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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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.


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.


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:

Like the Facebook page here:

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 ( 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  . . 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: ). 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: ). 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.

Friendship, Film Festivals & Flowers

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Here’s the thing: I like having friends.  After living in Bulgaria for 8 months now, I still don’t have many friends.  You know, the kind of friends that you call up and say “let’s grab a cup of coffee ” or “wanna join us for drinks at Groveland Tap?” or “see you at Zumba” kind of friends. I have always had friends.  We have always had friends.

I started to think something was wrong with us.  Sure, we have been invited a few times since we got here last August to join a group of professors from our university for dinner and we have enjoyed those nights and like that group.  On a few occasions we have been invited to the homes of local professors (once for a Christmas party and twice to watch a sports event).  Those nights were precious few.  Mark has gone out for a beer a couple of times with one of the locals.  I thought I would make friends with the Zumba ladies at the gym, but none of them speak English.  We have become friends with our lovely landlady and her husband (a cute couple about our age) and we enjoy their company when we get to see them.  But for the most part, we have been on our own.

We have made a few awkward overtures to “friends” asking about having a “pot luck” dinner or joining us for “for a drink.”   One time I was sure we were going to become friends with an interesting new couple but when I tried to make plans with them, the guy reminded me that “we smoke like chimneys” so we needed to “meet somewhere with lots of ashtrays.”  With my aggravated asthma, those “friends” went down the tube.

I discussed all this with Mark the other night and we decided that some people who have worked at this university for a long time and make Blagoevgrad their home don’t even attempt friendship with some of the “newbies” like us. They don’t want invest time and energy in yet another person who will most likely be gone soon enough.  They’ve seen people like us many times before, so what’s the point?

Or maybe they just take things slower around here (my theory).   People are slow to warm up.  They don’t easily trust people.  They already have their friends and family.  Who needs more?  It reminds me of Minnesota when we first arrived there. It took years to penetrate that world.

To be honest, during this time I have secretly enjoyed spending so much time with Mark.  After many years of going so many different directions with a variety of obligations, it’s been a bit like a second honeymoon.  Every night we get together to have long dinners (and sometimes even lunch in the ancient school cafeteria) and we talk about our days.  We share teaching stories and tips.  We plan our future travels.  We talk about his latest biking adventure or my frustration about getting my latest documentary edited while teaching. We talk about our past  and our present.  We hold hands and marvel at our good fortune that we are getting paid for this amazing adventure we are having.

Still, I miss my friends.  People who know you already and love you already and anyway.  People you don’t have to “date” to get to know them. So I started thinking: where do I feel the most normal? Where do I feel like I can meet anyone from anywhere and have an instant connection?  Answer: film festivals!

So this year, during our spring break, I dragged Mark along with me to three film festivals.  From Zagrebdox (Croatia) to Thessaloniki Documentary Film Festival (Greece) and then to the Sofia International Film Festival (Bulgaria), we managed to connect easily with people every step of the way.  It was a memorable mix of friends, documentaries, parties, long lunches (that sometimes turned into dinners and beyond), new friends, old friends, and oh, did I mention documentaries? So many small world connections to people I knew from the U.S. or other film fests!  Our Macalester College “daughter” Kate from our “host family” days in Minnesota was working at the film festival in Sofia where I was screening NUMB. She knew our filmmaker friends from Croatia. Things like that.  We also brought along a group of AUBG students to Thessaloniki and Sofia to expose them the world of film fests. It was fun getting to know them better. I would imagine that one day down the road, we will run into them at a film festival somewhere in the world and they will be our friends, too.

So, for about ten days, I felt completely normal.  Now it’s back to the grind. Finishing up the last few weeks of the spring semester of school and then graduation and then everyone will go their separate ways in May.  It’s one of the joys of the rhythm of university life:  we know we will be back in U.S. visiting our family and friends this summer.  Maybe the truth is that we’re not trying that hard to make new friends precisely because we know this.  I’m not sure.

Outside our kitchen window there is a pot of tulips from bulbs I bought in Amsterdam in January. I had never planted tulips before and it’s been fun watching them grow inside our apartment. Yesterday I put the pot outside because it has finally warmed up and it  looks like the stalks are almost ready to bloom.  When they do, I will be reminded that friendship, like tulips, take a long time to grow.  I’ll try to be patient.

Bulgaria: The Good.The Bad. And What I’ve Learned In Six Months.

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Today, after several stressful days getting ready for classes to begin on Monday, I did what many people do on a Saturday: cleaned up around the house, went to the gym, went grocery shopping, wrote some emails, paid some bills online, watched a movie.  I didn’t even think about where or when our next trip to some Balkan country with a strange name would be. Didn’t study any Bulgarian words. Just putzed around the house with my husband, Mark.  It felt so normal.

For the first time since we moved to Bulgaria last August, I feel like this is my home. I think it happened after almost a month of fun and travels over winter break.  When we arrived back at our apartment in Blagoevgrad earlier this week, it felt surprisingly nice.   Our apartment might not be furnished the way I would like, and it is missing important things like family and friends, but still it feels like we actually live here now.   Even with the bad experience at the airport upon our arrival. Even with the stray dogs.  And even with the polluted (4 x above minimum acceptable standards) air that I am now 100% certain that I am allergic to (special American allergy medicine is solving that problem for now).  This is our home.

Over the past six months, we have learned a lot about this part of the world, which certainly has made life interesting.   I’ve made a list of the good and the not-so-good and I thought I’d share with you.

The good things about Bulgaria:

1) I feel like we live in a time warp.  For one, the cost of living is super cheap for us. A good dinner out for 2 is about $12.  We can pick up a decent bottle of Bulgarian wine in a grocery store (any time of day) for about $3 a bottle and big bottle of beer is about $1.00 (Coca Cola is the same price). Also, there are no chain stores in our town at all.  I take that back. We recently got a Benetton on the main shopping street (a pedestrian only street for several blocks), but no one shops there because it’s too expensive for Bulgarians.  The saleslady told me that they can pay their rent for the month when one person buys a coat, and that person is usually someone from our school (  No McDonalds. No Starbucks. Just local businesses.  Love that.

2) The people are very nice.  Appreciative, attractive and pleasant.  I’ve never heard a Bulgarian person raise their voice since I’ve been here.  They are super sweet to their kids.  And they aren’t texting on their phones all the time like Americans. They like to meet friends for coffee and when they do, they sit for a long time and look you in the eye when talking to you, not down at their phone.

3) Everything is a slower pace, which you get used to …after a while.

4) I have virtually no fear of walking alone anywhere, even at night when no one else is around  (this fact is worthy of a separate post, which I will do another time)

5) Bulgarians care about old-fashioned things like opera, ballet, theater and classical music.  Really care.  I think this comes from the days before “the change” when that was all they had. No TV. No pop culture. Just music and theater and such. Our university is constantly chartering buses to take students to Sofia (1.5 hours away) for performances. Another example I saw of this dedication was during finals week when there were more than a dozen recitals, plays and concerts.  Most were packed with students (who should have been studying for finals, in my opinion) and local residents (some with their kids), even for performances that started at 10pm. Afternoon recitals of french music were seen as opportunities to teach young neighborhood residents about music history. Some faculty even joined in by acting in the plays or playing their instruments in recitals (my new favorite is harp!).  In one week, I saw the play “Art,” “Private Lives,” “The Three Sisters,”  and “Amadeus” with student actors whose  second  language is English (the majority of students here are from non-EU countries like Albania, Russia, Turkmenistan, Moldova, etc).  It was wonderful.

There are also some not-so-good things about Bulgaria.  I already mentioned the stray animals, polluted air and general chaos.   There’s more:

1) Corruption:  There’s quite a bit of corruption still in this country (ie; cash economy). I even heard from some of my students you can buy grades (!) from professors at other schools (apparently there is a list of how much it costs for an A, etc.). The students telling me this didn’t even flinch when explaining the details. It’s a way of life for them.  Just today, a border guard actually got arrested for demanding bribes (read about it here ) after many complaints were filed against him.  And don’t get me started on the cabs in Sofia.  Rip-offs galore. A professor friend of ours was left in the middle of nowhere after he questioned his taxi driver about the meter.  I actually got punched in the face by a cab driver once.  Be careful out there, people.

2) Clothes: they are too tiny for average American body (see previous post about stressful shopping in Bulgaria).  But I did manage to buy some jeans in France—that made me feel better.

3) Bad medical system (the worst in the EU).  Rakia is the solution for everything. And when that doesn’t work, things can get ugly (also stories for another time).

4) Too many papers!  You still need papers for everything.  And you need special seals on official papers with more seals from other very special people.  Seems like you fill out forms just to be able to fill out a form.  Remember “change slips” for dropping and/or adding classes? They still have them at our school and, yes, they are paper, too.

5) Smoking. Everyone here still does it. There are laws against it and no one seems to care. In restaurants, if there is a no-smoking section you feel like an outcast in a tiny corner.   That’s IF there is a no-smoking section at all.

6) Disorganization: The power in the school building goes out sporadically.  Snowstorms cause complete chaos because the snowplows the government thought they had don’t exist (read about it here:  Aging concrete sidewalk squares all around town are cracked and raised and no one knows who (if anyone) is supposed to fix them.  Paint is peeling on most buildings. Rusty things are everywhere.  Everything takes longer than it should. Example: only one over-worked elderly lady working at post office with a line of people muttering to each other is quite entertaining for people like us, who are not in a hurry anymore, but not so nice for the locals.   Bus drivers who smoke and talk on their cell phones at the same time.   But all of this is better than being under communist rule, so whatever.

Writing all this down reminds me of something that happened when I came for my interview last April.  I went for a walk on the rainy afternoon before the dinner where I was to meet other faculty.  I found the river path  (the one where I often walk now) and I saw a sliding board on a playground with a large rusted hole in it.  It was too rainy for any kids to be playing on it, but I wondered why someone hadn’t put up a notice or some police tape to mark off that hole.  I was certain that some child would surely fall through it while playing there one day, and it bothered me that no one was paying attention to their safety.  I thought to myself, “This is Bulgaria? I don’t know if I can live here.”

Recently, I walked past that rusted out sliding board again and the hole was still there. But this time, there were kids playing on it.   What I observed was that the kids simply played around the hole.  They learned to deal with it. They devised new games that didn’t involve going down the slide. Instead, they went  over the hole or under it while their moms sitting close by virtually ignored them playing so close to the rusty hole.

This time I thought to myself, “How wonderful. Why are we Americans so careful about everything all the time?”  This playground that would never pass inspection in the U.S. was creating clever children who learned on their own how to navigate a problem. And that’s what Bulgarians are like.  I’ve grown to appreciate that so much.  Why worry so much about everything?  It’s not such a big deal. We’ll find a solution.  Have some coffee or Rakia.  It was an eye-opening moment for me, and one that made me realize how much I’ve changed. Now I think it’s better when things aren’t so perfect.

So nowadays, when things don’t work the way we expect them to or we get annoyed with something, we just say to each other,  “It’s Bulgaria. ”  We say it with a smile because, for better or worse, Bulgaria is now our home.

Our Thanksgiving: We were on Bulgarian National Television

Last night, the cleaning lady came in to my office to get the trash and she had a long conversation with me in Bulgarian. I  understood very little except for the words “television” and “dashetarya” (daughter).  She kept touching her heart and making a circle around her face which makes me think she was saying “I saw you on TV with your daughter and you look alike and it was so wonderful you were all together.”   I agree with her.  It was wonderful.

Our daughter Jenna is now back in Chicago now after spending a week with us in Blagoevgrad.  It was her first visit since we moved here in August and she was curious to see our every day lives in Blago.   We showed her where we teach, introduced her to our students,  took her to our favorite restaurants, showed her the hills where Mark has been biking,  and drove her around Bulgaria in a rental car. It was such a joy to share our new life with our kid.

Among the highlights was being asked to appear on Bulgarian National Television to talk about Thanksgiving.  I would say this was definitely not our typical holiday, which we would normally spend with Mark’s parents back in Wisconsin.  Instead, we shared turkey and pumpkin pie with a bunch of ex-pats as well as international students who were curious about this holiday. The owner of a new local restaurant, Casa Adria, had gone to great lengths to prepare  all the right food so it would feel like “home.”  So this experience made a unique holiday memory for all of us.

You can watch the BTV news story here  (we are on after the Macy’s parade). . We aren’t exactly sure what the reporter is  saying, but we are pretty sure lots of people saw it since the cleaning lady is just one of many people who mentioned it.

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Here are some pics from our precious time with Jenna. We hope she will come back again.

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  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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