Where I am staying in Beijing

I'm here in Beijing, sitting on my bed in the hotel room, one day before the storytelling begins. I arrived  on Saturday, after a 12-hour flight from Chicago. Did you know that the airplane goes north and then west to get here? Here's a view of the horizon, from the plane.


Alberto, my friend and tour manager, was waiting for me at the airport, to my great relief. We had a Plan B, which involved me getting a taxi by myself to get to the hotel. I'm glad we didn't need to use that plan. 

This is the modest front entry to the hotel.

This is the modest front entry to the hotel.

The hotel is in a non-touristy part of Beijing, just around the corner from where Alberto is staying. It's quiet and clean, with a giant buffet breakfast. Today, for example, I had watermelon, dragon fruit, garlicky noodles, sauteed tofu, snow peas and black mushrooms, scrambled eggs with peppers and tomatoes and cantaloupe. They don't serve coffee or tea here.

Seating area in the room.

Seating area in the room.

View from my balcony.

View from my balcony.

The bed is large, with just enough room to walk by it to the bathroom.

The bed is large, with just enough room to walk by it to the bathroom.

Marble-lined shower with glass doors.

Marble-lined shower with glass doors.

View out the bathroom window!

View out the bathroom window!

So far, it's very comfortable. 

Yesterday, we went to the Forbidden City. I'll show pictures of that next. Right now, though, I'm heading downstairs to meet Alberto for coffee.

Tips on telling funny-scary campfire stories (repost from 2009)

I've been transferring posts from 2012 to 2015 to this blog, as I upgrade my website. In the process, I've dipped into my old blogspot site, Storytelling Notes. I began blogging in 2004 and had some prolific years. In 2009, for example, I wrote 71 posts and in 2008, I wrote 163. Holy cow! I'm going to have to up my game.

Here's one from 2009, with updated photo and video. 

Night has fallen. The campfire flickers and pops, coals glow, listeners creep closer to the fire and the storyteller. It’s time for scary stories. But wait…some of the listeners are too small for the stories of La Llorona or hookman. It’s time for a funny-scary campfire story, just enough for shivers, not enough for nightmares. As many of you know, I’m best known for telling The Ghost With the One Black Eye, and many other classic funny-scary campfire stories. Here are a few tips for effective campfire storytelling for the youngest listeners.

1. Notice the body language of the listeners as you introduce the story. Suggest that the smallest children sit with an older sibling or adult. Some small children like very scary stories, but it’s kinder to the adults who have to be with the child later on to tell gentler stories to young children. 

2. Let the listeners know right away that this will be a funny-scary story, not a scary-scary story. 

3. Choose a story with a joke ending. You can find a few of these in Alvin Schwartz’ Scary Stories To Tell In The Dark series, in Simon Bronner’s American Children’s Folklore, or ask a ten-year-old who has been to camp. 

4. Err on the side of goofy characters, not scary, for young listeners. Build in a hand movement or repetitive phrase so the audience can join in. 

5. Sometimes even a funny story can scare a small child. Reassure the individual child that it will all be fine in the end.

6. For a little shiver, pause just before the punchline. This builds suspense and creates an even bigger laugh at the funny ending.

7. Don’t be surprised if children say “That wasn’t scary!” at the end. This is most likely not a true critique, just an observation--and sometimes a way a slightly scared child has of finding courage.

Once the little ones have gone off to bed, and you’re sure that those who are still around the fire can handle it, if you have time and inclination, then tell the truly scary stories.

Puppet profile #2, Trixie Decaphobia

The inimitable Trixie Decaphobia

The inimitable Trixie Decaphobia

Name: Trixie Decaphobia, commonly called Trixie. Some children occasionally call her Triskie.

Age: 111 (the next picture has an egregious typo).

Creator: Folkmanis. She is no longer being manufactured. She came with a black pointy hat but she is not one of THOSE, despite her greenish tint. She changes hats from time to time. She currently sports a leopard spot beret, to match the puppet bag.

Construction: Fabric.

Disposition: Variable. Mostly she's a bit crabby, sometimes forgetful, often silly. She suggests stories for me to tell, then falls asleep during the telling.

Favorite food: Candy corn and if the next picture is to be believed, rocks. 

She has an oversized toothbrush in her bag. She is likely to brush her teeth in the middle of a performance and then, horror of horrors, she brushes her hair with her toothbrush. Will she ever learn?

If I leave her mouth open a little, she looks much friendlier, not quite so scary. Or maybe she's not so scary because she tends to put her foot in her mouth. Literally. 

She gets along with the baby, but there's a problem: she thinks babysitting is sitting on the baby. On her head. Squish. 

I found Trixie at the Raven Book Store in Lawrence in 1994. She has accompanied me on most performances for younger children since then. Truth to tell, I've had to replace her several times (I find her on Ebay). 

Because she's constructed so I put one hand in her head and one in her hand, she's versatile. She can rub her eyes (allergies), scratch (fleas), lift up her skirt (show of her kicks, as she was once a Rockette). On long drives, I sometimes put her on and slow down so cars will pass us. She waves. 

Trixie also has her own Facebook page! She doesn't post often, but it's worth checking out. 


On puppets and dinos and taking on new projects

I've been fortunate to have found the work I love. I have stories I tell over and over and they never get old. I learn more about the stories, about audiences, about myself as I perform. 

And then there are times to take risks, to say yes to new projects. In the winter, I was approached by the Flint Hills Discovery Center in Manhattan, KS about doing a show for their Kids' Dinner Theater. What? Dinner theater for kids?! This would be their third event, they said. Oh, and could I do something about dinosaurs or prairie ecosystems? There would be a special dinosaur exhibit.

The entrance to the Flint Hills Discovery Center.

The entrance to the Flint Hills Discovery Center.

Glass entryway to the Flint Hills Discovery Center, storm coming in.

Glass entryway to the Flint Hills Discovery Center, storm coming in.

No. I don't have dinosaur stories or prairie stories. But wait, what about taking familiar stories and making them dino tales, with the help of the kids, who would surely know more about dinosaurs than I do? I agreed to do it. 

I spent time reading about dinosaurs, working out which stories I could fit them into. I also took the opportunity to, ahem, buy a new puppet for the occasion. 

Triso, the triceratops, and me.

Triso, the triceratops, and me.

I found Triso on Ebay. Wish I knew who built him. He was made of foam, shaped with a Dremel tool. He has a deep goofy voice and I discovered that his horns are ticklish. 

When I arrived at the museum early, after a fun show at the public library in the morning, I first toured the special exhibit. Dinosaurs are so dramatic, especially when you can press a button to hear them roar. I was happy to see that the museum has a collection of puppets and a puppet stage for kids to use in the hands-on gallery. 

Tyrannosaurus Rex at the Flint Hills Discovery Center

Tyrannosaurus Rex at the Flint Hills Discovery Center

First the kids had supper, a buffet of veggies, cheese slices, goldfish crackers, chicken legs and fruit. Only a few parents were there, those who had 4 and 5 year-olds. The crowd was made up mostly of boys age 4-10, with a few girls. Two of the boys had a duel with chicken legs at supper, tapping each other on the head with them. I took a deep breath before the performance, ready for a boisterous audience. One young sir fell off his chair twice, or rather, fell and then the chair tipped over on top of him, during the stories. It didn't faze anybody.

The show went okay, especially for a first time. We made up some stories using dino facts the kids already knew, we plunked dinosaurs into Goldilocks, we sang some ridiculous songs. The children seemed to enjoy it. 

Then it was time for the crafts. At my station, we were making glove puppets. Here are some:

Dino glove puppet, blurry due to the great excitement of the puppeteer.

Dino glove puppet, blurry due to the great excitement of the puppeteer.

This one has a pompadour

This one has a pompadour

This one must have had good vision.

This one must have had good vision.

The kids crawled under the table I'd draped for a stage and put on show after show. 

It didn't matter that I'd intended them to do the puppets over the table. 

It didn't matter that I'd intended them to do the puppets over the table. 

Here's my favorite picture of the evening:

View of the puppeteers' legs sticking out the back of the table.

View of the puppeteers' legs sticking out the back of the table.

Was it a perfect show? No. Was it fun? Yes. Did the kids enjoy themselves? Yes. Did the parents have a good time? Yes. 

Sometimes it's worth obeying the first rule of improvisation: say yes, even if it's something you haven't ever done before or maybe especially in that case. You never know what will happen, and there's a good chance it will work out.

Telling the real story

I'm reading a great collection of essays by Ann Patchett called This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage. In the essay "Fact vs. Fiction," she says this:

Who makes things up? Who tells the real story? We all turn our lives into stories. It is a defining characteristic of our species. We retell our experiences. We quickly learn what parts are interesting to our listeners and which parts lag, and we shape our narratives accordingly. It doesn’t mean that we aren’t telling the truth; we’ve simply learned which parts to leave out. Every time we tell the story again, we don’t go back to the original event and start from scratch, we go back to the last time we told the story. It’s the story we shape and improve on, we don’t change what happened.
— Ann Patchett at The Miami University of Ohio Convocation Address of 2005

Last week I attended and told at the Lawrence Story Slam. This is a Moth-style storytelling event, where people tell true stories, up to 8 minutes long. The day before, I decided to tell the emotionally risky story of the good beginning and bad ending of my last relationship. My ex-boyfriend no longer lives in the area, so I wasn't worried about his reaction, though at the same time, I left out identifiers such as his name and profession. 

I was aware of the tightrope I was walking in telling about this, wanting to tell  a story that resonated deeply with myself and with the listeners, to be honest about the difficulties I'd experienced, but not wanting to do therapy on stage. I don't want the audience to feel as if they have to take care of me. I hope I succeeded.

It was good to tell this one. It's a story I'll keep working on. As Ann Patchett says above, we shape and improve upon the story, we don't change what happened.

This picture is from a Story Slam in Kansas City a few years ago. 

This picture is from a Story Slam in Kansas City a few years ago. 

Puppet profile #1, Billy Turtle

I've decided to do an occasional series on my handpuppets, starting with Billy, who was my first. Judy Stoughton, my boss at Russell Library in Middletown CT asked one day if I wanted to try puppets. "No. I don't use puppets." I was adamant. "Let me just give you a quick lesson." Famous last words. I was hooked. 


Name: Billy Turtle

Creator: Leslie Larson of 'And Puppets

Construction: Velour and corduroy

Disposition: Sweet and gentle

Favorite food: Grasshopper, though he gets the hiccups (similar to Peeps, who will be profiled later).

Billy came to all of my preschool storytimes at the library. He made the segues between stories and songs and was also comic relief at times. His mother was a box and his father was a snapping turtle. He says he likes to wear turtlenecks. 


Do you have any questions for Billy? He's happy to answer them!


I've been nesting lately. At long last, I got the upstairs in my house in good enough shape to be able to work. I find it hard to concentrate when my surroundings are in chaos. Not that everything is neat and in its place, but at least I know where things are. Because of the chaos of getting my Kansas City house ready to sell, selling it, buying the house in Lawrence, moving, storing many of my belongings and renovating this old house, I've put many projects on hold. At last, I've emptied my storage unit. Almost everything I own is in this house. My office and Puppet Room are in pretty good shape. There are still piles of miscellany, but I'm working on them. Here are a few pictures of my work spaces.

This is the view into the Puppet Room from my office.

This is the view into the Puppet Room from my office.

Here are the puppets in their natural habitat, a display stand I bought from Borders Books when it went out of business.

Here are the puppets in their natural habitat, a display stand I bought from Borders Books when it went out of business.

This office has seven windows. Light!

This office has seven windows. Light!

There are still drifts of paper, but at least I can now work at my desk.

There are still drifts of paper, but at least I can now work at my desk.

Looking across the office to the Puppet Room.

Looking across the office to the Puppet Room.

Here's a panoramic picture of the office. An added bonus: the little file cabinet in front of the heat register is a great place to put  bread to rise. 

Here's a panoramic picture of the office. An added bonus: the little file cabinet in front of the heat register is a great place to put  bread to rise. 

Now that I've cleaned, painted, plastered (no kidding!) and unpacked, I'm ready to get back to work. The Bulgarian stories I discovered on the Fulbright last year--was that only last year?!-- are calling to me, begging to be translated and told and told and told. 



Where I've been

I just showed this redesigned website to a friend, who said, "Wouldn't it be cool to show where you've told stories in the world?" Many years ago, I made a little poem about the places in Kansas where I've performed, but since then, I've traveled to many more states and countries. Here's the poem:

And here's the map of where I've been.

Hello, World!

Kindness, compassion and courage: telling stories for character education

Since I came home from the Fulbright in Bulgaria in July, I've been quietly working on some of the stories I found there. There's one in particular that I've told in schools that has pushed me in a new direction. It's a story that every Bulgarian child knows, one I call Grandmother Bear and the hurtful words. Directly translated it is Grandmother Bear and the bad word, (Баба Меца и лошата дума) but when I introduced it that way, the students were puzzled, as there were no curse words in the story. 

This is a story of a man inadvertently hurting his good friend by speaking thoughtlessly. It's not a subtle story but one that hits hard. I've never liked stories with blunt lessons. Too preachy. When I first found this story, in fact, I passed it by. As I searched for stories, I kept on encountering different versions of this story and finally thought, "Hmm, maybe there's something here, maybe I'll try it out." 

I've been telling it to students from second to sixth grade since September. Each time, I've discussed it afterwards with the kids. I ask them what they think of it, how it made them feel and what they might have done in the man's place. I also let them know that they have permission not to like all the stories I tell. Because it's such a serious story and maybe because the students are used to funny stories from me, the listeners seem to welcome the chance to talk about it, to reflect upon it. Generally they like it—and teachers have been overwhelmingly in favor of the story. In one fourth-grade group, as I was leaving, the teacher asked the students to pair up and talk to each other about the story.

This has led me to create a new program for kindergarten through sixth grade called Kindness, compassion and courage: telling stories for character education. In it, I tell stories that highlight character traits. We reflect and discuss these traits after each story. I've just finished the accompanying study guide.

This is a shift for me. I've always believed that the stories should be strong enough to stand on their own, without my interference in the listeners' interpretations. In order not to be preachy or overly didactic, I must have a light touch with the stories and the follow-up. In this program, my goal is not to impose my ideas but to approach the students with genuine curiosity about their reactions and to stimulate thought and discussion. My hope is that they'll take the best from these stories to apply to their own experiences.

Let me know what you think!

The Big Sidetrack

I've mentioned before that I most likely have attention deficit disorder. I prefer to think of it as "diffuse attention" and I think it serves me in storytelling. Because information is coming in at many levels during a performance, I'm aware of details in the stories and the audience and the space all at once. I'm able to react quickly to the unexpected. Useful. Not so useful is the downside: I have a zillion unfinished projects. There are stories I've worked on and abandoned, puppet ideas, half-baked themed programs, thoughts on marketing that I haven't followed through on. Right now, I've got Bulgarian stories to work on from my recent Fulbright, among other projects. 

So here's the big sidetrack: in October I moved back to Lawrence KS from Kansas City, to the same neighborhood I lived in from 2000 to 2010. My new house is smaller than my last and a real fixer-upper. The former owner lived in the house for 25 years and didn't have the same taste as I do. We've ripped out the carpet and tossed all of the frilly curtains. We've taken down two closet walls. Lots of odd decor has gone. This was in the bathroom holding spare rolls of toilet paper (you may have seen it on Facebook):

Now there is wallpaper to strip,

walls to paint,

a garden and yard to uncover, 

and much more. I've had phenomenal help from family and friends so far. This is going to be a long project, most likely lasting years. I hope I can sustain the attention for it. 

Fortunately, I get to go out and tell stories, to remember what I do and why. I'm learning a lot in the house renovation, but I often feel incompetent. As a storyteller, I am at home in what I do. I had a nice Halloween season, with lots of library performing, the Kansas City Storytelling Celebration, a piece in a public radio benefit performance and a show at Children's Mercy Hospital. Next up is a week of storytelling and writing with kids in Salina, KS. 

What story are you living right now?

Several years ago, during a difficult time in my life, a friend asked "what story are you living right now?" Of course! I could use my best tool, metaphor, to find a solution to my problems.

The story that popped into my head immediately was "Maid Maleen" from the Brothers Grimm. Maid Maleen refused to marry the man her father insisted on, so he locked her in a tower for seven years, with her servant and just enough food to eat for those seven years (don't overthink the logistics). As the food began to run low, Maid Maleen and her servant knew they would be rescued. They waited, but nobody came. So they took a butter knife and carved out a space between the stones until they could push one out. 

They peered through the gap, but saw only desolation. There had clearly been a war and nobody was coming to save them. They'd have to do it themselves. 

For me, the key was that Maid Maleen could have escaped long before, but the illusion of the impenetrable tower kept her captive. She could have gotten out. I could have gotten out of the situation I was in. Only when the food was running out did Maid Maleen and I realize that we had to depend on ourselves. The story goes on, but at the moment that I needed the metaphor, the first part of the tale held the most meaning for me. 

I'm currently in transition, selling my Kansas City house and moving back to Lawrence, KS primarily to be closer to family and friends. I realized the other day that though I am comfortable with a fair amount of uncertainty in my freelance life, I'm having a tough time with the uncertainties involved in buying and selling houses: cleaning, listing, negotiations, inspections, appraisals, repairs, etc. 

This afternoon I remembered the tool of metaphor. What story am I living? Not a folktale this time, but a literary story by Philippa Pearce called "The Manatee" from the book Lion at School. In this story, a small boy visits his grandfather for a sleepover for the first time by himself. He sees a picture of a manatee in a bedtime book and asks his slightly deaf grandfather if manatees are maneaters. The grandfather doesn't hear, so the boy is left to imagine the worst as he tries to fall asleep alone in the guest room. He lives through the kind of terror of the unknown we all experience from time to time. All is well in the morning, when his grandfather explains what manatees eat. (I'm afraid I'm not doing justice to this gently scary story. Check it out of your library!)

As I approach my closing date with quite a few uncertainties still hanging, I've imagined the worst. Now I'm remembering that things often work out for me, that all shall be well in the morning (well, in about ten mornings).

Here's a picture of my new house:

It needs quite a bit of work, so I'm sure I'll be posting more pictures as I dive into renovations.

What story are you living? 

Last Bulgarian post for now

It's hard to believe that I've been home from my Fulbright in Bulgaria since July 7. I had three weeks of fun storytelling in libraries and parks after coming home, as well as a performance at the National Storytelling Conference. I told Bulgarian stories in that late-night Fringe show, for a crowd of mostly storytellers. Whooeee!

Then came August. For the entire month, I sorted, packed, discarded and cleaned, getting my Kansas City house ready to sell. I've decided to move back to Lawrence, KS. At last I'm ready and will list the house this week (send me an e-mail if you're interested in a great 1920s two-storey in Strawberry Hill). 

I do miss Bulgaria. I've stopped dreaming in Bulgarian, but I haven't stopped dreaming of Bulgaria. I'm still using the pepper grinder and espresso maker from Sofia, still sprinkling the Balkan herb mix on buttered toast, and of course, quietly working on the stories I brought home. 

Yesterday I showed a friend selected pictures of Bulgaria. Here are some I never got around to posting here. I promise to get back to the topic of storytelling on the blog soon!


Whew. What an amazing five months it has been here in Bulgaria. Even though I'm almost packed and have just ordered the taxi for o'darkhundred tomorrow morning, I still can't believe I'm leaving. Didn't I just get here? 

Most of all, I feel deeply thankful for the chance to have a sabbatical, to be able to spend five months doing research and spreading the word about storytelling in a country I love, often in a language I love. It has been a luxury to have five months without anxiety about when my next gig might come in. 

Let me back up to a week and a half ago. As my brother Mark and sister-in-law Sarah were visiting, I took a few days off, traveling with them to Balchik on the Black Sea. We flew to Varna and took a crowded minibus an hour up the coast to Balchik. I asked around about where our hotel was. A young woman named Kremena grabbed my phone to call a taxi, running back to a little streetside pub to ask for the number. She was having trouble with it, so I took the phone back (whew) and called the hotelier, who came to pick us up. [Unsolicited plug: if you're ever in Balchik, I recommend the Family Hotel Magnolia. Say hello to Ivan for us.] 

Balchik is known mainly for two things: Queen Marie of Romania's Quiet Nest Palace, pictured below, and the Botanical Garden.

Queen Marie of Romania's Quiet Nest retreat

Queen Marie of Romania's Quiet Nest retreat

The palace was built between 1926 and 1937, at a time when Balchik was part of Romania. It's a beautiful spot. There are lots of stories about Queen Marie, who was a strong and independent woman, the granddaughter of Queen Victoria. Was this her love nest? Did she die of cirrhosis, or was it in fact pancreatic cancer (more likely, as she didn't drink)? She was a fascinating character. Here's one of the views from behind the Palace:

She had a sitting room that looked out over the sea. Truly a quiet nest.

And a giant tomblike tub:

The Botanical Garden was lovely and peaceful. These steps lead up from the Palace to the garden.

Is this small Stonehenge in homage to Queen Marie's English roots?

The garden is known for its cacti:

We were only in Balchik for a couple of days and didn't swim, but we did wade. As this next picture shows, the Black Sea isn't actually black, but blue-green in many shades. We hit perfect weather and not too many tourists, mostly Russians and Romanians. 

Even though it was a short visit, it was relaxing. We wandered and read and ate and chatted. On Saturday, we took the bus back to Varna, then another bus to Veliko Turnovo, where I helped Mark and Sarah get a taxi to a hostel. I got back on the bus and returned to Sofia for a little more work. They toured around Veliko Turnovo and Plovdiv for a few days before joining me again at home. Home? Yes, Sofia—and this apartment—definitely has been home for the last five months. I'm going to miss this place. 

I've got plenty more pictures. Look for more blog posts soon, after I get back stateside. 


Disclaimer: This is not an official Fulbright Program publication. The views expressed here are entirely my own and do not represent the views of the Fulbright Program, the U.S. Department of State or any of its partner organizations. 

More on my performances in Bulgaria

I had an idea of making a list of statistics, let's see, five months, 35 performances, etc., but then I realized that I'd have to explain too much. There's the five-hour workshop on storytelling and puppetry, or the storytelling and joketelling competition I participated in, or the show at the rehab day program, or the teen program that was mostly performance with a few storytelling games, or the sessions at a health fair, or an hour on personal stories at the Goat Milk Festival. Most of these have been great fun. I didn't know if I'd be able to do performances and workshops in Bulgarian. It turns out I can, especially with audience help.

Here are some performance pictures since February:

Telling in the black box theater at the Anglo-American School of Sofia

Telling in the black box theater at the Anglo-American School of Sofia


That was near the beginning, at the Anglo-American School of Sofia, where I performed as part of the Bulgarian Culture Week, in English. I was getting over the flu at that point, so I don't mind that the picture is a bit dark.

Telling  The ghost with the one black eye  as part of my seminar at the Institute of Ethnology and Folklore Studies with Ethnographic Musem

Telling The ghost with the one black eye as part of my seminar at the Institute of Ethnology and Folklore Studies with Ethnographic Musem


Here I'm telling The ghost with the one black eye as part of my lecture on storytelling at the Institute of Ethnology and Folklore Studies with Ethnographic Museum, my sponsoring organization. The audience was made up mostly of scholars and researchers—and one nine-year-old. This was my first presentation in Bulgarian.

At the day rehab center, in a beautiful house, sock-footed

At the day rehab center, in a beautiful house, sock-footed


Svetla, a friend from last summer's Fulbright International Summer Institute (FISI), asked me to tell stories at a drug and alcohol rehab center (another one in Bulgarian). The center is in a beautiful old house. Did I mention that in Bulgaria, people take their shoes off at the door? Svetla offered booties to wear over my shoes, but I preferred to be sock-footed.

Telling stories at the Ezikova Gimnasia in Plovdiv

Telling stories at the Ezikova Gimnasia in Plovdiv


Apart from these performances, I visited the middle and high school classes of somf of the Fulbright Teaching Assistants in Sofia, Plovdiv, Dimitrovgrad and Gabrovo. These sessions were in English, of course. This picture is from a creative writing class in Plovdiv. We also did a little writing. 

At Sofia University, telling to adults

At Sofia University, telling to adults


Another friend FISI, Nadya, invited me to tell at Sofia University. I happily did three performances there, sponsored by the Department of Slavic Philology (though I told in English). The first was Tristan and Iseult, egged on by fellow Fulbrighter Blake Hackler. The second two sessions were Storyteller's Choice, stories I felt like telling at the time. All three were for adults and older kids. Not only were the audiences for each show amazing—and most had never heard a storyteller before—but they were in my old stomping grounds, Sofia University, where I studied in 1983-84. Auditorium 137 is a grand old wood-lined hall, with high ceilings and a fireplace, cold in winter, hot in summer. Kalina, also a friend from FISI, took this picture from the front row. I have no idea what I was laughing at, though it could have been the applause in the neighboring hall, which I incorporated into my story.

Performing at Sofia Literature and Translation House

Performing at Sofia Literature and Translation House

This was my last show, on Saturday, for families at the Sofia Literature and Translation House. It was in Bulgarian, except for a little in English. Fantastic listeners! Thanks to Rada Kaneva from the Bulgarian Fulbright Commission for this picture and for bringing her children to the show!

I'm deeply grateful to Tzveta Misheva-Aleksova, who has helped me in many ways since we met in February: encouraging me, translating, correcting my Bulgarian (I'd send her what I meant to say by e-mail and she'd make it right), providing space for the day-long workshop, being a story-buddy, coming to my performances with her husband Emo, also a story lover, and generally being a great friend. She's also an excellent storyteller. I spent a relaxed day last week with Tzveta and her family and they all came to the show on Saturday. The three children, Nikola, Iva and Yana, had heard the stories, so they filled in words when I wasn't certain. It was great to finish my scheduled performances in Bulgaria with such a fun show!

Disclaimer: This is not an official Fulbright Program publication. The views expressed here are entirely my own and do not represent the views of the Fulbright Program, the U.S. Department of State or any of its partner organizations. 

Public Transport

I'm sitting in my apartment with the window open, as the weather has turned warm. I love the location of my apartment, right in the center of Sofia. As a friend said, I live "в пъпа на София" or "in the bellybutton of Sofia."  It's a bit loud when the windows are open. Not much honking, and though there's a hospital across the street, only rare sirens, but loud muscle cars revving up and frequent squealing of brakes. Demonstrations of power, I guess.

I happily take public transport. I have no interest in driving in Sofia (or in any foreign country). I've taken the bus and train around Bulgaria. In Sofia, it's easy to get around by walking or by bus, tram, trolleybus and metro. I've bookmarked the website of public transport maps so I can plan trips around the city. When I go to the archives, I take the trolleybus or the metro. Some are brand new, some not. This tag on a metro car says it was manufactured in the USSR!

Manufacture tag on metro, from the USSR

Manufacture tag on metro, from the USSR


Never mind, it  ran perfectly well. 

When my friends Marie and Annika were here, they drew my attention to some rules regarding behavior on public transport.

  Graphic of what not to do on public transport

  Graphic of what not to do on public transport


The admonitions not to eat or drink on the bus and not to speak loudly are normal: 

No loud talking on the bus!

No loud talking on the bus!


But this one, no trumpet playing, was new for me. I remember reading that etiquette books only offer rules for existing issues, so I'm assuming there has been a problem in the past. 

No trumpet playing on the bus

No trumpet playing on the bus

A memory filters down...the first time I came to Bulgaria, in 1982, I attended a summer seminar in Veliko Turnovo. The program included excursions on chartered buses. One day, while going from one tourist site to another town, our bus picked up a brass band that was hitchhiking to our destination. They began to play for us on the bus, accompanied by some of the seminar participants dancing and most of us clapping. It was loud, yes (and also fun).

So, yes, I guess there is a reason for that graphic. Really, no trumpet playing on the trolleybus!

Disclaimer: This is not an official Fulbright Program publication. The views expressed here are entirely my own and do not represent the views of the Fulbright Program, the U.S. Department of State or any of its partner organizations. 

Blagolazh, the Bulgarian joketelling and storytelling competition

I did it! I performed in the Blagolazh, the storytelling and joketelling competition in Gabrovo, home of the House of Humor and Satire. In Bulgarian. Even before I began looking into coming to Bulgaria on a Fulbright grant, I dreamt of attending this event, part of the Biennial of Humor. The word "blagolazh" means "sweet lie," but it's different from US liars contests, where contestants invent the most outlandish stories. The rule was that the stories had to be folktales, nothing made up by the contestants. There were two themes this year: health and work, or the opposite of these (smoking, drinking, laziness).

I first visited this wonderful museum in 1984. Outside the museum is a statue of Clever Peter, one of the Bulgarian tricksters.

I submitted my application to the Blagolazh a couple of months ago, appending two stories from my repertoire that I intended to tell. I wrote out my versions in Bulgarian and then my friend Tzveta kindly made them grammatically correct. Since March, I've been working on these stories. In April, I was accepted as one of the tellers. 

I arrived on Saturday. This was a busy day in town. The Biennial of Humor had begun with the juried art show of cartoons, photographs, engravings, etc. That evening there was an enormous carnival (look for a blog post soon with carnival pictures). With the other guests, I watched the hour and a half parade from reserved seats, then went back to the hotel for a reception with the mayor. She had been in the parade dressed as Marilyn Monroe. Last year she was Scarlett O'Hara. It was a crowded reception, so I only caught a glimpse of the mayor.

We were due at the museum at 8:30 a.m., so I said goodnight to my dinner companions early. In the morning, the museum was shimmering with excitement. First, children from Mickey Mouse Kindergarten (Мики Маус) performed for us, singing and dancing in traditional dress. I've noticed that this is a trend at many Bulgarian events. 

Then there was the children's Blagolazh. The kids, age 4 to 12 with a couple of adult helpers, sat at big tables with microphones, like a press conference. They each told a story or a joke, all were encouraged by the audience. May they continue to tell stories! 

After the jury awarded the prizes to the children, it was time for the grownups. After we took our seats at the tables, we introduced ourselves and the first round began. Some stories or jokes were told in dialect, some in standard Bulgarian. I understood a lot, but not all. I told a story about Nasrudin Hodja at the public baths to begin. Though the Hodja is the Turkish trickster, the Ottoman Empire extended into Bulgaria for 500 years, so his stories are here as well. I thought we were going to tell just one story and the jury would make a decision about the next round, but no, the jury invited us all to tell another short one. Uh-oh. I had two stories prepared in Bulgarian. Fortunately, my friend Roman the harmonica player had told me a short Clever Peter story on Friday. I silently blessed him and told that story. 

While the jury deliberated, some of the past winners told stories and jokes. They're no longer eligible to compete but came along for the fun. 

To my surprise, I made it to the second round. I told the second Nasrudin Hodja story I had prepared. We were asked for another, so I told a joke. I'm still not certain that it translated, but everybody laughed. 

I thought we were going to have to do another story. In English, it would have been a snap. I've got a zillion stories in my head. In Bulgarian, it's a challenge. I was searching for one in my rattled brain and decided to explain that I didn't have another Bulgarian one but did have one from Vermont. The jury decided not to ask for another. Whew! While they went out of the hall to deliberate, we heard more from the past champions.

The grand winner was a young man, the youngest by far in the group, Orlin Kisyov (I think I was the second youngest, and I'm 53). It's nice to have a new generation coming along! This is one reason it's important to have the children's Blagolazh.

Here's Orlin, with the director of the House of Humor and Satire, Tatiana Tsankova:

And a view of the older kids at the table.

Many of the contestants, including prize winner Snezhanka Doncheva, were in traditional Bulgarian dress. I wish we'd had a picture all together. 

And I won the prize for "Vivid Presentation by a Foreigner." 

Not only did the House of Humor give us all a collection of stories from the 2013 Blagolazh, but they gave me quite a few books of stories and jokes. I was invited to visit the archives, which I did on Monday after the Blagolazh. I'm constantly bowled over by the generosity of Bulgarians, and the staff and direction at the House of Humor and Satire were no exceptions to this. Huge thanks especially to Veneta Georgieva-Kozareva and to the director, Tatiana Tsankova.

Apart from the prize of being included in this incredible event and hearing stories and jokes, I was given a Gabrovo clock. Look closely at this picture. Can you tell what time it is? Look below the Fulbright disclaimer to find out! 

My goals going into this event were to have fun and not to embarrass myself. I succeeded!

Disclaimer: This is not an official Fulbright Program publication. The views expressed here are entirely my own and do not represent the views of the Fulbright Program, the U.S. Department of State or any of its partner organizations. 

The time on the clock is 9:48. The hands run backwards. I think this could be used as one of those brain training exercises, like using the non-dominant hand. Definitely not the clock to look at when I'm in a hurry and need to know the time!

My new friend Roman

I've made a new friend or at least acquaintance, down the street from where I live. Roman sits on a stoop most days, playing harmonica for whatever stotinki people will toss him. At first, I thought he wasn't playing songs, just breathing in and out. Then one day I heard the strains of "O Susannah." I usually have a harmonica with me, so I pulled mine out and played along. 

Since that day, I've stopped a few times to jam with Roman. He plays an echo harp (a harmonica with two rows of notes together), is a monarchist, speaks a little English, loves Scotland and Tom Clancy novels, and had part of his thumb bitten off by a dog so can't play the guitar anymore. He's generally cheerful, despite the lack of coins in the styrofoam box that sits at his feet. He's clearly gobsmacked to be playing harmonica and gabbing away with an amerikanka. We've played "Amazing Grace," "Auld Lang Syne," "O Susannah" and a few others. He promises to work on "When the Saints Go Marching In." Today I asked if I could take his picture. 

(Since I first wrote this, he asked me not to use the pictures. He has agreed to the following.)

He wasn't certain about this. I suggested that he might prefer one of us playing harmonica together:

A friend of his showed up and Roman took a cigarette and coffee break. He told me a story I've heard before, Feeding the clothes. Here's his version, roughly (he told it to me in Bulgarian): 

Clever Peter was invited to a wedding, invited to be the best man. He went to the restaurant for the party, but it was raining and on the way, his trousers got spattered with mud. When he arrived, he was completely ignored, see, he had all this mud on his pants. He saw what the situation was, you know, he was clever (Roman tapped his head here). He went home and changed his clothes. When he came back, everybody said, "Clever Peter! Great to see you, come on in!" Clever Peter asked what there was to eat and drink. "Roast lamb, whisky, rakiia, whatever you want!" He was served and began to pour the whisky on his clothes, smear the roast lamb all over. "Peter, what are you doing?" "Feeding my clothes. Obviously, you invited them and not me."

It in no way matters that I knew the story. What matters is the joy that Roman took in telling it. 



Disclaimer: This is not an official Fulbright Program publication. The views expressed here are entirely my own and do not represent the views of the Fulbright Program, the U.S. Department of State or any of its partner organizations. 

Random pictures from Sofia

What I should be doing right now is preparing for a workshop and performance I'll be doing with my friend Tzveta tomorrow, in Bulgarian. What I'm doing instead is looking at some of the pictures I've taken over the past few weeks. Here are some:


This homeless beauty lives around the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences complex, so I see her when I go to the Institute of Ethnology and Folklore Studies with Ethnographic Museum. She's gentle, except when it comes to cars. She barks fiercely at them. [The archivist later explained that she is well cared for by the people who work in the building. She barks at cars because one hit her. She was taken to the vet and was in a cast for a month.]

Many street people in Sofia have baby buggies to carry their belongings or to carry what they find in the dumpsters. This was one of the prettiest I've seen. 

Sofia is a mix of old and new, gritty and sparkling. Here's a lovely chandelier in the Dvorets, or Palace. This grand building, once home of the czar, now houses the Ethnographic Museum and a part of the National Gallery. 

This feline stands guard outside the Sofia University library. 

I know, I've posted tons of pictures of Alexander Nevski Cathedral, but this is the first with tulips in the foreground.

On Easter, my friends from 31 years ago were visiting and we went out to eat. Here are the Easter eggs the restaurant gave us at the end of our meal, tucked into a nest. In the foreground is freshly baked bread, which we dipped into sharena sol, a mix of herbs and salt, served on typical Bulgarian pottery. 

How do all these fit together? They don't, really, except that I liked the images. And here, as the last picture, is the missing piece of the puzzle.:


Disclaimer: This is not an official Fulbright Program publication. The views expressed here are entirely my own and do not represent the views of the Fulbright Program, the U.S. Department of State or any of its partner organizations. 

On giving a lecture on storytelling in Bulgarian

I did it! Today I gave a lecture in Bulgarian at the Institute of Ethnology and Folklore Studies with Ethnographic Museum (IEFSEM) here in Sofia. Some of the research I'm doing is in the archives of this institute, so I was asked about a month ago to do a presentation. Here's the invitation to the talk:

First I told a short story, then explained how it happens that I speak Bulgarian. As many of you know, I lived in Sofia in 1983-84. Sitting in the front today was my roommate from that time, Elka. The last time I saw her, before today, was 1988! We've just both been busy, but plan to meet up soon. 

I told how I became a storyteller in my job as a children's librarian in Connecticut, and about leaving that job in 1993 to be a full-time storyteller in Kansas. There is no such thing as a professional storyteller here, so I explained that I am my own boss, with my own business, and that I tell stories in schools, libraries, festivals, museums and other venues, to listeners of all ages. 

As an example, I told The Ghost with the One Black Eye first in Bulgarian, then in English.

I explained the core of storytelling, how for me it's about connection: the storyteller connects with the story and the listeners, the listeners connect with the story and the storyteller, and the listeners connect among themselves. I talked about why it's important and various applications of storytelling, and about storytelling in the US. 

From there, I moved on to my project, collecting Bulgarian folktales, primarily animal stories and trickster tales.

Of course it was time for another story. I told the first story I fell in love with in the archives, The Wedding of Bai Kotaran and Kuma Lisa. Bai Kotaran is a cat who is chased from home because he keeps eating the butter. He meets the tricky fox, Kuma Lisa and they decide to get married. The other animals get ready for the wedding, but Kuma Lisa suggests that her new husband is kind of a bad guy, so they should hide and see what he's like first. He comes to meet them, but they are hiding. He sees the boar's ear poking out of the leaves where the boar is hiding and thinks it's a mouse. He pounces, the boar squeals, Bai Kotaran jumps into the tree in fright, the bear in the oak tree throws herself out of the tree but lands on the wolf's back and an acorn falls into the rabbit's ear. All the animals run, except Bai Kotaran.

"He cut me on the ear with his sword!"

"He almost got me in the tree!"

"They hit me with a huge stone!"

"I heard the pistol. It was like a bullet in my ear!"

They agree that he really is a bad guy. They head home, disappointed not to have a big wedding feast. And Bai Kotaran and Kuma Lisa? They eat the delicious food the other animals brought and celebrate for a week.

While working on this story, I pictured Bai Kotaran as similar to my own cat, Frankie Bacon, who is being well cared for by friends Liz and Chris: 


I then told the audience about the widening of my Fulbright project to include encouraging a Bulgarian "storytelling renaissance." Then one more short story and questions, lots of questions. 

I've been working on this talk for the last week. I'm deeply grateful to my friend Tzveta, who helped me prepare, and to all who came to listen. While I stumbled a bit with the language, it was mostly intelligible. It was also a great challenge—and quite fun.

I think I'll sleep well tonight. 

Disclaimer: This is not an official Fulbright Program publication. The views expressed here are entirely my own and do not represent the views of the Fulbright Program, the U.S. Department of State or any of its partner organizations. 

Old and new

Lately I've been noticing the mix of old and new that is Sofia. It's a fascinating place, full of contradictions. Architecture is tremendously mixed, as you can see from this old building sandwiched between two newer structures:

From my kitchen window, I see an old building reflected in a new building (this was a few weeks ago, when we had snow):

At the same time, there's a modern trolleybus that goes by the high-tech audio store a few doors away:

The old trolleybuses used to make a sort of singing sound as they went by, but they don't anymore. As I think I've mentioned, public transport includes trolleys, trams, buses, minibuses and metro. Private transportation includes the usual cars as well as the older forms of transport: 

Speaking of old technology, I've been searching through this card catalog drawer for stories, which are in the archives in paper files:

All that said, Sofia has wi-fi everywhere: in the parks, in the metro station, at cafes and restaurants, and most helpfully, a strong connection in my own apartment. 

Old and new.


Disclaimer: This is not an official Fulbright Program publication. The views expressed here are entirely my own and do not represent the views of the Fulbright Program, the U.S. Department of State or any of its partner organizations.