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?

mark and mel i thessa

Us

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Spring is just around the corner!

 

 

 

 

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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Sex, Brains and Videotape: How Feminism Missed the Balkans

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When I accepted a job teaching at the prestigious American University in Bulgaria, I never (never!) thought I’d be watching my students parading around on a stage in bikinis and evening gowns in front of a large crowd at a nightclub in a beauty pageant.   These AUBG (www.aubg.bg) students are some of the best and brightest from 44 countries around the world that come to the Blagoevgrad to get an American-style education. They are a hard-working bunch of high-achieving students. Many of them work summer jobs as dishwashers or maids in resort towns such as Martha’s Vineyard or Myrtle Beach to pay their own tuition to attend this private school because their parents in Albania, Russia or Turkmenistan can’t afford it.  They want to be politicians, journalists and business owners. And, surprisingly, some of them actually want to be “Miss AUBG.”

When I was a kid, I remember being excited to watch the annual “Miss America” pageant. My father owned a chain of women’s clothing stores and he would sometimes sponsor the local “Miss Maryland” contest by donating clothes to contestants (he said it was great publicity for the stories).  When it came time for the “Miss America” pageant, my family would gather round the TV set in our living room and watch the live event together. We all had a great time trying to guess who would win. We each had our own ballots and took notes and it was always exciting when “Miss Maryland” would place in some category (usually talent, to my father’s disappointment).  So I certainly understand the pleasure of watching a pageant.

But when I got old enough to really understand what was really going on, I started refusing to watch the pageants. I argued with my parents about this because I didn’t think it was a good idea to objectify women like that.   Why should women be judged on beauty and not on brains?  I also wondered about these women.  Why would they even want to be judged like that?  I haven’t watched a pageant since.

So when I heard about the Miss AUBG pageant, I immediately thought it had to be a joke or a spoof of some kind.  Yes, we are in the Balkans where women are very beautiful and beauty is valued, but we are also at an American University with American values. If this were a pageant happening at university in the States, I would imagine there would be huge protests against such a thing.  I couldn’t imagine anyone here would want be involved. Boy, was I wrong.  It appears that feminism skipped the Balkans.   Here is the official description of the event:

<<Miss AUBG Beauty Pageant is a magnificent annual event where beautiful AUBG girls present themselves in front of the audience wearing various styles, dancing and demonstrating their individual talents. All the contestants are evaluated by the professional jury members on the basis of their charm and talent. The girls undergo extensive training in catwalk, dance and other skills in order to present themselves the best way. At the end of the Miss AUBG show, jury announces Miss AUBG of the year, Miss Audience, Miss Charm, Miss Talent and other awards granted by our sponsors and honorable guests>>

After reading this synopsis, I decided that I wanted to make a documentary about this subject.  I thought it would be interesting to select a couple of the contestants and find out more about them (click here to see the contestants  .http://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.292408380833052.68504.287315831342307&type=1 . What was their motivation for participating? How did they think this would change their lives? What do their families and friends think about this?

As luck would have it, I’m also teaching a documentary production class this semester so I asked my students if they wanted to work with me as a team to make this documentary as a class project. They agreed (some reluctantly) and they spent the week leading up to the pageant doing interviews with students, faculty, administration, previous participants and founders as well as documenting 5 contestants as they prepared for the competition (see the class blog about the making of the documentary here: http://missaubgdoc.wordpress.com ). From rehearsals to classes to hanging out with boyfriends and friends to selecting their gowns and getting their hair done, my students were there every step of the way with the university’s trusty Nikon, Sony and Kodak cameras along with a couple of brand new wireless microphones.  Some secrets were revealed… stories were shared…and many hours of footage was captured and backed up on a hard drive.  One universal truth came from these interviews: these girls are not ashamed of their beauty or their sexuality and they don’t see a problem with sharing both on a stage for the world to see.

The night of the pageant, Club Xtreme was packed with men and women at 11 p.m. waiting for the show to start.  My students were in position in several locations (including the dressing room) ready to capture all the action. The pageant opened with previous Miss AUBG participants, called “AUBG Angels,” doing a sexy dance in white short shorts and pink tank tops that said “I heart Miss AUBG.”  (see video from that dance here:  http://bit.ly/HFMybp ). From there, things got more outrageous as the contestants sashayed down the runway in skimpy bathing suits and showcased their talent (ballet, singing, dancing) and modeled skin-tight gowns.  It was honestly shocking for me and it was the biggest culture shock I’ve experienced since moving to Bulgaria last year. But clearly I was in the minority because the rest of the audience was enjoying it.

Groups of guys drinking heavily chanted and cheered for their favorite contestants. Judges (ie; sponsors) with serious faces kept track of scores on their ballots (one was even snapping pictures of each girl as he “judged” them).  And the show hosts kept the action going by asking questions to contestants like “what would you do if you had a million dollars?”

In the end, the “Miss This” and “Miss That” was announced while the previous “Miss AUBG” stood waiting in the wings to give her crown to the new winner.  The room was filled with anticipation as the new Miss AUBG was announced.  Cheers erupted and there were hugs all around when the winner was crowned.  That moment felt like a loss for feminism, but a win for the documentary because one of the girls we were following is now wearing that crown.

The “Miss AUBG Beauty Pageant” exposes the vast gulf between what would be unacceptable at an American school and what is generally acceptable at the American University in Bulgaria.  But filming the contestants also forced me to look at this competition from a new perspective within the cultural context of this region.  These young women are not even a little bit ashamed as I would have expected. In fact, they are actually proud to participate in a beauty pageant. I hope our film will explore the complexities of this issue and reveal the inner beauty and brains of the contestants, something that was lost in the alcohol-fueled proceedings on pageant night.

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.

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