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!






Friendship, Film Festivals & Flowers

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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.