Thursday, December 20, 2012

Museum of Socialist Art

On Tuesday morning we visited one of Sofia's newer cultural sites, the year-old Museum of Socialist Art. Despite the museum's location off the beaten path and a lack of information available online, it was easy to get to* and worth the effort.  Perhaps our greatest challenge was getting in after we could see the museum statutes from the street, as no signage tells you to enter through the fairly nondescript security gate for the Ministry of Culture.

The old and the new.
The museum is a collection of paintings and statues that were removed from public places after the fall of the communist government in 1989.  The sculpture garden is fascinating and contains, among other things, a 45-ton statute of V.I. Lenin and the huge red start from atop the party headquarters in central Sofia.  The gallery holds murals and framed paintings, most of which are from the 1940s and '50s and depict the partisan fight against the Nazis and the establishment of Bulgaria's communist government.  The museum also has a small theater that shows a series of propaganda films from the early years of communism, with English subtitles.  While these were very interesting in terms of their intent and message, they were also interesting in that they gave a great glimpse of what Sofia looked like a half-century ago, something we've not seen much of otherwise.

It was after noon when we finished at the museum, so we walked about a block to the gleaming new Sofarma business tower and had lunch.  The building presents quite a contrast to the ideals embodied by the artworks in the museum's collection.  At the same time, both are part of the country's story, and I'm glad the museum exists to help tell part of that story.

* Since it is entirely possible that someone who searches for "Sofia" and "Museum of Socialist Art" online will find this page in the absence of other information, I'll give directions.  The museum is at 7 Luchezar Stanchev Street, and you can search this on  From the G.M. Dimitrov Metro station (on the red line), walk downhill (northwest) on Boulevard Dragan Tsankov.  Turn right on Lachezar Stanchev and after a short walk past the Sofarma building you'll see the sculpture garden on your right beyond a fence.  The only sign is one for the Ministry of Culture in Bulgarian.  Just go to the walk-through gate by the little guard shack and they'll send you back!  As of December 2012, the cost for the museum was 6 Leva for adults and it is closed on Mondays.

Judges, Lawyers, and the Courthouse

Last week I had multiple opportunities to learn about the Bulgarian justice system and to interact with members of the bar.  On Monday, I visited the Sofia courthouse at the invitation of Judge Emil Dechev of the Sofia City Court.  I sat in on a couple of “second instance” criminal hearings, including a lascivious acts case.  Since my practice background is in criminal law, I found this very interesting and I learned a lot about the criminal trial and appeals process in Bulgaria.

"Grrr..." says the Lion of Justice.
Following a decision in the trial court (“first instance”), a party to most criminal cases can request a second instance hearing to review that decision.  The second instance hearing takes place before a panel of judges within several months of the initial decision.  While the hearing takes on the role of an appeal, it is different from an appeal in the American system in several ways.  For example, the parties have the opportunity to present new evidence at this stage, whereas appellate courts in the United States are generally limited to reviewing the existing record.  In addition, the second instance hearing can be requested by any party – the defendant, the prosecution, or a third party (usually the victim).  The prosecutor, therefore, has the right to seek reversal of an acquittal – an idea very foreign to American lawyers.

Judge Dechev told me that he thinks around 15% of second instance hearings result in a reversal of the trial court decision.  The judges issue written decisions in second instance cases, but if the initial decision is reversed they must announce this in court.  Because of this, the judges have to actively engage in their decision-making during the hearing rather than waiting to talk behind closed doors.  During the hearing I observed, the three judges on the bench would occasionally lean together with each holding an open file folder in front of his or her face so that they could talk with one another privately.  Parties can appeal the second instance decision to the Supreme Court of Cassation.

After the hearing I had a chance to talk with Judge Dechev a bit more.  I learned that the defense for indigent defendants is provided by individual lawyers who are compensated by the state, similar to Iowa’s contract attorney system.  I also found out that the judiciary is a career track that is typically pursued immediately after law school.  While it is possible for a practicing lawyer to become a judge later in his or her career, this is a rare occurrence.

Later on Monday, I talked with a lawyer, Rumen, who works in a small firm in Sofia where I happen to make my rent payment.  He’s been practicing since the 1980s, and told me a bit about the changes that he’s seen over the years.  Like Judge Dechev, Rumen had to choose whether he would seek to become a judge, a prosecutor, or a private lawyer.  However, under the communist government’s allocation system he was then assigned to a particular city.  He practiced as one of a handful of private lawyers in that region until moving to Sofia in the 1990s.  While he now practices exclusively in the area of civil transactions, he told me that in the communist era there was little work along those lines done because things like housing and inheritance were completely within state control.   Back then, he did a bit of criminal work and civil litigation.

Rumen heads an eight-person firm and told me that he does a fair amount of international business work.  He speculated that his share of this work might decrease, however, as Bulgaria is in the process of approving European Union rules that will make it easier for foreign lawyers to work here.  He also spoke disapprovingly of the tendency of international lawyers to use lengthy contracts, usually verbatim translations of American or British contracts into Bulgarian.  His complaint is not that these lawyers are overly-cautious or that the contingencies they contemplate are unlikely to occur here, but instead that Bulgaria’s civil code covers most of the situations they are trying to anticipate.  For example, he recently reviewed a lengthy real estate lease based on an American model, much of which contradicted or duplicated matters already specifically spelled out in Bulgarian law.  It reminded me of the importance of a lawyer who truly knows the ins and outs of his or her own system, and doesn’t just happen to be licensed there.

The fun continued on Wednesday evening, when I returned to the courthouse at the invitation of the Sofia Law Society.  This is an informal group of lawyers and judges who meet occasionally to discuss legal issues.  The judge who organizes the society studies in the United States for a while and mentioned that the American Inns of Court served as a bit of a model for the Society.  The topic for this meeting was judicial independence, and I was invited to talk about the judicial selection process in Iowa and to share our experiences in the recent judicial retention elections.  The other speaker who was invited was a prosecutor who talked about some specific aspects of the Bulgarian system.  My host did his best to translate the other presentation and the discussion, so I was able to follow along fairly well.  I think it is fair to say that there is concern among the bar about the independence of the courts, and there was lively debate about the best way to promote this.  The attendees were interested in hearing about Iowa’s merit selection process, and this generated some discussion.  

It was great to have these opportunities to learn about the system here and to meet some of the individuals who have a role in it.  Despite the systemic differences, I discovered a lot of parallels in terms of process.  I was also very impressed with the passion and intelligence of the people I met.

Family Time

It’s been a busy month so far.  As some of you know, we celebrate a lot of birthdays in December.  The combination of inexpensive airfares and a friend’s availability led Sara to spend her birthday in Venice (and I will ask her to do a guest post).  This meant five days at home together for Norah and me.

It was an enjoyable time – great to spend that kind of time almost exclusively with each other.  We established a nice routine.  Most mornings and afternoons we would take a walk to a local coffee shop, the mall, the park, or some other destination.  One morning, we visited a nearby modern art gallery that is displaying a number of works by Salvador Dali, as well as contemporary Bulgarian artists.  We got to know some new people, too.  Norah has become very fond of the server at our favorite café around the corner, and she also really enjoyed staying with an acquaintance of ours while I was teaching.

Finding a sitter turned out to be a nice development.  After Sara returned home, she and I have gone out a few evenings to explore Sofia, something that we really had not had the opportunity to do before.  We’ve had fun visiting some of our neighborhood restaurants and exploring the pedestrian area along Vitosha Boulevard in the city center.  We are planning another outing this week, and hopefully we will find time again in early January before Sara and Norah return to Iowa!

Monday, December 3, 2012


There was a nice view of the mountains north of Sofia from the expo center yesterday, and I noticed that there was a fair bit of snow on the peaks.  This was new from the last time I'd noticed, and I figured it had come at the same time as the rain we had in the city a few days ago.  We've had no snow, though.

This morning, Sara went for a run and reported it was relatively mild, so we decided to go for a walk to Borisova Gradina, the large park just south of us.  The weather was changing quickly, though, and by the time we got to the park it already felt much colder and the wind was picking up.  It was sprinkling by the time we got home.

I saw a few snowflakes mid-afternoon, and it started snowing pretty heavily by late afternoon.  The garden behind our apartment was covered within a half-hour or so.  Norah was pretty excited to see the snow when she woke up from her nap, and we put on coats and went down to play in the garden.  The snow was wet and heavy, and perfect for building a snowman.

We were planning to go for a walk, but realized we needed to bulk up our gear a bit.  We got our Norah's snowpants, as well as gloves and hats for all of us, and walked down Oborishte Street to the National Gallery for Foreign Art in a pretty heavy snow.  The gallery was nice, and featured an exhibit on the Paris World's Expo of 1900.

By the time we left it was dark, and the snow was continuing to fall.  Traffic was heavy and moving very slowly (though we did see plows out), so we decided to walk back home rather than taking a cab.  We made a dinner stop, and the snow was finally beginning to taper off by the time we got home around 7:15.  It was really pretty on the quieter streets, with a thick layer of snow on all the tree branches.  I looks like we probably ended up with around four inches total; not a bad start to winter.

One observation: I need to buy some boots.

How Bazaar

Yesterday our family visited the holiday charity bazaar hosted by the International Women's Club of Sofia.   The event was held at the Inter Expo Center near the airport on the east side of Sofia.  I was skeptical when Sara told me that we could take the Metro there, since I thought it did not run that far.  When I looked online, my skepticism grew, as the map on the Sofia Metro website showed this as a station that is planned for the future.  But it turned out that Sara was right - the expo center station, which looked brand new, is now the easternmost stop on the red line and just a few yards from the center itself.

We weren't sure what to expect from the bazaar.  We were rather surprised when we arrived to find a huge crowd standing outside waiting to buy tickets and to go through metal detectors (which, I will note, I had not encountered at past bazaars I'd gone to in Sugar Creek or Goose Lake).  Fortunately, Norah was in her stroller and for at least the tenth time over the past two months, this scored us priority access.  We listened to what Sara thought was a great cover of "Under the Bridge" on the stage in the lobby and then watched some little kids do traditional dance.  Norah danced along and made friends with some older girls who were waiting to perform.

The bazaar occupied two large halls in the expo center, and most stalls were sponsored by countries and featured traditional food, drinks, and gifts.  I suspect the embassies were involved with most of these, which probably explains the heightened security.  My first stop was for an espresso at the Cuban stand (because I couldn't get this at an international bazaar at home, right?), and then we bought some hummus at the very large Palestinian stand (how quickly UN observer state status goes to a country's head).  About that time, we saw someone walk by with a glass pint full of Guinness, and we quickly redirected ourselves to the Irish stall for our own pint and a half as well as some Irish stew.  On our way, we passed the American stand, which appeared to consist of a Dunkin' Donuts kiosk on one side and sales of Jim Beam Honey on the other.

I made a quick dash to Argentina for an empanada, and then we wandered through the second hall.  I picked up a tourism brochure for Ukraine entitled Ukraine? Ukraine!, and we looked at some gifts.  We passed on the opportunity to leave Norah in the child care area for 3 Leva, and eventually made our way back to the other hall where we finished off our extended lunch with some delicious Christmas soup from the Czech and Slovak stall, washed down with one more Guinness (in our defense, you don't see Guinness here very often).  We then bid farewell to the bazaar and read through our copy of Ukraine? Ukraine! on the Metro ride home.

Sunday, December 2, 2012


Yesterday we had the pleasure of celebrating two second birthdays.  We woke up and had a little breakfast party for Norah, including some surprisingly good supermarket cake.  She was pretty excited, and kept saying "happy birthday cake!" and then, just "happy cakes!"  Shorty before noon, we loaded into a taxi to head to a birthday party for our neighbor Alexa, who is exactly the same age as Norah.  We were delighted that our neighbors invited us, and we enjoyed meeting their families.  It was fun to be part of a Bulgarian family birthday celebration.  The party was at a nice little restaurant that had a separate playroom, so the kids played under the supervision of a party princess while the adults chatted, drank some wine, and enjoyed some food.  Several of the other attendees knew it was Norah's birthday and brought presents for her, too, which was very sweet of them.  Norah also got to blow out the candles on Alexa's cake, which she really enjoyed.  We came home, and after a nap and a quick run to the store had dinner and one more serving of cake.  The day was capped by Sara finding Annie on television in English (which made her very happy) and then, when it was over, finding The Naked Gun (which made me incredibly happy).  So, a good day for everyone!

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Guest Lecturer: Dr. Farrell

Last night my wrongful convictions class hosted a guest lecturer - Dr. Sara Farrell, Associate Professor of Psychology at Coe College!  Sara lectured on the psychology of eyewitness identification. I didn't get to stay for her presentation (Norah just wasn't interested enough), but she reported that it went well and it sounds like she got some very positive feedback.  I know that it took a lot of preparation on her part, so I really appreciated her efforts.  A bonus for me was that I was able to steal some of Sara's presentation materials for my own talk at the Institute for Legal Studies earlier in the week.  (The fact that I was able to do so illustrates our different work styles - Sara had her presentation for Friday largely completed by Tuesday afternoon, when I was preparing my talk that evening.)  Class continues to go well, and I appreciated Sara's contributions!

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Institute for Legal Studies

As I've previously written, I've been invited by several professional organizations and academic institutions here in Bulgaria to give talks on a variety of topics.  The first of these took place on Tuesday at the Institute for Legal Studies, a division of the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences.  The Institute engages in research and supports a doctoral program.  

I spoke to a group of about twenty students and faculty about the causes of wrongful convictions in the United States.  Since 1992, there have been 301 exonerations of factually innocent people based on DNA evidence.  By analyzing these cases, researchers have been able to identify six factors that are often present in these cases, and I shared these with the audience.  I focused on three of these factors: eyewitness misidentification, false confessions, and unvalidated forensic science. I felt that these three factors, which are based on scientific research, were less grounded in specific aspects of American procedures or our legal framework as the other three factors (jailhouse snitches, government misconduct, and ineffective defense lawyers).

My talk seemed to be well received, and I really enjoyed the experience.  I discussed the potential for some additional collaboration with my host, and hopefully that can happen in the next few months.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Christmas Market

Christmas markets are not a tradition in Bulgaria, but Sofia has been trying to establish an annual market.  They've hosted a small market for a few years now, and this year is the second year that Sofia's Christmas market has been sponsored by the German Embassy.  We ventured down on Monday night for the official opening of the market by the German ambassador.  The market is small - 22 stalls - but a good attempt to capture the essence of Christmas market-ness, based on our experiences in Prague and Dresden a few years back. 

We arrived a bit before the scheduled opening at 6:00 p.m.  There was a band, a reindeer and snowman, mulled wine, bratwurts, and free German flags - pretty much everything you could ask for, right?   But no electricity, and no ambassador.  At about 6:40 we realized it was getting quite cold and deided that we'd better head back home. I've been wondering what the issue was - whether there was a problem with the electrical supply which delayed the opening, or whether the ambassador was late and they were waiting for him/her to throw the switch to light the tree and stalls (given the German reputation for punctuatlity I'm inclined to think it was the former).  Either way, it was a nice time and I look forward to another visit in the next week or so.

Telecommunications Infrastructure

When I had Internet connected at the house, the good folks from Centrum Group ran a new cable from the street along the side of the building and in through a hole they drilled.  I began to notice that there are a lot of what appear to be individually-run Internet and television cables on the streets and buildings of Sofia, often in a great tangle.  I've been taking a few photos around the neighborhood, and here are some examples:

This river of cables is right across the street.

An important junction, maybe?

There's obviously some plan.

This is around the corner on Shipka St., and was one of my early favorites.

Somteimes the lines are just run through trees...

...or tied around lampposts.

Monday, November 26, 2012


Having returned from Istanbul late on Wednesday, we spent much of Thursday unpacking and regrouping.   The best effort we could muster for Thanksgiving dinner was to order broccoli pizza (Norah’s favorite) from Troika, a restaurant just a few doors down.

But as the weekend arrived, we found ourselves increasingly thinking of holiday get-togethers at home.  On Saturday morning, we decided that a pot of chili would provide a good taste of the post-Thanksgiving weekend in the Midwest.  We debated whether we should start shopping at our local store or head straight for the big supermarket, and opted for the former (which was appropriate since it was small business Saturday, right?).  So, we walked around the corner to our five-aisle market, Верде (Verde), and actually did better than we thought.  In addition to the fresh vegetables (garlic, green pepper, onion, jalapeno), we were able to find canned stewed tomatoes, ground beef, and – after attempts to translate and lots of sniffing – cumin and a paprika-ish red chili powder.  The only problem was the selection of beans, which was limited to a very few varieties of dried beans. 

Hoping for a wider selection and the possibility of saving a few hours of soaking and simmering dried beans, off we headed to toward the university for the nearest Billa, the Austrian supermarket chain.  There, we were able to find chili-style beans, and in a can, no less.  (I should actually say that Sara was able to find the beans – Norah and I stayed outside and listened to a busker playing the clarinet.)

 The final product came together fairly well, all in all, and provided us with a couple of meals worth of leftovers.  We topped it with some shredded kashkaval, the local yellow cheese, and onion. I would have been happy to have a dollop of sour cream, but under the circumstances I won’t complain.

A few takeaways:

·         There is a definite difference between the beef in Bulgaria and Iowa beef.

·         Many prepared tomato products here (ie, pasta sauce, diced tomatoes) are very saucy; sort of ketchup-ier versions of what we’re used to.

·         When buying canned food, it is good to keep in mind whether you have a can opener at home. 

Sunday, November 25, 2012

The Mall

Several shopping malls have sprung up around Sofia in recent years.  I’ve been to the Serdika Mall, which is within walking distance of our apartment, but today was my first visit to THE MALL, Bulgaria’s largest shopping center.  This shiny rectangle of glass and steel is located near the airport on Tsarigradsko Shosse, one of the city’s major boulevards, and contains 178 stores.

We looked in just a few shops, but I was able to see quite a bit of THE MALL.    I saw a number of stores that would be at home in an American mall – Columbia, Samsonite, KFC – and many others that seemed to be the European chain equivalents to typical American brands (including a toy store with the biggest selection of Legos I’ve ever seen).  The stores present quite a contrast to the small, local shops near us on Yanko Sakazov Boulevard – they are fairly upscale and most of the store names are in English.  It is Christmas season at THE MALL, and it was kind of fun to see the lights, the reindeer, and the trees. 

THE MALL has a Starbucks, and even though it seems cliché to be Americans walking into a Starbucks in a foreign country, we decided to stop for a drink and snack.  It just sounded good, and looking at the menu board in Bulgarian and English, I realized why – I really haven’t had brewed coffee in over two months.  I ordered whatever a medium is called at Starbucks (grande?) in dark roast with a bit of milk and thoroughly enjoyed it. It smelled good, and it tasted good.  I have absolutely no complaints about Bulgarian кафе and am happily working my way through a pound of Turkish coffee I brought back from Istanbul, but there was something particularly delicious and reassuring about my cup of dark roast today.  Being abroad, maybe it just provided a connection to the holiday season back home. 

In related news, if we’re reading the information correctly, Sofia’s Christmas market opens tomorrow. The Christmas market is a relatively recent development in Sofia, and is sponsored by the German embassy.  So, fingers crossed....

Turkey for Thanksgiving

A week ago Friday, I came home from teaching to finish packing for Istanbul, the first of the two family trips we have planned while we’re here in Bulgaria.  We decided a while ago that we would fly, thinking that it would be easier on Norah than a long bus or train trip, and that it would also make better use of our limited time.  On Saturday morning we headed to the airport for the short flight from Sofia to Turkey’s capital.

Upon arrival we had a nice taxi ride along the Sea of Marmara on our way to our hotel.  Our hotel, the Garden House, was charming and a great find.  Our room was lovely, with a balcony and a Turkish bath.  We particularly appreciated the garden courtyard just below our room, as it gave us a place to relax and enjoy a coffee when Norah napped.

The Blue Mosque.
The hotel is very conveniently located in Istanbul’s old city, so after lunch and a short nap, we ventured out to explore.  We strolled briefly through the Arasta Bazaar on our way to the Sultan Ahmed Mosque (and saw—for real—a turkey).  The mosque was built in the early 17th century and is commonly known as the Blue Mosque because of the beautiful blue tile throughout the interior.  It was built with six minarets instead of the usual four, and this initially caused some controversy since it equaled the number of minarets at the Grand Mosque in Mecca.  To resolve this, the sultan eventually paid for the construction of an additional minaret in Mecca.

Our hotel had a wine reception in the courtyard restaurant on Saturday night, and we enjoyed the opportunity to meet some of the other guests.  Norah had fun and received a lot of attention from guests and staff.  This turned out to be a common theme throughout our time in Istanbul.

Hagia Sophia.
Sunday morning we had our first breakfast at the hotel, which was included with our stay.  It was a fantastic spread of fresh and dried fruit, fresh tomato and cucumber, cheeses, boiled eggs, hummus, eggplant salad, nuts, jams, breads, juices and coffee.  It quickly became a highlight of each day.

After breakfast we walked through the Roman Hippodrome to Hagia Sophia.  Built in the 6th century by the Byzantine Emperor Justinian, it is an architectural marvel.  It was the largest cathedral in the world until the cathedral in Seville was completed a thousand years later.   After Constantinople was captured by the Ottomans in the 15th century, Hagia Sophia was converted to a mosque and remained so until the new Turkish Republic reopened it as a museum in 1935.  It is truly spectacular and was, in itself, worth the trip.

Sunday afternoon we took the tram from across the Galata Bridge to Istanbul’s new city.  Just after sunset we walked up the hill to the Galata Tower, built in the 14th century as part of Genoese fortifications.  When then continued on to Istikal Street, the major pedestrian street that runs to Taksim Square, the heart of the new city.  After some tasty gelato we took the world’s second oldest underground train (after London) back to the bridge and the tram back to our hotel.

The Basilica Cistern.
On Monday we toured Topkapi Palace, the seat of the Ottoman sultans, and enjoyed the impressive buildings and sweeping views of the Sea of Marmara and the Bosphorus (which offset the extremely overpriced menu at the café).  We walked to the archaeology museum but found it closed, so after a quick lunch in the park we decided to visit the Basilica Cistern.  This is an amazing site, and was an unexpected highlight of the entire trip.  Like Hagia Sophia, the massive underground chamber was constructed in the 6th century during the reign of Justinian as one of Constantinople’s many cisterns.  It lies beneath a public square and its roof is supported by over 300 marble columns.  We read that it was forgotten but rediscovered during the 1500s and used as a water source for Topkapi Palace.  It is impressive and mysterious.  Norah particularly enjoyed looking for the carp that now glide quietly through the meter-deep water as we walked the boardwalk from end to end.

Inside the Grand Bazaar.
After an afternoon rest, we walked in the fading daylight to the Grand Bazaar for a look at another of Istanbul’s famed institutions.  The bazaar is a bustling place, and we all enjoyed looking through the stalls.  We ate dinner at an Indian restaurant and settled in for our last night at the hotel.

After breakfast on Tuesday we checked out and Sara’s colleague Nükhet and her husband Don met us at the hotel.  Nükhet is from Istanbul and they were visiting her family over the Thanksgiving break.  We headed for the Galata Bridge area and embarked on a wonderful cruise up the Bosphorus, which separates Europe from Asia, with Nükhet pointing out the sights in hometown.  We docked on the north end of the Asian side in the early afternoon and walked up a hill to castle ruins that overlooked the Bosphorus to the south and the Black Sea to the north.  We had lunch at a little restaurant in a scenic spot just below the castle, and then headed back to the boat for the return trip. 
Looking south down the Bosphorus.

We arrived back to the terminal as the sun was setting and walked to the spice market where we bought some dried fruit and Turkish coffee.  Some of Nükhet’s extended family joined us for a lovely dinner at her parents’ home.  Only at breakfast the next morning were we able to fully appreciate the beautiful view of the sea from their beachfront apartment.  We took a walk along the seafront trail in the late morning and had a late lunch on the terrace.  Norah took a brief nap, and we then made the short drive to the airport for our return flight to Sofia.

It was a great trip, and we are already anxious to return to Istanbul.  We were delighted to be able to meet up with Nükhet and Don during our trip, and feel grateful for the hospitality of her entire family.  It added a wonderful personal dimension to a trip where we otherwise would have just been tourists.  

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

And Other Duties...

As a Fulbright lecturer, my primary responsibility is my teaching assignment at Sofia University.  As I've written before, I am really enjoying this and am very impressed by my students thus far.  It is quite a treat to have teaching as my primary focus since at home my teaching is in addition to my full-time administrative job.  I am also appreciative of the opportunity to develop a new course that I'm hoping perhaps I can teach again in other settings down the road.

Of course, the Fulbright program is about more than just teaching.  It provides a space for academic, professional, cultural, and personal exchange.  Fulbrighters are encouraged to build relationships with their host institution colleagues, to share their expertise and the American perspective beyond their assigned classroom, and to experience the local culture.  For those who know me, you are probably not surprised that this is appealing to me and fits well with my personality.

In the past few weeks, I've really begun to explore possibilities to pursue this type of engagement.  A couple of my faculty colleagues have invited me to speak in their classes.  The Fulbright Commission has put me in touch with a number of academic and professional contacts. I met with a local judge last week, and am planning to talk to a bar group here in Sofia about Iowa's experience with judicial retention elections over the past three years.  I've also discussed the possibility of giving talks with colleagues at several other universities in Bulgaria and surrounding countries.  I am hopeful that a few of these opportunities materialize, as it would allow me an opportunity to meet new people, perhaps see some new places, and give back a bit more to the Fulbright program.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Museums & Theater in Sofia

One thing that I have been appreciating about Sofia so far is the vibrant cultural life.  Sofia really has an impressive arts scene, and we’ve been trying to take advantage of it when we’re able.  Hopefully this will provide us with some good distractions once winter really sets in.

So far, I’ve only been to two to Sofia’s many museums - the Museum of National History and the National Art Gallery.  Both were impressive, and I’m looking forward to seeing more of the major museums.  The National Gallery of Foreign Art has a temporary exhibit that I’m excited to check out, and we’re looking forward to taking our daughter to the Museum of Natural History which has a number of animals on display.  I also just discovered a newly opened museum that sounds interesting – the Museum of Socialist Art.  From what I’ve read, the museum houses a collection of statues, murals, and other items displaced after the fall of communism in 1989. 

National Opera Theater.
There are also a lot of good theaters in Sofia that we’re hoping to take advantage of.  Sara saw a production of Hamlet in Bulgarian at the National Theater Ivan Vazov.  She reported that it was great, despite her inability to understand pretty much all of the dialogue.  Sofia also supports an opera and ballet theater that hosts several productions each week.  Last weekend we took our daughter to a children’s production of Pinocchio at the National Ballet.  We were somewhat doubtful that she’d manage to sit through fifteen minutes, so we were amazed that she gave it her absolute attention for the entire hour and forty minutes.  I have to say, as an aside, that it was quite a special moment to sit in a European opera house with a completely enthralled two-year old sitting on my lap.  There are several other theaters that do children’s productions exclusively, and we are excited to give them a try.

I understand that there is a good music scene as well, although I’ve not had a chance to explore this much yet.  I’m told that jazz is particularly big in Sofia, and I think it would be interesting to experience this.  There was also a major film festival last week, as well as a recent contemporary art series.

Perhaps none of this should be surprising – we are, after all, living in a European capital.  But I am nonetheless impressed by the extent and vibrancy of cultural life here, particularly given the fact that Sofia was a minor city until it became Bulgaria’s capital in the late 19th Century, and that it is still working through the transition from communism.  While I appreciate the cultural opportunities available to us at home, it is really quite exciting to be living in a place where we can take advantage of multiple options on any night of the week.  Now to find a babysitter…

Rila Monastery

Last week we enjoyed a great visit from our friend Katie, who is currently in a graduate program in England.  We enjoyed showing her around Sofia.  Sara and Katie were able to visit Boyana Church and hike a bit around Vitosha, see a performance of Hamlet in Bulgarian, and also had quite an adventure exploring Sofia’s nightlife on Halloween.  Katie graciously offered to babysit one night, so Sara and I had a nice dinner at the great Italian restaurant just a block from our apartment.

In the courtyard of the monastery.
The highlight for me, though, was our trip last Saturday to the Monastery of St. Ivan of Rila organized by the Fulbright Commission, which graciously invited my family and Katie along.  Rila is in the mountains about two hours south of Sofia by bus.  We arrived there a bit before noon and had about two hours at the monastery.  The monastery is nestled in a scenic valley that was enhanced by brilliant late fall color and nearby mountains. It was really quite spectacular, and it is easy to understand why it is both a UNESCO world heritage site and one of Bulgaria’s top tourist destinations. 

The monastery was founded in the 10th Century by students of St. Ivan of Rila, who lived nearby as a hermit.  The oldest surviving buildings date to the 14th Century.  The monastery was a hub of Bulgarian religion and culture, and helped preserve this during the 500 years that Bulgaria was ruled by the Ottomans.  It was closed, however, for a period under communist rule.  Today, only nine Bulgarian Orthodox monks live in the sprawling complex.
Fresco from the chapel.

After visiting the monastery we stopped at a roadside hotel and restaurant for a late lunch.  I had a delicious Balkan trout, which was appropriate given our location alongside a mountain stream.  Our daughter, Norah, did well on this outing and seemed excited to be around so many people speaking English.  It takes a bit of effort to get out of Sofia and see the rest of Bulgaria (which is beautiful), so it was nice to have this organized and easy opportunity to do so.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Happy Anniversary!

This year marks the 120th anniversary of the law faculty at Sofia University, the oldest in Bulgaria.  On Friday, the university hosted a ceremony to mark this occasion.  I was honored to attend the ceremony, which took place in the impressive main auditorium of the original university building.  Most of the members of the law faculty were in attendance, as well as others from the university, the legal community, and government. 
The main university building.

I sat with Maria Slavova, an associate professor of administrative law, and she provided me with a summarized translation of the proceedings.  Speakers included the current dean, current and former students, members of the bar, and government officials.  Despite the language barrier, I could tell that the speakers were conveying great pride in and affection for the law school. 

The ceremony had a certain degree of reverence without feeling overly formal.  For me, the highlight was a performance by a string orchestra made up entirely of members of the Sofia bar.  This was an older, and very talented group, and it prompted Maria to tell me “everyone in Bulgaria is talented.  You might not know it, but everyone has a talent.” 

So, happy anniversary to the law faculty, and thanks for letting me join the party.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Sick Day(s)

My family’s adjustment to Sofia went well.  At least for the first 28 hours or so…

After arriving – exhausted – back in Sofia on Thursday afternoon, we got settled in and started exploring a bit.  On Friday morning we took a walk to Zaimov Park to enjoy yet another unusually warm and clear day.  I spent the middle part of the day preparing to teach, and my class went well.  It was nice to see my students and tell them a bit about my adventures in Montana U.S.A.  The primary content for class was an introduction to the Anglo-American legal system, and we had some great discussions comparing this with the Bulgarian system.

So, I was feeling good about things on the walk home after class.  It didn’t last, though, as I was greeted with the news that my daughter was ill.  A long night of dealing with flu-like symptoms was followed by a very quiet and calm Saturday around the house.  She seemed to be feeling better by late Saturday, so we went ahead with a planned trip to IKEA on Sunday to buy some home furnishings and supplies.  It was a nice outing, and we ate at the restaurant there.

Unfortunately, we were not out of the woods.  My wife started feeling ill on Sunday night, and by the time she was starting to improve on Monday it was my turn.  So, our first several days in Sofia were not ideal, and it set me back on some rather ambitious work goals.  On the other hand, whatever it was that each of us had seemed to come and go quickly, and we made it through without having to make a trip to the doctor.  Hopefully, we’ve all gotten it out of our systems and are set for a healthy winter!


There is a Montana in Bulgaria, about an hour from Sofia.  The Montana where my brother-in-law got married, however, is about 6,000 miles across the Atlantic. 

When I arrived back in Iowa late on Tuesday, October 16, I was expecting to have a day at home before heading onward to the wedding in Lewistown, Montana.  Unfortunately, my daughter was sick and a trip to the doctor on Wednesday confirmed that she should not make Montana trip. I ended up changing my flight from Thursday to Friday and lined up family to stay with her at home while I caught up to my wife and her family in Big Sky Country.

I arrived in Billings early Friday afternoon and we drove straight to Lewistown.  I was a groomsman, and at the rehearsal dinner we received cowboy hats as a gift, which is hard to top.  The wedding and reception were on Saturday, and a good time was had by all.  This was the last of my wife’s siblings to be married, so a great deal of preparation went into the groomsmen’s kidnapping of the bride at the reception, and I think we executed it well.  Lewistown is a charming little town and we enjoyed poking around town and the surrounding area.  We enjoyed some relaxed family time on Sunday, and after breakfast on Monday headed back to Billings for a late return to Iowa. 

Tuesday was spent packing and preparing for my return to Bulgaria with my wife and much-healthier daughter.  On Wednesday the 24th I made my third visit to the Eastern Iowa Airport in a week to begin the journey.  Things went well, or as well as they can go on a 17-hour transatlantic trip with a two year old.  We flew American from Cedar Rapids to Chicago and British Airways onward, connecting through Heathrow.  My daughter did well on the overnight flight to London, and slept for three hours or so on my lap.  Unfortunately, I did not sleep.  Our flight was a bit late arriving into Heathrow, and we would have missed our connection if not for a rather fortunate 25 minute delay.  We had an extra seat on the flight to Sofia, so we were able to spread out a bit and after a full English breakfast everyone slept a bit more.

It was nice to get back to Sofia.  The weather was still warm and sunny.  It was nice to be reunited with my family, and to be done with travel for a bit.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Home for a Rest

A rest is needed.  Saturday, Sunday, and Monday were spent almost exclusively writing, with the goal of finishing my current project, a chapter on the right to habeas corpus, by Monday night before leaving Sofia for a trip home on Tuesday.  I tend to be most productive in writing when I can work for extended periods of time, so I tried to make the most of the opportunity.  Thinking back, I’m not sure that I even left the apartment on Saturday or Sunday (though I will admit being a bit distracted Saturday morning reading the news of the Cardinals great come-from-behind win in Game 5 of their NLDS). 

Monday afternoon I walked to the university to work for a bit and for a meeting of the constitutional law department.  I met several more colleagues in the department, and we adjourned to the campus restaurant for a quick drink afterward.  After returning home I got back to work, taking a break only to pack and organize a taxi for early Tuesday.  Somewhat to my surprise, I achieved my goal around midnight, and was in bed shortly after.

It was a short night.  The alarm went off at 4:00 a.m. and by 4:30 I was in a cab to Sofia airport.  The main terminal is fairly new, and was a nice place to wait for my early Air France flight to Paris.  We arrived in Paris on-time, only to find that my incoming aircraft from Detroit was over two hours late.  Fortunately, they were able to execute a quick turn-around and we departed only about 90 minutes late.  We were able to make up time en route and arrived only about 30 minutes behind schedule.  Unfortunately, the flight from Detroit to Cedar Rapids was also delayed due to a late incoming flight.  Finally, after we boarded and pushed back from the gate, the captain informed us that there was a problem with the little flaps on the wings.  "We really need those flaps," he told us.  So, we deplaned, walked to a different gate to wait for another plane, and finally got under way about three hours behind schedule.  The mood was generally good, though, especially after the announcement that drinks would be compliments of the captain.  I was thrilled to see my family in Cedar Rapids around 8:00 p.m. CDT after about 24 total hours in transit.   

In reality, it might not be that much of a rest.  I’ll have a full day at home, and then travel to Montana for a family wedding Thursday through Monday.  I’ll have another full day before departing again next Wednesday.  I’m really looking forward to the trip back, since I’ll get to take my family along this time!

Friday, October 12, 2012

Wrongful Convictions and the American Criminal Justice System

I’ve been putting a lot of effort into a major writing project this week, in addition to preparing for the course I will teach this semester.  Thinking back, I don’t think I left the apartment on Wednesday.  All of Wednesday and most of Thursday morning were spent in writing.  It is hard for me to get on a roll with research/writing projects, but when I do I really enjoy it.

On Thursday afternoon I had a meeting with my department head at the university to discuss my course.  I like her a lot, and we ended up having coffee with another professor from the department, chatting about the similarities and differences between the American and European approaches to constitutional law.  Thursday evening, I met the other Fulbright lecturer in Bulgaria this semester for dinner.  She is teaching journalism at the American University in Blagoevgrad and was in Sofia for a lecture on social media.

Friday morning I wrote a bit more, and then shifted gears back to final preparations for my first course meeting.  In the afternoon I went to the university to meet with the students in the Erasmus program, a European exchange program.  They are each spending a year away from their home institutions at Sofia University, studying in the law department here.
This is where I work. 
Late in the afternoon, I had my first class meeting.  The title of my course is Wrongful Convictions and the American Criminal Justice System.  Since most of the SU students have limited formal exposure to the American legal system, the first part of the course will be an introduction to our criminal justice system.  We will then look at the phenomenon of wrongful convictions, and the causes that have been identified.  Finally, we will discuss the exoneration process and systemic reform. 

While I have a definite content agenda, I also think that we will spend a fair bit of time discussing more general issues related to the American legal and governmental system.  I think these additional discussions are very worthwhile in that they further the Fulbright mission of cultural exchange and engagement.  Since I have a limited knowledge of the Bulgarian system, I am also looking forward to the students providing some comparative element to our discussions.  My students range from first year law undergrads to fourth and fifth year students, and seem very bright and engaged. 

I like my students, and I like my faculty colleagues.   It should be a fun semester. 

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

An Unintentionally Long Walk

I woke up Monday morning a bit sore from Sunday's hike, but eventually got moving.  After running a few errands, I spent most of the day engaged in some productive reading and writing.  I took a break during the afternoon, though, to take another stab at resolving my Internet situation.  This started with a call to the provider who had come last week and told me that there was an issue with the cables in the building and that they'd get back to me.  Turns out, they had decided at some point that they couldn't resolve the issue, but didn't think to inform me. No longer waiting on them, I decided to go for a walk and find the offices of Centrum Group, another provider that had been recommended by people in my building.

This turned out to be quite an effort.  I didn't take a map along with me, and this proved to be a mistake as I ended up walking under Blvd. Dondukov at an underpass and ended up taking a long walk along a busy arterial road through an industrial area.  I finally reached an intersection and asked an older woman waiting for a bus my version of "where is Boulevard Don-doookoff?" in Bulgarian. She was quite confused, mostly due to my incorrectly placing the emphasis on the second sylable of the street name.  Then the lights came on for both of us, and she walked me to the corner to point me in the general direction of Blvd. DUNdukov.  It was, however, only the general direction, and I explored a bit more of Sofia before finally reaching the boulevard.

My next challenge was figuring out where 130 Blvd. Dondukov was located.  Building numbers in Bulgaria aren't always prominent.  Or existent.  And - as I eventually remembered - while building numbers in Europe are sequential on a particular side of the street, they don't always correspond to those across the street.  So, numbers 112, 114 and 116 might be across the street from numbers 93, 95, and 97. 

I finally found No. 130, an older building with one entrance that houses several offices, rather than the storefront I was anticipating.  I stared, almost laughing at myself at this point, at the six small business signs, all in Bulgarian.  Putting my newly-learned Cyrillic knowledge to use, I figured out that the building did, in fact house "Центрум Груп."  (Of course, I then noticed "" directly below it.)

I went in and made my way through the rather dark corridor to the big windowless door labeled "Центрум Груп."  I walked into the small, empty room, and up to the sole woman behind the glass partition.

"Govorite li Angliski?"


Well, then.  This was not a busy office, and it was clear that there was no one else there who did speak Angliski.  While my first thoughts were to either 1) walk home and give up on Internet forever, or 2) just start sobbing, I somehow had the presence of mind to pull out my phone and call a friend to translate.  It was a laborious process, with frequent handing the phone back and forth, but after twenty minutes or so I walked out of there a proud Центрум Груп customer.  In the euphoria of the moment, I event went ahead and ordered the cable TV package, something I've not had in . . . well, ever maybe. 

Tuesday morning I took another long walk to a store that my friend recommended to buy a wireless router.  Shortly after arriving back home, the good folks from Центрум Груп arrived and connected both cable and Internet, and configured my wireless router for me.  All of this took about 20 hours start to finish.  After waiting and waiting over a week for the company that never delivered, this was quite satisfying.

So, I'm all connected now.  It's great to have Internet and TV for entertainment purposes.  But it's also really nice for me to have Internet at home for work purposes.  While there are places for me to work at the university, I don't think they would be conducive to maximum productivity.  I know myself, and this is a worthwhile investment.  Especially after I found out that the Cardinals-Nationals NLDS game is at noon on Wednesday, which means I'll be awake to listen to it online.

I'm not sure about Bulgarian television from the bit I've watched during meals so far, but I'm keeping an open mind.

I've been reconnecting a bit with life back home, too, and that is nice.  I was able to give my wife  a Skype tour of our apartment.  I also came across the gem below, a humorously edgy video about the very serious subject of Iowa's judicial retention elections.  But it's not appropriate for younger viewers.  Sort of like Bulgarian music videos.