The Black Sea Coast


Fulbrighters enjoying the surf in Varna, Bulgaria

A beach town is a beach town all over the world, at least in my humble opinion, and I have been to more than a few.  The potent cocktail of surf, sand, and sun can’t help but relax you and coax out your inner kid.  The Black Sea coast is no different on this score; consequently, we truly enjoyed our time in both Varna and Burgas.


July 17th -20th: Monday morning began with a walking tour of Varna and a visit to the Varna Archaelogical Museum, which is housed in an old girl’s high school. Just as an aside, the Bulgarians have done a good job of repurposing old buildings, especially old Soviet buildings, in order to save money and recycle, but it’s often not a perfect fit.  This museum is a case in point, as there’s not enough room to display everything properly or control temperatures and use natural lighting.  We also were not allowed to take any pictures inside.  Nonetheless, we saw many exquisite artifacts, many from the Byzantine era, as well as more icons.  There was a very cool map of the ancient world that showed Greek exploration and settlements along the Black Sea,

Map of Black Sea Coast

Map of Black Sea Coast

which I would have loved to photograph because it provoked an “Aha!” moment for me when I saw that Colchis (think Jason, the Argonauts, and the Golden Fleece) was along the Black Sea coast in what is now Georgia, not on the Mediterranean Sea as I had always assumed.  The Greeks had several settlements along this coastline, one we’ll visit in a few days called Nessebar (Mesembria in Greek), another UNESCO site as of 1983.

But back to Varna and its seaside charm, the primary one, being the 5 mile long Sea Garden separating the “golden sands” from the main drag.  This is another bit of city planning the Bulgarians have done well, much better than Americans, at least on the east coast.  Instead of row upon row of hotels hogging the coastline, there is this lovely pedestrian park, at least a quarter mile or more wide, where people can stroll, bike, picnic, and enjoy the fountains and flowers everywhere. Brilliant!  There’s also a summer amphitheater where Chantay, Sheena, and I took in the ballet one night.  I just love seeing green, public spaces being used as they’re intended.


Team Photo in the Sea Garden – Varna, Bulgaria


Ballet in the Sea Garden’s  Summer Theater — Varna, Bulgaria

We also toured Varna University with whom Fulbright is beginning to re-establish a working relationship after several years.  Apparently, the academics had slipped significantly, and there has been a strong pro-Russian sentiment amongst the faculty in the past, but they are trying to change things.  Our lecture on Bulgarian economics  was okay; I think it would have been more informative had not the Provost been in attendance because you could tell that Prof. Alexander Shivarov was choosing his words carefully with his boss there.

Other highlights while in Varna were our trips to the Palace and Botanical Gardens of Balchik and Euxinograd.  The former was officially called “The Quiet Nest Palace” and was built at the behest of Queen Marie of Romania in 1927 when Romania had control of this region.  It’s rumored that she had a lover for whom she would wait by the sea in her beautiful gardens to catch sight of his sails – romantic story for a romantic spot.  She had taste, Queen Marie; her rose gardens are stunning, and I’m not a big rose person, and the palace is more cozy than colossal.  I like that.  The latter, Euxinograd, was the palace of Tsar Ferdinand, which now serves as a retreat for government officials and the place to buy Rakia, according to Victor in Chicago.  It’s a little bit of an arboretum and a mini-Versailles on the beach all rolled into one.

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While Varna is to the north, Burgas is to the south near the Turkish border, and both Rada and Maria told us they prefer Burgas because it’s less commercialized and more family friendly, and I could see the truth of that when we arrived on Wednesday.  After checking into the Aqua Hotel, we went into town to meet with the Deputy Mayor, a lovely woman and former high school psychology teacher whose name I did not get, unfortunately.  She explained how schools are funded and run in her town, and it has many similarities to home.  The municipalities are in charge of local pubic education.  I asked her about parental support of the schools, and she admitted that they have a problem with parents expecting the schools and teachers to not only educate their kids but raise them as well. Sounds familiar.  However, here they have had parents actually attack the teachers!  The teaching profession in Bulgaria is not well respected or well paid; teachers make the equivalent of $400 a month is some cases! Consequently, it is hard to recruit the best applicants and harder still to keep them.  Still, she does what she can to support her teachers, especially the young ones.  Later that afternoon, we got to visit one of the high schools in town.  The principal came off the beach to meet us and show us around, and we all appreciated this “above and beyond” act of cultural friendship.  She had great energy, and you could tell she looks out for her students and her staff.  This is one of the high schools Fulbright visits every year lookng for candidates for their program.

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Wednesday evening, we had a viewing of the film Mission London, a Bulgarian Embassy in London farce, and then met with the author of the book upon which it’s based, Alek Popov.  He and his wife joined us for dinner at The Brewery, along with the principal from the high school and three of her teachers.  It was interesting to speak with the teachers; one in particular was very friendly, but she clearly had a negative bias about both refugee children and the Roma kids.  This was the one sour note in an otherwise good day.  I take that back.  There was a second sour note:  Holly witnessed some skin heads facing off with some Orthodox Jewish kids and ultimately the police, prompted by a football match between Burgas (?) and Israel. There is definitely an undercurrent here as evidenced by all the swastikas we’ve seen spray-painted on buildings in Sofia and Varna.

Thursday we drove to Nessebar for a tour of the ruins there.  It’s a UNESCO site as I mentioned earlier, and one of its remarkable features is the tangible remains of the many civilizations that lived there through the ages, first the Thracians, then the Greeks, then Byzantine Christians, the Bulgarians, the Ottomans, and so on.  It is beautiful!


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Peeking Behind the Iron Curtain

Lenin everywhere!

Lenin dominates the sculpture garden at the Socialist Art Museum in Sofia, Bulgaria.

Friday, July 14th — We had a free morning because one of our lecturers had to reschedule at the last minute, so Debbie, Michele, Suzanne, and I made the hour long walk to the Socialist Art Museum.  I hadn’t read anything about it before going, so I didn’t know what to expect other than heavy statues of workers exuding the strength and vitality of the Party; we’ve seen plenty examples of just that dotted here and there about the city and countryside.  And sure enough, there were lots of them in the sculpture garden which visitors walk through before entering the museum itself.  I found Che Guevara in his iconic beret right off the bat and counted at least 15 busts and statues of Vladimir Lenin.  No Joseph Stalin to be seen anywhere, but that makes sense that he would have been scrubbed clean after the atrocities he committed.  There are also numerous busts of Bulgaria’s first communist leader Georgy Dimitrov and long-ruling dictator Todor Zhivkov.

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The 77 statues outside and 60 paintings inside the museum were mostly commissioned by the regime for propaganda purposes between the years 1945 and 1989, all meant to glorify the life of the working classes and the fantastic heroics of the partisan movement that brought Communism to Bulgaria in 1944.  After Zhivkov got the boot in 1989, many of the statues and paintings that adorned the public buildings and squares were removed or torn down, so the collection in this museum was basically amassed by going town to town and village to village, picking through what was left. I have to say, the museum felt heavy and oppressive, much like the concrete building in which it was housed.  The Iron Curtain was both weighty and opaque, and peeking behind it now I am beginning to understand the physical, economic, and psychological costs to Bulgarians of this 45 year legacy of Communism.

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Born in 1960, I grew up with the Cold War.  I lived the Space Race, the intense rivalry between the US and the USSR in the Olympic Games, the Russian bad guy “Jaws” in James Bond movies, Robert Ludlum’s espionage mysteries, and of course the Vietnam War, the Khmer Rouge, and so on.  When the Berlin Wall came down in 1989, I remember thinking how much of a paradigm shift this was going to be for Americans and for the world. What I did not consider then, or ever really until visiting Bulgaria, is how much of a paradigm shift it would be for the former Soviet bloc countries.  I naively believed they would just be happy and thrilled to be free of Soviet control and would adopt capitalism, hold democratic elections, and move forward without ever looking back.  I was a little bit right and a whole lot WRONG!

Twenty-seven years later, Bulgaria is still in transition with half of its population looking back with nostalgia on “the good old days” of Socialism when there was economic security and the 3-Keys Policy: every citizen has a key to his/her own car, own home, and own vacation home,  and this “protective arms of Mother Russia” myth is one Putin is successfully promoting with a vengeance through propaganda and fake news in order to destabilize Bulgaria’s democracy and the people’s faith in the EU and NATO.  Sound familiar?

The other half is working hard and diligently towards a future without any dependence on Russia, but they are looking around them and seeing too many former Party wolves in sheep’s clothing still in power and still in bed with Putin, and this makes forward progress slow and coalescing under a common vision for the future near impossible. Public trust in the institutions of democracy, justice, education, and even the Orthodox Church is spotty at best.  There is a Bulgarian saying that I hope I am not butchering: “There are optimists,  pessimists, and then there are Bulgarians.”  They’ve been given just cause not to trust.


Dr. Kiril Avramov

In the afternoon, we had two lectures, the first of which was the perfect compliment to our morning museum visit.  The topic was Bulgarian-Russian Relations: A Contemporary Perspective, and our lecturer was Dr. Kiril Avramov of New Bulgarian University, who also studied political science at University of Texas – Austin. He talked at length about the “weaponization of information” and Putin’s successful use of this weapon in Bulgaria to forward his own goals:  to become a key actor on the international stage, to restore the sphere of influence of the USSR, and to move democracies from liberal to autocratic. Dr. Avramov gave Turkey as a good example of this strategy playing out. He also shared some personal insights on a similar, customized strategy being employed in the United States, think the Russian interference in Presidential elections investigation.  It was fascinating and troubling.  I cannot do his talk justice here, but for anyone interested here is the link to his powerpoint.

We had a farewell-for-now-Sofia dinner before heading off to Veliko Turnovo, one of Bulgaria’s oldest towns, Saturday morning.  It was fun and delicious, and we got to share in some nuptial joy watching the two tables next to us celebrate what appeared to have been a double wedding.

Saturday, July 15th – On the way to Veliko Turnovo, we stopped at the Etar Ethnographic Open-Air Museum which celebrates traditional village life during the 18th and 19th centuries here.  It was a Bulgarian version of Sturbridge Village in Sturbridge, MA, complete with authentic craftsmen and cottages that had been brought here and reassembled to replicate a typical village main street.  I took a few pictures.  One of the most remarkable things to me was the use of flat rocks for roofing, but I guess it was the material close at hand in the mountains.

After lunch, we continued on our way to the old medieval city, which is quaint and charming tucked up on the hillsides surrounding the snaking Yantra River, and here too we saw the fingerprints of the Soviet regime.  There is a huge, decrepit hotel dominating the far side of the river that apparently was built to house Party big-wigs who came for a grand celebration in Veliko Turnovo back in the socialist day, but now it is a big eyesore, and, according to George, it is the worse-run hotel in town.  He had some pretty funny tour-guide horror stories to tell us.  After checking out Asen’s Monument in the center of town (another Soviet installation) we got settled into the Gurko Hotel, which was as charming as it gets in direct contrast to the concrete monstrosity across the way.

Sunday, July 16th – The rain that started Saturday night continued through most of the morning and early afternoon Sunday, but it wasn’t so bad that it kept us from touring the Tsarevets Fortress that occupies the three highest hills in Veliko Turnovo.  Ruins of a 4th C Byzantium city have been discovered on the site, but the citadel dates back to the 2nd Bulgarian Empire of the 12th C, and the rule of three King brothers – Petar, Asen, and Kaloyan, hence Asen’s Monument.  From its strategic location, the citadel survived the Crusades, but not the three month Ottoman siege of 1393 when it was conquered and burnt to the ground.  There are a few original parts left, but the majority of the complex has been rebuilt which is why it isn’t a UNESCO site.  It is still really cool and speaks to Bulgaria’s long, long history and rich culture.  The best part of our tour was going out to the “Rock of Fate” which is an outcropping hanging over the Yantra River from which traitors were pushed to their death – so Game of Thrones! 

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The tour was followed by lunch at a local restaurant and a lecture on the history of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church by Dr. Stefka Kancheva of the University of Veliko Turnovo. Her presentation focused on the key role the Orthodox Church played in education and keeping the Bulgarian language alive under the Ottoman Yoke, much of which we had already heard, so I don’t need to elaborate here.

The day wasn’t over yet; next stop, the city of Varna on the Black Sea!  The first thing we did upon arrival a few hours later was go to the beach and put our toes in the water, all thanks to George : )  We then got checked into our hotel, The Golden Tulip, and finished the evening off with dinner at the Sea Terrace Restaurant overlooking the Black Sea.  It was a full and busy weekend.

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Two Exquisite Gems

I am getting way behind here in my blog posts, a week behind to be exact, and it’s beginning to stress me out, so I’m going to have to start squishing days together.  If I don’t, everyone is going to get sick and tired of reading the posts anyway because I am gone for three and half weeks.  That would be 24 posts — yuck and yikes!  Not going to happen.  So here goes – Wednesday and Thursday,  July 13th & 14th.

We had several lectures over the course of Wednesday and Thursday last week, and I’ll highlight a few of my takeaways in a moment after I share the two incredible gems of Bulgarian culture we were treated to.  The first was a private concert with two talented musicians on Wednesday night. The concert was held in the former home of a famous Bulgarian opera singer who donated it to the city of IMG_3742Sofia for this purpose, and it also serves as kind of museum of him now that he’s passed away.  I’m not knowledgable about opera, so Boris Christoff is not a name I recognize, but I’m grateful to have been in his home with the rest of my group to enjoy the music of Kristina Beleva and Petar Milanov in such an intimate setting.  Angela Rodel, Fulbright Executive Director in Bulgaria, graciously arranged this concert. She also treated us to wine and hors d’oeurves in the garden beforehand, and then we went inside for a soul-feeding feast.  The music was incredible! You know when you are listening to a live performance and can just see and feel how much fun the musicians are having with the music and each other?! These two exuded joy and passion for the music, some of it traditional Bulgarian folk and some of it their own jazz compositions.  Kristina was playing the gadulka, an upright Bulgarian fiddle, and Petar was on an acoustic guitar.  I am an admitted sucker for a fiddle, and listening to them put me in mind of sitting in O’Connor’s Pub in Doolin, Ireland enjoying the traditional Irish music.  Several of us bought one of their CD’s afterwards because we loved the performance so much, and they graciously signed the covers for us. It doesn’t matter that the lyrics are in Bulgarian; the beauty of the music is universal.

It was definitely one of those “It’s-good-to-be-alive!” moments, a perfect reward for surviving three solid lectures in the morning and afternoon. Apparently, Kristina also plays in a band called Bulgara, and they go on International World Music tours that include the States.  If they come to Boston, I’m going to drag everyone with me!  Below is a sampling, so you can see and hear for yourself how talented these two are.  Just check out her fingers as she’s playing the gadulka!

The second crown jewel we experienced the following day  – Rila Monastery, of which the Bulgarians are extremely proud, and after visiting it I understand why.  I loved the drive to and from the Rila Mountains (the highest in Bulgaria) because we were able to finally see the countryside after having been in the city for four days.  Fields of sunflowers and wheat dot the hillsides everywhere, and then driving through the villages we were able to see how folks live.

Every home has a vegetable patch and grape arbor, not to mention fruit trees of all kinds.  George explained that each household is able to make their own wine within a certain specified quantity, as it’s for the family’s consumption, not resale.  This is how it’s been practically forever in the countryside; Bulgarian villagers are self-sufficient and have very fertile soil.  However, what they are suffering from now is a slow but steady decline in population, and all the fresh vegetables and fruit in the world cannot stop that. That makes me sad.  It was in the village at the foot of Rila Monastery that we also saw the storks, 32 couples of them who return each spring.  So much to show and tell.

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George predicted our jaws would drop when we walked through the gates of Rila; this is not his first rodeo, obviously, but usually hype leaves me a bit disappointed when I actually see something for myself.  This was not the case.  Rila Monastery stood me still. Pictures will explain better than any words I can string together to describe its unique beauty and hallowed aura. Despite the hundreds of tourists like ourselves walking around with our mouths open and cameras clicking, the spiritual serenity of the place is palpable.

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I was fascinated with the fresco depictions of hell and the Devil pictured as a dragon.  I am a cradle Catholic, although not so practicing anymore, and I also teach Dante’s Inferno, so I’m very familiar with the Catholic conceptions of fire and brimstone that derive largely from Dante’s 9 Circles, but the Bulgarian Eastern Orthodox conceptions are different.  There are similarities as they are both Christian, and I do see a kind of contrapasso going on, but there are distinct differences like the higher incidence of women sinners which I tried to capture with the following photos.  You can skip this part, unless you’re one of my students!

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I’d be remiss if I didn’t give a bit of the rich history behind Rila Monastery here, but I’ll try to keep it bite-sized as this is getting to be another really long post.  It was established in the 10th century and is the oldest monastery in Bulgaria still in use.  Once there were over 200 monks living here, and now there are only six.  St. Ivan Rilski was the founder.  He is the patron saint of Bulgaria and, consequently, his icon appears in all their Orthodox churches; mostly he’s painted as an older, bearded man holding the testament to show his critical contribution to education and keeping their religion and the Bulgarian language alive during turbulent times. As the story goes, he grew up in the village below the mountain, and at age 20 he decided to devote his life to God and lived in a cave about 6 km from the monastery.  He is credited with many healing miracles. Apparently, one of the Turkish sultans was healed at Rila, and this is what protected it during the Ottoman occupation.  There was a terrible fire, however, and the monastery burned to the ground and had to be rebuilt in the 1800’s, I think.  Only the tower is part of the original, dating back to the 12th C; otherwise, I’m sure this would be a UNESCO sight.

IMG_3961Last but not least, although probably the least interesting for readers of this blog, are the lectures.  I promise to be brief!  I’ll go backwards, so I can finish our day trip to Rila.  We enjoyed some fresh river trout for lunch before heading off to the American University of Bulgaria in Blagoevgrad, which used to be the Party HQ’s in town, for our lecture on The Educational System in Bulgaria by Assoc. Professor Dr. Julia Stefanova from Sofia University.  The campus was small but nice, and it is well-respected by Fulbright, which is saying something, as the country’s education system is not as strong as it could be.

Dr. Stefanova’s talk was enlightening but depressing.  She used an Alice-in-Wonderland quotation, “They call them lessons because they lessen everyday,”  to describe the decline of Bulgaria’s Education system and bemoaned the fact that there is no unified policy now in public education, and without one it is hard to move forward to change curriculum and improve academics across the board.  “We are like a ship sailing on the sea but with no navigation system,” were her words. She believes that Bulgarians are too much looking back over their shoulders at the past because the future is not pleasant and uncertain, and this is the greatest obstacle to education reform. One good thing about the Communist regime was its support of education, which was in large part driven by its need to compete and beat the West.  She also spoke to the problem of enrolling and educating the Roma population, and here she lost me because it was clear she was prejudiced against them.  Perhaps she has real cause to be; I’m sure she does, but I have no personal experience against which to measure her negative comments, and we have not heard the Roma point of view.  I don’t mean to judge her; I’m just being honest about my reaction to her statements about them being little more than thieves not interested in working or being educated.  Renee, another one of my fellow Fulbright teachers recounted how a Roma male dishwasher was fired from the restaurant she dined at in Sofia because some of the clientele found out he was working there.  This was her Bulgarian waiter’s story; it doesn’t jive with the “all they do is steal,” assessment.  More to learn on this subject.

Wednesday, we had three lectures.  The first was given by former Foreign Minister of Bulgaria, Dr. Solomon Passy.  He is credited with getting Bulgaria to sign on to to both NATO and the EU, which is pretty impressive.  His talk was about changing the way we govern countries by replacing the inevitable human error and emotion of voting our leaders into office with a super computer program to test whether candidates are qualified.  He wants our leaders and politicians to be licensed just like a pilot in whom the people place their faith and fate because he/she knows what they are doing and are using the same said super computers to make their decisions.  It was a bit out there, but the idea has merit and got all of us thinking outside the box.  Given the level of cronyism and corruption in the Bulgarian government, I can understand his argument to take the vote away from ordinary citizens, but still I don’t agree with it.  His TED Talk is below if anyone has more questions about his provocative ideas.

The second talk was about ethnic and religious minorities in Bulgaria and was given by Prof. Dr. Plamen Makariev of Sofia University.  He gave a history of the shifting ethnic makeup, but my take away was that he does not think discrimination against the minority groups – the Turks and Roma primarily, is an issue.  That was encouraging to hear, and I want to believe him, but I haven’t had a chance to ask a Turk or a Roma if they think that is the case.

The final talk of the day was for me the most interesting, and that’s because Prof. Dinko Dinkov of the University of National and World Economy spoke about his watchfulness of Turkey and Erdogan’s relationship with Russia.  To me he leans more East than West in the half-way house analogy, and his distrust of Turkey’s intentions has to do with their long turbulent history with this neighbor.  He said to us, “Europe has history; America has geography,” which is quite true.  His point was that Americans do not understand the many layers of geopolitics in Europe because we haven’t lived the wars and thousands of years of conflict.  We have two friendly neighbors on our borders and two oceans protecting us on either side, while Bulgaria is a small country with the Bear (Russia) right above its head and the Turks at its toes.  This put things in perspective for me.

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“Follow the yellow brick road…”



Heading out on our walking tour of Sofia’s city center

Not every street and square in Sofia is paved in yellow brick, just the ones around the National Parliament, National Theater, National Fine Arts Gallery, Alexander Nevski Cathedral, and other signature buildings of the capital – most of the places we’re going to be visiting today on our city center tour at 4 pm with the indefatiguable George. According to him, they get fatally slippery  when wet and are the cause of many accidents and casualties, but Rada, our Fulbright liaison in-country, assures me it only rains maybe five days total in July, so no worries for us as we follow along Sofia’s signature yellow brick roads while exploring this Bulgarian Oz.

There’s a story behind these cobblestones as I learned from a quick little Google search.  They were made in Hungary and laid here in Sofia in the early 1900’s, supposedly as a wedding gift to the monarch Ferdinand I.  However, this is more legend than fact from what I gleaned, but, nonethless, they have been declared a national heritage.

Tuesday dawned hot and humid as promised for our walking tour, but by the time we ventured out it was closer to 90 than 98, and it cooled off nicely by the evening when we drove up into the foothills of the Dragalevtsi district for dinner  and a performance of the


This is not my photo; I found it online. My own photos and footage of the nestinari fire-dancers were too dark to see well.

nestinari or fire-dancers of the Strandja region in Southeastern Bulgaria. But I’m getting ahead of myself again.  Let me start at the beginning this time.

The morning began with two interesting lectures.  Professor Dr. Evgeni Dainov of New Bulgarian University presented first, and he focused on the country’s current political struggles, chiefly a corrupt government and judicial system, neither of which the people trust.  This is not unique to Bulgaria certainly; in fact, Senegal and Kenya immediately come to mind, but it makes me reflect on how much I take the rule of law at home for granted, even in this Trump era of fake news and security leaks.  The cronyism is endemic here, and, according to Prof. Dainov, it’s the direct by-product of living 50 years under Socialism and Soviet control.  Rada boils it down for us: “When you get stopped by a police officer in the United States, you pull over, get out your license and registration, and politely ask the officer if there’s something wrong.  In Bulgaria, if I get stopped, I offer the policeman 20 levs.”  Yikes!  Enough said.

Despite the seemingly intractable government corruption and the East-West- half-way- house mindset of Bulgarians, Prof. Dainov believes progress has been made.  While Bulgaria may lean towards Russia, it will never cave to Putin’s form of autocratic democracy.  With that said, he doesn’t believe Bulgaria will ever fully integrate into the West and liberal democracy either, at least as I understood him.  This East-West schizophrenia results in ambivalence for both.  Sixty percent of Bulgarians are pro-Russia, but those same people are also pro-EU.  This is the professor’s point of view, which is decidedly pro-West.  He has marched in protests for decades now, and he feels that these public protests are what keep the government in check.  I wish I had a photograph of him to include because he looks like the a liberal activist he is!

The second lecture was delivered by Assoc. Prof. Dr. Paskal Zhelev of the University of National and World Economy, and it focused on Bulgaria’s current economic struggles.  It too was enlightening and dovetailed the first talk well.  However, economics is not my strong suit and my brain was pulsing on overload at this point, so here’s my takeaway in a nutshell.  Membership in the EU requires Bulgaria to pull away from its economic dependence on Russia, specifically Russian oil, among other things. This is problematic, but it’s complicated and needs more time and knowledge than I have to explain it properly. They need more manufacturing to augment their agricultural exports and other business sectors, but there is no economic policy in place to set these plans in motion.  And there is no economic policy in place because of crony capitalism and government corruption.  I hope that made sense and I didn’t screw up the gist of his lecture.

Lunch at Moma Restaurant of the silk rose arbor followed, and it was a pleasure to chat with Paskal over the meal and hear more of his personal life and what it’s like for him as a young professional living in Sofia.

After lunch, we had a little down time, and then it was time for our afternoon walking tour with George.  I will let the pictures speak to the beauty and charm of Sofia.

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I apologize at the marathon length of this blog post, but Tuesday was one long and full day, and it’s not over yet!  As I mentioned earlier, we drove up into the mountains for dinner, and the charming Vodenitzata Restaurant definitely caters to tourists with all the

live entertainment. We were treated to some traditional Bulgarian folk dancing and singing, and in the video below, Sarah, one of my fellow Fulbrighters, does us all proud!


IMG_3444Last, but not least, came the nestinari. Fire dancing on live wood coals has become a real tourist event, but it does mirror an actual religious ritual honoring St. Constantine, which some scholars believe is rooted in the even older pagan Cult of Dionysus.  This makes me think of Euripides’ The Bacchae when the women go up into the mountains to perform the god’s mysteries and, in an ecstatic frenzy, rip apart the spying King Pentheus of Thebes, his mom included.  Nobody does gruesome like the Greeks.  It’s another example of  how Christianity subsumed a pagan practice by crediting one of its saints with the miraculous event.  I read about the nestinari in the novel Stork Mountain by Miroslav Penkov, so I was really looking forward to this.  Unfortunately, it was too dark and crowded to really see everything that was going on, but I did see the icons and the men walk through the hot coals; it was cool, if not mystical.  Penkov also takes some literary license and ties the nestinari to the migrating storks that return to Bulgaria each spring.  I already know we’re going to see some storks in the near future because I’m two days behind on this blog!  For now though…good night.



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Sofia – always growing, never aging


Sofia means wisdom, and this statue of Sofia was erected in 2001 on the spot where Lenin’s statue once stood before the fall of socialism. With her olive wreath and owl, she is the Bulgarian version of Athena. She represents the city, not the Saint, and this distinction is accomplished with how the name is pronounced – SOfia for the city, and SoFIa for the sainted lady.

Above is the motto of Sofia, capital city of Bulgaria.  We learned this from George, our knowledgable tour guide for the week, as he was explaining the urban sprawl spreading towards the Boyana suburb where we visited the country’s treasured Boyana Church. We arrived in Sofia on Sunday afternoon, but it’s a bit of a jet-lagged blur, so I’ll begin my tale with Monday, July 10th, our first full “working” day in Bulgaria.  With my faulty memory and so much  to recount already, I’ve decided to organize my thoughts by superlatives, the “est‘s – prettiest, oldest, and cutest, with a “most native” thrown in for good measure. Consequently, it will be a bit out of chronological order, so bear with me.

The prettiest place we’ve visited thus far is Boyana Church, a UNESCO World Heritage site for good reason.  It’s quite small; only 10 visitors at a time are allowed inside and only for 10 minutes.  It’s a popular destination for tourists as well as Bulgarians.  The frescoes are beautiful and very well-preserved considering they date back to the 12th C, and because the church is so small, I could see them up close and distinguish the details of their facial expressions!  I learned that St. Nicholas is the patron saint of fishermen here, and I’ve only ever associated him with St. Nick or Santa Claus.  In another fresco of the Last Supper, Christ is pictured to the left of the Apostles rather than in the center like DaVinci’s version, and when I asked George about this, he told me that in the Eastern Orthodox Church Christ is always on the left facing East and the nativity is always to the right.  Not sure why that is, but I’m going to find out.  We were not allowed to take photos inside, so I bought myself two postcards of my favorite frescoes, a magnet of St. Nicholas, and a pretty watercolor of the countryside by a street artist at the entrance because I didn’t have any small bills, and he didn’t have any change.

The winner of the oldest category for the day was The National Museum of History, now housed in what used to be the Soviet show-off-how-big-and-powerful-I-am building, for want of its actual name before Perestroika and the domino effect of the Berlin Wall’s fall sent them packing.  Bulgaria’s history is old, older than its neighbor Greece’s, but it doesn’t have all the temples and ancient ruins that Greece has because the Ottomans destroyed them when they dominated Bulgaria for those 500 years, the Ottoman Yoke as it’s referred to here in almost every other sentence.  Bulgarians are still not over it.  Any hoot, they do have many exquisite artifacts in this museum.  I’ll let a few pictures speak for themselves.

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I would have to say the cutest discovery of the day was a cartoon map of Sofia with a printed side bar of helpful tips and information for your typical Western tourist, namely me.  The first one I love, since I didn’t know this and have been shaking my head the wrong way since I got here!  Of course, I found this little map outside the bathroom of the place where we had the cocktail/dinner reception at the end of the day rather than at the beginning.  Oh well, tomorrow I’ll try to be more culturally aware and not be such an American Bai Ganyo.

There’s a tie for the most native thing I’ve done thus far.  The first was an early morning stroll through Sofia’s farmers market with Sheena. At 7:40 am, the market wasn’t in swing yet; the vendors were just setting up.  Lots of produce and fruit, especially tomatoes and apricots, and the flower bouquets were really different.  Sunflowers are big, and I’ve since learned that sunflower seeds and sunflower oil are two of Bulgaria’s biggest agricultural exports along with wheat.  No olive trees here in Bulgaria, so it’s sunflower oil in all the cruets on the tables.

Sheena and I would have stayed longer to explore, but we had a lecture on the history of Bulgaria with Professor Dr. Kostadin Grozev of Sofia University at 9 am, so we left it for another day.  I’ll leave the history lecture for another day too because Bulgaria history is as I said above, long and old.

The second most native indulgence happened after that cocktail/dinner reception held in our honor in town with many of the lecturers we’ll be hearing from over the next three and half weeks. Six of us Fulbrighters decided to take a late evening stroll down the main walking boulevard rather than go back to the hotel right away.


Vitosha Mountain is looming at the end of the street.

It was still sweaty-warm, but the sultry, summery kind of steamy that brings people outside to chat and share a drink or bite to eat.  Sofia sits at the foot of Vitosha mountain, and its shadow looms large and magically over the city.  We walked along for 15 minutes or so and then stopped for a drink in one of the many sidewalk cafes that line the boulevard.  A glass of Bulgarian wine costs 4.50 leva and a beer costs a whopping 5, which is roughly $2.50 and $3.00, respectively.  Cheap!!  In fact, George told us that cheap alcohol draws the wrong kind of tourists to Bulgaria, and they are trying to do something about it in the resort areas along the Black Sea.  I don’t consider myself or my Fulbright buddies to be the wrong kind of tourists, so we’ll enjoy the cheap drinks guilt-free! It was a calm and casual way to end our first full day in Sofia.


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Now I know why Obama liked this place!

Hyde Park, Chicago is a lovely neighborhood with brick townhouses, tree-lined streets, yummy restaurants and shops, and Lake Michigan and the park along it less than 3 blocks away.  Pretty sweet!  I’m guessing the students of the University of Chicago like it for most of the same reasons as all of those things are less than a mile from campus.  I saw lots of students (I presume) out jogging, biking, and sunning along the lake this afternoon while I was enjoying my picnic lunch on the rocks.

What is Mary Fahey doing in Hyde Park, Chicago, you might ask.  Well, I’m here with 15 other high school teachers from around the country for an orientation session hosted by the University of Chicago’s Center for East European and Russian/Eurasian Studies before leaving this afternoon on a Fulbright-Hays Summer Seminar to Bulgaria.  For the past two days, folks from the CEERES Center have treated us to some amazing lectures on the Balkans, specifically Bulgaria, but also about the migrant crisis across the Middle East, Central Asia, and Eastern and Western Europe. My head is spinning a bit with all the geopolitical complexities of the country and region we’ll be visiting, but I do feel much better prepared to observe, listen to, and engage with the Bulgarian people having some background context.

There is apparently a very large Bulgarian community in Chicago, some 200,000 people strong.  Who knew?! Through the gracious hospitality of the Bulgarian Consul, Ivan, our group visited the St. Sophia Bulgarian Orthodox Church in Des Plaines, one of the largest and spoke with Father Gruyo Tzonkov and his close friend George, both of whom told us their personal stories of escaping the Communist regime, Father Tzonkov in the 1960’s and George in 1955.  George spent time in a detention center before making it out and witnessed terrible violence in that time.  He clearly became very emotional as he told us his story.

As we left the church, the necrologues caught my eye.  These were fascinating to me because they were always coming up in the book I’ve been listening to about Bulgaria, Street Without A Name, by Kapka Kassabova.  They are unofficial obituaries that get posted in public places rather than published in the newspaper like church bulletins, lamp posts, front doors, etc. 

Afterwards we were treated to a delicious buffet dinner of Bulgarian specialties at the Balkanika Restaurant down the road, where our waitress Fifi (her American nickname) took very good care of us.

We broke bread with several Bulgarian-Americans from the community who are thrilled that we are traveling to their country to learn about Bulgarian history, culture, education, and migration.  I talked at length with Simeon Gasparov, who is a journalist and freelance writer, who has covered politics here in the US for one of the major Bulgarian papers, and in his past did so while living in Sofia.  He covered the war in Sarajevo; his perspective on the current geopolitical landscape is informed and fascinating. He’s offered to Skype with my students next year, and I am absolutely going to take him up on it!!  The evening was topped off with some traditional Bulgarian folk dancing that we’ve been told happens all over Bulgaria.  Can’t wait!!  

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Coming Full Circle

Ten years ago almost to the day, my dear girlfriend Carla Bacharach and I took our kids and Miss Pat Clapp to Bunratty Castle for the Medieval Banquet on our final night in Ireland and had a blast, so it is fitting that Katie and I ended our trip doing the same.  Full circle endings are a weakness of mine, I admit.  The banquet is definitely a bit hokey and touristy, but it is fun, and both the food and entertainment are top-notch!  I loved the parsnip soup the first time and I loved it all over again this time.  Talk about consistency!  We also had the good fortune to sit with a couple who had just gotten engaged the day before, him on bended knee on the main street in Ennis, just like in a movie.  They were great fun.


The banquet didn’t start until 7:30, so Katie and I had a gnosh at Durty Nelly’s, a quick shop across the street, and checked into our Airbnb – Dunaree, which was truly elegant and comfortable and just down the street from the castle.  Penny O’Connor, our hostess was even kind enough to let me do a quick load of laundry, so I wouldn’t arrive in Bulgaria with no clean clothes.  She wasn’t the type to ask for a picture, however, so we limited ourselves to a few of her beautiful home.  It’s a good value if you find yourself with a last night to spend in Ireland before flying out of Shannon Airport, which is only 15 minutes away.


It’s been a memorable trip, and I know I’ll be back to Ireland before another 10 years go by!

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Dublin’s City Centre

As I’m writing this post, I realize that we’ve been visiting all these towns that start with a “D” – Doolin, Dingle, Dublin, but I promise that wasn’t intentional!  Funny how it worked out that way, but I’ll break it with Bunratty for our last night.

Dublin reminds me a little bit of Boston with the River Liffey running smack down the middle of its city centre, just like the Charles does at home, but it’s smaller with less green space between the Quay roads and the water.  Traffic, also like Boston, sucks eggs, and there are way too many one-way roads for a tourist to navigate without becoming totally frustrated!  It took us forever to find our hotel because of this, and we actually had to have one of the front desk clerks come out to meet us and drive with us to find the Temple Bar Hotel’s front door – SAD!  Mark won’t forget us anytime soon, I’m sure, but we tipped him well for his trouble and wrote him an outstanding review on Trip Advisor. Any hoot…the next day made up for it because it was a short 2 blocks to Trinity College, and that was Katie’s number one wish list item, that and to see the Book of Kells.  We had a 40 minute tour with one of the students, Ben, whose from Belfast and studying History.  Best part of the visit was chatting with him after the tour about politics and life and seeing the Book of Kells exhibit, which was way cool, but unfortunately you couldn’t take any photographs.  We also saw the Irish harp upstairs in the “Long Room” which was a scene right out of Harry Potter!

Our second night we moved over to Upper O’Connell Street on the other side of the Liffey and stayed at the Holiday Inn Express – lame I know, but I had points and it ended up being a brand-spanking new hotel, very comfortable, and just a few blocks walk to the Abbey Theater where we had tickets to see Room at 7:30 pm.  Now this was my number one wish list item for Dublin, and the performance did not disappoint!


Great little theater, about the size of the A.R.T. in Cambridge, and the acting was all that I had hoped for and more.  This was a serious treat for myself, and I’m just glad Katie enjoyed it too!  I’d like to go back to Dublin someday and do more of it by foot.  I think then it would be more manageable and surrender more of its charm.   I’d also now know that the upper side of the river is all one way heading into town and the lower side is all one way heading out!

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From Doolin to Dingle

It’s been several days now since I’ve posted, but I just haven’t had the time as Katie and I have been constantly on the go, but I know she’s been sharing lots of photos on FB along the way, so I don’t feel as badly about not doing my own.  Consequently, much of this will be from recent memory and squish-squashed together a bit.  First…Dingle.

Getting to Dingle from Doolin was it’s own pleasurable adventure since it put us on the Wild Atlantic Way again for two more hours, and that coast road is windy, winding, and stunning.  There were a few big tour buses to cower around, but mostly we had the road to ourselves that morning.  A quick bite to eat in Kelly’s Pub, a half hour ferry trip, and about 100 roundabouts through Tralee later, we were on the Dingle peninsula.  Before I forget…when in Ireland, gorge on the smoked salmon with brown bread!  It’s so good and I miss it already.

I’ve been in many, many beach towns and seaports in my life, and they all have a universal feel – casual, jaunty, and full of history, and Dingle is no exception.  What is exceptional about Dingle is the beauty of the peninsula on which it’s located.  I am running out of superlatives to describe Ireland’s landscape, but the Slea Head Loop is unbelievable and a must-do; even on a slightly foggy day it will feed your soul.

We were there for two nights, visited the pubs and the Blasket Islands Visitor Center, another amazing piece of Irish history, and then left our dear hostess, Fran Ryan, with some of her own handmade knits, and started making our way to Dublin.  But first we stopped in Moll’s Gap for a sheep herding demonstration at Kissane’s Sheep Farm.  If you’ve ever watched the movie Babe, you’ll know already how cool this is to see live!


The man standing with Katie above is John, and he sheers 300 sheep a day when it’s the sheering season!  He was so kind and helped me push Katie up the steep hill to watch the dogs after giving us a sheering demonstration.  Kissane is a working sheep farm of over 3,000 acres, and, because of losing China as one of its biggest wool clients, they now subsidize the business with these sheep herding demos.  Smart.  They charge 14 euros a person, and it was worth every penny!


Afterwards, we retraced our steps down a hair-raising combination of switchbacks and scary-skinny roads through Killarney National Park and headed for Dublin.  My driving skills and nerve are improving, but those tour buses coming around the corner rattle me every time!


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Finding the Burren

As I mentioned earlier, one thing very different on this trip to Ireland from the last one 10 years ago is  we found the Burren.  I’m not sure what our problem was back then, but we drove all over it without understanding we were in the middle of it!  Maybe it was the need to entertain kids or maybe we’re just losers, but we gave up and “finding the Burren” became a kind of family joke.

Burren means “great rock,” at least according to Wikipedia.  Lame of me to look this up, I know, but I was curious and forgot to ask at the Burren Visitor’s Center in KilfenoraIMG_2921 where our  day’s adventure began.  It’s apt, since it is one huge area of limestone that looks like rocky swiss cheese when you walk around on it.  Holes and pock marks are everywhere and nestled in them are the dearest little wild flowers.  Kate and I dutifully read all the plaques in the visitor’s center and learned about the history of the Burren’s revival through the efforts of the locals.  Tourism supports lots of shops and businesses, and that in turn supports the animal husbandry here because cows are everywhere in this 100 miles of rock and green grass!  The spring grass that grows up through the limestone is apparently the reason the first settlers came this far north in order to graze their cattle.230D755B-DEFF-4209-BA78-BEBC98B8D436

We did a little shopping in Kilfenora to support the local economy and had a lovely chat with the shop owner about Irish politics, the state of the world, and Trump.  Her perspective was quite similar to our own, and thank God she doesn’t blame theEAF7DCAE-AE69-4784-9799-92BCDF3E74C9

American people for their president!  She also told us that Trump bought Doonbeg Golf Course about three years ago!  So that’s yet another thing different on this trip, and it’s quite dismaying.  Dick, Jim, A.J., and Ryan had the good fortune to golf there a decade ago, and now it is all built up with condos, and there’s an American flag flying out front along with the Irish. But I am getting ahead of myself…

Back to the Burren.  Behind the Visitor’s Center is a lovely old church with two quite old Celtic crosses and the tomb of an unknown bishop complete with mitre on his head.  From there, we drove to see the Burren Perfumery, which was way cool!  They make perfume (obviously), soap, candles, and lotions with all the wild flowers that grow in those tiny little crevices everywhere, and there’s a darling tea house cafe and garden.  Kate and I supported their local economy too with a few smell-good purchases.  Then it was off to the megalithic tomb or dolmen called Poulnabrone, which is thought to be 6,000 years old.  Yikes!  I’ll let the pictures below do the talking.

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After walking around the tomb, we headed up to Ballyvaughan, a charming seaside village, and then we drove down the coast road, part of the Wild Atlantic Way.  It was stunningly beautiful!  Dinner at O’Connor’s Pub topped off our night with some good food and even better traditional Irish Music! Another awesome and full day.

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