so much learn about this region and the history. This is just the beginning.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

25 years ago today…

….I married my husband, Mark Wollemann. Best decision I ever made. I hope that in another 25 years we will be like this couple that I saw in Blagoevgrad the other day,  just  reading newspapers and hanging out together (and maybe sitting closer on the bench).  Even if there are no newspapers then, it will be okay to just hang out together.  

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Some thoughts about Eleanor Mondale

I have to admit that most of the time, I don’t miss “home” very much.  I rarely think about the past because right now I am very busy creating new memories.  But sometimes, like when I heard that Eleanor Mondale died, http://www.startribune.com/130015258.html, I did wish I was back in Minnesota for a day or two.  Just to be able to commune with colleagues and friends and to talk about shared experiences.

I do believe the last professional work Eleanor did was narrate the documentary I made about her dad, former Vice President Walter Mondale.  Working on the movie with her was such a joy because we both knew (but never said) that she was giving her dad a very special gift, one that would allow her to live on in a unique way. When she showed up at my office with a bag full of old family home videos, I knew that she trusted me with this mission. When she recorded her voice over for the movie, she did it with great passion even though she wasn’t feeling well.  Her husband, musician Chan Poling, composed a beautiful score for film. I remember that as I was wrapping up production, I would send him finished chunks of the movie each night and in the morning he would have another beautiful score and I would call him, crying, saying how perfect and passionate the music was and we both knew (but never said)  that this was a gift he was giving Eleanor and the Mondale family. So much unspoken emotion.

So the night of this news that Eleanor had lost her battle with brain cancer, Mark and I went out to to a  cafe an Blagoevgrad and toasted Eleanor’s feisty life and her love for her dad.  I cried a few times, the unspoken emotion welling up inside of me.  I remembered how Mr. Mondale lit up during interviews when talking about Eleanor.  It was those moments when he was most himself – just another dad who loved his daughter.

Today, I received an email from someone in the family thanking me for making the movie. “I  watched it today and was able to see Eleanor and I really appreciate that you gave us all a way to see her whenever we need” and then added that the documentary would be “cherished forever.”   I can’t tell you what a difference it made to feel connected to “home” by getting that message. How grateful I am that I had the opportunity to give the Mondale family this gift.  How lucky I am that I do what I do.

My heart goes out to the Mondale family and all those who loved Eleanor Mondale Poling.   RIP Eleanor.

Video of first day of school in Blagoevgrad

There is a lovely tradition in Bulgaria where the whole town turns out for the first day of school to celebrate the beginning of the new school year. Children bring their teachers flowers and there is a long program that includes singing, speeches by local dignitaries, poetry readings and even dancing. At the end,  the names of all the new children are read one by one as the kids walk in the school for the first time. It’s a lovely tradition, simply lovely.  I shot this video on the spur of the moment when I grabbed my Flip Cam and ran outside to see what all the hoopla was about.

I also managed to shoot a few photos of the children and their flowers that I hope you’ll enjoy (click on pics to make them larger). I feel so incredibly lucky to be here in Blagoevgrad and to be a witness to moments like these! 


Miracles at the Monastery

It’s the first day of elementary school here in Blagoevgrad and there are dozens of moms and dads dropping off their kids.  And what are they carrying in their hands? Not the newest and fanciest lunchboxes. No, they are carrying flowers to give to their teachers. Now that is a nice tradition and very typical of Bulgarians who  are always insisting on giving somebody something.  That’s how it was when Mark met a poor farmer while biking last week (see his blog post here) , and that is how it was  when we went to the Rhozen Monastery this past weekend.
 To  be honest,  Mark and I are not big fans of visiting churches.   Sure, we do our share as tourists and sometimes we are glad we did.  This was one of those days because something very unexpected and wonderful happened.
There was only a smattering of people when we arrived  (quite the opposite of the Rila Monastery, which was packed with tourists and buses and is, as I mentioned previously, known as the “Jerusalem of Bulgaria.”).  Rhozen was  quiet. Very quiet. The few people who were there were very intent on lighting candles and visiting the icon– a painting of Virgin Mary whose eyes follow you–  that allegedly provides miracles to those who pray in front of it.   It’s a very sacred and beautiful space at the foot of a Pirin Mountains that dates  back from Middle Ages. http://www.bulgariatripsandtours.com/melnik-rozhen-monastery/
I don’t know that I’ve  ever been so moved in a religious building (other than my own).  I don’t really know why.  Maybe it was the delicate way the monk took care of the candles.  Maybe it was the way you could practically hear the people silently praying in front of the icon (read the story about it here ).  Or maybe it was the feeling of a connection to the craftsmen who carefully painted the frescoes and patiently carved the wood.  Or maybe it was the quiet.
And then, our own little miracle happened.
It turns out that our tour guides for the day, Tsenko and Elmira,  knew this monk from a long time ago (Tsenko’s company at one time helped raise money for renovations and general upkeep of the monastery).  Tsenko gestured towards us to follow him and we walked up to squeaky steps to the third floor to the  private quarters. The monk unlocked what appeared to be a study room and we were told to sit down because we were invited for coffee.
We sat, quietly, for about 10 minutes while this monk prepared the coffee which, it turned out, was more than just coffee.  Out comes this bearded monk carrying a tray with beautiful hand-painted espresso coffee cups, water, chocolate and …rakia.   He carefully set each cup down in front of us and then we made a toast.  For the next half hour, we drank the special monastery-made rakia (my guess is that it was at least 50% alcohol)  in between sips of espresso and bites of delicious Greek chocolate,  an absolutely perfect breakfast! We found out that he is one of two monks who lives on the grounds.  Imagine, just 2 monks left to serve their God and take care of this historic place.
Tsenko and the monk were chatting away and, at one point, they even exchanged cell phone numbers by calling each others phones.  Yes, phones! This really surprised me given that there are signs everywhere stating that no cameras, phones or even “excessive laughter”  was allowed in the monastery. But here, in the private quarters of this ancient monastery, there was laughter and pleasure and rakia and phones.
I very  much wanted a photo of our new friend and asked Elmira if it would be disrespectful to ask him if I could take a picture.  She said she would ask. Miraculously, he said yes (see photo below). I also managed to snap a few other photos including the aftermath of our breakfast and a few other things  I hope give you the feeling of this special morning.
From Rhozen, we went to Melnik to do some wine tasting and then to Sanduski to breathe the fresh air of the mountains (said to be very good for asthma and other medical conditions) and then back home.   Earlier in the week,  we went to the international ski resort town of Bankso.  I’ll post more about those trips another time.  In the meantime, you can read Mark’s blog because he nicely summarizes our trips to those places.
But really, it is the people here who continually surprise us.  Their generosity of spirit. Their pleasure at giving to strangers.   Like most of you, we  knew very little about Bulgaria before we came here. Now, we feel connected and see things in a way you can only feel when you live somewhere.  It’s something that brings us joy every day.

Mark is blogging now, too!

Mark's first blog post

Mark’s blog is  up and running!   He’s writing about his biking adventures and life. Check out it out here:    http://markwollemannonthemove.wordpress.com

We had a nice relaxing weekend and stayed in town grading papers,  going to the farmer’s market and watching the parade of people sauntering by.  Now that we have settled in, we will start traveling more next week.    In the meantime, I thought you’d like to see  a pic of  a typical young couple out for an afternoon stroll.  Can’t imagine her sauntering around St. Paul, Minnesota in the day time in that dress and those heels but it’s really normal here!

A young couple out for an afternoon saunter

Fresh fruit, fresh cheese and home made honey from the Blago farmer's market