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 "www.centrum-group.com" 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.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Hiking and Art

I’m approaching two weeks in Bulgaria.  I’ve gotten settled into our apartment, explored our neighborhood, toured the city center, navigated public transportation, and even taken one organized trip out of town.  I’m conscious, though, that it would be easy for me to get into a very sheltered routine within my own little world of the apartment, my neighborhood, the university, and the areas of the city centre I’ve already explored.  My wife, likely sensing that this would not be the best thing for me for a variety of reasons, encouraged me to take some time off this weekend and take advantage of the nice weather and relative flexibility of schedule that I currently have. 

So, it wasn’t entirely on a whim that late Saturday night I texted one of the other Fulbrighters in Sofia to propose an outing on Sunday.  I was pleased to almost immediately receive a positive response from Eric, who I’d met at our orientation last week and who is here on a Fulbright student grant studying Bulgarian history.   After breakfast on Sunday I took the Metro from the university station to the southernmost stop on the newly-constructed second line, near to Eric’s apartment.  We met there, bought a few supplies, and took a taxi to Boyana on the south end of Sofia at the base of Vitosha. 

We walked a short distance to Boyana Church, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of Bulgaria’s treasures.  The small church is filled with 12th Century frescoes which are renowned as being in a Renaissance style but actually predating the Renaissance.  There is definitely an aspect of realism and color, and Eric told me they were a departure from Orthodox artistic canons.  The church is unpretentious, but the frescoes really are impressive.

Eric and I left the church and started for our ultimate destination – Boyana Waterfall, partway up Vitosha.  We walked up a hill to the end of the street past the church and found the trailhead, which was well-marked.  Eric told me that this is a remnant of the communist era, when hiking was seen as a healthy activity to be encouraged among the proletariat.  Faced with a choice of two trials for the ascent, we opted for the longer but more gradual one, but even this proved to be fairly strenuous.  The hike to the waterfall was about 90 minutes including a few stops to rest and enjoy nice views back over the city.  The waterfall was a worthwhile destination, but even so I was surprised by the number of people we encountered on the trail.  I suspect many people were looking to enjoy one last warm Sunday.

View from the trail.
 We took the more direct trail for our return, and it really was steep.  It stays fairly close to the stream that runs down from the waterfall, and in many places I had to lower myself down from boulder to boulder very carefully.  I doubt this trail would be open to hikers in an American park, but it was kind of fun and certainly fast.

Eric and I caught a cab back to the Metro station and parted ways.  On my way home, I received a message from my department head at the university to tell me it was the last day for an exhibit of a famous Bulgarian painter at the National Art Gallery.  I got back to the apartment thinking I was unlikely to head out again, but after a snack, a few minutes nap, and a shower, I decided I should take advantage of the opportunity and headed down Tsar Osvoboditel Blvd. toward the city center.

I was glad I did.  The exhibit featured the works of Vladimir Dimitrov-Maystora.  He was a from a rural Bulgarian village, and the majority of his paintings feature the people, landscapes, and crops of his home.  I really liked them.  And an added bonus, which hadn’t occurred to me until I was already on my way there, is that the National Art Gallery is housed in the former Royal Palace.

I’ve heard several times that the greatest things about Sofia are the mountain and the museums, and it was great to experience both in one day.  It felt good to get some strenuous exercise, enjoy the fresh(ish) air, and see the views from the hike.  I hope I have a few more opportunities to do so, even with the knowledge that today’s weather was as nice as it will be for the duration of my time here.  And, when it gets cold and gray, there are always more museums.

Saturday, October 6, 2012


Thursday was the big day: the day I was supposed to have my high-speed wireless Internet installed.  Predictably, it didn’t happen.  Two technicians from Blizoo arrived as promised at 10:00 a.m., looked around for fifteen minutes, and then called the office so one of their operators could explain to me in English that there was a problem with the cables in the building.  They would let me know when, and even if, I might be able to get service. 

This was, of course, disappointing news.  I was greatly looking forward to having Internet at home for research, communications, and entertainment purposes.  I realize that it is an issue of convenience and not one of necessity, and after a bit of time was able to put it in perspective.  But at the time, it truly felt like a blow.  Hopefully it will still happen sometime next week, and it sounds as though there is another provider that I can potentially turn to if this doesn’t work out.  Fingers crossed.

Thursday was planned as a workday.  And mourning this setback a bit, I moved on and had a moderately productive day.  I worked for a bit from one of the sidewalk cafes on Oborishte, and spent most of the rest of the day reading and writing at home.

I worked in my shared office at the university most of the day on Friday, and caught up on a lot of busywork.  I didn’t encounter anyone in the office until around 4:30 when I met one of the law department’s young assistant professors, Orlin.  He took it upon himself to show me their law library and the main university library.  I also visited the English and American Studies Resource Center, an English-language library that received much of its stock from the British Council Library when that facility closed.  The membership fees for the library are quite reasonable, and I’m looking forward to borrowing some fiction and DVDs.

The guards, they are a-changing.
I decided that I should treat the weekend like a weekend, and on Saturday (after breakfast and stopping to find out the results of the Cardinals wildcard game) I went to the city center for a walking tour.  The tours are organized by Free Sofia Tour, a nonprofit that is trying to develop Sofia’s tourism culture.  It was a big group – probably about 30 of us – and we had a nice stroll through the city center learning about the history of the city.  I met some interesting people, including an English solicitor-in-training who is spending six months in her firm’s Sofia office.  She provided a number of good suggestions about things to see and do in the city.
I did some online work from a nearby cafe, and then came back home for a quiet evening - talked to some family and friends, had dinner, and read some articles.
It's still been warm and sunny, but rain is in the forecast for the start of the week.  I suspect Sofia will feel quite different once the weather turns chilly. 
My work on the Cyrillic alphabet seems to be paying off.  I can't read with any speed, but I'm now able to make out most signs if I take the time.  Of course, in many cases this means I'm able to sounds out the words but still have no idea what those Bulgarian words mean.  But for place names and more obvious things it's helpful. 

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Work, work, work

Tuesday morning I went on an outing with our neighbor and her daughter.  It was fun to experience someone else’s routine and to spend some time with their daughter, who is my daughter’s age.  They showed me some additional shops in the immediate neighborhood and also gave me their recommendations of the best places for various needs.  I was particularly glad to find out about a nice, well-stocked market just around the corner from us on Oborishte, and a kitchen on Blvd. Yanko Sakazov that sells cooked food to go – chicken fillets, pork, roast potatoes, salads, and the like (sort of like Hy-Vee’s hot section).  I suspect these two finds will satisfy most of my meal needs at home in the short-term.

We spent an hour or so in Zaimov Park.  I know the weather here is extraordinary, but I continue to be amazed by the number of people in the park.   There is a nice playground where we spent some time before heading to one of several outdoor cafes in the park. 

I had to make a trip to the university on Tuesday afternoon, but the remainder of Tuesday and Wednesday were spent working from home.  I finished some revisions for an article that is scheduled for publication, and began reading and taking notes on two books – one related to the wrongful convictions course that I’ll be teaching, and one related to my habeas corpus research.  In some ways it has been nice to work without the distraction of the Internet. 

On the other hand, it has been terribly inconvenient to have to trek to the university or park when I do need it even briefly.  While the Internet is generally fast in Bulgaria and there are many public WiFi zones, these sources are not terribly reliable.  This morning, for example, I needed to update a single citation for my article revision.  This relatively simple task consumed about 70 minute by the time I walked to the park, moved twice to get a stronger signal, conducted my search of UN documents, and then waited for the relevant PDF documents to open.  The good news is that high-speed wireless should arrive in the apartment tomorrow!  Depending on game time, this might mean I can listen to the Cardinals-Braves wild card playoff on Friday.  (Update: Internet could not be connected.  Will be a few more days at least.  Frustrating....)

As entertainment (or maybe edu-tainment?) during meals, I’ve been reviewing my Cyrillic alphabet flashcards.  I think I have a basic understanding of the alphabet.  It’s kind of satisfying now to go into the kitchen or bathroom and be able to sound out words from the labels of products I’ve bought.  Once I can sound them out, the words are often similar enough to Latin roots or English words for me to take an educated guess.  I suspect this new skill will be helpful in reading street signs and business advertisements.

Some random observations:

  • You would think that a bag of dried black beans really wouldn’t expire.  But apparently they do.
  •  I was told Bulgarian wine (or Вино, to practice my Cyrillic) was good, and it is.  Fortunately, I remembered in the store that there’s no corkscrew in the apartment, so I bought a twist-off bottle.
  • We had a brief thunderstorm this afternoon and it cooled off afterward, but otherwise it has continued to be in the 70s and 80s.
  • Planes approaching Sofia airport fly almost directly over the city center.  It’s kind of fun to sit in the park and watch them.
  • They have green bugs here that smell when you touch them.  I guess they’re the Bulgarian counterpart to the Asian ladybugs that my cat and daughter eat at home.
  • Someone in one of the adjoining buildings plays the clarinet (I think it’s a clarinet, anyway) and often practices in the evenings.  It’s really quite lovely.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012


Monday marked the start of the academic year at Sofia University, and I attended the law department’s convocation.  Speakers included the dean and vice-dean, and Bulgaria’s Minister for Justice (who I recognized from a profile I'd read in Bulgaria Air's in-flight magazine).  Student awards were also presented.  Although I didn’t understand the remarks, it was still enjoyable to be a part of this start-of-year tradition and feel the buzz of students returning.
Minister for Justice Diana Kovatcheva
I took a stroll along Yanko Sakazov Blvd. in the afternoon to orient myself to the larger neighborhood.  This is a bigger street and is lined with shops on the south side; on the north is Zaimov Park.  I think between the small shops within a block or two of our apartment and the larger shops slightly further away on Sakazov, we’ll be able to find most daily necessities. 

I also lined up WiFi service for the apartment, and it should be installed yet this week.  I’m told that Bulgaria has the third-fastest Internet speed in the world, and it’s also inexpensive.  If I understood everything correctly (and there’s always a chance I didn’t, but this seems consistent with what others have told me), our monthly charge for 25 Mbps service is approximately 19 Leva (~ $12) including installation, modem, and router.  And this is the month-to-month rate without a fixed duration; with an 18-month contract it would have been only 15 Leva.

 Monday evening I met my neighbors directly above me, Yanko and Rosa.  They are an older couple, and his great-grandfather purchased the lot that our building sits on back in 1891 (the deed is framed in their hallway).  About ten years ago this apartment building was constructed on the site of the old house.  They seem very nice, and their son’s family lives in Kentucky so they’ve picked up a bit of English.  Yanko serves as a building manager of sorts, so he provided some useful practical information.

I continued cleaning and organizing the apartment after dinner.  I think I’m at a point now where I can start working on research/writing and course preparation in a more focused manner.  And I’d almost feel confident delivering on this statement if it weren’t for the continued sunshine and 80-degree temperatures….

Monday, October 1, 2012

Plovdiv. And cleaning.

On Saturday the assembled Fulbright group took a bus trip to Plovdiv, Bulgaria's second-largest city, to tour the old town.  Plovdiv, like Sofia, has Roman ruins and these were quite impressive.  A Roman stadium lies beneath a main shopping street and part of it hs been excavated. 
Roman amphitheater
The main draw of Plovdiv is the old town, which occupies several of the city's seven hills.  The old town contains buildings from the 17th to 19th centuries, many of which had fallen into severe disrepair and were only restored in recent years, as well as the Roman amphitheater.  We went into several of the buildings which are preserved as museums.  The ceilings in these buildings are particularly noteworthy with their elaborate carved wood and paint schemes.

Most of our group stayed in Plovdiv for the night, as it is two hours southeast of Sofia and was more convnient for them to travel directly back to their assignments across the country from Plovdiv.  I enjoyed the two days I had to get to know the other members of this Fulbright group.  I probably won't cross paths with many of the English Teaching Assistants again, but enjoyed getting to know them.  They are an impressive bunch.  I do expect that I will have several opportunities to visit again with the other lecturer this fall.

On Sunday morning I met Mariana, the head of the constitutional law department and my academic contact, for a quick tour of the Sofia University facilities.  I worked at the univeristy for a bit, and enjoyed lunch in the university restaurant (where I enjoy a 10% discount!).  I then walked to Billa, a Bulgarian supermarket chain, to do some shopping.  This particular store is located in the subway space in front of the university.  I always enjoy poking around grocery stores in foreign lands, and in this case was even a bit more challenged in trying to figure out what was what (I almost bought flour instead of sugar).  After buying some staples and cleaning supplies, I walked back home to being a big day of cleaning.  I am happy to report that all of our linens and dishes have been washed, and our floors, funiture, kitchen and bathrooms are clean!

Later, I visited my neighbors upstairs.  They are Bulgarians who recently moved back to Sofia after a dozen years or so in New York City.  They provided a lot of useful information and suggestions about the building, neighborhood, and city.  They have a young daughter, so I am particularly grateful to have them as a resource as I plan the logistics of my own family's arrival in Sofia.