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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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” ( 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

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:

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

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, 


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 🙂

Twitter: @MelodyMN @frozenfeetfilms
Teaching: &  www.jmc-aubg &
Instagram: melodygilbert01
Skype: melody.gilbert

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:

Speechless in Blagoevgrad

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Quite possibly for the first time in my life I was speechless.   I was standing on a stage in a basement bar in front of hundreds of college students. My name had been called and I was urged to the front of the room where students in the journalism department (known here as JMC) honored me at their annual “JMC Rocks” party for being an inspiration to many journalism students this year at AUBG.  There I was, the teacher who pretty much talks non-stop with my students, but at this moment I couldn’t think of one thing to say.  I was stunned.  I think I said something like, “It’s been a wonderful year” and “keep making documentaries” and then I held the large basket of flowers over my head and posed for pictures as if I had won an Oscar.  It has been a wonderful year.

I tell you this story not to brag, but to share with you the generous spirit of the students here at the American University in Bulgaria.  They are so appreciative and they aren’t afraid to show it. Many come from countries where professors are distant and scary and discouraging.  One student from Russia told me that the authoritative professors are constantly berating students by telling them that they will amount to nothing.  So they skimp and save and do what they can  (including working summer jobs in the U.S. as housekeepers and pizza makers) to be able come to AUBG and pay for an American-style liberal arts education. It’s the sort of education that includes talking with professors over a cup of coffee, or in my case, tagging along to film festivals.  This means so much to these students who often come from so far (Albania, Turkmenistan, Moldova, Armenia, etc.) from so little  (parents who are honey bee farmers, small shopkeepers and sometimes unemployed) and have big dreams (journalist, economist, CEO).


A few days after the “JMC Rocks”event, we attended the “More Honors” show.   This is a spectacular event that resembles that Academy Awards in format and is put on by a group of about 20 students known as the “More Honors Academy.” Their “Oscar” is a statue with a very large and extended body part (see video from opening ceremony here)  so you get the idea of the tone of the event.  Students can nominate and vote in various categories such as Hipster, Public Enemy, Casanova and Lick-a-fessor (you can guess what that one is) and Coolest Non-Student (I was nominated in this category along with the “kitchen ladies” and a few others).  Throughout the year, the More Honors students spend most of their time producing, shooting and editing short films to introduce each category.  They are often quite elaborate productions made by a group of students who just like making films and having fun.  Winners are announced that night and come up to the stage for a snarky Q & A with the show host.  I didn’t win that night, but I still feel like I won just for being nominated.


–       A screening of a documentary made about the Miss AUBG beauty pageant (see previous post about it) that was made as part of my documentary class.  These students did the impossible—they shot and edited a feature-length documentary in less than three weeks.  We had a “sneak preview” screening of the rough cut and got great feedback  (link to blog here).  A couple of exceptionally dedicated students plan to finish the editing this summer so we can send it out to film festivals and/or post on YouTube for all to see.   The same class made short docs during the first half of the semester – check out the YT page HERE (right now only one doc is there called “Boxing Father”  but the rest will be there soon).  The top docs  (audience and jury award) were screened on Bulgarian National Television (see pics).

–       I taught a one-week “Documentary Boot Camp” in Sofia that was sponsored by the U.S. Embassy as part of the Swan Art Academy.   Some of the participants were film students and others were first time filmmakers.  They worked really hard to make a short documentary in one week and we had a public screening that blew people away. You can see all the shorts that were made as part of the master class here.  Topics included a lady tram driver, old projectionists, a BMX bike rider, an artist who lives with his installations and more.

–       The last days of classes were packed with so much!  Final presentations in my multimedia journalism classes were fun (and  this is when I show my students my embarrassing old TV news resume reel from Wausau, Wisconsin, which always gets a good laugh-see pic in slide show).  Check out some of the blogs and videos the students made and how appreciative the students are. Here are links to a few of the blogs:  Melody’s Bloggers,  CouchsurfingAlternative Fashion in Bulgaria,  What to be when you grow up. Young, Smart and Hot .

– I was host of the first TedX event at AUBG (pics).

–   The Senior Prom (professors were invited and we went and it was lovely).   At midnight, when that party ended, Mark and I went to a Chalga club to check it out.  If you don’t know what Chalga is, you can check out one of the blogs of my students that explains this phenomenon– (love the post about Chalga hair!).

-Graduation (the former King and Prime Minister of Bulgaria and his sister, Princess Maria Luisa, were there) — see the picture of me casually chatting with the King (in slide show). Meeting the parents of graduating students. Going to lunch with students whose parents couldn’t make it.


Last year at this time, we were in Madison, Wisconsin, attending our daughter’s college graduation.  It was a weekend full of fun and parties and relatives and memories. Since that time, we packed up and moved out of our house of 20 years, said goodbye to friends and family and moved across the ocean to this unknown place called Bulgaria. My husband, Mark Wollemann, who had never taught before, went on a leave of absence from the newspaper and started teaching writing and reporting classes (students say he is “awesome”).  We would make much less money than we are used to. We had no idea what we were in for.

Before we left, when people asked us why we were chucking it all and moving to Bulgaria, we told them about our motto, which was posted on our refrigerator back in Minnesota: Try to project years ahead and then look back and ask yourself what you wished you had done and then go do it.

Now that this first year in Bulgaria is over, Mark and I have a new motto that is posted on our refrigerator in Blagoevgrad, where we will be returning in August for the next two years: We may not be rich, but we feel like we won the lottery.

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 🙂

My students attend their first film festival

Think about a time when you saw or did something that changed how you think about things.  That’s what happened back in October when I took a group of 25 AUBG journalism students from 13 countries to the Manaki Brothers International Film Festival in  Bitola, Macedonia.  For most of them, it was their first film festival and I think (and hope) it opened their eyes to a world they did not know about before.   The festival folks gave us guest passes and the students could watch as many films as they wanted as well as attend workshops, press conferences and other special events. Some even managed to get in the theater on opening night, which was attended by many dignitaries including the President of Macedonia.  I also arranged private meetings for the students with a programmer, cinematographer and a film critic.  All in all, I think it was a wonderful experience  (see for yourself in this video).  I hope to be back next year with some documentaries that my students will make in my classes next semester!

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.