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!

 

 

 

 

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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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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.