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.