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 cafĂ© 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!