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.