This is me with my daughters. We are headed to Bulgaria and this blog is a way to tell our stories. I am a professor at Eastern Kentucky University and will be on a Fulbright teaching at Sofia University. They are teenagers and will be going to school online.
When the Berlin Wall was torn down and Eastern Europe fell apart, I was in South Korea, teaching English at a seminary. My office mate’s parents were missionaries in West Germany and mailed her a piece of the wall. I remember standing in our office holding a piece of totalitarianism. Do politics and religion define cardinal directions or is it the other way around?
By the time I got back to the States and graduate school, former Soviet Bloc countries were partnering with American universities to build new cultural identities and democratic systems. USAID asked the University of Missouri School of Journalism to help redefine journalism education in Bulgaria. My first assistantship task was to hunt down all the books I could find on this former Russian protectorate for Dr. Byron Scott. He piled them into a diplomatic pouch on his way overseas, but that got lost in transit. We joked about the books going the way of the Lusitania, at least until the library started sending me overdue notices. Perhaps it was best that those books were lost because the Bulgaria he found was different from the stories they told.
My best friend in graduate school became Ekaterina Ognianova Walsh, and through her I met Bulgarians coming over to learn what journalism might mean in a democratic context. I learned about Bulgaria from their stories: summer youth work camps picking blueberries, rolling blackouts that required them to feel their way home after dark, their grandmothers’ kitchens where they were taught the art of stuffing grape leaves with rice. They told of old superstitions about air drafts and the evil eye. I was stunned when Katia’s mother came to visit and wore high heels everywhere, every day. She looked beautiful, all the time.
Then for 20 years, I set those stories aside. I taught in the Pacific Northwest, adopted two daughters, and moved back to Eastern Kentucky to be closer to family. When I earned full professor, I felt an ache to travel again. I laid out a map of the possible Fulbright sites, and asked my daughters, “What do you think about going to Bulgaria?” They agreed.
Katia was, and still is, brilliant and driven. She worked hard to arrange my letter of invitation at her alma mater, Sofia University.
The girls and I are working on the Cyrillic alphabet, which actually is harder for me than Korean because I have to unlearn English. “H” makes an “N” sound, “X” makes an “H” sound, and the “Z” sound looks like a 3. My daughters, not surprisingly, are picking this up way faster than me.
These are our stories as we navigate our way through the Balkans. I will try not to send any books over in a diplomatic pouch.