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!

 

 

 

 

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

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.

A short “behind-the-scenes” documentary about the recording of the first AUBG anthem

This is a short documentary that I just finished about the recording and performance of the the first AUBG Alma Mater.  It reveals what went on behind-the-scenes, from the final rehearsal to the first time the choir met the orchestra and through to the recording and performance for the AUBG 20th Annniversary Gala at the National Theater in Sofia. The choir is conducted by  Professor Hristo Krotev, an amazing and dedicated professor here at the American University in Bulgaria, and the song was composed by composed by Gerry Van Der Sluijs.  I produced, directed and shot this video and it was edited by my uber-talented AUBG work-study student, Mariana Barakchieva.   Thought I’d share it with all of you.  (In case you don’t know, you can click on the 4 arrows at the bottom right corner of the box and you can watch the video full screen and press “escape” to come back to your computer screen.)

We are still having record snow and cold here in Bulgaria but Mark swears it smells like spring outside.  We are patiently waiting for some signs that this Minnesota-like weather is almost over.   We are off to Croatia and Greece for spring break soon, so that should help 🙂

A short documentary about the making of a short film

It’s been a crazy week. Some of the highlights include:

– meeting the Bulgarian king (pictures coming soon as proof!)

– visiting Sofia to have meetings with some filmmakers and then stopping to shop at IKEA, which just opened here last week

– moving to another apartment (same building, higher floor)

– planning a trip to bring 30 of my students to a film festival in Macedonia this weekend (Bitola, here we come in a bus!)

And teaching. And so on.

So for the first time since Mark and I  got here here, I felt a strong urge to do something creative, just for me. So I finally dug out the hard drive I brought with me to Bulgaria (thank you, Allie!) with the “behind-the-scenes” footage I shot of the making of the short film “Hole in the Wall.”  What fun to re-live the energy and synergy of director Amanda Becker and assistant director Carrie Bush along with DP Dave Schnack and the rest of this fantastic Minnesota crew. Truth be told, it made me miss my homies but it was also a nice way to feel connected. And to feel like I was doing something really normal. Like staying up late editing something. Just for me.

I can’t tell you how much fun I had working on this. I hope you enjoy watching it as much as I enjoyed making it. Now I’ve got to get back to prepping for classes, mid-term reviews (yes, it’s already mid-terms!), field trips, etc. More updates soon!

*Note: If you want to watch the video full screen, click on the 4 arrows next to the word “Vimeo” on the lower right hand side of the box.

Some thoughts about Eleanor Mondale

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

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

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

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

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