Wednesday, February 13, 2013


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

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

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Farewell to Sofia

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

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

Monday, February 11, 2013

The Final Countdown

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, February 2, 2013


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

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

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

Wednesday, January 30, 2013


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

Tuesday, January 29, 2013


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

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

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

Monday, January 28, 2013

Olympics (Athens, part VI)

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

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

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

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

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

It is good to be home.

Three Degrees of Separation (Athens, part V)

Many of the non-Iowans I know have heard me say that the so-called “seven degrees of separation” tends to be reduced to two or three degrees among Iowans.  I experienced this again on Saturday evening in Athens.  Walking back to my hotel, I noticed a restaurant just around the corner that looked promising.  I looked it up online and found some very positive reviews.  I also learned that it has been owned by the same Greek family for thirty years.

An hour later I went back to the restaurant and was greeted by a woman about my age who spoke very good English.  She asked me if I had walked by earlier, because she remembered my gold and black umbrella.  She explained that they cook a handful of dishes each day from which I could choose.  I walked up to the counter to survey the options, made my choice, and sat down.  While I waited, I overheard her mention to another English-speaking table that she was American.  She came back to my table a bit later and we started chatting.  She asked me where I was from, and after explaining that I was currently teaching in Sofia, I told her that I was from Iowa.  She laughed.  It turns out she is from Fort Madison.  Her parents now live in West Point.  She and her husband operate the restaurant with his parents, who have indeed been serving food in that spot since the 1980s. 

The food, by the way, was excellent and I would recommend the restaurant.  It is called Kati Alo and is located directly behind the Acropolis Museum.  See a review here, halfway down.  I was also very impressed with the food at Tzitsikas & Mermingas (The Cicada and Ant) where I ate with Aias last night, as well as Scholarhio Ouzeri Kouklis which I mentioned I had lunch in a previous post.

Incidentally, it was announced on Sunday that RAGBRAI XLI will end in Fort Madison this year.  I’ve already let the folks at Kati Alo know.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

No Sun on Sunday (Athens, part IV)

I woke this morning with no particular agenda.   Over breakfast I considered two possibilities – a trip to the one of the harbor towns on the south edge of Athens, or a visit to the National Archaeological Museum.  Since it was overcast and much cooler today, I chose the latter.  I took the efficient Athens Metro (which is now running except for the airport line) near the museum and walked the last several blocks.

Just before the museum I passed the Polytechnic University.  In 1973, students here protested against the military government that had ruled the country since a coup in 1967.  The protests were brutally repressed, but marked the beginning of the end of the government and a return to democratic rule.

The National Archaeological Museum is quite large and has an impressive collection.  The greatest amount of space is dedicated to classical sculpture, but there are also collections of Mycenaean, Cycladic, and Egyptian antiquities.  There was also a special exhibit of items from a shipwreck off of the island of Antikythera.  The ship, which sank sometime in the 1st Century BC, contained a number of Greek art works bound for Rome, where they were in high demand. 

After a lunch break at the museum, I returned by Metro to Syntagma Square in the city center.  I walked by the Parliament building and then strolled through the adjacent National Gardens.  This was formerly a royal park and in the early 19th Century was filled with exotic plants.  It is a lush, dense oasis in the middle of the city.

I then walked west from Syntagma Square through the city center’s pedestrian shopping area.  I popped into two small churches, listened to a busker, and found myself close to the Roman Agora, which I had walked to the day before from the other direction.  So, I decided to double back and complete the final third of the walk around the Acropolis through the Plaka neighborhood. 

This brought me back near my hotel, so I decided to return for a brief rest and a cup of coffee.  When I went back out a short time later it felt even colder and the wind was picking up.  I opted for a return visit to the nearby Acropolis Museum, which was a good decision as I discovered a number of interesting things that I hadn’t noticed, or hadn’t had the context for, on my first visit.

The day before I left Sofia, I ran into one of the Bulgarian judges I know.  We talked about my trip, and he told me he had a friend in Athens who I should meet.  So, after a few e-mails, Aias the Greek maritime lawyer and I made plans to meet for dinner this evening.   It was a fantastic time.  I always enjoy meeting new people, and I really like to meet people from the places I met.  Over five or six courses we discussed all sorts of topics ranging from the pros and cons of solo law practice to the settlement of rural Iowa in the 19th Century.  After dinner we took a walk and talked some more.  It was a great addition to the weekend, and gave a personal dimension to my impressions of Greece.

Saturday, January 26, 2013

The Agora and More-a (Athens, part III)

I woke this morning to partly cloudy skies, and decided that I’d better get moving before the forecasted rain started.  I had breakfast at the hotel, and chatted with a woman who I recognized as being with a large group of students the night before.  She was one of two professors from Whittier College in Los Angeles leading a group of 30 students on a two week tour of classical Greek and Roman sites.  In the course of our conversation, we discovered that she happened to know one of Sara’s colleagues at Coe College.  And later I talked with another person staying here who works at Chico State University, the alma mater of one of my closest friends.  It’s like four degrees of separation at this hotel, college style.

Church near Kerameikos
I left the hotel and walked west toward the main historical areas.  I was tempted to again walk up the Acropolis to see the Parthenon in the morning light, but opted not to when I saw the long lines of tourists walking up to the entrance.  It made me realize just how unique it was the day before when, at the end of the day and with rain not too far off, I was one of perhaps five people on the entire Acropolis.
Instead, I continued along the pedestrian boulevard that skirts the Acropolis and the Agora.  Athens is a busy, sprawling city, and most of the streets I’d been on felt fairly congested.  This walk presented quite a contrast.  On one side is the connected green space of the Acropolis and Agora, and on the other is the park of Philopappou Hill which then gives way to some pretty side streets. 

How awesome would it be to have this for your tombstone?

I first visited the Kerameikos, an archeological area that was home to the ancient city walls and gates.  The road away from the city, the “Sacred Way,” was lined with graves.  A later gate was built for another road which was part of the famous Panathenaic Way, and at one time led to Plato’s Academy.  At that point the sun was out and it was warm enough that I took of my fleece jacket.  After walking through the ruins, I went into the Keramikos Museum.  It was a great little museum filled with tombstones, pottery, and jewelry, some over 3,000 years old.  I think I was the only visitor to the Kerameikos during the hour I spent there.

I next walked to the Agora, the Athenian city center below the Acropolis.  I walked up the hill to the Temple of Hephaistos, a relatively minor temple in its time, but one of the most intact today.  While there aren’t really any other surviving buildings in the Agora, foundation excavations give a pretty good idea of how things were laid out.  I went through their museum, which is located in reconstructed market building from the 1950s, and learned a bit about the Athenian justice system.

View of the Agora.
From there, I walked to the ruins of the Library of Hadrian and the Roman Agora.  The latter was the “new” marketplace after Athens fell under Roman rule.  Both sites contained some interesting things.  Most notable was the octagonal Tower of the Winds built in the 1st Century BC in the Roman Agora. 

By this time it was nearing 1:00 p.m. and I decided a break was in order.  I wandered a bit in the Plaka neighborhood before stumbling on an out of the way place that, interestingly, described itself as “The most traditional family restaurant.”  The menu outside was only in Greek, but I was able to ascertain that the prices seemed reasonable.  The restaurant, called Scholarhio Ouzeri Kouklis, was a good find.  Because I’d had a big breakfast, I only ordered a salad, but I’d be interested to go there again.

After a break, I walked back toward my hotel the long way, counterclockwise around the Acropolis.  Because the lines were shorter, I decided to go up the Acropolis again and have another look.  I’m glad I did, since I learned quite a bit more at the museum last night.  On my way down I took a path that runs past the Theater of Dionysos and almost to my hotel.  I stopped for a look at the theater and, since I was close, decided I’d stop at the hotel for a cup of coffee and to change into boots.

The change was a good idea, as there was a light, but steady, rain when I came out.  My plan was to head up Philopappou Hill.  The views from the top were worth the effort, and I didn’t mind the rain.  I then walked to the Pnyx, where Athenian citizens gathered to vote in the early days of democracy.  By then, the rain was a bit heavier, so I made a retreat to the hotel to relax and regroup before dinner.

Friday, January 25, 2013

Acropolis (Athens, part II)

I arrived at my hotel in Athens a bit before 1:00 p.m. today and was happy to be able to check into my room right away.  While it’s not the newest of places, the hotel is pleasant and is in a great location about five minutes’ walk from the base of the Acropolis.  I dropped my things, changed into tennis shoes, grabbed a quick lunch, and hit the bricks.

With gray skies and rain threatening, I initially thought that my best bet would be to head to a museum for the afternoon.  But as I started walking, it occurred to me that it wasn’t raining yet and I was just minutes away from one of the greatest places in Western civilization.   A quick check of my guide book informed me that the ticket to the main archeological sites is good for four days, which sealed the deal.  I doubled back and walked the short distance to the entrance of the Acropolis.

At the ticket office, I saw something about a student discount and found my NUI Galway student card on the odd chance that it applied to middle-aged Americans.   I was delighted to find out that not only was I entitled to a student discount, I was entitled to free admission because I am a student at an European Union university.  Now that’s a deal. 

As I started up the path, I felt the slightest bit of drizzle and debated opening my umbrella.  As it turned out, it was unnecessary – the rain held off.  However, the Acropolis is a rocky hill, and most everything built on it is marble, including the stairs.  After I slipped on a step and then stepped in a puddle, I realized that I may have been better off leaving my hiking boots on.

The Parthenon. They really loved Athena.
The path up the western approach of the Acropolis takes you above the Odeion of Herodes Atticus, a 2nd Century AD theater, as well as the Theater of Dionysos from the 5th Century BC.  You pass through a fortified gateway, and then walk up the stairs of the Propylaea, the grand entrance to the sacred hill.  And then, there it is in front of you on the rock: the Parthenon.  A building that is immediately familiar even though you’ve never been anywhere near it.  You think about just how familiar it is – because of all of the monuments, courthouses, libraries, and government buildings that have the same lines, the same columns.  And this is what started it 2,500 years ago.
View of the Agora from the Acropolis.
Right now, there is a lot of restoration work underway, so the entire western half of the Parthenon is filled with beams and scaffold and cables.  And the building itself is pretty skeletal – it has been repurposed, blown up, and large chunks carted off – but is still very, very impressive.  I walked around it counterclockwise, enjoying the views off to the south.  I took most of my photos from the east end, since it is currently less impacted by the restoration work.  On the north side is the Erechtheion, a smaller temple that marks the holy spot where Athena planted an olive tree.  The north side of the Acropolis provides great views of the Agora, the commercial center of ancient Athens.

I walked back down the hill and over to a smaller rock outcropping, the Areios Pagos.  This was the site of the first aristocratic assemblies in Athens, before they invented democracy.  It was also the seat of their court of justice.  And apparently someone named Paul used to talk to Athenians about a new religion from this point.

The wind had been picking up throughout this time, and I decided that I had probably pressed my luck far enough.  In any event, it was already after 3:00 and most of the outdoor sites were closing.  So, I walked back toward my hotel and the new Acropolis Museum.  Once again, my NUIG Cárta Aitheantais Mic Léinn did the trick.

This museum, which opened in 2009, is spectacular.  Architecturally, it is fantastic.  It was built over an early Christian settlement, which has been excavated and is visible through the glass floors of the museum.   This provides some great views as you stroll through the first floor galleries.  (But when you are on the fourth floor and realize you can still see all the way down through the glass floor, it throws you off a bit.)

The fourth floor is set at a 23 degree angle from the floors below to provide an optimal view of the Parthenon on the hill just to the north.  The fourth floor consists of an interior rectangle surrounded by columns, all matching the exact measurements of the ancient building above.  The walls hold the friezes that have been recovered and reconstructed from the matching interior walls of the Parthenon, while the columns hold the reliefs from the outer edge.  At either end are the pediment sculptures. 

The museum’s collection is quite impressive.  On the fourth floor, where the original reliefs are not present, replicas take their place.  But if they don’t have the originals, how did they know what to make the replicas look like?   And why is every other place occupied by a replica that is labeled with “(BM)”?  Well, as some of you may know, much of the Parthenon was carted off to London in the late 19th Century by the British Ambassador to Greece, and now resides in the British Museum (BM).  Apparently the Greek government has been working for years to get these pieces back.  But what I found interesting is that part of the (BM)’s objection to a return was always that the Greeks didn’t have adequate facilities to store and display these treasures.  And that, my friends, is part of what motivated the construction of a new museum, complete with conspicuous gaps in the original works reminding us those originals are someplace called (BM).

I won’t take sides on who has the stronger legal or moral argument, but having seen both museums, the Acropolis Museum certainly has an edge in terms of its exhibition capacity.

Just a short time after I arrived at the museum, I heard thunder.  Heavy rain started soon after.  I had a nice salad and a pot of tea in the third floor restaurant as I watched the storm.  By the time I left, the rain had stopped, but resumed later this evening.  Hopefully, there will be some clear skies tomorrow.  But even with rain the trip seems off to a good start.

Strikes and Taxis (Athens, part 1)

Knowing that my final month in Sofia would go by quickly, I sat down shortly after Sara and Norah departed to map out my remaining time.  I knew that I would have a lot to accomplish (grade exams, finalize a major writing project, start on a minor one, and draft a report) but that I would have a degree of flexibility with my time – I had only a handful of commitments at specific times.   After plotting those on the calendar, I discovered a few multi-day stretches of time that I could set aside for writing and, you guessed it, travel.

Athens emerged as a leading candidate, based on interest (it apparently has some history), geography (warmer in January than, say, Sweden), and logistics (inexpensive direct flights from Sofia).   After another possible trip was sidelined due to weather, Athens got the nod.  I booked myself a flight, reserved a hotel, and bought myself a guide book.

Of course, every trip has its hiccups, and this one started with me casually saying to myself, “I wonder if my trip will be impacted by any strikes?”   Some research on Wednesday revealed that, in fact, the Athens Metro was not running due to a week-long strike.  Yes, the same Metro that I was planning to take directly from the airport, located 20 miles outside of the city, to a station within 200 meters of my hotel for €6.  Would the strike still be going on Friday?  Maybe not, as the Greek government invoked emergency legislation on Thursday to force workers to return.  But if it did, I comforted myself with the knowledge that in the alternative I could take the express bus within a kilometer of my hotel – until the bus drivers joined in on Thursday afternoon. 

At that point, the night before I was scheduled to leave, I began to have second thoughts.  What if I got there and the taxi drivers – the only remaining option, and a very expensive one at that – joined in?  What if they didn’t, but, because of demand, the taxi queue was two hours long and, because of the lack of public transportation, traffic in the city was at a standstill?  Fortunately, calmer heads (those of my wife and a friend) prevailed, and I realized it would all be okay.  Just like it usually is.  (And don’t worry, the irony of me worrying about my vacation while real people are worried about putting food on the table in the face of severe austerity measures was not lost on me.)

So, this morning, I headed to the Sofia airport, (really, really appreciating my 11 Leva ride with O.K. Супертранс) for my Air Malta flight to Athens.  I arrived in Athens to find that the situation was the same, so I headed to the taxi queue.  I was happy to see that it was quite short, and I had already made peace with the fact that I’d be paying €38 (about $50, or 70 Leva) for the trip.  And now I’m here.

The latest report is that Metro service will resume tomorrow, but only after riot police stormed a station where workers had barricaded themselves.  Perhaps the Metro will be running on Monday - if not, I’ll figure it out.  At this point, it seems silly to even be thinking about the potential for inconvenience on my part given the situation.  

Thursday, January 24, 2013


As I’ve written before, as part of the Fulbright experience I have had several opportunities to speak on topics related to my background and interests.  Tuesday, I had another such opportunity as I was invited to deliver a lecture at the American University in Bulgaria (AUBG), located in Blagoevgrad, about 75 miles south of Sofia. 

I left around noon to make my first trip to Sofia’s Central Bus Station.  The station is fairly new, and most of the waiting coaches appear to be much newer than the city bus fleet.  Most people I’ve talked with have recommended the bus over the train, saying it is faster and more reliable.  There is not a national bus company, though, so you have to determine which private carrier is going your direction at what time, and then find their ticket booth inside the station. 

Before long, though, we were on the road.  Although the distance is relatively short, it took a while to get through Sofia and the road to Blagoevgrad is two lanes with lots of hills.  So, the trip took just over two hours.  I enjoyed the views of the Rila Mountains, which include the highest peaks in southeast Europe, and reviewed and edited the notes for my talk. 

Talkin' law.
I arrived in Blagoevgrad shortly around 3:30 p.m. and I walked to the Hotel Cardinal, where my hosts had booked a room for me.  The professor who invited me stopped by a short time later, and we took an hour-long walk through the city center.  Blagoevgrad has a population of about 80,000 and is nicely situated with mountains and hills in every direction.  The city center received a major makeover in the 1980s, so many of the buildings have the uniform look of socialist architecture from that era.  One of AUBG’s buildings, formerly the communist party headquarters, dominates the central plaza.  After a quick stop at the hotel I made my way across the river to the new part of AUBG’s campus. 

My talk started at 7:30 p.m. and was well attended.  My topic was “The Role of International Justice in Securing Peace.”  I chose this topic in part because I knew that many students from a conflict resolution course would be attending, and wanted to try to connect my talk to their course work.  I discussed the development of human rights systems and international criminal law in the postwar era – the establishment of the United Nations, the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the convening of the International Military Tribunal at Nuremburg, and the revival of international criminal tribunals at the end of the century.  I then talked about the relationship of international criminal tribunals to conflict resolution – how well suited courts are to building peace in post-conflict situations, and how they might better do so. 

The first part of the talk – the development and goals of the international institutions – was within my comfort zone, but the latter part – the connection to conflict resolution – was somewhat new territory for me.  I appreciated the opportunity to go there, though.  My main purpose in doing so was to try to connect the topic to student interest, but it also let me learn more about an area that I don’t know as much about.  Not only was this intellectually stimulating, it also provides me with some new material to share in my own classes when I teach.  At the same time, it is always a bit intimidating to walk into a room with the expectation that you are an “expert” in something; this is definitely increased when talking out of your area. 
Mostly still awake.

I think we had some good discussion during the question and answer period that followed.  The other Fulbright lecturer in Bulgaria this year, my new friend Nancy, teaches journalism at AUBG.  Following the lecture, I was even interviewed by one of her students who was assigned to “cover” my talk.

After finishing, I had dinner with several faculty members, including Nancy.  It was interesting to me to learn more about AUBG, which operates on an American model.  Instruction is in English, and a large number of the faculty members are American.  About half of the students come from Bulgarian, while the rest come from neighboring countries and even further away.  One of the Americans in our party even said that he had encouraged his niece to consider AUBG because it is less expensive than the public institution in her home state.

After a pretty good night’s sleep, I awoke to one glitch – no running water in my room.  When I went downstairs to breakfast I learned that there was a break in the water main down the street.  After an interesting Bulgarian variation of a full English breakfast, I met my friend, Nancy, for coffee.  I caught a mini-bus back to Sofia, which was a bit faster than the coach on the way.

All in all, it was a very good trip.  I enjoyed Blagoevgrad and it was nice to have time to visit with Nancy.  My talk went well (at least from my perspective) and the students and faculty who I interacted with were great.  I have to admit, though, it was nice to get back to Sofia and my apartment, which really does feel like “home.”  

Monday, January 21, 2013

Weekend Update

Some of my students.  

Friday marked the end of the semester here, and I taught my last class that evening.  It was a bittersweet moment, as I have really enjoyed all of my students this semester and am a bit sad that our time has come to a close.  Exams begin this week and run for several weeks.  I was able to schedule my exams early, so I hope to have them graded and submit grades by next week. 

In addition to wrapping up my work at Sofia University, I am trying to use my last weeks here to finish one major and several smaller projects.  I am feeling highly motivated for this and am very hopeful that it will be as productive as my time in early October. I am also preparing for the start of my human rights course back home tomorrow, with some much appreciated assistance from a colleague and friend until I return in early February. 

I hope to do some traveling as well.  Tomorrow I will be traveling to Blagoevgrad to give a talk at the American University in Bulgaria.  I’m also planning a trip to Athens this weekend.  My time there will be brief, but I will be staying near the Acropolis and hopefully will be able to explore that area.

View from near Musala Peak, above Borovets. 
The weather is again very mild here.  It is currently 63 degrees Fahrenheit and sunny.  Yesterday I traveled with my neighbor and his brother-in-law to Borovets, a ski resort in the Rila Mountains about an hour south of Sofia.  It was an enjoyable trip, and the mountains were beautiful.  We took a long gondola ride to a point near the mountaintop.  It was quite cold and cloudy at the top, but occasionally the clouds would clear revealing the valleys below. 

There was a strange story out of Sofia this weekend that some of you may have heard about, involving an attack on a politician.  It has been the subject of a lot of discussion here, and the story continues to evolve.  For the latest, see this story from the Guardian.


Monday, January 7, 2013

Christmas Vacation

The weeks leading up to Christmas were a pleasant time in Sofia.  We enjoyed seeing decorations around town, and were happy we were able to visit the Christmas market a few times.  I attended a fun Fulbright holiday party, and we baked cookies at home.  We left town before Christmas, though, to do some traveling over the university’s winter break.

On December 22 we flew from Sofia to Vienna International Airport and took a bus directly to Bratislava, the capital of Slovakia.  We stayed for two nights in a grand old hotel on one of the squares in the center of the old town.  It was a very festive setting, with a Christmas market right outside our door and others just a block or two away, and a blizzard on our second day there.  We spent our time wandering through the compact old town, and I walked to Bratislava.  My walk up the hill in the sleet was rewarded with some nice views of the old town and the Danube.

On Christmas Eve we took the train from Bratislava to Budapest, where we spent four nights in a lovely boutique hotel.  The stores were just closing when we arrived, and most shops, restaurants, and attractions remained closed until the 27th.  So, we stocked up on groceries and took advantage of our kitchenette during that period.  We enjoyed the pool at our hotel, and watched a few fun movies, including Christmas Vacation.  It was in German, but we found ourselves reciting a good portion of the script from memory. 

Although the city was generally quiet on Christmas Day, we attended a performance of the Nutcracker by the Kiev City Ballet, and attended mass at St. Stephen’s Basilica.  On St. Stephen’s Day, we walked across the Danube to explore Castle Hill. On the morning of our last full day in Budapest we visited the excellent Museum of Transport in City Park.  In the afternoon, I went to the Terror Haza museum, which is located in the building that was home to Hungary’s Nazi party and later housed the secret police during the communist era.  We finished off the evening with a trip to the biggest of Budapest’s Christmas markets.

On the 28th we took the train from Budapest to Salzburg.  This was one of the new Railjet trains operated by Austrian Federal Railways, and it topped out around 230 km/hr (~140 mph).  It was five-hour trip, but Norah did well and we checked into our hotel in Salzburg by late afternoon, took a walk through the newer part of the city just after dark, and had dinner at a great Indian restaurant. 

The next morning we walked through Salzburg’s old town.  We especially enjoyed Salzburg Cathedral and the beautiful graveyard around St. Peter’s Church.  Around lunchtime we hiked up the hill to Hohensalzburg Fortress.  We didn’t tour the fortress, but instead walked along the adjacent Monchsberg ridge and then headed back to our hotel for a nap.  In the early evening, we explored Steingasse, a well-preserved medieval street that was once part of the main route to Venice.  After an unintended trip to the airport due to a bus-route change that apparently wasn’t updated in the official December 2012 Salzburg Tourist Map, we found the Augustiner Braustubl, “where, since 1621, the art of brewing and a cordial atmosphere guarantee the enjoyment of delicious cool beer.” This brewery and beer hall located within an active monastery was an absolute blast, and one of the highlights of the trip. 

Hall in Tirol.
From Salzburg we traveled to Hall in Tirol, just outside of Innsbruck, for three nights in a fantastic family-run guesthouse.  We spent New Year’s Eve exploring the village at a leisurely pace.  We had an early dinner and noticed some fireworks as we walked back in the early evening.  The fireworks continued to grow in frequency throughout the evening, and we could see them coming from dozens of points up and down the Inn River valley.  A little after 11:30 p.m. we witnessed an amazing and intense fireworks display.  Unlike fireworks shows at home, this wasn’t one display being put on by a single public entity, but was a conglomeration of what I assume were a hundred different individuals and businesses.  For over a half-hour we were treated to constant fireworks everywhere along the valley, with the Alps in the background.

On New Year’s Day we took the eight-minute train ride to Innsbruck, the Tyrolean capital, and from there took a fantastic funicular and cable car ride up the mountainside on Innsbruck’s Nordkettenbahn.  Our destination was Seegrube, a ski area with an elevation of approximately 2,000 meters.  We rented a sled and played in the snow for over an hour looking out over beautiful scenery before heading partway back down for a stop at the Alpenzoo, Europe’s highest zoo.

The following day we took the train to our final destination, Vienna.  We spent our final afternoon, evening, and the following morning relaxing and sightseeing.  While it probably wasn’t enough time to really do Vienna justice, we got a good feel for the city and were able to at least see the main sights. 

Our short return flight to Sofia went smoothly, and we were back to our apartment well before bedtime.  Wherever home is, I think you appreciate it more when you return from someplace else, and this trip was no different.  Sofia felt comfortable and familiar, and a pleasant contrast to the more touristed areas we’d left behind.  I particularly appreciated our taxi ride home, which cost the equivalent of 4.50.

Overall, the trip was a great success.  I was happy that Norah adapted as well as she did to sleeping in five different locations over twelve nights and missing naps on our travel days.  I was also glad that we were able to successfully navigate the wide variety of public transportation options within and between our destinations.  I wasn’t sure how easy things would be on the train, metro, or bus with a child and the corresponding extra baggage, but it was all quite successful and left me feeling empowered.  Given the time of year, a lot of our exploring was done after dark, but I actually appreciated the opportunity to see the cities at night.