The Truth

So, here is the truth about why I haven’t been writing on my blog.

When Mark and I first arrived in Bulgaria in August 2011, I wrote many posts about the unique new experiences we were having after moving here from Minnesota. We had just said a teary goodbye to our college grad daughter, cleared out our house, gave away almost everything we owned and we were anxious to start a new phase of life. A blog was clearly in order.

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Our old life in Minnesota. Dog died. Jenna moved to Chicago. Time for us to move to Blago.

When we arrived in Blagoevgrad, everything was different and it was fun to share our journey with family and friends we left behind.

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A sign you would never see in Minneapolis

In the first year, I wrote about drinking rakia with monks in a monasterytrying to buy jeans in Blago (difficult when you aren’t a pencil-thin Bulgarian)… about the Miss AUBG beauty pageant (yes, we used to have a beauty pageant at our prestigious university!) and about what I learned from living in Bulgaria (“The Good. The Bad. And What I Learned in Six Months”).  

 

Mark wrote often about his biking adventures  (watch him getting chased by stray dogs in this video ) and about his amazement at our lucky situation that allowed him to make the transition from newspaper editor to college professor.

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The sliding board I wrote about in my “The Good. The Bad. And What I Learned Along the Way” post.. but the hole in the sliding board is even bigger now.

I also wrote about our many travels. Living here in the Balkans gives us access to places that used to be an ocean away, so off we would go on trips to Slovakia (where we met some of Mark’s long lost relatives- check out this “Wollemann” back-slapping video in this post), Serbia (Belgrade is a very cool city, in case you don’t know!), Romania (for caving and again for a storytelling conference), Macedonia (we can see it from our balcony and I also took my students to the a film festival there) and the list goes on. We can drive to many of those places in the same amount of time it takes to drive from Minneapolis to Chicago.

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Caving and posing for pics in Romania

But at some point, as we moved into our 3rd year in Bulgaria, I didn’t feel like writing anymore. It’s not that the adventures stopped. Quite the contrary! We did an intensive 5-week tour of the Western Balkans in the summer of 2013 when I was hired to make short documentaries for a National Geographic Western Balkans Geotourism website (Mark wrote the stories).

Screen grab from the website.

Screen grab from the website.

(If you want to see or read the stories, go to  THE WEBSITE (CLICK HERE)  and scroll down you’ll be able to watch the videos or read the stories by clicking on each of the “theme” pics- it looks like this. My favorite is “People, Food & Drink” but they are all interesting!)

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Screen grab from the Balkans Geotourism/National Geographic website

That summer ended with a trip to Costa Rica for the wedding of our daughter’s best friend (Mark writes more often in his blog, so you can read more about that here).

We also went to Thessaloniki (Greece) with my AUBG students to premiere the new documentary that I produced  called “The Starfish Throwers,” which was an emotional experience for all of us (www.thestarfishthrowers.com).

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At the world premiere of “The Starfish Throwers” at the Thessaloniki Intl. Documentary Film Festival with director Jesse Roesler, Jen Roesler and my AUBG students

Starfish were thrown in Greece.

We love Thessaloniki

Last summer, we flew to Iceland (hi Arndis!), Finland and then to Estonia to visit dear friends who invited Mark to sing in the Lalupidu Song Festival in world’s largest choir (25,000 people!) even though he doesn’t sing and he didn’t know the songs (and he drank a lot of beer that summer!).  Here he is being interviewed on Estonian television (and tested on his knowledge of the songs!).

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

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Mark’s partner in crime in Estonia. Jaan Soplepmann

Most recently, we went to Georgia (the country) on a recruiting trip for AUBG and ate what was, quite possibly, one of the most memorable meals I’ve ever eaten! The “supra” was at the home of relatives of one of our AUBG students.  The adventures never stop.

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A very memorable meal with Ani’s family in Georgia

And there’s more! We spent crazy weekend in a tiny Pomak village in Bulgaria (thank you Tracy!), drove to the Black Sea coast, saw a “spaceship” on a mountain top (the former Communist Party headquarters  that later became the subject of the class documentary my students made) ,  and spent many weekends in Sofia (our version of NYC). I went to Ukraine a month before the EuroMaiden protests started.  Living overseas is an adventure that never stops.

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Buzludzha…the abandoned former Communist Party Headquarters.

But I didn’t write about any of those things. Why? Because at some point after becoming an ex-pat, there are times you just want to feel like this is where you actually live and this is home and there is nothing special or unique about that. It’s just what you do.

You travel. You go to work. You teach your awesome students (thank you AUBG students!) and stay up all night making documentaries with them. You find a good shoemaker (thank you, Mitko, for fixing the zipper on my favorite boots twice for 8 lev!), and a new favorite coffee shop that has real cappuccino in take away cups (thank you Polca!). The lady at the bakery knows which bread you like. The Pomak villager at the farmer’s market saves a sheep’s milk yogurt just for you. When you walk through town, you bump into students who say “Hello Professor!” and when you enter your neighborhood restaurant, the waiter goes to get you a “bialo vino” before you even get to your chair.

Today, as we reach the middle of our 4th year here, there are daily reminders that I don’t live in America anymore, and that’s okay with me.  While missing family and friends “back home” is always tugging at my heartstrings, Bulgaria is where I live and work.  My life here is now filled with small, lovely moments – not big sweeping ones. That’s why I stopped wondering, observing and writing about all the “adventures.” I’ve learned ex-pat life (at least for me) is mostly about the joys and annoyances of navigating everyday life in a land far from my own. And isn’t that the real adventure?

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Us

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Spring is just around the corner!

 

 

 

 

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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 🙂

The Bulgarian Ballet

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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.

Fall Break: Road trip to Sofia, Serbia, Slovakia and Hungary

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While many people here are used to hopping on a bus for 24 hours to get places, we decided that we would get more done on our week long break from school if we rented a car.  We had a complicated schedule of visiting family in remote towns in Slovakia, going to a film festival in a Belgrade and we also wanted to make sure to build in some time for wandering.  And to be honest, Mark was also itching to drive again.

For those of you who already read Mark’s blog post, he was clearly smitten with the driving and the challenges that come with that around these parts. It all started with actually getting a car, which is an adventure in its own right.

First, you have to find a place that actually rents cars (we ended up at an Opel car dealership on the edge of town).  You can’t just go online to make a reservation.  You have to go to the place, give your passports and driver’s licenses and come back “in a few days.”  Eventually you get a call that says “your papers and car are ready to be picked up” and with a $100 cash deposit and a book full of special stamps, insurance cards, stickers (and who knows what else), we were finally on our way.

We started with a stop in Sofia for the Sofia Independent Film Festival  http://soindependentfilmfest.com/2011/en/festival_info.php where we saw Robert Redford’s new movie “The Conspirator.”   http://www.conspiratorthemovie.com/  The screenwriter was there for the Q and A and he explained how it took him almost 20 years to get the film made about the Lincoln assassination, which was billed as “a thriller.”  It wasn’t, but it was interesting to learn about the real story behind assassin John Wilkes Booth who did not act alone.  After the screening, screenwriter James Solomon gave an interview to one of my students  (I had arranged for passes for a handful who wanted to attend as “press.”).  That night we stayed in a hipster hostel http://www.hostelmostel.com which was good for the wallet and just one of many different kinds of lodging we stayed in while traveling during our fall break.

After that, we headed up to Slovakia to meet Mark’s relatives he had never met before.  This was a marvel to witness what we are now calling the “Wollemann  mind-meld.”   When you can’t speak the same language, you have to gesture, drink laugh and eat.  Mark bonded with his cousin Rudolph in Trnava  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Trnava after dinner and a few rounds of “Slibovitz” (a drink that is oh, 60 proof or so and they call “medicine”).  Rudolf showed us his old police uniforms and a certificate of service he got from the communist government that collapsed a few months later.  The next day, the Trnava clan, including Anna and Martina, took us for a walk around their lovely town, which is known as “Little Rome” or “Slovak Rome” due to the many churches they have there within a few blocks. Mark and Rudolph even dressed alike for the occasion.

We had lunch at a local brewery/restaurant called Sessler http://www.sessler.sk/where we met another relative (son of Rudolf and Anna, who looks a lot like Mark’s brother Gary) and then a short drive to visit the Cerveny Kamen (Red Stone) Castle, which was actually a 13th century mansion owned by one family that was really into hunting, beautiful furniture, art and wine. They even had their own pharmacy!  I am constantly amazed at the amount of history and beauty that is in this part of the world, largely undiscovered or found in unlikely places, such as ancient ruins we found just sitting in a park next to a playground in Sofia (there was a small sign telling us such but no “hands off” signs as there would be in the U.S.).  This Slovakian castle was a treat for me comparable to going to Versailles and way more enjoyable since there were only a handful of people there and very few (if any) tourists. It was mostly Slovaks who are proud of their heritage and the beauty they built.

Next stop: Sekule, a small village not far from the Austrian border with more relatives.  We got there late in the afternoon and spent the evening being shuttled around to different houses with different sets of relatives.  It’s a marvel to me how many people can squeeze into one room for “visiting.”   Mark bonded the most with Ludwig, who spent many hours talking in Slovak while gesturing with his hands and, which you can see in the pictures and the video. Over time, it seemed like Mark and Ludwig actually understood each other. Mark said,  “I was convincing Ludwig that Wollemanns didn’t need a common language. We connect on brain waves.”   We had lots of laughs and enjoyed the visits with his relatives. Feels good to know we have family on this side of the ocean.

Next stop: Budapest.  What can I say about this majestic city of incredible beauty?  It reminded me of the same feelings I had when I first arrived in Paris for my junior year in college. Stunning old beauty and a feeling that I have been here before and belong here. Both Mark and I felt this way as we wandered around this city full of history and surprises, including a trip to the public bath house where we sat outside in steamy thermal spring water with local men playing chess in the pool.  We were hosted by ex-pats David and Sue Spencer (from Duluth) in their lovely home on the outskirts of the city, so we were required to take public transportation everywhere, which was delightful because it was efficient and worked. Love a big city with good public transpo and good food and good coffee!  We were very happy there.

The next day brought us to Belgrade  (Serbia) for a film festival. While Budapest reminded us of old-time Paris, Belgrade was more like a frenetic and funky New York- energetic and artsy. The city is a hodge-podge of old and new and what seems like uncontrollable growth.  There are many shiny new things next to buildings still broken from bombings from not too long ago.  Large pedestrian-only streets bustling with artsy new cafes filled with beautiful fashionable people next to cement block apartments.  You get the idea.

That night we went to the opening night of the Freezone Film Festival (http://www.freezonebelgrade.org/en) where a packed house of film lovers watched the “This is Not a Film” made by  Jafar Panahi, an Iranian filmmaker who is under house arrest in Tehran and is not allowed to make films.  But he made one anyway, about a day in his life basically going crazy not making films. Read more about it here: http://tiff.net/filmsandschedules/tiff/2011/thisisnotafilm. Very powerful stuff.  I really enjoyed being in a room full of people who share an appreciation and love of documentaries in any language, as long as there are subtitles.

After the screening, we got together with Serbian filmmaker Darko Lungulov who is enjoying success with his film, a Serbian/NY love story  “Here and There” (see Hollywood Reporter review here: http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/review/here-and-there-film-review-29592) I met Darko a few weeks earlier at film festival in Bitola, Macedonia (more on that later) and it was great to reconnect with him in his home town.  Here is a trailer:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iTt28J_h19k and the website  for the movie: http://hereandtherethemovie.com. It was fun to visit with him and find out how he got Cyndi Lauper (remember her?) involved in his film as well as hearing about the trials and tribulations of making films in Serbia and in NYC.

We had a late dinner at an incredibly funky restaurant in an old supermarket (part store, part restaurant) http://www.supermarket.rs/index.php ) and then back to our lovely room at the Hotel Balkan (a traditional hotel since 1936) http://www.balkanhotel.net/sr/home.aspx.  The next morning we left for our drive home. I have to admit that re-entry to Bulgaria was a little hard after being places where so many people spoke English, where they take debit cards and the food (and coffee!) was so delicious.

One of my favorite parts of the trip is when we were looking at the map on the GPS and Mark noticed that we were driving through three different countries in one day. That’s three border crossings in to three countries with different languages and different currency and remarkably different histories.  This in the same time frame it would take to drive from Minnesota to Wisconsin to Chicago.  How different our lives have become.

We have now settled back in Blagoevgrad and started classes again yesterday. Students are asking about their final projects and it feels like the end of the semester Is going to creep up on us rather quickly.  We are both anxiously awaiting  the arrival of our daughter Jenna who will be visiting us in two weeks. So excited!

One thing I realized after we got back is that we were so busy in all the places we visited that I forgot to buy new jeans!  Next trip, perhaps?  Or maybe Jenna can bring some with her  🙂