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!






I’m Allergic to Bulgaria

At night, as soon as the sun goes down, this town looks and  smells like a giant campfire.  In the morning, I look outside and I can’t see the beautiful mountains that surround us.  I check the air from the balcony, quickly slamming the door.  It’s bad. I complain.  I cough. I blow my nose.  My sinuses hurt. This has been my routine for the past two months since the good people of Blagoevgrad started heating their homes with wood and coal.   I go outside.  Cough.  Blow nose.  Spit.  Repeat.

It’s no better inside.  It’s hard to escape the outside smoke since everyone here also smokes inside (yes, there are new laws against indoor smoking, but no one around here seems to care about such things).  So it’s all smoke, all the time.  Not good for a gal with asthma and allergies.

Most people around here don’t notice the polluted air.   When I point it out to them, they say things like “it’s so much better than it used to be.”  They live with it.  Why complain?  Things are so much better now since “the change” (that’s their term for post-communist times). Our landlady told us that before “the change” they used to get up at 4 a.m. every morning to wait on long lines for bread and sometimes they came home empty-handed.  Her relatives were tortured.  The Communists stole their property. So what’s a little air pollution?

People here also tend not to go to doctors. Perhaps it’s the expense, but also culturally Bulgarians are more inclined to try and solve their own problems. I can’t tell you how many people, from my colleagues to the cleaning ladies, have heard me coughing in the hallway and tell me that I should be drinking tea with honey and Rakia (home made alcohol made from fruit with an alcohol content that can exceed 60%).  That solves everything, they say.   When I went to see the nurse in the AUBG doctor’s office, even she laughed off my concerns with a shrug and a smile and comforting words that went something like this:  “It’ll go away eventually. You’ll see. You’ll be fine. Have some tea and Rakia.”

Unfortunately, that prescription did not work for me.  Neither did the cough medicine or the two rounds of antibiotics prescribed by the AUBG doctor. He was about to give me a third round of antibiotics when Mark reminded me that I am allergic to dust and mold.  All of a sudden, everything made sense. I am wheezing from the coal and I am allergic to the building I work in.  I am officially allergic to Bulgaria.

Last week, I started taking some allergy medicine that I brought with me from the States. I also upped my asthma meds and things are improving.   So the nurse was right; I am getting better.  It wasn’t from the Rakia, but I like the attitude of these Bulgarians. I’m impressed with their strength, determination and their ability to shrug off things that should bother them but don’t.

There are still some days when I open that balcony door and I can’t see the mountains and I feel like I would like to be living somewhere clean and orderly with a good medical system.  But then I shut the door and those feelings go away.  As long as I can breathe here, we’re staying.