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.


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.


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.


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.


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 (

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!).

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


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.


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



Spring is just around the corner!






How Feminism Missed the Balkans: Part 2

Image The “Miss AUBG” beauty pageant at the university where I teach was last night and I did not go this year.  I just couldn’t do it.

You might remember that last year I went with a team of my students to film all the action for a documentary that we were making in my production class (see link below to get to watch it). I wrote about that experience in a post called  “Sex, Brains and Videotape: How Feminism Missed the Balkans” which you can read here.   That was the first time I had ever been exposed to a beauty pageant at the university level and, to be honest, it’s still surprising to me that this exists at all, especially at my progressive American-style liberal arts private college in Bulgaria, called “AUBG” for short.

I think the part that still surprises me the most is the main goal of the event, which is cheerfully written in the Facebook page for the event:

“Come experience the atmosphere of glamour, grace and beauty.”

Even in the recruiting video for contestants (watch it here) the only “skill” that is mentioned is being “sexy” and “hot.”  Here are photos of the candidates who answered the ad. Now let me just say that I’m not some old fogey (or at least I hope not). There’s nothing wrong with being beautiful and sexy. In fact, I believe that a woman should feel good about herself and I try my best to look decent on most days.  So I am a fan of beauty. But my problem with this pageant is that there’s not even a pretense that any of this is about brains, too.  We are an American university and I think we should be promoting the American value of being beautiful and smart.

In the U.S., the “Miss America” pageant at least pretends to be about brains by awarding a scholarship to the winners. All contestants are asked to have a “platform” of a cause they believe in (helping starving children in some foreign country, supporting cancer research, etc.) and are expected to perform community service all year in that area.  Why not add this element to the Miss AUBG pageant?  Why not at least try to make it about a little bit more than just being the hottest chick on campus?

I think I know why.

Now that I’ve been here for a second year, I am starting to understand this part of the world a bit better. I think that many women living in Eastern Europe and Russia had (and still have) fewer opportunities for education and employment, so they often derive their self-worth from how beautiful they are. They can’t control much about their destiny, but they can control how they look. Winning a beauty pageant can be a stepping stone to bigger and better things. Personally,  I wouldn’t want to win anything based on how my body compares with other women or how hot I am. But that’s just me.

Why do I feel this way? Well, first and foremost I suppose it’s because I’m a feminist. I have been sexually harassed in my workplace and I have had to tolerate unacceptable and unfair behavior by my male supervisors when I was younger. I rarely got paid as much as my male colleagues.  I prefer to be judged by what I can do, not by what I look like. But that’s me (and Gloria Steinem, the very first feminist, who talks about some of these issues in her new book).  In my mind, beauty pageants contribute to this way of thinking of a woman as a sexual object. Even if it’s all in good fun. Even if it’s for “personal growth.” I get that. I just can’t get behind it. I would like to think here at the American University in Bulgaria, we have an opportunity to encourage change, not contribute to the status quo.

(* To see the Miss AUBG documentary that my students made about the pageant last year, go to :!home/mainPage    The trailer is on the home page, but to see the 30-minute documentary, click on “Watch Documentary” on the tab above the trailer and be sure to put in the password:  missaubgdoc)

Here is a photo of one of my students filming the pageant last year. Click here to see more “behind-the-scenes” pics from the pageant last year.


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.

Rainbows, Candles, Bulgarian Music & Dennis Rodman

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Saw a double rainbow in Bulgaria today. It was only there for a few minutes taunting me from our window but I ran to get my camera and managed to get a few shots before it disappeared. What does it mean? Wish I knew. Check out the photos.

Last night, at midnight, I went to a Bulgarian Orthodox Easter service in our city. Seems like everyone in Blagoevgrad was there to get a candle lit from the “holy flame.” The faithful wait patiently for a chance to get a light directly from the flame that has special powers. Some walk around the outside of the church for extra good luck from 3 to 7 times while shielding their candlewicks from the wind. Then they rush home–on feet, in cars- with the candle that will keep them blessed for the following year. The church and the city were glowing. Even though I am not a believer, I really enjoyed the experience. Beautiful stuff. Check out the photos.

Last weekend, when we were in Sofia with our daughter Jenna (who had surprised me for my birthday by coming all the way from Chicago for 4 days, which was the best birthday present ever–you can read more about it on Mark’s blog), we went to see an All-Star basketball game. The big draw was Dennis Rodman, who didn’t seem too interested in the proceedings and spent most of the time slumped in a leather recliner. Even the cheerleaders couldn’t get his attention. But he did manage to dye his hair and paint his eyebrows the colors of the Bulgarian flag. Check out the photos.

Today I finished editing a short documentary about a Bulgarian female singing group called Svetlina. These fourteen women from the school where I teach ( sing traditional female folk songs. Did I mention that they sing acapella and that the group was founded by an American student who is from the Midwest and has not even an ounce of Bulgarian blood in her? Check out the video here:

A few other things of interest that we’ve done since I last blogged (or before):

– We reconnected with our Bulgarian “daughter” Ekaterina Petrova (Kate) from Macalester in Sofia when Jenna was here. She’s been living in France for much of the past year, so it was good timing. What fun to see them together. They really are like sisters. And now Kate and I will be doing some work together on the Documentary Boot Camp Master Class that I’ll be teaching in Sofia next weekend (sponsored by the American Embassy).

– Watched an amazing production of “Grease” that was put on AUBG students. It was really something special. Now they are off on a tour around Bulgaria. These students never cease to amaze me.

– Went to Plovdiv, Bulgaria’s second largest city, and saw an old amphitheater from the, oh, 2nd century. We were alone there. Virtually no tourists. A guy asked us for 3 leva (about $1.50) to get in and we weren’t even sure he worked there. This is a special place. Forget Rome. Come to Plovdiv.

– I spoke to film students at “NATFIZ” (the National Academy for Theater and Film Arts) in Sofia a few weeks ago. The students were great and one of them took a picture of me while I was showing them some shooting techniques.  I am pointing (see pic).  I hope I didn’t scare them too much.

-Had a great screening of NUMB, the documentary I am executive producing, at the Sofia International Film Festival. (Read about it here ). I also taught a workshop on “backpack filmmaking.” Had a great time there. The Q and A was fantastic.

-Did I mention that we went to Zagreb for ZagrebDox film fest and then to Greece for spring break to the Thessaloniki International Documentary Festival with AUBG Documentary Movie Club members? I brought 16 students there to see how the film festival world really works and we had an amazing time. Life-changing stuff, meeting with filmmakers and distributors, etc.  Here is a nice story written by a freshman from Georgia (the country) who had her passport and wallet stolen on the first day but still loved the festival.

– For the honors ceremony last week,  all faculty had to be present so Mark put on a cap and gown for the first time in, oh, 30 years.  There is  group picture of our journalism colleagues (hint: they have nicer regalia than us).

– We went to annual meeting of Blagoevgrad officials and AUBG faculty and administration.  It was a very serious meeting with mostly men in suits that wrapped up fairly early. When it did, the guy who was in charge of the microphones all of a sudden threw off his blazer and morphed into a D.J. and started blasting traditional Bulgarian music.  Barely a minute passed before the cafeteria and cleaning ladies all stopped what they were doing and started dancing along with the few people who were still there.  Of course I had to jump in, but more interesting is that Mark did, too! There is a blurry pic for proof in the slide show.  Now, whenever we see the cafeteria ladies, we have a special bond with them from this night.

Whew. So I started out this post only to talk about the double rainbow. Here it is a few hours later but now I realize that I have many adventures, stories and news to share!  Every day it’s something new, but I don’t always think that it’s blog-worthy.  But today I think it’s probably good to remember and reflect more often, at least when I have the time 🙂

There are just a few more weeks left of school. My students are working hard to finish the MISS AUBG documentary that I mentioned in the previous post.  The top 3 short documentaries  from that class will soon be broadcast on Bulgarian National Television.  The last multimedia journalism blog posts are due in less than two weeks ( I will post links later so you can check out their blogs – many are very interesting!).  The TV News class will soon have its last show of AUBG-TV. .  After graduation, we will be back to the U.S. for the summer. It’s hard to believe that this school year, our first year in Bulgaria, is almost done. I’ve still got more videos to shoot and edit and more pictures to take, but I feel like I’m the luckiest girl in the world to see the things I’ve seen and do the things I’ve done. Lucille Ball once said, “I’d rather regret the things I’ve done than the things I haven’t done.” Agreed.

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.