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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!)

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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).

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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!).

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

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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.

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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.

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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?

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Us

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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/

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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 🙂

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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.

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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.

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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.

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A Visit to Russia

TODAY I MET A WOMAN MY AGE IN RUSSIA WHO ATE ONLY SUGAR CUBES AND POTATOES WHEN SHE WAS PREGNANT WITH TWINS. That’s all the food they had.  Her husband had a job in a factory, but he didn’t get paid any money for several years so they got paid in sugar cubes.  When I asked her how she survived that, she said she didn’t know and she doesn’t want to remember because it was “very difficult” and that she was hungry “all the time” for several years.  I couldn’t help but look at this lovely woman sitting across from me drinking tea in her kitchen, surrounded by art projects her daughters made as they were growing up, and think that could have been me, if not for a twist of fate.

MY ANCESTORS ARE FROM RUSSIA. When my grandfather was a young boy, he somehow escaped the Pogroms and got on a boat to America. I have additional relatives that came to America from Russia (present-day Belarus and Poland).  As a child, I would hear whispers about far away cities such as Grodno and Brezin, but no one in my family seemed to want to talk about the past.  For many years, I proudly displayed the large brass Samovar my grandfather brought with him – the only thing he was allowed to carry on the ship to America- in the dining room of my home in Minnesota. It was something that connected me to my past and made me think that I came from a people who were strong and brave to cross an ocean to a land they didn’t know.

TODAY, BECAUSE OF ANOTHER TWIST OF FATE, I AM IN RUSSIA. Last year, I moved to Bulgaria with my husband to teach journalism and documentary filmmaking at the American University in Bulgaria.  AUBG is the most prestigious university in the Balkan region with students from 44 countries who come to Blagoevgrad to get an American-style liberal arts education in English. (For those of you from Minnesota, AUBG is like the Macalester of the Balkans.)  A few weeks ago, I was thrilled when I was notified that I was selected to help recruit high school students from Russia to our fascinating school. This is what brings me back to the land of my ancestors. Before I left, several people warned me to “be careful” and “don’t get in any trouble.” Even though the Communist Party of the Soviet Union was officially abolished in 1991, everyone has heard lately about how the Pussy Riot band members are on trial for speaking out against Russian President Vladimir Putin. My family and friends wanted to make sure I didn’t say or do anything wrong. Few Americans have ever been to Russia, so all we have is our pre-conceived notions of what this country is really like.

TO MY SURPRISE, RUSSIA SEEMS A LOT LIKE AMERICA IN MANY WAYS.  This might sound strange to people who study politics and war, but I study and observe human nature and human behavior. What I am seeing is people who look and act like Americans in many ways.

1. RUSSIANS SHOP A LOT.  There are big shopping malls and American chain stores such as Adidas, Starbucks and Benetton in every major city. Large pedestrian-only streets are packed with shoppers carrying several bags, many of them from those stores. Many young women in extremely high heels are dressed like models from New York and there are children in Nikes and t-shirts with English slogans.  Men in jeans and sweaters are indistinguishable from any American city. Everyone has a cell phone. I’ve also seen many young people with iPads and iPhones in schools where there are few, if any, computers for students.

2. RUSSIANS EAT ALOT.  McDonalds in Saratov, a port city on the Volga River about 500 miles south of Moscow,  was packed. Traditional bakeries filled with delicious sweets are jammed with families taking a break from shopping. I ate my first “Rum Baba,” which is an incredibly delicious raisin bread soaked in rum (but you can’t taste the rum) from one of the best bakeries I’ve ever visited. Tourists (if there were any in Saratov) would go crazy over this spot. Grocery stores in all cities I have visited are full of products from all over the world.  One market had prepared food for take away, just like Whole Foods. The “cafeteria ladies” in the school canteens where we are recruiting proudly display the healthy food they make including borscht, kasha and stuffed cabbage rolls (all food from my childhood). In one school, I had the best cheese blini (my grandmother called them “blintzes”) I have ever eaten along with “compote,” a fabulous boiled juice drink made with fresh fruit. And Russians are obsessed with tea! Even the kids in school drink tea from a young age.  The overnight train I was on from Moscow to Saratov was in poor condition, but the teacups were beautiful.

3. RUSSIANS TALK A LOT, except on the tram, in subways and in train stations where everyone is stone-faced and extremely quiet.  My traveling partner,  AUBG recruiter Svetlana Bondar, calls that look  “the wall.” But get Russians in the lobby of a theater after a play, and you will hear them chatting and debating what they just saw. Every city I visited had multiple theaters that are full every night of the week.  While in Yekaterinburg, I had the pleasure of seeing a performance of “The Seagull” by Anton Chekhov as well as an engaging performance of  “ Squaring the Circle “ by a famous Russian playwright Valentin Kataev, courtesy an AUBG parent.  Even though it was in Russian,  I understood both performances and I especially enjoyed the Kataev play because it was a funny story about two married couples sharing the same apartment. Best of all,  one of the lead actors was the father of an AUBG student, which made the evening very special.  Both shows were packed with people of all ages.  No one on cell phones, no one tweeting, no one sleeping. The entire audience was riveted.  It made me wish that American young people were equally engaged in the arts instead of their video games and sports teams. This love for theater also explains why so many of our AUBG students wouldn’t miss the end-of-the semester school plays, even when they are performed at midnight during finals week.

4. RUSSIAN TV PROGRAMS LOOK LIKE OURS. Last night I saw a Russian version of “American Idol,” several old war movies, a boxing match, an Oprah-like makeover show of hefty women, various news programs, talk shows, cartoons and even the “Disney Channel” on Sunday morning.  If I turned off the sound, I wouldn’t know where I was.

Now, here is where we are not alike:

1. THE FREE SPEECH ISSUE:  This is a big one. Since I have been here, the Pussy Riot case has been in the news and one of the Pussy Riot members was freed but the rest are still in prison.  Not one single Russian person I have met has talked about this issue with me in public.  In private, some Russians have explained to me that you can speak out about anything here except for few sacred things: Putin and religion. Yesterday I saw this on CNN:

“The government has introduced numerous new restrictions to freedom of expression in recent months. As this decision demonstrates, Russia’s judiciary is unlikely to offer much protection to those who fall foul of them.”

In private, I have heard concerns about the direction this country is heading under President Putin, whose recent election stirred protests and accusations of fraudulent voting.  Anti-Putin protesters were arrested and jailed along with Pussy Riot band members.  One thing for sure: no one here wants to go back to the way things were in the days of the Gulag or sugar cubes for a salary.

2. THE LACK OF DIVERSITY:  There are few, if any, people of color or obvious ethnicity in the cities where I visited (except for Moscow).  This is strange, especially coming from the melting pot of the United States. In Russia, I am one of the few “foreigners.” When I speak English in cities such as Saratov and Yekaterinburg, everyone wants to know where I am from and why I am here.  Sveta has advised me to not speak so much in public because “you never know what people will want from you.”   The cafeteria lady at one of the schools told me how nice it was to “see a foreigner.”   She kept smiling at me and wanted to make sure that I liked her food.  I was asked to sign a guest book in another school cafeteria.  Because the U.S. is country that is filled with so many people of every kind of ethnicity and religion one can imagine, it is strange to be somewhere where I am considered unique.

3. SUSPICIOUS BEHAVIOR Don’t talk to strangers. That’s the advice I got from many people when I told them I was coming here.  When I am alone (which is rare), I am careful to keep to myself and not look anyone in the eye. One of my favorite activities when I travel is to go to grocery stores, something I can do alone and feel like a local.  One can tell a lot about any culture by seeing the food they eat, the products they sell and buy. So yesterday I went for a walk in a nearby park in Saratov and then stopped in the neighborhood market. I spent about an hour wandering around looking at products, smelling things (dried fish!) and deciding what to buy.  Then I noticed that I was being followed.  After smelling some Russian shampoos, I turned around to see a woman in a security guard uniform staring at me.  Fortunately, she didn’t speak to me but just shot me a glowering look.  Again, about ten minutes later, the same thing happened with a different guard in the liquor aisle as I was checking out two aisles of beer and vodka. Mind you, I didn’t even have a purse and I wasn’t carrying any bags, so I could not have been shoplifting and I couldn’t understand why I was being watched. Quickly, I decided to check out at the cashier and bought a few things and rushed back to my hotel.  When I told my traveling partner Sveta this story, she said that shopping that way was not normal.  Most Russians just go into the store and buy what they need and leave.  The guards might have thought I was casing the place, possibly planning something in the future.  This was a strange experience for me, but a good reminder that there is general distrust of strangers or anything that even appears different, such as leisurely strolling around a grocery store.

4. CORRUPTION IS NORMAL There’s not much to say about this except that it is a normal part of daily life here (also in Bulgaria). Imagine my surprise to find out that grades can be bought. Even college degrees have a price tag!  Everyone knows. It’s normal.

SO… what have I learned on this trip?  Well, it’s not over yet, but from what I have seen so far I can say that I am proud to have Russian blood. How can I say this after my ancestors were forced to flee this country?  Because I think that knowing that you are connected to a country that goes back to, oh, the year 862, helps one understand that human beings are actually more predictable than we think.  There will always be war. There will always be rulers and followers. There will always be rich and poor.  There will always be times of freedom, repression and corruption. There will always be discrimination of somebody or something.  And because of that cycle of life, there will always be people who develop courage. Some are heroes that you can read about in history books who are immortalized for their grand feats. Others are quiet heroes, like the Russian mother who learned to deal with her hunger while eating only sugar cubes.  It made her a stronger person, knowing she could survive that.  She gave that to her daughters.  It’s a gift they don’t know they have.

I realize now that my grandfather’s journey to America gave me an inner strength that I never understood until today.I think that’s why I kept the Samovar he carried with him in my dining room for so many years.  His courage is his gift to me.  Now that I’ve been to Russia, at least I understand where this comes from.

                                                   My Russian Ancestors 

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