Wednesday, February 13, 2013


Because of a change in flight schedules some time ago, I was not able to fly from Sofia to Iowa in one day.  After my 22-hour door-to-door trip in October, splitting the journey into two days didn’t seem like such a bad idea.  This also meant an overnight in London, which had its own appeal.

I have a number of good friends in London, and this presented an opportunity to see a couple of them.  The three hour flight from Sofia on Sunday went smoothly, and I was in the arrivals terminal fairly soon after landing.  The Underground line into the city was closed for repairs, so we made plans to meet near Paddington Station, the terminus for the Heathrow Express.  It was wonderful to see Edel and Michael, and made the two-day return trip entirely worth it. 
It was great to be in London, too, even if only at Heathrow, my hotel in Slough, and the neighborhood immediately surrounding Paddington.  London is a special place to me.  Fifteen years ago this spring, I spent my last semester of law school studying in London.  It was not only the first time I lived abroad; it was also the first time I lived outside of Iowa.  This time was very significant to me for a lot of reasons, and it marked the beginning of my international travel.  I’ll admit, London may seem like a fairly “easy” first experience abroad, but for a kid from a town of 220 people in eastern Iowa, it opened the door to the world.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Farewell to Sofia

If you’ve followed my blog you know that I have enjoyed my time in Sofia and will take away many fond memories.  One thing that made this time special was being able to share it with my family.  Seeing Sofia through my daughter’s eyes helped me appreciate some of the simple things that I might otherwise have overlooked.  We were able to spend a lot of time together and to travel as a family.  It was nice to step back from the schedules and expectations that we otherwise accept as being inevitable. 

The other thing that made my time especially meaningful was the people that I met.  I don’t know if this was luck, or due to my efforts at outreach, or just the nature of the Bulgarian people, but I made some very good friends.  (I suspect it was a bit of each, actually.)  The last person I saw as I left was our doorman.  We’ve never had a conversation where we were able to understand more than three words the other said, but we communicated a lot.  He was incredibly sweet with Norah, and always put a smile on our faces.  When I left the building for the last time with my suitcases, he gave me a hug.  I said “dovishdane,” the Bulgarian word for goodbye.  He shook his head and said “doscoro,” meaning “see you soon.”  It was a good way to leave.

Monday, February 11, 2013

The Final Countdown

My final week if Sofia went by quickly.  Most of my free time was devoted to my writing projects, and I made good progress.  I put in a lot of long days, with only a few breaks in the routine.  The first was last Monday evening when I attended a lecture on Alexander Stamboliiski by my friend Eric, a Fulbight researcher.  The topic was interesting, and I met some new people afterward. 

My other was to take a few hours to have a drink with three members of the Sofia legal community who were particularly welcoming and helpful – Judge Dechev, Judge Georgiev, and Prof. Marinova.  We had a lovely chat and I look forward to keeping in touch with each of them.  I am already trying to think of ways to arrange a visit to Iowa for them.

On Thursday afternoon, things changed abruptly.  I reached a significant goal I’d set for my writing, and about two hours later my new flatmate Grace arrived in Sofia.  I went from the fairly predictable routine I’d maintained for the better part of three weeks to the realization that I would be leaving within days.  I was able to do a bit of cleaning and organizing in the short time before welcoming Grace, a Fulbright scholar from Arizona is teaching at Sofia University this spring and will take my apartment.  That evening Grace and I went for a walk around the neighborhood and had a nice dinner at 33 Stola, the Italian restaurant near the apartment.

Friday morning we had a meeting to get the lease transfer sorted, and then paid a visit (my last) to our favorite cafĂ©.   In the evening we hosted our neighbors and a few of my friends for a farewell/welcome gathering.  A very good time was had by all, and it was nice to share a last bit of time with some of the people who have made Sofia such a memorable place.

Saturday was spent packing, interspersed with a trip to the university, brief visits with some neighbors, and dinner at Troika.  Things were fairly well organized, and I found myself strangely organized on Sunday morning for my departure.  Just before noon I took a taxi to Sofia Airport to begin the journey home.

Saturday, February 2, 2013


Waiting on the street.
One of Bulgaria's more interesting traditions is the kukeri ritual, in which people dress in animal costumes to scare away evil spirits.  The ritual takes place early in the new year.  The costumes can be quite elaborate, and usually involve fur-covered clothing, an animal mask (which is sometimes very large), and bells.  Lots of bells.  The kukeri walk through the village dancing and making noise to accomplish their goal.

A Palestinian group performs.
Kukeri festivals have been taking place in larger cities all over Bulgaria for the past few weeks.  This weekend was the largest, the International Masquerade Festival "Surva" in Pernik.  Friends from the embassy here invited me along to the festival, and we made the short trip to Pernik this morning.  It was quite an amazing spectacle.  The masquerade groups line up down the main street, and one by one they enter the main square to perform in front of the judges' platform.  Each group dances in rhythm, jangling their many bells, usually to drums and sometimes other instruments.  While they wait for their turn down the street, the other groups tend to break into rhythmic jumping every so often - I suppose to stay loose and keep their bells in tune.  The edges of the streets are lined with people several rows deep.  Vendors sell grilled meat, fried doughnuts, rakia, beer, pottery, balloons, miniature kukeri, and all sorts of other items.  Since this was an international festival, there were groups from other countries and in a wide variety of costumes.  There were people of all ages.  There were horns and antlers.  There was fake, or maybe real, blood.  There  were cigarettes.  And lots and lots of bells.

I'm really glad I had the chance to experience this.  It was kind of like being in a really lively overnight town on RAGBRAI and having Team Furry Animal Mask take over the area in front of the main stage.

Wednesday, January 30, 2013


Here is a bit of a reflection that I wrote for a Fulbright newsletter and shared with the folks back in Iowa. It was posted today in the University of Iowa's online International Accents.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013


Those you who know me probably know that I get my hair cut quite frequently - every two or three weeks.  So, just a few weeks after I first arrived I started looking for a place to get my hair cut.  One night my upstairs neighbor Yanko (who is kind of like the mayor of Asen Zlatarov Street) told me he would take me to a little salon just across the street.  He asked me as best he could how I wanted my hair cut, and then said a word or two to the woman standing over me.  The result was one of the best haircuts I've ever had.

Since then, I go back every two or three weeks.  All but one time, the same woman has cut my hair.  I walk in, we exchange a greeting in Bulgarian, maybe communicate via gestures while she's cutting, and I walk out with a great haircut.  This has happened four or five times now.

Today I went in for a haircut, and while I was sitting there it occurred to me that this would be my last haircut in Bulgaria.  And then it occurred to me that I couldn't even really communicate this to her beyond saying "goodbye" like I do every time.  I felt kind of sad about this.  The best I could do was to give her a pat on the shoulder as I said goodbye this time.  But I think that may have been enough for her to know.

Monday, January 28, 2013

Olympics (Athens, part VI)

Temple of the Olympian Zeus, with the Acropolis
in the background.
Today was my last day in Athens.  After a leisurely breakfast, I got ready and checked out of my room, leaving my bags at the hotel.  I walked first to the Temple of the Olympian Zeus, which is in a level area some distance east of the Acropolis.  Only 16 columns from this temple still stand, but they convey its massive size.  The temple was started by one of the tyrant leaders of Athens, abandoned during democracy, and completed during Roman rule.  It was the largest in Athens. 

From there I walked to the Panathenaic Stadium.  This was the site of the ancient Panathenaic games, which we think of as the original Olympics.  The original stadium on this location fell into disrepair in Christian times, but was restored and rebuilt for the first modern Olympics in 1896. In one of those great sports stories, the marathon was held on the last day of those first modern games, and the first to cross the finish line inside the marble stadium was a Greek runner, who is still celebrated as a national hero.  The stadium is impressive, and has an interesting exhibit on the history of the Olympics.

My late morning and afternoon were spent wandering.  Monday is a common day for museums to be closed, and that was a case with those I was most interested in.  So, I took my time, walked through some side streets, had a nice lunch, and then walked a bit more around the Acropolis area.  Although I had already spent a fair bit of time there, this was the first time I had been there with sunshine and clear skies, and it was worth another look.
Panathenaic Stadium.

The Metro, buses, and rail to the airport all remained closed today do to strikes, so I was planning to take a cab to the airport.  As luck would have it, another guest happened to be departing at about the same time that I returned to the hotel, and we decided it would make sense to share a taxi.  This became even more economical when a third guest overheard us and asked if she could join us.  I enjoyed chatting with both of them, and the trip was fast.  This meant a bit longer at the airport than I expected, but under the circumstances I didn't mind.

The return flight went smoothly.  My taxi ride to the apartment was memorable.  My driver was really friendly and was turned around half the time asking me questions about America in broken English.  We talked about health care and my teaching.  He showed me a picture of his son.

It is good to be home.