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.

23359_10200314754173194_810189654_n

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.

IMG_5774

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.

IMG_5395

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.

tea-for-two

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!)

Screen Shot 2014-12-13 at 5.52.55 PM

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).

opening night

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!).

Screen Shot 2014-07-04 at 10.54.47 PM

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

IMG_0718

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.

IMG_3661

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.

Screen Shot 2014-11-21 at 3.22.59 PM

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

IMG_7671

Spring is just around the corner!

 

 

 

 

Advertisements

Friendship, Film Festivals & Flowers

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

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.

The Bulgarian Ballet

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Last weekend we went to Sofia for some meetings and to get some culture, and I asked Mark if he would come to the ballet with me. Yes, the ballet. I proposed a good old-fashioned performance of Giselle by the best ballet dancers in Bulgaria.  Even though Cirque de Soleil was in Sofia and it seemed like everyone we knew was going to that performance, he agreed. We could see Cirque any time back in the U.S. (and have seen it several times before), but the National Ballet of Bulgaria would be a rare and special opportunity for us.

From the second we walked in the door of the National Opera and Ballet, I was smitten.  Like many little girls, I had dreams of becoming a ballet dancer. I got as far as toe shoes (ah, the joy!) until one day my Russian ballet teacher, who walked around the room with some kind of stick, smacked the barre next to my hand and shouted “you too fat” and that was the end of my dream.  I was 12.  My mother picked me up from practice that day and I told her I wanted to quit ballet. I never told her why. That night, I wrapped the pink satin ribbons around the toe shoes one last time and put them in a box and said goodbye to the shoes that made me think I was beautiful and that I could do anything.  I had not been to a ballet performance since my dream had been crushed.

That night in Sofia brought me back. I loved the costumes (I still remember my first poofy pink “tutu”) and the sound of the toe shoes hitting the floor in between outrageous leaps and spins. What kind of human beings can do all of that and keep a smile on their face and not look like they were breathing hard?

Our daughter Jenna was a competitive gymnast and routinely performed amazing feats of her own, such as back flips on a 4-inch-wide balance beam and other ridiculously scary skills on the floor, vault and uneven bars. Her grandparents, who attended the meets religiously, would often hold their breath while waiting for a safe landing. I loved watching our little graceful girl fly through the air in her team leotard. She was strong and powerful and proud, especially after receiving many first-place medals for her incredible athletic accomplishments.

But ballet is different. It’s more, oh, I suppose I could say it’s more cultured.  There are costumes and stories and scenery and women and men dancing together and it’s simply lovely.  I had always secretly had a crush on the strong and graceful Russian ballet dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov, (especially once he started appearing in the TV show “Sex and the City”) and that  night in Sofia the lead male dancer in purple tights and a gold-encrusted vest reminded me of him, at least from our seats in the 15th row. I was in heaven.

During the intermission, we went into the beautiful lobby with marble columns where little girls were leaping and spinning and pretending to be ballerinas. I asked Mark what he thought and he just shrugged his shoulders and said, “It’s okay.”  I couldn’t believe it. How could this just be “okay?”   I got angry with him. Couldn’t he appreciate what we were seeing? We are in BULGARIA at the National Ballet! I went with him to see his beloved Green Bay Packers, couldn’t he just enjoy the ballet for one night?

But then I realized this was my dream, not his.  Sometimes spouses do things for each other even when they don’t really want to. That’s just what we do. We went back inside for the second act, which Mark enjoyed more than the first act (or so he said). Even if he didn’t really enjoy it more, I appreciated the effort he made to make me think he did.

As we were leaving, I looked at Mark and thanked him. I realized then that even though I had put those shoes away in a box a long time ago, I had become beautiful and I could do anything, especially with my husband right by my side.

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

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

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 (www.aubg.bg).  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:  http://www.novinite.com/view_news.php?id=135648).  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.

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.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

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.


Mark is blogging now, too!

Mark's first blog post

Mark’s blog is  up and running!   He’s writing about his biking adventures and life. Check out it out here:    http://markwollemannonthemove.wordpress.com

We had a nice relaxing weekend and stayed in town grading papers,  going to the farmer’s market and watching the parade of people sauntering by.  Now that we have settled in, we will start traveling more next week.    In the meantime, I thought you’d like to see  a pic of  a typical young couple out for an afternoon stroll.  Can’t imagine her sauntering around St. Paul, Minnesota in the day time in that dress and those heels but it’s really normal here!

A young couple out for an afternoon saunter

Fresh fruit, fresh cheese and home made honey from the Blago farmer's market