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. 

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. 

Happy Granny March

In English, we say, "In like a lion, out like a lamb" when we describe March. In Bulgaria, the traditions around the first of March are more dramatic. Baba Marta, or Granny March, ushers in spring--if she feels like it. She's a cantankerous character, so we need to find ways to please her, so she really will bring in warmer weather and flowers. I was at a school on Friday where Baba Marta came to visit. The elementary school kids had made videos with songs, dances, pictures and chants to please her. If she is, she'll smile and the sun will come out. I read that the last snow of winter is Baba Marta shaking out her feather bed in her spring cleaning. 

Bulgarians give each other martenitsi, red and white tasseled bracelets, pins and decorations, to celebrate March 1 and Baba Marta.

Many of these have two figures, a boy and a girl, Pizho and Penda. Starting in the second or third week of February, martenitsi are available from stalls on the streets and in stalls. These days, many are made in China. My favorites are handmade. I bought some from a charity the other day, with lovely felted figures, including a bumblebee, a flower, a lemon wedge. My friend Tzveta and her children make them, just as I used to make Valentines for friends in elementary school. She told her children that only unfortunate people have to buy them. They're given to friends, family and coworkers in the first few days of March but especially March 1, with the phrase "Chestita Baba Marta!"

Here are some on my wrist:

After martenitsi are exchanged, people wear them until they see the first flowers of spring or a stork. Then they hang the martenitsi in a tree or hide them under a rock. Here are some that are still hanging in a tree near my house from last year (I'm guessing):

The red and white are symbolic of health, growth, fertility, good luck and happiness. Children compete to see how many they can collect. 

Честита Баба Марта! Chestita Baba Marta, with wishes for health, happiness and luck!

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. 

Settling in to Sofia

Soon, I promise, I'll get back to storytelling. There's quite a bit of settling in to do first. I thought I'd show you my apartment, which is a work in progress as I make it my own. 

Welcome to my building! This is along the side. My building is the middle of the three you can see. That's a trolleybus that goes along this busy street. In Sofia, there are buses, trams, trolleybuses, metro, taxis and minicab taxis (these go along set routes and cost more than regular public transport and less than taxis). I'm in the heart of Sofia, what is called "top center." 

Come on in the front door. That is, press the doorbell for my apartment and I'll buzz you in from upstairs. You can take the elevator or the stairs. I most often take the stairs down. 

It's not a fancy elevator, but it works well. Make sure you close the grill, or you'll sit there for a long time. Like the rest of the building common areas, it's clean and safe.

In Bulgarian fashion, there are slippers and flipflops just inside the door. Help yourself. I bought four pairs for guests today. This way I can keep the floors reasonably clean. 

Here's my bedroom, the lightest and warmest room in the house. It doesn't look that way from this picture, as I didn't have the light on and the sun wasn't shining in. You'll just have to take my word for it. I'm writing this from the bed, my current office. There are new windows in the apartment, making it warm and quiet. We'll see what happens when I have the windows open in the spring. 

And the living/dining room. You can just barely see the sofa and the large wall unit (etazherka) across from it. Lovely high ceilings and parquet floors, aren't they? I do love old buildings. 

Here's the kitchen, from one side and then the other.

Yes, I have a washing machine! There was a problem with a leak under the sink the first time I used it, but the plumber was just here and fixed it. Oddly enough, I had a similar problem with the pipes under my sink in Kansas before I left home and had them all replaced. May my kitchen sink karma be paid now. 

Off the kitchen is a small balcony. 

There's also a bathroom, but you don't really need to see that, do you? Oh, okay.

 It has something special: a shower curtain. I'd never seen one in the time I've spent in Bulgaria. In most bathrooms, there's a drain in the middle of the floor and the whole room gets wet. Not here.

It's a good apartment. I feel lucky to be here. Huge thanks to Ana and her son Georgi, who own it and who are taking great care of it (and me). 

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. 

Under the yoke

In this first week, not only am I settling in to my apartment and life in Bulgaria as a Fulbrighter, I'm also settling in to the language. One way to do this is of course, to speak it as much as possible, from little conversations with the building manager (from whom I cadged some plant clippings for my windows) to chat with old and new friends, to banter in the shops. I also came across a film festival celebrating one hundred years of Bulgarian film about four blocks from my apartment. On Wednesday, I went with Eireene, another Fulbrighter, to see the film of the epic Bulgarian novel, Under the Yoke. I read the novel 30 years ago in the original Bulgarian. I slogged through it for months, wrestling with author Ivan Vazov's now-archaic words. I'd stumble upon a word I couldn't find in the dictionary and would ask my roommate for a definition. "What on earth are you reading? Oh, Pod Igoto. That word is obsolete," she'd say. 

It was fun to see it on the big screen, from 1952. Full of high drama, significant looks and not a little bloodshed. Here are a couple of clips. The first is a lovely musical scene, the second is the entire film. 

Today I went back to the theater to watch a film about the first Bulgarian communist uprising in 1923, Septemvritsi, or Heroes of September, also from the 1950s, also full of high drama, significant looks and bloodshed. I may go back for some more movies this weekend.

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 end of the Belgian trip, the beginning of the Bulgarian adventure

Transitions are always a bit tricky, aren't they? In general, this one has been smooth. Two weeks ago, I was in Belgium, seeing scenes like these: 

I had a great time, telling stories, hanging around with my good friends, even learning how to take the intercity bus to a couple of schools, something I had rarely done in Belgium. Soon, though, it was time to leave. I got to the Brussels airport early, which I much prefer to late. Here's the front and back view of a laptop and phone charging station that had a different spin to it (pun intended): 

I flew from Brussels to Frankfort to Sofia. In Brussels, I noticed a man reading a Bulgarian book and then I heard him speaking Bulgarian to another traveler. It turned out we were seated next to each other on both flights! I'd changed my seats on the flights, so this was a strange serendipity. I joked that I really wasn't following them. 

In Sofia, my good friend Vesko was waiting for me. He drove me directly to his apartment, where his wonderful wife Lidia was ready with supper, a real Bulgarian welcome. We had lukanka (dry sausage), feta cheese sprinkled with paprika, homemade sauerkraut and pickled mushrooms (picked by Vesko and Lidia!) and rakia (liquor made of fruit) and raspberry juice to start, then giuvech (stew made with chicken, potatoes, tomatoes, peppers and spices) with bread. I know I'm forgetting a few other things. We ate and talked and talked. I've known Vesko and Lidia since 1988 and am always struck at how we pick up our conversation just where we left off last time.

The culinary welcome continued with a fantastic breakfast the next morning: banitsa (pastry with feta and egg in phyllo dough) and yoghurt with preserved wild blueberries. Oh, and Turkish coffee. Delicious!

Vesko had a surprise for me: he had recently come across an article I wrote in 1988, which he reworked so it could be published, as well as some letters I'd written to them in 1989, when I had left my job as a Slavic librarian for a post as a children's librarian. That's when I first started telling stories.

After breakfast, Vesko drove me to my new apartment in the center of Sofia, where we met George, the son of my landlady. At last, I'm home! That is, for the next five months.

I'll describe more in my next blog post.

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. 

Fulbright International Summer Institute Miscellany

To whet your appetite for more pictures, here's Alexander Nevsky Cathedral in downtown Sofia. When I flew in, I saw the gold of the domes glinting in the sun from the plane. 

First, a little more about the Fulbright International Summer Institute (and please note the disclaimer at the bottom of this blog). This summer institute is a unique project run by the Bulgarian Fulbright Commission, in partnership with Sofia University. This was the 13th year for FISI. The Bulgarian Fulbright Commision received a Fulbright Innovator Award for FISI in 2010. It's kind of a big deal.

So the question I've been hearing lately is "Were all the participants Fulbright scholars?" 

No. In order to answer the question, I have to explain about Fulbright scholars in Bulgaria. There are Fulbright Senior Scholars (I'm one) who do research and/or teach for five months.There are graduate student Fulbrighters, who do research and/or teach for ten months. There are English Teaching Assistants, who spend ten months teaching in Bulgarian high schools.

Nine of us at FISI fit these categories. The other 100+ FISI participants were American, Bulgarian, Dutch, German, Russian, Pakistani, Indian, Azerbaijani, Greek, Italian, Kosovan and Slovakian. Included were PhD. students at Sofia University, undergraduates from the US, people just interested in the course offerings. The classes were taught in English, by instructors from several countries. It was a wonderful mix of cultures, rich and satisfying.

Now let's move on to pictures. 

We stayed at this incredible hotel out in the country, RIU Pravets, about 50 minutes from Sofia. On the other side of the hotel was this small lake. 

The hills reminded me of Vermont. The hotel was a short walk from the town of Pravets, best known as the hometown of Todor Zhivkov, who had the distinction of being the longest-ruling dictator in the Eastern Bloc. There's a statue of him in town still.

On one of our walks to town we came across this candy stand on the street, with an orange awning that tinted all the wares. This is mostly Turkish Delight.

And lest you think that it was all candy, here's a picture of breakfast on the last day. Yoghurt with muesli, cucumbers, feta, roasted tomato with cheese, dates and a chunk of honeycomb. This was the only day when honeycomb was available, hung on a frame right at the breakfast bar. Delicious! Just out of the picture is my cup of double espresso.

And did we do nothing but eat and lounge by the lake? In fact, I had five hours of class each day. I took Bulgaria in Literature and Film, Peace and Conflict Resolution, Project Writing and Project Management. I took part of a class on negotiation and part of a class on globalization, education and cultural diplomacy. The classes were interesting, of course, but I learned quite a lot from sitting at the dining room table or walking into town or hanging out during break time, chatting with the other participants and instructors.

And was this worthwhile for my larger Fulbright? YES! I got to know the wonderful people at the Fulbright Commission and the other Fulbrighters, got answers to some of my pressing visa questions, talked about strategies for finding apartments, buying phones and other practical matters. I made friends with participants who live in Sofia, so I won't feel completely alone when I arrive in February. As I mentioned in the last post, I've already said yes to several performances. I'm also thinking about starting a writing group when I'm there. 

Here is Dr. Julia Stefanova, the Director of the Bulgarian Fulbright Commission, kicking us out of the FISI Garden of Eden with a wink and a smile at the final ceremony. We went on to the farewell party, which included plenty of dancing.

It was a gray morning as we rode the bus back to Sofia, having had a sparklingly wonderful time at FISI.

More Bulgaria pictures in the next blog post. 


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. 

Storytelling at FISI

I didn't intend to tell stories at the Fulbright International Summer Institute in Pravets, Bulgaria. True, I'm always ready to tell stories, but I didn't go with that idea. I took a couple of puppets, on the chance I might need them, but that's something I do whenever I travel. Hmm, now this sounds like a case of "I just happened to have brought my sheet music..." 

On the first evening, a couple of the American students who had heard me introduce myself waved me over to their dinner table. "Would you tell some stories?"  I promised a performance outside the next evening. We began to spread the word. 

I found a little tower as a backdrop, with a wall for seats. By the end of the performance, there were around 20 listeners. I told a mix of stories, from the old favorite Ghost with the One Black Eye to The Twist-Mouth Family to Blood (a piece of personal fiction with an embedded Bulgarian folktale). It seems this last was the siren song for the mosquitoes, as they chased us inside. 

The response to the stories was good, but because many people hadn't heard about the performance, I got more requests. For the second show, I chose Sunday morning at 11.

There were around fifteen listeners. I mixed it up, with the South African folktale Unanana and the Elephant, The Crooked Little Finger by Philippa Pearce, The Portraits (another piece of personal fiction) and Marina, a story I wrote in the voice of a Bulgarian woman in 1986 in NYC. I was nervous about it, anxious that the Bulgarian listeners understand that I tell it with great respect for Bulgaria and Bulgarians.

On Sunday evening, there were new arrivals to FISI. Some of these asked if I would do another performance. I set up a Thursday evening show, after supper, which had another twenty or so listeners. We were indoors, in a lounge a floor above the lobby. It was loud and a little challenging to perform in the space, but fun.

Because there were three listeners who specifically wanted to hear stories for young children, I began with The Gunniwolf, but then shifted gears to the gruesome Bluebeard variant, Mr. Fox. I also told The Great Sharp Scissors by Philippa Pearce and a few others. Some of the University of Michigan undergrads were there, at first doubtful and then completely engaged. Two of them afterwards asked for tips on doing presentations. 

I thought that was it. On Friday, people kept apologizing that they hadn't been able to come, as they were finishing projects for the last day of classes. I offered to tell one story at the final party, but there wasn't a good time or place for that. The music was playing and it was time to dance. Afterwards, back at the hotel, I was asked again. I told a short one, The Porcelain Man, a love story by Richard Kennedy. 

There were a couple of other times I performed: I went into the Bulgarian class for beginners twice, once with my puppets and once to tell a Bulgarian folktale. I practiced it in advance with Stefka, the teacher, to get the tenses right. (This picture is of that class. The baby showed up for the photo, asking for her "biba," also known as her binky.)

So I didn't intend to perform at FISI and did only in response to requests. All the same, I had a good time sharing the stories in my head. 

Thanks to Megan Lueneberg, Kalina Georgieva and Rada Kaneva for pictures.

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 my way to Bulgaria

 I'm taking a break from obsessively packing, unpacking and repacking for my short trip to Bulgaria. This is for the Fulbright International Summer Institute, not the larger Fulbright which will take place next February-June. For the current trip, I'll be gone for a little over two weeks. I'll be outside of Sofia for most of this first trip, but will live in the city on the Fulbright. Thank you to everybody who has supported me emotionally, financially and physically.

Along with the baggage preparations, I'm making sure the house is okay for my house sitter, paying all my bills, doing laundry and pacing. I might need to go for a swim to get rid of some of this excess energy. 

I'm tremendously happy that I'm going on this trip. I just found this music video with views of Sofia, reflecting my mood. 


I went to a workshop led by storyteller Fran Stallings years ago, in which she told about teachers who attended her in-service trainings over and over in order to "get their buckets filled." Under the lower arches is a trough, flowing with mountain spring water at Rila Monastery in Bulgaria, one place where I always feel refreshed and renewed. 

I'm heading back to Bulgaria in 2015, to get my buckets filled. In case you hadn't yet heard me doing a happy dance, I've just been accepted as a Fulbright Scholar for five months in Sofia, where I'll do research in the archives of the Institute of Ethnology and Folklore Studies with Ethnographic Museum (under the aegis of the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences). I'm also planning to go to the House of Humor and Satire in Gabrovo. My goal is to find animal folktales and trickster tales and to perform these in Bulgaria and in the US. For those of you who don't know, I lived in Bulgaria in 1983-84, where I studied the language. I've been back three times since.

Five months! I get to have a sabbatical, time for research and reflection. I've been making my living as a storyteller since 1993 and never dreamed that I'd ever have a sabbatical. Two years ago I went to a lecture for artists about the Fulbright Scholar Program, at which I learned that even those not affiliated with a university can apply. The first year, I got as close as being an alternate, so I resubmitted.

There are still some hoops to jump through before I go, like paperwork and medical exams, but I'll keep doing my happy dance all the way through them. Then I'll stop, take a breath and start to fill my buckets (apologies to any Bulgarians reading this--I took the next picture in Turkey). 

How many donkeys?

Many years ago, I translated stories I'd found about Nasruddin Hodja, the Turkish trickster, from Bulgarian, Russian, Serbian, Croatian and French sources. I've begun playing with these folktales again, reworking them for performance. My idea is to put one up here on the blog every now and then.  I've only done one all-Hodja show but I'm considering doing more. If you tell them, it would be great if you give credit.

This one is from Bulgaria, the home of Clever Peter (Khitur Petur), who is the wise fool of that country. I especially like the stories in which the two tricksters appear together. Because the Ottoman Empire ruled in Bulgaria for 500 years, it's understandable that Clever Peter always gets the better of Nasruddin Hodja.  I've heard this story in other versions; this one was retold by Angel Karaliichev. Here's my take on it:

How many donkeys?

The Hodja was taking his five donkeys to market. He counted them to make sure he had them all. Good, five. He got tired of walking and climbed up to ride on one. After a bit he counted them again. Only four! He must have lost one. He got off the one he was riding, looked on the side of the road, in the ditches, in the trees, then looked back and counted once 

more. Whew! Five. After a while, he got tired again and rode for a while. When he counted, he only found four again. He got down, looked around, counted and found all five. This happened over and over.

His friend Clever Peter came along. "Clever Peter, can you help me? I keep losing one of my donkeys. When I'm riding, I have four, when get down and look back, I have all five. Would you count my donkeys?" Clever Peter counted, "One, two, three, four, five...six! One of them has only two legs."